The final installment of this column prior to Halloween saved the best for last. There’s no denying John Carpenter’s “The Thing” from 1982 is a master class in claustrophobic paranoia. Forget the 2011 prequel and turn your attention to the 2002 sequel, developed with Carpenter’s blessing as a continuation/expansion of the events from the movie on its 20th anniversary. It’s far from perfect, but damn if Black Label Games doesn’t do the best they can with the materials and time they had. If The Thing doesn’t stop your heart and scare the pants off you at least once while playing, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you’re already infected and you don’t even know it. Hell, with as loud as Dash is playing his music, he could be infected with something too. Guy’s normally quiet as a mouse.
We’re going to start right where I did fourteen years ago. Black Label’s trailer for The Thing is a thing of beauty, designed to whet your appetite. Where most games at the time were advertised with an announcer voice-over who tried to excite potential buyers by pointing out all the awesome things their game did, publisher Vivendi threw that out the window by adopting a format more suited to The Thing‘s cinematic legacy. The promotional video/commercial for the game is staged like the red band trailer for a movie. There’s no denying this was the right way to get people pumped: video games were gradually looking more and more like interactive movies anyway, so why not pay homage to this film-to-game sequel by advertising it like a feature film. It’s beautiful (in its 2002-era graphical way), and perfectly sets the stage for what you can expect:
After that, how could you not want to pre-order it? Maybe I’m just soft, maybe I’m a sucker because I consider John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to be one of the best horror films ever made, but damn, every time I saw this commercial I got goosebumps. So what happens when you get the game home and pop it in for the first time?
After the short opening FMV, where two Norwegians are slaughtered like pigs while an unseen individual laughs at the the carnage unfolding on the security monitor, we meet Captain Blake. Blake has been dispatched to Antarctica to find out why communication with Outpost #31 has been cut off. Blake’s CO, Colonial Whitley (voiced by X-Files alum William B. Davis, aka ‘Cancer Man’), suspects nothing worse than a damaged transmitter. This is 1982 however, and tensions are still high between Russia and the US, so Blake’s team is going in armed just in case. Assisting Blake in his mission are a soldier to provide extra security, a medic to handle any injuries to the men at the outpost, and an engineer to fix the radio. A second team has also been dispatched to investigate the Norwegian outpost a few kilometers away which has also stopped transmitting.
Speaking of downed transmitters, my wireless connection has gone to complete shit. Somebody unplugged the damn router again. Probably Adam. I wish Carl had locked him somewhere besides the server room after he decked Jason. What the hell is it about October that brings out the weirdness in our staff? Anyway, where was I?
What follows is one of the best introductory levels to a video game I’ve ever played as Blake receives his assignments from Whitley and investigates the remains of the outpost, trying to piece together what happened. Everything is exactly as you remember it from the movie: the rec room with its pool table and arcade games, the communications room, MacReady’s shack, the dog kennel, even the underground tunnels where Blair was building his escape craft. This loving attention to detail is phenomenal, and it extends to the Norwegian base as well where Blake explores in a later level. Chills ran down my spine the first time I entered the ice block room. The developers did an impeccable job with level design. Sound too. I swear, the boots on the floor sound exactly like they’re coming from somewhere else in the office here, not my speakers.
The first level serves as a tutorial for the game, explaining things like how to order your NPC companions around and the temperature system which penalizes you for staying in sub-zero temperatures for too long. It also does something few other games have the guts to attempt: The Thing gives players absolutely nothing to kill in its first level. While such a choice would be tantamount to suicide for most horror games, The Thing isn’t trying to be Doom or even Resident Evil. It wants to creep you out, and after the first few rooms, you find yourself wondering when the action happens. Because of this, every time you run across a ruined corpse or see a part of the fire-damaged base collapse on itself, your heart jumps into your stomach as your brain tells you, “Here it comes!” Then…nothing. Your fraying nerves are left to wonder just when the shit’s going to hit the fan, and the tension mounts. Granted, your second time through the game you know there’s zero danger and you’ll bulldoze through the tutorial level without so much as a belch of surprise, but that initial experience builds acute paranoia like few other titles have.
