Collins’ Crypt: Revisiting The 2002 THE THING Game

Brian takes on another video game adaptation of a favorite horror film. 

While I am a fan of the ambiguous ending to John Carpenter's The Thing, I admit that a sequel makes a lot more sense to me than a prequel about the Norwegian camp featuring a bunch of English speaking actors and filled with CGI. But they never made a sequel movie - to find out what happened you had to own a PS2, Xbox or PC back in 2002 and pick up the game, simply titled The Thing (I like how if you include the prequel and the game, there are three complete narratives all called The Thing - not like "The Thing: The Beginning" or whatever). And I did just that, buying the PC version even though my computer wasn't really good enough to run it very well. I managed to get to the first boss despite the slideshow-like nature I was forced to play it in, until finally getting a new computer a few months later and marveling at how much better it looked. However, I was wooed by newer, more advanced games like (don't laugh) Star Wars Galaxies, and never got around to finishing it.

In 2009 I bought the Xbox version for a couple bucks, as consoles are more to my liking anyway (as for why I didn't buy it for console in the first place, I didn't have a PS2 until 2004, and I never owned an original Xbox) and I was never that great at aiming/moving with a mouse and keyboard. Hilariously, I got almost exactly as far as I had 7 years prior on the PC before again getting distracted by other games (this was November of 2009, so probably Borderlands), and then I forgot I even had it until recently. So this past weekend I sat down, determined to finish this damn game once and for all, and finally see the surprise ending that had been spoiled for me over a decade ago.

Well I still didn't finish it. I got to the second boss (there are only three, apparently) and couldn't figure out how to beat him, and then had to tend to a crying (teething) baby and ran out of time to play before I had to submit this very piece. I swear I'll finish it this week and post updates in the comments!

Anyway, it's a pretty decent game, all things considered. Unlike the Friday the 13th game, The Thing really lends itself to a video game adaptation, as the film has more than one antagonist as is, with the built in license to create more as necessary (as many as the game actually offers might be up for debate, to be fair). Plus, it's about an isolated base where science experiments are being conducted - Carpenter might as well have set it inside a dungeon or a heavily fortified warzone, as far as video game compatibility is concerned. And the location is key - as a fan of Carpenter's film, it's a lot of fun to run around in the areas I know so well, and apart from what seems like a lot more random sheds they didn't really "enhance" Outpost #31 - it's pretty much exactly how the movie has it, best as I can tell. Rather than cheat and reveal a huge base within walking distance that wouldn't match up to the film, when you run out of areas to explore at the Outpost (as well as the Norwegian base), the game transports you to a new facility, leaving the Easter Eggs (like Childs' body, aww) behind for the rest of its runtime. This is a pretty great way to do a movie sequel as a video game - for two hours (roughly the length of a movie) you're learning the ropes in locations that you're familiar with, likely elevating the fun you're having and making up for some rather dumb game-y things. And then by the time they've exhausted the potential for those locations, you're presumably into it enough that being sent off to a new place that you don't recognize at all won't bother you much. Win-win!

Of course, once you leave the familiar areas and go to a giant base, it becomes a bit more generic - it IS an early 2000s survival horror game, after all. Thus, there's a human villain who is trying to weaponize The Thing's unique attributes, and he's got an army of armed guards to do his bidding, so fighting humans with the same weaponry you have becomes just as common as fighting "Scuttlers" (the little spider-like Things, some with heads on them) and the bigger "Walkers," which are your typical giant man-sized monsters that take tons of bullets (and some flame-throwin') to kill. The Scuttlers can be dispatched with a shotgun blast or two, but the Walkers take several rounds and then one or two good soakings with the flamethrower before dying (at which point they usually spawn a few Scuttlers for good measure). Luckily the humans don't require this extra step, though since they have assault rifles of their own simply staying away from them isn't enough to save your life. I find the "evil human" plot point to be an incredibly boring one (especially with such an overused plot device as "We can make them into weapons!"), but with only two types of villains (with some cosmetic variations) it at least mixes things up a bit.

