September 4, 2008

Badlands

Playing video games affords the role of the constant tourist. Gamers will forever explore new and different spaces, which themselves are becoming ever more like simulations. Game worlds are increasingly places to visit as much as they are challenges to complete.

These are some strange places to visit.

One is a post-nuclear shooter/RPG hybrid and one is a self-described simulation tool for an epic disaster. They should have nothing in common but for the sense of a shared culture which is so distinct that it transcends genre and even physical borders. Stalker is Ukranian and Pathologic is Russian, and to gamers of foreign lands these two games are unmistakably and bizarrely Eastern European. Players will discover just how deeply these games are entrenched in the same cultural identity, exhibiting values and ideologies uncommon in the medium, and which strongly influence every narrative or design element. Only one part of the world makes games like this.

You're the tourist. Where do you want to go? America and Japan are booking your flights and they recommend exotic alien planets and lush uncharted islands and historical battlefields. All places to realise power fantasies; all backdrops for tales of extraordinary adventure. America and Japan entice, allure and sell you on your destination. Pathologic and Stalker take your money and strand you in deplorable shitholes. The town of Pathologic is an artifically constructed, fast-deteriorating metaphorical madhouse. It's bleak and ugly and its streets breathe disease. Staircases collapse as they reach for the sky and the slums are home to orphans and monsters, butchers and corpses. It exists as a social experiment, designed to make you think about dying. It's hard to think of a less attractive locale but then Stalker is set in the Chernobyl zone of alienation.

It bears repeating that no other country would ever think to make a game quite like this. A Western-developed Stalker would leverage irradiated Chernobyl as a superhero origin story, bolstering the player's arsenal of firearms and grenades with pseudo-scientifically justified telekinetic and pyrokinetic powers. But there's no freezing and levitating of enemies in Stalker, and any supernatural abnormality is a deadly threat. The player character is a miserable, undistinguished scavenger, and if he believes in the great Chernobyl dream, works hard and eats right, one day he will become a miserable, undistinguished scavenger with better equipment. There is no glory to be found or grand humanitarian gestures to be made in Stalker. The player's primary concern will always be survival and that primal impulse frequently reduces them to the indignity of fleeing from packs of barking dogs across open wasteland and onto the roof of a rusted truck, hoping they can't actually jump that high. They can.

Hero is a dirty word. Stalker and Pathologic don't train the player to do much except feel comparatively underpowered and unimportant. Both games establish an equal playing field, and the only reason the player has any hope for survival is because they are an actual person. Mercenaries, militia and bandits patrol the exclusion zone independently and are formidable opponents. There are no skill points, no character customisation, the only way to get the jump on your enemies is to use tactics and pray that the shotgun you stole is in better shape than theirs. Stalker actually keeps track of the various NPCs and ranks them according to power. The player character is at the very bottom of the list for a long, long time. And the way Pathologic treats the player is thoroughly odd. The player, it stresses, is the guy sitting at his computer not to be confused with his in-game avatar. Certain characters will address you -- you -- directly, and your character will have no idea what's going on and you have no way to respond. It might be weird and unsettling but the player comes to rely on these strange masked dramaturgs because they are the only ones who understand and acknowledge what they're going through. It's a relief when they appear since they appear so rarely. After having their head shoved underwater in these game worlds with no clues and no safety nets, the player wants a lifeline so badly. No tutorials, no tool tips, no correspondence from the designer direct to the player except for, in Pathologic's case, these obscure dispatches that raise more questions than answers. These are the worlds that GSC Game World and Ice Pick Lodge want to immerse the player in: unremittingly horrible nightmares. Overwhelming places of death and depression, where the scariest truth you wish never to hear out loud is that, really, you are on your own. You're stranded in these dystopias, at turns abstract and brutally realistic. Oh, the places you'll go. And when you're alone, there's a very good chance, you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.

The world never ends with you. You're not that important. The worlds of Stalker and Pathologic are persistent and procedurally generated, with events, battles and quests happening outside of the player's awareness. Pathologic even taunts the player with that knowledge. It issues a list of individuals whose lives are in danger and whose lives the player must protect. But the player can't keep track of them all at once and probably isn't strong enough to defend them from their assailants anyway. That's where panic sets in, when anxiety attacks, and it's how Pathologic reduces your character, an outside investigator, to one more obsessive lunatic dotting the streets of the Steppe. Pathologic says you need to play the game three times as three different characters to fully understand what happened. It's questionable how many players have the stamina to play it through even once, and whether anyone would want to fully understand it.

