What follows is an essay I wrote in 2007, one of the first things I ever wrote on the topic of videogames. I originally intended it to be an alumni submission to the Bard College Journal of the Moving Image. That publication, however—which I had previously been an editor of—had fallen on some hard times in the 2007–2008 academic year, and so that plan fell through.
For nearly a decade, now, this piece of writing has never seen the light of day. It’s absurdly long for a blog post, but I nonetheless figured I might as well belatedly make it publicly available here (even though its psychoanalytic underpinnings seem quite foreign to me now).
“[F]or the most part, it’s blood, mischief and role playing that gamers revel in… The visual and storyline tropes that most of us bring with us as cultural baggage are for these teenaged diehards all but forgotten ancestral memories, thrown off in transit, on purpose, too cumbersome to be on any use” —Peter Lunenfeld [i]
“Even here our myths were at work, defending us: see, we can survive anything, even on dead earth” —Ivan Zhykhov [ii]
The year is 2012. I’ve been rescued out of the burning wreckage of a “death truck” strewn across a barren field, and I now owe my life to a trader named Sidorovich, a seedy character posted on the outskirts of Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion. I’ve lost all memory of who I am and why I was in the Zone in the first place, presumably due to some intense trauma. Since I lack any other name, Sidorovich has taken to calling me “Marked One,” a reference to the tattoo reading “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” on my right arm. Rather than drift aimlessly, he has suggested that I do some work as a stalker, venturing into the Zone on some simple retrieval missions he needs done (note that the “cure” for my amnesia miraculously also serves his interests). The pay isn’t great, especially considering the mortality rate of the position, but the benefits include my potential accumulation of artifacts, mysterious objects with seemingly supernatural powers, that I can sell to him or use for myself. I was found carrying a PDA with one message on it: “Kill Strelok.” It seems my to-do list is refreshingly short, but, given the situation with my memory, the single task will most likely prove difficult. In the meantime, until I regain my memory and can concentrate my resources towards this objective, Sidorovich has filled this PDA with useful information, and will be using it to communicate his needs to me when I’m in the Zone. “This useful device will help you survive in the Zone—and if you do die, others will know where and how,” Sidorovich ventures, then adds, “just kidding.”
In truth, there’s no use mincing words. After all, I am a stalker. Others have come and gone before me, and others will undoubtedly come and go long after I’m gone.
But what, exactly, is a stalker?
The root of the term stalker, specifically in its particular relationship to the inseparable term Zone, originates from Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, which concerns the implications of a very brief visit of extraterrestrial intelligence to Earth. The novel is set in the town of Harmon, located in an unnamed Canadian province. A large section both of Harmon itself and of the wilderness to its north constitutes the Zone: an area mysteriously affected by a plethora of inexplicable and otherworldly phenomena following the visitation. Following the visitation, the Zone has been rendered uninhabitable, and is now quarantined, guarded by military and police forces and accessible only to the scientific community.
In Roadside Picnic, the extraterrestrial visitation that created the Zone was not itself observable: it happened instantaneously, forever changing the landscape of Harmon. The only experience of the visitation accessible to human consciousness is through interaction with the evidence left behind within the Zone, which takes the form of not only the objects scattered throughout the Zone, but also the strange, nonstandard laws of physics within the Zone itself. The “roadside picnic” of the title is a reference to the utter incomprehensibility of the Zone, even when placed under the most vigorous scientific investigation: one scientist analogizes the visitors to a family that stops for a picnic, unintentionally leaving behind remnants of their visit that passing animals eventually interact with (barring any possibility of comprehension), with each party being largely unaware of the other’s presence. The protagonist of the novel, Redrick Schuhart, is a stalker, a bandit who enters the Zone illegally, meticulously braving its numerous dangers to collect “swag,” slang for extraterrestrial artifacts valued for their rarity as well as scientific, utilitarian, and potential military value. The etymology of “stalker” was based on the English word, rather than any Russian term; the Strugatsky brothers used the term based on their understanding of the verb “to stalk” (approach stealthily, deliberately, furtively), and not considering the sinister connotations of “stalker” in English[iii].
The Zone made its first transition to the realm of the moving image in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s film 1979 Stalker. Tarkovsky’s project was originally conceived as a relatively straightforward adaptation of the Strugatsky’s novel, but, following a laboratory disaster in which inexperienced technicians ruined the film during its processing, the director decided to significantly alter his approach when re-shooting the film. Stripped of his resources and at this point having little interest in recreating the Strugatsky’s Zone or the novel’s central character, Tarkovsky’s re-shot film became a stripped-down parable of faith, doubt, and redemption, built around a search for a mythical Room deep within the Zone that is rumored to grant wishes. This search loosely ties the film to the final chapter of Roadside Picnic, in which Redrick and a companion search for the wish-granting artifact known as the “Golden Ball,” but the similarities between the two works, and between the two Zones, end there. The Zone’s dangers, manifested in Roadside Picnic in the form of anomalies such as body-crushing “graviconcentrates,” lightning storms, and rolling blasts of heat, vanish into nebulous abstraction in Stalker. The nameless Stalker at the center of the film, hired to act as a guide into the Zone for two other characters (referred to only as Writer and Professor) speaks about the Zone’s “traps” in a language equally poetic and apocalyptic, and the character’s protracted journey through the Zone suggests a spiritual pilgrimage as much as the navigation of a landscape crawling with immanent danger. The Stalker is a mystic: eccentric and impenetrable, with an unyielding reverence for the Zone and its powers, seemingly despite all empirical evidence. In Tarkovsky’s re-imagined Zone, the town of Harmon has been jettisoned in favor of a meadow dotted with decaying factories, its outer borders outlined by derelict automobiles and tanks: an industrial disaster oozing through an otherwise pristine wilderness. Already haunting, Tarkovsky’s celluloid vision of the Zone was later rendered even more ominous due to the likely possibility that the choice of this milieu eventually cost the health of one of the film’s principle actors and several members of its crew, including Tarkovsky himself. The soupy white foam that so evocatively decorates the pools of stagnant water throughout the film was a likely cause of the bronchial cancer that caused the death of Tarkovsky, Anatoli Solonitsin (the Writer), and the film’s first assistant director in the following years[iv].
Perhaps stemming from the foreboding salience of Tarkovsky’s landscape, or from the general popularity of the novel, perhaps simply because of the perfect collusion of “Zone” with “Zone,” or a combination of all of these things—whatever the underlying reason, in 1986 the stalker vocabulary was sutured to Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion, the 30-km radius quarantined area surrounding the nuclear power plant established following the nuclear disaster. Within time, the term “stalker” emerged as a colloquialism for those who entered the Zone in the accident’s aftermath, legally or illegally: the term applied to liquidators, looters, and unofficial guides alike. Details from the film were reinterpreted as being significantly prophetic; for instance, the Professor’s cryptic reference to the Room as being located in “the old building, Bunker Four” found eerie new resonance when connected to the future failure of the Chernobyl NPP’s fourth reactor. Likewise, the fact that stalkers in both Roadside Picnic and Stalker faced mutated progeny as a result of their trespassing the Zone carried eerie new relevance. The true proof of the mythology’s resonance, however, lies not in the creative interpretation of details, but in Chernobylite’s application of its vocabulary to own experiences. “Stalker with 15 years experience” proudly proclaims Alexander Naumov, a photographer of the Zone of Exclusion profiled on pripyat.com, a website devoted to issues uniquely affecting former residents of the evacuated town of Pripyat. Naumov, in a small posting accompanied by a photo of himself standing several hundred meters from the power plant itself, claims to have acted as an unofficial guide for over 200 visitors to the Zone (undoubtedly trumping the Stalker of Tarkovsky’s film)[v].
