If you know me personally, you’re probably somewhat aware of the latest hurdle I’ve had to overcome in gaming. To my own surprise, it didn’t fall under the creative end of the medium. Instead, it was S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (S:CS), the single most demanding game experience I’ve ever had. The one I came closest to giving up on over a dozen times.
At a point, the game peaked to an emotional train-wreck for me. Half-way across the Zone (what the affected area of the Chernobyl disaster, the theatre of S:CS, is referred to as in-game) and I was stripped of my arsenal. Notorious game-breaking bugs began to surface, enemy AI grew too accurate, and friendly AI fell too inaccurate. With few means for controlling my own fate, I learned to travel one save at a time for every step taken, tip-toeing around eggshells I couldn’t even see.
Seemingly out of nowhere, I was victorious: I beat Clear Sky. I was slightly baffled at coming upon such certainty in a game underscored by ambiguity. All that certainty was then swiftly washed away by the most concentrated dose of ambiguity S:CS had to offer with its ending. “Am I actually done?”, I thought. Was that it for me and Clear Sky? Are my adventures (nightmares) in the Zone stories worth telling, as opposed to crafting them?
Yes, to all of the above. So what was there to put up with, and why did I put up with it for so long?
I’m running low on people to trust. In the Zone, there’s too many sides worth taking, and somehow I remain indecisive unless it results in me being on my way that much faster. I don’t impose on others because that takes even more time, and more trust. I carry too much weight on me because I need something worth selling when I get into town. Sometimes that means a loaded gun, previously used to keep bandits and smugglers at bay. Where I found the weapons isn’t any of your business (it will be later on in this post). All means of defense have become a form of currency at this point.
I can’t see more than a few feet ahead of myself at nighttime. This makes hoarding first aid supplies only possible before it gets too dark to go on such scavenger hunts. The more I carry, the slower I travel. I get the feeling that I shouldn’t stop moving, so I don’t.
Stopping all movement is an important moment in Clear Sky, because it means one of few things. 1. Your eyes are arrested by the view, 2. you’re looking for something to keep you from dieing in the future, or 3. you’re already dieing, and scrambling for a fix. Sometimes this means keeping your head down, ducking for cover, and running into a herd of mutants, but most common of all it will mean reloading your last save. Because guess what, Stalker: you’re already dead.
Clear Sky is an unforgiving game in concept and in practice. I take that as an intention of developer GSC Game World, and a fitting characteristic for Clear Sky‘s environment – one would expect no less from the aftermath of Chernobyl.
We don’t naturally expect games to do this though. Rules serve to build the stability of any game-experience; the clearer the rules, the clearer the game. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series in general chooses to throw much of that motto out the window. Traditional gamer tendencies to collect everything, play pitch-perfect, and win big are not as welcome as we’re use to. In fact, with how emergent the world appears to be, it’s difficult to truly claim that victory is ever neatly achieved.
I was only making my way across a border. I didn’t want any trouble. I found myself in a small outpost I’ve been to before, guarded by two stalwart “comrades” of mine. I wanted, I needed, to trade many of the trinkets and treasures I found while I was gone, but all they seemed to want was bread and vodka.
Then it hit: the emission. Emissions come from the center of the Zone every once in a while, and you have about a good minute to find proper shelter using your PDA. The nearest safe-house marked wasn’t my idea of “close”, but there weren’t any obvious alternatives. I tried booking it to that safe-house, but that plan failed fast when running out of breath is the result of running for five seconds. I had too much weight on my back, but my friends back at the outpost won’t buy anything that could lighten the load.
Multiple failed attempts at this mad dash forced my hand, and I had no choice but to drop my guns at the outpost for now. I’ll just come back for them later – no problem. The amount time it took to figure out which guns were worth throwing down was surprisingly expensive. Eventually I got it down to a timed science, but unfortunately the Zone seemed to outsmart me, tease me, and toy with me every time I’d collapse just feet away from safety. So I decided to try and outsmart the Zone.
Quick-saving during this short-distance sprint was a dangerous move. There was no guarantee it’d hang the event of the emission or not, giving me enough time to reach my haven. It’s as if I was “stopping the clock” for sections at a time, and while it actually worked, a side-effect of this bug was a void of visual signifiers telling me that the emission was here that I was soon to be dead. I had to randomly quick-save, reload, and make it a little bit farther each time before I’d die all over again. Eventually I reached the safe-house, bartered with those inside as the emission passed, and then made my way back to the outpost. “How much simpler this is without all that weight on me”, I thought. Careful what you wish for in the Zone, Stalker.
Upon arrival, I discovered that all of those weapons I had dropped were gone. Now it was just me, and the one handgun I chose to keep.
But some culprits weren’t accounted for. My “comrades”, still standing around like nothing extraordinary had ever happened to them, remained unscathed from the emission unlike me, who couldn’t have been any less safe under the very same roof. Did they take my guns? Did the Zone take them? Did Clear Sky delete them? Am I losing my freaking mind?
None of the answers to these questions seemed liked ones that might actually help me. There was a long journey left ahead of me, and little to survive it with. I needed more than my handgun from here on out, but it was more than enough for making those two hooligans useful…and so, my descent into rage began there. There had been a long standing struggle between myself and Clear Sky for months now, but the past scenario was what did it for me. It was then that I felt I had options the game didn’t need to spell out. Clear Sky gave me all the reasons I needed to take out my anger on it, and I would take every opportunity to do just that – starting now.