These games are difficult. Not necessarily in terms of enemy AI or requiring pinpoint precision, but because it's a challenge to comprehend the game at all. Stalker's easier since it resembles far more the conventional structure of an actual game as opposed to Pathologic's Brechtian nightmare. Still, Stalker exists as a weird strain on the DNA of the first person shooter. In 2007, to Western audiences, it's an anachronism. Its closest counterpart is not Bioshock, Crysis or Half-Life 2: Episode Two but 1999's System Shock 2 and its oppressive, overbearing atmosphere. In the nine years that have passed since Irrational Studios made a game with degrading weapons, respawning enemies and no fast travel, Stalker emerges outdated at a time when Western shooters are equipped with training wheels. Half-Life 2 is a rollercoaster that desperately wants players to see the best it has to offer. Stalker and Pathologic don't care. Western games reward the player and these ones don't even like its players that much. The difference between Half-Life 2 and Stalker/Pathologic is the difference between visiting Disneyland with your parents and visiting Amsterdam alone as a hitchhiker and getting mugged and shanked.

Stalker and Pathologic might not love the player but they love scaring them. Stalker relies on some basic -- though extremely effective -- horror techniques, while Pathologic is just fundamentally unsettling; the kind of thing that erodes your psyche the longer you're exposed to it. Stalker does this too, in a way. When you hear a sound somewhere in the distance, you have to wonder whether it was a thunderclap or a mutant's roar. That's creepy enough but sometimes even when all is calm you'll break into a sudden sprint anyway because you just don't want to be there anymore. Pathologic is ostensibly about healing people but in actuality it's an endurance test. The player character is there to help the town but the game will have none of it, and pushes the player to his absolute breaking point, where he will cheat and steal and murder to keep himself alive.

There is no hope. In Pathologic, you start as a good man, and an outsider, but as the town succumbs to tragedy, you're beaten down along with it. It degrades your humanity until you are no longer a visitor but one more actor in the despairing charade. Everything is downhill. Players won't save the world because they've become junkies scrambling across dirty warehouse floors after a used needle because maybe it's a shot of vaccine. When Stalker continues the story, the world is already lost: a post-disaster zone, full of scavengers and thieves, with you amongst them. And you fight your way back up to the top, to the status you once held? No, actually. You'll never be that good man again. You're a scavenger forever, nonchalantly nihilistic. And there's no third part to this trilogy. There's no ending, at least not the type Western audiences are conditioned to expect. This is a world in which the sun is setting and where everyone loses.

Appropriately, these themes of depression and obsolescence extend to the physical products themselves. Both games are badly put together, horribly translated, clunky, full of bugs, not even a little optimised. Bad UI in Stalker's case; bad everything in Pathologic's. That's what's preventing universal enthusiasm and acclaim. Technically, they're just awful, and despite Pathologic's obsession with stages and masks, it looks like a junior high school production compared to the theatricality of Bioshock. These games are broken, ruined, unfinished. Stalker is a mid-90s relic that feels like it was built from spare parts and Pathologic is a junky mess that only made it halfway to the finish line.

All of that is true, and persuasive rhetoric will not distract anyone from Stalker or Pathologic's flaws -- nor, of course, should it. These games are a culture shock from a place where, apparently, technical standards are not so rigorously enforced. But they serve as cultural ambassadors regardless, for the good and the bad, inducting players into an alien culture: some nebulous Eastern European thing where rewards are foreign and punishment is habitual. Perhaps Stalker and Pathologic's lineage traces back to the best Russian fiction. Perhaps the unfamiliarity to Western audience heightens the appeal: players can excuse broken translation, at least in Pathologic's case, when the thing is so fundamentally confusing anyway. Imagine the low-rent freelancers who are hired to translate superficially middling Russian adventure games into English. Imagine if they approached translating Tolstoy or Chekhov with the same lack of enthusiasm. The English edition of Pathologic is the worst translation of the greatest literature.

Here's the question: why do we want to visit these places at all? Well, they're smarter for one: Stalker requires a degree of cunning and strategy that the typical Western shooter forgives, and Pathologic deserves to headline any discussion about portrayals of in-game morality. But it doesn't even have to be about higher education. Ever so occasionally there's something very appealing about the unknown. There's nothing else like these games.