It is in this lineage that I now find myself. I am a stalker in Chernobyl’s Zone, although not exactly the Zone Naumov has come to know. The Zone I inhabit is the Zone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a computer game from the Kiev-based design firm GSC Gameworld, a game that I have recently begun playing after years of anticipation and delays prior to its arrival. This Zone (the fourth permutation, as it were), draws from Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion, but builds further mythology on top of it. In the Zone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a second “incident” ripped through the power plant on April 13, 2006, an occurrence far more mysterious than the 1986 disaster. “The immediate effects of the blast were difficult to observe,” the expository introduction to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.‘s instruction manual reads, and “even more difficult to understand;” they illustrated just “how shallow Chernobyl’s grave of fear was” (such poetry!). This Zone, I am assured, is filled with deadly anomalies, relics ripped from Roadside Picnic that have been revived and now coexist with the reality of the Ukrainian landscape (or, rather, “reality”—the details of the topography have been heavily filtered through the needs of game designers). “Will you root out the valuable artifacts, altered by the Zone into unique, desirable and often dangerous objects?” the manual queries. “Will you surrender to the urge to kill Strelok, a figure whose shadowy presence lurks in your subconscious?” This slice of narrative is unfamiliar, something new to the game. Lurks in my subconscious? In the closing words of its exposition, the manual approaches the metaphysical: “Or will you explore the notion that there is something else… a reason, perhaps, why man made Hell?” The question is, in a sense, self-referential. There must be, of course, some reason the “Hell” of Chernobyl has been recast in the mold of a computer game. What this reason, this “something else” is, exactly, could be easily reduced to a handful of usual motivators: for instance, a desire to provoke, motivated by a knowledge that provocation often equals profit. Perhaps intrigued by the manual’s final query, however, I’m not entirely convinced that this can fully account for the ambition inherent in an amalgamation of mythology and reality of this scale: I am attuned to the possibility that there is still a “something else” lodged within Chernobyl itself, a deeper reason that this narrative has had such a closely intertwined and creatively productive relationship with the disaster.
I’m pondering this in Sidorovich’s dank office until he snaps me out of my musings with another detail about my PDA. “Oh yeah,” he adds, “There’s a diary, too. All the information you need is noted in your journal.”
A PDA-based journal might be a useful feature for my avatar, but it doesn’t do me a tremendous amount of good. I intend to keep my own.
My PDA provides me with a list of active, completed, and failed objectives that I can easily access to plan my explorations of the Zone. The objectives provide convenient means of delineating my progress, and I’m finding that they’re quickly infiltrating and overtaking my life, delineating much of my thought even when I’m not at the screen.
At the moment, I’m on a rescue mission to retrieve a flash drive from a stalker named Nimble who has been kidnapped by a group of bandits. I’ve been ensured that his life isn’t terribly important, but his capture is providing an obstacle between Sidorovich and the data he needs.
Apparently, engaging in activities such as these is supposed to help me gradually regain my memories. The conceit is somewhat perplexing: I, as a player, will not be accessing any repressed or otherwise absent memories while completing these assignments. Whatever revelations lay ahead will belong solely to the Marked One. My avatar’s past, as things stand, is hidden from me, but at the moment he happens to be ignorant of it, as well. Having my knowledge of his history develop synchronously with his own self-discovery is an interesting touch, but what assurance do I have that I will actually sympathize with this character my buttons happen to control once his personality is fully revealed?
In fact, I find that tiny forgotten memories are resurfacing as I go through these motions. The tasks I’m completing, from the larger structure of the rescue mission down to the tiniest details of keyboard layout, are tapping into cues nestled within some mental reserve. Even I, far from an avid gamer, understand that the life and times of the Marked One draw upon a shallow reservoir, the long but unfortunately stunted lineage of the first person shooter. I focus, my fingers trace over the familiar keys, and soon orient myself according to the landmarks. The process is not effortless; there are things not quite recalled, but I can nevertheless feel a sense of familiarity lodged in my unconscious. I’m not so different from the Marked One. Both of us are doomed to endlessly repeat the same tasks—running, shooting, avoiding monsters—that generations of avatars and their gamer counterparts have enjoyed together. The difference is that I am free to leave the computer, whereas there is no complementary escape for the Marked One. His life, like the lives of every avatar before him in this harsh realm, is no more than an endless repetition of the same tasks. An endless string of violence, of returning to environments only to find that every enemy has re-spawned, a life with no memory, and no future, strictly confined to the present tense, bereft of chance for introspection. Freud’s definition of traumatic neurosis, in which the subject “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience,” echoes in my ear[vi]. What does your past hold, Marked One? And why do you naïvely believe that going through these motions will restore it?
I’m on my way to steal some documents from the Agrogrom Research Institute for Sidorovich, although my understanding of his motives is fuzzy at best. On my way, though, I’ve picked up some important threads about this Strelok character whose shadowy presence apparently lurks in my subconscious. On a tip from Sidorovich, I saved a stalker named Fox’s life. He wasn’t too helpful; he just pointed me to another stalker named Seriy. Then, after risking my life fighting off a bandit attack to save Seriy, all he did was tell me to meet another stalker named Mole (these stalkers I’m discovering, like those in Roadside Picnic, have a penchant for nicknames, often animal-related). Mole’s location is near Agroprom, so I won’t complain too much about this chain of deferral and re-referral. It seems likely that Mole will actually be able to help me, since he has dug up Strelok’s stash from his secret hideout.
Although I’ve had to work hard for it, bit by bit a tiny narrative of who this Strelok fellow is and where he might be is emerging. And narrative—both the place of narrative within this game and this game’s place within a larger narrative—is precisely what I am interested in.
In recent psychoanalytic theories concerning the subject’s response to trauma, the idea of the narrative as a theraputic tool has rocketed to a place of central importance. Truamatic memory, from Freud through Lacan and beyond, has continually been characterized as being uncontained by the boundaries of conscious thought, carrying the constant danger of intruding into the subject’s consciousness in disruptive ways. For Freud, the traumatized subject is compelled to repeat the traumatic event in place of actually consciously remembering it, developing a repetition compulsion. For Lacan, the traumatic is an encounter with the real: a tuché, a rupture of the screen of the symbolic, an instantaneous exchange with the unfathomable realm of the pre-symbolic that consciousness normally strives to excise[vii]. Contemporary theory holds that by tethering the traumatic to conscious memories and placing it within the context of a larger framing story in an ongoing process of narrativization, the terrifying power of these memories can eventually be neutralized. In the words of Dori Laub, one of the theory’s proponents, the traumatic event takes place “outside the parameters of ‘normal’ reality,” and the subject must enter the task of “constructing a narrative,” a process of “re-externalizating the event” in order to assimilate the experience back into “the range of comprehension, of recounting and mastery”[viii]. If this narrative is to be successful, it must “restore a sense of continuity with the past,” writes Judith Lewis Herman, another theorist sponsoring the narrativisation model, in order to create a recognizable temporal flow from non-traumatic memory to trauma and back again[ix]. Not only this, but it must also include “a systematic review of the meaning of the event,” both in the mind of the patient and the others important people in his or her life that may have been affected[x]. Finally, both Laub and Herman agree that it is only when the narrative of the memory assumes transmissibility as some form of testimony that “the cognizance, the ‘knowing’ of the event is given birth to”[xi].
In a sense, the Chernobyl accident was a unique manifestation of the quintessential traumatic experience in both Freudian and Lacanian terms. Its victims were denied witnessing what was actually happening to their bodies: radioactivity is thoroughly inaccessible to conscious perception. The experience of being bombarded by a radioactive cloud, of having one’s roentgen count quickly climb, is quite simply not subsumable for any subject, with no chance of it properly entering consciousness upon first exposure. “The real as encounter,” Lacan writes, “Is essentially the missed encounter,” and first-hand accounts of those present or immediately affected by the Chernobyl disaster continually reflect this definition of trauma[xii]. “How can you believe in something incomprehensible?” writes a former resident of Pripyat, “No matter how hard you try, it still doesn’t make sense”[xiii]. Anatoly Shimanskiy, a journalist who reported in the zone simply states, “what happened to us didn’t fit into my consciousness”[xiv]. Even Valentin Borisevich, the former head of the Laboratory of the Institute of Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences admits, “We—I mean all of us—we haven’t forgotten Chernobyl. We never understood it”[xv]. Out of this ether of unknowability rapidly poured narrative: not just one narrative, but many. The construction of narratives became, and has remained, a perpetually ongoing process.