Quick-save. Lock. Load. Aim. Fire. Thanks for the new assets, “comrades”.
Taking my allies out was useful practice for a situation I’d have hours later, where I was knocked unconscious, stripped of all my arsenal, and assigned to go find it all again. Guarded by two bandits, reacquiring my loot was between me and my beretta. I stopped relying on the artificial intelligence of Clear Sky over time. In fact, my allies were such consistently bad shots, I was better off killing them, looting them, and making use of their ammo just to not “waste” what they inevitably would have. This all felt disgustingly liberating; an unexpected change of heart I felt about as responsible for as Clear Sky would have – if games had feelings.
What’s kept me engaged in Clear Sky is twofold. First are the scripted events, encounters, whatever you prefer to call them these days in games. They don’t feel over the top, but they do feel authentic. They’re subtle and desaturated in every sense of the word tone, which is a unique route for set-pieces to build immersion from. The situations and settings you’re dropped into are sort of quaint and even pathetic looking, but somehow they work, and that’s when the game has its teeth in you for better or for worse. Knowing that this sort of experience has been sprinkled throughout kept me anticipating the next time I’d run into one, and sometimes that was enough to get over how unfair, or underwhelming, the AI can get.
Secondly, Clear Sky explores a sense of loneliness – the sort of loneliness that occurs when you’re lost and there’s still people around. Being the prequel of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, the game was criticized for being more populated with squads/non-playable characters than its predecessor, Shadow of Chernobyl, which partly won over fans with that purer sense of solitude. Nitpicking aside, I feel that this brand of loneliness, one that is much more reminiscent of my own human experiences of it, or helplessness in that regard, is present in S:CS. There’s nothing quite like feeling mentally alone: Who can I trust? Am I capable of trusting? It’s every man for himself in the Zone.
We’re often around other people, but that doesn’t mean they always make you feel welcomed, which probably leads to the secret ingredient of Clear Sky: its environment. As torn up, muddy, bloody, and polluted as it persists to be, it sort of makes you feel more welcome than the people do. Such moments will land in front of you for barely a minute, only then to take off and almost guaranteed to never be repeated twice. Moments later, you’ll come across the corpse of a fellow mercenary hidden amongst the landscape, ruffle through his pockets for bullets and bread, and be on your way.
There’s the occasional exception though. One particular favorite of mine is the chance for NPC’s to pull out a classical guitar when they’re sat around a camp site and play a song or two. Sure, being a guitarist myself for nearly a decade, I’m fond of the addition by default. This doesn’t change the fact that it added an unexpected layer of character to an otherwise bleak situation, and sometimes that was enough to string me along. With the default music turned all the way down, the only music I heard in the game was generated by the world itself: guitars, radios, etc. Sometimes I would stumble upon a group of mercenaries who looked just as tired as I felt, and I’d take a seat for a few minutes to catch my breath.
These sort of situations encouraged me as a player to keep venturing forth, if not for the haunting discovery of fallen allies than for the contrast to such sobering moments. Breath and beats are crucial affordances that Clear Sky provides. It relies on the tempo of your experience through each objective to keep you interested even when things nearly slow to a halt.
I over think and micromanage just about anything I can get my hands on, and Clear Sky is clearly no exception. However, it was the looser play and carelessness that I learned to value most. The whimsical decisions I chose to make revealed why I enjoy/love/hate the experience that was Clear Sky. And yet, there it is: Clear Sky.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the name outside of its blunt reference to the faction who found and resuscitated you, the player, at the beginning of your experience. There is never a clear sky in this entire game. Considering this, I found it difficult to not take extra notice to the beautifully rendered lighting effects, how the sky illuminated a landscape in contrast to the subtitle Clear Sky, and not reflect for a minute or two.
Clear Sky isn’t brand new – I certainly didn’t go for a day-one purchase here. In an era where games are more closely resembling finely tuned sports with every achievement added (and it should be noted that Clear Sky has no achievements, even through Steam), as a player I begin to lose the sense that I can be creative within many of them [games]. Games have a habit of telling us how to be creative, and often to their own benefit.
At the same time I feel a growing discomfort in being discouraged to push the playful envelop in some games these days, especially when sprawling worlds are rich for anomalies. It’s probably fair to call me out on this, but given enough time, I honestly feel as though my reactions aren’t entirely mine in some game experiences. Maybe those reactions, and the decisions that follow, were bound to happen. Maybe that’s good design, but sometimes it arguably feels very very boring, atleast for my needs as a gamer. Players are creative people, and whether Clear Sky is doing anything about this or not, it knows it too.
S:CS relishes in its imperfections, and by doing so reinforces both its strengths and weaknesses simultaneously as a user-experience, a game, and a narrative. The entire game was a gutsy decision by the developers, but at the very least it was a consistent one. I find myself personally struggling to sustain longer moments of reprieve in my real life, and less often do I believe this wish will ever come true. What I fail to remind myself often of, though, is how the lack of such moments bears value as well. Clear Sky, as an experience, lives and dies by its ability to provide emergent contrast, and in doing so it grants a familiar metaphor to many things I encounter on a daily basis.
Clear skies are a rare occasion. I’d like it if they stayed that way.