How Mortal Danger Permeated Every Inch of 'STALKER'
An early open-world shooter, 'STALKER' was a game where just taking a walk could be as dangerous as a raging gunbattle.
Screenshot courtesy of GSC Gameworld
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The lifeblood of most games is danger and risk. The blocks of Tetris tend toward the top of the screen. The planes of Battlefield One soar overhead, raining bullets and bombs down on our heads. Monstrous flora and fauna threaten our good friend Mario as he tries to avoid being juggled by rabbids. How danger is presented to the player, and how it builds over the course of a game, is often the design problem of a video game. So when I booted up STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl for the first time and was absolutely buried in dangerous situations within five minutes, I started thinking about why that might be.
Released in 2007, STALKER has many hallmarks of that era of gaming. It's a first-person shooter with clunky controls that has you navigating a large world and fighting enemies along the way. A predecessor for the open world gameplay we're very familiar with today, STALKER populates its world with characters you can impress, missions to do, locations to visit, monsters to kill, and items to steal, buy, and find.
What makes STALKER stand out is The Zone. It's the place that you explore, where artifacts, marauders, and monsters roam, and it's a wasteland. It is a land of the dead, or a land where things should be dead, and the fact that you or anyone else is there at all is presented as a minor miracle.
Contemporary open world games give you the ability to master their world. You can manage it. You plot paths between points and you collect all of the treasure, kill all the enemies, climb all the buildings, and solve all of the puzzles along the way. These open worlds are places where you can exert power and will over everything that you see. In these games, the Assassin's Creeds and the Elder Scrolls, it's not a miracle if the player survives an encounter; it's a surprise if the encounter survives a player.
It's rare that there will be something so dangerous that you will be forced to reload a previous save game to extricate yourself from a bad situation. It's rare that you will fail so severely that you cannot simply flee and start over in ten minutes when the alert meters go away. By contrast, the very act of traversing STALKER's countryside, of simply getting from A to B, is harrowing. The player is always encountering an existential threat. The Zone is a place that kills, and each encounter drives that home.
The game's first mission makes a point to drop you directly into this scenario. After speaking with Wolf, a critical contact, the player learns that they need to get a flash drive from a captured scout named Nimble. He's been made a prisoner by some bandits, and you can team with with some of Wolf's troops to storm the makeshift prison and liberate Nimble. When he's free, you get the flash drive. It's easy work in a world that doesn't have much of it.
The process of completing the mission reveals that nothing is ever simple in STALKER. First, you have to find Wolf's troops. They are positioned a short distance away from the main encampment in which the game starts, and the short amount of travel between it and the troops does a lot of work to introduce the player to what The Zone will offer them.
Anomalies dot the landscape. They appear to be warping, weaving spots in the fabric of reality. They make a strange sound, and they evoke curiosity more than fear. If you approach them, the sound gets louder; if you touch them, they tear at your flesh, making you bleed and sapping your resources of bandages and health items.
Play any other open world game and look around you. Everything that flashes, shines, and fascinates is built for you to investigate. You're supposed to want the things of this world. You're meant to have them, and if you get enough, an achievement might trigger. You could display it and brag to your friends, maybe, if the thing was special enough.
STALKER, developed in the days before the collectathon game was firmly nestled into the open world, encourages the player to be more cautious. In the natural world, the colorful frog isn't pink and blue to encourage you to come touch it. It's a warning that you'll be killed. The fly trap's maw is going to flap shut once an insect investigates the alluring scent inside of it.
The Zone's design functions in this exact way. STALKER is designed in such a way that you are punished for being curious. You get hurt when you make a mistake, and a good player might learn from those mistakes. The bad ones might die over and over again, reloading their last save time after time in a bid to figure out how to best a pack of dogs or a random group of bandits or marauders.
This was my experience of rescuing Nimble. I had to break into the facility and kill the bandits holding him prisoner. Accompanied by Wolf's troops, I entered into the complex, my gun sights switching back and forth between every door and window in my field of vision. It was nightmarishly difficult. An enemy shotgun cut me down in one shot. The AI would slide around and through buildings, cutting me off from my allies. I tried the encounter, over and over again, until luck won out and Nimble handed over the item I needed.
It would be easy to say that this is simply an effect of a certain set of shooter mechanics coming into contact with my lack of skills as a player. It's easy to say that I'm just bad at STALKER. To say that, though, would be ignoring what STALKER is putting forward in its first few minutes: This is a place that will kill you if it can, and you can keep coming, but that won't make it any easier.
Danger permeates STALKER. The line between doing well and being absolutely destroyed by a shotgun or a pack of dogs is thin. There is no healthy pad of invincibility, health, or armor between the bandit's shotgun and my character. There is just vulnerability, and a growing sense that the danger of that world is going to overwhelm me if I stray too far from safest path I can manage in that world.
From a design perspective, we might understand that this is a healthy relationship between risk and reward. Sure, there is danger, but there are also excellent items, loot upgrades, and collectibles for that achievement. The problem, though, is that STALKER doesn't embrace that.
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STALKER's characters have their lives; STALKER's players have their time. The Zone will take both of them. It will embrace your desire to go out and tame this world, to find danger and then eliminate it in your quest for upgrades, and to do so it like jumping into a combine harvester. The Zone eats up all that life and time, refusing to give you a return on investment on what you're doing.
The common refrain for fans of super difficult games, from the Dark Souls games to bullet hell shooters to Super Meat Boy, is that they make you learn something. The design of danger in those games, and their difficulty, is alleviated by the fact that you learn how to make your way through them in nimble and skill-intensive ways.
STALKER's Zone refuses to unite those things. Education is not the end goal of danger here. All you will learn is that this place will eat you alive.
Wolf's soldiers, after all, died in my tutorial mission. The Zone gobbled them up, and I alone remained. I got sole credit for the job. Looking out over the wastes and starting out the next mission, I realized that STALKER wasn't teaching me to do something else, to use my skills or actions. It was merely telling me how things are in The Zone: You enter into it, it eats your time, and every moment spent pressing forward is one you should spend reconsidering the rewards you're getting from the experience.
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