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. Tom Camfield says:

    I think the closing lines of The Thing are pretty awesome, but the film is not better than Assault on Presinct 13, Escape from New York or Dark Star. That this fact is established appears to be very important to me.

    Re: Brockenbroll & Ebert’s review of The Thing:
    Ebert is correct, there is little tension compared to the other movies he names with similar themes (ie Alien & Body Snatchers) and the characterisation is daft (let’s split up at every opportunity!). However, The Thing is a big schlocky mess, which makes it quite good.

  2. Lucas says:

    I loved this game. It really captured the look and feel and COLD of the movie, without totally rehashing the scenario.

    Played on the PS2, it required a 3 MB save file on the PS2′s 8 MB ONLY memory card!

    The Thing has the best “you just lost all your gear” sequence in any game ever, and the level it takes place in is simply excellent game design.

    The teammate mutations were a mixed element, because a couple times it is scripted and they transform even if you JUST tested them and they came up clean (maybe this happens right when they introduce the feature – oops!). The paranoia is certainly heightened when you aren’t sure if you can rely on your allies, and the squad mechanics worked very well for giving your allies orders, weapons and ammo, and healing.

    The shooty corridor level it ends with is a letdown, but the pilot’s cameo was cool (if you’ve seen the movie, you know who this is).

    The villain was voiced by the X-files Smoking Man guy!

  3. Crispy says:

    @Calabi

    1. Yes, games can be made with very few enemies, just look at the Adventure genre.

    2. My complaint is that the game needed to decide if it was Action or Horror; combat-oriented or atmospheric. I would say it never really did either as well as it could have if it had been a bit more thoroughbred.

  4. Alctel says:

    I actually liked this game enough to battle all the way through it, but every time I killed the last boss the game would lock up, so I never saw the ending!

  5. Calabi says:

    @crispy I’m not sure what you mean by adventure genre. Do you mean the point and click games. I honestly cannot think of many games that had few enemies and that were good.

    There are plenty of games which are both action and horror, Silent Hill, Aliens vs Predator just for two. I dont think its definition is its problem, its just a label for what you want to call it. It did the horror element well enough with, its sub par now obsolete graphics, the sound and atmosphere make up for that. They had to have the action to give you something to do.

    The only problems with it are it is damn hard, and the few flaws that have been mentioned. If the flaws were removed or changed, which they easily could be as they are minor, then the game may have sold alot more when it was released and be alot more popular now.

    The game is sound as a pound.

  6. DannyBoy says:

    I do remember playing this back in the day, almost bought it despite being broke (to the point where you carefully consider what game you really want to own).

    Alas, I rented it, and yay, it was fun, but like you say the save points are too far between. And the design is either genius or madness. But I’m a whore for atmosphere and while the Thing did well, it didn’t capture the mood quite well enough methinks.

    Fun game though, I didn’t get to finish it despite wanting to. This would certainly be an awesome remake as a mod on the CryEngine 2 but people are afraid to touch original IP– either fearing a C&D or just telling he who proposes to “be more original”

    Shame, as the outlet for this game probably won’t exist again, definitely not like this if it ever does. I found it amazing it was made in the first place.

  7. malkav11 says:

    A horror game that works with just one enemy? Clock Tower. You’re faced with an invincible serial killer that’s attempting to search you out and murder you, so you have to constantly keep on your toes and know exactly where the nearest viable hiding spot is should the killer appear.

    There are three sequels (two on PSX, one on PS2) of varied quality and enemy-numbers, but I think they mostly still focus on that style of play. And there’s the spiritual sequel Haunting Ground, also.

  8. Brokenbroll says:

    Re:Tom Camfield

    Alien is no more tense in its presentation than The Thing. With the exception of the air vent scene ( a truly great piece of filming) it follows pretty standard monster movie conventions.

    As for foolish splitting up:Come now, up until the very end the crew in Alien try their damned hardest to separate as often as possible.

    The Thing, to me, was more about watching the men break down and become less trustful of each other, knowing that they had every reason to feel so, as opposed to waiting for the monster to jump out of the closet, as in Alien.

