I’ve written about this particular game before, but I’m actually going to go back and revisit this one since I’ve put a bit more time on it.
I think I’ll start with the phrase “magnificently flawed.”
Horror. It’s difficult to actually even define what it actually is, and it overlaps into so many other spheres that it isn’t really easy to define what it is not. I’ve talked about a few horror-themed games, and I’ll be talking about some more later, so now is as good a time as any to talk a bit about it.
Many of the masters of horror have managed solid efforts, without shocks, scares, or blood. When I think of horror, I think of it not as something that frightens us, but something that unsettles us.
It’s just stopped raining, but there’s still the occasional flash of lightning and rumbles of thunder. I’m trudging along what’s left of the road here. My radio is picking up a faint signal, thickly accented, but I can’t quite make it out over the wind.
Off to my right there’s gunfire. I glance in that direction, but it’s some distance away. The radio crackles with curses in Russian, and I hear more of it shouted on the wind. Nothing to do with me.
I trudge across the bridge. A pack of mutant dogs leap across the road on the far side a few metres in front of me, drawn to the men and gunfire. I’m not as interesting and they pass by without turning on me.
A battered old bus stop up ahead. Three men huddle around a makeshift fire under the shelter. One strums a tune on some ancient guitar. One stands as I approach. We look at each-other, and he sees that I am unarmed and shoulders his gun and crouches down with the others. I’m not any of their business either.
I listen for the crackles and clicks from my Geiger counter, and the blips from my anomaly detector, watching closely for the wavery refraction in the air that signals an anomaly. They’re all over (along with old patches of fallout), and what you can’t see can hurt you. There’s wind and dust and leaves blowing about and that doesn’t make it any easier.
There’s the shell of an old factory or mill or whatever the hell it is up ahead on my left. I pause and pull out my binoculars, and check the gaping windows and holes in the walls for signs of movement. Some bandit might have decided to stage an ambush, or some paranoid asshole might take a pot-shot at me for giggles.
There’s no sign of anything alive, though the air swirls in a couple places, kicking up loose crap. Dust-devils, maybe. More likely anomalies, but maybe just dust-devils.
I’m already carrying more than I care to, but who knows — there might be something useful stashed in a dark corner that hasn’t been looted yet, or someone else may have left a cache hidden. It’s worth checking before I try to bypass the military checkpoint up ahead. I have a long way to travel, and maybe I can find something I’m willing to trade with the boys at the bus stop for some food.
Up ahead, a blind mutated dog is dragging a corpse across the road towards the bushes. I pull out my pistol and fire a round in its general direction. The noise frightens it and it flees, rather than turning on me. It’s just like Christmas, and I hurry forward to see what useful items might be on the corpse.
It’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R – Shadow of Chernobyl. It’s a bit like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Oblivion with cancer. Haunted cancer.
It’s drab, dreary, uncertainly translated into English. It’s got a ton of flaws. It’s probably not your kind of game. It may not be mine either. Damn, though, it’s atmospheric, and partly based on a Russian book by the Strugatskys and film called Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
In “the zone” around Chernobyl where a second ‘event’ took place twenty years after the first, well, nothing’s very nice. There are mutants and there are opportunists and there are the military. About the best you can hope for is that the military leaves you alone, the mutants head in the other direction and that the opportunists don’t mistake you for an opportunity. Being left alone is right up there with eating regularly, or finding a cache of anti-radiation drugs, ammunition or medical supplies.
There’s a strong emphasis on combat. You’ll be packing ammunition everywhere, and using it. Don’t forget to pack lunch, either, and be prepared for your plans to be interrupted.
One thing for certain there’s always something going on somewhere nearby. The sounds of shouting and gunfire are even more common than the excited crackle from your Geiger counter.