[In this interview, Gamasutra catches up with Stalin Vs. Martians co-creator Alexander Shcherbakov to discuss the game's deliberately provocative -- and frankly, rather entertaining -- attitude.]
Extremely wacky PC real-time strategy game Stalin Vs Martians
may well be remembered more for its viral marketing more than it will for being a fun RTS about saving Russia from an alien invasion.
It's hard to ignore a dancing dictator
, and it's even harder to ignore him when it's Russian pop he's dancing to. The game moves away from tradition, focusing more on satire and humor than anything else, so it's fitting that the creators are just as intelligent and funny as their game.
In this interview, we spoke to developer Dreamlore's Alexander Shcherbakov (also credited are Black Wing Foundation and N-Lore) about why the decided to make a game about saving the world from an alien invasion, what possessed them to stick a 4 minute rendition of the Soviet anthem at the beginning of the game, and, uh, whether they liked cats:
For those unaware, could you give a brief rundown on who you are and what sort of games you make?
My name is Alexander “Zima” Shcherbakov. I’m sorta producer and lead designer of the epic Stalin vs. Martians game. We develop different kind of games, actually, but this one, the most insane and kitschy, will always be our favorite!
Stalin Vs Martians is a very tongue-in-cheek game, even if you look at only the game’s fiction. What sort of message were you trying to get across?
I don’t really know if I should call it a “message”. But Stalin vs. Martians obviously is a parody, which sometimes gets close to being a satire.
First of all, it is a purposely trashy game. That’s quite unusual. It is the game that really mocks the WWII strategies. And lots of different stereotypes as well. Like stereotypes of Stalin. Or Russians as a nation, with all that vodka-bear-accent-balalaika nonsense. Some little political comments here and there. There are few layers actually.
In (Soviet) Russia, some people even think that the game is actually a troll. And it really is.
Why Stalin, and, more importantly, why Martians?
It’s super weird. How much more weird could this be?
Instead of an opening cinematic, you decided on having a four minute rendition of the Soviet anthem in front of the Red Flag. What was the thought behind such a bold move?
Seems nobody noticed how the game really starts, what is shown before the Soviet flag. Okay, I will explain you part of the idea behind all this.
It is actually a nod to Bollywood and Asian cinema. In India, the movie starts with a certification. Just like Stalin vs. Martians. Then, if you’re in the theater, you will have to stand up for the national anthem. You hear the anthem and you watch a giant poorly animated low-res Indian flag on the screen.
In Thailand, you have to show your respect to His Majesty the King. Everyone stands up, listens to the music and watches the archive footage (low-res, poor quality) of the King doing this and that.
That’s exactly what we did in Stalin vs. Martians. And like most of the Bollywood productions, our game is like an artifacts from the parallel universe. Some people dig it, some feel it doesn’t fit to the standards of a decent production. We’re like Bollywood for the Western man. Or a Troma movie for… well, pretty much everyone. “Not everybody likes us, but we drive some folks wild”, like one cool cow-punk country singer once sad.
How important do you think humor is to games?
I have no idea. How important humor is to movies? To literature?
It is important. Sometimes. And sometimes not. But I feel there’s a imbalance in the gaming industry, especially in Russia, when everyone’s so dead serious it makes you sick.
Do you like cats?
Sure. And cats like me.
Do you worry that people will take Stalin Vs Martians too seriously? What did you do to make sure the game’s tone was properly conveyed?
If the people take Stalin vs. Martians too seriously, it’s their problem. There’s no cure for the idiot, we can’t help it and there’s no need to worry, unless the idiots will try to break our legs. I think it is quite obvious that this game just can’t be serious, it’s like a Troma movie, but with more elements of parody.
People often cry out for games to be more than just entertainment, and the satire in Stalin Vs Martians certainly seems to move away from pure entertainment and closer to parody and pastiche. Do you think that making a game that is not particularly fun but has an interesting message is viable?
That sounds like a Theory of Art discussion. I don’t really know. You see, there are works of literature. Which are deep and meaningful. But not really entertaining. Like “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Or Kafka’s “The Castle”. Masterpieces, but most of the people would never call reading these books truly entertaining or “fun”. And there are deep and meaningful films. Masterful films. But boring.
Can we call games works of art? Actually, we can. But the games which are not entertaining, regardless of their “meaningfulness”, will always (or almost always) be treated as a worthless piece of shit. And possibly for good, since games can be art, but it doesn’t mean they cease to be games. We still expect entertainment. Or, I think, the more appropriate term is “experience”.
