In a restaurant somewhere in sunny Los Angeles County, 13 years ago, two old friends were having lunch. Wine and conversation were flowing. They remembered how they'd met at LucasArts in the 90s. They weren't there to talk business but they did because video games were their bread and butter. One of the men, Jack Sorensen, was reeling-off job opportunities he knew of - he being executive vice president of worldwide studios at games publisher THQ. "THQ Australia?" he enquired. But the other man, Dean Sharpe, didn't seem interested. He had closed his own studio Big Ape Productions a couple of years earlier, dropped off the radar and taken a break, and now he was ready for something new. But Sharpe wanted a challenge.
Few settings have captured the imaginations of game developers and players like Chernobyl, the site of a reactor explosion in 1986 that created one of the world's few actual nuclear wastelands. The legendary Exclusion Zone - now, would you believe, something of a tourist attraction - has provided the stage for countless virtual conflicts and survival stories. There are the indirect recreations, such as Big Robot's bleached starship graveyard The Signal From Tölva, or the Erangel island map from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - an abandoned Soviet testing facilty in which the wanderer is forced towards rather than away from the centre by an ever-encroaching sea of blue energy. And there are truer-to-life portrayals like Call of Duty 4's "All Ghillied Up" mission or GSC World's STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which gives you the run of an Exclusion Zone in which space-time is starting to fall apart like overcooked pasta.
How many games can claim to still have a dedicated following, 10 years after their release? That still have fans conjuring up new mods to alter and add to the game? S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is pretty much the definition of a video game cult classic. This strange Ukrainian survival shooter is for some the best the genre has ever seen. But its audience wasn't spurred into existence upon the game's release. Fans had followed the development of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for years before it eventually came out in 2007. In that time they saw various versions of it, each containing numerous areas and mutants that never made it into the final game.
The people behind gritty survival shooter Metro Exodus are designing the game to be the best of the Metro series and the best of the STALKER series - combined.
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.
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl - let's drop all the dots - seemed to divide people. For every person I know who would enthuse and OMG about the atmospheric shooter, there would be another for whom the game had been a horrible mistake. This article, I suspect, isn't going to be for that second group of people. They've tasted this peculiar Ukrainian experience, and they won't be going back. For those who know the game, accept its foibles, and still find something worth spending time with, this will be a story they understand rather well. They'll probably be nodding along at the most salient points. Hopefully, however, we'll also have a third species of reader: the one who has yet to give it a try.
With S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, developer GSC GameWorld proved that you can make an innovative, specs-testing FPS with a small team - but it will probably take you the best part of a decade to get it finished. Now hard at work on a prequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, which is due out in August, it's hoping not only to trim the production cycle, but also deliver a game that truly lives up to their initial concept. Following our preview session, we caught up with Oleg Yavorsky, the developer's PR director, to discuss unusual inspirations, the danger of revolutionary technology, and the trouble with making games for "non-intellectuals".
War is like Christmas for some developers. It has ready-made stories, clear-cut opponents, and there's normally even a party at the end. War's also got the classy sheen of history, but it's history reduced to the bouncy bits: a chance to look sober while savouring the massive explosions. Not many human tragedies let you do that.
Having spent over six years getting Stalker into shops, GSC could have kicked back for a bit. They deserved the chance to, for want of a better phrase, zone out. At least for a bit. Instead they've come back with a game that's just as big. It's not even an expansion - it's a full-blown prequel. And it won't take them six years this time, according to Oleg Yavorsky and Valentine Yeltyshev, demoing the game at E3, neither of whom looks particularly worn out despite the developmental trek and the long flight from Ukraine. Perhaps, for them, the journey's the worthier part. (Bound to be more fun than talking to me, either way).