The Shpil (Шпіль!) magazine published an interview with STALKER's main game designer: Alexey Sytianov. In this interview, they discuss Alexey's professional history and his views on game development. They also touch on December's unfortunate events, STALKER 2, and the state of GSC. Here is the printed interview and the accompanying video in Russian:
Find your own way, Stalker
Alexey Sytianov is a scenarist and game designer of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and STALKER 2. It was him, who came up with most of what you see and do in the first part of the game, and might have seen and done in the second, if not for the unfortunate December news of GSC's closure. At last, we managed to get one of the creators of the most famous Ukrainian game and find out his thoughts on...
Alexey Sytianov Birthday: July 25 City: Kiev Height: 191 cm Interests: psychology, cult game making, mysticism
How he got into STALKER
I was hired as a level designer for "Cossacks". The team was preparing for a conference; there was a secret high-tech project under development. I was lucky to get on a computer with the Aztec "Stalker" alpha version. I secretly studied all its ins and outs, amazed how atmospheric it was and how advanced the technology for 2002. I did not like working on "Cossacks" at all. And then, Anton Bolshakov (GSC's deputy directory - ed.) incidentally asked me, whether I knew someone who could write the story. I said I knew just the man - myself. I showed him my work, what design documents I have written by that time. He liked it, and I started trying out different approaches. There was already the "Stalker" idea; the team was getting ready to start production. However, it was set in the Crimean and consisted of 15 linear levels. The design document consisted of two pages listing required models. I immediately got the sense that the game had huge potential, that it would get a cult following. After all, this game was about our world, about a kind of decay that is present in one form or other over the post-Soviet space and, in principle, even beyond it.
How he entered the industry
I tried making games since 1993. I kept creating teams, trying to make something. We had almost no specialists. Until I lowered my ambitions to a simple casual project. It still turned out to be a difficult undertaking. Still, I released it, but did not earn anything. Then I released another and made a little money. Then, I faced a choice: try to keep making small things or get into the big industry. GSC was the first thought that came into my head.
About his vision
At some point, I got the vision of the game: the elements that had to be in it, what it was all about — such as life simulation. We had to fight for A-Life — no one believed in it at first. I explained my idea to Dima, we discussed it for a long time, whether it was possible, and how it could be done. He took up the cause, and we worked hard to convince Prohorov (one of STALKER's "fathers", creator of the game Metro 2033 - ed.) and the programmers that it was at all possible. In the end, A-Life became one of the game's key features. At one point, they wanted to remove the system, making the game completely linear, something like Half Life.
I started making games, because I wanted good games: there turned out to be not too many of those. I played through about 1.5 thousand games — I study games, it is an important part of the game designer's profession. If I made films, I would have had to watch movies, so that I could see the fundamental principles.
About current trends
In principle, I like the direction in which the industry is moving today. Games are becoming more expansive, global, detailed; for example: Skyrim and GTA. The only drawback is that commerce really does strangle creativity. This is sad. There used to be more soul in games. They were made by smaller groups of people, and it showed. Because, when there are only two or three of you, you are a team, the game has a creator. But in commercial development, there is a plan, everything must be guaranteed, deadlines are fixed, there are various limitations — all this often drains the soul from a project. Only a creator with a vision can instill soul into a game; big development often leaves no place for that.
True art requires complete devotion, if you are to conceive anything truly worthwhile. Modern game industry takes a different approach — money comes first, not art. After all, it is very risky to make art. Commercial bubble gum is not risky at all. We take some things from various sources, add post-apocalypse, mix it up — good enough, marketing will make it right, you just have to sell it. Only art is real, spiritual.
I see "Stalker" as a truly unique project; it is rare fortune to take part in it. It is not just a piece of entertainment, there is a deeper philosophical underpinning. If we made a game just for the money, not for the soul, "Stalker" would have been much simpler and more primitive. In a way, it was our attempt to create art.
The company is frozen. It is not functioning, though Grigorovich can at any moment come back and start it all over. A part of the team is still together — some left, some got lost, but the main carcass is in place. We decided to avoid commenting on "Stalker 2" to avoid harming the project. In my opinion, the company was not closed because of any threats or bankruptcies. The studio's owner, Sergey Grigorovich, has distanced himself from game development and was not involved in "Stalker". He only financed the project. It might have been a mental burden for him. Grigorovich still has not told anyone why he did it.
