John Carpenter’s The Thing is a timeless classic sci-fi horror. A high watermark of practical effects, filled with fine actors, and John Carpenter at his absolute peak.
The Thing is, above all else, a filmic exercise in trust, mistrust, and paranoia. That would prove to be the template for a video game based on the film, and the results would be…interesting.
The Thing (The Game) was released on PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox in 2002, twenty years after Carpenter’s film came out. Universal Interactive had been given the opportunity to browse Universal Studios’ film back catalogue with the intention of making a video game based on one. Universal Interactive knew pretty quickly what film it wanted to tackle. That film would of course be The Thing.
The publisher wanted to take the film’s notoriously ambiguous ending, and use it as a launching point for a continuation of the story with similar locations, but with new characters. So in essence, Universal Interactive were going to make a sequel to a classic film, but as a video game, and developer Computer Softworks were the team to do it.
It was a bold, brave move that was at least made easier because the team were afforded a bit more creative freedom with the license (which wasn’t exactly a common occurrence in 2002), and it wasn’t like it was being told to make this game, Computer Softworks wanted to make it.
Universal accepted the proposal, and invited Computer Softworks to pitch its idea. The pitch would be built on Computer Softworks’ previous title Evolva. This PC title from 2000 saw a squad explore alien planets, and gain abilities from a variety of alien life. It featured plenty of parts that would end up in The Thing, including the use of a four man squad in a third-person shooter format. So Computer Softworks reskinned a section from Evolva to recreate the film’s Outpost 31, and threw in a boss fight with the titular Thing.
That did the job for Universal, and with Vivendi and Konami publishing, Computer Softworks were ready to go. Universal encouraged Computer Softworks to be original and inventive with its sequel, so long as it remained in keeping with the overall tone of the film. With no explicit need to recreate the story or any of its moments from the film, Computer Softworks could concentrate on capturing the paranoia of it.
For the story, The Thing video game sequel takes place not long after the events of the film. The game begins at U.S. Outpost 31 in Antarctica. Two teams of U.S. Special Forces have arrived to investigate both the U.S. camp and the nearby Norwegian camp that kicked the events of the film off.
Under the overall command of Colonel Whitley, the Beta Team, led by Captain Blake, are investigating the U.S. camp, and the Alpha Team, led by Captain Pierce, are off investigating the Norwegian camp.
During the investigation at Outpost 31, the Beta Team quickly discover the makeshift spacecraft that had been built by the Blair-Thing. More intriguing, they find a tape recorder with a rather familiar message from one R.J. MacReady, in which he details how and why nobody trusts anybody anymore (and they’re all very tired y’know). The team then discover how the base had been infiltrated by an extraterrestrial lifeform. One that is capable of imitating the physical appearance and characteristics of any living organism it assimilates.
The game then addresses part of the ambiguity of the film’s ending as Beta Team find the frozen corpse of Childs, which all but proves he at least, was not the Thing. The eyebrow raising part of this discovery is that MacCready is nowhere to be seen. Hmmm.
The Beta Team set charges and destroy Outpost 31, then head to the Norwegian Outpost to back up Alpha Team. Blake’s team find things have not been so smooth here, as Alpha Team have been attacked by small creatures that look like limbs. Blake finds Pierce, and here begins an unending parade of mistrust.
As mentioned before, Blake is accompanied by a squad of up to three other soldiers of various classes (engineers, medics, and soldiers) and they can be delegated to. Engineers can fix broken electrical equipment and fuse boxes to gain access to areas, medics can provide health, and soldiers are obviously handy in a fight, and can give Blake a weapon if needed.
The thing is, they’ll only help you if they trust you, and the trust system of the NPC AI in The Thing was a remarkable selling point in 2002, especially on consoles.
The NPC AI is largely driven by the game’s smart dual system of trust and fear. The trust system helps the AI decide whether the NPC squad will follow Blake’s (your) orders and side with him in perilous situations. In order to gain trust, the player must ensure the NPC have plenty of reason to trust Blake, and the best way of doing this is making sure they have no reason to suspect him of being a Thing.
To help the player understand how the NPC’s feel, there’s four levels of trust signified by red, amber, green and 100% (the best colour). Red means NPC’s are adamant that Blake is a Thing and attack him. Amber, easily the most tension-filled colour, means NPC’s aren’t sure if Blake is a Thing. They won’t attack, but they won’t follow orders either. Green means they trust and follow his orders, while 100% means they have complete and utter faith in Blake’s humanity and leadership, and will follow his orders to a fault.
To gain the trust of an NPC, Blake can offer weapons, ammo, healing, or even simply put himself at risk to protect them. If all else fails you can use a neat throwback to the film and take a blood test to prove yourself as a real human boyman. Obviously doing the opposite of these actions has the opposing effect.
The trust system works alongside the fear system. This system basically decides how scared an NPC is by using a three level tier for fear. At the extreme end you have ‘Crack-up’ where Blake has only a limited amount of time to lower the NPC fear level, or the NPC will do something rather rash. To spice things up, the NPC responds differently to their surroundings. So some scare quite easily compared to others. Fear is pretty organically handled. The usual things affect your squad in terms of what scares them. Gore, darkness, seeing the grotesque enemies, and hearing anything unusual. This fear can be diffused by dealing with each situation as it happens, be it by simply leaving a room, or by blasting the hideous monstrosities to pieces.
The NPC’s don’t get all the fear and mistrust to themselves though. Encounters with the alien can lead to infection for NPCs, and you never know quite when one of your buddies is going to explode into a mess of skin and sinew. This rounds out The Thing’s attempt at replicating the films tone, and it does a pretty effective job of it.
The game was well received on release, and sold more than one million units across all formats. Not everyone was satisfied with Computer Softworks’ delivery of the fear/trust system though. While it gained praise from most outlets, some believed the system suffered for not caring about the squadmates enough as they gave you little to interact with, and the paranoia of ‘anyone could be a Thing’ was dulled somewhat once you realised certain people were scripted to change. Another criticism concerned the game’s midsection being a touch bloated, which was true in fairness.
The finale did make up for it though, as it was filled with nutso double-crossing, deep-lying conspiracies, and a revelation about MacCready’s status. There’s also a fun cameo by John Carpenter himself as Dr. Faraday tucked away in there. It may have aged poorly, but the chance was there to build on the systems for a further sequel, but circumstances prevented that from happening.
Computer Softworks did start work on a sequel to The Thing: The Video Game, but unfortunately didn’t get far as the developer sadly went into receivership less than a year after The Thing was released.
The Thing is a notably flawed game in several ways, flaws that are far more apparent now with years of gaming evolution, but there are very few licensed games that truly come this close to nailing the tone of the source material. Hopefully it can serve as inspiration for another developer to one day thaw another game from the ice and unleash a new age of paranoia.