Some games are influential due to their gameplay mechanics. These influences are usually obvious, because the games that come after them will have very similar gameplay to them. For example, look up the shoot-'em-ups Z-Out, Xexex, and Katakis - no prizes for guessing what type of game they were "inspired by" - which is a euphemism for "ripped off."
Others have influenced games thematically. By this, I mean games that others have imitated in style and tone, even if their gameplay and genre are very different. A standout example of this is the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games; S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. Games which have been inspired by the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise include, but are probably not limited to, the story-driven FPS Chernobylite and the Metro 203X series, the PVP FPS Survarium, the interactive novel The SEED, the exploration and adventure game 35MM, the top-down isometric survival horrors Tunguska: The Visitation and Darkwood. That’s quite a range of genres. So, how does S.T.A.L.K.E.R. influence such a diverse and disparate line up?
It is worth stating that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is itself a reflection of Eastern European and Russian science fiction. The game series is loosely based on the classic 1971 novella Roadside Picnic, and its 1979 film adaptation Stalker, combined with the real-world Chernobyl disaster of 1986. In some respects, the influences of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and that of Eastern European and Russian science fiction in general are one and the same. It is possible that what I like to call "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes" might have happened anyway and would have been called something else, like "Eastern European Games" or similar. That said, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was the first high profile Eastern European Game, and its commercial and critical success probably inspired other budding game devs to try to do something similar. So, I’m going to call them "S.T.A.L.K.L.E.R.likes" for now.
From Russia with Despair
The most obvious characteristic shared by all S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes is that they all share a post-apocalyptic Eastern European or Russian setting. This creates an atmosphere quite distinct from Western or Japanese post-apocalyptic games. They tend to be set closer to the present day too, ranging from the late 1980s to the early 2030s. This bolsters their believability. What’s more, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes tend to mix the fantastic with the mundane. For example, you may encounter an "otherworldly" physics defying phenomenon in an otherwise perfectly ordinary apartment block. This too aids the suspension of disbelief.
Many Western and Japanese games portray the pre-apocalypse world as being close to idyllic. Not so in the East. Most Eastern games portray the pre-apocalypse world in a very matter of fact fashion - it wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t great either. This is a common trope in Eastern European and Russian science fiction, almost certainly a hold-over from the days of the Soviet Union. People who have lived under such regimes know that life can be grim even without some world-ending apocalypse.
These games are refreshingly "un-western" in their outlook. They are told by Eastern Europeans for Eastern Europeans. If audiences in the West happen to enjoy them, that’s great, but we are rarely the target audience. As such, they tend to be set in Eastern European locales and told from an Eastern European perspective. Eastern games are often dripping in atmosphere, and this atmosphere is grim, depressing and melancholy. The in-game visuals tend to reflect this, often being portrayed in dark and muted tones. In-game music, where present, tends to be somber and downbeat. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes use sound to further immerse the player in their world. The sounds of nature, such as the unsettling sigh of the wind, the mournful howls of wolves in the distance and the unexpected crash of thunder conspire to create feelings of loneliness and isolation. The occasional sounds of short-lived combat, the snarls of mutants and the screams of the dying remind you of your vulnerability. Everything about a S.T.A.L.K.E.R.like's atmospherics is crafted to make the player feel small, vulnerable and insignificant.
Eastern European Characters
Another unifying characteristic of these games is that the player character and most NPCs are of Eastern European origin, with Eastern European names, Eastern European looks and an Eastern European mindset. This mindset often includes a degree of fatalism. Many in-game characters have given up hope of things getting better, or even of understanding what is happening. Characters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes are often more three dimensional than the archetypes in Western and Japanese games. They tend to be older than the late teen and twentysomethings of Japanese games or the handsome early 30s of Western games. The characters here are deliberately rough around the edges visually. Few, if any, are particularly glamorous, attractive, clean-shaven, or have interesting hair for example.
Their personalities too are also portrayed as realistically flawed. Most of them smoke and drink to excess. Many gamble, while some have other addictions. Very few characters of note could be described as "Lilly white." For example, Millar from Metro 2033 is portrayed as a brave and highly respected war hero who has saved many lives, including that of the protagonist. He is also a wife beater. Strelok, the protagonist from S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, is obsessed with reaching the center of the Zone and will go to any length to do so, regardless of the consequences for him and everybody else. There are few clear-cut good guys and bad guys in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes.
