Videogame (2007). GSC Game World (GSC). Platforms: Win.
STALKER is a First Person Shooter, much influenced by both Arkady and Boris Strugatski's novel Roadside Picnic (1972; trans 1977) and the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker (1979) that was loosely based on the book. While Roadside Picnic locates its enigmatic Zone in Canada, and Stalker places its equivalent in a desolate, unidentified landscape, the game identifies it with the 30 kilometre radius Exclusion Zone put in place around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor complex after its meltdown in 1986. Much of the game's visual design was directly copied from the Chernobyl Zone by the game's Ukrainian developers. In the game, the reactor complex exploded for a second time in 2006, causing strange alterations in reality within the surrounding area. Humans and animals mutated, some gaining Psionic powers, and "anomalies" appeared, including regions of increased gravity and lethal miniature whirlwinds. These anomalies produce strange artefacts, which have unexplainable effects on humans. As in Roadside Picnic, the potential value of these curiosities has led to the appearance of Stalkers, humans who enter the Zone illegally to search for them. The player character is an amnesiac Stalker who starts the game with a notepad containing only one record: "Kill Strelok". Eventually, the player can discover that their character is Strelok.
The game's plot combines modular and multilinear approaches (see Interactive Narrative) to impressive effect. The player has a great deal of freedom to act as they explore the Zone, attempt to recover valuable artefacts, and interact with other Stalkers; combat, infiltration and negotiation are common activities. The Zone itself is well crafted, with a functioning simulated ecology and a rich variety of locations, from blasted concrete wastelands to desolate, radioactive marshes. Various factions roam the area near the reactor, including professional killers for hire, military forces attempting to control access and groups of Stalkers dedicated to protecting the world from the Zone. The player can ally with many of these factions, or oppose them. As they proceed deeper into the game, and into the Zone, they will discover that something unexplained lurks at its heart, in the ruins of the reactor, protected by a fanatical group of Stalkers. Eventually a full scale war develops between this group and the other factions, giving the player their chance to reach the core.
The game's somewhat convoluted backstory involves a Soviet military experiment to create a human Hive Mind capable of ESP in a laboratory under the still radioactive Chernobyl reactor complex, where secrecy could be guaranteed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this experiment was abandoned, and the emerging group mind absorbed its creators before deciding to bring about world peace by direct manipulation of humanity's noosphere. Unfortunately, its first attempt failed, causing the second explosion and creating the Zone. The player character had previously reached the reactor complex, but been caught in an anomaly and rendered amnesiac. The group mind, knowing that a Stalker named Strelok was attempting to uncover its secrets but not realizing who the player character was, then attempted to programme him to kill Strelok and released him. In the end, the player's fate after they return to the reactor depends on the path they have taken through the game. If they have not succeeded in discovering their character's previous identity, they will be presented with an ending in which Strelok is trapped in an illusion of whatever the game decides the player most desires. For example, a player who had spent the game accumulating money would hallucinate false riches before being killed by falling masonry. If the player is aware of who their character truly is, they will be offered the option of assisting the group mind in its attempt to bring about universal peace. Acceptance results in their incorporation into the group; refusal leads to a chance to destroy the hive, though that victory may itself be illusory.
Various morals can be deduced from the game's cryptic resolution. However, its most impressive feature remains its depiction of the alienated, hostile landscape of the Zone; this is also the aspect in which it most strongly resembles Tarkovsky's film. While the gameplay may occasionally seem unpolished, Shadow of Chernobyl's bleak vision of a shattered reality is not easily forgotten.
Related works: Stalker: Clear Sky (2008 GSC, Win) is a prequel to the first game, released as an expansion which can also be played alone. The player's mission is to prevent Strelok from reaching the centre of the Zone; successful completion of the game will create the situation that exists at the beginning of Shadow of Chernobyl. Stalker: Call of Pripyat (2009 GSC, Win) is another expansion which serves as a sequel to the original work. The assumption made is that Strelok kills the Hive Mind at the end of Shadow of Chernobyl, after which the Ukrainian military decide to take control of the Exclusion Zone. Their attempt is a disastrous failure, however, and the player character – an agent of the Ukrainian Security Service – is sent into the area around Chernobyl to search for survivors; this mission will eventually lead him to the eponymous city.
Southern Comfort (2011), by John Mason (Balázs Pataki), and its sequel Northern Passage (2012), also by Pataki, are Ties to the franchise. Both are set in an Alternate History in which nuclear weapons were used in Afghanistan in 2011, creating a vast new Zone. [NT]
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