S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Review – Games and Chronotopes
I love applying literary theories to video games. This is a practice-run for a portion of of a conference paper I’m presenting in a few weeks. I hope you find such cross-medium application of tools fun as well, or else this entry is going to be a bore.
Every medium fixes time and space differently. In the novel, there are key words that suggest a relationship between the two (jerk and creep both add time to movement, events that are “sudden” or “abrupt,” etc.) In video games, chronotopes (space-time relationships) have been largely lazy. Games tend to “freeze” without the player’s input, no one ages no matter how long you play, etc. In essence, all games use the time Bakhtin identified as epic: time that is almost solipsistic in its association with the main player.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a bit different.
In Anton Bolshakov’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, the player plays the “Marked One,” a Stalker who wakes up with amnesia and one task on his PDA’s to-do list: kill Strelok. The game takes place in the Zone: an anomalous zone of alienation left in the wake of a second catastrophic failure at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In response to this failure, the government erected a quarantine border. All stalkers – including the player – are stuck in the Zone. The border was built around them – they are transformed by its presence and become one with the Zone, but (in true post-Soviet fashion), this transformation is not of their will. The government forces it. Stalkers venture towards the zone’s centre for supplies and to find mysterious biological artefacts – strange living organs of intense power – left by the in the wake of the anomalies. At the centre is the power plant, where an artefact known only as the “wish granter” exists.
Chernobyl’s world is uncanny and supernatural as a result. The non-player characters – including hundreds of other stalkers and thousands of animals – are controlled by an artificial intelligence program called A-Life. This system allows the non-player characters to conduct their own day-to-day survival: they search for supplies, brave dangers for artefacts, and engage in wars with other stalkers to control key facilities. This also means that the player will occasionally learn about a non-player character who can help them uncover their identity, only to find that the character has already died to a trap or a war the player never saw!
This is a unique formal tactic for a video game: the world of Chernobyl treats the player dispassionately. Traditionally, in a video game the player character is the centre of the action: when they are not in the room, time freezes. Nothing outside the frame is “occurring.” Non-player characters cease to exist until the player interacts with them. Chernobyl does give the player this central position: the non-player characters survive, die and wage war through complex simulations. Shadow of Chernobyl translates Tarkovsky’s technique of sculpting in time to a video game format: time is allowed to pass evenly in every nook of the game world, regardless of the current “spatial focus” surrounding the player. Thus, the narrative continues without the player’s consent, and stories emerge from the simulated interactions the A-life system allows.
The game imposes a quest on the player, however: discover their identity. To do such, the player is sent on a quest towards the centre of the Zone, where the wish granter can tell him who he is. A very blunt version of “the quest for meaning” characteristic of these sort of narratives, but video games simply haven’t reached the thematic or formal maturity of other mediums, in its youth. A video game concerning itself with themes at all is an unusually bold step!
Although the power plant is a few kilometres from the border, the twisting anomalies destroy the standard relationship between space and time. Here (along with the fact that the ALife creatures keep living without concern for the player) is where the interesting chronotope of SoC develops. Let’s take an example. Even though a shed a player wants to shelter in may be a meter away, the invisible anomalies make the trip take an hour or longer. We see the technique of disassociating space and time’s traditional relationship, using interactive formal techniques this time.
Chernobyl tries to offer an impossible relationship between object’s existence and the player’s perceptions, but it’s a difficult thing to manage in a game. I can write “square circles,” but showing such objects in a game is another matter!
It offers players a set of options for navigating the anomaly. First is the Geiger counter – I’m sure you heard it clicking away – that detects radiation, a sign of anomalies. This allows players to “sense” the invisible. Players can instead take Stalker’s tactic from the film Stalker, and throw metal bolts. The bolts will fizzle when they enter a trap, letting the player gauge the trap’s dimensions. Finally, the player can channel Red from Roadside Picnic and use a sacrifice: by waiting to see if an animal or other non-player character enters the area.
The meat grinder distorts the relationship between time and space using interactive techniques. A regular player of games assumes that such a short path will take a short while to traverse. This is not the case: by throwing nuts or waiting for an non-player character, such short journeys may take a long while. Space fails to indicate time as it traditionally would in a video game, and player’s are forced to spend more “time” in any one “space” than they usually would, zipping from ludic goal to ludic goal. In this way, Chernobyl flattens space and time.