This situation in Ukraine, especially, presents a fascinating illustration of what happens when trauma is projected past the boundaries of the individual and onto a national community at large. Neighboring Belarus received an astonishing seventy percent of the nuclear fallout of the disaster, permanently establishing it as the site of the greatest number of acute health problems, personal tragedies, and personal traumas. Radiation in Belarus may have remained as unfathomable as the Lacanian real, but its effects were more immediate. In Ukraine, the Chernobyl incident skewed towards the abstract, an event that even the combined personal experiences of every last Ukrainian could not quite encompass. The disaster was part scientific fact, part anecdote, part phobia, constructing itself as a network of overlapping and frequently contradictory testimony: an impressive array of narratives, official and unofficial, personal and state-sanctioned. The accident itself was impossible to comprehend not simply on a psychological level but also initially on an empirical level due to severe shrouding by the Soviet authority. Ruthless propaganda purposefully wrapped the accident in obscurity in an attempt to contain the public’s perception of the event (it was a more cost-effective alternative to actually containing the danger). Ivan Zhykhov, a chemical engineer recruited to bury radiated topsoil and toxic debris inside the Zone of Exclusion, recalls cleaning one residence for the specific purpose of a wedding: the bride and groom, who were in fact already evacuated, had been convinced to be married in the Zone in front of a camera crew to propagandize what a terrific success cleanup had been, and how little danger radiation posed[xvi]. This web of obfuscation on the part of the Soviet government was in part made possible by the staggering amount of ignorance concerning the dangers of radiation throughout even those sections of the populace living in close proximity to the station. Valentin Borisevich recalls the reaction citizens of several small towns near the plant as he visited to measure background radiation: “What radiation? What’s that? … Roentgen, micro-roentgen—this is the language of someone from another planet”[xvii].
The narrative of Chernobyl as an insignificant incident, as a problem that could easily be “defeated,” was the first to emerge from the confusion surrounding the site of the disaster, but certainly not the last. It was quickly followed by what is arguably still the most important narrative into which the accident was sutured: that of Ukraine’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, a struggle that would have potentially fallen apart if the disaster had not presented the opportunity for such a decisive turning point. In her book Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine, Catherine Wanner characterizes Chernobyl as a “traumatic historical event” that acted as “the primary orienting experience for [the] generation who experienced the accident”[xviii]. Ignorance and Soviet propaganda were gradually replaced by a vague but powerful miasma of radiophobia, from which there sprung two salient and opposing political narratives. For the independence movement that sprouted from Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia, Chernobyl became a rallying point. The disaster was woven into a story of Ukraine as an exploited colony of Moscow, overripe for independence. Zelenyi Svit, or “Green World,” a grassroots organization that united an array of different environmental groups, focused on ecological reform, whereas other political organizations cried for compensation for victims. There was widespread belief that the nation’s “genetic fund” had been permanently damaged by the accident[xix]. However, there also existed the official Soviet interpretations of the event, no longer in denial about the true danger presented but instead attempting to use the disaster as an example of the evils of individual human error within the communist system. Anatolii Dyatlov, the worker on duty at the time the cooling-system test that went awry and caused the accident occurred, was singled out and demonized; a play written by a science correspondent for Pravda entitled Sarcophagus staged shortly after the accident obliquely (but rather transparently) featured and held up for ridicule an alcoholic worker at a nuclear power station[xx]. Attempts such as these on the part of the Soviets to continue to shape public perception represent a thread of historical narrative that quickly died away, as their attempts to regain the nation’s trust went nowhere. In September 1989, Rukh, the Ukrainian Popular Movement in Support of Perestroika, was founded, synthesizing nationalist, environmental, religious, and other political groups into a political organization that could not be reckoned with. Ukraine won its independence on December 1, 1991.
Any event as politically important as the Chernobyl accident will almost inevitably find itself entangled in an array of competing narratives. “By examining the representation of the events as an event in and of itself,” Wanner writes, “we see how perceptions of self and other are transformed when nationalism and historical memory intersect,” a statement referring to Chernobyl that upon first glance could easily be applied to the swarm of representations surrounding any one of numerous era-defining moments of the past century[xxi]. However, Chernobyl nevertheless remains unique. Perhaps this stems from the massive incongruities of the event: the largest nuclear disaster in history, the most expensive industrial accident in history, and yet fewer than thirty people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Chernobyl lingers; it feels incomplete, certainly unfinished, and continuing. Dori Laub’s assertion that trauma survivors “live not with memories of the past, but with an event that could not and did not proceed through to its completion” is literally and physically true for those who experienced Chernobyl and suffer its long-term effects[xxii]. Chernobyl is an inherently political event that no political narrative has yet been able to place into perspective, or to exhaust. There remains something un-subsumable in it, a burning core of cultural tuché that still dwells in the collective unconscious, not sufficiently “re-externalized” even after its many political stories have been put into words. Politics have no power over Chernobyl. The truth has no power over Chernobyl. “Why repeat the facts—they cover up our feelings,” writes Svetlana Alexievich in the concluding statement of her collection of Chernobyl testimonies, “The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me”[xxiii]. In the Zone, the facts have no power over feelings. Fiction, however, does.
Why has the mythology of Roadside Picnic consistently been mapped upon the event and the topography of Chernobyl? Initially the connection between the two could have been attributed merely to the appearance of the “Zone” in both reality and that fiction, or to the visual presence of Tarkovsky’s film. But, as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so readily attests, the mythology has persisted, irrationally. It has outlived, in the form of entertainment, the usefulness of the most powerful political narratives Chernobyl was once attached to. It has succeeded in sanitizing the event enough to prepare it for mass consumption. It is a band-aid placed over the tuché, and it has somehow succeeded in holding back the real for twenty-one years. “We don’t know how to capture any meaning from it,” writes Yevgeniy Brovkin, instructor at Gomel State University, in 1996, commenting on the lack of writing on Chernobyl, “We can’t place it in our human experience”[xxiv]. Perhaps there didn’t have to be any writing about Chernobyl, because a fictional work written fourteen years earlier had somehow already “captured” whatever meaning people were willing to take from the event. New theories are no match for the comfort of old mythologies.
When Alexander Naumov, authentic Chernobyl stalker (who, as it turns out, is thanked in the credits of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.), is quoted as saying “to earn money by making excursions to Chernobyl cemeteries is blasphemy,” is he consciously evoking the Stalker in Tarkovsky’s film (“a stalker must never enter the Zone with an ulterior motive”)[xxv]? Is this continuity with a fictional past the only way to create a meaningful “verbal account, oriented in time and historical context,” as advocated by Judith Herman[xxvi]? Does picking a starting point already entirely external to reality aid in Laub’s “re-externalizating” of the traumatic event? In short, what is the explanation, the draw, the elusive psychological power of the Zone?
A shootout in the vehicle graveyard, between stalkers and attacking bandits. The graveyard is quite small, much smaller than those in the actual Zone, but it seems that the purpose of landscape in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is to be functional while paying some homage to the actual Zone, rather than replicating reality in any real sense.
At the moment I’m in the Garbage, an environment strewn with giant hunks of twisted metal, half-buried in the ground and incredibly radioactive. Anomalies have been a problem. The Garbage is swarming with a particularly nasty one: I’m not sure its terminology in the game, but it bears similarities to the “meatgrinder” of Roadside Picnic, an invisible force that pulls its victims into the air and twists their bodies to the point of snapping. I’ve kept my distance and amused myself by watching particularly stupid mutants wander into them and explode. In Picnic, the primary means of avoiding such dangers was by throwing steel nuts in front of your path and closely observing what happened to them, a gesture that was recycled (with a certain abstract grace) in Stalker. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the most convenient way to avoid traps is by listening to the insistent beeping of my PDA, although I also have the option of throwing bolts. The bolts, although useful in diffusing certain anomalies, are not especially useful towards the task of detection, functioning more as a vestigial nod to previous mythology. Given the atrophy of its utility, the inclusion of the bolt is surprising, even somewhat touching in this universe of deadly efficiency.
