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STALKER (Part 3)

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Andrew in Steamland:

Wish Upon a Star (STALKER Part 3)

 

stalker pt3 header

 

The story so far: one night, our protagonist is dragged from the back of a wrecked truck. He wakes up in a bunker with no memory of his past, his only possession a PDA containing a man’s photo and the phrase “kill Strelok.” Nicknamed “Marked One” for a tattoo on his arm that reads “STALKER,” he searches for the elusive Strelok, who was last spotted near the center of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. After finally making contact with one of Strelok’s associates, Marked One learns that he is Strelok, raising the questions that loom over the remainder of the story: who brainwashed him, and why? He believes he might find the answer in the place he was trying to reach before he lost his memory: the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

 

I left off at the entrance to the Red Forest, one of the more haunting locations in the Chernobyl area. A large portion of the radiation from the nuclear plant fell on the forest, killing the trees while also greatly slowing the decomposition process. Despite Soviet cleanup crews effort to contain the radiation by burying many of the trees under sand, it remains highly radioactive. In the game there is the added danger of heavily dug-in Monolith squads, self-appointed guardians of the nuclear power plant.

 

Red Forest is my favorite map in the game, as it both presents a satisfying challenge and provides an interesting contrast with the other areas I’ve passed through. There’s a pattern in Shadow of Chernobyl’s level design, which is easy to spot with just a glance at the in-game map: maps are built with a thoroughfare as their spine, and important landmarks dot the roadside so that players never have to go far off the path to make progress. It’s most obvious with Cordon, where the plot nudges the player along the road in increments until arriving in the Garbage. It makes perfect sense in light of early builds of the game in which the player was able to drive cars, and by the time the feature was scrapped it would have required too much work to redesign the majority of the game world. Sure enough, there’s a road conveniently snaking through Red Forest directly to where I want to be. But I also have the option of going through the forest, and here is where some tactically interesting considerations come into play: do I fight my way through Monolith on the road or carefully avoid pockets of radiation in the forest? Do I want to hold onto my ammunition or my medical supplies? There’s more loot to be had fighting Monolith, but I might end up eating through my supply of medkits anyway.

 

Well, I came loaded for bear, so my choice is obvious. Plus, while STALKER is the kind of series that rewards players for flexibility in how they approach combat, nonviolent options for conflict resolution are limited at this stage of the game. When you get down to it, I’m fighting Slav ISIS.

 

I refuse to believe that this isn't the most moral option.

I refuse to believe that this isn’t the most moral option.

 

As a rule, Monolith’s enforcers are equipped with the best weapons in the Zone, including the occasional RPG. This is great news for compulsive scavengers like me, although they make getting the loot as hard as they can. Their AI is good at holding its shots until it thinks it can get a hit or the player is paying attention to something else. They’re also much quieter than other NPCs, who have audio cues for a lot of their actions, from dogs’ barking to bandits’ cries of “CHEEKI BREEKI!” It’s the kind of crutch that’s hard to notice until it’s taken away, as is happening to me right now. Just another little thing that makes it easier for Monolithians to get the jump on players. Even the mystical launcher of infinite grenading can only do so much, and I take a methodical approach to advancing down the road.

 

As I get closer and start clearing enemy positions up close, I find myself switching between weapons more, using grenades and pistols to deal with the ones dug into cover while my scoped weapons are put to good use against watchtowers and anyone in the open. Thanks to looting, my personal arsenal now includes a sniper rifle, two assault rifles, a grenade launcher, two pistols and a constantly fluxuating number of hand grenades, and I’m using all of it. For a while, I feel like I’m in an oldschool FPS. Even though my opponents are invariably armed with Dragunov sniper rifles and an assortment of assault rifles, their positions are varied and the AI employs some decent tactics against me; in one skirmish, several Monolith troops harassed me from behind cover on the road while others tried to use roadside foliage to move around me, forcing me to move around and switch up my loadout in response. Management of my radiation exposure adds another layer to the challenge of finding and exploiting positions for dislodging enemies from the roadblocks. Despite the linearity of my path through the area, the moment-to-moment gameplay is dynamic and rewarding.

 

You can't see the ten crazed gunmen in this image because they're all hiding behind goddamn rocks.

You can’t see the ten crazed gunmen in this image because they’re all hiding behind goddamn rocks.

