Stalker, The Zone, And Borrowed Architecture

By Jim Rossignol on May 17th, 2010 at 10:14 pm.


I’ve been doing some guest blogging for splendid architecture site BLDGBLOG. You can see my previous offerings here and here, as well as an interview here. The latest piece – here! – delves deeper into my obsession with GSC Gameworld’s Stalker games, and the wider fiction – and reality – surrounding them. Go have a read of the rest of BLDGBLOG, too. It will surprise you.

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42 Comments »

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  1. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Holly!
    I was overblown. Very interesting stuff in there. Awesome even, Jim! I mean it. I’m so going to bookmark it.

    Why did you keep this a secret for so long?

    • sebmojo says:

      Idiomatic note, Mario – you mean ‘blown away’ (very impressed). ‘Overblown’ means ‘pompous’ and isn’t complimentary.

    • SF Legend says:

      And who’s this Holly person?

  2. DMcCool says:

    Brilliant, though I’d already skimmed it without realising it was by you. Oops. Nothing particulary new to an seasoned Stalker like myself, but something about seeing it discussed there, in BLDGBLG I found rather liberating. Stalker really is one of those rare public, visible games that stands up as a cultural icon as much as, well, anything else that would appear on a blo like BLDGBLG. If anything else, “Ghosts Of The Future: Borrowing Architecture From The Zone Of Alienation” couldn’t be much more of a BLDGBLG title if it tried. Well done!

  3. Curvespace says:

    Yup, I got totally obsessed with Chernobyl and Roadside Picnic after playing Stalker. There’s some good documentaries kicking about the place.

  4. Thants says:

    Really interesting. It’s even making me consider watching the movie Stalker.

    And hey, seeing as I’m almost finished my first play-through of CoP, a round up of mods for it would be good right about now. Assuming there are some by now.

  5. The Archetype says:

    @Thants

    I would definitely reccomend watching Stalker, but I’m a huge Tarkovsky fan. Still, if you found part of the allure of the game to be the beatiful environments and sense of atmosphere, the film might be worth a go. just don’t go in expecting a lot in the way of plot.

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      solipsistnation says:

      @Thants, @The Archetype:

      Oh pshaw, Tarkovsky’s Stalker has a plot– it’s just very diffuse.

      It’s a striking and beautiful movie, but yeah, not something you could just sit down and watch, I don’t think. Work up to it– clear your mind, make sure you’re relaxed, have a bottle of something alcoholic handy (vodka would be thematically appropriate, but I think I had some scotch), and let yourself sink into a deep atmospheric hyperfocus trance. It’s fantastic.

  6. Justin says:

    Thants – there’s S.M.R.T.R., which is interesting for the extra caches it brings to the game. The Atmosfear mod makes things pretty. I haven’t tried much else yet.

    A lot of the things that mods unlocked in the first Stalker game are already present in Call of Pripyat, so it hasn’t been so catastrophic a difference – yet.

  7. SirKicksalot says:

    I live in Eastern Europe. I see this kind of architecture every day. I recognize a lot of buildings, since the designs were shared by the USSR and its satellites.
    I think people outside the former Soviet block are missing some of Stalker’s charm. I am always stunned to see such a faithful recreation of our environment in a game. It’s *perfect*. ArmA 2 does this too. It’s not just the architecture, it’s also the mood, the air, the sound, the light. The devil is in the details.

    While playing GTA4 I just aknowledge the skill that went into recreating New York. It doesn’t feel THAT impressive though. I’m afraid I ignore all the little details, the salt and pepper of Rockstar’s work – I can’t see them. I never heard of them. It’s like in that story about the indians that couldn’t see the European ships because they never imagined such a thing. In Stalker, I know exactly what to expect and I’m never disappointed. I can’t describe the magnitude of this artistic achievement, it’s something that goes beyond words. It strucks all the correct chords in my soul. Nevermind the sci-fi shit, everything that is based on reality – actually is reality in Stalker.

    • ChaK_ says:

      good to know they did an even better job than I though.

      I myself really enjoy this atmosphere and architecture, so yeah, if their game was just about walking in ex-URSS ghost town i’d still buy it

  8. Muzman says:

    Cool stuff. Small quibble; I seem to recall hearing that the over the horizon radar is not represented by the Brain Scorcher in the game. The Brain Scorcher facility is another, real, installation that carries similar myths about psycho-active signals (the real OtHR structure shows up in Clear Sky, albeit cut down as the real thing is too big for the game engine). There’s quite a few of these places trapped in the Zone (a coincidence giving rise to further conspiracy theories).
    If I remember rightly, that is.