What we sell with Stalin vs. Martians is, first of all, an experience. Why do people watch “Inland Empire”? Because of David Lynch’s cult of personality. And because “Inland Empire” is truly an experience. Hardly an entertainment or a “meaningful” chewing gum for the brain. But our game is still entertaining, I believe so. (It is not quite a game, actually, but it is interactive.) It is fun.
The game features a lot of very catchy music. Given the attention you paid to the music for the game, how important do you think it is?
The soundtrack plays a huge role In Stalin vs. Martians. It highlights the game’s psychotic weirdness and sets the mood. And it is catchy, which is very rare these days.
You’ve stated before that Stalin Vs Martians is an ‘Arcade RTS’, downplaying the whole simulation aspect of the genre. Do you feel there is space in the RTS genre for many light-hearted games?
I think there’s a lot of space for light-hearted and, what’s important, light-headed games. Anywhere. In any genre.
Traditional RTS thinking doesn’t seem to serve very well in Stalin Vs Martians, instead favouring a rush approach. Was this a deliberate choice to make a comment on the RTS genre?
You see, we haven’t even tried to make a “real” RTS game. Yes, it’s rush and only rush, except for maybe one or two missions close to the end, when you have Katyushas and have to be a little careful instead of creating one huge bunch of tanks and moving around the map as quickly as possible, avoiding the hits, killing everything and collecting coins. Basically, that was the main pattern in the early RTS games, not counting the base construction “Town Hall > Power Plant > Barracks”.
I don’t think that it is a comment on the entire RTS genre, but certainly it is a mockery of the WWII strategy games. Very serious and mostly very boring. We used the Blitzkrieg 2 engine, it is a very serious game, very “strategic”. We modified some stuff a little, added surrealistic power-ups and it became absolutely abnormal idiotic rush-oriented pandemonium.
Stalin Vs Martians is being published under the newly formed ‘indie’ focused Mezmer Games. How were they different, beyond the name change, to being published under someone like Paradox?
It’s hard to say, since we’re not published by Paradox yet! I think it’s kinda like Paradox, but with a focus on digital distribution. And possibly they can be brave enough to publish games like Stalin vs. Martians, which “don’t fit into the current line-up” of most of the companies.
Stalin Vs Martians had an incredible amount of publicity before it was released, if only because it was such a novelty. Were the various music videos and trailers a response to that, or had you always planned such an elaborate strategy to raise awareness?
I don’t really think that the game had an incredible amount of publicity. Yes, we had some very successful videos on the net
. Few nice interviews. But mainstream press never realy paid attention. They kinda woke up only after the release, but don’t really get what Stalin vs. Martians is about.
You know, Stalin vs. Martians was conceived by two people, who are, actually, former game journalists and PR-managers. For example, I’ve spent about 8 years in game journalism in Russia, including the editor-in-chief position. I also was the head of the PR department of Akella.
So basically I’ve learned couple of tricks, and at a certain point I’ve also noticed that average company’s take on promo materials, official websites, interviews, press releases and the whole attitude is incredibly boring, strangely serious, pathetically official and at times very stupid.
Of course we wanted to use something ultra-weird, shocking and viral to promote the game and to create a certain climate around it. Because that’s what we felt was right, smart enough (or stupid enough), that’s what we like and how we feel.
Stalin Vs Martians seems to break the mould from the bleak and depressing that seem to be the staple of Eastern Europe of late. How do you feel about the state of game development in the region?
No, Eastern Block games are not that depressing. Yes, there’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Cryostasis. But we also have X-Blades, starring an anime-styled girl wearing a thong. Thongs are not depressing. Well, sometimes they are. But not in X-Blades.
So, despite the fact that our Dostoevsky-fueled soul is in pain, stucked in this hopeless morbid abyss of sorrowful existence, we can still be very good in pretending that everything’s fine, when it’s not.
The game is being priced significantly lower than the majority of new releases on PC. Was this due to any particular reason?
That’s quite obvious that you can’t sell the game titled Stalin vs. Martians for, like, $50. Or, worse, for 50 pounds! It’s a game that’s halfway to becoming a trash icon of gaming industry for years. We do understand it and we don’t pretend that we should sell it for the same price as StarCraft II (honestly, I think that games shouldn’t be priced like StarCraft II at all, but that’s a different subject).
Yes, Stalin vs. Martians is a work of art, and artistic performance that, by some chance, is interactive. And we could have priced it as such, as a pure work of art, as an artistic performance. Like, $1000. But we were born in the Soviet Union and think that art must belong to the people.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Stop playing games, start reading books!