A perfectly honest question: why are so many people shooting at me?
I’m laying low in Strelok’s hideout, deep in the sewers between the two branches of the Agroprom Research Institute, a place crawling with military personnel whose policy is to shoot stalkers on sight. In order to get here to get the info I needed, I had to rendezvous with Mole, which required attacking an endless array of hostile soldiers that had cornered him at the Institute. Turns out Mole had only found the stash, not raided it, so I’ve had to crawl into the sewers myself to actually discover what Strelok’s hideout holds. Upon entering the sewers, I was attacked by and killed my first bloodsucker, a particularly nasty and aggressive humanoid mutant. This is an obstacle I wholeheartedly agree with. I am also in agreement with the presence of Witches’ Jelly, the sole anomaly that has retained not only its physical description but also its name in the transition from book to computer game. But my excitement over these two inclusions was dampened by the fact that I was very quickly required to eliminate a squadron of soldiers that had joined me in this increasingly-claustrophobic little subterranean resort. There’s no rest for the Marked One. The Zone is positively saturated with people who would like to see me slightly more perforated. To be frank, this is not my preferred type of conflict, nor is it one I find particularly interesting. I was personally hoping for something more along the lines of the Strugatsky’s Zone, where the military police wouldn’t think twice about shooting you around the perimeter of the Zone, but once you got inside, the dangers got far less anthropomorphic and far more otherworldly.
Was there a strong military presence in the actual Zone of Exclusion? Absolutely. Testimony from Ivan Zhykhov: “So what is Chernobyl? A lot of military hardware and soldiers. Wash posts. A real military situation”[xxvii]. The Soviet military had a large hand in both the cleanup of the accident as well as in facilitating population evacuations and patrolling to keep looters out of the Zone. However, Anatoly Rybak, commander of a guard regiment in the Zone, recalls a much more lenient atmosphere regarding the “stalkers” he encountered:
I remember pulling over a truck from Pripyat. The town is already evacuated, there aren’t any people. ‘Documents, please.’ They don’t have the proper documents. The back has a canvas cover. We lift it up, and I remember this clearly: twenty tea sets, a big dresser, an armchair, a television, rugs, bicycles. So I write up a protocol [xxviii].
The developers’ decision to increase the role of the military as adversary in this alternate, fictionalized “future” version of the Chernobyl is certainly understandable. An invisible force such as radiation makes a pretty lousy adversary, it must be admitted: it even caused problems for those journalists who first began to report on the disaster (“What do I film?” was the reaction cameraman Sergei Gurin admitted to when first entering the Zone, “Nothing’s blowing up”)[xxix]. And although strong arguments have been made against it, the reduction of all forms of conflict within gaming to gun violence is and has been a persistent force within game design. But GSC Gameworld is certainly not alone in their desire to map the easily-understandable language of automatic weapons and military skirmishes onto Chernobyl’s Zone. As oddly misguided as it may sound, war was consistently the point of reference imposed upon those working to contain the contamination of the Zone and the surrounding areas. In the official lexicon of the Soviet state, the struggle against the reactor’s initial fire and its immediate aftermath was termed the “Battle of Chernobyl”[xxx]. Viktor Laturn, a factory-worker and photographer assigned to unload cement in the building of temporary structures around the Zone, recalls discussions with the authorities concerning the nature of his work: “they explained that we were heroes, accomplishing things on the front lines. It was all military language”[xxxi]. Arkady Filin, a Zone “liquidator” who buried trash, recalls the bitter irony of newspaper headlines proclaiming “The Reactor Has Been Defeated.” “We were told that we had to win,” Filin recalls, “Against whom? The atom? Physics?”[xxxii]. Of course, in Chernobyl, there was no “winning,” just as there were no “front lines,” but the language allowed workers to attach a well-worn system of meaning onto their seemingly pointless and often inscrutable assignments, assignments that often carried the risk of long-term health consequences. War, although terrible in its own right, presented a familiar mindset and familiar form of behavior that promised to pull Chernobyl into the realm of the comprehensible by association.
But such a rubric can only function for so long. “I don’t know how I’m going to die,” writes a former soldier stationed in Chernobyl wrestling with his diagnosis. “I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just shot you”[xxxiii]. GSC has taken note of this sentiment.
(On an interesting side note, while strolling through the garbage I discovered that in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., one can see radiation. It appears as an increased graininess of the video image, accompanied by a “blown out” look, a combination of bright overexposure and increased contrast in one’s vision. It’s certainly a convenient touch, and this convenience is serving to dampen my potential arguments against it at this point.)
More shooting, but that’s to be expected at this point. I’m clutching documents stolen from the main branch of the Agroprom Research Institute, a cluster of buildings that has been converted to a military base: the heart of enemy territory. (Why am I doing this again?) It’s especially frustrating that I have to dodge so many bullets right now, because there are terrific murals on the sides of two buildings: gorgeous celebrations of the Soviet people and the bygone days of the “peaceful atom.” I’m too preoccupied to position myself for a screenshot.
Oops, down for good. Oh well. At least the view is better down here. I’ll take a break.
The resolution that is brewing within me as I lie dead, waiting through the slight delay as the game reloads is to engage with this game to a greater degree. That means accepting the amount of armed human adversaries, and relegating my interest in murals (and witches’ jelly, for that matter) to the periphery. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., after all, is a game, not simply a depository of history and mythology.
My general resistance to the gameplay of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stems from one of two realms, which themselves are interrelated: that of time and that of landscape. In the realm of time: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is sandbox-style, ultimately allowing me to choose which assignments I will accept and how long I will take to complete them. So far I’ve taken this as carte blanche to engage and disengage with linear gameplay at will, peppering my forward assault with lateral divergences in an attempt to satisfy my appetite for mythology. However, I cannot escape the fact that computer games ultimately contain only one time scheme, characterized by game theorist Markku Eskelinen as “the movement from the beginning to the winning”[xxxiv]. My interest in the larger narrative context of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has had the unintended, but perhaps inevitable, effect of forcing my decisions against the intended time scheme, against that inescapable flow from beginning to winning. The force of this time scheme is undeniable; it confronts me in the form of soldiers and bandits, and by characters suddenly adding new jobs to my queue, prompting me to more assiduously tackle my to-do list.
Because of my personal interests and motives in approaching this game, my own sense of progress has been gauged by in terms of artifacts of Zone mythology I may pick up on the way through the game. Of particular interest: does the game, like the book and the movie, eventually become structured around the search for a wish-granting artifact? In Roadside Picnic, the wish granter was a golden ball; in Stalker it was an imposingly empty room. What form might a wish-granter take in Chernobyl? A reconciliation of (if not utter subordination of) these goals with the actual goals of the game is needed if I am to remain engaged with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
In the realm of landscape: Jesper Juul defines space in videogames as a convergence between game rules and fiction, a perfect balance of the game’s “two-way process” wherein the game’s fiction cues the player “into understanding the rules of the game, and, again, the rules can cue the player to imagine the fictional world”[xxxv]. By this standard, my immersion into this hybrid terrain of Chernobyl and Strugatskian fiction is indulgent: even after the rules have been made clear, I am drawn to dwell within and to dwell upon these landscapes. However, my own preferences and propensities aside, there is an obvious difference between the interaction between topography and strategy-determination outlined by Juul and the relationship between the reality of Chernobyl and gameplay in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. “The level design in a game may create an emotionally evocative landscape,” Juul writes, “and at the same time determine the shape of … the gameplay of the game”[xxxvi]. Chernobyl’s Zone of Exclusion, in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., has proved to be, up to this point in the game, a series of roads, train tracks, buildings (largely farmhouses and laboratories), culverts, ditches, trees, and abandoned vehicles, dotted with anomalies. Does this fictionalized “Chernobyl” actually present any qualitatively different aspects of gameplay that would separate it from an identical landscape not coded with such historical notoriety? Can the player actually be expected not to explore the landscape beyond the boundaries of its rule-implementing function, when such a deliberately rich (in terms of mythology) and provocative (in terms of reality) history has been mapped onto the game? It seems that any game placed upon such a landscape will prove feeble in comparison.