Speaking of protagonists, another trope is the non-heroic protagonist. In most S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes the player character is a nobody. You are not a cybernetically enhanced magically gifted doom slaying chosen one. You are just a person, with the same physical and mental limits as any one else. Protagonists in such games are often morally ambiguous, and whether in-game NPCs consider you a "good guy" will depend upon your in-game actions and who you are talking to. For example, gun down a load of bandits in cold blood and you will likely be held in some modicum of esteem by other S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s, but you will become public enemy number one among the bandit’s family and friends. More often than not your motivations for doing something are self-serving, and rarely done for the greater good.
Many Western Games are a power fantasy, designed to make the player feel strong in ways they probably could not be in real life. Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal are probably the best examples of this, since literal demons from Hell are terrified of you. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes are the polar opposite. They actively seek to disempower you by placing you in a nightmarish situation no sane person would want to be in. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes, the player character is relatively fragile . What will kill you in real life will probably kill you in-game too, so tanking a shotgun blast to the chest is not an option. Your movement speed tends to be realistic too, as does your jump height and carry weight, which forces the player to think carefully and plan ahead. Your perception is equally limited, especially in the dark, thus forcing you to use visual aids, such as flashlights and Night Vision Goggles. However, batteries for these are limited, forcing you to use them sparingly.
Situations Change, People do Not
Another trope common to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes is that all humans are fallible and will make mistakes. In many of these games the apocalypse is man-made. If it is natural, or even supernatural, then humanity’s attempts to rectify the problem will either be ineffective or actually make everything worse. People in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes tend to have the same personalities after the apocalypse as they had before it. Therefore, they are still just as greedy, selfish, spiteful, cowardly, brave, selfless, and charitable as they were before - it all depends on the individual. People will still tend to aggregate around common characteristics such as politics, nationality, religion, etc. These aggregations will still come into conflict with each other, sometimes over petty reasons. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes tend to paint a bleak and damning picture of humanity.
Com Bloc Kit
Due to their Eastern European or Russian setting they all tend to feature Russian and Eastern European weapons and equipment. This turns many western video game tropes on their head. For example, in most western games an NPC wearing a gas mask whilst cradling an AK-74 or an RPG-7 will almost certainly be a ‘bad guy’. These weapons will often be portrayed as being inferior to the Western equivalents you are issued with, which discourages their use. For most S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes the situation is very different. Eastern Bloc weapons will usually be the only ones available, so that AK74 will become your new best friend. Secondly, pretty much everyone - the player character included - will be wearing a gas mask at some point due to the hazardous environment.
A Mystery Unravelled
They say knowledge is power. Unfortunately for most characters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes, knowledge is in short supply. Both the player and their avatar will have many questions, such as;
What was the disaster, what caused it and will it happen again?
Are things recovering now, staying the same, or getting worse?
What is happening in the rest of the world?
What are the dangerous phenomena that have appeared since the disaster, where did they come from, how do they form, will they be here forever? Are they natural, man-made or even supernatural in origin?
Most of these are a mystery to you the player, your in-game avatar and to the NPCs you encounter, at least at the start of an S.T.A.L.K.E.R.like’s campaign. Trying to understand this mystery whilst staying alive long enough to do so is often a major plot point in these games. Even so, many questions will be left deliberately unanswered, leaving it up to the player to interpret and decide for themselves what they think happened...
Recap and Conclusions
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes are a distinct thematic grouping that crosses multiple genres. Their atmosphere, setting, and tone are distinct and quite different from Western and Japanese games. Indeed, Eastern Europe and Russia can now lay claim to being a distinct and separate video games market with its own signature look and feel. In addition to their common theme, tone, and feel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.likes also have common gameplay mechanics, regardless of the genre of game. These will be the focus of the next article, The Gameplay Mechanical Influences of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. See you all there.
What are your thoughts? Should ‘S.T.A.L.K.ER.likes’ become a recognized category similar to Rougelikes? Have you played any of the games featured in this article? If so, what did you think of them? Can you think of any other games or mods that would be a good fit? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.