You approach the camp at night, alone. It is dark, but you do not want them to know where you are—so your flashlight remains in your bag. You can barely make out the enemies’ positions, your only referent being the lights cast from beneath the barrels of their guns. You move to the side of the place, some remnant of a village—four houses, stone, broken, and a campfire reaching up through the shattered roof of the northwestern-most building.
You find a hole in a nearby wall and lean to your right, giving your weapon the room it needs to breathe. Your geiger counter clicks, cutting through the night, and a nearby bandit quickly turns his flashlight in your direction. You squeeze the trigger. Violence happens. The man’s flashlight breaks, and soon the night is only lit by a dying campfire and the quick flashes of muzzle flare. It is a long night, STALKER—by its end, four men are dead. And you hear the blind dogs howl, perpetually hungry, a few miles away. You search the bodies. One of the men carries identification.
His name was Sanek Hedgehog.
This story is probably the clearest pitch I can give you for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. The series, like many cult classics from the early- and mid-2000s, defies easy descriptions. It’s a series of first-person shooters, loosely based off of the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film, Stalker, and the book upon which that same movie is based, Roadside Picnic. Both properties feature significantly less gunfire than their video game adaptations, but that’s not really the heart of what connects these works. Stalker-related pieces of art aren’t about plot or action—they’re about ~vibes~. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games have vibes in spades, which is why I am so excited about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, the sequel which was recently delayed to December 2022.
Stalker (the film) takes place in an unnamed region of a Soviet state and follows the journey of three men into a strange area called “The Zone.” The Zone is filled with strange anomalies, danger, and a place called “The Room,” which is said to grant the truest desires of anyone who enters it. People who venture into the Zone are called Stalkers, and carry a strange connection to the place. Like most of Tarkovsky’s films, Stalker is less interested in a traditional narrative than it is extremely expressive visual poetry. It is a movie with multi-minute-long shots, with the average shot coming in at around 60 seconds. For reference, the most recent Avengers film had an average shot length of about three seconds. It’s an extremely slow, meditative film that works almost exclusively in visual metaphor. It is, if you couldn’t tell by now, easily one of my favorite films of all time.
You may be wondering how a film that is best described as “visual poetry” inspired a first-person shooter series—which is a good question until you actually see the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games in motion. The video game series takes place in the area surrounding Chernobyl, where radiation from the (real-life) 1986 nuclear disaster has totally reshaped the local ecosystem and landscape. Most trees are barren, all animals are mutated, and strange anomalies mark the terrain—pulsing with impossible gravity, lighting perpetual fires, and releasing furious arcs of lightning. It’s an incredibly odd, hostile place, which is also unmistakably beautiful.
The landscape is sparse, and the beauty produced by distance. The space between the trees is just right, the occasional flashes of an anomaly just startling enough to recast the environment as alien and hostile. A pack of blind dogs play with each other, violently, about half a mile away. You quiet your movements, so they ignore you. On the opposite side of the road, which you walk alongside (to dull your footsteps), there is a corroding tractor. Perhaps there was a field here once, years ago.
The games, like the film, are a meditative experience in which odd beauty is punctuated by overwhelming still and quiet. Time moves slower in the Zone. This quiet beauty is interspersed with bouts of messy violence. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s guns are unreliable, easily broken. A handful of shots, inaccurate from the rifle’s wear, will leave both you or your enemies dead on the floor. If you don’t practice smart tactical positioning, fights against large groups will all but guarantee your death. You need to isolate enemies with clever sight lines, and hope your weapon won’t jam. If it’s an early-game SMG, it almost inevitably will.
When it does, you will scramble to scavenge a new—hopefully more reliable—firearm off the ground. It will fail you too, eventually, but not before this fight ends. And it does end, when you place a few rounds in the back of a man who is laying suppressing fire down at your last known position (the enemy A.I. is still among the best in a first-person shooter). You will then scavenge the bodies, hoping to recoup your lost ammunition and perhaps find something valuable.
The Zone is extremely dangerous, and at least at first, resources are scarce. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games demand your constant attention, as you look for your next meal. PDAs are scattered across the bodies you leave in your wake, some of which will point you toward useful but sometimes dangerous supply caches. If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon a military-grade assault rifle, one that’ll last you longer than a few firefights. If you’re unlucky, you’ll come across a nightmarish mutant which might unleash a psychic assault on you—leaving you reeling in the dirt, clutching your head.
The importance of objects, space, and sparse beauty to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are a big part of why fans reacted so aggressively to the introduction (and subsequent backpedaling) of NFTs to the upcoming S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. The games, like the film and book before them, are interested in the objects that fill our lives—from the assorted trinkets floating in Tarkovsky’s famous river scene, to the bottles of alcohol, cans of meat, and personal trinkets which fill the pockets of the bandits who hunt you through the ruins of Chernobyl. They are delicately crafted and personal worlds, and weird consumerist bullshit has no place there—except for as an object of derision.
The original film is a critique of socialist realism, a school of film that rarely amounts to more than propaganda (there’s a great Maggie Mae Fish video about this exact topic if it’s interesting to you). It believed in the values and rules of the Soviet regime as natural facts, inherent to the world. Stalker resisted this narrative by demanding that its audience actually feel something for once, and recognize that love and their human desires were the core of their being.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games feel similarly suspicious of the dog-eat-dog reality of post-Soviet capitalism and the scavenging it encourages. People enter the Zone, foolishly, hoping to find trinkets and wonders to sell to the highest bidder. Eventually, the logistics of the hunt consume them. They give up on the sale altogether. Their lives fall into the rhythms of violence and overwhelming emotion. It’s no wonder that the sale of NFTs pissed fans of the series off so much. It is antithetical to the games’ belief in human feelings and messy desires.
In spite of this misstep, I remain extremely excited for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, because it will be nothing if not interesting to see the series translated into modern game design, even if it ends up not being very good. For those of you who enjoyed this pitch on the series, I cannot recommend returning to the earlier games in the series enough—they’re tremendous and very cheap for how excellent they are. Also, you will have a wealth of excellent mods to dig into once you become familiar enough with their brutal world.
Good luck, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s.