As a writer, you’re always on the lookout for anything to read. Writing is reading: it’s understanding the ways in which your language can be applied and invoked in ways that contribute to a particular effect, a particular meaning, that nestles deeper than the surface level. So, often, especially when I’m struggling with a piece of my own, I’ll turn to others for help – not directly, but by carefully analysing and deconstructing their work, learning to understand it, and attempting to twist their techniques into something I can use for myself.
I’m reviewing a game at the moment. Oh, actually, let’s drop this charade. I’m reviewing the new Stalker. It’s fine – that blog post before was written after just three hours of play, and it took me the best part of 20 to complete. You have literally no idea what I think of it now. Goodness knows Clear Sky went to shit after seven hours. These are not review-spoilers. But it’s a review in which I’m struggling to be concise, certainly. Anyone who’s ever played a Stalker game will understand that. Whether you love them or loathe them, there’s really nothing else out there that operates on the same level.
So I started reading about Stalker games. I’ve played them all, and know a lot about them. But it’s always interesting to see how other people communicate the way a Stalker game makes you feel. Even Clear Sky, whose atmosphere took a severe knock from not just its horrible release state but from various design decisions, had its moments of instilling the most tremendous sense of absolute isolation in the player. Stalker, particularly the original, had a way of weaving you up in a sort of ethereal, magical spell, and not even letting you go when the game crashed head-first into the desktop. To put it simply, Stalker was the sort of game where, when that happened, instead of getting angry, muttering and double-clicking the .exe file again, you used that time to fire off about a hundred emails enthusing about just how amazing the thing was.
So, yes, difficult to communicate the experience. So I started reading lots about it. I read Jim Rossignol’s review on Eurogamer, then idly flicked over to a preview by Kristan Reid, from way back in 2004. 2004! Remember that? The preview cited it for a release around the same time has Half-Life 2! That’s laughable now, considering we now know the game ended up being released a full three years late, in a completely different form to the original pitch. I smirked. I thought it might be interesting, as a complete aside from brushing up my own writing skills, to follow Stalker through its turbulant development via the magic of Eurogamer’s selection of previews. I read another by Kristan, this time focusing on the tech, which he commented was beautiful beyond what any game had achieved before. And then I read one by Pat Garratt, now head-honcho at VG247.
Pat picked up an award for his continued contribution to games journalism this year. He’s a man I know only through his writing, and through friends who know him. VG247 won the ‘Best Blog’ award at the VMAs, and in the circles I tend to move in, there was a bit of grumbling that a pure-news blog would get top spot ahead of the lively, editorialised prose of somewhere like Rock, Paper, Shotgun. And, of course, I’ve been known to write a bit for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, so sure, there was that “hmm” moment in my mind when I saw that result. But I wonder if Pat gets a slightly raw deal because of the very nature of VG247 – which, I must stress, is as good a site as you’ll get for that sort of thing. I wonder this because his continued excellent contributions to the delivery of timely news stories at VG247 means he rarely gets chance to write anything other than that. And seeing the sort of content he was pulling out of the bag in 2006 is… well.
Here is his preview of Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. It is one of the greatest pieces of videogames journalism I have ever read.
It manoevres so beautifully between stark, up-front and honest commentary on the game, and telling the story of his own time at this wildly orchestrated press event, during which 80 journalists were given a guided tour around the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster – the set-up for Stalker’s fiction. It is, in a very real way, Kieron’s not-a-manifesto-honest – certainly moreso than the vast majority of purported examples of that particular strand of games writing. Except it’s not “travel journalism to an imaginary place”. It’s travel journalism with one foot at either side of the border between the fiction and the reality. It takes this work-in-progress computer game, this work of science fiction and fantasy that he’s only played for just over half an hour, and places it slap-bang in the middle of a very serious real world. It’s a moving, evocative, tragic, humerous, whimsical, honest and absolutely astonishing piece of writing about a game that most had, by then, given up hope on. Garrat’s preview is that hope, clung onto, but analysed, pondered over, made relevant by his trip to the site of the Chernobyl Power Plant disaster of 1986.
Read it. If you have even the slightest interest in writing, read it right now. And realise that somewhere, beavering away managing a news blog, sits a man who wrote one of the greatest pieces of games writing in the world.