Franchise Festival #52: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we will be stalking the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where two dates are indicated, the first is Europe and the second is North America.

Key sources include:

Background

While the 1980s saw video games grow into a leading form of artistic expression throughout Asia, Western Europe, and North America, Eastern Europe’s support for the new medium lagged behind. Much of this was tied to the the repressive corporate policies of the Soviet Union, so gaming enthusiasts had cause to rejoice when that government fell in 1991. It would still take quite some time to build up a mainstream game culture within the new states, however.

Get yourself the hottest new console, Eastern Europe’s Pegasus. Say, do those multicolored buttons look familiar? Source: Kotaku

Bootleg home consoles ran rampant in post-Soviet nations following the breakup of the USSR. Like many other regions that lacked official support from the medium’s contemporary heavy hitters like Nintendo, SEGA, and Sony, Eastern Europe would develop its own homegrown equivalents. Given the limited economic opportunities available in the region, piracy fueled these devices. It would be difficult to justify starting a full-fledged game studio in such tenuous conditions. Perhaps not coincidentally, most fledgling Eastern European studios would get their start producing content for personal computers rather than dedicated video game consoles.

CroTeam’s Serious Sam is a loud game from cover to credits. Source: MobyGames

By 2004, Gamasutra would assess the state of game development in Eastern Europe as small but growing. It still lagged distantly behind the studios of regions situated to its East and West. Even so, the situation had begun to change in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Serious Sam (2001) would be developed by Croatia’s CroTeam after a five year development process, Operation Flashpoint (2001) would be created by the Czech Republic’s Bohemia Interactive, and Mafia (2002) would be published by Take Two Interactive – an American company – only after its development by a Czech Republic studio called Illusion Softworks.

Little about Cossacks (2000) points toward GSC Game Studio’s next release. Source: MobyGames

Simultaneously, an ambitious studio based in Ukraine was attempting to move past its initial success. Kiev-based GSC Game World had been founded by Sergei Grigorovich in 1995 and had launched itself feet-first into the production of a real-time strategy franchise called Cossacks (2000-2016); the series would focus on European conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries. The first entry in that franchise was a commercial success throughout Europe, securing a worldwide release through Germany’s CDV Software Entertainment. Its strong critical and commercial performance ensured that GSC Game World could attempt a more experimental sophomore project.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)

Though S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would not be released until 2007, it was in development as early as 2001. Many of the delays were down to the implementation of its genuinely ambitious approach to the well-worn first-person shooter genre. Other delays can be attributed to a handful of significant overhauls made to the game’s scope as it moved from conception to execution.

The distinctively Soviet architecture of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. instantly sets it apart from its Western-oriented contemporaries. Source: Avalanche Reviews

The project was announced in 2001, pitched by GSC as a first-person shooter set in and around a mysteriously depopulated area full of electrical anomalies. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker and the short story upon which it was based – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972) – but GSC decided to ground its narrative in a real-world disaster and consequently set S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in and around the abandoned ruins of Ukraine’s notorious Chernobyl facility. The developers feared that the public was already beginning to forget Chernobyl’s catastrophic 1986 meltdown, so they looked at their work as an opportunity to keep the topic in their audience’s consciousness. Though it had not initially been conceptualized as a commentary on real events, the project slowly evolved into this form during the early 2000s.

The moment-to-moment gunplay is similar to other first-person shooter titles of the mid-2000s. Source: Avalanche Reviews

GSC was simultaneously grappling with the complexities of the game’s artificial intelligence; programmer Dmitriy Iassenev discussed these ongoing changes to the game’s proprietary A-Life AI engine with Gamasutra and AIGameDev.com in 2008. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was originally intended to have fully autonomous non-player characters (NPCs) – both hostile and friendly – who would pursue their own goals throughout the game world. This proved difficult to implement without compromising the player’s experience, as NPCs could complete the player character’s main goal or derail quest lines before the player was even aware of them. As part of A-Life’s refinement, many of the rules governing autonomous NPC behavior were eliminated in favor of a system that designates characters as “online” or “offline” based on the player character’s proximity to them. This would give players the impression of a persistent world without the pitfalls brought about by truly independent NPCs.

Some sequences, like this exploration of an eerie lot populated by twisted trees, are strikingly reminiscent of Valve’s Half-Life 2 (2004). Source: Avalanche Reviews

By the mid-2000s, delays associated with the game’s ongoing evolution would see it increasingly regarded as vaporware. It would have been reasonable to suspect that its cultural window might have passed, given that significant FPS titles like Metroid Prime (2002), Half-Life 2 (2004), and Far Cry (2004) were published in the interim. GSC persevered, though, publishing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. on PCs in 2007 and definitively answering questions about its development status.