The only other enemies are the bosses, which are basically REALLY BIG Things. You kill them the same way you do Walkers (wear em down with firepower, then flame them), but at least in the first boss' case, you can just skip him - if you have full health you can run across the room where he's located and spend the 5-10 seconds to fix/open the door that sends you to the next level. After a few unsuccessful attempts to kill him this is exactly what I did, saving the few health packs I had left as well as a ton of ammo, which made the next area much easier. Maybe the second boss (where I currently am) can be skipped too, I haven't figured out enough of the level to know for sure, but the fact that you can skip 1/3 of the game's major battles is pretty funny. I don't know if it's a glitch, or something that they wanted the player to do (for all I know it's impossible to actually kill that first boss - maybe you're just supposed to wear him down a bit so you can open the door without him interrupting?), but considering how rare it is that you can bypass any of the common enemies (with a lot of backtracking, you have zero use for just running past lower rung enemies as they'll just attack again on the way back) it's weird to think that the bosses are more optional than the random henchmen.

Indeed, one of the game's red flags is that it focuses too much on shooting action, leaving scares all but completely behind after a while. The game starts off pretty scary, with brief appearances by Scuttlers (which you don't even fight, you just see them watching you) and the film's tense, understated score helping to make you more paranoid about what's around the next corner. But after a while it's just a shooter, with lengthy battles that seem unending at first. You can usually find plenty of ammo (especially when the soldiers enter the scenario, as they all drop a clip when they die), so resource management isn't as crucial as it is in say, the first few Resident Evil games (which were a clear influence on this). As long as you don't get injured all that much you'll be fine throughout the bulk of the game - the one possible exception is a bit about a third of the way through when you lose all of your weapons and items and have to escape a lab. This is actually one of the more enjoyable parts of the game - you have to rely on your skill and brains instead of firepower to survive. Leading a Thing into a room and running back out to lock the door before he catches you provides one of the game's more successful thrills, and each time you're able to pull it off and thus save some of that precious limited ammo is a major victory. I wish the game had more bits like this, but alas before long you're once again usually leaving ammo behind because you have more than you need.

You'll also end up with more items than you'll ever use, especially the blood tests. One of the game's hooks was an intriguing system that had you earning the trust of your squad mates by taking a blood test to prove you were human and not a Thing, or calming them down by handing them a weapon or something. But apart from a single scene where you have to find/use the blood test in order to win the trust of an important NPC, there is absolutely no need to ever use them - the NPCs will "thing out" when the script requires them to do so, even if you just ran a test on them to prove they were human! So it's best to just ignore these items unless the game requires you to use them - the concept is great but the implementation left much to be desired (I don't know if it just wouldn't work with the limitations of these older systems, or they just dumbed it down to avoid massive scripting/development to make sure it worked under any possible scenario). You'll also get a sniper rifle that is largely useless (you almost never fight anything that's not running toward you), and I can't think of a single time where I had to use my flares.

The only other thing I didn't like about the game is the ancient (but very much of its time) saving system, which means you look for save points (recorders like the one Macready uses) and hope like hell you get to one before dying and having to repeat a lengthy section of the game. With so many quick deaths (your NPCs might even blow you up by shooting at a barrel nearby) as well as the fact that half the game is basically an escort mission, you're bound to replay some parts anyway, so to have to do one because you didn't get to a save station (or, in one heartbreaking instance for me, just not finding how to power it on before perishing) is mighty frustrating. Worse, the game inexplicably doesn't let you reload your last save from death - you get the option of replaying the level from the beginning (rarely an option you'd want unless you died in the very beginning of one of the nine chapters), or quitting to the main menu, where you get the option to load a save. It just slows things down unnecessarily; death screens really should have a "reload?" type option to keep things moving.

