Retro: The Thing

By Alec Meer on November 9th, 2008 at 7:25 pm.

I’ve not played Dead Space yet (and, to answer Kieron’s open question, I’m also one of those who feels its relative straightness compared to its contemporaries means it’s best saved for a quieter month), but my housemate has. Chatting to him about it, he referenced The Thing, the 2002 videogame spin-off/sequel to John Carpenter’s finest hour.

Which was a shock, as it was the first time I’d heard that curious survival horror/fps-but-with-more-shoulder game mentioned in a good six years. I have fondish memories of it, so back I went, back to Antarctica, back to paranoia and back to jealously saving up shotgun shells.

The first thing to note about The Thing: The Game is that it’s the Aliens to the The Thing: The Movie’s Alien. It’s a direct narrative sequel, and it replaces the tension and slow-burn of the film with an itchy trigger-finger and monsters by the dozen. The simple fact of being a sequel rather than an attempt to retell the movie excuses it from one of the traditional curses of licensed games: the need to insert a legion of enemies that weren’t in the film, in order to ensure the action is sustained. It does insert a legion of enemies, but it’s not contradicting the film by doing so.

Here, the handful of alien infections documented by the movie has, in the 20 off-camera years between film and game, spread to neighbouring bases. That’s excuse enough for there being so many Things prowling around in the game: the real sacrifice is that they’re now more cannon fodder than monstrous, near-unstoppable uber-threat, but again that’s what Aliens did to Alien’s beast.

Remarkably, for all this shift to the adrenal, the game does manage to realise, to a certain extent, what the film did best: that overwhelming sense of paranoia and loneliness. The latter is conveyed by the setting: Antarctica. Hardly a social hot-spot. Wander outside a building and into the snowy desolace and you’ll freeze to death within a couple of minutes.

More recently, the similarly frozen Lost Planet played with a similar idea, though the ability to top up your ‘thermal energy’ with magic goo dropped by slain baddies ripped all the tension out of the concept. In The Thing, it’s portrayed as – what else? – a power gauge, but you’ve absolutely no way to top it up bar finding shelter. With no in-game map to rely on and only sporadic lightpoles as navigational aids, there’s genuine dread to felt from having to make a long, outdoor run. Sometimes you can see your destination, sometimes you can’t, but all the while that blue meter is tick, tick, ticking away. Will you make it on time? Invariably, yes – but the outside is consistently your greatest foe in The Thing.

Well, that and the monsters. The crudity of The Thing’s tech means there’s not much in the way in seeing the horrible transformations from man to flesh-beast that characterised the film: instead the creatures largely turn up pre-monsterised, either scuttling,spider-legged heads and hands or shambling meat-men, steroidal versions of Half-Life’s zombies. In fact, there’s a lot of Half-Life here: the former are highly HeadCrab-like, easily dispatched, more an annoyance than a real threat, but in enough numbers they can spell doom.

The Thing rams this home with an Alamo stand-off against several dozen of ‘em crashing through a broken window in waves, a setpiece that goes on and on and on, past the point where most games fear to tread. It’s a bit like the old comedy standby – repeat until funny, carry on repeating until it’s no longer funny, then carry on some more until finally it becomes funny again. Only here it’s keep spamming the player with mini-Things until it stops being menacing and becomes a chore, then keep going past that – the terror that this may never end becomes curiously overwhelming. Of course it does eventually end, and when it does you’ll feel like you’ve survived the end of the world. Which is when it promptly has a couple of Big Things smash through the door, and you realise the fight’s only just getting started.

It’s just one symptom of the particularly vicious sadistic that streak runs all the way through The Thing. To a point, this is only right – it’s based on a movie that’s very much a downer, so a gung-ho tale of high heroism would never have suited it. Throughout the game, things only ever get worse for you. The fights become harder, the ammo becomes scarcer, the envinroments harsher and, most of all, your allies less reliable.

Theoretically, this is a squad-based shooter. In reality, any of the soldiers you stumble across hiding in the ruined buildings could turn into seven foot of spiky alien meat at the drop of a hat. Sadly, this system is all over the place – the game gives you tools – blood tests and a taser – to check whether your followers are human or not, but just a couple of minutes after supposedly proving they’re what they claim to be, off pop their head and hands and suddenly you’ve got an unexpected Big Thing to deal with. Which entirely renders the tests pointless, but it does mean you never, ever trust the guys you’re with – which is the crux of the film realised beautifully. It also disguises the rudimentary AI and pathfinding and characterisation, as your paranoia means you can’t treat them as real people anyway. The transformations aren’t scary, not even slightly, but they do mean you’ll probably have to go the next half hour alone. And that is unsettling.

