I can’t wait for STALKER 2 (and you should get some hype too)
You approach the night camp, alone. It’s dark, but you don’t want them to know where you are, so your flashlight stays in your bag. You can barely make out enemy positions, your only referent being the lights projected from under their gun barrels. You move to the side of the place, a remnant of a village – four houses, stone, broken, and a campfire rising through the broken roof of the most northwestern building.
You find a hole in a nearby wall and lean to your right, giving your weapon the room it needs to breathe. Your Geiger counter clicks through the night, and a nearby bandit quickly flashes his flashlight in your direction. You pull the trigger. The violence is coming. The man’s flashlight shatters, and soon the night is lit only by a dying campfire and the rapid flashes of a flare. It’s a long night, STALKER – in the end, four men are dead. And you hear howling the blind dogs, perpetually hungry, a few miles away. You search the bodies. One of the men is carrying identification.
His name was Sanek Herisson.
This story is probably the clearest pitch I can give you for the HARLER Games. The series, like many cult classics of the early and mid-2000s, defies easy description. It is a series of first-person shooters, loosely based on the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film, stalker, and the book on which this same film is based, Roadside picnic. Both properties feature far fewer gunshots than their video game adaptations, but that’s not really the core of what ties these works together. stalker-related artwork isn’t about the plot or the action, it’s about the ~vibes~. the HARLER games have vibes in spades, which is why I’m so excited about STALKER 2, the sequence which was recently postponed to December 2022.
stalker (the film) is set in an unnamed region of a Soviet state and follows the journey of three men to a strange area called “The Zone”. The area is filled with strange anomalies, dangers, and a place called “The Room”, which is said to grant the truest wishes of anyone who enters it. People who venture into the Zone are called Stalkers and have a strange connection to the place. Like most of Tarkovsky’s films, stalker is less interested in traditional storytelling than in highly expressive visual poetry. It’s a film with shots of several minutes, with an average shot of around 60 seconds. For reference, the most recent avengers the film had an average frame length of around three seconds. It’s an extremely slow, meditative film that works almost exclusively in visual metaphor. It is, if you couldn’t say it now, easily one of my favorite movies of all time.
You might be wondering how a film best described as “visual poetry” inspired a series of first-person shooters – which is a fair question until you actually see the HARLER moving games. The video game series is set in the region surrounding Chernobyl, where radiation from the (real life) nuclear disaster of 1986 totally reshaped the local ecosystem and landscape. Most of the trees are barren, all animals are mutated, and strange anomalies mark the terrain – pulsing with impossible gravity, lighting perpetual fires, and unleashing furious arcs of lightning. It’s an incredibly strange and hostile place, which is also undeniably beautiful.
The landscape is sparse and the beauty produced by distance. The space between the trees is perfect, the occasional flash from an anomaly is just startling enough to turn the environment alien and hostile. A pack of blind dogs are playing with each other, violently, about half a mile away. You calm your movements, so they ignore you. On the other side of the road, which you walk along (to ease your footsteps), there is a corroding tractor. Maybe there was a field here once, years ago.
The games, like the film, are a meditative experience in which uncanny beauty is punctuated by overwhelming stillness and calm. Time moves slower in the area. This quiet beauty is interspersed with episodes of disorderly violence. HARLERGuns are unreliable and break easily. A handful of shots, inaccurate due to rifle wear, will leave you or your enemies dead on the ground. If you don’t practice smart tactical positioning, fighting against large groups will almost guarantee your death. You have to isolate enemies with smart sight lines and hope your weapon doesn’t jam. If it’s an early game SMG, it almost inevitably will.
When it does, you’ll rush to retrieve a new, hopefully more reliable gun from the ground. It will also fail you, eventually, but not until this fight is over. And it ends when you land a few bullets in the back of a man who shoots down your last known position (enemy AI is still some of the best in a first-person shooter). You’ll then collect the bodies, hoping to recover your lost ammo and maybe find something valuable.
The Zone is extremely dangerous, and at least initially, resources are scarce. the HARLER the games demand your constant attention, as you search for your next meal. PDAs are scattered over the bodies you leave in your wake, some of which will direct you to useful but sometimes dangerous supply caches. If you’re lucky, you might stumble upon a military-grade assault rifle, which will last you longer than a few firefights. If you’re not lucky, you’ll encounter a nightmarish mutant who could unleash a psychic assault on you, leaving you staggering in the dirt, clutching your head.
The importance of objects, space and scattered beauty for the HARLER games are a big part of why fans have reacted so aggressively to the intro (and subsequent backpedaling) of NFTs to the next STALKER 2. The games, like the film and book that precede them, focus on the objects that fill our lives – from assorted trinkets floating around Tarkovsky’s famous river scene, to liquor bottles, cans of meat, and personal trinkets that fill the pockets of the bandits who chase you through the ruins of Chernobyl. These are delicately crafted and personal worlds, and weird consumerist bullshit has no place there except as an object of derision.
The original film is a critique of socialist realism, a school of filmmaking that rarely amounts to more than propaganda (there is a great video by Maggie Mae Fish on this specific subject if you are interested). He believed in the values and rules of the Soviet regime as natural facts, inherent in the world. stalker resisted this narrative by demanding that his audience really feel something for once and recognize that love and their human desires were at the core of their being.
the HARLER the games feel equally wary of the reality of post-Soviet capitalism and the cleansing it encourages. People enter the Zone, mindlessly hoping to find trinkets and wonders to sell to the highest bidder. Eventually, the logistics of the hunt consume them. They give up the sale completely. Their lives fall into rhythms of violence and overwhelming emotions. It’s no wonder the sale of NFT has pissed off fans of the series so much. It’s contrary to the games belief in human feelings and disordered desires.
Despite this misstep, I remain extremely excited for STALKER 2, because it will be nothing if not interesting to see the series translated into modern game design, even if it ends up not being very good. For those of you who enjoyed this pitch of the series, I can’t recommend returning to the previous games in the series enough – they’re terrific and very cheap for their excellence. Plus, you’ll have a slew of great mods to explore once you get familiar enough with their brutal world.
Good luck, STALKER