 

Close to the Monolith bunker, the road climbs a steep hill. There’s little cover here, at least for me; my enemies are sitting behind sandbag barricades. Compounding the difficulty is a fuzzy yellow filter signaling the presence of a psychic field. This is what I needed the scientists in Yantar for: I’ll be soaking in brain-melting rays for the next hour or so, the game’s way of suggesting players follow the storyline. A side effect of being in the psy-field is that ghosts keep popping out of the air, doing their best to throw off my aim. At least they don’t do damage.

 

Nothing to do with the commentary - just a corpse doing a headstand while hovering. Such is life (and death) in the Zone.

Nothing to do with the commentary – just a corpse doing a headstand while hovering. Such is life (and death) in the Zone.

 

At the top of the hill there’s a walled compound packed with radio towers converted into sniper nests. While there’s plenty of cover now, I end up moving around because the AI can actually be a crack shot once it draws a bead on the player, and also because the lab entrance is right there, taunting me. This is the last lab and the only thing standing between me and the 24/7 riot zone that is the game’s finale. Plus, I’m getting tired of the screen filter. Is there a word for this kind of effect? Like grayscale, but a different color. Piss-scale, let’s call it. I don’t like piss-scale, so I’d rather be done with this part of the map quickly.

 

Snipers everywhere and yellow screen filters. Fun fact: this came out the same year as Team Fortress 2.

Snipers everywhere and yellow screen filters. Fun fact: this came out the same year as Team Fortress 2.

 

Tucked away in a train tunnel, I find the door to X-10. X-19? The name got changed a couple times, so I’m just calling it X-10. Shut it down and the center of the Zone will be opened to everyone, but most importantly me.

 

Unlike the other labs, X-10 isn’t a giant mutant gangbang waiting to happen. In fact, it isn’t much of anything. It’s a large, multi-story complex populated solely by three bloodsuckers. That would have been a problem way back in Agroprom, but at this point in the game it’s a joke. Except for the lack of a voiceover by a bored-sounding college girl, it really does feel like an atmospheric walking simulator accidentally got transplanted into STALKER. Fine, whatever. Having spent more time nervously peeking around corners than actually doing anything, I reach the catwalk with the big “shut down the Brain Scorcher and embrace the coming anarchy” lever. First, though, I check out the skeleton leaning against the console. Should have tried harder, buddy! Now Marked One gets the credit.

 

I hit the switch and am greeted with one of the game’s rare cutscenes. It’s short, less than fifty seconds, but there’s a lot going on here. First, an image of a glowing pillar in a rubble-filled room, which a gloved hand reaches for; then a series of short shots with images of Strelok interspersed throughout: the STALKER tattoo on his arm, then an unidentified man shooting at a tidal wave of mutants, then the CNPP, followed by the mutant footage playing backwards, and finally the pillar again. Except for the bookends with the pillar, it’s all recycled from other cutscenes. It’s also extremely important. Remember, Doc told Marked One the Monolith is just an illusion, yet here it’s apparently communicating directly to him. Looks like I might be getting that free wish after all!

 

"What you want is here, Stalker. Come." - creepy voiceover I trust unconditionally

“What you want is here, Stalker. Come.” – creepy voiceover I trust unconditionally

 

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: because STALKER’s cutscenes don’t play in-engine, it has to reload whatever map it’s on when a cutscene finishes playing. When the game reloads X-10, it activates a script that pours Monolith troops all over the lab like condescension on an Andrew Dobson comic. It’s hard to tell exactly how many due to my mods removing the enemy counter from the HUD. I do know one thing: this part is a slog. Enemies are really good at reliably landing headshots when you’re just four feet apart. Grenades are now my best friend – even if they don’t get a kill, nearby enemies will still shout a warning and move away. Sometimes I chaos dunk an unsuspecting dude with a direct grenade launcher shot, but mostly it’s repetitive room clearing and spamming medkits when I get shot.

 

While the other underground sections have plenty of action, they’re designed for atmosphere first. X-18 and X-16 are supposed to instill claustrophobia and dread out of proportion to the actual danger to the player. The controller in X-16 was intimidating, but can be focused down in a way that twenty-odd coordinated Monolithians can’t. That’s because the game has given up on being an exploration-heavy survival FPS and is now the last act of a John Woo movie. I happen to like both, it’s just that at this point there’s only so much that can be said about the AI trying to pin me down while also flanking around for a better shot. There will be plenty of opportunities to look at that kind of stuff later.

