Global Gamers, Global Developers: The Uniquely Ukrainian S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Series
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?
First 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.
The 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: Unity. The 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.
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?
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