I’ve at last successfully delivered the documents from Agroprom to the Barkeep. Immediately he decided that this information was not enough, and that I’d have to fetch another set of documents from Lab X18 in the Dark Valley. I’m not quite up to that task just yet, though, especially since it includes stealing a key from the bandit leader Boar, which will probably require more firepower than I can currently stomach. For now the bar seems to be a safe haven—it’s located in a compound controlled and patrolled by Duty, an organized faction of stalkers who have formed a sort of add-hoc military unit. Also, finally I am clear on why I’m running these errands: Sidorovich and the Barkeep intend to knock out the Brain Scorcher, a sizable obstacle of unknown origin presently preventing stalkers from entering the center of the Zone, so that they can get their hands on (drum roll please) the Wish Granter. That’s it; no fancy name, no known attributes, just “Wish Granter,” but tantalizing nonetheless.
Like Ernest, the bartender in Roadside Picnic, this Barkeep is one of my primary means of trading my artifacts for cash. Also like Ernest, he rips me off quite a bit. Merely stepping foot in his establishment shoots the listed price of all my swag down nearly forty percent. I should search for better outlets for my wares.
A television is perched behind the Barkeep’s counter, displaying a short loop. The “camera” drifts effortlessly forward along an abandoned railroad track, surrounded by green overgrowth and under a fog-strewn sky. The loop recalls the sequence in Stalker in which the Stalker, the Writer, and the Professor first sneak into the Zone—except instead of a small railway car gliding along the tracks, all we see is a hand holding a gun, that eternal, iconic phallic symbol of the first-person shooter.
I’m in the midst of a respite from linearity. Admittedly, much of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s relentless forward march can be attributed to my constant acceptance of top-priority missions, which I always have the option to reject, at least temporarily. But there is, regardless, a path built into the Zone itself. Far from being simply a 30-km expanse of free play, the Zone is burdened with a grid of borders and levels, a rigid game of ordered checkpoints. It is also much smaller than it appears on the map: a mere barbed-wire fence provides a surprisingly insurmountable obstacle, rendering much of the Zone’s acreage inaccessible. More disturbingly, radiation itself is used as an invisible wall. If I stray too far from the path, my vision goes white, my PDA beeps, and I drop dead in a matter of seconds. That terrifying sliver of the real, too incomprehensible to be harnessed into the form of an antagonist, remains lodged in the game merely as a signpost.
But, for the time being, things are a bit freer. Instead of immediately setting off on the Barkeep’s assignment, I wandered around his establishment and took another job from a hapless stalker called Hunter, who lost his precious family rifle while hunting bloodsuckers and has employed me to find it for him. Finally, I have a goal that no serious developments hinge on. I had a pretty serious scuffle with a band of mercenaries while heading to the abandoned train yard the rifle was located within, and then found myself rescuing a stray ecologist whose helicopter had been shot down. After these distractions, I found myself in an unusual situation: I had completely cleared the area of all hostile forces, and was free to find the rifle and any artifacts I could spot at my leisure.
It seemed a welcome indulgence. But when I followed the coordinates to the point where the rifle should have been, it wasn’t there. On my PDA’s map, it looked as if it was in a locker in a small trailer. But the locker was empty. I climbed up onto a tower, inched along a brick wall, and jumped on top of the building, but it wasn’t on the roof, either. It was nowhere. It showed up on the map, but was completely inaccessible.
I returned to the stalker to tell him that I had failed, but found that I couldn’t. “Hey! Any news? Did you find it?!” is all that he would say, and I had no way of telling him “No,” no way of rejecting his job, no way of simply apologizing. I cannot get him to give up his hope in me. I returned to the train yard, but the situation remained the same. I returned to the stalker, and again received the same canned response. I’m back in the train yard, surveying the whole of it from the top of a half-constructed building. There must be something here, hidden, a missed encounter. I’ll repeat the motions until I get it right.
It has recently struck me: according to Laub and to Herman, placing the traumatic into a narrative should allow it to be properly assimilated into memory, and therefore should stop all compulsion to repeat. But in the Zone, the stalker narrative doesn’t help; it simply itself gets repeated, gradually evolving but never fulfilling any purpose.
I’m in the Dark Valley, back on the Barkeep’s mission. Immediately upon entering this portion of the Zone, I was greeted by a scripted sequence in which a Duty member asked me to rescue his fellow Dutier, who was being held captive for ransom by bandits. I obliged, not because I was terrifically engaged with this little plot, but rather out of a sense of altruism. There’s nothing more pathetic than these scripted AI characters when left to their own devices—they crouch in corners, twitching, their fingers on the triggers, yelling the same two or three phrases at non-existent enemies: talk about repetition compulsion. My engagement with their schemes is the only cure.
But as the two of us traversed the landscape together towards the ambush point, I was tempted to leave this Dutier behind. The abandoned factory, gentle hills of grass, the disgustingly rusty pools of water, the general lack of hostile forces: all of these visual trappings were seemingly ripped from Stalker, which reminded me of an aggravating and insidious little rumor that was planted on the film’s IMDb board back in 2005. Whilst in the Zone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., this long-since deleted post claimed, if you happened to be at the right place at the right time, the Stalker, Writer, and Professor from Tarkovsky’s film would wander into the frame, acting out a scene from the movie. Although I doubted the post’s veracity, if the rumored rendezvous were to take place anywhere, it would be here.
I resisted the urge to abandon the Dutier, and rescued his comrade. I then stormed the bandit camp and retrieved the key I needed from Boar. But then, with everyone that was shooting at me cleared out, I began remembering the detailed account of the surrounding area provided to me by the Dutier, and, my interest again piqued by the rumor, decided to put my responsibilities to the Barkeep on hold.
It strikes me, though, as I wade through this weed-choked pond of industrial waste, that I’ve been using this game as a mode of sight-seeing: Chernobyl sight-seeing. Not that I’m alone: the Chernobyl Zone is now one of the most reliable tourist attractions in Ukraine. Referred to only obliquely within information on Kiev on Ukraine.com, Ukraine’s official tourism gateway, tucked away unobtrusively between more conspicuous references to Odessa’s Potemkin stairway and the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Chernobyl day tours are a considerably more visible attraction advertised on private travel websites. Kiev-based Solo East Travel boasts an exclusive “ecological” tour as the cornerstone of its business. Stops on the day tour include sightseeing of the fourth reactor from a distance of 100 m, sightseeing of Pripyat, and a visit to the Red Forest, the dead remnants of the Worm Wood Forest that turned completely orange following exposure to radiation. Protective clothing and respiration masks are provided.
Meanwhile, at the comfort of my computer desk, my tour is relegated to a warped and inaccurate version of the Zone, but in exchange I get to forgo the respiration mask. The same does not apply for the Marked One, however—luckily for him I followed an online tip, and he now roams the Zone in a decked-out SEVA suit, the best protection a stalker can hope for.
Something odd just happened.
I’ve recovered the documents from Lab X18, a refreshingly creepy environment filled with anomalies, mutants, and levitating crates and canisters with a seemingly nefarious life of their own. While trapped in a room filled with flames, I blasted away at something that looked like an anomaly but must have in fact been some sort of translucent mutant, judging by the meat chunks that covered the floor when it finally relented. Suddenly my controls failed to work, and the Marked One collapsed to the ground. The game launched into a cut scene, that narrational unit of the videogame that retains un-severable ties to cinema.
Quick smash cuts flashed across the screen, accompanied by explosive sound design. The images I could discern among the ruckus were a firing machine gun, the Chernobyl plant, swarms of rats fleeing along a hillside from some unseen danger, and a face: the Marked One’s face. Judging by the fact that the content didn’t fit firmly into the timeline I’m experiencing in the game, this must have been a flashback. Assigning flashbacks to the realm of the cut scene is rather standard practice: interactivity in flashbacks would likely lead to timeline problems, while flash-forward cut scenes would lend a sense of inevitability to the game’s proceedings that would interfere with the player’s engagement with the game[xxxvii]. But within the context of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., these flashbacks take on certain weight: here I am experiencing the traumatic memories that have been inaccessible to my in-game consciousness. The un-subsumable is bubbling forth, accompanied by an unnerving lack of interactivity.
