I dread the sound of my Geiger counter. As my character walks slowly through an irradiated garbage dump, its distinctive clicks indicating ionising radiation add to the soundtrack (described by one YouTube comment as “pure desolation in the form of sound”). The clicks are a reminder that I have made a mistake. That I tread without caution. They ensure I keep my character walking, not running, as the Zone, the 60km area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, is littered with invisible anomalies, patches of radiation, and mutated beings—any one of which is strong enough to kill me in an instant.
I hear the whooshing sound of an anomaly. By the time you hear this sound, it is usually too late. But this was not for me—a mutated dog that was silently charging at me from behind got trapped in a Whirligig. It is thrown into the air with enough force to kill it and then spun with enough force to kill it several times.
Anomalies in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R video games often resemble glitches. Like a video game that has been broken by some error in its universe’s code. This is perhaps by design. The Zone is not a natural place, it is meant to be a reality where some aspects have been “broken”. This is what makes it dangerous, but also lucrative, as the glitches result in artefacts with supernatural properties.
The game is set in a world where a second incident happens at the CNPP in 2006, expanding the Chernobyl exclusion zone and adding supernatural effects to the area. Scavengers called “stalkers” explore the Zone to acquire and sell these artefacts, against the wishes of the military that has cordoned off the area to all but scientists.
You would think that the game’s premise was inspired by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Epithets like “Stalker” and “The Zone” and have been used to describe the real-life scavengers and adventurers that explore the nuclear exclusion zone. But both these names predate the incident by many years, almost prophetically.
Prior to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R video games, the previous best-known work to bear this name was the classic 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film, Stalker, itself inspired by Roadside Picnic (1972), by Soviet-Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, among the most popular science fictions novels to ever come out of the former Soviet Union.
Its basis is not a nuclear explosion but an alien “Visitation” that took place several years before the novel is set. In six locations across the earth, aliens appear to have briefly paid a visit. They make no contact, no invasion plan, and disappear with no explanation. But the aftermath of their visits shakes the world, as the artefacts they left behind have supernatural properties, and the places they visit appear permanently altered.
For the aliens, it is implied, their trip to earth was nothing but a picnic. Their “garbage” proves invaluable: Some as sources of infinite energy, others for their physics-defying properties. They all appear beyond the reason of man.
In a dingy bar named the Borscht, a scientist offers his interpretation of the visit.
“A picnic. Imagine a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras … A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about … Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp … and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow.”
Such items may be trash to us, goes the logic, but to a less advanced species, they may be priceless. From a spark plug, one could infer the machinations of an internal combustion engine; from a gasoline puddle, the discovery of combustible fuel, and so on.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s musings on the visit apply what we already know to that which we do not. Humans will seek profit in the most dangerous of places if it will pay the bills. Roadside Picnic follows the steps of a “stalker” named Redrick Schuhart. Stalkers operate in a grey area. As they are familiar with the many dangers and intricacies of the Zone, they are useful as guides for scientists who seek to study the alien’s leftovers, which they call “swag”. As opportunists, they satisfy the global demand for alien artefacts, which begin to transform human society. Though the military does not allow unauthorised entry into the Zone, they do so anyway, often travelling at night. But less than a third of stalkers who enter ever return.
Remember the “Whirligig” anomaly? In roadside picnic, its equivalent is the “Meat Grinder”, thus named because of the effect it has on its victims. This, and a slew of other anomalies makes the Zone particularly hazardous, even without radiation. The Meat Grinder protects the most sought-after artefact in Strugatsky’s Zone, an alien artefact dubbed the golden sphere. It is said that any wish made before it will come true. But the wish comes with a terrible cost.
The wish granter is the climax of the book, film and game. The book’s last words are that of the wish, the film leaves it unsaid, and the game gives you choice of whether to make it at all.
Despite the first game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series, Shadow of Chernobyl having released in 2007, it is played by thousands today (many more if you count the mods built on top of it and its sequels). Not many 14-year-old games have aged this well: Its atmosphere remains unmatched; from the dinghy colours to the throbbing industrial soundtrack, and the surprising realism of its “A-life” artificial intelligence.
You begin at the periphery of the Zone. But the world you are joining is an alive one. There are other stalkers, like you, members of various factions competing for control of and access to the Zone. The Zone is contested by the Ukrainian military (who seek to limit access to it), loners (independent stalkers who just want to loot out a living), bandits, Duty (a militarised group that seeks to protect the world from the Zone’s terrors by killing all mutants), Freedom (another militarised group that wants to let people enter the Zone freely and contests authoritarian efforts to prevent this), Ecologists (scientists who want to study the Zone) and Monolith (a heavily-armed religious cult that worships an artefact at the Centre of the Zone and considers everyone else apostates).
Tarkovsky’s Stalker also had its own take on factions, in the form of the three protagonists: The stalker, the writer and the professor. The philosophical debates between them form the crux of the film’s experience.
Like the film, the game suffered from delays, six years, due to its contrasting design and development goals and perhaps over-ambitious aims. The result was a slightly broken product that may seem opaque to new players. But it turns out, that was a feature, not a bug.
