Why I Still Play Stalker

By Jim Rossignol on May 1st, 2008 at 8:53 am.


A couple of months back I went to a dinner party. It was a modest, grown up affair, albeit it with a bout of arm-flailing Wii play dominating the evening. I didn’t know the host all that well and, as we found common ground, we got to discussing his game collection. We sat and picked out titles, as I imagine menfolk might have discussed a shelf full of books or vinyl records in previous decades. One of the games he had on there was Stalker, which he had played through once and not bothered with again. Too gloomy, he said. And there really wasn’t much to it.

Needless to say, my feelings were quite the opposite.

Too gloomy? Only once through? I had played Stalker countless times since that initial run through, and now I put it on in quiet hours, just to soak up the atmosphere. There’s something evocative and slightly alarming about finding fictional worlds that you want to taste repeatedly – I remember watching Bladerunner countless times as a teenager, as if I could capture something of its atmosphere and sentiment in my tiny brain. I knew the story inside out, but I wanted to explore it further and to possess it. I think that’s one of the most compelling things about our favourite videogames: you get to be down there in the celluloid, mucking about in other people’s imaginations. You’re doing, making decisions, and not just passively watching it flickering away on the TV screen. The traces that activity leaves on us are stronger somehow. The taste fades a little more slowly.

Anyway, I desperately wanted to explain what it was that I got from Stalker to my dinner party host, but I felt it was hopeless. I started off on a rant, but changed the subject. I’d seem obsessive, even boring, I knew. Tonight, having hopped into Stalker yet again, I know that I’m putting that grainy Bladerunner cassette on one more time, and I want to have a crack and explaining its appeal. After all, being faithful to our obsessions seems to be what Rock, Paper, Shotgun is all about.

So yes: I regularly drop back into Stalker just to do something in that world. I’ve completed it twice through and seen two of the endings. Now though I tend to wander around in the wide-open mid-section. I’ve seen it all, but it never quite stays the same. I’ve got a selection of saved games in the bar area, with my character at various levels of development. I’ve always got a bunch of larger missions on the go, but the simple “fetch x” or “kill y” missions from the bar give me a decent reason to go out into the wilderness for half an hour here, an hour there.

I start out by buying up ammo from the barman. Then I talk to this lovely fellow (below), who has lost his treasured rifle. Don’t worry, surly drunk, I’ll rescue your gun!

I head off out of the bar, and past the various groups of Stalkers sat telling each other stories and jokes in Russian. A crumbling depot awaits outside.

There are dogs. Evil dogs. I spy them through my binoculars, waiting for me. At this stage in the game I am poorly equipped and dressed in poor-quality stalker gear, but I’ve managed to pick up a formidable modified rifle. It’s one of Stalker’s random treasures – a high end assault rifle that uses the low-end, commonly scavenged ammunition. I kill the dogs at range.

I pass the the duty checkpoint, which acts as a gateway to the main part of the game. In some ways everything before the checkpoint is precursor the main game, but the areas before the checkpoint are also some of the best realised. This is where the game’s eerie atmosphere really comes into its own – with a familiar kind of dereliction littering the landscape. We’ve all seen buildings like these: evidence what is left behind after people are gone, ghosts of the future. I hear a hissing and booming noise where a zone denizen has wandered into a hidden anomaly. Something dead goes tumbling through distant trees.

It’s weird and suddenly I get a glimpse of why people don’t like it. What the fuck is going on? Why did that happen? It’s messy and doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Brilliant.

I hear shouts and then gunfire. I already know that it will be some friendly stalkers skirmishing with bandits. Early in the game I saved the life of a stalker in this area, and now he and his chums are doomed to perpetually fight off raids from the nearby bandits. The trio are far better armed than the bandits, I expect they would win the fight without my help. Nevertheless the bandits are between me and the lost gun. They could kill me at close range, since they’re armed with submachineguns, pistols and sawn-off shotguns. I settle down under cover, with a stretch of open ground in front of me. Again my trusty rifles sees me safe, at range. When the battle barks have died out completely I move in and scavenge.