The cut scene flashback, in strictly psychoanalytic terms, is strangely paradoxical: it is a glimpse of the past repeated as a contemporary experience, which codes it as a traumatic memory, and yet its most jarring aspect is not that it is being re-lived instead of remembered, but rather that it is not being lived enough, as the player is stripped of the agency of interactivity. And while the traumatic memory is a fragment without a frame, something that desperately requires narrative context in order to be accepted into consciousness, the cut scene flashback constitutes an essential building block of a game’s narrative: it eventually provides, rather than begs, contextualization. The scene I just witnessed was jarring but contextualizing, an unconscious eruption that was not traumatic, a compulsive bit of repetition that also provided a crucial bit of narrative framework. Again: something odd just happened.
I’m in Lab X16, apparently a sister lab to the previous X18. I’m finally completely clear on what the Barkeep wants out of all of this. The documents I have collected so far prove that the Brain Scorcher, an obstacle that has prevented stalkers from entering the center of the Zone, is not an anomaly, but instead a man-made “Kaymanov experimental emitter” (as if that clarifies things). The components of the device were produced in X18 but then sent to X16, so I’m following a trail to X16 find out where this device is actually located and how to turn it off, so that stalkers can venture freely into the center of the Zone. It hasn’t been easy, though—Lab X16 itself is protected by some sort of “psi-emission,” a miniature version of the Brain Scorcher, and so I’ve had to depend on some ecologists, who have fitted me with an experimental “psi-helmet” that will protect me from the emissions while I turn off X16’s emitter, then proceed to collect more documents for the Barkeep.
The effect of the “psi-emmissions” on those not equipped with a handy “psi-helmet” is immediate transformation into a George A. Romero-type zombie, which is actually rather predictable. After all, where would the first person shooter be without the lumbering undead? The trope is such an essential staple of any game even remotely connected to the science fiction or horror genres that a game without them has become nigh unthinkable. I’m just surprised it’s taken them this long to show up in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
The Zone was crawling with zombies in Roadside Picnic, as well, which makes their inclusion here a nod to two separate traditions simultaneously. The Zombies in Roadside Picnic were actually more affectionate than dangerous, but it should come as no surprise that the zombies in X16 greet me with automatic gunfire.
It turns out that I, the Marked One, am Strelok. For some reason, I suspected as much. Perhaps it was the content of the flashbacks (I had a second one in Lab X16). Perhaps it was the feeling that only the details of my own traumatic past could possibly “lurk in my subconscious.” In any case, my identity has been revealed, although the origin of the self-negating post to my PDA’s to-do list has not.
I learned the truth by following several tips that eventually lead to a meeting with a figure known as the Doctor, who addressed me as Strelok and told me that everything I, Strelok, have said about “the Monolith” is true. “It is just an illusion,” he assured me, and “nobody who reached the Monolith has ever come back.” Then he gave the coordinates in to a stash in Pripyat where I can find a decoder that will open a door in Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus. Getting into this door, he claims, is “the only was of uncovering the Zone’s real secret.”
As may be obvious by the convoluted variance of assignments listed above, I’m currently entangled in conflicting allegiances. I’ve been hired by the leader of Duty himself, General Veronin, to steal a Bulldog 6, a six-loading grenade launcher, from Freedom, the rival faction of stalkers that occupies the warehouses on the border of the Red Forest. In the process of gaining Freedom’s trust, I tipped them off to an impending raid on their territory by a small group of Dutiers. Veronin had personally let me know that this particular sub-faction was not authorized to attack and was therefore expendable, but he might be surprised to learn that I was in the front lines of Freedom’s counterattack, liquidating the rogues myself. Following all of this, I discovered that I didn’t really have to earn Freedom’s trust after all to obtain the grenade launcher; it had been absent-mindedly left in a nearby abandoned village.
But, somewhere between storming Duty and defending Freedom’s outer barrier from Monolith (a third, much more aggressive and mysterious faction, presumably with some connection to the Monolith the Doctor spoke of), I’ve made some friends in Freedom. Lyonya Pianist, Rus Rabbit, Stepan Warrior, Lyova Mammoth, all of these stalkers are now all highlighted with a green “friend” tag on my PDA. Vlad Aesthete is still “neutral,” but you can’t win them all, I suppose. It’s a much better record than I had with Duty, who treated me with suspicion even after I fought off mutants and zombies alongside them. So I’m wavering on whether or not I should take this pilfered Bulldog 6 back to Veronin. A 6-shooting grenade launcher is more useful than cash, anyway. And I like these Freedom fellows—despite the fact that my “friends” for some reason have no scripted dialogue I can engage them in, the Freedomers showed quite a lot of camaraderie, even repartee, during the scripted sequences leading up to the raid on Duty.
As the bountiful rambling above may make clear, I’m highly engaged. The gameplay of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has pulled me in. And at such an odd time: here I am, at the edge of the Red Forest. Pripyat and the power plant itself are clearly visible on my PDA’s map; I know that it is only a matter of time before I fight my way there. Yet an odd splitting is occurring: the looming presence of reality is becoming more immediately tangible, while simultaneously more confused and deferred. As the landmarks become more recognizable, the game is taking on more of a life of its own, adding complicated folds to its characters, universe, and narrative. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is drifting not just farther away from reality, but also farther from the clichéd refraction of reality through Strugatsky. That final infernal site of traumatic historical (un)consciousness is drawing nearer, and yet here I am navigating a crooked line of alliance between Duty and Freedom, my forward gaze extending only as far as the destruction of the Brain Scorcher and the retrieval of the decoder. The trajectory of the Zone’s previously-noted burned-in linear path has so far proven strikingly distancing. As I approach the promise of the rendered “real,” an increasingly thicker haze of unreality is introduced to remind me that no matter how close I may seem to be getting to an actual site of historical trauma, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is still only a game.
I’ve just come from Pripyat, exquisitely rendered but an absolute war zone, leaving little time or space for admiration. I ducked inside a housing complex to find the promised stash with the decoder. I found my way through labyrinthine deserted hallways, up dusty and partially collapsed staircases, into abandoned rooms. I found what I was looking for.
Now I’m inside the fourth reactor. I fought my way through hordes of rival stalkers that have flooded the area since the brain scorcher was shut down. I’ve braved military helicopters, explosions, and unexplained and ominous earthquakes. The sky turned purple, but now I’m inside the Sarcophagus. My SEVA-suit just barely protects me from the mounting radiation; I have to constantly pop medication just to survive. They tried to bury it, but I am inside.
But where is Chernobyl? Where is the ruined core? Where are the collapsed turbines? Where is the graphite, scattered and scorched? The iodine-131? The cesium-137? Somewhere within these walls, Valery Khodemchuk is buried, the lone worker whose body could not be retrieved from the plant. But I see none of this. All I see are dark hallways, filled with machinery. And I’m being shot at. More than ever before, stopping is simply not an option. Survival is extraordinarily difficult. Monolith foot soldiers armed with shotguns, snipers, machine guns, and Gauss guns all have their scopes pointed at me, and if I halt my march forward for more than a few seconds, I swiftly suffer radiation poisoning. Earlier in the game, I had been mildly disturbed by the designers’ practical use of radiation as an invisible wall. Now radiation prods me further into the game, if I attempt to resist. We have ways of making you play. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it is play itself that functions as the final invisible wall. The truth of Chernobyl is all around me, and yet play is shielding me, it is a protective seal behind which the real is trapped, skillfully hidden and stripped of its significance even as I brave the interior of the Sarcophagus. How apt: the Sarcophagus, of course, is another, more practical encasing of the traumatic, and now my journey into its confines is similarly padded by a game, an especially effective screen of the symbolic.
