Death in Stalker, Part 1

Gamers are conditioned to follow orders without question. Bioshock’s twist played on this convention and pointed out the extreme degree to which we do things without bothering to ask why. Of course, Bioshock also made this point with a healthy dose of irony, because we really didn’t have any other choices but to follow the path that was set for us. A man chooses, a slave obeys, but a gamer just goes to the highlighted area on his heads-up display.

But some games really do give the player a choice, and I’ve never been comfortable choosing the ethical low-road. In Dungeons & Dragons, I’m almost always a good guy who tries to do as he sees fit without reference to laws or customs. In Bioshock, I tried a playthrough where I harvested Little Sisters, but didn’t manage to finish. Hell, in games like Civilization and Total War, I tend to be an honorable ally and an implacable enemy. I don’t go to the bother of being a boyscout, but I try to avoid being a bastard.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has strained my typical videogame morality. Where it’s usually easy to see the sharp divisions between good and evil in a videogame, the world of Stalker has a way of gently and steadily eroding traditional morality and replacing it with something much more Hobbesian.

There are lots of optional missions you can take from people you meet in the Zone. Your chief employer is the bartender in Rostok, who offers the missions that advance the main story, but he also has a bunch of odd jobs for you to do.  Most are pretty straightforward and unobjectionable: go find a rare item or artifact that he needs, or clear out a nest of mutants that have been harassing other Stalkers.

So when he said he needed me to go kill a soldier who had deserted from the Ukrainian army, and who was currently hiding out in a marsh near an abandoned research complex, I didn’t see a problem with it. He asked me to trust him and not to ask why, and because I did trust him from the way he’d helped my character locate vital information, I took the job.

The deserter was staying in a squalid little shack suspended above a mildly toxic swamp. I tried to see inside with my binoculars, but couldn’t get a line of sight on him. So I grabbed my Enfield rifle and walked across the duckboards into his hideout.

The moment I walked in, he jammed a Kalashnikov variant in my face and started yelling at me not to shoot, or else he would. I put away my rifle and, to my surprise, he put away his.

He explained that he was running away from the army, and started telling me about how fucked up the army’s operations were in the Zone. He said that he and his comrades were always being used to plug the holes in the government’s policies regarding the Zone. They didn’t have the resources they needed, conditions were terrible, and they weren’t being rotated out of the Zone like they’d been promised. They were deployed to the Zone, and then they were pretty much abandoned. As soon as he could, he was going to sneak out and go home.

I told him I’d leave him alone, then went back outside. The whole thing wasn’t what I’d expected. I hadn’t counted on being confronted with a scared conscript who just wanted out. I wanted to let him go.

But the bartender asked me to trust him, and I did. Anyone can talk a good game, but someone wanted this guy dead for a reason. So I pullled out a hand grenade and tossed it through the doorway. A second later, it detonated and I got news that the mission had been completed. I went back inside, looted the kid’s body for what little he had, then started back to Rostok.

The whole thing sat terribly, though. My problem wasn’t so much the killing as it was the not knowing why. He might have had it coming or he might not have, but I would never know. I’d never been given an opportunity to find out. It was a random killing of someone who never posed a threat to me. It was murder.

On the way back to Rostok, I decided against taking any more assassination jobs unless I knew the reasons they were being ordered. My character in Stalker might be a sometime predator and sometime soldier, but I wasn’t going to let him be a murderer for hire.

I thought that would be an easy rule to follow. But I was still very new to Stalker.

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