The Merits of Being a Stalker

At a friend’s behest, I’ve gone back and checked out the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, which started in 2007, and whose most recent incarnation, Call of Pripyat (pictured), came out in 2010. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is set in a wildly supernatural/science fiction version of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, which, for those who don’t know their history, was the site of the world’s first and worst ever nuclear meltdown back in 1986. The premise is simple yet enjoyable: wander around, carefully rationing food and ammo, fighting other scavengers, mutants, psychics, and stranger things while dodging pockets of radiation, leftover ordinance, and space-time anomalies that have a nasty habit of stripping the flesh from your bones.

It’s not dissimilar to the prestigious Fallout series, in that there’s mutants, an open world to explore, and all the gamma rays you can eat, so the two are often compared. Although Fallout is significantly more popular, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has a cult following that continues well on to this day. Only a few days ago, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s fanbase released what they call the Lost Alpha, a recreation of the overly-ambitious levels and engine scrapped from the first game in 2007, modified with graphics better than the most recent game in the series.

Why are these two games so well received in their own ways? Part of it is the sheer scope and imagination of the worlds; twisted nuclear wastelands filled with ruins and danger, what’s not to like? But these games are hardly the only post-apocalyptic games out there. Mechanically speaking, what makes the games fun? Fun, like funny, is famously hard to pin down, but life as a video game critic would be much, much harder if there weren’t some ways to identify it and how it reaches out to the player.

These games feature huge, open worlds with little linearity or explanation. In Fallout, you could turn a corner and find that a mine made out of a lunchbox, a bottle cap, and about three pounds of gunpowder have taken your legs on a little vacation. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you could wander down a hallway directly into an invisible cloud of acid (with predictable results) or be walking innocently along in the pitch-black night only to find that there’s a crazed mutant doing its best to eat the back of your head. These could be seen as points for criticism; unlike chess, the rules are not concrete, defined, spelled out for you.

Of course, part of the fun of playing something extensive, complex, and volatile is simply learning to navigate this new world. That’s a concept of fun and enjoyment beyond gaming. Learning brings many to the pursuit of trying again, whether for philosophy, dating, sociology, or history. While sitting in class, learning new interpretations of general-education-assigned texts might not always intrigue people. However, learning how to navigate a huge, open world filled with unique players and creatures to deal with is a learning experience that the growth in danger and exploration in role-playing games provides.