Linear games turn the world into an abstraction. It becomes just a sort of a tunnel you run along and shoot. Enemies are also abstract. They are not real. They are just plastic.
About STALKER 2
As I said, we decided to keep quiet about "Stalker 2". All I can tell you is that it continues the story of "Shadow of Chernobyl" and Strelok remains the main hero. The artwork that leaked into the net after the studio was closed is real work material for the game. There are a few starting locations from the game — the beginner base. The story for "Stalker 2" was done. It was not completely fleshed out, but it was done all the way, from start to finish, with side plots. Three people: Vasilij Prorok, Ruslan Didenko, and I worked on it for half a year. Grigorovich informed the team about GSC's closure several hours before the story's presentation for the entire team. We went through with the presentation anyway, everyone liked it, there was much regret about us not been able to to implement it in a game.
About the live world
During development, it was very important for me to create a feeling of a living, breathing world — an unpredictable world. A player placed in this world would have much more vivid experience. We wanted to make the world live by itself, not only in reaction to the player. In "Stalker", the player is not the most powerful or the strongest — he is one of many, whose lives crossed the Zone. If he achieves something, he has more vested, and feels it more personally than when he is a bulletproof superman. It is then an accomplishment.
About players missing secrets
I think it's good. It is part of a world's lore. When you know there are still many secrets you have not seen, you perceive a game differently. It gives you a mystical feeling, a mystery. It fills the world with atmosphere.
About the end of the world
Post-apocalypse is survival after destruction of the world. In post-USSR, in a way, we survived destruction of an old world — Soviet Union — and are now trying to survive the world that took its place. This theme has a special depth. After the old world is destroyed, a new one comes, and life goes on.
About the right to kill
If a person kills someone in a game, he should feel like a killer. He should get a sense of what it is like. After all, it is his choice. We took care to make it so that the player can kill everyone. It is a great freedom for him. Most importantly, if you have a choice, then you are free, then you can save your life or another, become a saviour or murderer. If there is no choice, the player has no feeling. He is just guided along a corridor, where developers make all the decisions, take away all responsibility.
About Alexey Sytianov
I still don't know, whether I want to be a public person. I understand that it is important for me to be recognized, and for my games to attract interest. But, on the other hand, to have strangers recognize and approach you in the street... It is not a simple question...
I have a sense of humour, even if it is not always obvious. I study modern psychology, psychotherapy, and field psychology. It has given me many insights into relationships with other people and into myself. I would like to bring this into games. Modern psychotherapy is amazing, it is very deep. Most people's understanding does not extend beyond Freud quotes, even though a hundred years have gone by. I dislike limitations, especially when they take away the freedom of choice.
Death and destruction are not all that matters in "Stalker". Death is a part of life. In "Stalker", the player faces death all the time. It gives a special appreciation of life. Others like you die, but you keep on living. Death is the greatest treasure for me. It makes all things precious. Were we immortal, we would not value anything that we had.
Complexity is a part of game design and gameplay. If complexity is removed, a game turns into bubble gum, it loses energy. For me, ideal complexity is when I approach the edge of my abilities, beyond which I could never win. It is this edge, where another attempt finally lets me advance. There is this effect of personal development, which gives me so much energy and joy. It feels like a real accomplishment. If I play a game without looking, I get little for it. I might even get annoyed for being deprived of my adrenaline. Desire disappears, motivation to go on, motivation to accomplish anything. What is easily gained is not appreciated.
I notice that games affect people. I once noticed how what we see in movies affects our relationships. Many people model their relationships on what they see in movie and book heroes. Games also have this effect. They are now a cultural phenomenon that shapes people's world views, affect their psychology and relationships with each other. Games get so much criticism for death and destruction. This is also an interesting subject — whether violent games affect real-life violence. My opinion is such that, yes, they do affect it, but negatively. It is more of an expression of some unfulfilled psychological need, which for some reasons cannot be fulfilled in reality. We are very much constrained by social norms and expectations. It is an important state, to be in a world that has anarchy, where I can destroy. I think it is important to experience such freedom. What a person plays shows what processes take place in his soul; if they show a need for destruction, then there is something in reality that the person might want to destroy. Games don't make good calm people violent. It is better to ask, why a kind conscientious person would take up a violent game, what gave him the urge for destruction.
Source: Don Reba, moderator of GSC forums.