Sunday, 29 January 2012

Made For Me, but won't see The End: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl

Shadow of Chernobyl is my second-favourite game. You might've been able to guess, from hints I've dropped in my previous writeups, but I might as well start by revealing all.
Surprisingly Terrifying Action... forget it. This is the only comment I will make about the punctuation. It's pointless, and silly.
 I first played Shadow of Chernobyl about two years ago. Hearing that it was very glitchy, and the graphics were getting dated, I asked around about any sort of patches.

The recommendation I was given, was to install Complete 2009. It made the graphics brilliant and immersive. Even if not as realistic as newer games, the mood is set perfectly. There were some small gameplay changes, notably the inclusion of a sleeping bag, but I'm surprisingly not going to be talking much about specific gameplay.

After playing for about 12 hours, something happened. My hard disk crashed, and I lost my saved game.

It was a year until I came back to Chernobyl, having fond memories of it. I just hadn't wanted to start again from scratch, so soon after losing my last game. However, I did start again, and I found The Zone's call was just as strong as ever.

I guess, for those uninitiated, I should explain what sort of game STALKER is. It's... a survival tactical FPS with horror elements. I guess. What's hard to explain about STALKER is that it's not trying to craft a niche; it's trying to craft an experience.

This is ultimately what makes the game so good in my mind. STALKER is about being a lone soldier, in a hostile environment where even the air sometimes wants to kill you, and the people are less than friendly. It's not about emotion, or about drama, or about people. It's about the lack of humanity in a place like this.

That lack of humanity is further represented in the factions and mutants that exist in the game. Loners travel in small groups, just friends hanging out together and trying to scrounge up a meal. Sometimes you see them playing guitar together around a camp fire. Maybe they're sitting alone in the bar, drowning away their depression. Nobody is happy, everyone is just alive. They're the most human, but the loneliness of their humanity helps further emphasize the lack of humanity in the environment.

There are no recognizable songs; the guitars aren't there because the men are musicians; it's because they have no other way of expressing themselves in this land, and a guitar is the only thing that will hold their hand.
 And the factions? They're crazy. Freedom wants the military to leave the Zone, the Military wants you to leave. The STALKERS are mercenaries and bounty hunters willing to kill anyone and anything, but the Mercs are mercenaries willing to eradicate even the most just of groups, just for a paycheck. Duty are militaristic and somewhat paranoid, and the Ecologists are... somewhere between bonkers and insane. They're interested in science. They want to take apart Snorks and figure out what makes them tick.

Which leads to the ultimate desolation of humanity: The mutants. Snorks crawl along the ground like some sort of wild cat, leaping at you and clawing. Invisible bloodsuckers run at you and tear you apart, drinking your blood after they've killed you. Shambling zombies aimlessly fire guns as they moan.

Not even your death is given any humanized glory. Upon your death, it simply says "Lost in the zone" and zooms out a bit, to show the world around your lifeless body. If a bloodsucker killed you, it will kneel down and start drinking the blood from your remains. A Snork? It begins to eat your corpse.

 It doesn't even tell you to reload and try again. It just tells you to press space and go back to the menu. It's not mocking, it's just brutally honest. You can try again, or you can quit. The world doesn't care. Only you do.
Living is not easy, in this game. The enemies are brutal, and weaponry all has difficult balances. Powerful weaponry is more expensive, and aiming is very realistic; you will not be able to effectively hit someone more than 30 ft away with a pistol, likely. Weapons all use specific types of ammo, and all ammo and guns have weight. All types of armour have weight. All artifacts have weight. Medkits, bandages, food, alchohol, everything in the game has weight. And you can only carry so much. You can't take everything with you.

The game is a careful balancing act. I played on the hardest difficulty, and survival was dictated by walking the line between being overburdened and able to move. Upset the balance too much, and you'll have to save scum to get through your mission. You'll have to fairly often, even when playing utterly correctly.

Quick save and quick load make this easier, though the lengthily loading times will make you start to question if it's worth it. Still, after some time, you get used to the game, and stop needing to save scum. And as you start to get better, something happens; you start becoming a legend.