The truth is that there is no Chernobyl. It’s a sham, a front, a mere cardboard set. There is nothing behind these walls. Literally: I discovered this when I died too near one, and found that by moving my mouse I was able to twist my now-omniscient view outside of the corridor my body lay in, revealing it to be suspended in empty space, floating un-tethered in an endless sky, a formless expanse of grayish blue. My lone glimpse beyond this sinuous network of ludic signifiers was only a glitch, a glitch that revealed nothing: there was no contact with the unfathomable, with the repressed, with the real, there was nothing more than an empty shortcut on the part of game designers.
I visited the Wish Granter, which resembled a giant glowing blue crystal encased within a metal frame. The visit was inconsequential: I learned from the Doctor that the Wish Granter is only a distraction from the true truth of the Zone that will be revealed within the hidden door that I have yet to find.
Approaching the Wish Granter triggered a cut scene, in which the Marked One wished for wealth and found the wish granted in an appropriately ironic manner. The game then ended. I was hoping for an opportunity to type in my own wish, in which case I would have entered Redrick Schuhart’s wish from Roadside Picnic—“HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED”—but I imagine that such freedom would have been impossible from a game-development standpoint. In any case, at this point I’m more interested in what’s behind the door, so I made sure to save my game before approaching the Wish Granter.
I decoded the hidden door while being shot at by dozens of Monolith henchmen. I sniped my way through an impossibly dense thicket of enemies to the final control room. After all of this, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. rewarded me by pulling a shocking coup de grâce. The “truth” that I uncovered, the “Zone’s real secret” was lobbed at me in the form of an unintelligible amount of eleventh-hour back-story.
In the final control room, I was greeted by a holographic apparition that introduced itself as the “C-Consciousness,” and proceeded to answer several questions concerning the truth of the Zone. The Zone, the C-Consciousness claimed, is actually a crack in the Earth’s “noosphere,” the collective realm of all consciousness. This fissure was created when a group of scientists bound together several human consciousnesses to form the C-Consciousness. The site of Chernobyl was chosen for these experiments because of its isolation. The “Wish Granter” was a myth created to protect the secrecy of these experiments: any stalker that successfully reached the center of the Zone searching for it would be brainwashed by psi-emissions and reprogrammed to protect the C-Consciousness. Strelok himself was reprogrammed, resulting in him becoming the Marked One. The suicidal mission was a result of a simple mistake, a mistake that eventually resulted in the Marked One re-realizing his own identity.
The more I learned of this back-story, the less I cared. “Is the explosion of ’86 your work, too?” I asked the C-Consciousness, and it replied, “No, we had nothing to do with that.” This quote proves that there is at least some limit to GSC Gameworld’s hubris, yet I am still disturbed by the “truth” behind the Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is yet another layer of distancing mythology. Of course, to expect a revelation of any meaning, any political, sociological, or philosophical insight would be asking too much. But would it have been asking too much for GSC to have limited their fictional narrativization of the disaster to the realm of Roadside Picnic? This mythological coup d’état is more than just confusingly belated in its presentation, is actually a seismic shift; suddenly the compass has been reset from the Strugatsky Brothers to Vladimir I Vernadsky, the Russian philosopher of science who coined the term “noosphere” (developed alongside his more widely-recognized sister concept of the biosphere) while living in Ukraine. That Vernadsky’s ideas are being mapped onto Chernobyl is not in itself surprising: his writings on the potentially vast impact the spheres of human thought and human activity have upon Earth’s environment have secured the continued importance of his concepts in the environmentalist movements of Eastern Europe, which of course have an intimate relationship to the legacy of Chernobyl. But to pile lip service to these ideas on top of a mythology that has already been used to bury the reality of a catastrophe, especially at a moment so (literally) late in the game, signals a startlingly hostility towards a searing reality.
Which, of course, begs a question of intent regarding the developers at GSC Game World. This question of intent has, of course, been an issue since the game’s inception; however, I was, until this recent introduction of new mythology, prepared to give the game more than a fair chance. When taken into account that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is essentially a Ukrainian product, the trivialization of such a major environmental disaster (and site of political resistance) to the status of a backdrop onto which both play and multiple layers of mythology are hung seems fundamentally regressive. This is not to say that Chernobyl should be off-limits to any form of representation, in the realm of gaming or otherwise. But given the extent to which the event has been hidden, rewritten and re-portrayed for political purposes in the past, to assign another cloud of fictional narrative to the incident, seems at least counterintuitive, if not overtly suspect.
To search for political or psychological motivation for such decisions in a corporate entity may ultimately be futile, but this must not be used as a shield to deflect criticism. The ultimate denial of the political (if not the environmental) implications of Chernobyl that has been initiated by GSC’s wrapping of the traumatic real within the comfortable insulation of mythology cannot be ignored. It is worth noting that the disaster has already begun disappearing from Ukrainian history schoolbooks (it’s difficult to continue to use a power plant as a symbol of national victimization when it remains one of the only functional power facilities in a nation thoroughly indebted to Russia for energy supplies), a move that seems poised to preempt a much more extensive national forgetting on the part of the Ukrainian people. Wanner, in Burden of Dreams, writes that “by ignoring [Chernobyl] and constructing a narrative that bypasses consideration of an event of such importance, (new) state-sponsored historiography remains discredited,” and yet it is not just state-sponsored enterprises that are engaged in this erasure: entertainment corporations like GSC are apparently performing their part, as well[xxxviii].
The C-Consciousness finished its backstory monologue, and now asked me if I wish to do my part to repair the noosphere and contain the ruptures of the Zone. I was given two options. The first option was to join the C-Consciousness project. I chose the second option: I, the Marked One, Strelok, asserted, “I’m not going to help you in this deception.”
Immediately after making my choice I was deposited outside of the plant. There are no more rival stalkers, no more military, just constant earthquakes, anomalies, and a few stray Monolith members. Two objectives stare at me, the only top-priority assignments left on my PDA: FIND STRELOK. KILL STRELOK. I’ve accomplished the first, of course, in a certain existential sense, and the second goal will probably be realized soon enough. There’s now nothing to do but to shoot and get shot out, and my ammo’s almost entirely wiped out. I also can’t walk more than a few meters from the plant without getting severely burned by radiation.
Perhaps I should have chosen to help them with the deception. (It is, after all, the choice GCS Game World seems to have made.) Right now the true nihilism of the Zone is revealed: it is a world utterly devoid of purpose. The irony, of course, is that what I’m doing right now—walking, avoiding radiation, shooting, getting shot—is exactly what I’ve been doing the entire game, with only one small but crucial difference: my PDA isn’t providing me with any clearly-defined goals. I have glimpsed behind the curtain, and it’s now as if the game has purposefully deconstructed the notion of “fun” that it had so carefully built up until this point.
It is exactly this moment, at which the Zone is the most boring, that it finally seems the most real. Our attraction to games, it could be argued, is because we enjoy the simplicity of a transparent system, a system with clear objectives that parcels out bits of pleasure once those goals are reached in order to maintain the metabolic requirements of “fun.” The complexity of computer games has, of course, expanded exponentially as simple systems have been integrated into one another. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., in order to keep up my stamina I have to keep my weight down, which requires life-or-death decisions on the medical equipment, weaponry, artifacts and food that I am carrying at any one time. But while on the surface such a feature seems to be to add another aspect of “reality” to the game, in truth is just another game with its own small rewards, nested into a larger whole. The multifaceted gestalt of these nested systems adds verisimilitude to the game world, but anything approaching reality is strictly avoided. This is because if a game began to approximate reality, these systems would be rendered invisible, and the player would no longer have a reliably lucid set of logarithms to determine behavior.
Ultimately, it is this very aspect of gaming, more than any application of mythology, that has determined the treatment of Chernobyl in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. By incorporating Chernobyl into the gaming system, GSC Gameworld has inevitably simplified the event more than Soviet propaganda could have ever hoped to have done, more than the questionable application of military language did, and more than the popular mapping of the Strugastky’s narrative onto the disaster has done. There is no way that any issue with such complex repercussions can survive being transformed into a game.
Which is precisely why these past few minutes spent navigating this pointless landscape have actually been the most utterly terrifying that I have experienced yet in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. For the first time, the landscape actually looms with a palpable weight; the dread that the power plant inspires is locked in direct proportion to my actions’ meaninglessness. Is this actually what I wanted? There must be something I can do, some activity I can find to engage in to escape this.
