Pretty much every review I’ve read about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. goes something like this: “There are so many terrible things about this game, bugs, bad framerate, choppy animations, problems on Vista, unpolished, blah blah blah. But you should still play it because it’s cool and has a lot of ambience.”
These reviews say more about the crappy state of game criticism than the game itself, really. They simply fail to describe what makes the game compelling. My other complaint about most of the reviews of this game is that they don’t mention the Tarkovsky movie or the book by the Strugatsky’s.
The game is a milestone (at least for me). But not the milestone you might expect. Yeah, it combines exploratory open world mechanics with an RPG in FPS form in a post apocalyptic world, but The Elder Scrolls series satisfies most of those tags (sans post-apocalyptic, until Fallout 3 of course)…
The interesting thing is, it’s the first game I’ve played that I would call a foreign game.
It has a decidely different take on how to achieve that brief description (open world, RPG, FPS) than any game that would be produced in North America.
Look at the films of Tarkovsky. Admittedly, I haven’t actually watched Stalker, just Solaris and The Sacrifice, but watching five minutes of a Tarkovsky movie is enough to understand the key points of his style – very long takes, scenes happening in what could best be described as “real” time. As if the scenes are somehow more true, more human, capturing all the undramatic awkward pauses of a conversation. Maybe they are, I don’t know, but it’s obvious Tarkovsky thinks so.
Which makes for kinda boring movies, really. Especially for anyone raised on a diet of Hollywood candy. The camera might stare at a painting for minutes as music plays. But take that philosophy of capturing those minute details of existence as emotional truth, and apply it to a game where you actually have more control over the pacing and what you’re looking at, it actually works much better. (At least I made it through S.T.A.L.K.E.R. a lot more riveted than Solaris or The Sacrifice).
It also differentiates itself from any similar western games by the sheer passion that comes through the world. You can tell (or I could, anyway, but maybe that’s because I’m a game developer) that for most of the people working on this game, it was their first game. The geometry is much more detailed, realistic, than it would be in most western games – because of the experience that would tell them not to sacrifice performance on details that won’t get noticed by the average gamer.
But in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. those details are the world. That crumpled cigarette pack by that tree is both a landmark and a sign that spot is no doubt patrolled by someone you may not want to meet in person. Unlike Oblivion, every hill seems unique and you can tell where you are just by noticing those details – a plank lying by the side of the road, a pack of dogs that tends to roam around a particular section of the underbrush.
I’m reminded of level in a game we were working on while I was trying to do the whole indie developer thing a ways back – way to much geometry, not organized properly to be able to optimize it, collision far too detailed for the player to navigate well enough. But atmosphere (and passion) out the wazoo.
So for every thing anyone can point out in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. about being unpolished, I can point out three more which have had loving detail crafted into them, well beyond what you find in other games.
Case in point: the dogs that roam the Zone: Most development teams I know of would have had the conversation about, “Oh, hey, wouldn’t it be kewl to add some dogs that might attack you?” “That would rock, they could bite you and shit.” And what you would have got is some randomly spawned monsters that attack you, you kill them. Level up.
These creatures are not this. Like everything in the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., there’s a lot more grey in your encounters with them: they’ll rove around in packs; you might see one cross the road ahead – are they going to continue chasing each other almost playfully, or will they, starved and rabid, turn on you? Or will they run up to you, stand off with you as a potential threat? Do you shoot the dog standing you off and bring all his friends down upon you? Or will he back off after he sees you’re not hostile? The moral amibiguity in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is something steadfastly avoided by games like Knights of the Old Republic and Black & White (yeah that was made in England but the title just illustrates the damn point too well – because when I say “foreign” game I mean outside the existing cultural circle of English and Japanese game development).
It’s also the only game I’ve played in recent memory that succesfully achieves a feeling of horror – not fear, not suspense, but honest to goodness horror. You eventually come across some monsterish, mutated creatures. Now I suppose intellectually I knew they were once human, but the first one that crawls up to you in the dark, and jumps into the light at you so you can clearly see the gas mask and tattered uniform makes you feel that fact a lot more. I shot that thing not out of fear, or the need to survive, but out of pity. I was unsettled. I had my character drink some vodka.
Every step in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. leaves you unsure of what’s about to happen next, soaking up the world GSC Game World has created. The mechanics, AI, level design have all been crafted around that feeling. Stuff that would bother me in other games, like the non-pausing inventory screen, becomes one more crucial detail that adds to the environment & tension. A lot of these elements are things we’re told we want to avoid in western “Hollywood” game development. “It’s not mass-market!” goes the rallying cry.
Like foreign films, it does take some work to really enjoy it. It crashes, sure. If you swap to the patch that no doubt fixes those crashes, your save games will be invalidated. I got to the very end of the game, the sarcophagus at Chernobyl, where I saw the one of endings of the Wish Granter – but I knew there had to be more. I found the hidden door past the Wish Granter but wasn’t able to unlock it. Turns out I had missed a quest that would have eventually given me access to the decoder to that door – I had mistaken that quest for just another side quest. For any other game that would have allowed me to make that kind of mistake, I would have popped the eject button at that point and taken a short trip to the microwave. But I couldn’t do that. I turned around, ran past all the soldiers, bandits, black helicopters, tanks, sniper infested slums, and radioactive wasteland I had run past to get there, to finish that quest. Then I turned right back around, and ran past them all again to finish the game.
Why? Because for all its despair and hopelessness, I wanted to see if I could make that world a better place. And, naturally, the ending(s) were as emotionally ambigous as you would expect (and if you’re me, hope for) of a film made outside the US.