S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl Q&A
Get the latest details on this unusual postapocalyptic game set in the ruins of Chernobyl in this developer interview.
It was probably director George Miller's motion picture The Road Warrior that helped inspire so many game developers to create games in grim, postapocalyptic settings. But most of those games took place in unrealistic, futuristic areas, and one desolate wasteland was as good as the next. Rather than follow suit, Kiev-based developer GSC Game World is taking a very unusual, and very bold, approach to the postapocalyptic future setting. Specifically, the company's upcoming game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost, will take place in Chernobyl--at the very site of the harrowing reactor meltdown that took place in 1986.
Though the game will take place in the near future just after a second reactor meltdown, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will feature an authentic replica of the reactor site, surrounded by some of the most impressive outdoor environments we've seen in any game to date. It will also feature a combination of first-person shooter and role-playing game elements. In the game, you'll play as a stalker, a scavenger in search of valuable artifact items to sell to the highest bidder. The game will take place in and around the ruins of the Chernobyl reactor, a 30-square-kilometer area referred to in the game as "the Zone." Over the course of your adventure, you'll go up against dangerous mutated monsters, as well as rival stalkers--more than 100 in all, some of whom will be organized into groups with specific affiliations. If you ally yourself with one group, you may become the enemy of another. The developer hopes to create a living world that changes dynamically with your actions. GSC Game World designer Alexei Sityanov recently took time from his busy schedule to give us some more insight into this intriguing game.
GameSpot: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. certainly has an unusual background. Why did you choose the Chernobyl reactor as the setting for the game?
Alexei Sityanov: I wouldn't say we chose this setting accidentally. We had considered making a game featuring the notorious Chernobyl atomic power plant for quite some time. Additionally, it would be a shame not to come up with a game set in Chernobyl when your office is no further than 70 miles away from it, wouldn't it? Two other inspirations behind the title were the novel Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers, and a Soviet horror film called Stalker, by A. Tarkovsky.
GS: We know that players will play the game as a stalker--a scavenger in search of artifacts around the Chernobyl site. However, in the game, players will encounter about 100 other computer-controlled stalkers. What kind of behavior can we expect to see from other stalkers? How will players interact with these other characters?
AS: We see the gameplay of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a new stage in computer game development. It will be a blend of 3D action with RPG elements, an attempt to create a virtual reality with "live" characters populating it. It's a world where the Zone lives independently of your actions--game characters accomplish their deeds, yet the Zone's own events, and tragedies, occur independently. This is our attempt to create a new game genre, something like a "living" RPG. That very feature will open up an incredible level of freedom while playing the game, and it will also provide lots of replay value, thanks to the fact that the storyline will be a little different every time you try to complete the game.
Let me give you an idea of the life simulation system we are creating for the game. This is a system to realistically process all the events happening in the Zone. Computer-controlled, non-player character stalkers will traverse the area, encounter anomalies, and seek artifacts. From time to time, they will get back to the dealers to deliver the items they've found and buy food and equipment. When meeting numerically superior enemy forces, characters will avoid clashes, run away during the combat if their chances of winning are slim, and go into hiding or lay ambushes. Heavily wounded characters will be unable to move on their own and will ask for help. If assistance does not arrive, they may die. Hunger can exhaust stalkers.
NPCs will be able to orient themselves in the Zone pretty well--they will know their own whereabouts, whether on marshland, near a semi-rotten hut, in a factory basement, or near an army post, which allows them to behave appropriately in their location.
AS (cont.): NPC stalkers will trade and communicate with each other, exchanging valuable items and vitally important information. When you encounter them, friendly characters may relate what has happened to them lately. They might describe how they had to sit in a basement hiding from an enemy, or how they located the fresh corpse of another stalker near the rusty bridge, or how they barely escaped being torn apart by an inconspicuous anomaly. They may advise you not to poke around in the vicinity of a neglected scientific research institute, where they spotted a pack of vicious blind dogs.
Every game event will be experienced by different characters. Frequently, the same event will be described from different points of view. For instance, one stalker may hear distant shots, another one will witness the skirmish firsthand, while a third one will watch the scene from distant cover. As a result, we'll get three different stories of one and the same event.