Is it the quest for hardcore gamer credibility? Certainly some Stalker fans will claim that. But there's no simplified console version of Pathologic. These games are not made as a hardcore alternative to Halo or Resistance. These games are the inevitable byproduct of their cultural heritage. And really, who are you going to impress when you claim fandom of a badly-executed PC game over Braid or Portal?

It's hard to explain the appeal to those who haven't been there before. But evidently there is something that makes people want to visit it -- I mean really want to visit it. Some elusive quality about Stalker lights fires in the collective unconsciousness, as if these players are alien abductees drawn first to the stars in their window and then to the actual barren fields of the still-radiated Chernobyl. There are actual Stalker cosplayers who don't care about safety nets even when they really should. These guys don't assemble at the placid, suburban Los Angeles Hilton dressed up as noble schoolgirls and sexualised bunnies. Stalker means enough to certain people that they want to run around at the site of a nuclear disaster in military costumes with possibly real rifles. We're so far through the looking glass.

Stalker and Pathologic both come highly recommended, although the former example of fandom is not even a little bit necessary. Both games are unfinished to certain degrees. Their execution is rough. They treat the player harshly. But there's something inexplicable about it. They're incomplete. You'll never be fully satisfied by these games unless your chosen milieu is unresolved angst and self-destruction. Even so, these games are broken. They share an aesthetic and it's clunky. It's shaky, it's hard, it's outdated, it's punishing, it's oppressive, it's a bad dream, it's constricting, it's alienating, it's unlikable, it's irritating, it's mean, it's depressing, it's sad, it's aggravating, it's too much, far too much, way too much for anyone to endure.

But it's...

6 comments:

Yegwa said...

Very great read and excellent writing to boot.

I wish I could get my hands on Pathologic, but I don't think that I can get it from any stores that deliver to Nigeria. Piqued my interest ever since I read about it on rockpapershotgun.

christopher hyde said...

Totally fascinating read. My current computer is way too wimpy to play Clear Sky, but I'll certainly visit the wasteland in the future. It's great to see these sorts of approaches come out of game development in parts of the world beyond Japan/America/W. Europe. Here's hoping we get more of this sort of cottage industry in the gaming world.

qrter said...

I think The Witcher fits in with this line of games, not only because it's a Polish game but because it has the same kind of edge to it, a sense of moral ambiguity, a sense that all the paths you can take are wrong but only because your idea of wrong and right doesn't work in this world.

I just reinstalled STALKER last evening, with the Oblivion Lost mod installed. I absolutely loved the first time I played the game. It comes down to the idea of a true nightmarish world, I think, where it's quite literally you against the world. Eventhough you know you can't really win, you keep going, the game almost becomes hypnotic, you want to see how bad it can get.

I did start playing Pathologic and I was impressed by its weirdness but I got distracted by real life things. I should reinstall it.

These kind of games remind me of Kafka (or his writing at least) - the outsider who visits new and terrifying lands (although it's never quite clear what exactly is so terrifying), who then decides he wants to flee those lands but constantly gets distracted by other complications.

There's a part of the human mind that enjoys experiencing wrongness, a general feel of unease and dread - when I say "enjoy", I mean it's the same kind of drive that pushes you to look at something awful eventhough you know you'll hate yourself for doing so.

Duncan said...

qrter: thank you for the Kafka comparison, because I'm not anywhere near conversant enough in Russian literature to draw an appropriate parallel. After writing this post I did pick up Dostoevsky for the first time ever, so we'll see how that goes.

I can definitely believe The Witcher shares this kind of aesthetic. I still haven't played it since I decided to wait for the "expanded edition" which, as time goes on, may never actually be released. Who's laughing now. No one, really.

Yegwa, I hope you're able to give Pathologic a shot eventually, and Christopher, if you haven't played it, you should too. I actually recommend it more than Stalker, even though Stalker's definitely the better game. Any serious gamer will get SO MUCH out of the Pathologic experience even if they don't like it or don't finish it. It's really a must.

devo said...

I was never really interested in Stalker until I read your article, but now I'm definitely going to try to get a hold of it.

Pathologic sounds amazing, so I'm keeping an eye out for that one too.

Thanks, man. It was a beautiful article.

xiko said...

great review, I will try both games.