S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and Memory of Utopia
March 28, 2021 6:38 PM   Subscribe

How a Ukrainian Computer Game Transfigured Folkloric Processes of Remembering

Daniel Fuller writes in the Eastern European Film Bulletin about how the Strugatsky's 1971 novel Roadside Picnic, Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. interconnect to explore the memories and experiences of the Soviet and Post-Soviet eras.

"S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a game about the Chernobyl Disaster, but in folkloric dialogue with fiction and ideology it offers an account of why the disaster occurred in a general, cultural sense. It situates the Disaster not just as an isolated event stripped of all meaning, but as a lightning rod for systemic malaise and a living thing that casts a long shadow over contemporary existence."
posted by glonous keming (14 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I am not a gamer but that one sounds really interesting and evocative. Thanks for posting this--I would never have found this article myself.
posted by rpfields at 9:13 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

Wow, thank you for this post!
STALKER is the single most influential game that I have ever played.
Nothing else has ever quite managed to create the same atmosphere as this game.
The first time I played it, I rushed in to a mission to clear some bandits from a farmhouse. Ran through a doorway and got blasted in the face by a bandit with a double-barrel sawed-off shotgun. Any game that makes the enemy just as dangerous (if not more dangerous) than the player is a great game.

Roadside Picnic is a book that I own a physical copy of (Along with 2 other books by the Strugatsky brothers).

Again, thank you for this post. I have tried to tell others how amazing and influential these books are, but it is hard to describe to the unaware.
posted by FleetMind at 10:05 PM on March 28 [4 favorites]

Any game that makes the enemy just as dangerous (if not more dangerous) than the player is a great game.

I don't necessarily agree with that, but Stalker does a lot with it, and the general jankiness of both the surroundings and your gear add to that. Your guns degrade if you shoot them too fast or expose them to explosions (and possibly other factors I don't remember). Then they become less precise and more prone to jamming. I can't really think of any other video game where guns jamming is a thing.

If you want to play it today, most recommend modding it, both for performance and bug fixes. ("Modding" being the addition or modification of the game by third parties, mostly enthusiasts)
posted by Harald74 at 10:17 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

BTW, there's a sequel in development, but who knows how it will turn out. Here's a trailer.
posted by Harald74 at 10:21 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]

STALKER was such a great game, such a creepy game and a great window into that world. The only downside were all the bugs I experienced, but otherwise, I'd love to go revisit it!
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:49 PM on March 28

I loved the world of the game, the game not so much and I never got too far. Your avatar could not jump over fences, oi! I found that to be a deal breaker for me, I wanted a much less constrained open world.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:13 AM on March 29

In autumn 2006 I attended a press junket for S.T.A.L.K.E.R in Kyiv, which included a tour of Chernobyl, Pripyat, and other areas of the Exclusion Zone. I wasn’t a gaming journalist, I wasn’t much of a gamer, and I wasn’t even a very experienced video producer yet, but the place where I worked had an understaffed gaming-related show and they needed some help putting together a hosted segment on this upcoming release.

I had mixed feelings about it. Chernobyl and anything related to nuclear issues had fascinated me since I was a kid. I loved Tarkovky films, and I’d been reading the Strugatsky brothers since I was a teenager. So this felt like an unmissable opportunity. On the other hand, I was like, “how could these people turn a disaster into a fucking game?” And of course I was going to be a disaster tourist, as the author of TFA admits to as well.

Then I learned the developers were actually all Ukrainians and not just a bunch of North Americans or Brits parachuting in to exploit somebody else’s still-ongoing tragedy. But that made even less sense to me than my previous assumptions.

The whole event was surreal from the jump. Including my co-producer I think there were maybe three women among the crowd of a few dozen gaming journalists and commentators who were there from around the world. The evening of our arrival we were set up in the hotel bar with unlimited free booze and a performance by dancers in Ukrainian folk costume. Over the course of a few hours the dancers did several sets, each time taking the floor wearing less and less clothing of any kind, folk or otherwise.

The next day our tour had a party-like atmosphere. When we were let out of the busses periodically to see points of interest around Chernobyl and the Exclusion Zone, people would pose for pics wearing old military gas masks while pretending to consult Soviet-vintage geiger counters they’d bought on the street in Kyiv. We finally drew the line when our own show host wanted to mug in front of the monument to the Chernobyl liquidators.