While communicating, characters share news, observations, and rumors of events in the Zone. Events will almost always leave traces that you can spot--bodies of people and monsters, equipment, vehicles, and traces of skirmishes. Through time, all the information about happenings in the Zone will be acquired by the dealers, who, based on the information they've accumulated, throw in pieces of advice and new tasks for stalkers. Dealers keep a sort of Zone diary, where all the events, adventures, and stalker deaths are marked. With the help of this diary, you can plan a sally into the Zone by choosing the safest route, or receive the possible location of artifacts.
GS: What is the significance of the artifacts that players will search for in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? Are they all simply valuable items to sell for a good price, or will they serve some other purpose, such as granting players new abilities?
AS: Artifacts will be the primary source of income for stalkers. Extra cash can always help stalkers get better weapons and equipment to reach those parts of the Zone that were previously inaccessible to them. Apart from that, when cooperating with various scientific camps, stalkers may get some experimental equipment, built with the help of the artifacts.
GS: What other, non-FPS elements can we expect to see in the game? Stealth elements, or even character development, like in a role-playing game?
AS: To answer, let me say that these elements include several sections, such as survival, role-playing, trading, and relations with other characters.
The major part of the gameplay will be focused on player survival in the Zone, which will include careful usage of equipment and the constant threats of starvation and critical wounds. The Zone will be short on ammunition, so every bullet will count. In addition, stalkers need food and rest. They may faint without rest and starve to death without food, though they may possibly be able to eat the flesh of dead animals and birds.
In terms of role-playing elements, many may be surprised that we even call S.T.A.L.K.E.R. an RPG, since the game doesn't have constantly improving characteristics or levels. We did this intentionally, because we want players to increase their real skills by surviving in the world based on their own abilities, as opposed to the numerical skills of a virtual character. We believe S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will be a true role-playing game, since it will give players the ability to choose their roles in our dangerous world. Of course, the game will have other elements, such as character interaction.
For instance, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will also feature trading. Virtually everything in the Zone can be bought and sold. Since you will begin your adventures in the Zone as an inexperienced beginner armed only with a pistol, you'll have a long way to go in your adventures, especially since your survival depends on how well you're armed and equipped, and this requires money. Money in the Zone will be earned by performing various tasks, as well as by procuring artifacts and information to unravel the mystery of the Zone.
AS (cont.): Other aspects of trade in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will include trafficking rare and unique items that are sought by NPC stalkers, the military, and scientists. If you can procure certain samples or information for the scientists, you can exchange them for prototypes of unique weapons or equipment.
You will also earn money by performing tasks given out by underground dealers or scientific camps. You can sell anomalous formations for money and then use that money to buy equipment, weapons, and protective suits that will let you reach previously inaccessible areas. Also, you can trade with the other stalkers you will encounter in the Zone.
In terms of relations with NPCs, characters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will remember all the actions of their competitors (or colleagues), and they will have an appropriate attitude toward those other characters as a result. The AI will have characteristics--real human qualities, such as courage and nobility, as well as cowardice and guile. Certain NPCs will behave in a rather friendly or neutral manner. Others will communicate aggressively, and some will try to deceive you. And in turn, what your character becomes will be left up to you--whether you become public enemy number one, or the noble savior of the Zone, or something else entirely.
All characters will have these attitude characteristics when dealing with other NPCs. Based on this feature, NPCs will have different attitudes toward different characters when they first meet. There will be three major kinds of attitudes, including good (friendly), neutral, and bad (hostile). Characters will feel compelled to provide assistance to a friend, as well as sell everything to them at cheaper prices than normal, and help out with equipment. Characters will treat neutrals coldly, though you can expect anything from a neutral NPC, including a potential trading partner, or a mistrustful competitor who may simply avoid you. Dealing with a hostile character will be much more straightforward: Depending on how much of a threat you pose, you may be either avoided or attacked.
GS: We've also seen that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will let players drive vehicles. What vehicles will players be able to drive, and what purpose will they serve? Will they just be a means of fast transportation, or will there be military vehicles that provide extra firepower?
AS: There will be quite a few vehicles in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., from compact cars to trucks to APCs. Most will be Soviet vehicles. Not all of them will be drivable (the helicopter, for instance, would interfere with the gameplay). Basically, freedom of movement in the game is not only about walking around and exploring the area, but also about buying a vehicle or picking one up somewhere in the Zone to speed up your travels.
