I’m replaying STALKER, and I can’t seem to get STALKER out of my head. It’s not unmerited; I honestly think that STALKER offers one of the most consistently unique experiences in games even today. To me the mark of a truly great game is one that just sticks in your head for days, weeks, even years after you play it, and coming back to Shadow of Chernobyl. I can’t get the images, the mood, the way it plays out of my head. STALKER is a game that raises my expectation for games of its ilk. With Shadow of Chernobyl so fresh on my mind again, I often find myself thinking about the new Fallout games, more specifically, everything they failed to do. Unlike Fallout, STALKER fully embraces the 2 major genres it culls from; it has the freedom of an open-world RPG, but the design philosophy of a proper shooter, the fusion results in an incredibly hostile world. While in The Zone, you can never afford to feel relaxed, there’s always something out there that can threaten your life, be it another man, mutant or one of the game’s many strange anomalies. There’s also the matter of tone, it’s unfailingly pessimistic, often beautiful in a macabre way, but the decay serves as a reminder of the failure of Chernobyl, for all its wonder and gunplay, STALKER is a game tinged with meaning, the palpable feeling of Eastern pessimism and cold war paranoia linger over the game’s setting. The cruel reminders of the failings of the USSR preserved by radioactivity and hostile oddity, while the rest of the world moves forward, Chernobyl stands still in time, a slowly decaying graveyard of ideals.
It’s also quite a cryptic game, its story is muddled, held in secret, the game rarely plays its hand, instead patiently withholding the secrets of The Zone to only those who wish to seek out all the oddity and terror the world offers. And there are many secrets. The game’s richness really comes in how much care is present in the game’s world, there’s rarely wasted space, to call back to the modern Fallout comparison, that game contains just as many, if not more secrets, but also a considerable amount more of wasted space, expanses of dreary wasteland that serve no purpose other than to buffer out the distance between places and to hold the random enemy spawns. Comparatively, STALKER feels positively robust, dense in its world design, the fields offering a merciful distance and cover from the military and bandit, giving much needed angles of attack where the player can carefully move through the world. And then there are the anomalies which offer obstacle and wonder in equal measures. But perhaps most importantly, the landscape of STALKER is filled with decaying buildings, factories, tower arrays, underground labs, structures which serve no purpose other than to invite one to delve into their dark interiors, seeking the secrets of Chernobyl and scarce treasures, but at risk of life and limb.
And holding all its dark ideas together is the fact that there’s also the game itself, STALKER is a dunk into ice water for the un-initiated. The game hits an excellent mixture – that rare sweet spot between fragility and power – The player likely can’t survive a firefight against well-equipped enemies without thinking out how to combat them first. Unlike so many modern shooters, which refuse to punish stupidity with death, STALKER will kill the player for making poor decisions, to succeed, the player has to learn, observe and think out a fight, often while under fire. It’s this kind of design, coupled with immensely satisfying ballistics that makes even a simple firefight a moment of great tension, with the reward of a plan coming together made sweeter by the fact that a poorly thought out plan would simply lead the player to their demise. This kind of thoughtful game design takes a deeply atmospheric environment, and makes it one of the most genuinely unnerving experiences in gaming. You get better equipment, more radiation resistant, bullet-proof armor, but the player is still only human, and can only take so much exposure, so much bleeding. You never quite drop the feeling that something could go horribly wrong if one fails to be observant and mindful of the situation at hand. And it deserves a far better status than the one it’s been granted. STALKER is a brilliant series, a wonderfully unique series of games that manages to provide highly rewarding game design and intelligent use of atmosphere and storytelling to provide an experience that can’t quite be shaken from memory.