S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Designer Diary #8

Lead designer Andrew Prokhorov describes the setting of this ambitious survival action game and tells a funny tale about testing the game.


Though it looks like a first-person shooter, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl promises to be far more than that. This ambitious game from Ukrainian developer GSC Game World will pack some of the latest next-generation graphics in an attempt to bring the countryside surrounding the infamous nuclear power plant at Chernobyl to life. In this survival action game, you'll play as a "stalker," an armed scavenger looking to recover valuable items from the exclusion zone that surrounds the plant. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set after a second, fictitious explosion at the power plant that has drastically affected the surrounding area.

During the course of your adventures, you'll encounter mutants, strange new animals, and other phenomenons. You'll also encounter rival stalkers who may or may not take a liking to your presence. And on top of everything else, the Ukrainian military patrols "the Zone," as it is commonly referred to, and its forces will come after you if they detect you. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is scheduled to ship next year. In this edition of our designer diaries, lead designer Andrew Prokhorov discusses a funny situation that GSC uncovered during testing and sets the stage for the game's single-player campaign.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. features beautiful sunsets, not to mention glorious explosions.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. features beautiful sunsets, not to mention glorious explosions.

Shot in the Foot

By Andrew Prokhorov
Lead Designer, GSC Game World

Just recently we announced that the release of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is scheduled for May 2005. We are very confident that this extra time will help the team achieve the objectives it outlined for the game.

For a long time we've talked about the unscripted nature of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Our aim is to have a game that constantly surprises the player by moving away from the spectacular yet predictable scripted events of other games and into a different realm where the unpredictability of the game provides each player with a highly personal thrill.

Therefore, you can think of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a kind of highly sophisticated windup toy--when testing, we literally wind the game up and watch it go. As each entity has its own "mind," you see creatures "living" within the gameworld, and they move around, feed, interact, and fight with each other in completely unscripted ways. Of course, this is not random. There is a "food chain" in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and creatures "know" what is and is not dangerous. Therefore, while we can understand creature behavior, we never script it.

Of course, given the complexity of such artificial intelligence, we have had our share of challenges and general weirdness. During early development and testing of the combat AI, one stalker went mad and began to consider himself an enemy, and promptly set about trying to dispose of this "enemy" as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, our animators did not foresee the need to create an animation where a stalker puts a gun to his own head, so the poor guy shot the only part of the "enemy" he could--his own feet.

The game wouldn't be complete without radioactive mutants.
The game wouldn't be complete without radioactive mutants.

For a good 10 minutes, the entire design team was rolling around on the floor in laughter while the stalker desperately battled with his own limbs. In the end, having used up two full magazines, the NPC died, submitting the "enemy successfully terminated" diagnostic before terminating.

Ironing out these bugs and balancing the game so that it is a fun experience has been our aim for a long time now, and this is why we are happy to have the additional time. We will use the time to ensure that S.T.A.L.KE.R. meets, if not exceeds, expectations.

Welcome to the Zone

Over the past few months we have spoken a great deal about the technology behind S.T.A.L.K.E.R. We have outlined the depths to which we are prepared to go (or sink) to immerse the player in a believable reality. Yet for all this, we have only lightly touched upon what that reality actually is.

The world is rendered in sharp detail, and everything has a nice, rusty feel.
The world is rendered in sharp detail, and everything has a nice, rusty feel.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R is set sometime after the year 2012. The area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant has become a no-go zone. In other words, it's ground zero for the weird. Years of abandon after the initial Chernobyl accident--when reactor number four went critical and laid waste to much of the surrounding area--have led to a mythology the likes of which the 21st century has never seen. For years, observers have tried to crack the mystery of the Chernobyl accident. What caused the overload? What led to the delays in reporting it? What forces were at work during the cleanup operation? The questions go on and fact becomes mixed up with rumor to create an energy as powerful as the nuclear force that displaced thousands of people and mutated a landscape.

Between this fact and this fiction lies the Zone--an area of devastated complexity. The Zone (as we have discussed before) is home to the creatures, wanderers, scavengers, and militia who seem to have no place in the confines of the clean world outside. The Zone is a place apart from normality. Even the laws of physics are barely recognizable within its borders. Anomalies spark through the air and take root in every rock and leaf.

Our protagonist is discovered amid a rummage of bodies. He had been left for dead on one of the many death trucks that patrol the Zone. These trucks pick up the less successful inhabitants of the Zone and dispose of them in a futile effort to restore normality and control. Under the care of a character referred to as "the Dealer," our stalker's health improves. All signs of his previous life have vanished, like the data on his PDA. Only the guidance of the Dealer prepares him for what will follow his recovery.

There are hints, though. Memories are triggered by events in the day. The tower of Chernobyl, a huge sarcophagus, and an echoing cry of "gunslinger" all reverberate in his recollections. The Dealer continues to help where he can, explaining the day-to-day routines of many of the other stalkers. The language of trade is learned once more and our protagonist finds the strength to make his own way. There is much to do, and much to learn, but not once does the prospect of leaving the Zone occur to him. This is his home. This is his future.

A good assault rifle will be your best friend while in the Zone.
A good assault rifle will be your best friend while in the Zone.

In the memory of his past or in the conversations with the Dealer (so much is still a blur) are images of a group manipulating the Zone. They appear to have some involvement in all this, and they may have some answers to his questions. Players will discover much about S.T.A.L.K.E.R that defies immediate explanation. They'll question the effects of radiation and mutation. Then they might wonder what form of energy can explain the deeper mysteries of the Zone. And, of course, there is the question of memory loss.

Throughout S.T.A.L.K.E.R we are striving to create a new reality. Not one that is altogether separate from our own, but one that is open to mystery and wonder. With the power of our technology and the issues discussed in our storyline, we want to cause people to stop and ask, "What if this were true?"

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