S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – “A Closed World”

“Open world”, “Sand Box”, “Free Roaming” – all of these expressions have become powerful and common buzz words in the industry ever since “GTA III” (re)created the notion of open ended gameplay for the masses (in truth, the concept had been implemented long before, both in online and offline rpg’s). I am a skeptic of these so called “open worlds”, as I find there’s nothing truly open about them. There’s no freedom in choosing your path in a game-world, if it does not respond in any meaningful way to that choice (in that regard, a branching path RPG is much more “open”). MMORPGS and GTAs (and their clones) are all videogames where actions are of an inconsequential nature, where narrative is broken down into small blocks that have little connection between (generating conflict and lack of consistency), and where the only real choice you have is “to do” or “not to do” and “when” to do it (you can choose to take on a quest and when to do it, but that’s about all the choice you have). There’s as much interactivity there as in a book. What you should be prompted for in these games is “what to do”, and thus allowing the player different forms of expressing themselves in the game area. Unfortunately, the idea of MMORPGS on “what to do” is reduced to a simple-minded “use magic A” or “stealth kill B” to assault a nameless NPC. Talk about choice. This is not to say that open worlds aren’t a type of game that’s full of potential, but to fulfill it requires *consequence* and *choice* to truly be part of the equation.

“S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl” is a rare and bold attempt for a Eastern Europe studio, GSC – Game Publishing, to take on the industry. The game is an adaptation of a classic russian Sci-Fi piece, named “Roadside Picnic”, and, to some extent, of its loose cinema adaptation, “Stalker” (by Andrei Tarkovsky). For a first timer to choose such a complex game structure as an open world seems odd, to say the least, and that choice eventually proves to be its greatest downfall. You’re thrust into this game world with only a dingy FMV cutscene and an even shabbier NPC monologue, something about you being alive when you shouldn’t be, and, who’d have guessed, losing your memory in the process. Talk about first great impressions. The first striking feature of the game is how characters are downright expressionless, move in a mechanical, robotic way, and dialogues appear on screen in large doses of text that cover up NPC faces. This presentation fault, that mars irreversibly the player’s immersion and plot engagement, could be easily dismissed as this being a case of a mostly independent game, but it is in direct contradiction with the visually impressive quality of the game engine. But we’ll get to that.

Introduction finished, and the player is set on an errand quest, the kind of thing you’ve come to expect from the sort of open ended rpg. Though the menus and inventory system (that takes into account space as well as weight) seem consistent with a traditional western rpg, the first person view seems to take the game in a different direction. This is clearly “Oblivion” territory, though with gun in hand. Even when talking to other characters or fulfilling meaningless side-quests, the nature of this expansive setting isn’t made all that clear, and the insane amount of text filler each character will throw at you would make any player wish that such an intriguing world would be fleshed out properly. There’s a hefty amount of back-story, which isn’t striking at all considering the origins of the plot, but it’s just that it is translated in an uninteresting way – poorly written (or translated) text spoken by equally uninteresting and inexpressive characters. Also like in “Oblivion”, there are a number of factions which you can join with during the course of the narrative, though unlike the latest “Elder Scrolls”, this appears to have some sort of effect in the ending. Yet the sense of narrative abcense is overwhelming. That being said, “STALKER’s” greatest quality only makes itself clear, when you start treading your way throughout the world.