You start wondering if the whispered talks around the campfire are about you.
 You start getting factions, people, and small groups who are friends. You piss off a faction or two. You start paying off the bounties on your own head, just to avoid being hassled. As you play the game, you start telling your friends about the crazy things that happened. How you fought off a pack of wild dogs with only a pistol and a grenade. How you totally took out three bloodsuckers without reloading your shotgun. (It held 8 shots, so hey, it worked!)

But still, nobody really cares about you. A friendly will aid you in battle, but they're far and few between. Mostly, people just want to stay on their own. Why travel with someone when they could stab you in the back?

The Zone itself isn't safe. I mentioned even the air wanting to kill you, and that's no lie. Pockets of radiation will slowly kill you, if you enter them. And even worse, strange anomalies exist throughout the Zone. Some will crush you, others erupt with fire or electricity... some pick you up in the air and tear you apart.

This all contributes to both a power fantasy, and a desolately lonely experience. When you triumph, it is the best feeling in the world. When you fail, it's dark and dreary. All you can do is keep trying, and eventually you succeed so much you feel great.

 A pack of dogs is no match for me! I am a STALKER!
 And this is where I got cocky.

The last mission of the game was the absolute hardest. I had been playing on the hardest difficulty, and just wanted to finish the game. I had played about 47 hours of this game. I knew what I was doing. I had sufficient ammo. I was a bit low on medpacks and the like, but it would be fine.

I followed the checkpoints. I ran to the next target. I assaulted the power plant. The ruined reactor. I got past swarms of armored enemies, past military copters firing rockets, and got inside the reactor before a blowout would've eradicated me where I stood.

And when I was inside, I heard the chanting. A deep voice, calling from far below. I crawled through the halls, my health halfway. Radiation levels slowly crept up, and my health slowly down.

I should've turned back then, but I pressed forward. "It will be fine" I said. "I'm good at this game."

I forgot everything the game had taught me. That it didn't care about me. I found an exoskeleton deep in a heavily radiated room. I got out just in time, with a few rations and anti-rads. I could've left, survived, restocked, and came back, probably.

I pressed on. Rounded a couple corners. I went through a hole in a wall. I went around another corner. I fought fifteen or so heavily armoured men. I nearly ran out of ammo. Just as I thought I couldn't kill them, I started getting ammo.

I should've listened to the tiny voice inside my head. The one that said "Go back!" I didn't. I made a quick save. The only quick save on that level, I overwrote each time I pressed that button.

I walked around a couple corners. The radiation was building up too much. I looked for something in my inventory to help. I had nothing. I checked again in disbelief. Looted corpses. Nothing. I walked a couple paces. A pair of soldiers saw me. I collapsed from radiation poisoning and died.

 I loaded my game. Tried again. I died before I could leave the room. I loaded my game, tried again, died. I kept reloading, I even dropped my difficulty setting to the lowest, but it only gave me a couple more seconds. Not enough to even kill one of the soldiers and loot the corpse.

I died. There was no way out of that level without starting from the very beginning of it, walking all the way back through two deadly levels (which was very probably impossible). I'd probably have to save scum even farther back, to the point that two hours would have been for naught.

I was left with a quandary. What should I do?

I stopped playing. I closed the game, and announced to my friends that I couldn't beat the last mission. 50 hours into STALKER, at the end of the game, and radiation poisoning had killed me. The game didn't care if I won or lost. It gave me rules, it trained me to be careful, and I let my cockiness get ahead of me.

Could I take a weekend off and finish the game? Yes. But this ending was already stuck in my mind. The ending where a bold and powerful STALKER thought he could throw caution to the wind and charge through danger, but was met with swift death.

This feels right to me. This feels like the ending with the most meaning. I didn't care about wish granting or the zone. I had already experienced this place. This environment. I had met The Zone and been enraptured by it. I had no regrets having played that far, and the tale felt right, to end on such a bitter note. It made the tale bittersweet, and unique.

I will not see The End of STALKER. Not because I couldn't beat it. Not because I got bored or didn't like it; it is still one of my most favourite games. No, The End is elusive because I lost, in the most thorough sense. The Zone won.

 Lose yourself in The Zone

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