 

Imagine this image repeating about fifty times.

Imagine this image repeating about fifty times.

 

I’ll say this, at least: X-10 fully prepares players for the CNPP. By the time I fight my way to the exit, I can tell I’ve hoarded sufficiently to make it to the end of the game. Instead of trekking back through Red Forest to the Freedom base to stock up, I can press ahead.

 

Because the labs count as separate maps, the game reloads Red Forest when I leave X-10. The transition from X-10 to Red Forest is fairly unique because the game has to conjure up members of every faction except bandits, filling every designated spawn location to capacity. Many of these are close to campfires, which wouldn’t be an issue if the fire itself wasn’t tagged as a valid spawn location. As a result, a good fraction of the incoming Stalkers are incinerated within an instant of appearing. Their friends, wholly unperturbed, sit down to play the guitar and presumably make s’mores once I’m out of sight.

 

This is what happens when you cheeki breeki too hard.

This is what happens when you cheeki breeki too hard.

 

Here I get a bit of a breather. Despite the number of enemies who just popped into existence, most of them are too busy killing each other to notice me, with Monolith taking the worst of it. I do go out of my way to trash the army squads I spot, though. Then it’s down the hill, to the fork in the road where Freedom and Duty are fighting to see who gets to storm the Monolith roadblock ahead. I ignore them and clear the way myself, finally leaving Red Forest behind and arriving in Pripyat.

 

Pripyat was one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear cities, a category of closed city (places where residency and even travel were heavily restricted due to proximity to sensitive locations like military bases) built to house power plant workers and their families after a proposal to build the station just outside Kiev was rejected. Founded in 1970, Pripyat was one of the USSR’s most modern cities and was still growing, with a population of almost 50,000 in 1986. Given its proximity to the power plant, there was no question of continued civilian habitation after the meltdown, and Pripyat was evacuated in just two days. In the years since much of the city has been reclaimed by nature, but it’s still considered unsafe to live in and will remain abandoned for the foreseeable future.

 

Naturally, Pripyat is a significant location in the STALKER series, and between Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat, much of the city can be explored. I won’t have many opportunities to, on account of there being little loot and a lot of enemies here. The game also puts pressure on the player by hooking them up with a squad of friendly Stalkers who help fight off Monolith for the first half of the map. True to the spirit of this recap, they all die in short order and I have to go it alone. I consider it a minor moral victory that none of them died to friendly fire, at least. Plus, being alone lets me enjoy the tone more; a thunder storm brewed up just as I entered the map and the way the occasional flash of lightning illuminates the scenery adds a lot to the ghost town atmosphere.

 

First item on the shopping list is a stash Doc told me about. It contains a decoder that will crack an electronic lock and get me into the secret facility inside the power station (useful), as well as a suit of armor (not useful). Next on the list is… well, nothing, really. Time to get out of here. By which I mean “time to fight through the city room-by-room and leave most of the action out of the article.” This section is a lot like Red Forest, only an occasional Freedom or Duty squad will roll up and take the heat off me. Monolith snipers are more dangerous here thanks to clearer lines of sight down the streets, and some of the foot soldiers are tucked away in alcoves that are a chore to clear out, but no part of this map offers much that I haven’t brought up before. It has landmarks, if that’s your thing. For all the liberties it takes, Shadow of Chernobyl is meticulously researched and incorporates plenty of real world geography. It does take some bizarre liberties, though, such as placing the power plant north of the city instead of southeast of it.

 

Another fun fact: this Ferris wheel was due to open four days after the disaster.

Another fun fact: this Ferris wheel was due to open four days after the disaster.

 

For anyone willing to do a little exploration, there are little hints about what’s going on with Monolith when they aren’t trying to kill you. After clearing the guards out of the Palace of Culture, I stumble into what looks like a prayer circle. Enemies sit around a makeshift altar, rocking back and forth in a trance, and fail to react even when I stand right in front of them. This becomes a plot point in Call of Pripyat, but for now it’s just a strange thing that happens and isn’t explained or even commented on. I spare them and head up the road to the sports stadium. The player is supposed to have to fight across the field filled with mutants while being shot at by RPG-armed Monolithians. Thanks to a glitch, the game dumps me in front of the power plant and I skip the stadium entirely.