    Anyway, Zone geeks might have already seen this, but I found these videos a couple of days ago; some guys doing a big multi day zone tour and taking lots of footage. Some of the stuff, like the inside of the Pripyat Palace of the Arts and Jupiter factory, shows just how accurate a lot of the design work in the games is.

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    tomeoftom says:

    I’m very surprised more comments haven’t cropped up for this – a really interesting and well-considered article, written in the understated but eminently readable style of Jim Rossignol, discussing The Zone of GSC’s Stalker on the always-interesting BLDGBLOG. I thought the RPS-readership were of a higher brow. DISAPPOINTED.

    • Centy says:

      Maybe if we mention DRM or comics they will read it and then post some impotent rage filled paragraph for us.

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      AndrewC says:

      This is probably due to Jim’s stuff being so well-researched and sensible there’s nothing to be said about it. No arguments, no discussions, just a quiet, reverent nod of the head and a sip of your forgotten tea.

  10. The Archetype says:

    @solipsistnation

    I didn’t mean to imply the film didn’t have a plot, just that it’s not realy the focus of the film so much as an excuse for the journey and a motivator for the conversations. The plot is actually pretty compelling, I just don’t think it’s what makes the film great.

  11. ascagnel says:

    I liked the STALKER games, but going by their chronology, the total change between SoC and CoP threw me for a loop. I’m currently trying to replay them in story order (and finally finish CS).

    That’s always been one of the things that’s bugged me about games, especially ones that take place in close or continuous timelines. Halo stands out in particular. The weapons and gameplay elements can change rapidly between missions (especially since, SPOILER, the break between 2 and 3 is supposed to be minutes rather than days). There shouldn’t be very many changes, if any, in that short of a time frame, yet there is.

    STALKER is another violator of this, since it seems like SoC and CoP are set relatively close together (maybe a month or two at most). Yet the landscape itself has changed substantially (as well as the people — where did Trader and Barman go in the intervening time?) without any real justification. I could accept the plant modifying the location of artifacts, but it changing the topography is a bit much.

    • Muzman says:

      ascangel: The Zone’s a big place. Call of Pripyat’s maps make up a completely different area, adjacent to the city, from the first game. I wouldn’t have minded dropping in to visit the old places either, but GSC copped some flack for rehashing too many old areas in Clear Sky. I imagine their thinking was to avoid that sort of criticism twice. (real geography has been rearranged quite considerably in all the games as well)

  12. nate says:

    I loved all of these pieces. I’ve read the other ones before, but I enjoyed re-reading.

    There’s something very different about the writing you do for BLDGBLOG. I’m not sure how to put my finger on it. Games writing is almost always evaluation: is this game worth buying? But that doesn’t matter in any of your pieces. The linked articles aren’t about evaluating anything. They’re about exploring the world, including the world of gaming. Throughout it all, there’s this undercurrent of, “What a big, beautiful world we live in.”

    Does that have a lot to do with the audience? It’s as if you take it for granted that the readers of BLDGBLOG aren’t going to be snooty about games, but still don’t necessarily know anything about games. (Pardon me: by games, I mean video games.)

    Because this is exactly the kind of writing that I want to find more of.

  13. Miles of the Machination says:

    Rossignol + STALKER + BLDGBLOG = CRITICAL MASS

  14. terry says:

    Maybe the H on the hydrants is for Hitler :P

    Nice article, it’s always fascinating to me to hear the inspiration for architecture and environment decisions in games. Damn if that Woodpecker array thing doesn’t look frightening as hell, waking up in one of those little apartment blocks and opening the curtains to coathanger nirvana would scare the shit out of me.

  15. iainl says:

    Right, I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while, anyway, so here goes.

    I bought STALKER when it was cheap over Christmas from Steam, but I still haven’t really got around to playing it properly – just enough to fail the first mission, horribly. There seem to be mods up the wazoo out there; should I put them on right away, or just try the game as designed first? I don’t really need much in the way of extra graphical polish, as I like my framerate.

    • Oozo says:

      @ianl
      Got it from Steam, too, and played it for the first time with “Complete”-mod. I really would opt for using this one or the “Oblivion”-mod, simply because it makes the game so much more beautiful to look at (and the “Complete”-mod only adds minor changes to the gameplay, some of which seemed to have been intended by the original team from the beginning anyway).
      So. Go mod.

