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: the Zone.”
The video games move the Zone to the real-life Chernobyl zone of alienation. The different “levels” or settings in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are detailed and recognizable though thoroughly fictionalized—there’s been a mysterious second disaster, filling the Zone with mutants and strange technological “artifacts.” On the screen we see computer recreations of the military cordon, the labs, and Pripyat, the abandoned city built to house Chernobyl workers.
Released in North America between 2007 and 2010, the games have been extremely successful; Shadow of Chernobyl alone sold several million copies around the world. Bringing the cycle of adaptation full circle, a series of novels based on the game were released in Russia. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are “first-person shooters” (FPSes)—perhaps the dominant computer game genre for the past decade. The player, sitting at his computer, sees through the eyes of the protagonist, aiming his gun with movements of the mouse, and walking, jumping, or otherwise interacting with the world by using the keyboard.
FPSes usually aim for a kind of restrictive, frenetic immersion in the video game’s action: the player is guided through a series of ever more elaborate battles, and witnesses the events of the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist (or protagonists) rather than from reading a text narration or watching periodic “cut scenes” that try to imitate movies. (The immensely popular Call of Duty series switches the player through several very different viewpoints, including starting one game’s story through the eyes of a deposed dictator as he is led to his execution). But in order to make sure the story unfolds correctly the player is given very little freedom, with few choices beyond what to shoot first, and with which weapon.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are slower and more open than the usual FPS. Borrowing elements from role-playing games and adventure games, they allow time for exploring possibilities between fights, many of which can even be avoided by simply running away, and for rudimentary interactions and conversation with other Zone inhabitants. These conversations are conducted through a simple text interface, in which the player chooses among several possible responses (important characters are voiced by actors, but minor ones are largely silent—a seemingly odd mix that is actually quite common in video games). The violence, when it comes, has a clumsy desperation that is unusual: enemies die after only a shot or two, but most of the guns available to players are wildly inaccurate and unreliable. As with most games, when you “die” you simply restart the game at a slightly earlier point, which does not lessen the tension as much as one might think.
On the face of it, the games don’t have much in common with the film. A large part of the genius of Tarkovsky’s Stalker was its singular combination of mystical yearning and artistic precision. The actors, even in the midst of weighty metaphysical discussions, always seem like real people, dirty, contradictory, and changeable. The character Stalker is all anxious faith. The Zone is, he says, the only place he feels at home, and he knows its dangers enough to fear them utterly. The Professor moves from phlegmatic common sense to righteous violence, threatening near the end of the film to destroy the Room with a homemade bomb for fear of the destruction that wishes could bring to the world if they were truly granted. The Writer, for his part, begins the film drunk and foolhardy, attempting to bring a floozy along on the expedition, and ends it in anguished, self-loathing sanity.
As they move from the grimy city on the edge of the Zone to the verdant Zone itself, the cinematography switches carefully from a rough-hewn sepia to gorgeous, almost overwhelmingly lush color (Tarkovsky sometimes painted the leaves of trees to make them properly green). The soundtrack slides back and forth between an unsettling electronic score and natural sounds, often combining both.
None of this cinematic intensity or psychological depth remains in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, which have subpar graphics, clumsy writing, abysmal voice-acting, and tediously clichéd music. Tarkovsky’s enigmatic title “Stalker” has been turned into a ridiculous acronym (“Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber”) and the series is ridden with technical glitches, even after a host of corrective delays and patches.
But it doesn’t really matter. As games, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is remarkable, the first one especially so (few have much cared for Clear Sky). While they all have the elements of a standard action game—guns, monsters, missions, traps, loot—much of the player’s activity is in keeping with Stalker’s spirit, sometimes even managing to expand upon it. Each game has a basic plot—you’re a soldier sent into the Zone to investigate crashed military helicopters, or an amnesiac who awakes with a mysterious mission tattooed on your arm—but these are largely beside the point. The focus of the action is simply exploring: skirting battles or fighting in them, completing optional missions offered by other Zone residents, hunting for valuable items hidden in the landscape.
The Zone in the video games is a beautifully dangerous place, bigger and grimmer than Tarkovsky’s, but somehow still appropriate. There are plenty of long, tense walks through damp weather or empty, creaking tunnels. Packs of dogs wander the landscape, ruined farmhouses give shelter from the rain; here and there the ground ripples strangely. Stalkers gather around campfires, bandits take potshots at passersby, and a man lies wounded in a ditch, begging for help. Watching Stalker, one is occasionally brought up short by remembering that it was not filmed in Chernobyl, so perfect an analogue does that event seem for the film’s images of technology and nature, beauty and danger in strange alliance. The games, at their best, can seem like a sort of miracle: a dead man’s masterpiece, come home at last.
Yet there is something deeper that sets the series apart. Most video games are designed to unfold entirely around you, the player: everything happens for your benefit; you’re always coming into a room at the most dramatic moment, and only you can complete the mission. In many, if you simply don’t move for a few minutes, the entire world comes to a standstill. The striking new feature of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, in contrast—the source at once of all their delays and bugs, and much of their unique power—is something called “A-Life,” an elaborate artificial intelligence system that controls the thousands of simulated creatures and people who inhabit the Zone, and who go about their business with no special regard for the player’s actions.
A-Life provides every Zone inhabitant with a complex, variable set of goals (search for valuable items, for instance, or sleep) and possible actions (shoot, flee, wander aimlessly), then simulates what happens when they pursue them. Rather than stand still waiting for you to come by, as is the case in most games, they interact with each other, trading, fighting, even banding together. A-Life doesn’t really care about you; events take place, whether you see them or not. You’ll spend half an hour defending a friendly group from bandits, only to come back later and find they were overrun by a later attack; or you’ll accept a mission to kill a misbehaving stalker, only to find he’s been killed by a wild dog a mile away. These events—and many more that you may never find out about—emerge from the various goals and interactions that A-Life simulates for every Zone inhabitant throughout the game.
In some ways, the video games are closer to Tarkovsky’s source material than to the film. In the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic, the stalkers are numerous and mercenary. The elements of the Zone are many, though none are quite explained—there are small areas with extremely high gravity known as “mosquito mange,” for instance, and others where shadows point in the wrong direction. In the film most of these are not present—Tarkovsky leaves in only one, a deadly phenomenon known as the “meatgrinder,” though his Stalker is clearly terrified of many more. But the video game restores them, and adds more: strange traps known as “anomalies,” hidden along paths and in tunnels, that crush, dismember, and electrocute; and “artifacts,” weird little objects with supernatural properties—infinite batteries, healing talismans, death rays, and so on—that are the reason people venture into the Zone. (In Roadside Picnic both the anomalies and the artifacts are discarded alien technology; in the video games they are somehow the result of the various scientific disasters.)
One of the lasting enigmas of Tarkovsky’s film is the odd, intense expression—at once consumed with worry and lit up like a child’s, or a fanatic’s—of the actor who plays Stalker. After you go some way into the video game, this suddenly makes a new kind of sense: it’s your face, rapt in front of a screen, playing. The games’ first-person perspective and open-ended structure have a similar effect. You can move more or less where you want to, provided you don’t get poisoned by radiation, shot by bandits, or mauled by mutant dogs on the way; it’s just you and your gun, and no one, not even the game, seems to care what happens to you. Eventually the silly central plot kicks in and all this goes by the wayside, but until then, the game’s indifference can seem a kind of grim, bracing rejoinder to the smug exceptionalism that defines American games: in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you aren’t special, you’re just there.
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. ↩