It’s a run­ning joke amongst my friends that my favourite game genre is “Ukrainian Misery Simulator” due to my love of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro video game series pro­duced there. I want to share some­thing I feel is vital about the games, some­thing that gives them a great deal of their appeal –- the fact it is immersed in the nation and cul­ture of those who cre­ated it. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in par­tic­u­lar is a pro­duct of peo­ple who grew up in the fig­u­ra­tive shadow of Chernobyl; a group of peo­ple who aren’t sim­ply using it as a ref­er­ence point but have an inti­mate knowl­edge and ground­ing in the cul­ture and his­tory of the set­ting they are using for their game. A lot of games have used Chernobyl for the “cool fac­tor” and there’s noth­ing really wrong with ref­er­enc­ing it, but shouldn’t we be cel­e­brat­ing games that really illu­mi­nate a place we sel­dom see from the point of view of those who live right next to it?

stalker side 1First a lit­tle back­ground: Between 2007 and 2009, the now defunct GSC Gameworld pro­duced the main game : S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl  and two stand-alone expan­sions; S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky — a pre­quel — and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat. They are set in a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of the Chernobyl Exclusion zone, but never the less depict real loca­tions within them with almost obses­sive detail. The games have sold mil­lions of copies world­wide, many of those in Europe, and have devel­oped a cult fol­low­ing to say the least. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are uncom­pro­mis­ing, rough around the edges and noto­ri­ous for their dif­fi­culty and glitches (although many bun­gled mod­ern AAA releases seem to sur­pass them on bug counts and launch issues to be hon­est.) They have a unique blend of RPG-like pro­gres­sion through equip­ment, weapons and arte­facts and a keen focus on semi-realistic weapon han­dling. These games play like noth­ing else.

There is a lot of talk on the “pro­gres­sion of games as a medium” topic, but from where I’m sit­ting, the pro­gress many are clam­our­ing for has already been hap­pen­ing and has largely been ignored. For such a unique game to come out of a genre seen as “stag­nant’ in the last decade should be a cause for cel­e­bra­tion, although I con­test that many who scoff at the First Person Shooter land­scape are sim­ply ignor­ing and miss­ing all of the inter­est­ing series like the Metro and the ARMA and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also reflects the gam­ing habits of the Ukraine; I’ve seen esti­mates that say a con­sole game at full retail price can cost more than a stu­dent would earn in a month due to some pretty insane local pric­ing poli­cies and local­iza­tion issues in the area. This is why PC games are so much more pop­u­lar in Eastern Europe — rel­a­tively their price is much lower. So we have a Russian/Ukrainian lan­guage game, set in the Ukraine cre­ated on a plat­form most acces­si­ble to the Ukraine sur­round­ing nations.

Somewhere along the line, some crit­ics said this game achieved the same level of accep­tance among gamers as mas­sively bud­get con­soled shoot­ers in the mind of many because it is a shooter made by white peo­ple. I can’t fathom the mind that thinks like this about video games. How has the debate become so blind to real­ity?

3D games that inhabit the top end of the PC mar­ket and have mul­ti­ple lay­ers of com­plex­ity in their design aren’t being pushed to the fore­front like some of the more pre­ten­tious west­ern “art” games out there have been. I sub­mit to you, that the decay­ing and fairly accu­rate world of “The Zone” is every bit a work of art some grant-funded walk­ing sim­u­la­tor is. Through hav­ing actual game­play, it’s cer­tainly the set­ting for a vastly supe­rior expe­ri­ence than most “art” game expe­ri­ences. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t “fun” in the tra­di­tional sense, it’s melan­cholic and moody but still immensely enjoy­able. It’s often cited as being a mas­ter­stroke of the much less tan­gi­ble con­cept of immer­sion, and I would have to agree with this view. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also really feels Ukrainian, from the land­scape, to the build­ings, to the iconog­ra­phy to the music played in The Zone. I think where many “diver­sity focused” games go wrong is that they have a premise that pushes the right but­tons but they can’t turn that into a game the mar­ket wants to play en masse. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. shows that you can make a game that is bizarre and  buck con­ven­tional wis­dom while also being com­mer­cially and crit­i­cally suc­cess­ful, as well as devel­op­ing a ded­i­cated fan base.

stalker side 2The main prob­lem with diver­sity quo­tas is they espe­cially crip­pler games with gen­uinely tight bud­gets. Last year Ubisoft was pil­lo­ried and hounded by the gam­ing press for not hav­ing a playable female char­ac­ters in Assassins Creed: UnityThe Witcher series has been set upon by the same press eager to impose their ide­als on a game world.