Apart from a couple of key characters, the infections are entirely unscripted – anyone could pop at a moment’s notice, but equally the same guy might stay resolutely human for the duration of another play-through. Untrustworthy companions is an idea that really should be investigated on a wider scale, today’s superior technology and production values experimenting with creating characters who toy with your affections and suspicions. It is, after all, a staple of most any action movie – there’s so often mistrust between the lead characters, right until they finally stand shoulder to shoulder against a key evil. But in games, we take our companions’ loyalty for granted, unless it’s A Big Twist. The Thing will probably never get a sequel – unfortunately its developer, Computer Artworks, went under shortly after its release – but hopefully some other game will think to challenge our NPC expectations.

Unhappily, another form of sadism risks all of The Thing’s successes. It’s more Resident Evil than Half-Life, hung up on key-collection and preset savepoints. The gaps between saves are agonising, sometimes creating affecting tension but, all too often, it comes off as sloppy and childish.

On my recent revisit, I ground to halt a few hours in, having wasted about 90 minutes of my life repeating the same 20 minute section. Minor puzzle, big fight, talky bit, little fight, short walk, big fight, little fight, long circumnavigation of an insta-death fall, little fight, short walk, boss fight. All without save or checkpoint, and so many opportunities for death. Some terrible geometry during the ceiling beam tightrope act meant a small bit of wall could unexpectedly knock my character to the fatal floor, and back I’d rewind by a good quarter of an hour. I don’t for the life of me know how that kind of design decision is allowed, or why someone decided sticking a save point in one of the many more or less empty rooms in the area was a bad idea.

It’s a real shame, as most of the rest of the time The Thing has such a fine understanding of how to get in your head. Obtuse, cinematic camera angles lift the cutscenes far above what the engine’s capable of, music is eerily sparing (and borrows the ominous electro-beats of the films when it does occur), and the voice acting… Well, it’s not perfect, but it puts Fallout 3 to shame with (presumably) only a fraction of the budget. Throughout, there’s the cold: the snowy fog and the dread whistle of the wind all building a place that feels remote and deadly. You really don’t need a high concept like an underwater city or a zero-g space station to make a memorable game environment.

So I feel about The Thing today pretty much as I did in 2002. It’s a game with all the right ideas and a remarkable atmosphere, but it falls over a bit too often in its execution of them. Nonetheless, it’s one of so very few film spin-offs to stand proud. Like Riddick, it very much does it own thing rather than just clumsily ape the key beats of its license. Were it made today, I suspect it could be a huge success, given the current vogue for sci-fi horror shooters.

As it is, it suffers somewhat for its olden technology, but most of all for an apparent dearth of playtesting and QA. It’s a mean and unfair game – and it probably should be, because The Thing isn’t made of daisies and sunshine. Mean and unfair can, however, be a lot more fun than simply forcing repetition and instant Game Over. Nonetheless, it’s a better sequel than anyone ever thought such a prince of b-movies could get, videogame or not.

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68 Comments »

  1. dishwasherlove says:

    You’ll replay The Thing for a few hours but won’t even give the opening of Dead Space a try? I didn’t think Dead Space was that bad, although the thought of playing a console to PC port sends a little shiver up my spine.

  2. Alec Meer says:

    I already have a copy of the Thing. I would have to spend money on Dead Space. Also, hey, we don’t only want to talk about new releases here.

  3. qrter says:

    If I remember correctly I gave up playing The Thing after about 2 hours, exactly because of that stupid savepoint system and because that whole teammates-turning-into-monsters deal wasn’t frightening at all, just more of a nuisance, of the “oh god, here we go again“-kind.

  4. Matt Kemp says:

    Take a look at the Spoony Experiment review of The Thing.
    It’s fantastic.

  5. Noc says:

    Tangentially related: The “Retro: Sacrifice” link at the top of the RPS main page redirects you to the Far Cry 2 articles.

    I am working on the assumption that this is a complex and subtle bit of meta-commentary masquerading as mislabeled link. Well done, RPS.

  6. Lim-Dul says:

    I second Matt Kemp’s opinion about Spoony One’s review – even Yahtzee mentioned it as one of his favorite reviews in an interview. =)

  7. Pace says:

    Is this youtube review what you guys are talking about? I gave up on it when he said that the game “gargles balls.” One of the reasons I come to RPS is to avoid being treated like a 12 year old. I suppose Yahtzee says similar things, but somehow I feel better about it when he does it.