Set in the Zone, somewhere in the area that surrounded Chernobyl, “STALKER’s” post-apocalyptic environment is presented as both beautiful and desolate. Wide open areas, stemming with tall, withered trees and bushes, bathed by the cold light of the sun, covered in clouds and fog, providing an eerie background for the action. The ruins of the almighty Soviet Empire span across the terrain, their hymn to post industrial revolution civilization lying in shambles: abandoned factories and warehouses, rust and dust covered, with broken glasses where once stood windows, massive holes where once stood walls, dismantled machinery where once strived the hustle and bustle of mass production. Roads crossing as far as the eye can see, holes and bumps emerging every couple of meters, stripped down cars completing the picture of emptiness and devastation. The weather further enhances these feelings, with gloomy clouds followed by storms of lighting and wind establishing an almost supernatural landscape. And then, there are the anomalies, spaces where the laws of physics are altered, electricity and gravity mixed up in strange ways to an unsettling effect. Last but not least, the deformed animals and hedious mutants that populate the area, who seem straight out of a B-horror movie, and with an appetite for food (that’s you). All of these elements build up to render one of the most oppressive settings ever to grace a videogame, a game world that screams realism and imposes fear, all thanks to its great visual engine and a superb soundtrack, of realistic sound effects and creepy electronic melodies. And the open world dynamics feed on this background, providing an immersive experience like no other. Sadly, the astonishing artistic direction, that at times seems to live of Andrei Tarkovsy’s dark minimalism, only makes the game’s narrative devices seem more archaic and anti-climatic in exploring this intriguing world.

The actual gameplay doesn’t help either, as FPS just doesn’t translate well into rpg trappings. The hectic and tactical nature of action sets and the unrelenting, realistic weapon physics seem derived out of “Counter Strike”, but “STALKER” isn’t exactly LAN-party territory, with its small rounds of frantic fire and action pwnage – everything just seems out of place in a game that revolves around long periods of exploration. That the game is unrelenting and tough as nails just doesn’t help, even if at times, the survivalistic nature of the gameplay helps the environment feel appropriately dangerous.

The beautiful, expansive environments and the thought provoking sci-fi story background, could’ve easily help create one of the greatest open-world games to date. Unfortunately, some of the company’s poor design choices, like opting for a tactical combat system and relinquishing narrative to a second plane, end up hurting the experience in a really bad way. And these seem like key elements in providing a living breeding world, as narrative provides the background needed for the player to sink in and properly understand the game world, and gameplay provides the space of interaction in which he can create a connection with, and in the process fully immerse in the virtual landscape. As is, “STALKER” is a failed attempt of a potentially powerful concept, an “open world” that at first glance seems wide and full of possibilities, but is in fact, limited and hollow, a “closed world” like so many others out there.

[Once in a while I will do “Impression” articles, a sort of inconclusive review regarding games I didn’t bother finishing. Because of that, no grade will be attributed to these games.]

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    • Jonathan Bailleul
    • September 16th, 2008

    It is true that stalker has many drawbacks, bugs, and frustrating features.
    Anyway, this remains a major game in the PC history. Other shooters appear poor and stupid in comparison.

    Far Cry and Crysis, two striding outsiders in the FPS genre, are the only shooters offering some space and different angles of attack. Stalker brings almost as much freedom as a classic RPG: no other shooter can provide that, and the closest RPG (Oblivion) appear very poor and extremely frustrating in comparison.

    True, Stakler missed a lot of promises, especially since he could pretend to be a perfect shooter and perfect everything. Anyway, every time you look how concurrent games adressed similar features, you find out that Stalker digs them. Deep. Even Half-Life 2 became boring and corridor-shooting…

    [Mildy edited due to Word press parser problems.]

    • ruicraveirinha
    • September 16th, 2008

    I can see where you’re going at, but I just can’t agree.
    As I said in the post, “Freedom” is a matter of choice as well as consequence, and though STALKER allows simple choices, like “how to kill enemy X” or “choose to do quest Y”, I find this amount of choice skin deep and very poor in terms of interactivity.

    And yes, STALKER provides space in its expansive environment, but even there it is severely limited by loading screens and mysterious blocking fences. In that regard, as well as in terms of the array of possible actions, Oblivion provides a much more “open” virtual world. Just think about what you can actually do in STALKER… Kill. You can choose a weapon (from a very limited set) and that’s it. At least Oblivion allows an array of skills, item creation and magic use that slightly empowers your expression in the gameworld, even if at the end of the day, there’s not much you can actually do.

