The Thing is one of the best horror movies ever made. This is a hard fact. With a creature that can assimilate and then impersonate others all through just a single cell being placed within the victim's body, you can imagine the horror and tension created from not being able to trust that your allies are really that.
John Carpenter's smash hit flick has been discussed by fans and critics for years, and the popularity of this paranoia drenched piece has seen it spawn a whole line of offshoots. From comics to board games, to...horrible remakes/sequels The Thing has adapted and infected other mediums with wanton abandon. And of course it got itself a video game, and the best part? it was bloody brilliant.
So today we're going to take a trip back to 2002 and give some hot love to this stone-cold killer of a game.
Starting shortly after the events of the film, we see two teams of special forces arrive at Outpost 31 in Antarctica hoping to investigate whatever happened there. Finding a message from the film's MacReady that says nobody trusts anyone anymore and warning of an extraterrestrial lifeform capable of mimicking the physical appearance of any living being it assimilates.
"One other thing, I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over. Windows found some shredded long johns and the tag was missing. They could be anybody's. We're all very tired."
After finding a "goddamn UFO" (this game leans heavily into action movie soldier dialogue) the soldiers discover a body. This is Childs, one of the last two survivors of the film, who has died from hypothermia. MacReady, the other survivor, is nowhere to be seen. Finding hints that they should move on to investigate the Norweigian Outpost, Captain J.F. Blake destroys the base and leads his team there. From then onwards, Captain Blake finds himself in a nightmare where he must do all that he can to survive against an alien being that could be one of his own squadmates.
Fear & Trust
One of the genius conceits of the video game is that Blake is rarely alone in his quest. There are many soldiers all around who can join his squad, each of them bringing something different to the table. A medic can heal other soldiers, while an engineer is needed to fix machinery that may be broken, and the player is going to want other gunners by their side to keep you alive when the many converted creatures that are part of the Thing start coming out of the woodwork.
But these soldiers aren't just bots that follow your commands like in most squad-based shooters. Should they see monsters or mutilated corpses, stay in the dark too long, or be attacked by overwhelming forces then they're likely to become afraid, and erratic. Only by successfully defeating enemies, making sure scared team members are given a good share of the small supply of ammo they'll find (to make it seem supplies aren't as limited as they totally are), or leading team members away from stressful situations can players keep their team from cracking up. Let that fear grow too far and those people the player is relying on may start panic firing at random noises in the environment, attack their teammates, put a gun in their mouths to end it all, or even die of a heart attack.
Fear isn't the only thing governing how Blake must lead his team. Each member also has a trust system in place. The less they trust Blake, the more they'll worry that he may be a Thing leading them to their doom. Actions like accidentally shooting teammates during combat (or for fun - we've all been there), pointing a weapon at one of them for an extended amount of time, or taking away their weapons and ammo will drop their trust in Blake fast, until they're sure he's The Thing and they turn on the player. Meanwhile, things like healing teammates, giving them weapons and ammo, or using a rare blood test to prove that Blake is human raise trust to the point that his team will follow his orders without question and even back him up if he attacks another human.
Why would Blake be attacking another human if he's not infected, you ask? That brings us to the Infection system which is both the single biggest missed opportunity of the game and an often great paranoia-inducing horror system. Any character on Blake's squad can at any time be revealed to be a Thing, either by a blood test showing that they've become infected in combat or when they turn on the player. Sadly, the realities of that era's game design mean that the system takes a back seat when the story needs someone to change into a Thing. There are many such scripted changes in the game, some of which can occur seconds after the player has tested a teammate and found them to be completely human. Until then though, infection is completely handled by a simulation that allows anyone touched by a living Thing to become infected but doesn't guarantee it.
"You're infected just like everyone else. Come any closer and I'll fry your ass."
And so the player finds themselves trying to efficiently manage the squad's basic needs while fearful that they may be wasting what precious few of the scarce resources they're able to find on an unseen enemy. Blood tests are too few and far between to test every squad member every time the player is torn between who to hand out the last remaining bullets to, and this scarcity combined with the Infection, Fear, and Trust systems simulate the paranoia of the film incredibly well.
The Thing is a wonderful video game that acts as a fitting sequel to one of the best horror films of all time. While the game doesn't quite hit the heights of the movie, and the speed of development meant that they couldn't stick to their idea of a fully simulated infection system, the game still stands out today as something unlike anything else of either its genre or era.
In that way it's very much like the film it's based upon.