A place where few people desire to tread – where horrible death and impossible riches are but a hair’s breadth apart. Isn’t it ironic that the gateway to a bright new future is rooted in a location that is so relentlessly dark and defies human logic?

This place is the “Zone.”

Perhaps like other recent North American SF fans, I was introduced to the Russian classic SF novel  “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky through the video-game S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl.  They share the same premise, but each have wildly different focus.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a game that mixes First Person Shooter action, Role-Playing Game character development and open world design with Survival Horror experiences. The player takes on the role of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R, a name derived from all of the miscreants that are kept out of the Zone – Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers.  The Zone refers to the exclusion zone around the ill-fated Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. After the initial incident in 1986, the Soviet military moves in to secure it, setting up the Zone. However, there is a second incident, which creates artifacts with strange powers and it is these that attract potential S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s.  On the black market, the artifacts can command immense prices, but the danger associated with their retrieval means that only a gifted few are able to find and bring them back. Over the years, a mythology of the Zone’s inhabitants has grown up as key artifacts and locations are mentioned briefly and through a surfeit of gossip, grow into legends; the Heart of the Oasis and the Wish Granter being foremost amongst them. The Wish Granter is supposed to make all your dreams come true, whether it be ultimate riches, fame, or even end of the Zone itself…

Enter the player, who must brave the radioactive “anomalies” that warp space, time and minds, usually in fatal, bizarre ways ; the mutants – animals and survivors of the incidents who have been warped into horrific forms; and the para-military groups that have established themselves within the Zone – Duty, Freedom, the Monolith and so on.

Artwork from STALKER conjures the oppressive environment of the Zone

The atmosphere in S.T.A.L.K.E.R is flawless, with real world locations brought into the nervous shiver of life with meticulous attention to detail. It is very easy to believe that you are there – broken down buildings, rusted out and radioactive abandoned vehicles, the distant cry of a pack of dogs (oh, how I hate those dogs). The continuous time of day lighting means that you shouldn’t dally too long in one spot, as you may find yourself trapped in an abandoned apartment block that was easy to navigate during the day, but very difficult to fight your way out of at night.  Weather is important too, as it can be used to mask your activities, but be careful, the NPCs use it as well. One of my most memorable experiences was being hunted by a squad of mercenaries during a nighttime thunderstorm – I managed to evade then stalk them one by one, using the thunderstorm to cover the sound of my guns as I took each one down, eerily quietened in the white noise of rain drops falling.

Playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R really gives you first hand experience of what it might be like to venture into a place like this and how you might be able to survive – but more importantly, what sort of courage you would need to do so. What sort of riches would pull you away from your comfortable life, or give up everything you have, in search of them? Would the Wish Granter be that thing?
Which brings us back to “Roadside Picnic.”  The novel is a very different experience than the video game, both in content and intensity, but it dovetails so perfectly with the video game. That should be the other way around – the developers of the video game have created an experience that wraps around the idea of the novel, using the same ideas, but presenting it in a way that, in my opinion, both were enhanced.

Picnic is set in Canada, long after the Zone was created. The Zone of the novel is far more mysterious than the video-game’s. For one, no one really knows how it came into being. It is not associated with a human-made disaster, but with the arrival of aliens – as a scientist – Dr. Valentine Pilman – describes in the opening: they visited for a time, then left. The locations of their visit became irrevocably changed, warped in space and time, poisonous and hideously dangerous – at least to our understanding. In the wake of their passing, they left behind exotic artifacts – technological (rather than the mineral, natural appearance of the videogame) devices or components that defy examination – such as the Empties or the Full Empties, which are human attempts to explain their purpose, but fail miserably, the descriptions only skirting the idea of what they are.  As Dr. Pilman describes, the artifacts are like the leftover debris from a “Roadside Picnic” – litter and garbage, of so little consequence to the aliens, that they are left behind. And it is these things that humans will risk their own lives, or the lives of others, to attain.

Three covers for Roadside Picnic. The middle one shows a “Full Empty”

Another difference from the video game is the protagonists, of which there are several. The most important, Red Schuhart, is a family man with debts to pay, who is on a downward spiral. He is also a very gifted stalker, who is paid by the military and civil organizations to help locate artifacts within the Zone on their behalf. There is also a rampant black market which encourages unlicensed trips into the zone in exchange for impressively sized wads of cash. In light of his situation, Schuhart cannot resist the payout of black market trips and is ultimately arrested for his “crime.”  Upon his release, he comes to the conclusion that the minor artifacts – the Empties and so on – aren’t worth the risk and instead turns his attention to the legends. Say, isn’t there a thing that makes your every wish turn true?

The Wish Granter is a powerful lure in both games. I won’t spoil its significance (or the stories) but as with any “too good to be true” story there has to be a downside. In the video game it is an impressive story widget, IMHO, as it transcends the player’s expectations – if they want it to – and they pick the alternative option. For the average player, the Wish Granter is the end of the game, but for those who have learned the lessons of being a S.T.A.L.K.E.R, the game will open up further.

In Roadside Picnic, the allure is obvious for Mr. Schuhart, but it comes with a price, a much darker one than the videogame. In order to grant a wish, a life must be given. I have to admit that when Schuhart arrives at the location of the Wish Granter and sees the smudges of expired humanity on the ground, I had flashbacks to the video game. I could feel my stomach tighten and my heart race as it did when confronting an unknown anomaly in the video game. Here, my experiences dovetailed so perfectly that my enjoyment of the novel was being fed by my enjoyment of the video game. I knew what Schuhart faced, and wondered if he’d venture inside. The goals of the videogame player – in an effort to finish the video game – are uniquely different compared to Schuhart who wants to live, see his family and take care of them. The video game player character can stop, reload, die and respawn – the threat to him is minimal, but for Schuhart, its all or nothing. And someone has to die…

I won’t spoil the ending, but that last page and one paragraph stuck in my mind for days. I kept thinking about it – the situation, the descriptions and, even as a video game player, what would I have done?

The Strugatsky brothers created a world with their novel – simply, shortly written – yet so effective that thirty years later, it gave rise to another masterpiece. Both of them are highly underrated, but those that have crossed the line into the Zone know better.

PS: If you haven’t played S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and you have a PC, I urge you to give it a go. But, if you do, keep in mind that the first part of the game can be very discouraging. Don’t give up! The rest of the game is definitely worth it. If you need help, try watching the “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube.

All covers, copyright their respective owners.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. art: GSC Game World.