The Ashes of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - A Thorough Look at S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 and the Legacy of the Franchise
By HalidYusein 15 Comments
Everything about and around the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise is weird. It's developed by GSC Game World, based in Ukraine, also responsible for the Cossacks series. Comprised of 3 games (eat your heart out HL) that have horror, survival and RPG elements wrapped in an open world FPS. Its story encapsulates everyday villains and heroes put against each other and sci-fi monsters, anomalies and artifacts, while Soviet era conspiracies about mass brainwashing and the Chernobyl disaster from 1986 serve as a backstage. All of it supported by one of the most advanced AIs in gaming, A-Life, with its simulation of every creature you see in the game - their habits and needs, which makes the Zone a truly living and breathing world.
While its mechanics can be traced to other open world titles like Far Cry and Fallout, its themes are a bit harder to identify. The games are set in Pripyat and its surrounding area – a time capsule of Soviet era communist architecture, which are recreated to a striking degree of accuracy. Which helps a lot to give these games a very strong sense of a real place.
Much of the background history of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are based on Soviet Russia literature and film. To be precise I'm talking about the Roadside Picnic novel, written by the Strugatsky Brothers, and the movie based on it, simply titled Stalker, from Anderi Tarkovsky; both from which come the artifacts, anomalies and the mysterious Zone that contains them.
There are differences though. Like the alien visitation in the novel, which is nowhere to be found in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. But the franchise' inspirations were created 20-30 years before the development of the first game started, in the early '00, and was finally finished in 2007. Which brings me to another point I've talked about before: For a long time Shadow of Chernobyl (previously known as Oblivion Lost) was in many people's list of vapourware games and software. It went through many revisions to its whole concept and gameplay, like abandoning whole levels and cutting features like vehicles, even abandoning its early futuristic world with Aztec pyramids and all, in favour of Chernobyl and the Zone in it.
The timing of when S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was made is just right. Not too early to cripple its technical ambitions and achievements, but also not too late for when the bigger Eastern European games have become F2P projects these days. In a way everything around S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was never supposed to happen, if you know what I mean. It's kind of a miracle that it happened at the end of the day, the way it did and what it became:
Shadow of Chernobyl (2007): the long awaited game that shocked everybody and defied expectations;
Clear Sky (2008): first add-on, set up as a prequel to SoC introducing faction warfare, considered the worst of the three games, because it was polished the least;
Call of Pripyat (2009): second add-on, continuation of SoC, introducing larger areas, most people prefer it for its gameplay and overall stability.
While these days S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is still fairly popular in the CIS region, not enough people remember and talk about it in the West. It's largely a forgotten franchise over here, mentioned occasionally (which I will talk about later). One thing that's still true about all these games is the active modding scene, which has numerous mods that enhance and change the unique experience S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provides, one goes as far to even recreate Oblivion Lost, which is like a complete game and it's free.
And that would've been everything if the studio that made these games wasn't so suddenly closed-but-not-really in 2012, taking down with itself the sequel to this trilogy, announced two years prior, simply titled S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. To add more confusion to this mess GSC Game World emerged from the dead in 2014 declaring that they are back in business, to develop more video games. Which simply made things a tad more interesting.
2. 8, D, 4, A, S,
It's funny and tragic at the same time how GSC released three S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games 3 years in a row, but just like their first game in the series, Shadow of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 is in development hell as well. It's like a curse. But this time it's different, because for the original trilogy GSC didn't have the direction, technology and the money they needed, which they eventually got and developed their powerful X-Ray engine. On the other hand S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 lacks the one thing the original game had - the talent.
There were a lot of people that worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. throughout its development, as GSC was the biggest Ukrainian games developer at the time. But those who made the series for what it is are now scattered around in a lot of different places.
It's not a secret that when GSC closed its doors in 2012 most of the developers directly transitioned on to make Survarium (spiritual successor to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) under Vostok Games. But since then some have left that studio as well, making it harder for the right people to unite together in order to create S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, when GSC decides to get back to it.
Like the technology architects who left GSC even before SoC was completed. They founded 4A Games and made the 4A Engine, which powers their Metro series (which I will also talk about later).
People like Alex Sytianov who wrote much of the story (including Survarium's), but now is the head of 8D Studio making Sketch Tales. Or Ilya Tolmachev who was the art director for SC and CoP, he and few other ex-GSC employees went on to found Flying Cafe for Semianimals and made Cradle. There's also Anton Bolshakov, project leader of every S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, who is, as far as I can tell, now developing/advising on mobile games.