  8. AlexW says:

    Spoony is awesome, hilarious, and completely opposite in opinion to Alec here.

    How do you manage to make words combine such that this game comes off as decent despite video evidence to the contrary?

  9. Alec Meer says:

    I couldn’t make it far through that painful Spoony video either. It’s just bile.

  10. vordhosbn says:

    Here’s a shocking plot twist: by editing a registry entry you can turn on free saving/loading in The Thing. Why you have to jump through this minor hurdle is anyone’s guess but here’s the first google hit I got:

    http://www.cheatscodesguides.com/pc-cheats/the-thing/

    I should point out that having never played the game I haven’t actually tried this out but I do remember reading about this back when the game was released.

  11. StalinsGhost says:

    I was thinking of playing the Thing through again myself recently… but I can’t find the bastard anywhere.

  12. Andrew says:

    The paranoia/mistrust mechanic sounds pretty intriguing. Love to see it in a game these days. ‘The Faculty’ did something similar too. Anyway, ‘The Thing’ is it worth searching out for someone without any nostalgia towards it?

  13. Gorgeras says:

    Excuse me, Big Trouble in Little China was John Carpenter’s finest hour. It was on last night.

  14. EyeMessiah says:

    Both the The Thing movie and The Thing game are dodgy and awesome in equal measure. Each is a personal favourite of mine that despite my enthusiasm for them I’d struggle to defend them against criticism.

    The game is certainly broken (I’ve never finished it, despite enjoying much of it quite a bit) but then again its not quite as broken as say, Hidden and Dangerous.

    Actually Alec, I think one or two of the transformations are scripted and not randomised. The only way they can be avoided is if the person in question is dead when the transformation is triggered. Many are random though, and yes the bloodtest system is sadly worthless! As you say though this uncertainty does add to the oppressive atmosphere of paranoia.

    So its like a H&D with the stealth and strategy ripped out and replaced with action and monsters. In the freezing cold, at night, forever. Its a one note game certainly but I think there is definitely something bleakly resonant about it.

    I can’t think of another squad based game that I’ve played when I have asked one of my squadmates to guard a particular location in a “hold the fort” type scenario while I defended some other spot in an adjoining room, and then upon hearing a lot of intense gunfire I run back to where he was just in time to see him shoot himself because he got so freaked out. Similarly, its also weirdly stunning when your squad mates decide they have had enough and just run off into the freezing darkness.

    That said, its easy to understand why its a hard sell, given that you are asking players to accept that the game’s atmosphere of unrelenting hopelessness is its best feature and what for some counterbalances the weight of its flaws.

    The combat, munitions\squad management and exploration are all quite good fun, and despite the problems with a few particularly punishing sections coinciding with a inexplicable lack of save points, imho its worth a look if you can get if for next to nothing (I’m sure its been up as a free download on gametap at one point).

  15. EyeMessiah says:

    @vordhosbn

    That is awesome!

    I might have another go at finishing this if I still have my old saves kicking around.

    Also, you are a great song.

  16. SlappyBag says:

    I remember The Thing and went to re-play it recently unit I got to that never ending window jobby and just got bored.

    I as well loved the whole not completely being able to trust your team-mates thing and think it would be great to see it realized in todays standards. Having to rely on your team-mates due to the scenario and gameplay but always being that worry that you cannot trust them.

    Good times.

  17. MaxNormal says:

    The patch that gives mouse aiming is well worth using. Makes control much better. I got 2/3 rds of the way through this game, mainly because I am such a big fan of the film. I liked how the game started but it did get very repetitive later on.

    This is not a bad game.

    The best “thing like” game out there is Extermination on the PS2. Pretty much the same setup but there is some much better gameplay.

  18. qrter says:

    Many are random though, and yes the bloodtest system is sadly worthless! As you say though this uncertainty does add to the oppressive atmosphere of paranoia.

    It didn’t for me, quite the opposite, exactly because it seems so absolutely random and has no real effect – just another alien you need to shoot. That just makes it annoying.

  19. sbs says:

    “The first thing to note about The Thing: The Game is that it’s the Aliens to the The Thing: The Movie’s Alien.”

    Man, my headache just got worse. I had to re-read that sentence 5 times.
    The Thing, The Movie, is on TV here tonight, I think I’m gonna rewatch it :)

  20. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    Blood tests were worthless in the movie, too.

  21. Bhazor says:

    I’m a big fan of Spoony but i do think he’s a bit harsh on the Thing and I don’t think it’s his funniest review. My opinion of The Thing is that some very good ideas were let down by glitches, bad design and an engine that couldn’t do fire. With decent Farcry 2 fire the combat would be something really special as opposed to the circle strafing jamboree that it is.