 

You know what? These guys are OK, I'll leave them alone.

You know what? These guys are OK, I’ll leave them alone.

 

So, here’s where it all began and where it’s going to end: the CNPP. Everything will finally make sense, provided I can stay alive.

 

Which, incidentally, is hard. For me, this is the hardest part of the game. Earlier, I made a big point of how deliberate the combat in STALKER is. That falls by the wayside here as the army advances on the power plant in overwhelming force, leaving me no choice but to batter through the Monolith guards first. There’s little time for crouching behind cover and lining up headshots or carefully avoiding patches of radiation; the first and only priority is keeping ahead of the military tide. Then a blowout starts up.

 

What’s a blowout? The Zone itself wants me dead. I have five minutes to get inside the power plant or the hand of Slavic God (the angriest god there is) will personally smite me. There’s no protecting against it except by getting the concrete hulk of the Sarcophagus over me.

 

Fuck.

Fuck.

 

For me, this is where the game creeps over the fuzzy line between challenging and frustrating. Still, I’ll admit that it nails the feeling of pressure that the story calls for (and besides, it’s still playing fair, even if the margin of error is much lower). This is the game’s climax, and while the remainder is tough it feels like denoument when the game’s already dangling a countdown to death in my face. There isn’t enough time to fight everyone and at points I have to run past enemies and hope they don’t do too much damage; I suspect this was an intentional part of the design, with the goal of degrading players’ stockpiles of medical supplies. There’s no time for taking bandages off of corpses either, so I’ll have to go into the power plant with what I have. Fortunately, the enemies I bypass soon get pinned down by advancing soldiers.

 

Then when I do make it inside the building, the chaos of gunfire and rockets flying overhead instantly goes away. Once again, the sound design is superb: the power plant seems eerily quiet at first, but the entire area is radioactive. Even though I have enough passive anti-radiation protection that it doesn’t hurt me, the clicking never stops, constantly reinforcing the idea that this place is dangerous and I need to move along. After a whole game of buildup, the CNPP delivers on the atmosphere front. Which is good, because the gameplay is disappointing. Unlike almost the entire game so far, the final hour or so gives the player no room to maneuver and almost no alternate approaches to Monolith positions. It’s an endurance contest that doesn’t play to the game’s strengths. It’s corridor after corridor of bad lighting and enemies with high-end weaponry and armor. I already went through that in X-10, which at least had flanking routes and a few large rooms.

 

But what about the ending itself? After coming all this way, let’s see how STALKER resolves a plot that can – up to now – be summarized as “Marked One goes to Hell and back, killing boatloads of people, for the privilege of learning his friends are dead and he lost his mind for nothing.” After burning through a Cabela’s worth of ammo I finally make it to the center of the CNPP. There are no more Monolithians to stand in my way. The soldiers are all gone, killed or turned to mindless zombies by the blowout. It’s just me and the Wish Granter. As I climb the ladder into the supernatural rock’s chamber, there’s a bit of sleight of hand that’s sadly easy to miss: I turn around and see an enormous tilted plate hanging over the shaft I just emerged from. This is the Upper Biological Shield, a 1,000 ton containment structure thrown upward by the steam explosion in 1986. Which means the room below is the reactor core. There’s little time to think that one through, as the radiation is rapidly draining my health. Time to make a wish.

 

The HUD in this one looks different because my mods kept crashing and I had to play through the whole game from the start.

The HUD in this one looks different because my mods kept crashing and I had to play through the whole game from the start.

 

“I want immortality,” Marked One says. Credit where credit is due: the Wish Granter gives him exactly that… by turning him into metal. So while I found the Wish Granter, I wish I hadn’t. Turns out the thing’s an asshole. In fact, every ending is like this. Marked One’s wish changes based on how the player behaved throughout the game, with different wishes (wealth, to rule the world, for mankind to be destroyed, and so on) all being met with an ironic punishment. But at least Doc was wrong, which I’m sure Marked One would rub in his face if he hadn’t been magically transmuted into a statue.

 

 There's a whole room full of monkey paws curling up right now.

There’s a whole room full of monkey paws curling up right now.

 

Well, that’s it for this article. Ending was kind of a letdown, but I’m sure they answer everything in the sequels.

