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.]