Things That Make You Go “Hmm…”
The Thing is an interesting point of development for the industry.
You see, back when it was released much fuss was made about the way that the game was to be laid out; it was not merely a video game based inside John Carpenter’s seminal classic universe, but in reality a direct sequel to the movie. The story was written to coincide and follow what had come before it; to build upon it in a way that very few video games had ever attempted before. It was not a video game based on a movie; it was a video game attempting to shift the balance of power towards the gaming world, to exemplify and demonstrate that you could indeed have a sequel in game form, and that it could be every bit as valid as a triple-A Hollywood blockbuster.
For the most part, it worked. Playing through The Thing again is certainly not an unpleasant experience; the story is every bit as competent and interesting as it ever could have been. There are plenty of niggles, which we’ll come to later, but for the majority of the time it succeeds in breaking down that barrier between the movie and the game, with an intent that is single-minded almost to the detriment of the player. It’s a game self-consciously aware of its own importance, it’s own place in the scheme of things, and it never relents in its own precarious juggling act.
The Thing starts off with a small team of U.S. Special Forces being dropped off several days after the conclusion of the movie, led by the main character – Captain J.F. Blake – to investigate the radio silence of not just the main base but the nearby Norwegian base camp, which has also fallen silent. The place is ruined; and it isn’t long before the connections quickly kick in. Firstly, you find yourself confronted by the small U.F.O. craft that the Blair-Thing was attempting to make in the movie, to escape elsewhere. It’s unfinished and terribly done, but it looks convincing enough for a game made in 2002 t carry some weight. Secondly is a tape recorder, with the last words of R.J. MacReady – saying how nobody trusts anyone anymore, and how tired they are. It’s a very brutal reminder at how intent the game is on carrying the torch, and it doesn’t end there. Searching around they come across the body of Childs, one of the two survivors of the movie – dead, through exposure to the cold of the Antarctic (as you are reminded on the radio, it’s 40-below out in these areas, you wouldn’t last long!), with no sign of MacReady to be found.
As the US Base is secured, Blake insists on going to the other base camp to search for a missing Alpha Team. Not merely because he’s concerned about their well-being, but that he’s the only man who could realistically communicate with the people stationed there – being the only one on the team who speaks Norwegian. It’s not a popular decision back at base but logic dictates that Blake is probably right. Some more trundling through the snow, and scanning the area having been trashed and locked up, and you eventually come face to face with a survivor of Alpha Team; who isn’t exactly trusting of you. This is where the game employs its unique selling point; a rudimentary but very effective ‘Trust System’. Characters become more trusting of Blake if he helps them, gives them weapons and ammo, heals their wounds and eventually demonstrates that he is himself not a Blake-Thing. Everyone reacts in some way; confronted by gore, some people will freak out and need to be reassuringly led away from it to calm down. Locked doors will frustrate. Battles against the Thing-beasts will affect some. It’s never a massively advanced system – it’s a rather simplistic function of the game. But it is enough to lend the game a character that really works within it’s setting.
Which goes both ways. Blood tests aren’t limited to Blake – he can test anyone, and it is here that things get murky. The game has a set chance later on for NPCs to either be or be contaminated by the Thing-Virus, with a set percentage chance on being attacked. Blake, as our hero, is immune – not to any actual surprise, it must be said – but he still has to use the limited resources at times to gain trust, and it is here the game throws up its cruellest trick; do you trust others, or want others to trust you? A simple psychological mind-game deployed with a ruthless efficiency, you quickly forget how simple and basic the trust system is because the dominant thought is survival, be it by keeping your friends close and enemies closer, or by using and abusing anyTHING else around you.
It’s not a terribly long game – but it certainly crams enough treachery, intrigue and frights to really make its impact felt. It throws out little Thing-Critters and other cheap gimmicks to get your attention, and like Silent Hill before it, deploys the visibility trick with sledgehammer effectiveness. Exploring is encouraged – but risky. Allies become enemies and it’s hard to make any meaningful connection to these cut-and-paste clones knowing as you do that eventually, the odds are that they will go all Thing on you. The game signposts poorly, controls a little fiddly and ultimately is a little inaccessible and manic to really let you buy into much later – and zanier – plot developments.
But oddly, it sort of all works. Not least that the production values were huge, and for its time it was a rather pretty game (it still doesn’t look half bad now!). Being the evolution of the licensed-game tag, it was meant to signify a whole new way of doing things, that the line between Hollywood and Gamerdom was no longer relevant. I’d say they were probably ten years early to the party, but their overall conclusion was eerily spot-on. The game ends with a satisfying and movie-sequel-worthy ending that will cheer up even the most hardened of horror fans.
But the reason I went back to The Thing is because Dead Space really did borrow heavily from it. The comparisons are evident and notable, to the point that it’s all a little obscene. Sure, the Necromorphs are a little more of an outside threat, but their overall appearance is eerily representative of The Thing. Enemies seem to copy from one to the other, and it’s quite bizarre. Dead Space never could quite pull itself away from The Thing as an influence, but the risk it ran is that The Thing already existed as a game – and it’s still playable even now, even though we’ve moved on somewhat from that era. It’s still hovering around and making its presence felt in the modern era.
Which is quite a feat for a game which, ultimately, didn’t do very well at retail. Unfortunately an era where licences were hashed-up rubbish, despite its production values The Thing didn’t have the visual flair needed. It certainly was ambitious; with models which had animated faces and behaved realistically, this was also the year we got Kingdom Hearts, Metroid Prime and, in the horror vein, the drop-dead gorgeous Resident Evil Remake. As games pushed new, brave territory with their graphics and ambitions, The Thing already felt like a relic of a bygone era. The games industry had no interest of being assimilated Thing-style into the Hollywood sphere, it was ambitious enough to play on its own merit, to do its own thing. The cruellest irony of that is The Thing almost bridged the gap; but that bridge was ultimately burned as people turned from a game that did look a year or two out of date in favour of prettier and arguably better games.
Mores the pity, because on its own, The Thing is probably one of the best examples of the diversity of the Horror genre in the PS2/Gamecube/X-Box era. It’s ambitious, and just doesn’t quite work all the way. It was pretty, but not pretty enough. Revolutionary, and yet safe. And for all of this, you fall for it. There’s something in The Thing that hooks you and rewards the patient, the inquisitive and the weary. It tells a story that really works, it sets up a scene that really counts and does a good enough job of being a horror game to give you the occasional fright. It’s never quite good enough to stand alone as one of the finest horror games of the era; but that’s precisely why it does as well. Because for all its flaws, for all its foibles, there’s a game in there. It remembers more often than not that it IS a game, and it provides it in spades for you to enjoy.
It’s a shame the sequel never came to fruition, and sadder still that Dead Space recently made a few reviewers think, “Why has there never been a game of The Thing?” There was, there is and it’s still a valid demonstration of survival horror in the modern era. It’s never technically superior or especially bright, but it’s that plot. It’s the continuation of a story, and a strong story at that.
It’s wonderful. Not perfect. But wonderful all the same.