 

Ha, you got pranked! Unless you’ve been taking peeks at the scroll bar, in which case you can fuck right off. There’s more to this. So much more. Let’s rewind a little. Not a lot, because I don’t feel like going through the whole Sarcophagus again. Just far enough that I can saunter over to that mysterious locked door that Doc told me about and designed a decoder specifically to pry open. Maybe that’s significant. It’s hard to tell, because the game doesn’t put a gigantic neon sign above it saying “GO HERE. YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO MISS SOME CONTENT, WOULD YOU?”

 

No sooner than I pop the decoder on do Monolithians start materializing out of the air. Someone must really want me dead if they’ve given these assholes the power of teleportation. It’s a little annoying that the game is introducing Doom 3-style monster closets this far in, but I can deal with it. It’s not like the next hour of gameplay is going to revolve entirely around this feature. That would blatantly undermine everything the game has been about until this point.

 

Past the door there’s a little more of the same. However, it doesn’t take long to get to the end of this path. Instead of a passive-aggressive magic rock, I’m greeted by a holographic man. Apparently figuring that if I’ve made it this far I deserve an explanation, he dumps a load of exposition on me. Strap in, everyone.

 

After the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet government, reluctant to let all that infrastructure go to waste, established secret laboratories dedicated to psychic phenomena in the exclusion zone. The most successful of their experiments was Common-Consciousness, a fusion of the minds of several researchers. This “superconsciousness” co-opted the rest of the scientists in the program, turning their work toward the ultimate goal of altering the human mind to remove undesirable feelings like greed and anger. Even the fall of the USSR didn’t stop C-Con from making a trial run in 2006. Instead of fine-tuning the human condition, they ended up ripping a hole in reality, temporarily putting the brakes on their scheme while they tried to un-destroy physics. But anything that turns the sky blood-red and disgorges mutants and radiation everywhere is going to attract attention, especially when some of the byproducts have miraculous properties. Struggling with the influx of black market profiteers into its turn, C-Con built psychic emitters to brainwash anyone who ventured too close to their facilities. Stories about the Wish Granter were used to lure in and eliminate the most dangerous Stalkers. Monolith is made up of people like Strelok, Stalkers whose greed or curiosity brought them just a little too close to the truth. The difference is that Marked One’s conditioning didn’t take because C-Con, unaware of his true identity, gave him an impossible mission, leaving him with amnesia. He is, in their words, “a bolt who fell out of the machine.”

 

In short: the bad guys are brainwashed puppets of the true bad guys, who are doing everything they can to paper over the hole they ripped in space-time as part of an experiment to create Brave New World. And now they want me to join them. The bodies plugged into C-Con will grow old and die, and since Marked One knows more about the Zone than just about anyone, they offer him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join the hive mind. On the one hand, C-Con is the closest thing there is to God. On the other hand, I came here to make a wish, and now they’re telling me it was all an elaborate prank.

 

And now everything makes sense, except for the things that don't make sense.

And now everything makes sense, except for the things that don’t make sense.

 

Well, nuts to that. They’ve wanted to kill me for most of the game; it’s a little late to cut a deal. I’m teleported outside the power plant, which I assume is C-Con’s way of showing me the door. Clearly they underestimated how bad a guest I am. I turn around and start marching right back in, only for more enemies appear out of nowhere.

 

Shadow of Chernobyl is an unfinished game. It’s a great game, and one of my favorites, but too many compromises had to be made to get it into stores in time. Corners were cut. Content was cut. Since two entire near-complete levels adjoining the CNPP were cut before launch, I’m inclined to believe that this section of the game was especially hard-hit. I can’t think of another reason why the developers would fully model all of the power plant’s exterior and surrounding area (the largest map in the series, in fact) and then make most of it untouchable. You see, the endgame removes exloration in favor or forcing the player through a trail of portals. Because most enemies also teleport into place, this limits the player’s ability to take different approaches to combat. It’s a corridor shooter. There was a good amount of that inside the power plant, but in that case what you see is what you get. The power plant exterior is functionally the same, only with a much more interesting level in the background.

 

They may be evil megalomaniacs, but C-Con puts on one hell of a light show.

They may be evil megalomaniacs, but C-Con puts on one hell of a light show.