I also see some mentions of ex-"GSC" or "Stalker" developers at various studios, like Game-Labs, who just released Naval Action on Steam. Or the recent little misunderstanding that there were several former S.T.A.L.K.E.R. developers working at Battlestate Games, who are making Escape From Tarkov. Though it was later confirmed that only 1 such developer exists there, which they could've actually stayed quiet about and capitalize on it, like AnotheR cErtAin deveLoper. And if fans are asking questions that means people care about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and that's a good thing.
But in my opinion, if the fans of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. really want the game GSC promised us and were making in 2010, it has to be made by that core team again. Some of those people have even suggested that they are ready to go back and work on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, if GSC decides to finish it.
I strongly believe that video games are made by people and not companies. Seems like an obvious statement to make, but think about it: Do you trust anybody else but Valve to make Half-Life 3, especially with the recent departures of some of its original creators? Hideo Kojima and Metal Gear? Not to mention the countless indie studios that bring charm to their games in a way only they can do.
How about the many license exchanges and lends that have completely changed the purest aspects of countless series? Sometimes it's good, like Wolfenstein, but sometimes it's not, like Hardline. It's a gamble between the potential future or potential permanent demise of your favourite franchise. I guess here's the next obvious question to ask: do you trust anybody else but that old GSC company that closed its doors in 2012 to make that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2?
Because I don't.
Most of the information that has come out since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 got frozen is in Russian, but thankfully, yours truly knows his Cyrillic and Bulgarian, which helps a lot when you want to know more.
When S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was announced in April 2010 it was confirmed that the story in it would feature a completely new chapter, staring Strelok, the protagonist of the first game. More survival mechanics, new monsters and factions were also promised. Here's some concept art and renders, courtesy of ExGSC.Com:
Later in 2011 more details like the fact that the playable area would be one seamless, giant Zone, as opposed to the many smaller ones in the previous games, was also confirmed.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was also going to use a new engine, as opposed to the old and unstable X-Ray 1.6. It was written completely from scratch, fully supporting DX11 too. With it they wanted to eventually debut the series on consoles as well.
From last year, a supposed, partial source code leak of the new engine, X-Ray 2.0, supports that, along with revealing a map of the new Zone, courtesy of GameInator.Com:
There was also a leak of very early design documents from in last year which had a slightly different version of the same map. They are based on a Google Earth satellite image from 2002 (the current version of the area in GE is from 2013):
There is also the theory that some concept art, renders of character and structure models made it into Survarium, which wouldn't be a surprise given how far GSC was in development with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 and its sudden development freeze:
For any old fan all of these details meant that if you liked what was there, more was to come in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, done in a better manner. And for anyone that didn't get into the series because of its many shortcomings, it was the perfect chance to do so.
And while I would like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 to happen more than anything, I just don't see how these promises are supposed to be kept when the people that made and understood them aren't at GSC anymore. It's OK to have hope for the future of an ambiguous game like this, but having adequate expectations is more important.
When GSC Game World reopened in 2014, this is what Valentine Yeltyshev, current spokesperson of the company, said to GamesIndustry.biz:
"We realized that STALKER 2 was different. It was going to take too much time - by the time it was ready, it was definitely going to be out of date."
Which is just soul crushing because to me that means when they get back to it, in a year or so from now, they might need to re-do a lot of its aspects. Which would add additional development time, making the already expensive project even more so. In the same article Valentine Yeltyshev also said:
"We're fine for now, but maybe when we switch to another project we'll expand the team."
There's little information as to the current status of GSC Game World, other than the fact that they are focused on strategy games right now – specifically Cossacks 3, a remake of their more than 15 years old RTS series. But after that? Who knows. But the more I think about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, the more apparent it becomes to me how impossible it is to give it its due justice.
Don't get me wrong – this game might happen one way or another, but it might take damage to its overall quality if the right people aren't involved. GSC coming back to make more video games is just a step toward making S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, not the whole solution!
3. The Witcher from Faltro.
Many fans just want the game to happen in some way at least. Suggestions range from GSC selling the rights to someone else to merely lending it to capable studios, like 4A Games. That's a reasonable choice, given the fact that there are so many similarities between S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Metro, but also so many fundamental differences too, which is something I've always found very interesting:
Based on Books:
Everywhere on Earth
Danger isolated in a small place
Safety isolated in a small place
As stated previously, 4A Games was founded by ex-GSC Game World employees, but in 2010 GSC accused 4A of copying their X-Ray engine in order to create the 4A Engine (which is ridiculous for many reasons). Which makes me think that this alliance is not going to happen. Maybe it's all old grudges by now and everybody has forgotten about those events. We don't know. But as shown on the table, 4A already have a franchise and talent to work with. Until then, I guess we can look forward to their new "sand-box-style" shooter.