Well, the world of The Zone fea­tures zero women. Not one. I won­der what the out­rage brigade would make of that if this game were released today? Would they real­ize S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was built with pas­sion but on a shoe-string bud­get? What the game does, it does well by sac­ri­ficing some other aspects of design that AAA games rely heav­ily on. In doing so, they can com­pete where it counts. In the game play.

A lot of aspects fell by the wayside; the first S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game was objec­tively unfin­ished and lacked a repair sys­tem that was clearly meant to be in the game when released. There are no women in The Zone because every­one had pretty much the same body model with dif­fer­ent armour. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a patch­work of mod­els and sys­tems rang­ing from 2001 to its even­tual release in 2007. Diversity quo­tas would mean many unique games would sim­ply not exist. These kind of demands often ignore eco­nomic real­ity.

The call for what amounts to tokenism that comes from sec­tions of the indus­try and large chunks of the press is a call for homo­gene­ity. It is a call for uni­for­mity in all gam­ing con­tent that would remove the very cul­tural and diverse aspects they claim to want to fur­ther the cause of. Applying the strong-arm of diver­sity pol­i­tics to projects with very speci­fic goals and lit­tle fund­ing can ren­ders  them mediocre. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t a game about race, it isn’t a game­about gen­der, it is about an eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter zone and the post-Soviet decay a group of design­ers saw every day when they looked out of their win­dows. It is about a story and world inspired by the fic­tion of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. A story inspired by Roadside Picnic and about robust gun­play that offers bal­lis­tics gen­er­ally reserved for more sim­u­la­tion based shoot­ers. Most of all, though, it is about a Ukrainian game studio’s deter­mi­na­tion to be the best, despite the dis­ad­van­tage of their fund­ing and loca­tion. When you look at the mar­ket, it is painfully obvi­ous to those look­ing that many of the most fanat­i­cal gamers are most fond of new and unique expe­ri­ences, expe­ri­ences that  are actu­ally engag­ing, chal­leng­ing and immerse you in a world you didn’t know existed before.

stalker insert 1

Either through delib­er­ate deci­sion or sim­ple lack of local­iza­tion fund­ing, the inci­den­tal voices in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. mostly remain in their native lan­guage. This has the added effect of immers­ing you fur­ther in the world and has also led to a few amus­ing mis­heard lines becom­ing memes like “CHEEKI BREEKI” from the repeated dialog of some of The Zone’s ban­dits. This doesn’t feel like a game pro­duced any­where else. The voices, the iconog­ra­phy, the famil­iar­ity with the Warsaw pact weapons that the Ukraine still has ludi­crous stock­piles of…  this is a dif­fer­ent cul­ture com­ing through loud and clear in a video game and the diver­sity obses­sives would rather talk about their own hang-ups with gen­der and race.

When all is said and done, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a game that has inspired many peo­ple. To this day an incred­i­bly com­pre­hen­sive and ambi­tious mod­ding projects are ongo­ing like MISERY 2.1 and The Lost Alpha. It’s a world that has cre­ated pas­sion and com­mit­ment and  it keeps peo­ple com­ing back time after time to make their own adven­tures in The Zone. Even six years after the most recent title was released it’s still many PC gamer’s favourite. All the while stay­ing true to the vision and quirks of its cre­ators.

There are many games out there like this, with a strong national and cul­tural stamp on them we haven’t seen before, if only the press would take off the iden­tity pol­i­tics gog­gles and look for them. I think gam­ing is diverse and gamers have been rev­el­ing in that diver­sity for many years. Things have got­ten worse recently in the crit­ics sphere, but I hope we can move into a world where a game is judged on its actual con­tent. Not the unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions of oth­ers.

In today’s cli­mate, it is eas­ier than ever for a gem like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to fall by the wayside and be sav­aged for not fit­ting the cul­tural expec­ta­tions  of oth­ers. And I think that is a trav­esty. Gamers are global. Developers are global. When will the press and their pet devel­op­ers catch up?

https://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/HEADER-STALKER.pnghttps://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/HEADER-STALKER-150x150.pngJohn SweeneyEditorialPCPC RetrospectiveGlobal Devs,Global Gamers,STALKER,UkraineIt’s a run­ning joke amongst my friends that my favourite game genre is “Ukrainian Misery Simulator” due to my love of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro video game series pro­duced there. I want to share some­thing I feel is vital about the games, some­thing that gives them a great deal of their appeal…
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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in engi­neer­ing. He writes long-form edi­to­rial con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games media and inter­net cul­ture. He also does the occa­sional video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our inter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­porter of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agenda dri­ven media and sus­pi­cious of unac­cou­table author­ity but always hope­ful for change.