During the opening scenes of Tarkovsky's Stalker, the scenes outside of the Zone are shot in a kind of not-quite-sepia, yellow-tinted monochrome, as if the black-and-white film were being projected onto a background of copper or gold foil. It is a striking effect, combined with the film's signature lingering camera movements, that is both beautiful and cold.
GSC Gameworld was clearly inspired by Stalker. For their game of the same title there is, in fact, a scene set within the Zone when the screen slowly tints itself gold with a pronounced film grain in imitation of the movie. The effect is slow to appear, vanishes during the transition to the next level, and is never explained or referenced--at first, you could be forgiven for thinking that the video driver has started to malfunction. Like its inspiration, it creates a mood of eerie melancholy, except for one crucial difference: instead of watching a discussion of Russian philosophy, the player is forced to frantically defend themself from crazed paramilitary troopers. Needless to say, I have mixed feeling about it.
All of Stalker (the game, now) actually has this kind of ambivalence at heart. There are moments of really fascinating simulation and mood--the acclaimed ballistics and artificial life models, the radiation filters, the untranslated Russian dialog--mixed with decisions straight out of a video game handbook--instant healing via medkits, for example, or the otherworldly artifacts represented merely as stat bonuses. It is, for me, a game that's much more interesting as an idea and a collection of potential than as an actual game.
That's not to say that Stalker isn't enjoyable. Parts of it were a lot of fun. But it's not smoothly polished the same way as games from the bigger studios, like Valve or Raven, with the sharp edges rounded off so you can't cut yourself. There's an industrial quality to it, from the throwback inventory system to the clumsy aiming and the brutally-discouraging difficulty spikes. Even with the patches cleaning up the stability issues and the passage of time easing its high system requirements, the quickload key gets a serious workout. You have to really love shooters, not to mention the game's unique setting and play style, to get through it. I qualify for both, and it still took me a long time to finish.
I mentioned the incongruity of Stalker's violence compared to the film to which it often refers, but it also contains contradictions all its own. Significant parts of its gameplay are based around open-world conceits: if the player so desires, they could easily ignore the main storyline, instead simply wandering around the landscape performing missions for other stalkers. The Zone constantly throws up confrontations, some banal, and some (like the firefights erupting between stalkers and various factions) spontaneous and immersive. And yet some of the best parts of the game, I think, are a few elaborate scripted sequences that play out semi-dynamically: the storming of Pripyat with a squad of fellow stalkers, for example, who warn each other and jeer at the enemy as they clear the streets of snipers and opposition forces.
When it works, Stalker's setting is good enough that its flaws seem more like intriguing puzzles. Why aren't there any women in the Zone? (or, given the way everyone's bundled up under armor, masks, and exoskeletons, how do you know there aren't any?) Why is radiation contained only in small pockets across the landscape? What made these people suddenly so hostile to me? But when the game breaks--when you've been hammering F7 for hours trying to get past one seemingly-superhuman gunman in Lab X16--it breaks hard, and none of the atmosphere matters much, even though this capriciousness is no doubt by design. As in other methods of entertainment, we want realism only so far as it remains convenient and meets some standard of fairness. If the rules begin to seem skewed, contradictory, or inconsistent, it's hard to keep patience alive.
Still, for all its flaws, my affection for Stalker is probably rooted in my love of the PC as a gaming platform, and the vague feeling that it could have only been made there. There's not an ounce of console adaptation to be found--no autoaiming, no slot-based inventory, no hotspot interaction. It uses most of the keyboard's 102 keys for one function or another (although some of those are real oddball choices--why are 9 and 0 used to switch between auto and semi-auto modes?). It has lean keys. Even its bugginess--now apparently patched, since it almost never crashed on me--puts it firmly in the PC camp, for better or worse.
The excuse often used for console gaming is that the experience simply runs smoother--and it probably does. I think there's some confirmation bias taking place in the argument, but I won't argue that there are a lot of things you simply don't have to worry about with an XBox or PS3. But at the same time, when I look at Stalker, I see a game made by a studio effectively out in the middle of nowhere, for an audience that has decidedly hardcore values and expectations. The PC is a great leveller, when it comes to these things. It's still the place where a relatively small team can put something together for relatively little money, leading to these kinds of flawed-but-compelling experiences (see also: Croteam, Introversion, or Popcap). And so while I can't point people to Stalker without reservations, I still feel like it should be recommended, if only so they can see the other side of the slick, streamlined designs that consoles have brought into vogue.
Besides, it's based on a three hour-long Russian art film! What's next, an FPS that examines the utopian delusions of Ayn Rand?
I owe STALKER (the game, not the movie) an apology. Not for calling it ridiculously overpunctuated (although I guess over-abbreviated would be more accurate), but I quit it last time after only a few hours, frustrated at its weapons model and its opaque narrative structure.
