For my birthday last week I got Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a hypnotic, three-hour, existentialist essay in movie form. My wife and I watched it on Valentine’s Day (not the best choice for Valentine’s Day, but we’d been wanting to watch it and that was as good a night as any). It’s about these three guys walking through empty fields and abandoned buildings in Soviet Russia, talking about the nature of existence and desire and purpose. Ostensibly, one of the guys is a “stalker”, and he’s leading the other two guys (“professor” and “writer”) through a dangerous place called the Zone to a room where your deepest wish is granted. Since the movie was made in Soviet Russia, and since it’s really all about existentialist dialogues, there’s no budget for special effects, so “the dangers of the Zone” amount to the stalker pointing at an empty field and saying “don’t go that way, there are traps”, and the other two guys nodding solemnly and continuing their dialogue. Even when they finally get to the room where your deepest wish is granted — SPOILER ALERT!! — none of them go in; they just look into the empty room, wracked by inner turmoil. It is, quite sincerely, the best movie ever made in which nothing happens for three hours. It’s deep, and hypnotic, and thoughtful, and makes you wander around in quiet contemplation for about 24 hours after the first time you watch it.
It is with this preface that I mention S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. At first I was morbidly curious about the game; the early screenshots showed landscapes that were perfectly-rendered depictions of scenes from the movie. A lush, green, overgrown field full of rusted WWII tanks. A raised train track dotted with rotting and toppling telephone poles. The unassuming interior of a crumbling building, dust motes swirling in a ray of sunlight. Since the developers were Ukranian, the press release that accompanied the screenshots was brief and ambiguous, and said something like “as Stalker, you guide people through Zone avoiding dangers”. Gradually, however, the whole thing fell apart. I started seeing headlines about the “dozens of awesome mutant monsters!” in the game, then about all the “sick guns!”, and “deathmatch options”. Today, Kotaku has a new movie that features S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s hardcore multiplayer deathmatch mode, and I am really just at a loss for words. Some of those beautiful landscapes and tranquil, decaying settings are still right there in that movie, but it’s had a gigantic intestine-load of Counter Strike pooped on top of it.
Actually, that’s a little too harsh; Counter Strike‘s a great multiplayer FPS, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl might also be a perfectly good multiplayer FPS whenever it comes out, too (it’s been in development for four years). I guess I’m just a little shocked by what’s happened in the process of turning Stalker into a video game. Not that Stalker should ever have been a video game in the first place, but if it was it should play more like Shadow of the Colossus, but without the colossi, and with Wander, Augro, and Mono replaced by three middle-aged Soviet men who have all hit rock bottom and are the very epitome of wretchedness and desperation. They would meander around the beautiful landscape and the breathtaking ruins, mumbling philosophy and insight to each other, and every once in a while one of them would point to something completely innocuous and say “don’t go that way, it’s dangerous”.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl being the video game adaptation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is like… I’m trying to think of a good analogy using a low-key book most people have read… it’s like if GTA3 was supposed to be the video game adaptation of Catcher in the Rye, or if BloodRayne was supposed to be the video game adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. That doesn’t really say anything about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Stalker, but the association of the two kind of makes me sick to my stomach. That’s all.
Update: A commenter on this post has said that when the Chernobyl disaster happened, Russians immediately started talking about the similarities to Stalker, to the point that now the irradiated area around Chernobyl is commonly called “The Zone”, and people who are brave/stupid enough to venture into it are called stalkers. The game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is apparently based more around this “real-life stalker” culture than it is on the movie which inspired the culture, which makes a whole lot of sense and makes me feel a lot more comfortable about the whole thing. So there you go. Thanks for the info, Happy Neko!