Stalk To The Monsters

I’m continuing to play Stalker. I intend to write some exciting things about the game, its themes, its “Zone Of Alienation”, and its relationship to science fictions past. I’m going to do a couple of different pieces in the next couple of months, both with a different focus. I’ll link them up here when they’re published.

Anyway, I’ve been playing through Stalker again from the beginning, patched up this time. It seems a little more solid, even down to the fights seeming less clumsy. You still can’t medipack crucial fallen NPCs, especially if they have a looped conversation tree, and you have to chat to them in their wounded state, squirming in agony as they text you information about Strelok. There are other bugs too, and I love them all equally.

What has struck me the second time around is that this is a game that really needs to be played a second time around. I saw plenty of interesting situations emerge last time thanks to the ‘life’ of the random NPCs and creatures, but this time many more interesting situations have arisen, and predicaments I found myself in the first time I played have simply not occurred.

The first fight in ‘Garbage’ for instance, was entirely skewed against the bandits this time, because a large group (at least six) of neutral stalkers came wandering through the area. I don’t think I saw a moving friendly group of that size in the entire first run through the game. These neutrals took out the entire bandit mob easily, and then went on to carve their way through the second group of bandits besieging the warehouse a little further across the map. All I had to do was shadow them and run along looting the bodies. Last time it had taken me several hours to get past the second group of bandits, so ruined was I by the first fight for the scrapheap. Later on a lone (and random) Duty soldier cleaned out a mob of bandits I was having trouble with by virtue of him being armoured up and having a decent assault rifle – things that are way beyond me at this stage.

I was chatting to Ste Curran at the weekend about exploration in games. His thought was that lots of games had learned the wrong lessons from Tomb Raider – and that’s why we were now stuck with so many tightly scripted linear action adventures with hot girls as the main character. What we should have got was games that were about exploring (raiding?) tombs or otherwise. Most of what the original Tomb Raider did was in the spirit of exploration, that seems to have been deliberately discarded by the games that followed.

I think Half-Life and Half-Life 2 have a similar legacy – their exploration is only really exploration by virtue of the designers being able to propel you forward continuously along their rail, which is another reason why FPS games become so bad when you get stuck. You need constant inertia, constant travel, to hide the fact that you can only really head in a single direction.

I wonder whether games like Stalker and Just Cause might help game designers relearn the love of creating modes of exploration, rather than creating carefully crafted linear sequences. No matter how beautiful and variable an arena area in Half-Life 2 or FEAR, I still get more excited about the singular, random things that I’ve managed to achieve in Stalker.

I’m sure there’ll be more on this exploration theme in the coming weeks. It’s really bugging me.

Random final thought: I’ve been criticised for “not understanding” Second Life on the basis that it should be treated as a communication tool, of the lineage of static chatrooms, IRC, and ICQ-style chat programs, rather than as anything like a “game”. It’s almost a fair criticism, but I think it arises from the fact that I write for a gaming audience, and have developed my writing to address them. I can’t recommend it to gamers, precisely because it is barely a game at all. Were I writing for a chat-client crowd (could that even be a distinct net-culture grouping?) then I think my angle and response might have been quite different.

4 Responses to “Stalk To The Monsters”

  • Owen Says:

    I’ve just started playing Stalker and I’m absolutely dumbfounded at how good it is.

    However, I have to defend the ‘on the rail’ nature of HL2. The absolutely best thing about it was that you almost never ever felt as if you were being guided. When you dived behind the cover just over there to avoid the helicopter, it felt like you were doing it because you wanted to, and not because the designers wanted you to go that way.

    In fact this highlights the one problem I have with Stalker – travel. Frequently I’ve had to traverse the Garbage to get back to the trader
    so I’m forced to run/stop/run/stop for about 20 minutes. HL2 never did this to me…

  • Rossignol Says:

    Yes, but then Half-Life 2 didn’t really let you decide where you wanted to go for yourself.

  • bob_arctor Says:

    The city in HL2 was rubbish. The linearity was just completely obvious. And the big civil building.

    Going through canals in a straight line kind of makes sense but linear urban environments are shoddy.

  • Thedood Says:

    Exploration, especially of a freeform nature is a very hard thing to do, it has to be more than “oh I’ll just walk for 10 minutes and here’s another building” kind of exploration. There has to be meaning and transitions from one place to another, the AI and natural life have to contrive to create something – not unscripted – but unique, those special moments where somthing happens that wasn’t expected: that makes you feel the world is more vibrant and alive than you’d given it creedence.

    HL2 is incredibly scripted, but it’s scripted incredibly well, and that’s often the problem with expansive areas: the personality gets diluted. HL2′s personality comes in a very concentrated form, it is spoon fed to you – an extreme yes, but its opposite involves you searching for those sparse morsels far too much. If we could have the quality of the designed areas (the tightness of concept in both the design and /flow/ of an “arena”), spread over a large playing space we’d be laughing.

    In stalker, you’re the director, in HL2 you’re the coreographer. Does that make any sense, or is that one analogy too far?