 

So many little touches are apparent in the inaccessible parts of the level, from the burning wrecks of military vehicles caught in the blowout to the pillar of light that’s presumably part of C-Con’s ongoing manipulation of the Zone. Even the weird sci-fi equipment looks like it’s falling apart. This should have been the best part of the game. Make no mistake, I still think it’s fun. It’s just a bizarre design choice to make such an incredible level and then chop it up into repetitive, bite-sized chunks that all consist of “walk forward, trigger enemy spawn, kill Monolithians hiding behind walls/on catwalks, walk through portal, repeat.” Sometimes there are snipers, and this could have been the perfect map for a series of high-stakes sniper duels. Or it could keep dropping enemies ten feet in front of me.

 

Am I harping on this point too much? I could have stuck with one of the other endings. I could sequence break through half of the area. Or I could ask why the ending of STALKER doesn’t feel very much like STALKER. Some consistency would have been appreciated, that’s all. At any rate, some of the portal placement is clever (one of them even shunts Marked One into Sidorovich’s bunker for a moment), though this is undercut by a lack of clear progression. Look at the screenshot above. Can you tell which portals are connected? It’s arbitrary right up to the point where the player enters the one portal – which isn’t visually differentiated in any way – that ends the game.

 

Ideally, a game doesn’t switch tracks at the end. In a tightly designed game, the final level or boss serves as a test of the skills the player has been asked to cultivate throughout the game. The difficulty curve is just a way of measuring to what extent the player has mastered the game’s controls, physics, design sensibilities, etc. If something suddenly changes near the end, it throws off the game’s progression and requires the player to pick up new skills. Games like No More Heroes and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance have memorable endings because they play just like the rest of the game, but more demanding. From a gameplay perspective, the entire game has been building up to Henry and Armstrong, respectively. In this case, the game pruned away exploration, resource management, and adventuring aspects of gameplay in favor of a linear pipe filled with a series of discrete, mandatory gunfights. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the latter as long as long as it’s paced properly (see: FEAR). With STALKER, the finale could have been half as long or taken another hour and it would have felt the same. I feel like the game ended where it did because the developers got tired of making more map rather than because I’d reached a natural end-point. Eventually I enter a portal that leads to the machinery containing C-Con’s organic components. Marked One destroys it, ending the threat to his life but leaving the Zone unchecked. Fin.

 

And yet, nothing in that above rant significancly detracts from the experience for me. When this game is firing on all cylinders, it’s amazing; when it isn’t, it’s still a fun shooter with immersive atmosphere and an interesting story. And what about the story? I think there’s a lot to mull over here, but I also know this is supposedly a comedy column about videogames. So this is your warning: there’s no gameplay discussion or humor past this point. There’s a whole bunch of probably reading too much into things, if that’s your jam. If not, you can go ahead and navigate to another page now. I don’t mind. OK?

 

OK.

 

Anthropologists have used the terms high-context and low-context to describe the ways cultures communicate meaning, and I’m going to appropriate those terms in a way that will probably make anyone who knows anything about anthropology grit their teeth. According to my limited understanding, in a low-context culture the meaning of a statement is inherent in the statement itself, while high-context cultures are dependent on subtext. Now let’s apply this to games. For my examples I’ll pick, let’s say, Sonic Heroes, along with the subject of this article.

 

Sonic Heroes is a low-context game; approximately every Planck instant, one or more characters will pipe up and tell the player what to do. I know this because I replayed the game yesterday, demonstrating that even when writing about a good game I can’t escape the pain. At any rate, there are no puzzles in the game because whenever the player draws near an obstacle, no matter how many times it’s appeared before, the game will preemptively give up the solution. The intended way to play the game is to follow the one linear path presented and do exactly what the game says, when it says to. No thinking, no decision-making, no effort is required.

 

An aside for the sake of clarity: context shouldn’t imply anything about a game’s quality; I’d say the Kirby series is pretty low-context, but it’s well-designed and fun. Context is just a way of describing a game’s accessibility as well as the level of effort the developers expected on the part of the player.

 

The STALKER series as a whole, and Shadow of Chernobyl in particular, is a fine example of high-context gaming. The game contains a mere 15 minutes of cutscenes, about half of which is taken up by variations on the ending. That isn’t enough to tell much of a story, so the rest is left to conversations with NPCs (which can be skipped, since almost every character in the game can be killed) and environmental context clues. In the previous part I described environmental design as it applies to gameplay, noting that X-16 rewards players for slowing down and observing their surroundings. Progression through the game is the product of understanding its design and mastering its mechanics. Similarly, to get the most out of the story requires more effort than watching the cutscenes and listening to quest-related NPCs. So, what am I talking about here? What’s STALKER about?

