Monday, November 1, 2010

The Stalker games are doing something right. (Part 1)

The first thing Stalker does is teach you to be a coward.

There's no deliberate instruction involved- it's a lesson you learn naturally, which makes it ten times as effective. The tutorials are the pack of wild dogs who maul you because you tried to shoot them, the anomalies that reward your curiosity with poison and radiation, the handful of men that kill you five times over despite the quicksave which puts you in a perfect ambush position.

With uncharacteristic speed, your subconscious gets the message: this is not a world that was tailor-made for your pleasure. The gun in your hand was not placed there by God, so that you could accomplish a mission He has laid out for you. The dangers you see are not elements of a meticulously arranged shooting gallery- they are dangers pure and simple, under no kind of obligation to compensate you for the hardships they incur.

Ten minutes into Call of Pripyat, I found my first camp. A young man squatting by the campfire referred me to the boss, who I found on the other side of a nearby cargo container. My gamer instincts relaxed as I entered familiar territory: An NPC I interacted with via a conversation tree, ready to dispense basic exposition at the press of a button.

As I asked him about the availabled missions in the area, our conversation was cut short by the sound of a shotgun blast- the dialogue box literally closed while I was still reading his answer. While I blinked in confusion, the man turned away and took cover up against the wall. Drawing his gun, he started moving back towards the campfire. I saved the game and followed him. The bandits who had just killed the guy at the campfire shot us both dead in seconds.

I loaded the game. He advanced towards the campfire. I backed away and watched as the bandits shot him dead again. When I moved closer, they saw me and muttered warnings; I holstered my gun, and they went on their way.

The two corpses at my feet were a sad thing, but I didn't really feel guilty. After all, I didn't know these guys; we were just talking. I was just relieved those bandits hadn't cared about me.

I didn't want any trouble.


Anonymous said...

Well, they also teach you to be a dick, actually. Most of the time, though, they teach you to be a cowardly dick (which, I imagine, is a bit like impotency).
But yeah, it's true. The Stalker games have a very good way of making you realize, all by yourself, that you're not the mighty hero. They really do portray an unforgiving, hellish place where lives are short and cheap. Unlike, say, the latest Fallouts, which try to portray the same, but end up with you shooting off heads with a handgun.

I fondly remember the first time I picked up Shadow of Chernobyl. Right after I began, I was told to go kill some doods. So naturally, my first FPS instinct was to give the finger to the men who were supposed to be helping me and charge in like a retarded monkey. And, like that retarded monkey, my prize was an acute case of getting shot in the face.
It was beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Shadow is unfortunately my only experience with the series and I didn't have problems with any of the fights outside of packs of mutated dogs/raccoons/boars/rats. Eventually I found out that their AI doesn't handle strafing and jumping very well and they lost their original terror.

What didn't and made the game really stand out for me was the blood suckers. They were rare enough and put in the right paces to make them terrifying.
In addition, The first generator set you turn off really messed with my FPS brain. The military base it sat on was fairly easy, just the normal routine of hanging back, keeping in the shadows, not being noticed, watching patrols, and engaging from distance while keeping to cover. But inside the large EMPTY rooms really got to me. Normally in an FPS each room has an enemy or clutch of targets to kill. These large rooms had nothing. Just big dark rooms with lots of boxes and shelves and shelves with boxes. Can't use night vision as it makes a hum and the audio mechanics screw up what stealth there is. Then a scream. I jump in my seat. A bit of panic and gunfire later I'm checking the bloodsuckers loot. Then progress to sweep the rest of the area carefully.
In about 5 large empty dark rooms there was 1 bloodsucker. That still messes with my head and it's brilliant. The absence of enemies can be just as great a tool as their presence. Even more so when the goal is to raise neck hair.