Aside from the barren industrial landscape near the reactor complex itself, the Exclusion Zone was uncannily beautiful. The autumn color was fading and the leaves starting to fall, but there was a lushness to the abandoned farmland and in the trees growing through the pavements in Pripyat.

In the old village of Chernobyl, overgrown with birch trees concealing abandoned cottages, we visited a makeshift office for the ‘Ukraine Ministry of Emergencies and Affairs of Population Protection from the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe’. There we met with a man who had helped manage the horrific aftermath of the disaster and who was still, 20 years later, working inside the Exclusion Zone. I don’t think I was the only one who was deeply embarrassed that he was describing his experiences in grim monotone to a bunch of people who were there because of a game.

It wasn’t until the following day when we finally spoke to the developers and had a peak at the game itself. I know this will appear incredibly naive, seeing as I was there for the express purpose of having said game hyped to me, but that was when I started to see it in a different light. We were introduced to an artist named Alexander Naumov who had become a self-styled stalker over the years, guiding occasional visitors into the Zone and talking about it in almost religious terms, like a pilgrimage. Some of the people affiliated with the game had family members who’d been directly impacted by Chernobyl, and everyone was affected by it in some manner. For them, the game was a way of expressing what had happened there, a way of understanding what was lost, a way of searching for some kind of meaning not just in the disaster, but in the Soviet era as a whole. Of course, none of that stuff made it into the show.

Even though I came to some awareness on a silly press junket, I didn’t fully confront my snobby attitude toward video games vs. films, books, and art until years later. My experiences actually playing games, as well as articles like the one in the FPP, have helped me to do so.
posted by theory at 3:44 AM on March 29 [55 favorites]

Fascinating article.

I've read the Strugatskies' novel and adore Tarkovsky, but admit to having been appalled by the thought of a FPS game. I'll have to dig one up now.

And also reread Svetlana Alexievich's heartbreaking book.
posted by doctornemo at 7:07 AM on March 29

I started S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but didn't get very far through it. I should probably give it another try.
posted by octothorpe at 7:14 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]

Yeah, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a weird one. It's, I guess, technically an FPS, in that it's first-person and you can shoot guns, but Eastern European game design has never been particularly interested in the bombast and neediness of American game design. Russians design big, systemic, unfriendly games. It has a lot in common with the early Elder Scrolls games, where it's completely happy to let deeply unfair or janky things happen, or to have you wait in a safe bunker, surrounded by people you've wronged and no clever way out the designer has planned for, or to just let you creep around for half an hour. It is using systems to create a mood in a way that American designers rarely did at the time.
posted by Merus at 7:28 AM on March 29 [7 favorites]

It's definitely a bit of an open-world game, with the minimum narrative needed to keep you invested.

I can't really think of any other video game where guns jamming is a thing.

Definitely comes up in versions of America's Army, but most video game designers stay away from it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:43 AM on March 29

The Zone is an uncanny place where modernity and postmodernity uneasily cohabit. The player’s experience is very much that of the postmodern subject who moves through an unstable and dangerous landscape that cannot be made sense of using the old claims to objective (Scientific/Materialist) knowledge.

There's a cozier version of this portrayed in things like Tales from the Loop;* the idea that the mundane world we live is is built among and intertwined with the bones of an older order, with its own logics, that we sometimes pick up and use in ways that may never have been originally intended, or that make use of their surface features, while ignoring the role they played originally as part of a larger system.

That's what the world is, though--a thing we inhabit among ruins of past civilizations, some of which we claim ancestry from, and some of which we pretend have disappeared "mysteriously."

*(it still contains uncertainty and fear--cozy is relative).
posted by pykrete jungle at 11:23 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]

The STALKER (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) trilogy of games are absolute classics. Sure, they were buggy given all the moving parts, but so atmospheric.

They're lovingly referred to as "ballistic simulators" - bullet trajectory and speed depends on the type of bullet, type of gun, and the condition of the gun. Lovingly made.

STALKER 2 had a long development cycle, including cancellations, but it's supposed to be released this year (or the next).

The original has extensive mods/ re-texture/ bug fixes and should play fine on modern Win10 boxes.
posted by porpoise at 2:32 PM on March 29

Far Cry 2 is in some ways similar; more similar to this than to any of the other Far Cry games, really. Moment to moment it's mostly about managing disease symptoms and jamming guns, but also has a lot to say about the effects of war.
posted by fomhar at 6:10 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]

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