    Far Cry and Crysis, in my opinion, are even worse, as they also provide zero possibilities to the player. Sure, in all these games you can attack your enemies in different ways, but the way I see videogames, is as providing meaningful interactive choices. With meaningful I mean choices that impact the way the gameworld reacts to you and also the way in which that changes your interpretation of the game’s concepts, meanings and narratives. You’ll find nothing of the sort in any of these games. So that is why I view them as “closed” worlds. Sure, they feel big and open, but in fact, they’re just a big arena for the same tiresome mechanics that “Wolfenstein 3D” inaugurated. The rest is pretty visuals and videogame production rhetoric.

    I love a lot of things about Oblivion and STALKER, and to some extent, in Far Cry, but sadly, none of it has to do with its “open worldness”. So, looking at the perfectly designed corridors of “Half Life 2”, that gently lead you through the game world, hinting at powerful information as the designers see fit, providing bits of condensed and varied gameplay, as your senses are ensnared by the audio visual marvel, I can only say how far “open worlds” are from true interactive awe. It’s a shame…

    Thanks for the comment.

    • Jonathan Bailleul
    • September 16th, 2008

    Anyway, my point of view is quite different. I consider STALKER like an extremely good FPS with intense action, precise aiming, very good realistic weapons, and consistent handling of weapons weight, ammo, space (etc). It is a nervous game, tactical, accurate. Credible, though easy to handle.

    I’m judging it from games like Doom 3, Quake(s), Counter Strike, Urban Terror, Battlefield(s), Armed Assault, Red Orchestra, and I think it really brings something to the genre. This is a rather hardcore FPS plus exploration in an open environment (regarding other FPSs) and a lot of choice in the ennemies to shoot or avoid, factions to fight or rally, places to explore or ignore…

    The “corridor shooting” paradigm lasted for about 15 years and was just broken thanks to a fistfull of FPSs. Nevertheless, even in Crysis, it is hard to avoid an ennemy camp (* or it makes no sense since there is nothing else to do, like urgent quests to complete or stuff to sell), and almost impossible not to kill everybody in a given place.

    There are many many weapons in STALKER, especially considering other FPSs.
    Look here: http://stalker.wikia.com/wiki/Weapons. And it does not list the different ammunitions for each weapon.
    Each weapon has its purpose and its cost: money value, weight of the weapon and of the ammo.

    So yes, Oblivion and Baldur’s Gate propose more weapons and equipment thanks to different classes and involvment of magic, but I don’t think it makes sense in a FPS.

    True, the zoning in stalker is frustrating and somewhat regressive (fences, checkpoints). Anyway, the gameplay spans though several zones for each quest (gaming unit). This looks like an implementation problem rather than a gameplay problem. And please note that zones are quite big and open.

    Oblivion has a marvellous continuous implementation, but the fighting system is absolutely ridiculous. Compared to Baldur’s Gate (another RPG), it really makes me cry. Note that Baldur remains very fun even though the zoning is “hard” (closed small zones). Oblivion is completely open, but it lacks interest besides farming. Once you can slash a Daedric in two with a blow of your custom sword, what can you do?

    (please note I’m not very familiar with oblivion, but very familiar with morrowind, and totally hardcore with any Infinity Engine game and their RPG implementation providing unlimited and unmatched fun & deep tactics).

    BTW, I also appreciate to behold fantastic designs & models such as the ones in Bioshock or HL2, but I think this is a separate problem as far as it does not interfere with gameplay.

    • Jonathan Bailleul
    • September 16th, 2008

    (a second reading gave me another opinion)

    Anyway, I totally agree with your “closed world” opinion for Stalker and the other quoted games. What was added in stalker seems a big stride from the “academic” FPS point of view (and from my personal point too), but interactivity remains very low.

