S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl has been a game I’ve declined to review. There are some things I’m just not comfortable casting judgment on. A review implies that the reviewer has authority over the game, an intellectual superiority. I can tell you what I think about Stalker, but Stalker is a complex game full of loose ends; it calls upon a creative power within its players to piece them together. What I think about it is constantly changing the more I play and the more I learn. Any review of the game will say much more about the reviewer than the game itself. This is my non-review. It’s just what I think right now.
I’m going to go ahead and say that I like Stalker–a lot. It’s one of my favorite games ever and I still can’t stop talking about. It has a lot of bad points too, and I don’t believe in homogenous scores so I’m not going to pretend that its good qualities somehow cancel out the many bugs, imbalances, obtuseness, or any other possible complaint everyone has about the game. I don’t want to weigh X good thing and Y buggy thing and decide which numerical or lettered score they average as. I don’t write my reviews as recommendations anyway. I don’t write my non-reviews that way either.
Stalker is great because it’s part of something bigger than itself. Before I played it didn’t really know much about Chernobyl or its disaster other than the fact that it was a bad thing that happened several decades ago. Stalker suddenly manifested that reality in front of me in sci-fi, videogamey landscape. Stalker’s zone is obviously nothing like the actual Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. But it bridged the gap between the virtual land of videogames and the reality I had never before had to face.
Between my play sessions, I started reading Wikipedia articles about the real life Chernobyl. Then I dug deeper into the disturbing consequences of that disaster. I was horribly disturbed by these images because they were human in a way that the game couldn’t achieve. I was forced to come to terms with the fact that somewhere in the world is a room full of illiterate children who slither around on their worthless legs all because of this place where I play like a child. I started supporting projects like The Long Shadow of Chernobyl so hopefully more people don’t have to learn about this stuff through a first person shooter.
Maybe Stalker is an insult to the reality of Chernobyl. A sci-fi FPS where you win by killing the mutated victims of the disaster does sound awfully immature on the surface. As an American I’d be more than slightly turned off by a first person shooter where you killed the zombified victims of the September 11 attacks on top of ground zero. Stalker manages to avoid glorifying its violence though. You’re not there to kick ass and chew bubble gum–you’re trapped in the zone fighting to survive along with everyone else. All of the science fiction elements (although I’d rather say “sci-fi” to take emphasis off the game’s nonexistent science) reinforce the terror the zone inspires in stalkers. If any FPS can be taken as a serious work of art, it’s Stalker.
But the game’s tie to reality doesn’t end there. Next I read Roadside Picnic, the novel Stalker is loosely based on. The novel (which is completely unrelated to Chernobyl) is nothing like the game, outside of the concept of a “zone” and “stalkers.” But the two do share a key thematic connection–the universe is impossibly beyond our comprehension and all of our attempts to control it only accelerates our inevitable destruction. I still haven’t seen the movie Stalker, which I hear the game also draws its influence from.
The moving qualities of each of these, the real life event of Chernobyl as well as the literary influence, have largely not been carried over to the game. Is this a bad thing, the fact that the game is only a “videogamey” shallow copy of reality and a higher form of art? A pile of implied, unoriginal themes revolving around mutant-shooting? One thing I know is this: without this game, I would never have learned as much as I did about both. Without this videogame I wouldn’t have grown as intellectually as I have.
But Stalker was not simply a signpost pointing me in the direction of more stimulating material, it also fills in the videogame role of this subject. Personally, I never liked the scripted sequences of this game. They always felt like the game suddenly turned into a second-rate Half Life. I fell in love with the sandbox aspects. Wandering around The Zone, seeing the wreckage caused by this vague disaster was incredible. Observing, and participating in, these absurd faction wars where different gangs fight over land that’s not worth its weight in radiation was thought provoking beyond any nonsense like The Void.
How many other games do this? Take a subject well-trodden in other media and allow us to relive it in a way only a videogame can? They aren’t nonexistent, certainly. Civilization (along with many more strategy games), Deus Ex, parts of that delightfully awful Waxworks game I reviewed, and every single World War II glorification game are the obvious examples. We need more though. Instead of a new Fallout game I want to play an RPG that takes place in a real disaster area, not a fantasy sci-fi future land.
Julian Murdoch describes his daughter playing Civilization V on Gamers With Jobs: “More impressively, she walked away from that one game of Civilization asking interesting questions about history, science, war, religion, even geography.” If this is a criteria for judging a game, then Stalker is an A+ for me. If nothing else, I’m an intellectually richer person because I played this game. Doesn’t that count for something?