Written for Haywire Magazine.
Weather in The Zone of Exclusion doesn’t behave the same way it does everywhere else. Sometimes a furious energy storm sweeps through the sky, shaking the ground and spilling violent energy in all directions. Sometimes the sky flickers with distant thunderstorms, trading bolts of electricity harmlessly among the clouds. These storms come quickly, clawing into reality with a sense of unstoppable urgency, rending the sky and hammering the ground with rain before blowing away with the same kind of speed. With only just the barest hints of advance warning, the entire world could become hostile, threatening the lives of anyone who doesn’t find immediate shelter.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat takes place in a nightmarish, otherworldly exclusion zone several square kilometers around the Chernobyl nuclear accident. In addition to a massive wave of radiation taking over rusted warehouses and abandoned husks of work vans littering decaying roadways, another force of unknown origin forever alters the landscape. Forces of nature have shifted into often unpredictable and anomalous patterns. Gravity hyper-concentrates in little wells, and empty air violently swirls on itself, sucking victims in before detonating, flinging freshly dead bodies back out into the open sky with indifference. Within this alien, changed landscape are artifacts, little manifestations of the unknown and seemingly unknowable forces that govern the alien landscape of a battered and beaten Russia.
“Stalkers,” as they’re dubbed, are the men and women who have fled into The Zone, to make what life they could selling artifacts and trafficking hopeful Stalkers through the military checkpoints that make up the walls, caverns, and gates of the outer layer. Inside, the rules of the world are familiar, but not exact, replicas of the world outside. Humans still form tribes to run with, bandits still steal and squabble for scraps of treasure, opportunists and fools brave new dangers regularly in search of comfort, glory, or riches.
The steel hull of an old, beached tanker makes up the impromptu home of the Stalkers of this area. Feral dogs, mutants, and bandits stalk the swamps of the former lake that once occupied this patch of land. Their silhouettes ghosting through the fury of the torrent, occasional braying howls manage to break the ongoing percussion of water hammering into steel and soil alike.
“Bloodsuckers,” as the locals call them, are bipedal humanoid creatures that disappear in thin air, cloaking themselves while scuttling in wide flanking angles to attack their victims from the side or behind. The only way to catch them is to see the barest hint of shimmer in the outline, or listen for the huffs of air as the Bloodsuckers circle for the kill.
For most, encountering a Bloodsucker is a waking nightmare. They’re given little more warning than sudden footsteps and growling breaths. Then a sudden sharp pain as the creature’s claws punch through armor, tearing into the skin, and rip lines of flesh out before the creature blurs past at a run, turning and disappearing into thin air all over again. Most Stalkers take this opportunity to break into a sprint, striding for all they’re worth into the last group of other humans they found, or making a break for the tanker to seek shelter in numbers.
An invisible deadly threat that lurks in apparently empty air, before striking suddenly and decisively. The only reasonable course of action, for most, is to simply stay inside.
In March of 2020, there is a kind of comfort in confronting The Zone and its invisible, potentially deadly mutants. In most parts of the globe, folks are either encouraged or forced to stay at home, going out only to buy groceries or do jobs deemed essential. All others are inside their homes and apartments, passing the hours by watching the same world pass by through their windows, identical to every other day except in invisibly threatening ways.
Getting to face this very same beast, in the hulking shape of a Bloodsucker, is cathartic.
Videogames are loath to present players with challenges that are impossible to face. Uncertainty is a tool in the developer’s belt, but one that eventually gets “solved.” As players access more tools, more skills, and more knowledge, the mysteries a player encounters early in a game won’t survive the player’s accrued experience. By the end of a game, it’s difficult to remain afraid of things, because the player has progressed to a point where, even if the threats are challenging, they have a solution. Eventually, the player can feel confident in their problem-solving checklist even when encountering a new, unknown threat.
In thousands of houses built of equal parts isolation and uncertainty, having an “enemy we know” that looks so similar to the one we’re tentatively and unexpectedly facing is a balm that’s hard to replace. Most everyone knows that staying inside, washing one’s hands, and avoiding social contact is the right path to walk for dealing with a highly infectious pandemic disease, but knowing that staying home for several weeks is not the same as feeling like one is taking part in the solution. For many, it feels like hiding, waiting for a storm to blow over.
A Bloodsucker, despite being a very real threat to the ill-equipped and unprepared, is still just an enemy. It’s a beast of blood, and bullets will beat it just as well as anything else.
For however apocalyptic the world may feel while maintaining a social isolation from the otherwise social world, divorced from one’s tribe, the videogame apocalypse offers its players a few moments to actively participate in giving a shape to the invisible terror, to use weapons that can hurt and even kill it, and then gives them ways to go about stopping the beasts from ever threatening them again.
In that seemingly dissonant way, games help us find comfort even within the trappings of apocalypse. From its threats and dangers, there are ways to find a kind of agency, and the peace that having power over the events of tomorrow brings, even if that agency is just a moment of getting to decide how we pass the time while the outside remains hostile.
In the dried lake bed of Zaton, inside an old rusty tanker, sit Stalkers of every stripe and lifestyle. Outside, raid sirens announce the coming of a storm, warning that all Stalkers should take refuge inside. Stalkers huddle together in the old, scarcely lit hull of an oil tanker. Outside, their dangers are numerous, threatening, and in many ways apocalyptic. Yet, over bottles of vodka and freshly baked bread, they tell stories, strum their guitars, and weather the storm together. Even the invisible beasts cannot keep them down forever. Because soon the violent skies will turn more docile, and they can once again step outside and resume their journeys through The Zone, ready to resume their lives the moment the storm passes.