So only a few days ago I happened to stumble across a video of 'The Thing', the game, on YouTube, and it brought back a lot of memories. Released around 2002, prior to getting my hands on it it had been a game I was very excited for I'm a big fan of the film (the original), so a game about that sounded like a win-win situation, unfortunately despite being an enjoyable enough shooter the game never really hit the same high notes the film does.
I thought I'd talk a little about why I think that is.
So The Thing (1982) is a horror film. It's a film about a small Antarctic research base that is invaded (for lack of a better word) by a creature from outer space. Discovered in the ice by another research team, it comes back to life and begins to absorb every living thing it comes into contact with. Able to mimic the people and animals it absorbs it hides in plain sight till exposed, attempting to spread and absorb everything it can.
The only way to kill it is with fire.
In many respects the film plays out like a game of Werewolf ...but with flamethrowers; you have a small group of people, trapped in a small location together, who know that among them are creatures intent on their destruction, that they have to kill, but without really knowing what's what none of them really wants to risk killing other human beings. So it becomes a guessing game of sorts, a mystery to be unravelled before it's too late for any of them to survive.
I think as well the film is very much about identity and doubt we know we are who we are but how do we know the same of others? Whether we realise it or not in day to day life we rely on our sense of knowing that the people we see over and over again are familiar to us, and that they don't mean us any harm.
In the film the characters lose that, as they realise that potentially several of those within their group are not who they say they are. It becomes about suspicion, doubt, trust and only really knowing they can rely on themselves; though none of them really know the others are who they say they are they know at the same time they will have to trust one another to a certain degree if they're not going to die... and it becomes about where to place that trust. I think that's the crux of the film, that sense of tension between wanting to survive but not wanting to survive by becoming another sort of monster entirely i.e. by becoming a murderer, because honestly there were points in the film where they could have easily massacred one another and ended things there and then.
Obviously on top of that you have everything else the body horror elements, the characters, the setting, the actual story and dialogue, and they all add up to make for a compelling horror film.
Unfortunately the game covers elements of the last paragraph the body horror, the setting, even mentioning characters, but it doesn't really do any of the other things that made the film work so well. And that for me is why the game fails in the way it does and it's not a particularly bad game, it's just not a great game nor really a very good The Thing
Overall there wasn't really a sense of tension to it, atleast not one that ran throughout the game. For the most part The Thing was just a regular shooter - you'd walk through areas, creatures would spring out, you'd shoot them. Rinse and repeat through multiple levels. You did have to worry about infection if you got too exposed to enemies but for the most part it was easy going. You did also have to worry about teammates turning, and testing them, but in both respects the game never really followed through on the premise the testing aspect, for example, never really made a lot of sense.
There was no real apparent cause for infection (since most teammates were never out of your sight long enough to be 'absorbed' like people were in the film.) Initially in previews it was explained how you'd need to constantly be testing your teammates to work out whether they were human or not, and to establish trust, and obviously you wouldn't have enough testkits to go around all the time and part of the tension of the game would spring from that. However, that's really not how it worked.
It also seemed like there were specific points in the game where teammates would suddenly turn regardless of whether they were infected or not test them, they're fine; walk over an invisible line and they turn (usually before a boss). That made no logical sense, and made no sense in terms of how infection was said to work in the game or the film.
The game did have a certain degree of atmosphere, but I feel like the faults in the infection model and the emphasis on constant shoot-outs negated any strong sense of atmosphere developing.
Another thing I think really didn't help any (especially in terms of atmosphere) was the complete lack of character to the lead character. He was really just bland this sort of emotionless, gruff-sounding white guy with cropped hair. Granted, MacReady isn't likely to win any 'Sassiest Black Lesbian in Film' awards anytime soon but he atleast had some character.
The lead in the game sees a lot more fucked up stuff than MacReady did (and actually ends up murdering a lot of black-ops goons as well) and still remains level and, honestly, indifferent to it all. While I'm not saying every character has to go nuts at the mere sight of blood, if you're crafting good horror you need your character to be affected by fucked up shit else it stops the player from relating to how horrible the situation is.
I do think the story is pretty clichι as well, something about evil government scientists conducting experiments blah blah blah (you can guess the rest), but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing if the story is done well. I won't fault it for that. Just like hammy acting can be good in the right context so can a clichι story.
I also find it hard to fault a game wanting to be a shooter I don't think there's anything wrong with shooting in games. I like shooters, one of the games that first got me into gaming at a young age, and indeed into horror in particular, was Resident Evil 2, and I always used to love gunning down zombies, looking over each new gun I picked up or hunting for ammo. The shooting doesn't bother me per se, but the fact the game is almost a constant procession of shooting galleries, where you just move from room to room, shoot things, pick up some goodies, maybe get a bit of story (if you're lucky) and then move on to do more of the same, does annoy me.
There has to be a happy medium between constant shooting and games where there is no shooting whatsoever. Sure there are games like Gears of War and Halo, where the constant shooting fits, and I'm definitely not saying a game of The Thing should have no shooting, I don't want Dear Esther Alien Edition, but I think the shooting has to have context, especially within a horror game.
I think in a horror game there has to be a certain degree of realism when it comes to firearms use and if you don't have that it ruins any sense of immersion if you were trapped in a haunted house or an abandoned amusement park or on a space station would you really expect to find dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammo just lying around?
No, me neither.
This is true on an Antarctic research base as well. Why would they have guns and ammo lying around all over the place?
It's also true in a secret underground government research base sure they'd have guns, they're evil government people, but they wouldn't just leave them lying around.
