Near the road, listening to campfire blues. Someone’s guitar gently weeps as fellow wanderers shut their eyes. Irradiated monsters await nearby yet nothing matters now but this safe space of camaraderie. The poetry of this moment is how missable it is. Players are not asked to contemplate it. There is no dialogue and no cinematic; it does not end a sidequest or activate one. Just slouching men resting to music. Tomorrow will see them again on some Ukrainian wasteland, searching for valuable artifacts sometimes guarded by unspeakable fiends. Another day in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Open world games tend to have pacing problems, partly because players are the ones who set the rhythm. There is usually a central plot thread crisscrossed by dozens of optional tasks. It can often happen that the latter are a distraction while the former is boring. But what if an open-world game had both excellent additional content – missions worth completing, quests worth undertaking – and an intriguing story that led players through a path of increasing complexity and tension? And what if, despite a plethora of options, the gameplay were consistently fun, intense, and gratifying, without lulls?
That game exists. 12 years ago, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World released what remains one of the moodiest, most frightening and distressing videogames ever made, a reimagining of Roadside Picnic, the celebrated science fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers that inspired the similarly beloved 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker. The European studio took elements from their predecessors – the geopolitical and economic aspects of one, the mystical and existential dread of the other – and spun their own brilliant version.
Book and film were released prior to the Chernobyl disaster, but have henceforth been linked with it. In Roadside Picnic, extraterrestrials briefly touch down on our planet before continuing their journey elsewhere, leaving their trash behind. These alien objects are basically magical to human beings, so they’re sought after by both military and black market dealers. Which is where the “stalkers” come in, sneaking into the fenced-off landing sites, or “zones,” in search of fantastic loot. Tarkovsky trimmed most of these specifics and retained only the idea of zones – where supernatural incidents may or may not be happening – and of the stalkers who infiltrate them, no longer for loot so much as contact with the transcendent and sublime. After the nuclear plant near Pripyat broke down in 1986, sending radioactive material all the way to Italy and Moldova, the subsequent Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was inevitably associated with the aforementioned.
GSC Game World amalgamated these sources, from page, screen, and history, and mixed them up with first-person conventions and open world mechanics. Players control The Marked One, a wounded stalker who wakes up right outside the Zone. Like dozens of videogame protagonists before him, he’s lost his memory. But he has two clues to his identity: a tattoo on his arm and a helpful note on his PDA: “Kill Strelok.” As players uncover his past – and inevitably advance towards Pripyat and Chernobyl – they also discover what’s befallen the neighborhood. As it happens, a second meltdown left behind a landscape of radioactive patches; deadly anomalies; strange artifacts that sometimes come packaged with inexplicable perks, like increased endurance; mutated animals; zombified former stalkers; and what can only be described as hellspawn.
Linear progression, from the outskirts of the Zone to the infamous plant, is married to typical open-world nuts and bolts. There are factions in territorial disputes, which players can ignore or get involved in; random people who ask random favors, some of them exceedingly dangerous, the sort they should never expect a stranger to accept; and those awkward notes only people in videogames seem to leave behind, with precise indications to treasures and weapons.
Players can effortlessly juggle main and side quests, and all of them are compelling because of one simple reason: not the plot, not the dialogue, not the lore, but the environment. No matter where players go and why – to track a lost family rifle, find a hidden stash, meet someone – the whole adventure of getting there is rife with dangers and memorable encounters.
Early on, some players may be tempted to run across the fields, face reddened by the afternoon sun. But such bucolic saunters are promptly interrupted by the million and one things out there in the Zone. Step over a hill and you may inadvertently stumble into a radiated anomaly, everything around you quivering like a mirage as you’re jostled left, right, and away from your computer in righteous indignation. Stand under a tree and a pack of ravenous dog-things may decide to play fetch with your legs. Crash an abandoned house and you may discover it’s occupied by gun-happy bandits. Get distracted and your head may be blown off by snipers so far away they might as well be camping in a different videogame.
Shadow of Chernobyl is savage. It’s up there with some of the classics of anxiety: System Shock 2, Alien: Isolation, etc. They don’t trade in jump scares. Opponents are too deadly, too smart. They don’t need the element of surprise, though they nevertheless often possess it. Players can sneak or engage, but neither is easy. Gunfights can be chaotic and messy – especially when faced with growling, cloaking, hunched, bloodsucking mutants. And they’re just the entrée in this infernal banquet.
Patience tends to be the best tactic. Approach every corner like you would a gate into your worst nightmare. Don headphones and listen for the clicking of your Geiger counter. Recognize danger areas and bypass them. Clothe yourself in midnight darkness. Love open spaces, fear ruined cities and manufacturing plants, and treat underground laboratories like battles for your soul.
Like Dark Souls, Shadow of Chernobyl can be hostile, unfriendly, and off-putting. The most innocent stroll can quickly devolve into a breathless struggle against radiation poisoning, human aggression, and posthuman otherness. Players come to cherish infrequent resting spots and watering holes, like the 100 Rads bar, where they can relax, nod to the mellow instrumental beats of “Gurza Dreaming,” drink to dearly departed stalkers, and chat with patrons or the barman. Then it’s back outside, to deteriorating industrial territories crawling with monsters or swamplands infested by the undead.
For the unacquainted, the appeal of such a grueling, stressful experience can be difficult to understand. But veterans get it. Videogames that offer such a continuous all-embracing challenge are teeming with life, despite or maybe because of the constant proximity of virtual death. Each square mile is a self-contained epic. There are no dull stretches of nothing between waypoints or mission locations. Each surface can either hide horrors or shield you from them. To put it fancifully: the entire digital world is activated, burning with interactive possibilities, like a heat map on fire, everything the red of potential or ongoing activities. Such videogames demand absolute, unyielding attention, and can be exhausting. But in retrospect, players might realize that, while scouring Ukrainian wreckage, they were more aware, more awake, more in-the-moment than in other, less demanding titles. And that feeling is worth more than the price of admission – and of lost sleep.