Tuesday, 12 May 2009

S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Ambience, Immersion

("Stalker" (Сталкер) 1979 - Andrei Tarkovsky)

The game "S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl" itself is unimpressive in terms of plot development, script, and innovation. Its only merit to history is the richness of its atmosphere, which deftly combines the Chernobyl location with the game's artistic inspiration, "Stalker" (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and featuring a screenplay by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

The film is achingly beautiful, finding cause for reflection in muddied contaminated waters and decayed long-abandoned artefacts. The three protagonists (Stalker, Writer, and Professor) discuss hope, happiness, and the future of mankind in relation to their histories and emotions. Stalker is wide-eyed, sensitive, and open, in contrast to the studied reflections of the two intellectuals. It is difficult to discern brutal honesty from alienating world vision as these latter two characters muse on the significance of the wish-granting machine. Where Stalker sees hope and happiness, they see self-deception and egoism.

There is little of philosophy in the animated Zone experienced in the gameworld. It is another beast altogether, for in the film there is little concern with survival except in a spiritual sense, whereas in the game all is a tattered world of competing interests and limited resources. Philosophical exchange is traded for economic exchange. There is little of philosophical significance in traditional RPG games, with their various health bars, abilities, and limited carrying capacity. A true philosophical exploration through an interactive world-creation would dispose of interfaces and pistol-spinning and instead focus on imagery and character development. But how to make that into a 'game'?

Indeed, there is little budget for creating multi-million euro interactive installations in a market traditionally dominated by young aggressive males looking to indulge their competitive instincts (me). However, there is the ability to build on the work of such game-makers and transform their products into something else. The modding community has shown repeatedly that this is a viable proposition. The "Priboi Story" is an example of creating a new plot-driven game based on an altered vision. But that is not what I am looking for, as the "Priboi Story" is so close to its source material so as only to contribute to that short temporal phase between official releases from Ukrainian-based GSC Games.

The mod I would like to see happen would bring together a talented group, including a writer and a professor, to draft a vision that combines the ground-breaking realism and beauty of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gameworld with art installation techniques to create something moving and reminiscent of the film, yet also exploring new ground and contemporary themes of environmental destruction. To date, all such focus has been on the visually impoverished Second Life and never really taking full advantage of bleeding-edge animation. This is where gaming has the potential to truly transcend art.