Sure, we all complain about the periodic gluts of movie licensed games that hit the market, but how often have you seen one based on a film by a director like Andrei Tarkovsky? This isn't exactly what you would call a mainstream inspiration or a quick cash-in opportunity. The film was made in 1979, and was in turn based on a short story by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
The developer, GSC Gameworld, located in Kiev, Ukraine, provides a glimpse of what indie games might look like in an alternate universe or just perhaps the near future. It's an unabashedly long form game with a distinct perspective that separates it from many mainstream Western or Japanese games, complete with ambiguous endings and emotional nuance.
You wander the Zone, the inhospitable radioactive wasteland surrounding Chernobyl. You spend most of your time avoiding the dangerous radioactive anomalies, dealing with stalkers and others of the morally grey persuasion, and generally sucking down the atmosphere of hopelessness and dread.
The extension from film to game is a very natural one. The film revolves around philosophical discussions by characters exploring the zone, while the game, with the help of some RPG conventions, is actually able to create a more coherent story around your own trip through the Zone. Your uncut first person experience also naturally mirrors Tarkovsky's style of using long takes to capture the sense of time passing and the emotional relationship between moments in time.
The downsides of the game follow a similar indie film parallel - aspects of it can be downright confusing or at least inconsistent, but if you're willing to put some effort into understanding it you're definitely rewarded. I had made it all the way to the end of the game, when I realized what I thought was an ancillary quest was actually key to completing some of the game's endings. While most games I would thrown down in disgust at that point, I was happily compelled to trek back and again across the entire zone to complete the game (well, aside from a moment or two of bickering).
Many of the encounters in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. left me unsettled in some way, whether it was fighting the horrifying remains of the original inhabitants, facing down the wild dogs that roam the Zone, or deciding which characters to trust and which to backstab. The atmosphere of the game is achieved not through a few highly polished missions or well defined moral choices, but through these ever present morally ambiguous decisions. You can help a stalker find his stash or lie to him and steal it for yourself. Heal a dying ally or maybe wait around a little to get his stuff in order to better survive yourself. There's also warring factions of stalkers - you'll have to pick sides or desperately try to stay neutral in their conflicts.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. originally suffered from a number of bugs, most of which have been fixed since its release. Along with the impending release of the sequel/expansion, Clear Sky, now is as good a time as ever to go play that thing - just be appreciative you don't have to write about it. The period on your keyboard will thank you.
(Ed: We'd never run an initially boxed-retail game published by THQ, EVER, with this exception. For an in-depth look at it's making, read this.)