Saturday, 22 October 2016

October Nightmares II #22: The Thing (2002) - It's Weird and Pissed Off

Long time readers will no doubt be aware of my fondness of John Carpenter. The veteran horror director is responsible for some of the most iconic horror movies of the Seventies and Eighties. I’d say Nineties and Early-Two-Thousands too, but that would be a stretch considering he was putting out dross like Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. That’s forgiveable, seeing as how creativity in general died on its feet in the Nineties – just ask Heavy Metal. Doesn’t mean that I’m going to forgive 2010’s The Ward though; that film could corner the market as a cure for insomnia.

Of all Carpenter’s films it’s perhaps The Thing which has left the greatest legacy: as the unwitting progenitor of the horror sub-genre ‘film about ugly thing that doesn’t die’. I’m sure they’ll think of a catchier name for it. In 2000 Computer Artworks were handed the unenviable task of crafting a sequel for The Thing. A sequel for The Thing? The film with the famously ambiguous ending? Yes, Universal Studios decided it was worth revealing whether the cat was alive or dead so that they could add to the stacks of money they keep in the dungeons. Talk about Schrödinger's prat. But The Thing actually lends itself well to a video game. Games such as Extermination, Evolva, and Martian Gothic showed that combining survival horror with enemies who resemble the nebulous mass of wires tangled together behind your TV could be an effectively horrifying combination.

A game adaptation of John Carpenter’s film about The Flying Spaghetti Monster, therefore, was as inevitable as my girlfriend eating my food after saying she doesn’t want to order anything. With respect to The Thing (2002) it does treat the original film with cautious reverence – like a teenage boy awkwardly dancing with his bird at the school disco and trying not to step on her toes. Set shortly after the bleak ending of the movie – which saw MacReady and Childs, one of whom is almost certainly infected, trapped in the wilderness with no chance of rescue – The Thing (2002) sees U.S Special Forces investigate the ill-fated Antarctic outpost. From there the game proceeds like one of those low-rent guided tours you get in tourist towns, taking the player through the events and locations from the film – including the UFO, the Norwegian base, and that craft Blair makes which resembles the terrible paper mâché scupltures I’d make for my parents after watching Art Attack.

It’s your bog-standard mystery driven horror setup. Only, everyone with a vested interest in a video game adaptation of The Thing will have seen the film already, so the mystery’s already been solved. The game even opens like the last days of Rome (shambling, multi-limbed horror edition), depicting all manner of death and carnage. So it’s a little laughable when the grizzled macho-protagonist is told by his commanding officer to “recon the area and see what happened”. Computer Artworks took this approach in order to shoe-horn in an entirely unwanted government conspiracy subplot; in which shady government agencies are trying to modify the virus to use it as a biological agent in warfare. Oh America, I know that for some unfathomable reason you’ve got to constantly be sticking your dick through everyone else’s letterboxes, but this is a terrible idea. Arming ISIS to carry out proxy wars in the Middle East was one thing - turning humans into Doc Ock by way of H. R. Giger is another matter entirely.

On the surface The Thing handles not too divergently from every early PS2 action-horror, in that none of the actions you perform seem to have any weight behind them. The controls are clunky and general handling is entirely tedious. It’s one of those games where you can’t even be arsed to try and survive because the gameplay lacks the necessary tactile feedback to make the experience feel fraught and perched on the precipice of life and death. I’m reminded of an old tactical third-person shooter series called Conflict. That series also felt you were trying to control soldiers who were undergoing an out of body experience. The Thing shares another similarity with Conflict in that it’s loosely squad based.
A concept that’s usually as compatible with tense survival horror as the Conservative Party is with the NHS. You still have to do all the work, of course, but you get to issue limited commands. It's similar to when you get a pseudo promotion at work which means you're still a low-earning bottom feeder but now have twice the responsibility. 

In The Thing, however, the squad mechanics are the primary source of horror. Discounting the wonderfully grotesque bosses, the parasitic monsters in The Thing aren’t really that great.
One problem with this game lies in the sheer number of high-powered weaponry it throws at you. The whole point in the film was that all they had was tools, explosives for mining, and a rule-of-cool flame-thrower. The monsters here are easily dispatched and worse, owing to the age of the game, they're rather bland and uninspired - like a Nickelback album post-Silver Side Up. Sure, they're oddly proportioned, with elongated limbs and body parts in odd places, but what wasn't on the early days of the PS2? There are some decent designs, such as the crab-person Thing that's blended with a dog. But nothing really captures the disgustingly visceral in a way the original film or Half Life's Head Crab zombie-mutants did. 

The game’s trust and fear systems for its NPCs is what ratchets up the tension, emulating the nail-biting paranoia of the film - which saw colleague turn against colleague in a Darwinian bid to survive. The idea is that, over time, your team members eventually become suspicious of each other and yourself, suspecting you to secretly be a twisted alien parasite. We've all been there after a few. The same can be said of them, as the game periodically infects your team members. There’s no real way of telling whether a team mate is infected or not. MacReady's blood testing device used in film (which causes infected blood to shoot into the air as though it’s just seen a large spider) puts in an appearance. Except the game is so poorly made this mechanic doesn’t work properly, meaning there really is no way of knowing who is just having a breakdown or who is about to betray and infect you. It’s like the dating scene in 2016.