This Strelok guy must work there or something. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Players take on the role of an unnamed amnesiac, referred to as The Marked One, who awakens within the aforementioned Zone with the vague goal of killing a mysterious figure called Strelok. The Marked One is a S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a deliriously convoluted acronym which stands for Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers and Robbers. In effect, he is one of many self-interested actors functioning within the otherwise depopulated region near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. In the alternate history of the game world, this reactor suffered a mysterious second explosion years after the original incident which rendered the surrounding countryside home to bizarre dimensional anomalies and mutated fauna.

NPC interaction takes on a significant role as the player completes quests and equips his or her character with new gear. This also helps to establish the Zone as a ‘real’ place with ‘real’ people. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Since the player character is a blank slate for much of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s plot, the Zone takes on an outsized importance. Like many of the medium’s most memorable settings – recall Inaba in Persona 4 (2008) or Yharnam in Bloodborne (2015) – the Zone is characterized by a high level of attention to detail. Buildings, sub-structures, and even open fields have been meticulously crafted based on the development team’s own photographic expeditions to the real-world Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. These areas play host to both hostile and friendly NPCs animated by the A-Life system, with the success of the AI’s adaptability to environmental features hinging on spaces designed for emergent gameplay. Factions and rivalries exist between NPC groups, allowing one set of hostile foes to engage another based on proximity and conflicting interests.

Inventory and stat management, as in many other survival horror and Western role-playing games of the 1990s and 2000s, is a constant concern. Source: Avalanche Reviews

The ability to exploit enemies is critical, since the player character is under constant threat of annihilation. Much of the player’s time is spent addressing basic survival concerns based on an elegant interlocking set of gameplay systems: food, water, rest, and shelter from radiation are all needs that must be met through management of scarce resources and careful navigation. Direct conflict with mutants and armed factions is similarly complicated by lingering injuries; sustaining a bite or bullet wound tends to lead to bleeding, which must then be managed through the application of bandages. At the same time, collecting new firearms is essential since many feature poor accuracy or technical quirks – the player is consistently kept at a slight disadvantage in order to force him or her to engage with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s systems.

Claustrophobic and heavily shadowed underground sequences keep S.T.A.L.K.E.R. rooted firmly in the language of horror. Source: Avalanche Reviews

The intersection of these systems, along with the density of emergent interactions with competing NPCs, contribute to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s unique position between formerly rigid genre conventions. GSC applied mechanics more commonly associated with survival and role-playing games to a first-person shooter framework, resulting in a game unlike many of its predecessors, contemporaries, or successors. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. hews to a well-defined set of rules in a merciless, highly detailed world but avoids the pitfall of frustration by appealing to a fundamental sense of fairness – thanks to the A-Life system, its NPCs are forced to follow the same rules as the player character.

Glitches are so numerous and humorous that compilations are easy to find online. Source: somespartan

Even so, the game did not launch without issue. Contemporary press coverage reveals that technical problems were numerous. This is unsurprising, as few systems-driven open-world games are published without their fair share of bugs, but the lack of technical polish was especially pronounced in GSC’s bold new release. Happily, a combination of studio support and enthusiastic fan participation would see a host of patches and mods released in the months after the game’s 2007 publication.

Some of the cut maps, like Dead City, feature interesting architectural flourishes that would not have been out of place in the final game. Source: Silver Seraphym

In 2009, a beta version of the game would be released by GSC. This 2004 build features many of the complex A-Life mechanics omitted from its final release. Additionally, it made use of an alternative physics engine. Entire areas which had been cut from the final game – including ones called Swamp, Dead City, and Generators – were newly available to players willing to explore an even more buggy, unstable iteration of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. This offers a glimpse at what might have been, even as what was proved one of the most exciting new video game properties of the 2000s.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (2008)

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, in stark contrast to its predecessor, released only months after its initial announcement. The efficient schedule can likely be attributed to two factors: (1) the basic game concept and mechanics were already established in Shadow of Chernobyl, and (2) the underlying infrastructure is only an iterative improvement on that of the previous game. The X-ray Engine, a proprietary game engine developed by GSC for Shadow of Chernobyl, is enhanced through the use of more realistic lighting effects and textures, but is otherwise the same semi-reliable architecture that fans had already grown to know throughout their hours in the Zone.

