It’s a grey, damp day outside my window here in Southampton. Today is surely the day to do the things I’ve not been bothered to do on nicer days – doing some light reading, shaving everything but my moustache, eating Pringles and loading up S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow Of Chernobyl (with the great S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Complete 2009 mod) and go for a virtual walk. I’m intending a series of these, which while explaining a bit more about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will also chronicle my attempts to explore the game in a semi-pacifist way. I cannot take any missions which need me to shoot anyone, and I can only fire on someone if they already fire on me.
The STALKER Complete 2009 mod is essentially a visual overhaul of the entire game. It manages to turn a still-decent looking game from 2007 into something that could have arrived this year and be considered fairly decent in the graphics department. It’s the perfect mod for those people who want some improvements made to the game, but don’t want the game-changing fixes that are presented in the admittedly brilliant Oblivion Lost mod. In this specific case, this group of people included me. Normally, I install Oblivion Lost over my S.T.A.L.K.E.R. installation as soon as the base game is installed, but today I wanted to walk through the original game, although admittedly a prettier version.
For me, playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has become more meaningful than loading up pretty much any other game I own. Rather than putting the disc and hoping to get to a specific point in the game this time, more often I find myself loading it up in a state of boredom and just wondering around the game, soaking up the considerable atmosphere the game has to offer. When you’re not playing the actual storyline, Stalker (I refuse to keep putting in those capital letters and full-stops) almost becomes a completely different game. This is more apparent in Oblivion Lost, where any monster can attack anywhere – even in the first town – but in the vanilla Stalker there’s a noticeable change in pace between the game you play if you follow the storyline, and the countryside that was originally the backdrop to your struggle comes to centre stage, and often you’ll find that the land itself is your primary concern.
But despite the dangers of the Zone, I never feel like the place itself is threatening. Instead, the entire game’s setting seems infused with a wistful melancholy – a sadness that while often translating into danger, never seems spiteful. This is not Silent Hill, where the town is actively out to get you. This place might be equally dangerous, and contain things just as horrifying, but the place itself is as much a hostage to it’s inhabitants as you are. It is, however, good at making you a bastard.
Taking my walk along the first area of the game, I came across a neutral Stalker heading in the opposite direction to me. I was low on health and ammo because I’d just come from an area with lots of mutant dogs, in order to avoid having to pay the military to use the road. I spoke to him briefly, but was of course unable to warn him about the place he was walking into, due to the dialogue constraints of the game. I could help the guy make it through the dogs safely, using the last of my ammo and health packs in the process, or I could just leave him be and hope he makes it through OK. Ammo is a fairly rare commodity for the pacifist rambler in Stalker, so I elected to let him carry on and see how he does. Taking a rest from my travels in a small abandoned hut (something I’d stopped doing in the Oblivion Lost mod, due to the chance of something scary hiding in the shadows), I watched on my mini map as the Stalker’s yellow dot slowly made it to the nest of dogs I had run away from. On cue, I heard a lot of growling, some hasty gun shots, and silence. The yellow dot turned grey. I continued onwards.
One of my favourite things about Stalker is that while it keeps tabs on who you help, and gives you a terrible rating if you tend to randomly slaughter neutral Stalkers, it allows you to make these off-the-books morally ambiguous decisions which won’t affect anything in the wider game, other than that Stalker won’t be around any more, and I have a little ammo for the next encounter. I felt bad for the guy, but I managed to survive the next encounter with my remaining ammo, so it’s difficult to tell what would have happened had I gone about things another way. Putting these thoughts behind me, I loaded my gun with the little ammo I had left, and carried on to the next location.