But there's another studio that could take S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and make something unique out of it. Another studio that's mirroring some of the aspects of what made GSC Game World so unique: Beth... I'm just kidding and you know it. I'm of course talking about CD Projekt and their unparalleled progress in making bigger and better games (though to some degree the same could be said about 4A Games as well).
The Witcher has evolved gargantually as a franchise, just like the plans of GSC were for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (with plans to even expand it to a TV series), the only difference is that the latter couldn't continue following its ambitions. The biggest reason I think CD Projekt can make a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game is because I think they get it. They get what it takes to stand out in a sea of developer houses which are lead by nonsensical corporate decisions. Everything they do is against the bigger tide, yet they get away with it. They offer their games in a completely DRM-free form and develop tons of free DLC. And while it's something others do, you don't see it done to this capacity.
A bit of a side note here: I would love to see CDPR turn into one of those studios that can make any kind of a game. The Stanley Kubrick of video gaming. The closest we have to that is currently Blizzard in my opinion.
Basically: I would be happy to see any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. related project developed by CDPR. While the end result will definitely not be S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: I say go tinker with it, change whatever you want, I'm sure the end result is going end up something worth engaging with.
I jokingly mentioned Bethesda before because of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s relation to Fallout (especially the games after 2 (we don't talk about Tactics)) and while we are at it, let's go through this topic as well.
I find it incredible how Shadow of Chernobyl (2007) and Fallout 3 (2008) are so similar in so many ways, yet were developed in complete isolation from each other. I think it's a very apparent fact that GSC didn't pick and choose aspects for its game from what would become "the next Fallout", on the other hand Bethesda never cared what SoC was. Yet, the two games ended up being in the same ballpark.
4. Substitute Scientific Medkit.
If you would believe me, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 won't happen, so looking for alternatives, however different they might be, is something a person like me is likely to start doing. So I did and have been doing so since GSC Game World closed its doors in 2012.
Where to look but closer than the aforementioned Fallout series, right? Well, as it turns out that franchise doesn't really have some of the fundamental ingredients of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. My biggest wish for Fallout 4 was that it would nick some stuff up from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., like the A-Life AI system and have a livelier world with more atmosphere (which I will get to later).
Yet, even though it had the advantages that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 didn't, time and money, it did not deliver those things, to the degree I was hoping it would. Also, the whole deal with Bethesda making an open world RPG game that's inferior to The Witcher 3 still boggles my mind.
What else do we have? Survarium, OK. When that game was announced directly after S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 got frozen, it promised us a gamemode that would give us some of that unique flavour that made its spiritual predecessor so special - Freeplay. We are yet to see it or know more than the few details that Vostok Games shared a year ago.
And while I'm as impatient as everybody else about Freeplay mode, which was teased for Q4'14 in Q4'13 and now we are beyond Q4'15, I would like to remind everyone that Rome wasn't built in one day. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. wasn't either, nor Freeplay in Survarium will be. So let's all chill a bit, eh?
There's also a game called Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason, made by Action Forms, which reminds me more of Metro rather than S.T.A.L.K.E.R. But it's an interesting game in that it's another "one of those weird Eastern European games that look good, have ahead of their time technical prowess, but other aspects hold them back".
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. might be mostly forgotten in the grand scheme, but some developers remember it. Some even take notes from it and make their games better because of it. Most of them are small, but it's still something.
Like Raphael Van Lierop, founder of Hinterland Studios. Which is developing The Long Dark – a wilderness survival game, set in the dark depths of Canada. It has taken inspirations from all sorts of books and games, one of them being S.T.A.L.K.E.R. In their Kickstarter campaign (disclosure: I backed that) they said:
"If you're a fan of atmospheric, exploration-focused games like Fallout 3 or STALKER, you'll love The Long Dark."
When I asked van Lierop what aspects he took from it, he replied:
"Deeply atmospheric environments and the flavour of a specific part of the world. And other stuff..."
Which are things S.T.A.L.K.E.R. did pretty well and they do show up in The Long Dark in large amounts.
Raindrop – another Kickstarter game, developed by a duo – also took some inspiration from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., alongside Half-Life, though the project was halted due to the unsuccessful campaign, but the devs were later picked up by Hinterland to work on TLD.
There's also the little bit better known Sir, You Are Being Hunted, by Big Robot, headed by Jim Rossignol (formerly PRS and a fellow S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fan). It was often described as "a British STALKER", which was a welcome news in my book. And the inspiration is apparent – the devilish AI, inventory management, survival against the odds and traveling between regions – all wrapped up in a procedurally generated hunt to find the parts of your crashed spaceship.
I've been listing one indie game after another here, but there was a AAA game, released as recently as 2015, that reminded me of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as well. So much so that most of the reasons it did are I think unintentional.