Soon I retrieve the gun from the rumbling, low tunnel, a dead end detail which seethes with multiple anomalies. I’m fairly used to these traps now and they do me no harm as I fish out the lost rifle. Not a bad piece of kit.

Then I hear another burst of distant yelling and further gunfire. The direction of the sound tells me that it’s not a fight that my friendly stalkers are involved in. There’s something going on beyond the nearby hill. I jog round to see what’s up. It’s a fight going on between some pretty heavily armed neutral stalkers and the bandits. I join in, taking down first a bandit and then – sorry! – one of the stalkers. Normally these chaps would ignore me, only firing on dogs and bandits, but now I’ve crossed that line. Fire on one of their party and they’ll attack. They almost kill me, opening up at close range. I dive behind cover. I reload, go back out and shoot down men of any camo.

It’s disappointing, and strange. There’s less meaning in the deaths of these two videogame phantoms than the death of a fly. Yet, because I’d swatted them due to a simple accident, I felt bad. My mistake had disrupted things.

Yes, there’s something weightier there than many games manage. And Stalker has some of the most excruciating deaths, where NPCs are injured, but not dead. They writhe on the ground in agony. If you have allies they’ll often finish them off with a pistol shot – something I assumed was scripted when I first played the game, but now I’ve come to realise is the natural behaviour of the people of the zone. That the developers felt the need to put that in suggests something about the portrait they were producing. It’s not a nice game. Too gloomy? Maybe. Maybe for him. Maybe for you.

Back in that aftermath of my error: it’s here the game fails me completely. One of the stalkers that I had not meant to harm is still alive, but maimed. Because he was neutral and I attacked him, there’s no option to offer the medkit and save him like I did with my besieged friend across the valley. He is enemy, says the game. You cannot repair this. I contemplate the crippled fellow for a few moments. I pull out the pistol and do what needs to be done. After all, he might have ammuntion. And that’s no use to him now. I think about leaving things there and playing something a bit less grim.

Not for too long though: there’s a twinkle in the vegetation at the bottom of this valley, and it lures me on, away from the grim contemplations. There’s an artefact in there. One of the zone’s weird fruits. Getting closer, I realise it’s one I’ve not seen before. I sprint forward to grab, and step straight into anomaly. Somehow, I survive its dragging, booming gravity effect, and step away injured. Stupid. The artefact is gone. I wander back up the valley, where everything is turning soft pink with the sunset. I have another skirmish with bandits, risking close range combat for the thrill of it. I look at the map and see that there are some “stashes” marked nearby – places where stalkers have left some loot that I can later collect. It’s in a pipe by a derelict crane, according to the description. I can’t find anything.

A bug? Or is the game lying to me? Dumb games. Other games don’t fail me like this. They’ve been properly designed. Properly tested.

Hmm.

I’ll be back.

In just the same way that so many people put on Crackdown or a GTA game just to have a blast, cause anarchy, or explore the world they’ve bought from the shops, so I like to hang about in The Zone, killing nightmare dogs and getting cash together to buy ammunition.

Yes, it’s a fractured experience: I can’t even be said to be developing anything like a character, as I might do playing Oblivion or some other open-ended RPG, but still, it drags me in.

It’s getting dark. I start to head back to the bar, almost by instinct. I am looking to “go home” in this game. No point being out in the rain and dark, I think. And I’ve got to take the gun back to its owner… There’s no need to, of course. I can just quit the game. And I do.

Back in the real world I hold on to that saved game like some kind of quest item.

I’ll need it.

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127 Comments »

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  1. Kadayi says:

    There are a couple of artifacts that help out on the stamina side of things and pretty much ensure you can run anywhere and never really tire tbh. For the life of me I can’t remember their names, but some walk through somewhere will name check them.