 

Shadow of Chernobyl is a game about letting go. It’s a lot of other things, too, but I’d like to focus on this aspect as I wrap up probably the longest piece I’m going to write for this site. Consider the villains: C-Con and its minions are squatters in the wreckage of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest disasters. Despite this, they’re collectivist to the point that they’ve given up their individual identities and believe they can create utopia by forcing their ideals on the rest of the world. C-Con is continuing the Soviet experiment. This is communicated in-game by the choice of setting; shooters featuring villains who operate ethically questionable science labs are a dime a dozen, but the choice of Chernobyl as the scene of the action is unusual. For one thing, replicating real locations requires work and research, especially when the reproductions are as exact as STALKER‘s CNPP. Even after C-Con’s initial experiments created the Zone and all the horrors within, they didn’t lose faith in their plan.

 

Enter our hero of sorts. I won’t bring Clear Sky into this because it suffers from the prequel disease of explaining things that were perfectly well implied in the original. The reveal of Marked One as a brainwashed Strelok is so understated, I never felt the need for an entire game telling me how he ended up in that situation; all that matters is that he did. Any other game would have made a big production out of it in an attempt to create its own “I am your father” moment, but Shadow of Chernobyl is more restrained. Marked One doesn’t have an identity crisis and shows no interest in becoming someone he doesn’t know. Several thousand words and far too many months ago, I called attention to a little, easy-to-miss detail concerning Ghost’s portrait, which happens to be identical to the one displayed next to the “kill Strelok” mission. Well, it’s still important.

 

Both the protagonist and antagonist of the game are the damaged remains of someone or something long dead: Strelok, the consummate Stalker, and the X-lab administrators charged with the “cognitive optimization” of mankind. Both still linger in Chernobyl, no longer themselves. Shadows, you might call them, if you were an irrelevant pop culture critic with an unwarranted high opinion of his own cleverness.

 

“Andrew,” you might hypothetically say, if you were the kind of person to refute said pop culture criticism by talking to your computer, “this is a game built around accumulating stuff. Did you forget what the acronym means?” But that’s where the gameplay comes in; because while Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat are more oriented around looting than their predecessor, Shadow of Chernobyl hostilely opposes hoarding. There’s no repair or upgrade system, so after a bit of thorough use, the player’s weapons and armor will need to be replaced. I suggest you scroll back to the top of the article and look through the images, this time paying attention to the armor meter at the lower-center of the screen. I had to replace a good amount of my gear inside the CNPP, which added another dimension to the combat. It’s one thing to outfight groups of highly coordinated enemies in a dark, cramped environment, but it’s quite another to do so while dragging corpses around corners and rifling through their pockets for a gun that won’t jam every third shot. Shadow of Chernobyl never ceases to remind the player that things break, and the punishing weight limit on the player’s inventory ensures that choices have to be made about what sort of replacements are brought along and how many. In other words, there’s a point where you have to learn to throw away some of the junk you’ve collected and make do with less. “Nothing is permanent,” the game says. “Greed will only handicap you.” And to drive the message home for anyone who didn’t get it, Marked One gets crushed to death if he makes it to the Wish Granter with too much money.

 

The finale goes some dark places, both literally and figuratively.

The finale goes some dark places, both literally and figuratively.

 

Out of the game’s seven endings, there are only two in which Marked One survives. In one, he wishes for the Zone to disappear, only to be struck blind; in his mind, he sees a serene meadow. The other ending requires  finding the secret part of the power plant and learning the truth about C-Con. Refusing their offer and fighting through their guards leads to the closest thing the game has to an upbeat ending, in which Marked One, having killed C-Con, stands in a field similar to the blindness ending. This time, it seems, his wish really has come true. He lies down and covers his face with his arm, from which the STALKER tattoo has vanished. “I don’t know whether I was right or wrong, I guess I’ll never know,” the no-longer Marked One sighs. “But I made it. And I guess I should be thankful for that.” It’s a beautiful little scene that perfectly ties up the story.

 

And then the other games fucked it all up.