    Watch the “Johnny Mnemonic” review or “X-Files Resist or Serve” before you dismiss Spoony.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5cIUrx_ttg&feature=related (FMV Hell: Starring Johnny Mnemonic)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lsHE3IQKKg&feature=related (X-Files Resist or Serve)

  22. EyeMessiah says:

    @qrter

    Personally I don’t find elements of unreliability always annoying in games. I *really* like the weapon malfunctions in FC2 for instance. I enjoy the way they sometimes force you to think on your feet, suddenly turning trivial encounters into genuinely dangerous situations.

  23. redrain85 says:

    Spoony ripped this game to shreds, and I thought his review of it was quite funny. That being said: I didn’t agree with him.

    The Thing isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s a decent and rather fun game. Maybe at the time of release it wasn’t worth the $40 or whatever it cost, but now you can probably pick it up for $5-$10 and for that it’s worth the price of admission.

    Spoony’s review of Dead Space is also a little over the top. He’s overly analytical about the game. I understand where he’s coming from, and agree with a lot of his points. For example, Isaac being able to buy all his weapons in a store is a bit silly. But overall, the gameplay triumphs over little nuisances like that.

  24. mister k says:

    Yeah, I kind of enjoyed the thing review by the spoony experiment, but a lot of his vidoes seem kind of tiresome to me, over long and a bit too impressed with their own cleverness.

  25. Carra says:

    B-movie, pfff.

    More like one of the best Scifi movies ever!

  26. malkav11 says:

    If nothing else, I will always be grateful to this game for making me go watch the movie. Carpenter’s more miss than hit in my opinion, but The Thing is a horror masterpiece.

    The game’s not terrible but the tech kind of hinders it.

  27. Larington says:

    The ideas were interesting but not realised to their full potential. The games biggest weakness was its save system, there was one sequence involving a set of metal catwalks square-spiralling up or down I can’t remember which, with bits and pieces exploding and so on – At which point I hit a severe stumbling block. There was no save during the entire long sequence which was quite hard even on a relatively low difficulty but the rest of the game I had no issues with in terms of hardness.

  28. Brokenbroll says:

    Read Roger Ebert’s review of the The Thing film, its hilarious. Hilariously bad. He accuses the film of falling back on certain archetypes, the problem is that the archetypes he lists aren’t actually in the film.

    Another “good” review of his is on “Predator”, in which he displays mystification as to why the alien is on the planet killing people. Really, Ebert? Even as a 8-year old watching half of the movie with my eyes shut, I picked up on the all but stated fact that he was hunting people as trophies.

  29. Caiman says:

    The movie remains one of my favourites, and still scares me half to death, so the game was purchased with eagerness back in the day. But I gave up in frustration with the control system – it ruined it for me. If there’s a mouselook patch for aiming I’m going to dig out the dusty box and give it another go. I respect what Computer Artworks tried to do with this game (and their earlier game Evolva) – they didn’t fit the mold, but paid the price for it as most do.

  30. I don't understand this comment system says:

    “Apart from a couple of key characters, the infections are entirely unscripted ”

    Alec, I have to correct you on this point. I played through this game a few times back in the day and revisited a few months ago. If you are good at keeping your allies alive, they will always turn into the thing at the EXACT same point every time. There are literally invisible lines in the game, that if you cross, turn certain allies. You can even test them right before you cross the line, they will test human, walk two paces, and suddenly you have a pissed off alien on your hands. So essentially the trust system is all smoke and mirrors. I suspect at one point the plan was to have a much more ambitious system, which was most likely abandoned to the game out before a deadline.

  31. Premium User Badge Arathain says:

    Hmm. The case of this is sitting on my case, staring at me. I bought it cheap a few years ago, and never played past the opening. I’ve always meant to have another go at it. Perhaps I shall, although L4D is filling my fairly limited horror needs at the moment.

  32. BeamSplashX says:

    I think Extermination is more interesting than the game, but then again you can’t advertise to fans of The Thing on the box if you’re not the official game. Extermination also reminds me of Spy Fiction for some reason, which also began on a cold and snowy night.

    Did snow somehow get more shockingly more impressive in the 128-bit era and I just never realized it?

  33. BeamSplashX says:

    Remove that first “more” in the last sentence.

  34. Joq says:

    So I read this story before going to bed last night. And I happened to see a dream where my cat turned into a thing.

    Of course, at the exact moment of transformation my cat actually jumps into the bed and wakes me up by licking my face.