  2. Muzman says:

    Sparkler, Flash and Moonlight are the endurance helpers in ascending order of potency (They have costs though. I think they all make you more vulnerable to electric shock to some extent)

  3. spd from Russia says:

    One of my fave games. best shooter `07 (for single player that is). Cod4 and Bioshock dont come even close for atmosphere, gameplay and world immersiveness

    Too bad people anticipated too much from it (something like oblivion mixed with hl2). And even with all the flaws and some bugs its great. Iv played it lots, but didnt bother to complete for the second time cause the ending levels are just ‘realistic fps’ which is not what I love about Stalker.

    And Iv dreamt so many times of doing something like Stalker. Maybe a mod for quake or even Doom3… Even have some concepts (ofcourse I wont ever make it, cause the ammount of work required is huge)

    Clear Sky? I will play it for sure. But there is another game that will occupy all my time – Fallout 3 ofcourse!

  4. Kadayi says:

    What excites me about stalker is that at it’s very heart it’s an RPG, but one that doesn’t conform to the kind of stats driven, turn based (b)anality from 10 years ago that the traditional RPG community still continue to lust after and revere (See Fallout, Baldurs gate ). The early cRPGs took their lead from and aped the old P&P RPGs in terms of mechanics but that was more down to the technological constraints of hardware capability at the time as it was about actual design decisions. With the advent of true 3D engines, the computer game space has changed to the extent that it’s possible to almost completely externalize and remove the statistical nature of the traditional cRPG experience, and Stalker is a great example of that, in the same way that GTA IV is. It’s not about hit points anymore, it’s about using your wits and the differing and varied equipment/environments available to you to resolve the problems you encounter in a game space. This is the future, and I welcome it.

  5. CryingTheAnnualKingo says:

    “STALKER definitely ruined Bioshock for me”

    How is that? They are two very different games that excel in very different ways. Bioshock achieved things that Stalker didn’t and vice versa. They do not need to compete.

  6. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    @ INglorion – I didn’t even realise it the patches went that far!

    Oh well, i’ll put it down to Stalker being random, as ever.

  7. meatpeople says:

    @CryingTheAnnualKingo:

    You quoted James T, but I brought BioShock up first simply because I recently started playing it for the first time. My abiding memory of System Shock 2 is the immersiveness of it, as people said with Bladerunner, the feeling that you want to crawl inside it (Thief too).

    Stalker brought that feeling back completely, and seemed to draw a lot on SS2s’ free-playing RPG aspects. So even if in fairness they’re rather different games, given BioShocks lineage, I was expecting something that I, so far, haven’t found. To some degree Stalker did deliver it. And to be clear, it’s less about game mechanics or the intention as that immersiveness others have being discussing. The staticness of the BioShock environment, the high-specularity plasticy graphics… so much of it doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not yet finished though, I’ll see it through though.

    I dunno, I don’t think about these things quite enough to be able to get across what I mean. Quality Without A Name, that’s what Stalkers got, and BioShock doesn’t seem to.

  8. James T says:

    CTAK: Them both being horror-leaning, action-oriented FPSes with RPG elements definitely had me thinking about one while playing the other. They both succeed very distinctly from each other in aesthetics, but on the game level, I thought STALKER was a step in the right direction in regards to flexibility and the integration of RPG elements into an action heavy game, and Bioshock was… Doom 3.

  9. spd from Russia says:

    James T says: and Bioshock was… Doom 3.
    __

    my thoughts exactly ;/
    and tactical combat vs good ai in Stalker is so much better than a mess of bioshock fights

  10. Snofeld says:

    This is the second game this website’s convinced me to buy this week. I hate you…not really.

    And Bioshock isn’t Doom 3, it’s System Shock 2, without the spiders. God I hated those.

  11. matte_k says:

    Damn. So vexing, that on the second install, Stalker killed my PC, so everytime I try to play it, I get about 20 mins of play and then a Bluescreen of Death appears and my system resets. Not sure if it’s the mods i’m using (i’m not fussed about most, but there’s a crackingly good one that allows better weapon trade with NPCs, thus making them a bit hardier), so i’m gonna have to try it vanilla first because I REALLY want to play this again before Clear Sky.

