Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
It’s really a shame how little attention John Carpenter’s The Thing received upon initial release, but I suppose that was bound to happen, since the movie opened against THE alien of 1982, a cute, Reese’s Pieces gobbling extraterrestrial by the name of, well, E.T.
Horror and sci-fi nerds have been making up for their serious lack of foresight ever since, propelling John Carpenter’s The Thing to high-cult status as one of the overlooked gems of the 1980s. The movie’s dark, moody tone was accentuated by gruesome special effects from Rob Bottin and a low-end, synth-heavy score from Ennio Morricone (of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly fame), not to mention a command performance from Carpenter regular Kurt Russell.
To compound matters, an infamously bleak ending has always led fans to hope for and demand a sequel, and though a film never materialized – the “prequel” remake be damned – a video game bearing the name and the logo was released in the early 2000s to a solid reception from both critics and fans.
The Thing is a sort of squad-based survival horror game set in the immediate aftermat of the original film, and despite some pretty major flaws, caused in no small part by how poorly the game has aged, The Thing still manages to deliver on what diehard fans were clamoring for.
In The Thing, players drop into the scene of the catastrophe which befell the base in the original film. (It is weird to call John Carpenter’s film the original, since technically it wasn’t, but just go with me here.) It is evident that all hell has broken loose, and so you and your team have to sort out the mess. The aliens you encounter can embody their hosts and sort of replicate…until they can’t, at which point they transform into disfigured, hard-to-kill monsters. Pretty terrifying stuff.
Early on, fans should readily recognize their surroundings. The devs imbued the first levels with plenty of the film’s visual touchstones, and the care taken to recreate various environments show that Black Label Games cared about the source material. Everything, from the pool tables to Mac MacReady’s lonesome tower, are placed here in service to the fans.
There are small puzzles of the variety found in most survival horror games, things like turning on lights, restoring power, and unlocking electronic doors, but this game is not like its more puzzle-heavy brethren in the genre.
One element that sets The Thing apart is distinguishing each NPC by a class system, rather than just designing them as all gun-wielding soldiers (or whatever). It then makes the game resemble the RPGish shooters that would become standard in the next console generation. Being accompanied by medics, soldiers, and engineers means each NPC serves a different purpose. As the game progresses, you lose squad members for various reasons – usually they become heinous monsters – and are then compelled to court other, newer members through the game’s defining mechanic: the trust system.
Like with the film, people immediately distrust one another, thinking them to be shape-shifting alien versions of their former selves, so sometimes it takes some work to win over the more traumatized NPCs you encounter throughout the game.
This is one of the more interesting aspects of the original film translated into a gaming context. Trust – or lack thereof – plays heavily into the atmosphere of the first film, and being able to put even a modest system like it in the game makes for a really interesting dynamic.
Not only are you constantly in fear of a widespread alien attack, but you also must keep diplomacy in mind, as well. Give squad members too many supplies, and you might starve yourself of necessities. Be stingy, and you might end up losing the team’s trust. There is nothing worse than wandering without direction through the snow and having your team members snipe at your ability to lead from just behind your back. Though the mechanic is somewhat clunky by today’s standards, it definitely adds something to the experience.
Along with the Exposure Meter, which gauges how the cold is affecting your health, gaining and losing trust gives The Thing a singular tone, one of profound urgency. You don’t want to stay in one place for too long, nor do you want your teammates to become unhappy and question your leadership abilities.
Overall, the game’s heart is in the right place, but something happens about halfway through to detract from what makes it so special. It’s nothing distinct, but for some reason the game seems to lose the thread that set it apart.
For example, the trust meter doesn’t get completely abandoned, but it becomes an afterthought, or a clunky way of killing off your teammates. Whenever it becomes inconvenient to have another person around, one of your own turns, so the idea of tension in building trust is almost utterly lost. If you lose the feeling that your actions have consequences, then the mechanic becomes transparently unappealing.
Additionally, you can see the cracks in the game start to show whenever the story really starts to deviate from the source material. The game’s devs have to build out of whole cloth some Bond-esque conspiracy that never quite fits with what you’d expect from The Thing. The story gets too big, too unwieldy, to be effective, and it never quite recovers. It’s as though the developers got halfway through the game and realized they had three-quarters of the story left to tell, so they had to make room by throwing out all of the other stuff.
Moreover, there’s entirely too much combat later on, and it being a survival horror game, shooting just doesn’t feel all that great, even with an auto-lock on targets in place. It gets the job done, but combat is not where the game shines, so any section involving a ton of shooting (or lobbing grenades) becomes way less compelling.
Ramping up the combat is a shame, because the game really works, in my opinion, when the atmospheric and environmental elements are the main driving forces for the narrative. It is so much more moody, more frightening, and more like the original movie whenever it slows down and allows the player to find his way out of a situation, rather than shoot his way out of it.
If only The Thing had possessed the confidence to really stick with what was working, it would have been a much more rewarding experience. Being forced to deal with how much ammo to give to a skeptical teammate – or whether to give it to him at all – was such an interesting game mechanic that it could have been used throughout to balance the sometimes uneven combat.
Granted, I stalled out on one of the major bosses in the game, having used up too many of my resources to be able to punch through that section, but from what I remember from my first playthrough years ago, the game doesn’t do anything different toward the end to redeem some of the flaws that become ingrained in it.
The Final Word: Even though the plot becomes a little too Half-Life-y, what with its profound government testing facility aesthetic, the game still holds up surprisingly well after all of these years. Oddly enough, like the original film, it’s kind of a cult classic from that console generation, so anyone with a jones for an older survival horror experience that isn’t Resident Evil or Silent Hill should most certainly check it out.