How this classic movie adaptation attempted to build a sequel to John carpenter’s landmark horror experience
Peer into the development of an under-appreciated Playstation classic.
In 1982, horror master John Carpenter, best known for films like Halloween,
They Live, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York, released The
Thing to a mostly negative critical reaction. Seeing it as little more than a cheap vehicle to showcase blood, guts and gore, it wasn’t until after its initial release and into the Nineties that it started to gain traction and acclaim. Now seen as one of the – if not the greatest – horror films ever made, it’s considered a classic that has found both its audience and well-deserved praise. Based on John W Campbell Jr’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, The Thing spawned a novelisation, a comic adaptation, a board game and a prequel film in 2011. However, one overlooked entry into the franchise is the 2002 videogame, simply named The Thing. Treading the line between familiarity and giving the franchise new and interesting possibilities, it did what most offshoots of the franchise were afraid to do with the acclaimed series: continue it.
For the uninitiated in the horror masterwork, the film of The Thing follows a research team in Antarctica that becomes the prey of an alien creature, one that can perfectly replicate whatever organism it comes into contact with. Never seen in its original form, the alien begins to take the guise of various members of the research team. Alone and isolated in the depths of nowhere, the film plays into the paranoia and mistrust that begins to brew amid the researchers, all the while the alien picks them off one by one.
The game picks up shortly after the climatic events of the film. Planned to be a direct sequel from the outset and inspired by James Cameron’s Aliens, it focuses on a team of US Special Forces that are sent to investigate what occurred at Outpost 31, the setting of Carpenter’s original film. The player takes the role of Captain JF Blake. It doesn’t take long before communications are down and the alien begins replicating Blake’s team, ultimately leading to a title that offers up action, a tense atmosphere and a team management system that will have the player second guessing the very people who fight alongside them.
Long before working on The Thing, most of the team at Computer Artworks were massive fans of the original film. As Diarmid Campbell, lead programmer on the project explains, “I probably first saw it when I was about 12 – it was on TV, and it scared the shit out of me! Everyone was talking about it at school. Though I didn’t really appreciate its brilliance until I started working on the game, and so watched the film again as an adult. The setting is open and desolate, but no one can escape. Everyone becomes totally paranoid, and everyone deals with it in their own way. Add to that the slowly picking off of each character one by one, and you get this countdown feeling – it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking! The task of creating a game sequel was both daunting and exciting. The difficulty was that the film is character driven (rather than action driven), but in games, the player typically does actions, so trying to translate the psychological elements into systems you can play was always going to be difficult.”
Lead designer Andrew Curtis echoes Campbell’s praise for the film. “It has a brilliant cast, haunting music and great tension in a gripping scenario with nowhere to run – and not forgetting some of the best physical special effects in the history of cinema. We saw making the game as a great opportunity for a relatively unknown studio, and were so full of excitement we didn’t have time to be troubled by the task ahead.”
In speaking about how the team landed the IP for The Thing, Curtis says, “We were approached by Universal Interactive, who already had the rights to the IP. The publisher Black Label Games was specifically created by Universal Interactive to avoid a situation where titles like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon were published under the same label as a horror game about a shape-changing alien flesh monster.”
With the IP in place, the team began work on their ambitious continuation of the famed horror film. However, one important piece of The Thing puzzle would be missing from this game. As Curtis explains, “John Carpenter didn’t seem very interested in videogames, and I think he was too distracted with his film Ghosts Of Mars. He did agree to do a signing at E3 to help promote the game, and let us use his likeness for the character Dr Shaun Faraday in the game. Everyone working on the game loved John, but he’s definitely not a gamer.”
This love and appreciation the developers had for Carpenter’s film is very much evident within the game.
From the opening levels that take place at Outpost 31 and the Norwegian station that features such recognisable film
It did what most off-shoots of the franchise were afraid to do with the acclaimed series: continue It
elements as the frozen body of Childs, the spacecraft that was being built by the Blair version of the alien, and the frozen body of the Norwegian researcher that slashed his wrists and throat before the alien could take him, to being able to listen to Macready’s tapes, there’s a level of authenticity that is a true love letter to what came before it. However, once the player gets past these nods to the original film, the game begins to carve out its own place within the series, and does so brilliantly.
Though The Thing does admittedly take a safe route with its third-person survival horror approach in terms of combat and exploration, Computer Artworks was keen to replicate what the film nailed so perfectly. Curtis explains, “Even though the game moved more towards action horror, we didn’t ever want the player to feel safe. At its core the game is about paranoia and tension; the feeling that at any moment you could be ambushed by a twisted alien mutation, or an ally could attempt to kill and assimilate you.”
Despite its surface level of familiarity, with a whole host of titles released around the same time, there are three main elements that set it apart from anything that has come before it. The game elements that were intended to be game changing were the User Interface, the Fear/trust System and the Infection System. As head of the Beta team that has been sent to Outpost 31 to investigate, the player at all times has one to three additional soldiers under their command. Those under the command of the player fall under one of three potential classes: soldier, medic and engineer. Each class serves a distinct purpose during the game, and the player needs to know when and how to use them. From instructing engineers to fix a broken keypad in order to advance through a door to having your medic patch you up after a gruelling battle with an enemy, properly interacting with your squad is
Thin-skinned members of your squad won’t be able to deal with gruesome scenes. Get them away from the area before they have a breakdown.
The alien can take many different forms, sometimes looking like a mish- mash of different creatures and people.
If you’re not careful you may get lost in the snow fields in the game. Navigate them by using the various flares and lights that link various points of interest together.