Few games are as bleak as GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Then again, few games have appropriated the mythology, psychology and geography of the old Soviet Union, and fewer still have made intelligent use of both real-world disaster and obscure science fiction of the 20th century. Stalker's first-person survival/horror themes exist in a space that is both real and grimly fantastical - a dimension of bending reality and of crumbling Soviet ruin. It's a singular, mysterious vision of an alternate world that exists nowhere else.
What I find most fascinating about Stalker is the development team didn't feel obliged to create a world of their own, as many game designers seem inclined to do. Instead they rejected their original, rather more futuristic "Oblivion Lost" concept to make something set in an aspect of our world, and in the near future. GSC's creation has gathered elements of cinema, literature and the derelict Chernobyl region to create a gaming experience unique in its use of disaster-as-beauty and precocious in its ambition to create a living world. Stalker might not have been all some optimistic gamers had hoped for (a few people had visions of an autonomous, AI-driven mega-sim), but it nevertheless seemed to work.
This success is due partly to GSC's (occasionally shaky) grasp of FPS game design and partly their sense of what is useful about their local Ukrainian heritage. Stalker's complex storyline, which remains obscure to anyone who fails to thoroughly explore the entire game, is secondary to the larger cultural meme in which the game is set: the idea of the Zone Of Alienation.
Today, "The Zone" is the abandoned 30 square kilometer area surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site, where a poorly-maintained Soviet reactor exploded in 1986. The Zone is an area where no one is supposed to live, and yet both tourists and scavengers still travel there. However, the fictional idea of The Zone existed long before the Chernobyl event, and it has become a powerful (if nebulous) mythological concept within Soviet and post-Soviet culture. The sense that life has imitated art springs from the way the disaster at Chernobyl seems analogous to the ideas that previously emerged from the innocuously titled science fiction novel Roadside Picnic.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's 1971 work told of a mysterious event, where something alien struck the Earth from space, leaving various contaminated zones across the world. These zones are filled with weird dangers but also contain wondrous artifacts which certain desperate people, known as "the Stalkers," attempt to retrieve. Roadside Picnic's title is based on a metaphor by the character Dr. Valentin Pilman, who compares the alien contamination to the contamination caused by absent-minded people at an everyday roadside picnic. After the people have departed from a picnic, the doctor suggests, local animals encounter human garbage that litters the area. The things they discover are alien to them, and often dangerous - such as sweet wrappers and motor oil. With the event of the zones, humankind faces the same situation as those animals: Something incomprehensible has visited the Earth, and its presence has left behind zones of danger that cannot be explained or controlled by humankind.
GSC's Stalker offers a different explanation for the weird properties of The Zone. Their complex tale of experiments in psychic energies and paranormal consciousness uses the alien contamination idea for a cover for what is really going on, although the theme of unmanageable pollution in a zone of dangerous distortion remains. However, what defines the game's potent atmosphere and weird mythologizing of the Chernobyl site - and what allows it to work such grim magic - is the way the idea of The Zone, and its Stalkers, has penetrated the modern consciousness of Russia and The Ukraine.