    Later on my girlfriend had the nerve to call my scream ‘girlish’, and wondered why I had suddenly ran to the bathroom.

  35. Larington says:

    Funnily enough Joq, I found myself wondering about the wisdom of reading this article not long before going to bed. I was more fortunate in that regard it seems.

  36. MaxNormal says:

    Larington – the catwalks were spiralling down and I gave up at that part too. I remember spending 2 hours trying to get through that part. If I’d known how to make quicksave work back then I’d probably have finished it.

    The best part of the game for me was the great fun to be had with the flamethrower. Everything is better with a flamethrower.

  37. Dreamhacker says:

    The Thing: Carpenters finest hour? Seriously?

    Have you even seen “Big Trouble in Little China”?

  38. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Or “Escape from New York”?

  39. Jim Rossignol says:

    The Thing is the best Carpenter film. It says right here on my Objective Gauge Of Film Quality.

  40. Raven185 says:

    Indeed, scenario-wise those are better(more entertaining maybe?) movies. The Things is a better directed movie, therefore it’s Carpenter’s best.

  41. Flubb says:

    The original short story was much better!

  42. Heliocentric says:

    I stopped playing this due to horrible design choices and regretted it whenever i see the box.

    I’d gotten it cheaply but i knew that there was a truely incredible game in there i was too novice a game player to finish. I’d love to boot up some old school memory state management software, like you get in emulators to turn even wretched nes era platformer into something you can quick save.

  43. Schadenfreude says:

    In The Mouth of Madness is my favourite…

    What?

  44. Dreamhacker says:

    I hope this makes it into the next podcast.

  45. cHeal says:

    Got pretty far through this originally but lost my save games. Tried replaying it a few months ago and just currently get far, it feels a little clunky and I got stuck on a puzzle pretty quickly.

  46. R. says:

    I’d have to opt for Big Trouble too, it’s just too much fun. The Thing is probably the more accomplished bit of filmmaking but it doesn’t have Six Demon Bags, seven foot tall roadblocks and a hero who’s about as much use in a scrap as I am.

    As for the game, I’m just amazed it’s been six years already. Time’s flying too fast, we’re getting old.
    :(

  47. Jochen Scheisse says:

    And by the way, the first episode Carpenter did for Masters of Horror is by far the best of the whole lot. Called “Cigarette Burns”.

  48. Bozzley says:

    The Thing is the best Carpenter film. It says right here on my Objective Gauge Of Film Quality.

    My vote is with Assault on Precinct 13. The original one, not the (surprisingly decent but nothing like the original, who the hell let Ethan Hawke near this one) remake.

  49. Crispy says:

    Strange that I just introduced The Thing to a friend of mine just two nights ago (that’s the excellent film, not the mixed-bag game).

    SpoonyOne’s review makes plenty of good points about the design albeit in a fairly unappetising format. His complaints mainly revolve about gameplay decisions that take away from the realism/plausibility that serves as the foundation of the horror genre. Concepts of reality and normality must first be built if they are to be subverted, in the same way that challenges must retain a sense of authenticity in ‘progression’ games for them to be rewarding.

    He also comments on some design elements that are completely pointless. The junction boxes requiring a timer is spot on: if there’s absolutely no threat while fixing these, why have a ‘hold-to-fix’ bar?

    But I think the main fallback the game has is its decision to try to make The Thing an action game. The beauty of the original film is that at any one time there is no more than one (or two at most) Things on the go. This reduces the Thing’s screentime since it cannot always be attacking, it must bide its time and wait for the right moment, or until it’s provoked. Less is more, which the game spin-off seems to have failed to realise.

    So the game fails at Horror, and the poor AI means it fails at Action. The repetitive and uninspired puzzles mean it fails at Puzzle, and the dialogue surely means it fails at anything resembling Adventure. If the game designers/producers had really made a stronger effort to stick to one core genre the new (at the time) gameplay features wouldn’t have been marred by the weak progression gameplay. As it is I think the game seems caught mid-metamorphosis just like the main protagonist of its forebear: its face is a mish-mash of ideas unceremoniously squashed into eachother with the resulting gameplay grotesque in design terms, but still a source of irrefutable interest.

  50. Calabi says:

    @crispy: I’d like to see a game that has only one or two monsters, and how you would think that would work?

    What else could they make it into? They could have done a hell of a lot worse than they did. Just made a straight, corridor shooting game, where you shoot the things that come at you.

    As it is they tried something different, they made NPCs that are decent, and better than most of the NPCs in even games now.

    The core of the game is solid and original, whilst the overall game does have its flaws. Its nowhere near as bad as spoony or you are making out.