Even the skyboxes are enhanced in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky. Source: Avalanche Reviews

The setting would change little between S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s first and second entries aside from the omission of the Shadow of Chernobyl’s claustrophobic underground sequences. Clear Sky functions as a prequel, supplementing a handful of new environments with many retextured areas from the series’ debut. The remodeling is diagetically justified because the inciting incident of the previous game – a Second Disaster at Chernobyl which triggered the Zone’s expansion – has not yet occurred at the beginning of Clear Sky. For this reason, the Zone is also more populated by humans than it had been in Shadow of Chernobyl.

These scientists look mighty alive now, but just you wait. Source: Avalanche Reviews

These humans are drawn by conspiratorial whispers concerning what is occurring within the highly isolated Zone. Previously open to tourists drawn by rumors of apparently supernatural events, it was officially closed to outsiders when a tourist bus went missing in 2001. The player takes on the role of Scar, a guide leading a 2005 scientific expedition to investigate erratic seismic activity and weather patterns in the area surrounding the isolated Chernobyl sarcophagus. The scientists are killed by a disastrous emission from the reactor and Scar is rescued by Clear Sky, one of several factions trying to assert control in the lawless region.

Faction alliances are reflected in one of Clear Sky’s many menus. Source: Avalanche Reviews

These factions represent one of Clear Sky’s most meaningful advances from the preceding game. Though factions did exist in Shadow of Chernobyl, their effect was limited to governing how NPCs interacted with one another. In Clear Sky, Scar’s fluctuating a relationship with each faction governs how they react to him. Certain areas are made more or less accessible based on these factional relationships. Each faction has its own approach to the Zone as well: while the group that saves Scar during the game’s opening hour is comprised of people researching the wasteland, the faction called Duty is made up of former military members and seeks to contain the Zone and its mutants through force lest its malign anomalies spread to the outside world. These are only two examples of the six factions present in the game; each faction is inherently opposed to one other faction and allying with both is impossible.

Mutated wolves prowl the Zone. Creepy. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Clear Sky’s dramatically expanded weapon upgrade system forces the player to make similarly challenging choices. Where guns tended to be varying degrees of broken in Shadow of Chernobyl, needing to regularly be abandoned for newer scavenged models, Scar can make use of supplies to improve his firearms as the campaign progresses. Each upgrade route privileges certain uses (e.g. accuracy, power, etc.) and cuts off access to alternate upgrades. This mechanic reduces the opportunity for experimentation, in contrast to the game’s broader emphasis on pushing its highly complex open world to the breaking point, but serves to underline the sense of consequences associated with even small decisions.

Siege battles between factions involve entire squads of soldiers. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Unfortunately, a thematic emphasis on consequences is undermined by a significant drawback in the faction system. While factions gain ground and establish control over regions and outposts throughout the Zone during any given play session, faction control of these spaces is reset to a default status every time the game is rebooted. The faction war system, which functions as a nascent application of tower defense game mechanics in an FPS context, sadly falls short in its adherence to Clear Sky’s characteristic persistent decision-making.

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise’s quieter moments are among its most charming. Source: Avalanche Reviews

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky appeared to be more of the same upon its 2008 release. Upon closer inspection, however, the game separated itself from its predecessor both cosmetically and mechanically. GSC had produced an interesting if ultimately flawed follow up to their ambitious 2007 first-person shooter. The mixed critical reception might have led fans to expect a long gestation period for the series’ third title, but GSC would yet again surprise its followers.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (2009/2010)

If Clear Sky represented a mechanical departure within a setting largely imported from Shadow of Chernobyl, Call of Pripyat would be the opposite. A pre-release Rock Paper Shotgun interview of GSC’s Oleg Yavorsky confirms what fans would later discover when they booted up the game: Call of Pripyat is focused on refining the strongest elements of Shadow of Chernobyl rather than introducing major new wrinkles. At the same time, the environments of Shadow of Chernobyl and its prequel have been discarded in favor of entirely new areas to explore.

Environments are more expansive than ever in Call of Pripyat. Source: Avalanche Reviews

The development process remained strikingly brief for such an expansive title. Much of this time was spent on beta testing, a standard aspect of game development that had been neglected during the months ahead of the two preceding S.T.A.L.K.E.R. entries. The result is a game that features fewer technical issues while retaining the complexity of its predecessors. Since the game engine and AI system were not significantly altered between Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, most mechanics could be imported wholesale without major reprogramming.

