The ‘Stalker’ Game

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

a video game by GSC Game World
$19.99 (distributed in the US by THQ)

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky

a video game by GSC Game World
$29.99 (distributed in the US by Deep Silver)

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

a video game by GSC Game World
$14.99 (distributed in the US by Viva Media)
winslow-yost_1-062112.jpg
Mary Evans/MOSFILM/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
Nikolai Grinko as ‘Professor,’ Alexander Kaidanovsky as ‘Stalker,’ and Anatoli Solonitsyn as ‘Writer’ in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, 1979

Zona, Geoff Dyer’s recent book about the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, has been much discussed for its almost comically thorough dissection of the stately 1979 film in which three men venture into a mysterious, dangerous “Zone,” which supposedly contains a “Room” in which wishes can be granted. In an account that combines summary, memoir, meditation, tribute, and citation, Dyer sets out to convey the hypnotic effect Stalker has had on decades of viewers, and on himself. And yet, after reading Dyer’s book, I was left feeling that something was missing. In the deluge of commentary on the book and the film, perhaps the most inventive, and most popular, part of the film’s afterlife has gone entirely unremarked: the video game version.

It may at first seem improbable that a decades-old art film in which very little happens could be embellished with firefights and mutant psychics and converted into violent video games. Originally adapted from the popular Russian science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic (1971) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Stalker depicts three men (“Writer,” “Professor,” and “Stalker,” their guide and the film’s protagonist) journeying into the deadly “Zone,” with its mysterious “Room.” This fraught, high-stakes quest consists mainly of the three men walking a couple hundred yards in a grassy, abandoned landscape and talking (with a break for a nap); the film ends after 163 minutes without anyone entering the Room and with no wishes apparently made or granted.

But one aspect of Stalker’s enduring fascination has been the way it seems to prefigure the Chernobyl disaster that occurred seven years after its release: the nuclear meltdown created an abandoned “zone of alienation,” as it was widely called, over a thousand square miles considered too radioactive to enter, though tourists began to be allowed in starting in 2002. To many this was eerily similar to the Zone of the film, and it is this parallel that inspired a Ukrainian video game developer named GSC Game World to create a series of video game adaptations of the film called, respectively, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.*

In Roadside Picnic, the Zone is the result of a visit to Earth by extraterrestrials: the area seems magical because it is filled with discarded alien technology beyond human understanding. In adapting the novel, Tarkovsky stripped out almost all its science-fiction elements (leading one collaborator to wonder if he’d picked the wrong novel). The Zone of his film is more abstract and mysterious, its origin addressed only in the opening titles: “What was it? A meteorite that fell to earth? Or a visitation from outer space? Whatever it was, there appeared in our land a miracle of miracles …

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  1. *

    GSC Game World was unexpectedly shut down by its owner a few months ago, in the middle of work on a fourth S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game (called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, confusingly). Many of its designers have since reunited as Vostok Games.