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November 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Monolith

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?

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