Saturday, December 05, 2009

Review :: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl

There are games that create stories and there are games that create worlds--the truly greatest games are ones that do both. Games that create worlds exist independent from any situated narrative; games that create narratives are locked on that narrative's rails, usually restricting the player from exploring that world. STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is a game about a world; it's not about a linear narrative, moments of high-escalating action, the illusion of morals and free choice, or all that other nonsense. Instead, STALKER drops you into an environment: the post-apocalyptic fallout of the Chernobyl power plant, and you are put at its mercy and rules until the game promptly ends.

In that respect, it is a convincing world with a desolate atmosphere. You can stop walking along the barren roads, observe the sun beaming through a patch of clouds, see the trees and grass swaying ever so slightly, uncover a briefcase in an abandoned, rusted, truck, and then notice two mercenaries on an upcoming road heading towards you with guns ready. In much the same way of Oblivion, this is a world that you have entered, which happens to contain a narrative in it. It's not a narrative you enter which happens to contain a world around it. The difference between the two is that you can enjoy being immersed in a world without having to do some specific task, but it is much harder to enjoy being in a narrative without any specific task.

When games create their own worlds, it is an ambitious undertaking, and oftentimes the narrative can suffer as a result. Here are some ways that I think the narrative could be improved in STALKER.
Ways to improve the narrative in STALKER (the game, not the profession)!
1. Introduction of Conflict
There's a certain element that is needed to maintain interest in a story: conflict. This means there is an opposing force to your action: you try to do something (rescue a princess) and somebody tries to stop you (the evil Koopa king). What's the conflict introduced in KOTOR? The Sith attack the Endar Spire in order to capture Bastilla; you have to stop them. In The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion? The evil council of bad guys kill the king as you try to escape; you need to save his son. What about in Half-LifeĀ²? The opening scene in which the Combine have enslaved mankind; you need to rescue them.

All of these stories introduce conflict either in the opening scene, or very, very shortly after.

The sooner you introduce conflict in a story, the better, because it introduces an obstacle to overcome: a goal, and with that, a chance of failure, challenge, and victory. When I awoke in STALKER, there wasn't a sense of conflict. There was no power-push intro in which to establish an opposing force who would try to destroy me for the rest of the game. When the game started, I was in a little homey town in which I could wander and explore endlessly. This wasn't like the intro in Oblivion or KOTOR, in which I knew there was a larger goal at hand, a narrative which I needed to return to, which propelled my motivations forward even in the most mundane dialogs.

However, when I finally ventured out of my starting point in STALKER and encountered a group of loners fighting off mercenaries, that's immediately when the story (or world) became interesting to me. I finally felt that sense of a larger battle, a sense of an opposing force that I had to overcome, a goal to which I had to aspire. When the conflict was introduced, that's when I finally started caring.

2. Heart
I once saw somewhere that the "BioWare method" for side-quests was something akin to this: Make the player compelled to act because of an emotional connection to the character giving the side-quest. Why do we care to perform a "quest" for a non-player character? What's our motivation? In film and movies, the audience needs to sympathize with a character in order to care about that person. The same principle can apply to games. For example, don't just have an NPC come up to a character and say "Hey, can you kill these two bandits at this shed and I'll give you some gold?" Instead, give the NPC an emotional context in which to engage the player: "Hey, can you kill these two bandits because I'm a pilgrim and they stole my loot and murdered the rest of my family and now I am homeless and this evil gangster lord is out to kill me because I can't pay him back?" Which of the two is more engaging and compelling for the player to act? With the emotional back-story, or without?

As STALKER currently stands, there's not much of an emotional connection--there's not much heart to it. All the characters in the game exist as pointless mercenaries just sitting, waiting, guarding; shooting anything that enters their territory. That actually makes contextual sense, I guess, because why would there be any heart in the midst of bands of mercenaries in a desolate and mutated fallout region? Despite that, I still believe there should be more substance, more life to the characters in STALKER. They need to have more dreams, aspirations, lives, or cares; not just be sitting around waiting for something to happen or to shoot the next guy not on their patrol. Giving the characters more heart would give me more of reason to care for them (and then carry out the side-quest they give me!).

3. Player-Control
Rather than going into the myriad of problems associated with the second half of the plot (amnesia, wish-granting, meta-physical scientists, plot-twists) I'll just discuss the one of the player's control over the narrative.

The final scene in the game (depending on which ending you receive) takes place in the form of a granted wish (don't ask what this means in a science fiction story). You spend hours killing mutants and other mercenaries in order to get into the core of the power plant and approach the "Wish Granter," when suddenly the game takes over in a cut-scene showing you, the player, saying: "I wish... I could be rich/powerful/not-an-emotionless-loser!" and then the ceiling collapses on you and you die. What makes this so frustrating is that you spend all this time embodied in the protagonist (who up to this point was totally 1:1 with your actions) only to have him independently grant a seemingly arbitrary wish at the end which subsequently leads to your demise.

I don't want to play through a game, able to control my player's actions for the entirety of the time, only to have this control yanked away from me at the very end for the very last and crucial decision of the game. I don't want to play Half-Life 1, only to watch myself reach the final stage in Xen, then witness a cut-scene where Gordon falls into a pit because that was the presupposed ending the designers wanted you to have. I want to be able to control my actions, especially at the end, because that is when my actions (usually) matter the most--that is when I can resolve the conflict, and end the story.


Interesting and compelling worlds in games are great, but there also should be something to direct a player's actions: a narrative. It should compel the players forward, encourage them to explore this world, and remind them of their goals, no matter how far astray they may run off. STALKER still stands on its own as a world, but without a strong enough narrative, it is not the complete and engaging experience that it could have been.

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At 12/06/2009 12:03 AM, Blogger Ben304 said...

This is exactly why the idea of STALKER never excited me in the first place.

I enjoy watching trailers for games (as well as for movies). I feel that a preview is a beautiful summary of the game's overarching plot in just a minute or two, giving the developers a chance to really grab your attention as a viewer.

With STALKER, however, the trailers that were around only showed a man walking around shooting and hiding and getting hurt. The reviews spoke lovingly of the graphics and immersive environments - but if I want to be immersed in a realistic environment I'll go for a walk outside.

I'm not too proud to admit to being shallow. I want drama, tension, excitement or something that invites me to contemplate. I want an emotional experience beyond 'Oh no, I'm low on ammo and there are guys coming this way!'

Interesting to see your thoughts on this.

At 12/06/2009 10:05 AM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

That being said, the experiences in walking alone in the post-apocalyptic backdrop aren't really bad at all, perse. I love being able to just boot up a game and be immersed in the world from the get-go, without having to wait for a specific moment. I think STALKER manages to accomplish that, so it still is enjoyable in that right.

At 3/13/2010 9:16 PM, Blogger Mauro Sans said...

Sorry to hear you didn't like the ending. Maybe it was because this was the "fool's ending" which you can read about here.

At 3/17/2010 1:36 PM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

Yep, caught that. I went on to find the "real" ending--if I remember correctly, it involved killing some scientists and watching a short cinematic--and that was slightly better, as it didn't force you to make an unsuitable choice.


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