Sneaking past mutants is as chilling as ever, especially given the reduced chance that the mutant might get stuck in a wall or something. Source: Avalanche Reviews

For better or worse, Clear Sky’s most divisive feature has been cut entirely. Players no longer form persistent relationships with factions or participate in outpost siege sequences to gain or maintain faction control over an area. This reduces the sense of genre hybridization present in Clear Sky but allows for more scripted sequences and populated environments. The former, in fact, see the return of eerie underground locations for the first time since Shadow of Chernobyl. The latter keep players focused on the entrancing adaptability and emergent gameplay made possible by the still-impressive A-Life AI system.

Revived underground sequences feature many of the game’s most terrifying monster attacks. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Weapon upgrade trees remain functionally identical to their implementation in Clear Sky. Artifacts – Zone-altered augmentations which can be acquired by the player character and sold or used to improve his abilities – are implemented more effectively here than in either earlier game. The items are less common in Call of Pripyat than they had been in Shadow of Chernobyl, where their impact was diminished, but more common than in Clear Sky, where their scarcity and exclusivity to dangerous areas rendered them prohibitive in a scarcity-governed survival simulator.

Radiation is a persistent threat – thank goodness for this Geiger counter! Source: Avalanche Reviews

A sleep mechanic is introduced for the first time in the series’ history. This had appeared in fan-made modifications to earlier titles, but was integrated into Call of Pripyat as a way to handle NPC time-based behavior routines. Time-sensitive sidequests had always been an element of the series but were made more accessible by the ability to fast travel, so to speak, to the appropriate time of day. At the same time, the fact that sleep is only possible in designated safe zones underlines the importance of seeking out these areas.

Though it negatively impacted performance on contemporary PC hardware, the powerful draw distance offers especially evocative scenery. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Areas more generally feature greater diversity than earlier games. The world is split across three massive maps including wide-open spaces and cramped corridors. This allows the player to experience both emergent open-air battles and more tightly scripted interior sequences. Its environments represents the best of both Shadow of Chernobyl and Clear Sky, delivering on the promise of both without falling victim to the clumsiness of the former or the inconsistency of the latter.

The anomalies are back and as dangerous as ever. Source: Avalanche Reviews

As suggested by the aforementioned presence of scripted combat sequences, Call of Pripyat is more tightly plotted than either of GSC’s preceding S.T.A.L.K.E.R. releases. The game is set after Shadow of Chernobyl, as the Zone is investigated by the Ukrainian military. Five government helicopters crash as they travel through the Zone and Secret Service of Ukraine agent Alexander Degtyarev is sent in to discover why they went down. The player steps into the shoes of Degtyarev as he gathers intelligence, navigates the already-complex factions of the Zone, and scavenges supplies. Shadow of Chernobyl’s player character eventually returns to explain the cause of the helicopter accident.

This nihilistic death screen message might be one of my favorite things about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Source: Avalanche Reviews

Call of Pripyat may not fully resolve the lingering mysteries of the Zone, but it does meaningfully advance the narrative established by Shadow of Chernobyl and complicated by Clear Sky. It simultaneously refines the mechanics of its predecessors while introducing new quality of life improvements. Many critics and fans would come to regard Call of Pripyat as the most successful implementation of the ambitious story and systems which had defined GSC’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise.

Conclusion

No S.T.A.L.K.E.R. spinoffs were ever released. Surprisingly, no S.T.A.L.K.E.R. of any kind was released after the worldwide publication of Call of Pripyat in 2010. GSC Game World was unexpectedly dissolved by CEO Sergei Grigorovich under unclear circumstances in 2011 even as its employees were hard at work on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. GSC then reformed in 2014 and announced that it had restarted work on the series’ next entry, which is tentatively scheduled for a 2021 release date.

Whatever the future brings for GSC and its flagship property, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has secured a place as one of the most significant new intellectual properties of the early 21st Century. The franchise was instrumental in propelling Eastern European game development onto the world stage during its brief time in the spotlight, setting up the ascent of series like CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher (2007-2015) and 4A Games’ Metro franchise (2010-2019). The latter was actually created by former employees of GSC Game World.

Aside from its historical importance, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. continues to attract new players a decade after its debut. A thriving mod community ensures that the game rarely grows stale, including some modders’ direct collaboration with series’ developers to integrate lost content. The ambition of GSC was so infectious that even its fans were inspired to create great things. Like its own source material, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will cast a long shadow in the decades ahead.


What do you think about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? What are your favorite emergent gameplay stories? How about your favorite mutated Zone-dweller? What would you like to see in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, if and when it comes out? Let’s discuss below.

Next week we’ll be untangling the exceedingly complex web that is Kemco’s Crazy Castle franchise. I hope you’ll join us next Friday at 9:00 AM EST.