    I never managed to find a game that could react like a living organism, providing an immersive world with some degree of freedom, and modifying itself and its interactions in consideration to the player’s acts. Baldur’s Gate seemed to provide something close thanks to tons of text, side-quests and heavy scripting, but Bioware then refused to produce such games any longer…

  1. (sorry for posting a year late to the party, I just love your blog and want someone to read my thoughts on this game without the greasy filter of immaturity that comes with traditional game sites)
    Though I agree with a good portion of these impressions, I find myself at odds with your negative comments about the gameplay.
    First off, I’m going to go ahead and admit that I played this game with the proper mods- Oblivion Lost does so much to polish this game to a level that the developer didn’t have time to reach, and one that publisher THQ simply did not allot them time for. I find it proudly ironic that the fans ended up completing GSC Gameworld’s game for them, after this studio had gone through such a famously lengthy development hell.
    http://stalker.filefront.com/file/;93039
    The bugs and technical issues that have stunted the game since launch have mostly been ironed out by now, and the “anti-climatic” feel of this world has been soothed with the edition of massive amounts of new content- in particular, the impressively hellish “blowout” irradiated thunderstorm that occurs every 3 in-game days or so. Now, the fields are alive with packs of mutated animals that hunt, migrate, and react in large groups, just like how the patrols of soldiers and bandits are always moving about to guard or capture strategic assets. Nights are now pitch-black and provide a high margin for horror- assuming that you let the darkness catch you alone in the wilderness and you are being hunted by the zone’s more nocturnal predators. An endurance system has been introduced that sees you needing to pack food and manage weight just to stay alive. Everything has been re-balanced to focus more on “immersifying” up the RPG elements, and the result is a game that cleverly ends up featuring survivalist goals that could only be done in a FPS/RPG hybrid.
    You say that “FPS just doesn’t translate well into rpg trappings,” but I, for one, find games that marry these two genres to be simply beautiful, and it constantly frustrates me that developers don’t try this type of game more often. All the classic cornerstones of the FPSRPG sub-genre are my very favorite games of their respective generation- earlier they were Deus Ex and System Shock 2, now they are STALKER and Fallout 3.
    The beauty in the FPSRPG hybrid lies in how easily a developer can accomplish both immersion and complexity within this model. STALKER can let you explore and flesh-out its world with the NPCs, inventory systems, quests, and pages of dialogue of an RPG, but it also fleshes out its inhabitants and gameplay with the highly-tactical, difficult FPS combat system, one that impressively compliments the zone’s oppressive visual aesthetic (a point that you rightly applauded.) It also doesn’t hurt that the open-world and unscripted nature of the game more often than not leads to unpredictable combat encounters.
    And yet because STALKER is so dreadfully difficult and “hardcore tactical,” I consider it one of the finest FPS experiences of all time (after applying the mod, that is.) The oppressiveness of its world and aesthetics are necessary to justify the nervous, tactical style of shooting.
    It’s a highly-enjoyable mix between camping and counter-strike. It’s a game where the player will periodically need to manage a sparse backpack full of just enough ammo, food, and medicine, yet still leave space for a massive sleeping bag and the treasure you hope to return with. A game where neglecting to study the behavior of the zone’s animals, or trying to approach an unaligned group of stalkers, will result in a lightning-fast flash of death.You will find yourself choosing to sleep through the nights to avoid the pitch-black darkness, and hastily sprinting away from large packs of randomly-spawned enemies simply too overwhelming to ever win against.
    It’s blisteringly difficult and highly detail-oriented. A game for video game connoisseurs, not consumers, where a high understanding of its world and its mechanics are required to play. And it’s for that reason that I love it so much.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 15th, 2009

    Thanks for the comment. I love to hear from someone that enjoys my blog, even when they don’t necessarily agree with me (alas, such a rare trait these days, most people just seem to like hearing their opinions reflected by journalists).

    I’d be lying if your comment didn’t make me question playing the game again. What you described is, for the most part, what I’d hoped “STALKER” should be, when it first came out. However, I’m still reticent. No matter how much polish has been made, there will still be a very dreary narrative for me to endure, and for me, big games like “STALKER” need to live on more than just the experience, because it is sure to get repetitive at some point.

