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Tarkovsky's 'Stalker': The Video Game

Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky
Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky
A U.S. horror film provoked a brief storm of outrage in May due to its choice of setting: the Chornobyl fallout zone.

"Chernobyl Diaries" wasn't the first film to be set at the site of the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster. "Universal Soldier: Regeneration" and a French-Israeli production were also set there (the latter was even filmed there).

But this isn't just a case of insensitive foreigners milking a Ukrainian tragedy. Ukrainian companies are also in on the act.

"S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl," a popular first-person-shooter video game, is the work of a Ukrainian developer, GSC Game World. There are three games in the series; the final one, "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call Of Pripyat," is a reference to the abandoned Ukrainian city that housed Chornbyl workers.

The series has caught the attention of "The New York Review Of Books," which tests whether the games live up to their namesake, the weighty 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

"Stalker," as the author Gabriel Winslow-Yost points out, was oddly prescient about the horror that was to come in the Chornobyl fallout zone.

A scene from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gameplay
A scene from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gameplay
With its clunky and unimaginative initialism -- "Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers" -- at first glance the games would appear to have little in common with Tarkovsky's classic with "its singular combination of mystical yearning and artistic precision."

But beyond the superficial conventions of the video-game genre, the author finds an eerie stylistic similarity to the Tarkovsky film and a narrative depth that perhaps even surpasses the original:
The Zone in the video games is a beautifully dangerous place, bigger and grimmer than Tarkovsky’s, but somehow still appropriate. There are plenty of long, tense walks through damp weather or empty, creaking tunnels. Packs of dogs wander the landscape, ruined farmhouses give shelter from the rain; here and there the ground ripples strangely. Stalkers gather around campfires, bandits take potshots at passersby, and a man lies wounded in a ditch, begging for help. Watching Stalker, one is occasionally brought up short by remembering that it was not filmed in Chernobyl, so perfect an analogue does that event seem for the film’s images of technology and nature, beauty and danger in strange alliance. The games, at their best, can seem like a sort of miracle: a dead man’s masterpiece, come home at last.


The games’ first-person perspective and open-ended structure have a similar effect. You can move more or less where you want to, provided you don’t get poisoned by radiation, shot by bandits, or mauled by mutant dogs on the way; it’s just you and your gun, and no one, not even the game, seems to care what happens to you. Eventually the silly central plot kicks in and all this goes by the wayside, but until then, the game’s indifference can seem a kind of grim, bracing rejoinder to the smug exceptionalism that defines American games: in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you aren’t special, you’re just there.

-- Luke Allnutt

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