Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Game Talk #18: The Thing

This game is another one that I have a lot of history with. I was kind of obsessed with it for awhile. In fact, I novelized this game more than once. I finally got it right (I think) in 2015. And then I wrote a sequel to it. So, I really liked it.

A bit of history.

This game, released in 2002, is a sequel to the masterpiece horror film John Carpenter's The Thing. In short: Watch the damn movie if you haven't. If you're a fan of horror or mystery, even a little, this is an absolute must. And this film isn't a masterpiece in the sense that some films are considered masterpieces even though, by today's standards, they're boring as hell or 'they were great at the time'. Not to knock those movies, or anything.

No, even by today's standards, The Thing is fucking amazing.

Just watch this trailer.

Basically everything about this film is stellar. And the practical special effects for it are so good that they look better than most CGI even today. In fact, the guy making them, Rob Bottin, worked so hard on it that he both invented new forms of practical effects and had to be hospitalized from exhaustion after the film was finished being shot. As a bonus, Stan Winston, possibly the best practical effects guy in history, had a hand in this film.

So obviously the game had a lot to live up to.

From what I remember, it didn't have a lot of fanfare when it came out. It was just kind of...there, one day. Of course, I could be totally mistaken, I'm not exactly know for my attention to detail. Anyway, I got it from Blockbuster for PS2 as soon as I was able.

You know when you're on the start menu of a game, and if you don't do anything for like a minute or so, it launches into a trailer?

I used to watch that like over and over again. I mean, is that not just fucking awesome?

Obviously I was in love with the game.

As a side note, I think a part of what really cemented the game in my mind was the fact that the only copy Blockbuster had...was broken! I would make it to about the 1/3 mark in the campaign, go to load the next level and...nothing. The game would freeze every time. And this went on for months and months. I don't think I even got to see the rest of the game for another year or so, when I finally got an Xbox.

Anyway, let's talk about the game now.

To be honest, it hasn't aged very well, and it isn't a masterpiece. So keep that in mind.

The Thing is a third person shooter with survival-horror aspects. In it, you play Special Forces Captain J. F. Blake. You have just been flown down to Antarctica and given command of a small squad to investigate Outpost 31, which has gone silent. You arrive to find the base in ruins, and the further you search, the more the mystery grows. Things only get worse as a bad storm sets in and you receive fragmentary distress calls from a second team investigating the Norwegian outpost. You are then dropped off, alone, and begin your search for the second team.

That's when shit gets real.

The game takes you across a lot of different locations, ranging from old, burned-out outposts to derelict more recent structures to a submarine to chaotic high-tech (for the 80s) installations. It features a fair amount of different enemies. You've got horrific smaller enemies called Scuttlers that are basically human heads walking around on little legs. Then you've got Walkers, which is just the general name for a varied of horrifying twisted proliferations of waxy flesh and protruding bone and slit mouths stuffed with uneven, broken razor teeth. I mean, there is one monster that has a silently screaming human torso for a tail.

So obviously they really captured the body horror of the original movie.

There are a fair amount of guns, though they're all kind of basic. You've got the MP-5. The pistol. The shotgun. The sniper rifle. But the interesting one is the flamethrower. This is absolutely necessary to make it through the game because you cannot kill Walkers without fire. The idea is that you've got to hit it with gunfire first to whittle down its health, then set it on fire. This can create some pretty chaotic gameplay.

And then there's the infection.

One of the core ideas behind the Thing is that basically, it's an entity that infects you. If you touch a Thing, there's a decent chance that it will infect you and slowly take you over from the inside out, the end result being that you are no longer you. You are dead. Now, something is wearing your body. So obviously, this means that anyone can be a Thing. They walk, talk, and act human. They are chameleons hiding in plain sight. This bleeds over into the game, though unfortunately not very well. You encounter a variety of different NPCs that you induct into your squad. They can be infected and they can become infected.

Seriously, if they get attacked by a Thing, there's a chance that they are now infected and may, at some point in the future, at random, turn on you.

Unfortunately, this is a very primitive implementation of this really cool idea. It often doesn't work out like that and one thing that's really annoying is that even if you are SURE that some characters aren't infected, they have scripted moments where they turn on you. Which kind of sucks.

They can also distrust you if you do things like shoot them (accidentally or on purpose, they don't discriminate), take away their guns, stuff like don't they. If their trust meter drops low enough, they attack you. Even unarmed, they will steal your gun. They can also totally lose their shit if they're in a particularly fucked up, gore-soaked room. And you have ways to counteract this. You can try to gain their trust back by proving you aren't a Thing, or giving their guns back, or, if you're a dick, you can manually aim your gun at their head and coerce them. Literally. Also, if they're flipping out, you can give them a shot of adrenaline to calm them down.

Wait, what? That never made sense to me.

As for your squadmates, you've got the classic trio: Soldiers, Medics, and Engineers, just like Half-Life: Opposing Force and Quake 4. Soldiers and medics are useful, but in some areas, Engineers are an absolute must. And everyone can die in this game.

While graphically the game is a dinosaur, aesthetically, it's amazing. The artists and sound designers managed to do a brilliant job in capturing the hauntingly desolate and mind-numbingly bleak isolation of Antarctica. The wind howls constantly. You can't see more than ten feet in front of you when you're outside. Windows are smashed, rooms are frozen over, and although the gore can be excessive, if you pay attention, certain areas tell little stories. Sometimes literally, you can find text documents or hastily scrawled last messages from dying men. And the minimalist soundtrack, which obviously takes its cues from the film, only accentuate all of this.

This is a bleak fucking game.

One more thing that's really cool is that John Carpenter officially endorses this game. So much so that he offered his likeness and voice for one of the characters. And that's awesome.

There are some bad things about the game. For the most part, it hasn't aged too well. Although it probably looked pretty decent at the time, the talking animations are kind of laughable now. On top of that, and this is honestly the worst part for me, the plot is really threadbare. I don't want to talk about it too much, because the game really should be played for itself, but there just isn't a lot going on. Or, maybe it's not even that. There's actually a fair amount going on, but it never leads anywhere. They hint at a lot, but nothing comes of almost any of it.

My last real complaint is that the game gets INSANELY hard at about the three quarters mark. I mean, I get it, the endgame has to be tough, but they went kind of overboard on it. Once everything starts catching on fire, you'll know you've just entered this section.

The last thing I want to go into is that there was going to be a sequel! I didn't find that out until like ten years later, but apparently Computer Artworks was green-lit for an immediate sequel and promptly began work on The Thing 2. Concept art and basic animations still exist, and from what I could see, it looked like it was going to be awesome. They were something like a year into production when it got canned. There's no real explanation for why as far as I can tell.

If you want, you can check out the info and concept art here.

That's all I've got to say about it really. Go watch John Carpenter's The Thing, then go play the game. Also, PLEASE disregard the 2011 The Thing. That's utter garbage. You want the 1982 The Thing, with John Carpenter's name on it.

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