Speaking of paranoia, did anyone else see that shadow over there? Anybody? Seriously, you guys, I’m on a deadline here. We’ll watch ‘The Dead Hate the Living!’ after I’m done, OK?
The Thing doesn’t let up throughout the first half of the game either. As the story progresses, as you and your fellow soldiers learn just what they’re up against, the tension ratchets up, team members turn on one another, follows begin to question your judgement, and if you aren’t careful your squad mates will turn on you or, if things get too desperate, turn their guns on themselves to end the nightmare. Building and maintaining loyalty as the true horror of the scenario unfolds around you is the only way to stay alive. But that trust needs to go both ways: did you lose contact with someone for a while? Are you sure they’re not infected? Are they sure you aren’t? Team mates are an observant bunch: even something as innocuous as not pulling your weight in a firefight can brand you a traitor. Run away, even if it’s because you ran out of ammo and need to restock, and you’re apt to return to a hostile group who’ll give you a minute or so to prove you’re still human before they form an impromptu firing squad. NPCs who die are also dead for good, so its in your best interests to keep your men alive as long as possible. In some cases losing an NPC can even be grounds for a game over–be careful with your aim.
Unfortunately The Thing stumbles during its second half, where it sacrifices the carefully-built and maintained tension of the initial investigation for a balls-to-the-wall, anything-goes firefight for the last several levels. Tension-wise, the game reached its pinnacle for me during a protracted siege segment that sees Blake and anyone still alive with defending against a seemingly never-ending horde of Things that attack a small outpost from all directions, smashing windows, breaking down doors, and threatening to overwhelm the group. I normally hate these sort of ‘stand your ground’ scenarios, but in this case you’re far too busy responding to panicking teammates, restocking ammo, healing your group, and praying you have enough ammo for your flamethrowers that I didn’t have time to complain.
I also don’t have time to complain because somebody knocked out our internet access. What the hell’s going on in this office anyway? John went down there to check the phone lines thirty minutes ago. Guess I know what I’m doing as soon as I finish writing here.
While I feel the second half of the game is far weaker than the first, I still stand by my assessment The Thing is damn good. Black Label had to cut a lot of things short in their rush to get it out in time for the movie’s 20th anniversary, but what’s left is still more than worthy of a spot in any horror aficionado’s library. Platform differences basically amount to graphical clarity, so if that’s a big deal you should probably go with the Xbox or PC version over the PS2, but all share the same storyline. Carpenter himself has an uncredited cameo in the game as one of the scientists, although they digitized his face and used his voice, so if you’re looking for it, he’s pretty easy to spot. As mentioned before, Carpenter gave his full blessing to the game and its storyline, so it falls just a hair short of being a canonical continuation of the story. If there’s one reason above all to play the game, that’s it. Finding out what happened to Childs and MacReady after the fires burnt out in the aftermath of Outpost #31’s destruction ended two decades of theories and questions of who, if either, might have been infected. No spoilers here–play for yourself and find out.
As for me, I’ve been up far too long. I swear something climbed up past the window earlier. I’m on the third floor. Now the dogs in the kennel are going ape-shit, and it’s nowhere near feeding time. Not good. Not good. I need a plan.
I’m going to hide this article when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. Halloween’s been hitting us hard for about 48 hours now. I only have this article to finish. One other thing: I think you should pick up the unofficial RPG-style sequel as a free download on PC. Carl found a pair of shredded boxer-briefs, but the name tag was missing. They could be anybody’s. Nobody…nobody trusts anybody now. And we’re all very tired.
Nothing else I can do. Just wait. Michael Crisman, staff writer, Retro Gaming Magazine.
[turns off recorder]