GS: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has some of the most impressive-looking outdoor environments we've ever seen in a game. Could you discuss how the game's engine creates such environments? How will these outdoor environments affect the way the game is actually played?
AS: With S.T.A.L.K.E.R., we are attempting to create a highly interactive, realistic world. Naturally, that wouldn't be possible without powerful technologies behind the game, and this is where our proprietary X-Ray engine stands out. X-Ray can combine both indoor and outdoor areas with high geometry detail (up to 3 million polygons per frame). This is possible because of features such as hardware T&L optimization, continuous progressive detailing technology for an entire area's geometry, and a powerful system of visibility definition that uses both portals and antiportals for occlusion culling. Even average computer systems can easily attain a frame rate of 60 frames per second.
X-Ray's skeletal animation system helps make motion-captured character animation look smooth and realistic. The engine not only uses detailed textures, but it also uses geometry-detailing objects for level surfaces such as grass and rocks. The engine also uses a direct lighting model that allows for radiosity, colored dynamic lighting, and dynamic soft shadows. We've worked closely with hardware manufacturers like Nvidia to ensure that the game uses the very latest graphics cards to their full potential.
The Danger Zone
GS: We know that since S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in the irradiated area around Chernobyl after a second meltdown, players will encounter all sorts of bizarre mutated creatures. We also know that they might get into fights with other stalkers. What kind of behaviors and tactics can we expect to see from enemies?
AS: We have a multitude of opponents planned for the game, ranging from army soldiers guarding the Zone border to uncanny mutated creatures that may have such abnormal abilities as telepathy or telekinesis. Underground dwarfs, telepathic controllers, senseless zombies, packs of blind dogs, hordes of rats, and many other enemies can be found in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Controllers will take control of soldiers and stalkers, and they'll also coordinate the actions of zombies. Dwarfs and rats set up underground communications, while blind dogs will prowl about wastelands and radioactive trash dumps.
Generally, your opponents' behavior will be guided by certain rules. All the AI entities will be able to evaluate how worthwhile it is for them to fight with an enemy. If they find that their chances of winning are so slim that fighting wouldn't be worthwhile, they will either ignore or avoid the opponent. These chances are considered with regard to whether an enemy is alone or in a group, what sort of weapons the enemy is carrying, and what condition the enemy is in.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s characters and monsters will feature realistic behavior in battle--prowling, retreating, taking into account an enemy's weapon type, skirting the edge of an enemy's line of sight, and much more. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will even feature a realistic search routine, so enemy characters on the lookout won't automatically make a beeline for you, but will realistically search the areas you were present in last.
GS: We understand that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will take place in a series of large levels, but that the game won't have a specific mission-by-mission structure. How will players advance to the end of the game?
AS: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. won't be a linear game. That essentially means that you will have total freedom of movement in the game. Tasks and objectives will be generated as you explore the area, and not all the tasks will be obligatory. However, the game will provide certain incentives for the player to keep exploring deeper and deeper into the Zone to reach its center.
It will be impossible to see everything while playing the game through for the first time. This is the advantage of having a combination of a non-linear storyline and a "life simulation." Every time you play, you'll see a slightly different side of the Zone. Only the major events and certain locations strictly tied with the storyline will be fixed. The dynamics of events will let you take part just as they happen, or after they've already begun, or at the very end, and in every situation, things can resolve themselves differently.
GS: We know that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. focuses on its single-player component, but what plans does GSC Game World have for expanding the game's multiplayer options?
AS: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not a single-player-only game--we will have a multiplayer component too. You can expect all the currently popular multiplayer modes, as well as some team-based modes and some original modes.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.?
AS: If I were to describe S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in a nutshell, I'd say this: Imagine Ghostbusters in Chernobyl, and then add the Stalker movie, the novel The Roadside Picnic, intelligent mutant creatures, anomalies, stalkers, and a constantly changing gameworld. Combine that with the fact that about 60 percent of the game's architecture is based on the real Chernobyl zone, including the reactor interiors.
We are thankful to everybody who has supported us and the game--we find it extremely encouraging. Thank you for the interesting questions, and good luck to you and your readers.
GS: Thanks for your time and insight, Alexei.
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