Notes from the Zone

Nope, I haven’t handed in my nerd credentials and stopped playing computer games. As a matter of fact, I recently got a new graphics card, so I’ve been diligently playing those games that didn’t run that smoothly before the upgrade. One of the titles I’d most been looking forward to is Stalker – Shadows of Chernobyl. (Well, technically it’s called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Something of Doodah, but unless someone can tell me what the abbreviation is supposed to stand for, I refuse to use that wannabe leet name.)

There’s been a discussion about games as art for a while now. If we look at them as narrative art, then I’d agree that there are few games that tell a story that’s better, or even as good, as your average mainstreamy Hollywood genre piece. (There are exceptions, but that’s material for another entry.) What games can excel at, though, is atmosphere – and that’s what Stalker has in spades. It’s based, though loosely, on Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic film of the same name (which I haven’t seen yet – shame on me!).

The game is set in the area around the radioactive wasteland surrounding the defunct nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. Stalker‘s version of the Zone is populated by lone adventurers, bandits, militia and mutated animals. It is dotted with anomalies that tend to mean your death if you wander into any one of them unawares. (There is grim fun to be had of watching packs of mutated dogs happen into an anomaly that pretty much spins them around like the cow in Twister – and then tears them apart.)

Stalker manages to be one of those games that’s greatly enjoyable but not a lot of fun, and that’s mainly down to its atmospheric setting. On my first day in the Zone, I happened across a camp that other Stalkers had made amidst rusty cars and a broken down Hind helicopter. Just as the sun set, a group of bandits attacked, and most of what I could make out were bursts of fire in the darkness and the flashlight’s circle of brightness illuminating burnt out Ladas and the occasional bandit aiming his semi-automatic at me.

In general, the nights in the Zone are tense and scary – mostly because they are actually dark. Walking towards distant lights, your flashlight barely illuminating the bushes in front of you, while you hear strange animal sounds, and suddenly a pack of dogs attacks, their eyes glinting in the dark… Definitely beats the hell (pun only semi-intended) out of Doom 3‘s predictable haunted house ride and its rubber zombies.

I’m not very far yet, but I’m looking forward to getting closer to the shut-down reactor and entering the parts of the Zone that used to be residential areas. Until then, I will continue being the bane of mutated dogs and hogs everywhere… until I run out of ammo. I run pretty fast (’till I stumble into one of those amusing anomalies and it proceeds to turn me inside out).