You also have to think about how having those plentiful supplies of weapons and ammunition just lying around affects the dynamic of the game and removes any sense of desperation or just surviving from the player's mind. If they don't have to worry about supplies then they're not worrying, and that's not good in Survival Horror.
Tied in to all this is the structure of the game simply put it's a linear progression from point A to point B, a series of rooms with successive waves of changing enemies, that eventually leads to a final boss. This isn't necessarily a bad thing it's how a lot of games play out, and indeed how a lot of shooters work, essentially because it leads to quite a satisfying gameplay experience: As in books or movies or any medium, we like our story to start with the character building themselves up from nothing, facing ever increasing challenges before they face a 'final boss' of some sort.
The problem is though that it doesn't really fit with The Thing, or atleast what made the film work in the way it did. What made the film work was that sort of claustrophobic, cramped, feel, the fact that you had this small cast of characters stuck in an even smaller space having to face immeasurable odds as they struggled to survive against the onslaught of the creature really defined the film. If the film had kept jumping to new characters and new areas, it really wouldn't have been as scary as it was.
This is true of movies and books as well but one of the things I've started to realise the more I've thought about why the best Survival Horror games work in the way they do, scare us and create tension in the way they do, is how contained they feel, how little space they give their characters to breath.
It's a little like if you're stuck in one room for too long with nothing to do. The tension slowly builds, you become antsy, frustrated; we all feel that need to move on, to go to new places to quell that frustration. Good horror though exploits that internal tension, forcing us to retread those same corridors, visit those same rooms, while constantly upping the danger. You need that frustration, that 'stuck' feeling if any sense of real tension is going to build.
Good Horror is always about perverting what works well in games to a certain degree A well structured game relies on progression, on constantly moving on to new areas, new challenges, new enemies. It's why big budget games are so expensive now, because creating that continuous stream of non-repetitive elements, of ever-changing rooms and environments is expensive, very expensive. The best horror though is about doing the opposite it's about frustrating you, letting that frustration and annoyance at seeing the same rooms and locations over and over again build, and then manipulating it for effect to scare you.
Part of why action horror games fail at creating a real sense of atmosphere and tension and end up relying more on jump scares is because as you progress the environments around you change aswell, so there's no real sense of building frustration. I think this is part of why The Thing game doesn't work, especially given the type of film The Thing is; the film is stuck in that same claustrophobic loop, retreading old territory over and over again, whereas the game completely sidesteps that and negates any of the same tension the film sought to build.
As a sort of addendum to all this, but really a more minor overall point: There was no real mystery, no real sense of doubt over identity within the game. Your character was really the only constant and you knew you were human, so apart from dying horrible there was nothing to be afraid of, no need to worry about getting stabbed in the back unlike in the film.
I think part of what made the eventual exposure of individual creatures in the film so scary was the sense of tension and build up that had taken place prior to their reveal mere moments ago, and indeed for large chunks of the film before that, that 'Thing' in front of you had seemingly been a normal person, and the gulf between the two states of being is what, in part, made the creatures so scary. Obviously the fact they sprouted tentacles, split in half and then proceeded to eat or absorb people helped with the whole scary thing but the build up was key too.
The game didn't have any of that.
What would have made for a good game of The Thing?
I think either a point-and-click/visual novel game or something more akin to Resident Evil Remake or maybe like the Siren games, maybe some sort of slower-paced, very atmospheric 3rd person survival horror game.
Very tight, compact environments it wouldn't necessarily have to be in the Antarctic but obviously similar enough for the creature to have to stay where it is and the player to feel hemmed in.
It would need to have a relatively small cast of characters, and you'd need to see them repeatedly for some reason with the potential for them to mutate at any time in the story.
Something relatively non-linear in nature as well, possibly with multiple end game scenarios the player has a single goal but multiple ways to achieve that goal. Potentially in some playthroughs you would be able to save everybody if you did the right thing at the right time, in others even you wouldn't survive and the creature would get out.
I don't think it'd be necessarily hard to make a game that made sense in the context of the original film, but finding somebody to make it is a different issue. To a large extent we're still stuck with the same problem in gaming that stopped the The Thing game being better than it was in the first place - the perception that there's really only a few ways to make a game if it's going to succeed - as a first-person shooter, as a third-person shooter, linear with ever changing rooms and enemies, etc, when really that's not true.
Granted we do seemingly live in an era where it seems as if everything has to copy the biggest selling games in some way to succeed but that's not true either. It's true that some genres are very popular but it's also true that good games sell (well, mostly), whether they fit the mould or not.
I think what matters most of all is really whether the gameplay and the story make sense in terms of the premise. The thing about The Thing (heh) is it's very old-school horror, for lack of a better word: it's cheap. It's designed to be a story about as few people using as few props as possible and as such it's centred around the drama that can be created between a small group of people - again, like a game of Werewolf.
In many respects it's a product of its time - a little like Alien and Aliens actually, sure directors had money but never enough (unlike now), so it was mostly about smoke and mirrors, never showing too much, creating atmosphere but also tension through a very minimalist approach to constructing scenes and emphasising characterisation above constant streams of special effects, and the end result is a very scary film because it's so reserved in it's approach to the horror.
The game's problem though is that it throws all that out of the window and instead jumps on the Action Horror train, presenting a constant procession of enemies for you to kill, within constantly changing environments, leading up to some sort of final boss.
What we got was not a bad game as such, but neither was it one that really did the film justice, and that I think is the biggest shame.