Retrospective: S.T.A.L.K.E.R

Get out of here.

For an area that's been blasted by radiation for the past twenty years, the sloping hills of the countryside around Chernobyl are impressively virile. The grasses have shifted from soft greens to muted browns, admittedly, but there's still a lot of vegetation, and, more worryingly, a lot of wildlife.

The first thing you kill in S.T.A.L.K.E.R (and that's the last time I type it out like that), is likely going to be something that mostly resembles a dog. It'll be hairless, with a few open sores covering a big chunk of its body, and, by and far the most noticeable thing about it, it'll be trying to eat your face.

But the dogs of Stalker travel in packs, and they'll only attack in packs. Thin them out a little with a quick bark of your gun and the rest will scatter and whine, with the stumps of what were once tails held firmly between their legs.

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl was an incredible game, in the most literal sense. It inspired incredulity, forcing you, again and again, to question whether something was happening because it was scripted to happen like that, or just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time for that to happen. More often than not, it was the latter.

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Still Scary when attached to jumping zombies.

GSC were absentee developers. In this sense, that's a good thing. Throughout playing any of the three Stalker games, it's difficult to feel like their attention is ever really on you. Instead it's on organising a hillside scuffle between the dog-things and those boar-things. Or orchestrating some skirmish between two gangs of Stalkers, or maybe some bandits. Or swirling up some horrendous, travelling anomaly, that will pull you into a whirlwind of radiation and wind, before flaying you alive. But it wasn't created for you - you just happened to be the dummy that walked into it. Idiot.

It's a world that exists despite you, rather than because of you. In an industry where a game like Skyrim has enough stuff for you to stumble across and trigger to distract you into thinking this is a living, breathing world, GSC actually managed to do it, for the most part. There are still scripted sequences, but those became less and less prevalent across the development of the three games, until Call of Prypiat just dropped you into the Zone with a vague mission to investigate some downed choppers and left you to it.

It's a world that has a palpable sense of history, which makes sense, given that the game world genuinely does have history. It's modelled exquisitely on photographs taken of the real Chernobyl, only slightly altered to allow for a better game environment. So you have locations like Prypiat and the reactor, places that truly exist. But there's a disconnect from reality at the point of that reactor explosion, where the Zone starts to be filled with the weird and not-so-wonderful. Mutants and anomalies, artifacts and radiation.

And so the game makes its own history, filled with enterprising Stalkers and militant (and military) factions vying for control of this potential gold mine, despite the beyond hostile conditions and cutthroat bandits. Each game builds on this, filling in more blanks while creating larger mysteries. It's only natural that somewhere like the Zone is going to raise more questions than answers, what with its anomalies and wide swathes of highly radioactive swamplands.

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Anomalies are everywhere, and manifest in wildly different ways.

You came thirty years too late, all the answers have been and gone. Everywhere is a ruin, an architectural memory that could have been caused by the original reactor explosion, or anything since. And you don't really want to investigate too much, because the game instills a clear sense of fear within the first hour. Curiosity will very much get you killed, because there are mutants and anomalies and artifacts and bandits and everything you can't see.

All of this would be moot if Stalker was just a shooter. If everything was something to kill, and everything was killed beneath the horrendous onslaught of your assault rifle and grenades. Fortunately, Stalker isn't just a shooter. It's got shooting, but it's sneakily disguised itself as an RPG. In fact, it's more of an RPG than a lot of RPGs are RPGs. Beyond the slot based inventories, the gun degradation, the crafting, the side quests, RPGs are fundamentally about choice, and that's what separates them from other games. The choice on whether or not to do something, or which of two somethings you want to do.

The choices Stalker provides you with are minute to minute, and mostly small. The most common, by far, is merely one of action or inaction. The levels are large enough to afford you with quite the view; almost everyone you come across will start off as a few pixels in the distance before you get closer. The problem being, a few pixels isn't the best indicator of whether that's the kind of guy you could sit down and trade stories about the crazy s**t you've seen, or the kind of guy who will shoot you in the head and steal all the crazy s**t you've stolen.

It necessitates anxiety. It forces a kill-or-be-killed mentality on you, because it's either that or you're on the be-killed end of that see-saw. You very, very rarely feel safe in a Stalker game, which is a sharp u-turn from the vast majority of shooters, where expressing your dominance through the form of ranged death-dispensing is the main point.

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Fireballs doing laps for 30 years make burn a track.

You'll die in Stalker. You'll die by the hands of the bandits who ambush you when you slip through a tunnel. You'll die by the claws of the mutated wildlife, because you were too busy looking at your map to notice the howls getting closer. You'll die by the superior weaponry of the Duty, who killed you because you walked into the wrong corner of the zone. You'll die by the terrifying face-fronds of the invisible bloodsuckers, because you're somewhere you really shouldn't be.

It's a game that makes fear palpable again, and manages it in a way that most games don't quite manage. It comes back to that randomness, the procedural nature of the AI and the unpredictable nature of you, the player. This is a world where there are things, and you have the option of stumbling across them and being killed by those things.

Which probably isn't the best way to recommend or laud a game. Who wants to die over and over? But that's part of the point; the Stalker games create an environment that is apathetic of you at the best. It doesn't make allowances, or pay any undue attention to what it is that you're doing, and that's liberating. It means the game has stepped back and allowed you the space to enjoy your own story, rather than the one that has been prepared for you. Even if that story is some minor, insignificant tragedy that is followed by a quickload and a second attempt, it's yours.

The first time I played Call of Prypiat, it took me about an hour to establish myself, get a better gun, make a few friends. In the middle of some marshland, I start to hear this wooshing whip sound, like a tornado flying right by my ear before coming back and doing another flyby. It was one of the few warnings you get in Stalker, and this was a warning of a blowout, a heavy, deadly radiation storm that will flay you alive if you don't find cover. Helpfully, the game provided a marker towards a nearby cave, and I legged it.

Despite the darkness, the way the stone walls muted the outside winds was reassuring. Besides, I had a flashlight, and a sleeping bag, so I should be fine. A moment later, I had light. A moment after that I was back out in the storm again.

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The area is littered with little camps and hideaways. Not all hostile.

I'd rather be flayed alive than share a cave with a dozen sleeping blood suckers, all of them standing straight upright, arms planked to their sides, and head slightly hung, face fronds quivering with each breath. Screw that.

Last weekend, GSC closed its doors, and with it, there's a good chance that Stalker 2 will never see the hazy, slightly irradiated light of day.

It's impossible for a studio closure to be anything but a bad thing. People's jobs are lost, projects are abandoned, and legacies are ended. But such is the homogenisation of games that it's difficult not to expect some of these closures. The people who play games have only so much money to spend on them, and so when a genre gets crowded, it's inevitable that some games won't do so well, and the developers who make those games fall by the wayside.

When the developer that closes isn't crowding a genre, when they're actually forging their own way and creating something grand and unique, something that should be a trailblazer rather than a sideshow, it's difficult not to feel like this is a greater tragedy, like we're not just losing a competent studio but instead an entire future, a way that games could have gone but didn't. It's happened too many times, and that it's still happening, when it's so much easier to reach your audience, to create an audience thanks to the internet, is heartbreaking.

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