S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Stalker

By Daniel Stuyck


Tarkovsky’s Stalker is given a makeover for the cross-media marketplace

"When we come across a refrain in poetry we return, already in possession of what we have read, to the first cause which prompted the poet to write the lines originally… it opens up the possibility of a new, transfigured impression of the same material: something different in kind." – Andrei Tarkovsky, from Sculpting in Time

Cross-media synergy is a recent addition to the ever-growing English dialect of capital jargon, alongside gems like ‘brand architecture’, ‘social media’ or ‘image messaging and promise’. And perhaps the field where this new dialect is most prevalent is in ‘interactive media’, itself new to the lexicon – namely, video games. The relationship between the video game and cinema has traditionally been a one-way street, akin to promotional merchandise (that capital jargon again…). But this relationship has become more porous in the last decade, not in the least because of the rising popularity of interactive entertainment and the decreasing dominance of film.

In September 2007, John Woo ‘presented’ Stranglehold, an official sequel to Hard-Boiled (1992) featuring Chow Yun-fat (or rather, his voice and digital reproduction) reprising his role as Inspector Tequila in a new story continuing a number of secondary plot threads from the film, albeit now with a budget more than double that of the original film and available exclusively on home game consoles. The Playstation 3 version of Stranglehold even includes a hi-def transfer of Hard-Boiled on its Blu-ray disc as ‘bonus material.’ And cinema’s previous influence on the design of games – in most cases closer to pastiche than ‘influence’ per se – is now reversing itself, the mobius strip turning inside out. The Danish-developed Hitman, series of games, whose first entry directly copies the opening 20 minutes of Luc Besson’s La femme Nikita (and, in its most recent instalment, reproduces the Mardi Gras sequence from that film’s US remake, Point of No Return), has itself been recently digested and adapted into an Europe-via-Hollywood action spectacle produced by… Luc Besson.


Perhaps the most interesting, or at least most fruitful, example is not these cases of genre models re-exported for foreign consumption, but the strange case of an acknowledged remake. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker is now S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, developed by the Ukrainian GSC Game World, with a production history as troubled as the (two) film(s): over seven years in the making, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. missed so many release dates that numerous game news outlets reported it as “vaporware,” i.e. it didn’t even exist.

While the developers offer a rather creative description of “a Soviet horror film called Stalker, by A. Tarkovsky,” the game itself is possibly the most faithful adaptation of any film to date. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. opens with the player’s character, the Stalker, waking up in a damp field, amnesiac, mistaken for dead. Thus begins the Stalker’s central vision quest through the Zone, cordoned off and holding mysterious, possibly supernatural powers, in search of a central room that grants the true desires of those who enter. Taking this metaphysical spectre to its logical conclusion, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has multiple endings where the room grants something radically different in each one, based upon choices the players makes through the game.


Tarkovsky’s Zone of ambiguous authenticity differs dramatically from S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s, which realistically models the alienation zone outside Chernobyl, the 30 kilometre cordoned exclusion area created after the 1986 nuclear disaster, and grafts that onto science fiction boilerplate about secret governmental research and ‘psychic disturbances’. So, on the surface, there are noticeable disparities between the two. While the Writer in Stalker might declare, “my dear, our world is hopelessly boring. Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers; nothing like that,” it certainly is not the case for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. where, in the first hour alone, a player will have telepathic visions, encounter ghostly apparitions with fangs, shoot mutant animals and zombies in the head although, to be clear, there are no flying saucers.

Yet through the whole experience, it is impossible to shake the impression that this is an incredibly Tarkovskyian game, or that Tarkovsky made an incredibly prescient, game-like film. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s developers have gone to fetishistic lengths to create a Zone that is ‘alive’: an elaborate in-game weather system randomises barometric conditions for each play session; artificial intelligence realistically simulates wandering pack animals, military patrols and fellow Stalkers, all of whom actively respond to how the user plays the game; various factions react to previous decisions the player made.


If one were to attempt to pare Tarkovsky’s film down to a word it might be corporeal – the physicality and lived-in presence of his mise en scene; images of previous civilization decayed, overcome by Nature; the insistence on observing a phenomenon through time as it manifests itself within the shot, instead of creating it through montage and, above all else, Tarkovsky’s prerogative that any film must give a viewer “the opportunity to live through what is happening on the screen as if it were his own life, to take over, as deeply personal and his own, the experience imprinted in time upon the screen, relating his own life to what is being shown.” S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a game allows all of this, the player/viewer literally becoming the image through its specific design as a first person shooter – where the primary view any player has is the same as the virtual protagonist, hands, shadow and all – and as a role-playing game – encouraging the player to build a unique virtual self with specific skills, physical attributes and specialisations.

Being not only interactive but also in the first person, a player comes very close to living through what is happening on screen. Take one of the most famous sequence shots from Stalker: the trolley ride where the Stalker, the Scientist and the Writer enter into the Zone. This shot is duplicated, unbroken, perhaps 20 times in the game itself, as the in-game world is designed to be around 30 square kilometers wide. Thanks to a number of bugs with the game itself (apparently semi-corrected about six months after its release), the player must trek from one end of the world to the other in order to fulfill various side-quests – entirely on foot, throwing steel bolts in the air to uncover invisible, potentially fatal ‘anomalies’ which, in this version, unlike in Tarkovsky’s, unambiguously do exist. A player could easily spend hours exclusively trudging across train tracks, through wet fields, past burnt out houses, abandoned military vehicles, trashed base camps and unused industrial piping. Aided by a soundtrack of ambient sound and vague bass-heavy rumblings, the environment itself has a presence that, like Tarkovsky’s film, ultimately disembodies the viewer from his or her own surroundings (theater, home, church), plunging even further into the digetic world.


It’s in moments like these that the game and the film (most of Tarkovsky, in fact) sync up startlingly. Ecstasy is a video game – a visionary experience of dilated time, stopping and expanding infinitely simultaneously. It’s not uncommon for serious players – something like the cinephiles of gaming, if you will – to spend over a hundred hours playing a game; and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an open-world game, freely allowing the player to explore various nooks and crannies, without any specific goal or mission, one that rewards the player for subsisting in its world through acquiring new skills (faster running speed, the strength to carry more equipment) or bigger, better items.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. could be the poetic refrain of Stalker, but then it could easily be the other way around. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – its design as a game, as an ‘interactive’ object – casts a new impression of Stalker, something different in kind, recalling its source, but freeing some strange meaning imprisoned within the original as well as in its offshoot. The face of cross-media synergy, supposedly.

 Links: www.stalker-game.com; www.nostalghia.com

Daniel Stuyck has also written for Film Comment and Cinema Scope.