Back to the "escort mission" thing - while the medic and soldier NPCs are always expendable (if they don't die in battle they'll just randomly Thing out once the game needs you to be on your own again), the engineers need to be kept alive until the game kills them for you. Your character (Blake) can repair some doors and fuse boxes himself, but others require the engineer (if there's any rhyme or reason to the difference between the two, it escaped me), so if he dies before he's served his purpose, it's death for you as well. The AI isn't too bad (considering that the game is twelve years old, if anything I was rather impressed for the most part), but there are some glitches that can result in death, and more than once I told him to "stay" in a room out of harm's way so I could take on the nearby foes myself without risking his life, only for him to wander out and die anyway. Escorting AI characters is never fun, but on the flipside one of your companions is none other than John Carpenter himself (the character is named Faraday, for the record), so you can't really hate on the concept as a whole. Carpenter is an avid gamer, as we all know, and this was one of his rare forays into being actually involved with one (he provided the voice and let them use his likeness - I don't think he had too much input on the story, however), so it's a pretty fun little cameo.

But the main appeal of the game probably only really registered in this post-prequel world: it's a lot more fun to branch off and expand the story than to work toward a known end point. While some of the 2011 prequel's scenes were fun (like seeing how the axe got into the door or whatever), the filmmakers were bizarrely torn between making a true prequel and just remaking the 1982 film (I remember Devin pointing out that The Thing in Carpenter's film should have been confused that it was doing so many of the same things it had done a few days before), resulting in a not-terrible but certainly not particularly good movie that never forged its own identity (beyond the inclusion of a female character, something the original film and this game lacks). Here, while some of the story is typical video game nonsense, at least you don't know exactly where it's going at all times, and it's a lot easier to ignore as canon than a movie prequel that spends so much of its time explaining the things we saw in Carpenter's film. Now I can't ever wonder how that axe got there - I have an explanation. But even though the game shows us Childs' body, it still doesn't explain what happened to him in great detail - the mystery remains mine to theorize.

Plus, it has the coolest loading screen concept ever - it's a recreation of Blair's computer simulation of an assimilation, with "assimilation complete" being the sign that the game has fully loaded and is ready to go. I remember watching this thing crawl along on my ancient PC, so seeing it zoom from left to right on the Xbox still delights me. And that leads me to the other thing that makes this game so much more satisfying than the prequel movie: the fan service moments like this aren't its only reason for being. If you've never seen the film, very little of the game will be meaningless to you (_____'s appearance at the very end is probably the only exception), but it seemed like the 2011 film was merely working off a checklist of items from Carpenter's film that they could fill in the details for, and filling up the rest with glorified remake scenes (or just total nonsense, like its climax). It was mechanical, whereas this feels more organic - ironic considering that this is the one that's presented entirely with ones and zeroes instead of flesh and blood humans (I know there's a joke about The Thing/assimilation in there somewhere but I'm too lazy to make it).

Intermittent as they may be, I really do want to turn this "Brian plays an old video game based on a horror movie" thing into a recurring column (which means I should probably name it); I also have the Evil Dead and Constantine games waiting for me (also for Xbox), and if I can figure out how to install them on a new PC, I have all three Blair Witch computer games, only the first of which I've ever played. Plus there have been others over the years I can track down; I mean, there's a Genesis game based on Coppola's Dracula - I have to endure whatever nonsense that offers in order to make a full game. Movie tie-in games on consoles are a slowly dying fad, and so the horror ones will be even rarer; Alien: Isolation (incidentally similar to this in that it's a direct sequel) is the only one I can find on the next-gen systems after a year, and their predecessors weren't exactly rich with them either (the Saw games - also future contenders for this column, and the much hated Aliens: Colonial Marines are the only ones that come to mind, and the latter is a stretch since it was based on Cameron's more action-based film, instead of the scarier original). If you're interested, suggest other games (within reason - I don't have an Amiga* laying around, so THIS won't be possible) and a column name!

*Systems owned: NES, Genesis, N64, PS1, 2, and 3, Xbox 360 (with compatibility for original Xbox), and hopefully soon an Xbox One. I also have an Atari 2600 in storage, but I can't imagine anything will be worth pulling it out for - I've played the awful Halloween and Texas Chain Saw games (as well as Alien, which was a Pac-Man ripoff). Also PC of course, though I have less interest in those as, as previously stated, I'm more of a console fan. It'd have to be really intriguing for me to pick it up, so that automatically cancels out a CD-ROM game based on fucking Pumpkinhead II.