Am I the only one who thought Techland's Dying Light was a bit like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? Have I started making stuff up? There are tons of differences in terms of missing aspects in each side - like actual good melee and a zombie outbreak in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., versus blowouts, anomalies and all in Dying Light. But structurally, these games are so alike: the hub area, runners, factions, the quarantined area, the pitch black night with these things in them:
And yes, I know, I know this is a spiritual successor to Dead Island, but I can't shake the thought that it reminded me so much of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Maybe I'm looking to deep into this. Perhaps.
I briefly mentioned Escape From Tarkov before, hardcore MMOFPSRPG, but I really don't think that it is going to be much like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and it doesn't have to be. I think it looks cool, regardless of people's association with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
5. W's da'?
So what's the point of all of this? I talked about what S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is, why we might never one more again, who has taken lessons and remembered it. But why? Why is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so important and why do I value it so much?
I think it has to offer something very few games posses and many more desperately need – a world that's truly alive, but at the same time one you are not in control of. As real as the real world around us gets. Or at least gives the impression of.
The A-Life AI system in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is just too good to be true, if you ask me. In the "Making of Clear Sky" video GSC Game World talks about how they have a dream game in mind they've wanted to make since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was known as Oblivion Lost – a game driven completely by AI. CS and its faction wars was just a step toward that. Call of Pripyat was an exercise of how large worlds they could simulate, with their old X-Ray 1.6 engine.
The original implementation of A-Life was so loosely controlled in the game that it was able to solve the mystery of how to reach the center of the Zone and win the game, before the player could. It was that good. Only 10 years ago. It was later nerfed for ShoC, but the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games feel like a real place nonetheless. With dynamic encounters that have nothing with the player's actions it puts the player in different situations every time. That's why, just like in the Stalker movie, people keep coming back to these games, the Zone keeps calling you back.
This is what Anton Bolshakov, project leader of SoC, said in an interview for RPS, conducted by Jim Rossignol, about the development of this feature, in 2007:
"We had a very strong concept to go in line with our robust engine. It was a concept which, in our estimations, would remain relevant and innovative even after a decade."
And they were right, almost 15 years ago now. I wish they weren't, for the sake of this industry. It just breaks my heart thinking how a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game could look like made with current technology.
I also think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has to offer some of that Eastern European "weirdness" that we are so unfamiliar with. What do you I mean by that? Have you seen the movie Stalker I mentioned before? Well, that sort of thing. Have you seen Solaris, by the director who also made the previous film? Well, you should if you want to know exactly what I mean. They are both completely free to watch on YouTube.
I firmly believe that the different experiences out of our comfort zone are incredibly valuable. It's like when you discover a new favourite song, just because you clicked at a YouTube suggestion. Or when you decide to watch a movie not really in your favourite genre, but it had excellent reception and after seeing it you don't regret your choice.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a very good example of something like that which happened in gaming. As Rossignol said: "it's a video game made by specific people, from a specific place". I think we should have more of that, which we are thankfully starting to see in the grander aspect as well, with companies like CDPR and their incorporation of Slavic mythology into video games.
Too many games rely on overused themes and tropes. And that's not only in their story and narrative designs but also gameplay. I'm not saying make every game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., because it has many downsides of its own, all related to polishing, but how about take the best it offered? Because the parts of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. that do work, do so better than most other open world games can only wish.
Here's a simple fact: every open world game would be objectively and significantly better if it had the A-Life AI system. The hard part is actually implementing such a complex thing. Imagine the range of possibilities though: from Far Cry 5 to Fallout 5.
Not to mention the many survival games out there right now that can learn soo much from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Many of them have brain dead enemies that could be turned into an actual threat for the player. In a way S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a proto-survival game in its day and with some mods like MISERY, Call of Pripyat turns into a brutal challenge of actual survival and resource scrounging.
There's so much potential for developers to use A-Life in their products that it's a crime that they don't do. Maybe I'm asking for something impossible, am I really? Like seriously?
We are in the middle of the 8th generation of video games hardware and 2 beyond the time S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was conceived. It's time well due for someone to take hard engrained lessons from this underrated franchise.
6. Wrenched Jellyfish Bubble.
As a long awaited sequel S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 is a weird one. It's one of those that had a chance to happen. It's not like Duke Nukem Forever which was destined to fail after so many hand exchanges or Half-Life 3 which will be nothing like what Valve was making as Episode 3, (now) back in the day. It's also not like Star Wars 1313 which was almost ready to ship. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was in the middle of its development and the promise was solid.
I want to be wrong about in what I believe when I say S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 won't happen and I hope I'm eventually proven wrong one way or another. But high hopes = high dissapointments.
Now get out of here Stalkers!