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For the last couple of weeks I’ve been on something of a game-binge, aware that my first term at university starts in a couple of weeks and there won’t be room for my computer when the five to six hour drive (ugh) to Brighton comes around. The next time I’ll really be able to play anything is December. For a week or so, maybe. Then, back to game-drought. Hmph.

My main obsession has been the latest Stalker game, Call of Pripyat. It’s something special.

I’ve only really explored the starting area Zatun, but I’m impressed with how GSC have refined the geography of the Zone. It really feels like a coherent and plausible location, while I thought the first game was a bit of a hodge-podge. It’s no longer a bunch of points on a map (Fallout 3 also suffered from this), but a real, living world that makes sense with the few extra rules the developers have allowed themselves. The anomalies, especially, have really come into their own. In the book the series is based on, Roadside Picnic, the Zone is a rundown town with a bit of wasteland that the anomalies, weird areas where the laws of physics were twisted unimaginably, inhabited and conformed to. The first game largely followed this model, but in Call of Pripyat we really get to see these bizarre fields have an effect on the landscape.

Above you can see the Boiler, where the ground bulges and cracks because of the steam erupting endlessly from some point underground. At the Claw, gravitational anomalies have torn at the earth, lifting and contorting the mud into the air before fading slightly, leaving a barely supported but still plausible dirt structure.

My favourite is probably the Scar, which you can see below:

It’s a 100-metre long gash in the ground that cuts North-to-South across a small valley, cutting very deeply into the rock at one side and just the slightest graze at the other. I like it (and the Boiler, for similar reasons) because it feels very much like it could be a natural phenomenon. It’s only the wrecked roads on the southern end that show it to be something other than an ancient geological occurrence, and only the slight shimmer above the Scar belies its exotic origins. To me, it feels like an authentic effect of the weird forces that litter the zone; believably natural, rather than something obviously conjured up by designers. It follows some form of rule-set, even if it isn’t the one we’re used to. And it reinforces the fiction, as a glimpse at the unimaginable stress the land was placed under in the immediate aftermath of the second Chernobyl disaster, and a look at what anomalies could really do, before they became little patches of wobbly air that sometimes take a quarter off your health bar.

There are a lot of column inches given over to architecture in games (check out this Stalker-themed article from BLDGBLOG for a great example) but I don’t think enough thought is given to game landscapes, especially “natural” ones. Perhaps that’s because of a lack of games with landscapes worth writing about?

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