    The characterization is not daft. Keeping with Ebert’s Alien comparison: Are the crew of the Nostromo anymore fleshed out than the Antarctic ice station team? What can you say about Parker’s character that you can’t say about Clark? About Ripley that remains unknown when discussing McCready? Having viewed both films recently, I’d say the characters in Alien are more two dimensional and playing into familiar roles. From their actions and dialog, the crew of the nostromo, with the possible exception of Ripley, all fall comfortably into standard movie characters.

  9. matte_k says:

    I remember thoroughly enjoying this game, until one particular sequence near the end where the two save spots were MILES apart at either end of a big spiral staircase, and I always got obliterated before getting to the next save. Gave up on it for a few weeks, then came back and somehow miraculously made it second try, thus being able to complete it.

    Not a bad game, some great ideas, but the criticism here is valid (blood tests pointless, scripted transformations-usually before a boss fight so you’re forced to do it on your own, etc). It could, however, have been a lot worse, so i’m thankful for that.

    As far as the film discussion here goes, I love The Thing for the way everybody loses it over the course of the film, but Big Trouble in Little China has Lo-Pan, possibly the funniest villain i’ve ever seen, so that gets my vote :D

  10. Crispy says:

    @Calabi:
    I think there are two arguments here: whether The Thing is a good game and whether it is good enough, or appropriate enough to bear the name of the film it’s based on. Even though an attempt has been made to carry the story on, I would say it’s a fairly poor spiritual successor, but as a game it doesn’t do terribly badly. I just think that as a game if it had focused on doing one thing very, very well and not got drawn into ticking off the ‘shopping list of features for a profitable movie tie-in’ it would have been a lot better and worthy to wear the name it does. It is way, way better than most movie tie-ins, but I don’t think it goes far enough to be a truly good game. And whether you agree the whole spiritual successor thing is even an issue, the game still has some horrible design points that shouldn’t be forgiven just because it introduced some novel features and did okay with creating an atmosphere.

    @Tom Camfield:
    The Thing is better than Dark Star. Can’t really comment on the other two, but I’d be happy to debate just that argument alone on the forums. I’ve made a thread, so put your arguments in here ;)

    @Brokenbroll:
    The tension in the Alien crew is very present, I watched it just two nights ago as part of my improv horrorfest (The Thing on Friday night, Alien and Aliens back to back on Saturday night!). In Alien the tension is manifested much like in The Thing in terms of how the crew act towards one another, but with more muttering and behind-the-back retaliatory insults.

    To compare the two as horror films, I’ll give you an account of the girl watching all three for the first time, but I’ll do it on the forums to keep this post on topic.

  11. Bobsy says:

    So surely it should have been called “The Things”?

  12. Rob says:

    “So surely it should have been called “The Things”?”

    That was the porn remake.

  13. Bobsy says:

    The Thinglie-Dinglies? Better? Worse?

  14. Alarik says:

    Regarding scripted change into Thing – I think it is mixed – sometime it is scripted and sometimes it is not (I got the impression people can get ‘infected’ – or maybe turn into Thing when heavily injured – or maybe it is really random).

    Good example is the game’s most difficult level (that descending spiral pathway with medic companion – sometimes he would turn into Thing right almost right away, sometimes he would last till the – rather bitter – end of pathway).

  15. Daniel Purvis says:

    One of my old University Professor’s wrote his a thesis on The Thing. Can’t remember much of it, but then again I can’t remember much of my days at University. Shall have to dig up a link for it.

  16. BoltingTurtle02 says:

    I think the game that most gets to me with as few enemies as it has is Penumbra: Overture. I think bioshock took a lot of cues from it and would have done well to imitate it more closely. The combat was agreeably terrible, but I think that it works to discourage you from standing and fighting. I mean, you’re a physicist- not Gordon Freeman… errr…

  17. Late comer says:

    Alec, you really need to go back and play Dead Space. It’s been year, now you can get it for cheap and do a new retro piece.

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