But Stalker offers only the weakest allegorical illumination of a painful subject - videogames are all surface and response, and I don't suppose anything will change that. The more important achievement of this game is that it has created something that is completely independent of American cultural hegemony.
While gamers are quick to point to the gaming esotericism of Japan, or even Korea and China, the fact is almost all games, particularly action games, pay homage to America in some way. Videogames are dominated by American cultural themes, science fiction doubly so. Games are filled with American soldiers, American voices, American cities, American wars, American myths: The potent, popular images of U.S. comic books and of Hollywood movies utterly dominate the landscape of videogaming. But not in Stalker. Here there is only Russian.
Stalker's incidental speech is all in Russian, and the spoken English thick with accents of the Ukrainian actors. The landscape is Ukrainian - taken from the very real zone around Chernobyl - and the fiction is Russian, inspired by Russia's own tradition of hard science fiction. If Stalker is exploitative, it is only in the sense that GSC Game World has made the best use of the materials immediately at hand, their natural cultural resources. Despite the distinctly American genesis of first-person shooters as a genre, GSC hasn't produced something defined by American culture. Stalker does not pander to the expectations of a videogame audience that is now over-familiar with the concept of American first-person shooters. The Zone themes aside, Stalker has produced a game that makes special use of mixing scripting with random AI-interaction to breakdown the linearity and narrative predictability we've come to expect from FPS games. (It's worth mentioning the "Realism" and "Stealth" mods for the game greatly improve the overall experience, too.)
So, GSC has made a game that articulates the powerful concept of The Zone of Alienation, a wholly Soviet concept, but they have also made a game that demonstrates that local fictions and local myths are just as potent as any adopted and exported by the American culture machine. It's a rallying cry for developers across the world: to look to their own fictions, their own myths, the deep history of their own peoples. Creating game fiction does not rely on any culture outside your own. GSC has, I am inclined to think, made a game that does far more than immortalize the world that lies beneath the Shadow of Chernobyl, and I look forward to the days when videogames deliver us myths, ideas and landscapes that are native to Argentina, India, Syria, Tibet, Egypt, Sudan ... somewhere, anywhere, just make it work.
Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.