Well, “FIND THE FAMILY RIFLE” is still on my PDA—I never could figure out that one.
I just realized something important. As it turns out, the anomalies I had been avoiding in the wasteland outside the plant were not lethal dangers at all, but invaluable teleportation ports. I’m currently zipping from port to port, avoiding scattered enemies while navigating a maze of rooftops and pipes, always keeping a lookout for my next jump point, some of which are a challenge to reach. It’s an engaging puzzle.
Not surprisingly, I’m having fun. More surprisingly, my outlook is drastically changing, on several fronts.
Looking back at the five days I’ve spent on this game, I realize that during the vast majority of the time I have spent I have actually been thoroughly engaged with the task at hand: through frustration, hard work, and final payoff, I have been immersed within the game. The narratives and mythology S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has embedded itself within constituted my first attraction to the game, and yet I have consistently found issues of narrative to be of secondary importance of the game itself. The bits of exposition that provided the narrative motivation for my missions hazily dissolved beyond my conscious thought; my true motivation for completing any given mission was that it was an engaging challenge built into a system of rewards both immediate and deferred. Earlier, I had noted that the powerful implications of the landscape surrounded me had the effect of often pulling me out of the game, feeling that no landscape such as this could be successfully harnessed as a simple rule-system in a game. Now, I must have to admit that however many layers of mythology were stacked upon the frame of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., they were all reduced to near-irrelevance when compared to the basic pleasures of gameplay. In fact, I have been having serious trouble following the narrative of this game throughout its duration, despite the fact that it was nominally one of my central concerns from the outset.
It is downright remarkable the extent to which the aspect of gameplay in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has ultimately served to dissolve any semblance of narrative content or context. Obviously, this could be read as yet another problematic issue of the game: the reality of Chernobyl is not simply deferred through the implementation of fictional narrativization, but is actually suspended between the dual escapisms of myth and pure ludus. And yet I am currently pondering an alternative to this assessment. For these two opposing trends to be conflated in a denunciation of both does not properly account for their reverse trajectories. It can, in fact, be argued that the developers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. have taken a radical step forward by encasing Chernobyl within a game, and relegating narrative to a convoluted, barely-intelligible backstory.
As I zip through these portals, I recall something the C-Consciousness said to me right before I rejected its offer. “From the moment the Zone was formed,” it intoned, “many people have tried to get to its center; but we cannot let that happen. Humanity is not ready for the truth.” Although I initially did not hold the developer’s last-minute inclusion of the C-Consciousness in very high regard, I have been hit by a new and surprising sense of appreciation, an appreciation that gives them more of a fair chance. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it is the C-Consciousness that is ultimately the force behind the creation of the Zone. The C-Consciousness colonized Chernobyl out of convenience, and proceeded to transform it into the Strugatskian mess that is presented in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.—artifacts, anomalies, zombies: all of these things were introduced because of its meddling in the noosphere. This assessment on the part of GSC is surprisingly apt: the Zone has, in a sense been created by a C-Consciousness: the collective consciousness at the site of the overlap between myth and cultural memory that shrouds Chernobyl. It is the Collective-Consciousness of those in Ukraine and beyond that has transformed the Zone of Exclusion into the Strugatskys’ Zone, forever ensuring that no one will ever be able to reach its true center.
Did GSC realize that they were, in fact, implicating themselves by naming the stormy nebula of the Collective-Consciousness as the primary antagonist of their game? Without allotting an undeserved amount of credit, I would now claim that, in fact, GSC, despite its liberal meddling in the realms of myth and Chernobyl narrativization, is at least partially exempt from this charge, precisely because they offer a salient alternative. In other words, there is a sly subversion occurring within S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and one that is striking in both its simplicity and effectiveness.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud explores responses to trauma, and more specifically “the impulse to work over in the mind some overpowering experience so as to make oneself master of it”[xxxix]. Although this impulse can be connected to the future studies of psychoanalysts such as Dori Laub and Judith Lewis Herman, the most concrete and famous observation Freud experiences of this tendency does not express itself as the emergence of a narrative. Instead, it takes the form of Freud’s young grandson throwing his toys into a corner and yelling “fort!” (gone), then retrieving them and greeting their reappearance with “da” (there), a behavior that Freud attributes to the child’s restaging of the frequent disappearances of his mother in such a way as to take an active part in what was otherwise an unpleasurable activity. “Fort/da” is not a narrative. It is not testimony. It is not a myth. It barely even contains language. The first instance Freud recognizes our minds’ tendency of “making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind” comes from a game[xl]. Just a game, and nothing more: perhaps this is the purest expression of how we work over our history.
With S.T.A.L.K.E.R., GSC Gameworld has reintroduced the game into the forefront of the psychological arsenal of dealing with trauma, deliberately or otherwise. Some may argue that this is an inherently regressive move: the writings of theorists such as Laub and Herman have proved that narrative is a much more efficient means of dealing with the traumatic than the realm of the game; Freud’s observation, after all, is of a two-year-old, not an adult human being. But although one may criticize GSC’s handling of its chosen material as adolescent-at-best, if true cognizance, true remembrance of the event is impossible due to its fundamentally invisible and inexperiencable nature (“what happened to us didn’t fit into my consciousness”), than any return to the site of Chernobyl with serious political, social, or environmental aspirations may in fact be essentially regressive in its very futility. The real is “that which always comes back to the same place,” Lacan writes, “the place where the subject in so far as he thinks … does not meet it”[xli]. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not in the least bit about thinking. It is about tossing aside the outmoded, false narratives surrounding and clouding Chernobyl, revealing their ultimate uselessness, and attempting a radically simpler approach to dealing with the memory of the disaster. When our narratives have ceased to be of any use, when they are, as Peter Lunenfeld terms it, merely “cultural baggage,” and obfuscating cultural baggage at that, do they not deserve to be “thrown off in transit”? Are they not “too cumbersome to be of any use”? Do we not deserve a purer, more essential way of dealing with the un-subsumable? And once our narratives our cast away, momentarily revealing the Zone’s terrifying center, what else can we do but play?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have nine rounds for a six-shooting grenade launcher I’ve somehow managed to abstain from using until this moment. C-Consciousness, here I come.
[i] Lunenfeld, Peter. User: Infotechnodemo. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005. pg 57
[ii] Quoted in Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Trans. Keith Gessen. New York: Picador, 2005. pg 161
[vi] Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961. pg 19
[vii] Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. 1973. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
[viii] Laub, Dori, M.D. “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, M.D. New York: Routledge, 1992. pg 69
[ix] Herman, Judith Lewis, M.D. Trauma and Recovery. New York: BasicBooks, 1992. pg 176
[x] Ibid, pg 178
[xi] Laub, pg 57
[xii] Lacan, pg 54.
[xiii] Alexievich, pg 103
[xiv] Ibid, pg 123
[xv] Ibid, pg 178
[xvi] Ibid, pp 160-161
[xvii] Ibid, pg 207
[xviii] Wanner, Catherine. Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. Pg 30
[xix] Ibid, pg 29
[xx] Ibid, pp 32-33
[xxi] Ibid, pg 32
[xxii] Laub, pg 69
[xxiii] Alexievich, pg 236
[xxiv] Ibid, pg 86
[xxvi] Herman, pg 177
[xxvii] Alexievich, pg 156
[xxviii] Ibid, pg 46
[xxix] Ibid, pg 105
[xxx] Medvedev, Zhores A. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. pg 40
[xxxi] Alexievich, pg 190
[xxxii] Ibid, pg 91
[xxxiii] Ibid, pg 49
[xxxiv] Eskelinen, Markku. “Towards Computer Game Studies.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. pg 39
[xxxv] Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005. pg 163
[xxxvi] Ibid, pg 188
[xxxvii] Jesper Juul outlines these and other problems an intricacies of videogame temporality in his essay “Introduction to Game Time.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. pg 136
[xxxviii] Wanner, pg 100
[xxxix] Freud, pg 16
[xl] Ibid, pg 17
[xli] Lacan, pg 49