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Glasgow, United Kingdom
An illustrator and games artist living and working in Scotland. I have various hobbies: coding, travel, art and games; and I enjoy writing about them.

4 January 2013

Case Study: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

STALKER (stands for Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers,Robbers) is a video game released in 2007 by THQ and developed by GSC Games. It is an alternate reality game in which after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a Zone of effect is established. Strange things and artifacts inhabit this Zone. Brave criminals sneak past military cordons to retrieve these artifacts; they are called Stalkers. Surviving in the unhospitable environment and making a fortune from the mysterious artifacts is what life is all about for these stalkers.

The idea is an adaptation from the original novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. The main plot revolves around one stalker named Red and his adventures. Some time ago unknown forces, perhaps aliens as it is hinted in the book, visited Earth and left behind areas where strange things happen. These are called Zones of Visitation and are heavily controlled by the military and the police. The parallel between the book and the game is obvious here. The book deals with a lot of issues, including loss and how selfishness and greed can lead to one's death.

The book title is explained in the opening chapters by a character named Dr. Pilman, who compares the extraterrestial event to a picnic:
"A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow."
In this analogy the various animals are us - humans - coming out from our holes to discover amazing to us things. However these things are nothing but meaningless junk for the visitors.

In 1979 a film was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay, loosely based on their novel. The main themes of loss and survival are still dominant, however the whole set up is different. As all Tarkovsky's films, this one is a strange one. The characters are known only as the Stalker, the Professor and the Writer, perhaps making a play on the character archetypes and evoking some deep symbolism.

The film has some parallels, after all it was written by the same people who wrote the book, but in essence it is a completely different work. Visually as well as intellectually. Obviously in the style of the director, it is not a Michael Bay experience, but a more drawn out narrative about human nature. A deeply atmospheric tale of three men on a quest to find the notorious Room, which according to rumour grants innermost, unconcious wishes. The imagery however is already taking shape to the STALKER we know from games: carcasses of rusted tanks litter the landscape, decaying buildings offer dark shelter from the elements and everything is overgrown. The world exists in a state of beautiful decay.

Then in 2007 after almost 6 years in development THQ published a game that would make big ripples in the gaming community. They released S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.

We were thrown into a hostile yet beautiful world of the Zone as imagined by the concept artists from GSC Game World. A world filled with mutants, gas masks and decaying Soviet architecture. It was, again, all about tiny details. Mind boggling ammount of research was done. The locations were photographed and then modelled, accurate to the last polygon.

The textures from the photos, in fact, were used in the modelling. So many things you see in game are pretty much the real deal. More on that can be found here and here. This accuracy and a huge effort in visual research is what makes the game such a success. Everything was photographed, from the recognisable landmarks such as the reactor, to small road side wooden shacks. For example, the window bars pictured below appear in game.

The reason I chose this as an example is because these window bars are so nostalgic to me. They were standard Soviet window bar and they were absolutely everywhere. On every window and in every building. As a kid I remember climbing on these to the second floor flats. Seeing this in the game absolutely made my day.

Little successes like that and proper visual research is what makes this game such a meaningful, authentic experience.

Experiment: Make a quick concept sketch of a building that has something to do with China.b              

Step 1: Visual Research

Following the example of the guys from GSC Game World it was time for some visual research. I spent a little while browsing Photobucket, Deviantart, Stumbleupon and Google and compiled a small collection of photographs that cought my attention.

Step 2: Sketch

It is now to take what I've learned and make some sketches. The things to keep in mind are the elements which attracted my attention in the first place. The details. The chinese lanterns, the shape of the buildings, the power lines, which run directly on house walls etc.

This quick and simple (it didn't take more than an 30 minutes) sketch illustrates the importance of visual research and how it can aid in creating the feeling of authenticity in one's drawing.

Until next time,