After watching the film, I got an itch to give the game another shot. I figured I wouldn't last long, but I was a little curious as to how much of Tarkovsky's visual aesthetic had ended up in the game. I decided to head in, spend a few minutes looking around, and then I'd blow it off again. But it turns out that I'm still playing.
I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, but my suspicions, like Jay Leno's chin, are twofold. First, I started paying more attention to the automap in the corner, using it to find stashes and watch for bodies to loot. Second, at some point I was clued in about the location of one of the mission goals that I never previously had been able to find. Unless the player locates a hidden flash drive in one of the underground tunnels, the game basically halts--my first time through, I had no idea where it was.
Which, I'd like to point out, is an easy situation to end up in: the drive is actually hidden in a pipe behind some very poor level design--the lip of the pipe is just slightly too high for the Stalker to step over it, and in the end I had to resort to the old Half-Life trick of jumping forward while crouching (which, in Stalker requires the use of the forward key, the spacebar to jump, and two separate crouch buttons to reach a "low crawl" state. It's a little awkward).
But once past that point, the game has opened up tremendously (especially since that's the first moment when you get a decent weapon). It is, as I told a friend, like Oblivion with Chernobyl-born mutants and AK-47s instead of elves and swords.
As far as the film's influence, I've seen very little on display so far. Stalker does include a number of wide open fields and ruined buildings, but its color palette is much more gloomy and grim than Tarkovsky's--and of course, the first sight of a uniformed soldier dispels any hope that the game will share the movie's character-driven, dialog-heavy atmosphere. The only real similarity I've seen so far is the glow of high-radiation areas: when you stumble into one of these, the screen begins to oversaturate and acquire a kind of film-grain effect that's very striking.
Stalker definitely has its flaws. The AI can be a little wonky, and I've failed missions for what seem to be no apparent reason. The text is barely localized, and NPC conversations are oil-slick shallow. But the game does have its own distinctive atmosphere--the untranslated Russian voices and signposts, the click of the geiger counter, and howling dogs during the dark nights make sure of that. The combat itself has a very different feel from most shooters, but once you get used to it, it's got its charms. All in all, it's an impressive piece of work, as long as you don't get caught on any of the rough edges. I'm enjoying it quite a bit.
Extra credit: For those who might be curious, you can read the original short story that inspired the movie and game, "Roadside Picnic," here, since it seems to be unfortunately out of print elsewhere.
Rough estimate of time spent with ridiculously-overpunctuated FPS S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: 5 hours.
Time required to delete local content: About three minutes.
There is, apparently, a niche for post-apocalyptic shooters featuring inaccurate weapons, a practically-vertical difficulty curve, and no hand-holding whatsoever. Unfortunately, I'm not in it.
On the other hand, I enjoy the title of this post enough that it alone might have been worth the $20.
Stalker's other saving grace is that it reminded me to go back and find an abandonware copy of the classic Wasteland. I never made it very far in Wasteland, but it always sticks in my head as having what might have been one of the coolest fusions of copy-protection and storytelling ever made: the manual included 162 paragraphs of in-game text, which would be referenced by number during the game. Using the manual as a verification code was an old trick even by 1989, but incorporating it into the narrative was pretty slick (not to mention that it saved on space). To add to the fun, buried in the 162 paragraphs were several fakes, existing only to mess with cheaters and readers who couldn't help skimming ahead.
20. The Premacorin Mural is a work of art which you have only heard rumors about. It records all human history in one vast display of gaudy colors. At the beginning of the display you see the image of Charles Darwin walking arm-in-arm with an ape in a wedding dress. Next to that you see a youthful Egyptian pharaoh in mummy wrappings and a gold mask dancing on the stage of a place called (according to the neon lights behind him) Radio City Museum of Unnatural History. Proceeding along, you see a masked man brandishing silver six-shooters on the back of a silver Tyrannosaurus, hot on the trail of a mustachioed man wearing a swastika. A fat man in a red uniform with white trim flies through the sky in a sleigh pulled by eight F-19 Stealth bombers. He has bags full of guns, ammo and bombs, which he is freely dropping down to King Arthur and his knights so they can battle Genghis Khan and the Yellow Peril. Yet further on a man in a green and gold uniform (with the number 12 emblazoned on it and a 'G' on the helmet) has just thrown a missile to a man vanishing in the white glow of an atomic mushroom cloud. Finally, at the far end of the wall, you see the ape in its tattered wedding dress, squatting and studying the fire-blackened helmet.There's even very short parody (I think) of the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Princess of Mars" stories buried in there. My favorite paragraph is #145:
145. This paragraph can be reached from no place in the whole adventure. We know who you are, and we will get you for reading this paragraph. Expect it most when you expect it least.