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.
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.
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.