    • Muzman says:

      Complete is a pretty good first playthrough. It doesn’t alter the gameplay and balance greatly but makes it work better generaly, fixes a lot of bugs and looks really nice. There are some sound changes I think are pretty bad, but it’s endurable.

      There are some performance hits with Complete. You should play it normally for a bit to get a sense of it. The game always had a few caching problems and pauses here and there. Complete never caused any change for me there, one way or the other. But some of the effects are very heavy. Put Complete on and even if there’s no obvious hit normally, when you look at a campfire you’ll know for sure.

      If the graphics are a problem with Complete, being a compilation mod you can try out some of the parts instead (albeit without Complete’s specific tweaks). From memory Stalker Redux is the big bugfix mod.

    • Muzman says:

      Sorry, it’s Bardak’s Bugfix Attempt that’s the last major fix mod I’m aware of (there may be new ones)

  16. YvesW says:

    If you’re interested in the Zone, have a look here:
    http://www.angelfire.com/extreme4/kiddofspeed/

    And if you’re into “real history”, read the book from Svetlana Alexievitch that’s called “La supplication” in french (don’t know the english title…) Keep a good bottle at hand, because it’s quite hard.

    (And now, on my way to BLDGBLOG…)

  17. robrob says:

    Great article Jim. It makes me think it’s a bit of a shame that STALKER is a shooter given its source material. For all its shortcomings, Call of Duty’s Chernobyl bit was very smartly done and similarly borrowed from real zone architecture. The swimming pool and ferris wheel were particularly memorable (also because the shoot out by the ferris wheel was hateful and made you repeat it ad nauseum)

  18. PiP says:

    Good read, Jim. One thing, if I may be a pain, Roadside Picnic is a novel[i]la[/i].

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    AndrewC says:

    Interesting, I reckon, that there’s still nothing in the game as mental as that mile-long radar array thing – and I would have thought that technology would finally have allowed for something that big to be in a game.

    I know there’s no point in most games having a Huuuge play area so you often get Huuuge backgrounds with more human sized play areas (ME2, maybe), or things are cosmic scaled (EVE) but seem abstract because there’s no humans around for scale-reference.

    Big Things, but from a human-scaled perspective – it is the future!

    I know this is a slight tangent from the article’s point about fictional worlds being able to draw narrative strength from using real geography, but they are both about using geography as narrative rather than just wallpaper.

    Dan Houser of Rockstar said: “We’re talking about a format that is inherently geographical…and you’re talking about a medium, video games, the one thing they do unquestionably better than other mediums is represent geography.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/arts/television/17dead.html?pagewanted=2&ref=arts&adxnnlx=1274040389-CuFVDLWDBDlpDF6qkY2xnA

    I still think games are using geography as wallpaper too much, and games like Stalker, who derive huge power just from its landscape, are still rare. I always felt Oblivion did it well- who cares if the mechanics are broken – you can see to the other side of the river valley!

    Jim, if you are still reading this far – RPS haven’t said much about Fallout 3, presumably due to not being that excited about it, so what are the things that its Wasteland doesn’t do that Stalker’s world does – I mean the Wasteland uses real places too.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      “PC Games are all about terrain,” said Ste Curran. And yes, I keep meaning to return to Fallout 3 with some moddery. The basic game put me off.

  20. durr says:

    Wow, you were on BLDGBLOG? All my favorite blogs unite!

    • Harmen says:

      (@durr) Same here. Quite a few BLDGBLOG+RPS readers it seems.

    • Miked says:

      And here, although BLDGBLOG can before RPS for me. Great article Jim – and your previous ones too!

  21. Bremze says:

    I have to agree, when I was younger, I used to wander around in abandoned agricultural and army buildings built in the soviet times, and the look and feeling is captured perfectly in the Stalker games. Some places seem frighteningly familiar.

  22. Geoff says:

    At one point the cameraman says ‘it must of been a party place’. Certainly looks like a party people wont forget in a hurry! shopping trolleys too.

  23. DaveyJones says:

    I’m still re-playing Pathologic… the Russians get it right every time :)
    Oh, and BLDGBLOG is brilliant.

  24. Frosty says:

    Just watched STALKER.

    It’s not really that related to our STALKER and it’s far too intelligent for me but I enjoyed it none the less. The scenes are beautiful.