With the news that iconoclastic Ukrainian developer GSC Gameworld has closed its doors, putting the future of the Stalker series in jeopardy, thoughts turned to the games they had made, and the hopes we'd held for a sequel. There are a few reasons why the Stalker series is so important in the greater scheme of gaming, and as of 2011 those reasons seem more pressing than ever.
I've written extensively about Stalker. I've discussed its use of the Chernobyl exclusion zone as an architectural theme, and I've talked about how it has taken elements of a distinctly post-Soviet fiction, that of the zone of Roadside Picnic, to create a world that sits apart from the Americanised homogeneity that exists across the spectrum of gaming.
There's something far more important about S.T.A.L.K.E.R., however, and that's the kind of game it was trying to be - a singularity that is both alien to and coexistent with the tradition of Western shooters. It took everything it could from Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal, but the alloy it forged with them was shot through with other elements: Eastern pessimism, RPGish sentiment. Crucially, it is open and non-linear, like an RPG. It is also quest-based, rather than objective-orientated, which means you are not necessarily rushing to the next waypoint, or following the nearby NPC, but instead deciding if you should wander into a side-quest, or make an exploratory digression. It is a shooter paced and spaced like an RPG, leading to an experience that feels wide-open by comparison with other shooters, while at the same time having brutal and violent FPS combat mechanics. There's never any doubt that this is a game about guns, but the consequence of how it deals with everything else makes the experience unique.
It is also terrifying. Few games have managed to convey such a sense of threat in enemies or environments. The shooters that overtly reach for horror - I'm looking at you, FEAR games - come off looking trite next to Stalker's claustrophobic, howling terrors.
GSC's key success in making all this work, I believe, was in the execution of their "A-Life" concept, which was to have a great deal of randomised activity taking place in the world, whether or not you chose to interact with it. Packs of blind dog hunted, Stalkers wandered lonely paths, bandits lay in wait for travellers - travellers who may or may not come along that road. That's not to say it had great AI, but rather that the illusion of a world it created was so potent.
The crucial observation about Stalker made by myself and others, is that Stalker's Zone is a world that feels as if it is going on without you (even when, in reality, you are at the calculated centre of it all). A battle taking place in its bleak valleys is just as likely to not involve you at all, and be between antagonistic factions, or Stalkers and hapless mutants, as it is to have you go in all-guns-blazing. Watch, intervene, or move on - that choice is yours, and it makes that choice feel so much more real than the half-choices foisted on us by the scripted tales of every other shooter you might care to mention. So many games get this stuff wrong. They place the player at the centre of everything, and consequently lose any sense of reality or gravity for their game world. We become aware that this is all theatre, a pop-gun gallery staged purely for us to knock back down again. Stalker, meanwhile, rumbles on without us. Mutants short and groan in the night, bizarre factions struggle for control, and weird artifacts shimmer into existence in hidden spaces.
All this in a world choking on its own atmosphere, and here was a game that meant something. Back in 2007 I interviewed the Stalker series' creative lead, Anton Bolshakov, and he said this about the game he had made:
"The accident in Chernobyl of 1986 is one of the black pages in the history of Ukraine ... As time passes, people start forgetting about the accident and the related problems which Ukraine has to cope with, now virtually independently....The motif behind S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was to create a game which would remind people of the Chernobyl accident and at the same time warn mankind against any possible fatal mistakes in the future."
That's a remarkably bold statement to make about a videogame, and it's one that I often think about when I write about the original Stalker game and its quasi-sequels. The message for the games industry is clear: you don't have to have pretensions to art - because here is a game that could not be more unpretentious in an artistic sense - for your game to have a serious message. Even the manshooter can be about something, without having to carefully distance itself with irony or hyperbolic absurdity. But, more importantly, Stalker is an example to designers that there is also scope to do shooters differently on a mechanical level. They do not have to be linear rollercoasters, nor multiplayer menageries. They can be slow. They can involve wandering. Even contemplation.
Few videogames, it seems, have been able to learn the lessons of Stalker. We might never actually see its progeny. Like EVE in the world of MMOs, it might remain an outlier experience, essentially unrepeatable in the future history of games. No matter how much other games might try, they land far from the careful blend of freedom and tight combat that Stalker delivers. The Fallout games seem like a bizarre pantomime by comparison. Even more promisingly action-angled games such as Borderlands have struggled to make the notion of "open world" really work in the player's favour, ending up with something more like a loot-gobbling Diablo variant than a thrilling immersion in an alien environment. The third iteration of Stalker, meanwhile, was even more open, even weirder, even more sinister. And, like a rare material from a far away resource, it remains incredibly valuable to the gamers who have discovered it.
Get out of here, Stalker. But don't ever think we'll forget what you did for us.