Sunday, February 22, 2009

"The zone wants to be respected"

If you've seen Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" (1979), then you will be aware of just what a unique, challenging and mesmerizing experience it is. If you've seen it on a Big Screen, then certain images and passages will never leave you. It is Science Fiction of the best kind - thought-provoking, demanding, imaginative, intense and with many elements left open to interpretation. Tarkovsky was a genuine artist, and while none of his features (with the possible exception of his debut, "Ivan's Childhood") is anything less than difficult, his facility with the cinematic medium means that they are all worthwhile. Some of the long, slow crawls across the barren landscapes of the Zone in "Stalker" are filled with that strain of mournful beauty which seems to have come so easily to the director.

Anyway, the film has been on my mind ever since I read Geoff Dyer's rhapsodic piece in the Guardian a few weeks back. He gets it right. No film feels remotely like "Stalker". It is too uncompromising, too singular. Which only makes it all the more surprising that it was partly the basis for a video game, "S.T.A.L.K.E.R: The Shadow of Chernobyl". And not just any video game; a First Person Shooter.

Ok, maybe "basis" is going too far, but "Stalker" was certainly the visual inspiration for the game, which parlays its setting to a future Chernobyl, sometime after a second catastrophe has made the area a "Zone" filled with mutated horrors and unexplained phenomena. The men who exist and make their livings within the Zone are called "Stalkers" just as in Tarkovsky's film. Only here they carry a variety of weaponry and spend much of their time, not arguing intently about their philosophies and what the zone could mean, but trying to blow each other to hell.

In reality, both film and game are based upon "Roadside Picnic", a 1971 novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky which tells the tale of a "zone", the site of an alien landing which has become affected by strange reality-warps and space-time distortions, not to mention radiation, but which nevertheless attracts prospectors in search of power or "artifacts". The novella eerily appears to foretell of Chernobyl, which following the 1986 disaster became the location of what has been deemed a "zone of alienation", a 1,400 square mile area, terribly irradiated and now monitored by men who refer to themselves as "stalkers" as they patrol dead cities and ghost towns.

But its the thought of Tarkovsky's slow view of the world twisted into a First Person shooter that really tickles me. And made me wonder what other canonical classics of World Cinema could work as video games. Nothing with guns or swords, so no genre films, no Melville or Kurosawa, since both of those directors have enjoyed direct or indirect influence on the game medium anyway. A few possibilities, however:

The Seventh Seal: You play as the Knight. You play chess with Death. So its basically a chess game with funky trimmings and a really really grim atmosphere. Max Von Sydow could even do his own voice work. An unlockable extra could be the ability to play Battleship with Death, ala Bill and Ted. Winner, I think. I'd buy it.

The Battleship Potemkin: There's this baby-carriage, see. On some steps. Teetering. While a load of malarky carries on all around it. Will it go, rolling down the steps, or will - I can see it as an iPhone game, maybe, where you have to tilt the phone this way and that to keep the carriage from plummeting downwards. I dimly remember an Untouchables game back in the day, though I have no idea if it included an Odessa Steps sequence...

The Leopard - Like "the Sims", maybe. You have to make social connections at the Ball, wear the right frock, do your hair just so, not mess up your dance, always say the right thing, know our table-manners, etc etc. Unlocking new cravats and hairpins as you go, new apertifs. Some people actually like games like this. Imagine.

Pather Panchali - Try to survive growing up in abject poverty, acquiring skills along the way - begging, sitting in the shade and out of the sun, not annoying your sister too much. Dance in the rain without catching fever and run through the grass to see the trains as they pass. I see it as a free-roaming sandbox game, like "Fable". The two sequels could be the later, more advanced stages.

Metropolis - Build the most impressive, self-sustaining sci-fi city you can, from the ground up, then populate it with hot robot babes with metal boobies. Ensure your society and economy function. Try to avoid damaging industrial action.

The Red Balloon - A platform game. Guide the balloon as it is buffeted by Parisian winds towards treacherous sharp branches and evil gargoyles. Avoid the falling birdshit. Gain power points by connecting with the cute little moppet at ground level.

Last Year at Marienbad - A puzzle game. Try to figure out whats going on. Do you know this woman? Does she know you? Is this the past or the future? Didn't we have this conversation before? All interspersed with mini-games: Nem and target-shooting. And a maze option - find your way through the endless corridors...

I was going to include "El Topo", but apparently its a big influence on a Wii game called "No More Heroes", which disturbs me mightily. Also disturbing - as if the "Godfather" game wasn't bad enough, there should be a "Heat" game out later this year. Do you think it'll have some shooting in it?

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

There was a level in the Untouchables game for the steps sequence. It was top down, and you played Elliot Ness, and you could get in front, or behind of the carriage to speed it up or slow it down, and you had to avoid shots from various goons and shoot them back.

The level that followed was one of my favourite levels in any video game ever. It was the last goon and the book-keeper stood in front of you. The goon was behind the book-keeper and had a gun to his head. You were 1st Person Perspective and had a massive revolver in a shaky hand that would drop under the weight. A counter ran down and you had to bring the gun up and use the one shot you had to nail the goon right in the face. You had one shot. If you missed or the counter ran down, he blew the book-keeper's brains out. Fuzzy, grey, pixelated brains that ran down the wall.

This was nearly 20 years ago, and it was so effective. It felt like a situation. It felt like it had consequence. The simulated weight of the gun, the recoil when you shot the's generic run-and-guns could learn a lot from it. Rather than make an opponent require five or six shots to kill in the name of difficulty, give us adversaries and situations like that.

9:08 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Call of Duty 3 has a couple of situations like that. Sounds like a total rip-off, actually.

12:51 am  
Blogger jamesinseoul said...

This is a terrific idea. I'd like to play a driving game based on Weekend, where you have to try and navigate a ridiculously long traffic jam.

1:32 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Davey said he wanted one based on The Diving Bell & the Butterfly where you have to communicate through blinking by tapping a button. It was more complicated than that, but he isn't gonna post it so that'll have to do.

1:39 pm  
Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

You know on Guitar Hero you're basically hitting buttons in time with a sequence? - same thing, but it's blinking at the right time to relay the correct letters to send messages to your nurse. If you hit a letter out of time you send a wrong message or have to start again or something. The Diving Bell & The Butterfly - a mobile phone game.

I did try and post this about a week ago but blogger was being gay.

I have another.

Mean Girls the video game. It's a point and click type of thing. You have a meter to balance levels of friendship between the plastics and your 'real' friends. Playing pranks and stuff on the plastics gets you points with your friends. Doing your make-up and not eating carbs increases your rating with the plastics - not enough pranking and your friends get pissed, not enough preening and the plastics cast you out.

Not in the same league as Sim-Holocaust but y'know, could do well on DS.

12:00 am  
Blogger Ross said...

There are web-based games out there where you have to play as a child surviving in a refugee camp - walking miles for water, avoiding militia raids etc.
I've only read about it though, I've a feeling it may have been Windows-only.

From what I've played of No More Heroes, the El Topo references are very slight.

10:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amusing... most amusing.

2:16 pm  

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