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Q&A: Yavorsky on GSC’s S.T.A.L.K.I.N.G. Horse
Q&A: Yavorsky on GSC’s S.T.A.L.K.I.N.G. Horse
April 19, 2007 | By Simon Carless

April 19, 2007 | By Simon Carless
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When it comes to games based on films based on books, perhaps the closest thing to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is The Godfather.

Inspired by the film Stalker, from Russia’s influential post-war director Andrei Tarkovsky, which itself was based on the 1972 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Stalker can be seen as the Soviet equivalent of Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s combined output.

In terms of zeitgeist, there are certainly interesting points to be made about the conclusions embedded in these products of 1970s Soviet and American society. After all, whether it’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s existentialism or The Godfather’s macho-istic take on family, the core of both is trying to make your way in an overtly competitive capitalist world. Even the climax of finding a place where wishes come true and/or becoming head of a crime gang could be viewed as similar sides of two rival societal coins.

Parallels can also be drawn about the development process of the games in question. EA made plenty of fuss over the involvement of The Godfather’s original actors, while Coppola kicked up his own stink. Tarkovsky’s opinions concerning computer games aren’t known - he died in 1986 - but with the action relocated to Chernobyl, the ruined nuclear powerstation took on a leading role in the game with hours of research footage used to ensure the locations were as realistic as possible.

“Both the book and the movie were, among others things, an inspiration for us,” explains Oleg Yavorsky, of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. “For example, the stalkers in the game - guys going into a danger zone to risk their lives to make their living by selling the loot they find - resemble the stalkers in the book, and you may find the atmosphere of the movie similar. This said, we never tried to directly implement either the movie or the book in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. Everything from the setting, story and gameplay was pretty much created by us.”

More Than A Game

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is very much GSC’s baby; from initial ideas to the relocation and reconceptualising of a plot, concerning a mysterious Zone depopulated of human life by an unexplained disaster and full of invisible, lethal anomalies, to Chernobyl.

Even the prolonged development process - announced in 2001, originally scheduled for a 2003 release, absent from E3 2005, finally out in March 2007 - turned out to be mark of the company’s determination not to be rushed into delivering a game that more than just being its most high profile project, was also viewed as a posterchild for Eastern European development. The fact GSC self-funded much of the development helped too.

Certainly during a press trip to the studio in 2004, the passion of the developers was clear. “I know it’s not a modest thing to say, but we are going to be best,” one of the game artists told me. “It is like a heavyweight boxer saying he is going to kill his opponent before the fight. We respect developers like Valve and id, but we have the drive and passion to be the best. One day we will be rich and comfortable, then someone else will become better than us, but with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. we are going to the best.”

Whether that lofty goal was fully realised is open to question of course, but terms of such achievement, we all know how The Godfather turned out for EA. The use of the Chernobyl exclusion zone as the setting raised wider ethical issues for GSC however.

“We had lengthy discussions about how correct it would be to use Chernobyl in the game, lest we should offend people who suffered,” Yavorsky says. “First off, we did our best to make the game concept as correct as possible. Secondly, our stance is that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not only a game set in Chernobyl. It is concomitantly a warning to mankind against careless handling of new technologies. Maybe accidents such as Chernobyl show the good delivered by some inventions is not really worth the consequences.

“Thirdly, we would like to remind people about Chernobyl. The destroyed reactor still contains hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel, and the sarcophagus that was built in the 1980s over the ruined power plant is deteriorating, so another one has to be built. Its construction, however, has been considerably delayed. It’s hard to imagine what kind of devastating ecological catastrophe would happen if the old sarcophagus fell down. So, hopefully, our game can drag people’s attention to the remaining problem again.”

Against that a 1940’s shoot ‘em up in downtown New York just pales.

The Rise Of The East

More prosaically though, how much S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will affect the balance of power between Eastern European game developers and US publishers remains open to debate. After all, outside of games there’s still an ongoing Long Bet concerning whether Russia (and by extension ex-Soviet states) will have been considered the world leader in software development by 2012.

But S.T.A.L.K.E.R. undoubtably has been the most ambitious and most expensive game to be developed by a studio based in the ex-USSR territories to date. Over 100 inhouse staff were involved in the seven year development process - in terms of Eastern European games, only GSC’s own multi-million selling Cossacks RTS series comes close.

Yavorsky says the situation remains tough. “Hopefully, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. will contribute to making it easier for Eastern European studios to gain access to Western markets,” he predicts. “Working with THQ has definitely been a new and positive experience. It was very supportive of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., even when the release was postponed and things didn’t look good.”

Ironically though, as such projects become more high profile and expensive, so some of the benefits of using Eastern European talent reduces. “It isn’t as cheap to develop in the Ukraine as it used to be, but on the good side, the quality of products is growing too,” Yavorsky points out. Indeed, such is the efficiency of the global outsourcing valuechain, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s development benefited with THQ using testers in the US and Poland, while the game’s cutscenes were created in Australia.

As for what’s next for GSC, Yavorsky remains relatively tight lipped. “We believe the ideas vested in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. have great potential, so we’re considering how to continuing to work on brand,” he says. “Keep your eyes peeled for further news.”

[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He’d take Stalker and Roadside Picnic over The Godfather any day.]


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