  12. cpt.whistlepants says:

    Oblivion Lost and AMK makes stalker even better if you guys havent tried them yet.

  13. Cargo Cult says:

    matte_k: BSODs are usually more indicative of a hardware or driver problem – technically it should be impossible for user-level software to kill a modern operating system like that.

    Make sure your graphics card has adequate ventilation, and you’re running updated drivers on everything. The fact that it’s time-related and not connected to a particular game event does hint towards a thermal problem…

  14. Duoae says:

    @ Chaz – yeah i hear you on that Stalking Point: Road to Chernobyl.

    I really need to get BP back from my dad. He borrowed it after seeing me play it and subsequently left it on his shelf collecting dust while i was only a short way through the game… I really liked the ability to improve your stats and it was something i thought was missing in stalker – starting off with a limited weight capacity but being able to carry more later on after your strength increases over time would be very useful without having to install a static weight increase mod.

  15. charlie says:

    Wow. I never read that article before but its absolutely spot on. You captured the feeling of STALKER perfectly. They should give you a job! You understand why STALKER is good probably better than the developers.

  16. Brendan says:

    Really I have a love hate relationship with STALKER. There are times when I am simply in awe of the games atmosphere. But these times are quickly overshadowed by the sight of 3 “Experienced” stalkers walking into an electrical anomaly. Or the pile of carnage around every camp bonfire, where hapless NPCs spawn directly to their doom. Or the fact that bandits attack the garbage stalkers every 5 seconds. Or the fact that my AK-47 is incapable of putting a 3 inch group on a wall which is 10 feet away. Or the fact that military stalkers can take 1.5 magazines of 7.62mm in the face without flinching.

    And then I see a dog dragging some bandits corpse into the woods, and I think “Damn thats cool”.

  17. Pestoolio says:

    I highly recommend the Oblivion Lost mod for STALKER. If you’ve grown bored with the game, or just want a different experience, you need to check out this mod.

    Off the top of my head, it adds:
    -Larger areas
    -New enemies (zombies, mutant cats, dwarfs, etc…)
    -Tweaked weapons (and a few new weapons)
    -New skins, voices, and songs for some NPCs
    -Completely random events that occur, such as zombies attacking the freedom base
    -Better weather, darker nights
    -Improved HUD
    -Random blowouts that repopulate the area with mutants and anomalies
    -Vehicles
    -Sleeping
    -And much more

    http://forums.filefront.com/s-t-l-k-e-r-modding-editing/340033-s-t-l-k-e-r-oblivion-lost-kanyhalos.html

    Try it out, you won’t be disappointed.

  18. Trousers says:

    This has to be my favorite article on this site, thank you RPS for getting me to fire up STALKER again. Sadly I got a BSOD every time I got to a 2nd load point, but disabling SLI somehow fixed this.

    Here’s to hoping Clear Sky is that much better.

  19. friday says:

    I started playing this game again, i have gotten a lot farther. Its such a cool game. I really like the missions I was doing for Duty, especially when they were preparing for the attack on the freedom base, but it was too short. The story line is cool but I wish there was more stuff to do with the factions and such. Tonight I did the quest to turn off the brain scrambler, it was so creepy going down into that place. I think the horror elements are done really well, not constant but just every once in a while.

  20. Xerxes says:

    Having kept up hope throughout development that this game would eventually see the light of day, on release I played it through twice, several unfinished playthroughs, and overall enjoyed it a great deal.
    It wasn’t perfect; there were bugs, and gameplay issues that detracted from the experience. It wasn’t as open and freeform as I’d hoped it would be but there was a great game buried under there.

    After reading this article I went back to the game (it had never been uninstalled, and I still had the 1.0001 version) checked the oblivion lost forums for new mods, and picked out the AMK mod.
    Which made some entertaining changes to the game balance, added the proper blow outs, and a number of guns , armour and various items that made the game a more tangible, realistic and deadly experience.

