Ages ago–long before I started aiming for a game-related piece a week–I wrote an article about the Metro series: a first person horror game set in a mutant-filled Russian wasteland. The series goes to great lengths to make itself immersive and realistic, but in doing so highlights some of the more implausible elements that other games slip in unnoticed. In that article, I made the case that, for example, experiencing the game from the perspective of a character who gets dramatically shoved around during cutscenes kind of draws attention to how odd it is that you can stand perfectly still and reload your weapon while a pack of mutants tries to chew your face off. In games where there’s an obvious heads-up display and a chunk of the gameplay involves explicitly managing stats, it can actually be a lot easier to ignore how unrealistically your character behaves.
Recently, I got playing a game that works as a really handy comparison to Metro just because the nuts and bolts of it are so incredibly similar: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Both games are set in a cartoonishly Russian (or Ukranian) disaster zone, both see you battling scavengers and mutants from a first person perspective, and both aim for a degree of realism. However, where Metro funnels you through totally linear series of missions, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. makes a big deal about letting you wander around freely completing various quests (or not). The vast majority of these quests aren’t even assigned by anyone in particular: random bandits carry notes about weapons they’ve stashed away or valuables they had to abandon while fleeing the military. “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.,” by the way, stands for “Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers:” an acronym so feeble that from this point on I’m not even going to dignify it with full stops.
STALKER‘s gameplay in general feels considerably less “real” than that Metro, and not just because of the decade-old graphics. Far more effort has gone into giving you multiple paths to choose from than it has making any one of those paths feel particularly plausible. However, in some ways this is an advantage: because the game focuses more on the tactical decisions you make as a player (choosing one gun over another based on the situation at hand) rather than what situation you’re in as a character (calmly switching weapons while monsters swarm all over you) it doesn’t draw quite so much attention to the occasions when what’s happening on screen would make no sense in reality.
Someone (and I really wish I could remember who) once made the case that although Grand Theft Auto feels unrealistic because so many buildings have doors that don’t open, Mario doesn’t suffer from the same problem. That’s kind of the case here: Metro, which strives for on-screen realism, often draws attention to the sort of unrealistic elements that STALKER simply glosses over.
STALKER sees you playing as the nameless “Marked One,” who–presumably to accommodate the wider range of story options available to the player–isn’t anywhere near as solid a character as Artyom from Metro. As the Marked One, you’re totally free to ignore the main storyline and focus on finding bandits’ lost backpacks. As Artyom, that kind of thing would seriously clash with the character’s motives and backstory. The Marked One is a handy device to let you do whatever, but has about as much depth as a jacuzzi and none of the bubbles. Near the start of the game, there’s a wounded man begging for a medpack. If you don’t have one (or just don’t want to hand it over), your only dialogue option is “See you!”
I know this is probably just a generic “end conversation” option, but in this context it’s so out of place that it’s hard not to laugh at it. I can’t imagine this conversation actually happening any more than I can imagine a conversation in which one person says “Help me, I’m dying,” and the other person says “BYEZIES!”
When Metro feels unreal, it’s because the game fails to present a plausible sequence of events on screen. When STALKER feels unreal, it’s because the game fails to present a reasonable range of options. The dialogue box you see above is already a step away from reality: the spoken words are presented as text and there’s a limited range of responses. It’s easy enough to accept that this totally unrealistic screen represents a more realistic exchange of words. The problem is that the words themselves don’t even belong here.
I’ve noticed a similar problem with some of the quests. STALKER takes the brave step of putting a time limit on some missions, requiring you to find items or beat baddies within a certain number of in-game hours or days. This helps give the impression that you’re a guy doing a job (the client needs the item before Tuesday) rather than a player accumulating quests (I’ll get around to this after I beat the next boss). However, though this opens up the realistic possibility that you’ll fail a mission simply because you didn’t encounter the appropriate item/enemy in that time, it also opens up the possibility that you’ll trigger a timed quest long before you can possibly complete it.
The worst example of this I found sees you killing a bandit leader on behalf of one particular faction, then being unable to claim the reward because “you don’t have business with this faction” (read: you haven’t yet started the relevant quest). If it weren’t possible to actually fail that quest because of the time limit, you’d chalk this up as one to come back to after the next boss. However, since that’s not an option, it just draws attention to the fact that there’s a “right” or “intended” way to play through the game, and that straying away from it is liable to make certain missions impossible to finish. In the same way that Metro sometimes ends up feeling fake because it’s otherwise trying to be realistic, STALKER sometimes ends up feeling closed off because it’s otherwise trying to be so open.