The ambiguousness of the Stalker universe is part and parcel of the experience. The novel leaves many questions unanswered, from the aliens’ motivations to the exact nature of the zone’s artefacts to the transformation it has triggered on the rest of the world. The mystery adds to the atmosphere, be in the the book, videogame or film. A newcomer to the Zone will perhaps hardly understand anything about it, or about the precautions needed for it. Returning to 1979, we see this in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, perhaps the most enigmatic and cryptic of adaptations so far.
Shot in industrial wastelands and swampy landscapes in Estonia, the film took the 1957 Chelyabinsk nuclear accident as inspiration for its setting. Watching it with hindsight, knowing the events at Chernobyl that would follow in just seven years, is chilling.
But without hindsight too, this film captivates, courtesy Tarkovsky’s rich and brooding style of cinema. Its premise is akin to that of the book, albeit a more stripped-down version: A stalker helps a writer and scientist enter into the Zone, sneaking past the military, in order to reach the mythical “wish-granting room” believed to be at the centre.
"Look, what is it? How could it be?" the writer asks the stalker, after witnessing an anomaly.
'I already explained.'
"What did you explain?"
'It's the Zone, don't you understand?'
Book, film and videogame retain one visual mechanic: A stalker with a bag of bolts, throwing them forward and watching where they land. If the bolt is jerked out of the air or redirected by some unseen gravitational anomaly, you can know that the path is unsafe. Tossing these bolts into the vague unknown, the stalker takes step after step. When the game entrusts you guide another NPC into the Zone, you must take the lead, and ensure they make it through safely. The Zone is at once the enemy and the most compelling character of the game.
The film revels in its long shots (averaging a minute each) of desolate and polluted landscapes and abandoned buildings: The Zone is depicted as a post-industrial wasteland. Its cinematography relies on shots so long that one of them may have killed its director and one of the actors: Several scenes were filmed near the effluent from a chemical plant. Years later, both Tarkovsky and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn (who plays the writer) would die of cancers, which sound recordist Vladimir Sharun attributed to the toxic set that they spent hours filming in. The production was painful, with an initial round of filming lost in a fire, the film had to be reshot. With the budget decimated by the the first and prolonged outdoor shoot, the film had to be reimagined. Differences between the director and the first DOP led to another being hired, adding more delay.
The game expects you to find your own path to stay alive. You may find it helpful to rely on tips and tricks taken straight out of the book: Don’t take the straight path to where you’re going (it’s likely a trap), go around it. “It has to be clear for a hundred paces either to your left or to your right,” explains Red in the novel. The movie, too, proves useful. “Here the shortest path isn’t the simplest. The more indirect, the less risk there is,” says the stalker in the film.
The combination of knowledge, mystery, and survivability is what makes stalkers unique: They alone know best how to live through an encounter with the Zone. This is why they are sought after as guides. But they don't always take this task cheerfully.
The Zone is only for those who are hopeless or unhappy, says the stalker. Perhaps this is true even for players of the video game. But for the stalker, it is the only place they find meaning in; the only job they can do to make another person happy. "I bring here people like me, desperate and tormented. People who have nothing else to hope for. And I can help them! No one else can help the, only I the louse, can! I'm so happy to be able to help them that I want to cry. And that's all. I don't want anything more!" the stalker says in an emotional outburst at the climax of the film.
Why does such a depressing place offer such escapism? In YouTube comments on videos of the game, you can see many who play as a means of escapism. An immersive game proves easier to sink into than one that is artificially cheery and thereby un-immersive to the despondent.
It is common in the art, that many of the greatest works remain unfinished. While the Stalker we see may not have been the one Tarkovsky originally envisioned, it retains every aspect of his cinema. Philosophical and soul-searching, the conversations between the stalker, the professor and the writer are given time to linger, as the camera meanders between them and their landscapes. While the film was an expensive one, it obviously lacks CGI or any other special effects (barring a single scene, where a bird appears to fly out of a room twice). The supernatural aspects of the Zone are left implied, but mostly unseen.
If the book makes you question man’s place in the universe, the film examines deeply our place on earth and in our own skin. The video game provides nods to both but leaves it up to you to find your path and your journey.
It is the burden of the video game that it must execute elements of all other forms: Its writing must be readable prose (the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games have few recorded lines and most exposition is to be read, with several paragraphs often on screen at a time), its visuals must be cinematic and captivating, its sound design must be immersive, its artistic merit must leave some impact on the player.
But unlike the book and the film, the video game can be edited. The imperfect can be made “perfect” depending on what your taste is. For hardcore players who want a “rawer” experience, mods like Misery or Anomaly can change the game entirely: Making it more about survival, more unforgiving, and giving players far more freedom to choose their own experience.
The difficulty is sometimes used as a screening tool by an auteur for their audience. “The film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts,” Tarkovsky famously said. Likewise, the opaque mechanics of the most popular S.T.A.L.K.E.R mods help keep casual players out, ensuring a player base willing to put the hours in to get good and play immersively.
In an era where we seldom have the time to read, and digital distractions constantly call out to us to watch videos or play games, the book proves the easiest to pick up and digest. But if you are a fan of multiple mediums, experiencing all three will leave a profound impact, and ensure you get your fill of everything the Zone has to offer.