    It’s great to be back crawling through the wastelands of Chernobyl, getting back into the mindset for Clear Sky, and still finding something new and unexpected after all this time.

    If only I could resist the urge to drag my overburdened body at walking pace across half the zone to sell 15 AK’s to the barman.

    I’m a STALKER, not a pack mule.
    I’m a STALKER, not a pack mule.
    I’m a STALKER, not a pack mu…. ooh, another AK

  21. Syntaxus says:

    Probably my favorite game of all time…

    About to start a new play-through with the new big release of the oblivion lost mod, hardest difficulty, etc. Should be fun as hell. :D

    I love the amount of random there is, even in just the stock game. For example, hard to match the sight of a Dutyer squad on the edges of Rostok after fighting through a gigantic pack of dogs and the usual Mercs in the construction site, not to mention snorks and bloodsuckers creeping around… A feeling unlike any other game.

    And the first time I did the carpark run in pripyat certainly topped the experience of AI teamwork in the CoD series. Nice to see friendlies that can dish it out too. Reminds me of good times playing Ghost Recon 1 or Rainbow Six duo coop with my brother on a LAN.

    The question is: What would you do for Stalker co-op multiplayer? (And/Or a magical patch fixing all the performance glitches)

  22. Deuteronomy says:

    First of all Doom 3 is a much better game than Bioshock. Secondly Stalker is my favourite game of all time. Yes it had bugs, but it never once crashed on me, and the atmosphere, combat, story, everything was simply spectacular. Along with Crysis it’s the only game that I’ve ever finished end to end more than once.

    Combining an Armed Assault sized map and freedom with Stalker level detail would be the ne plus ultra of gaming.

  23. nobody says:

    GET OUT OF HERE STALKER

  24. Lord_EvilPepper says:

    Stalker was introduced to me by a friend showing me a trailer about 1.5 years before its launch, I thought it loked neat.. then forgot all about it. The next time i saw stalker was on said friends PC, I was very inpressed with game play, and thought the graphics were ok. So i went out and bought a copy myself.
    With my vastly better computer, the ok graphics look outstanding, and i quickly got imerssed in the game, it took 2 weeks to beat the game the first time with the “i want to be rich” ending…. yeah just about through the game out after that…
    finding out there was other endings, i played through again. and again and again… i have beaten the game about 6 times now, and i still play it because its a good creapy game that sucks you in for about 50 hours of play. all i have left now is to go to the CNPP to finish the game on the hardest setting.
    For all the glitches in the game, i still find it very emersive, and it will still be a favriote in my collection for years to come

  25. Pegasus says:

    Stalker really is a great game, and for the reasons many of you have said. One that that I liked very much was the fact you din’t have to have your gun out all the time. This seperated ‘combat’ and ‘exploration’ I only pulled my trusty rifle (that stayed with me all of the game and somewhat became a friend) when I felt danger. Looking forward to clear skys with should be out now.

  26. Darren says:

    Jim, I really enjoyed reading your perspective, I’ve not had the fortune of trying stalker Chernobyl yet, but I am presently engrossed in clearsky.
    I rarely play the plots in any game of this nature, much preferring my own rules, right now I’m outside what looks like an old railway station picking of bandits one at a time with an AC96/2 in double shot mode, I’m behind an old crate, for some reason they cannot make out my position, don’t know if this is a bug or intentional, one thing that is definitely a bug in my opinion, is that while out of gun range they still managed to lob a grenade that got close enough to cause considerable damage!, a bullet from a rifle cannot reach me but a grenade can?, anyway, it’s now getting dark and soon they will switch on their head lamps, this will give me a good target for head shots(AIs can be so stupid).
    Anyway as you can see I’m totally engrossed in the game(some might even say obsessed), thank you for the read, I know it was a while back you posted but I only just found this site, hope you tell us about your adventures in clearsky.