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Retro: The Thing

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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