    I do disagree with some of your statements, and I’ll do my best to explain why.

    “FPS just doesn’t translate well into rpg trappings,” My phrase had a context, and I fear you misinterpreted what I meant. I wasn’t referring to games like “Deus Ex” or “System Shock”, which despite borrowing the subjective view point from FPS’s, and even some of their tropes, never really behave like a FPS. They’re slow paced, methodical, strategic, and your success is usually dictated by your choices in terms of character progress instead of your skills in battle. The firs person camera allows for the immersion you refer, but the actual game has little to do with the dynamic of a FPS.

    “STALKER” on the other hand, really borrows FPS mechanics. It’s combat is very similar to that of “Counter Strike”. And I just don’t think that works in an RPG. RPG’s are long and repetitive, engaging in a fierce, prolonged gunfight every two minutes seems like overkill to me. However, I did enjoy the “survivalist” nature of the game, and how it blended well with the shooting and difficulty. But, once again, I don’t think it would hold up from more than a ten hour period.

    Bottom line is, there is a lot of potential in “STALKER” – it’s the sort of game I could really imagine myself loving -, but I fear that it was impossible for such a small team to have been able to pull it off, especially considering its open-worldness. The game needed to be more constrained, carefully directed and paced, probably in a different format, smaller and more detailed… and definitely with improved narrative and wrtiing.

    Still, you’ve spiked my interest. Perhaps it is a game may return to in the near future.
    Thanks. Cheers!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 15th, 2009

    Thanks for the comment. I love to hear from someone that enjoys my blog, even when they don’t necessarily agree with me (alas, such a rare trait these days, most people just seem to like hearing their opinions reflected by journalists).

    I’d be lying if your comment didn’t make me question playing the game again. What you described is, for the most part, what I’d hoped “STALKER” should be, when it first came out. However, I’m still reticent. No matter how much polish has been made, there will still be a very dreary narrative for me to endure, and for me, big games like “STALKER” need to live on more than just the experience, because it is sure to get repetitive at some point.

    I do disagree with some of your statements, and I’ll do my best to explain why.

    “FPS just doesn’t translate well into rpg trappings,” My phrase had a context, and I fear you misinterpreted what I meant. I wasn’t referring to games like “Deus Ex” or “System Shock”, which despite borrowing the subjective view point from FPS’s, and even some of their tropes, never really behave like a FPS. They’re slow paced, methodical, strategic, and your success is usually dictated by your choices in terms of character progress instead of your skills in battle. The first person camera allows for the immersion you refer, but the actual game has little to do with the dynamic of a FPS.

    “STALKER” on the other hand, really borrows FPS mechanics. It’s combat is very similar to that of “Counter Strike”. And I just don’t think that works in an RPG. RPG’s are long and repetitive, engaging in a fierce, prolonged gunfight every two minutes seems like overkill to me. However, I did enjoy the “survivalist” nature of the game, and how it blended well with the shooting and difficulty. But, once again, I don’t think it would hold up from more than a ten hour period.

    Bottom line is, there is a lot of potential in “STALKER” – it’s the sort of game I could really imagine myself loving -, but I fear that it was impossible for such a small team to have been able to pull it off, especially considering its open-worldness. The game needed to be more constrained, carefully directed and paced, probably in a different format, smaller and more detailed… and definitely with improved narrative and writing.

    Still, you’ve spiked my interest. Perhaps it is a game may return to in the near future.
    Thanks. Cheers!

  2. The latest installment, Call of Pripyat, changes all the things that you mentioned as negatives. Some of the side quests change the standings that specific characters have towards the player. Spatially the maps in Call of Pripyat are massive and some of the level design focuses on telling some background stories. Like having a corpse on the floor and showing signs of how the person died and why.

    The fantasy elements of the story are emphasized more, the one thing I didn’t like about it is that the visuals look dodgy in Call of Pripyat (probably due to all the environment artists that left GSC to work on Metro 2033).

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