The Thing is nauseating. Seeing it for the first time in a sticky-floored screening room a couple of years back, I thought: It’s too late for me. This movie won’t work anymore. I’ll admire its craft and the bizarre, dirty atmosphere in which John Carpenter was so brilliant at miring his movies, but it won’t frighten me. Of course, just like some stoned goner watching a wheezing VHS copy 25 years ago, The Thing scared the crap out of me.
When MacReady (Kurt Russell) starts testing the blood of his doomed companions in the Antarctic to see who is in fact a horrifying shape-shifter pretending to be a human, my stomach warped into a Gordian knot of anxiety and anticipation. When Palmer’s (David Clennon) blood exploded in a geyser of nasty alien goo and his body stretched into a seething tower of impossible, murderous parts, I laughed because it was the only thing I could do to feel normal. More than three decades on from its release, The Thing got me good.
Computer Artworks’ The Thing hit the PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox 20 years after the movie. While it’s never as nauseating as the film, it certainly makes you itch. The 2002 technology powering the game wilts under modern eyes, but its best ideas still shine beneath the muddy colour and sloppy controls. The paranoia and anxiety so essential to the film is bottled in the game’s code. Never knowing who might be a monster, managing jittery squad mates who are programmed to stop trusting you at the slightest provocation — it feeds you a stream of the poisoned psychology that pushed MacReady to the brink as he methodically tested his cohorts’ blood. But in trying to expand on its inspiration using video games’ most reliable crutch — the gun — The Thing game becomes a missed opportunity. It can get you, but only sporadically, and the stomach-squeezing disquiet of the film dissipates under the sound of tinny gunshots.
The Thing game picks up almost immediately after the movie’s ending. You’re dropped into U.S. Outpost 31, the same Antarctic research base from the film, as Captain Blake, a member of the special forces crew sent to investigate after contact was lost. He doesn’t know about the Thing when he lands, but he and his men find out quickly enough. By the end of the first level, Blake’s seen the half-finished spacecraft Wilford Brimley’s character is making at the end of the movie and listened to a recording of MacReady explaining what’s become of the outpost. From there, it’s a rush to rescue the rest of the special-forces team that’s at risk of assimilation and then levelling the base itself before moving onto the Norwegian facility, where the Thing was first discovered, to finish the job.
If Blake arrived at the outpost and casually strolled through the wreckage, occasionally fighting gruesome aliens with a machine gun, The Thing game would’ve been a perfectly serviceable tie-in. It does do that ad nauseam, but it also does a fascinating job making you distrust something you have to actively manage. While exploring the outpost, Blake is constantly running into the special-forces soldiers under his command. Up to three soldiers can join him at any given time, and they serve a variety of roles. Medics can heal their allies, engineers can fix machinery, and so on.
Rather than the rote tactical assets these sorts of companions would be in a standard military game, Blake’s soldiers are more dynamic. Just like the crew MacReady has to manage in the movie, the soldiers are instantly terrified by what’s happening around them. They can lose their nerve and Blake will have to win back their trust, which is easier said than done. If you bring up the character menu and see your medic’s head twitching and his trust metre plunging, you can give him one of your guns and some ammo to ease his nerves. But then you may find yourself in a firefight with actual Thing beasts and not have the ordinance to finish them off. Or worse, that paranoid medic might turn out to be a Thing themselves, and you’ve just armed them.
It creates an atmosphere of vicious unpredictability, especially the first time you play the game. The Thing’s linear stage-by-stage structure feels antiquated now, but the developer’s decision to gate your progress through the tiny environments makes every single interaction with the rescued soldiers feel fraught. In the third level, you’re trying to repair the outpost’s communications system. Pace, a squirrelly engineer with a thick Southern accent, can join Blake through the stage, but from the beginning, his trust is already sorely low, and he only slides further into panic after you find Williams. Williams can access the comms room, but he won’t go with you until you’ve killed the giant bipedal Thing monsters in the building. Taking them on using a handy new flamethrower is effective, but by the time I’d cleared them all out, Pace was losing it. Reaching comms with Pace and Williams in tow, Pace panicked and opened fire, leading me to assume he’d been a Thing the whole time. After shooting him, he just fell to the ground — still human but very dead. In a single scene, The Thing game had captured the vicious pressure of the movie’s most iconic scenes and made it feel organic.
But between each scene like that is a never-ending tide of shootouts. Unlike MacReady and the crew from the movie, Blake’s men are heavily armed tough guys, and the game gives them a typical tough-guy challenge. The mutating creeps are a rarity in the original flick: a hand-devouring torso that turns into gargantuan jaws, a disembodied head on spindly legs, a dude with elongated fingers and poor communication skills. Here, they’re a flood of identical cannon fodder: fleshy dogs and skittering crab monsters seemingly on loan from Half-Life. Larger enemies follow, like bipedal humanoids, as well as big one-off bosses, but even those look less like Carpenter’s sickening bodily amalgams and more like stock video game monsters. The Thing, for all of its fascinating human puzzles and troubling resource management, is still a shooter, so it gives you things to shoot. It might have been more interesting to confront you with scarce, dangerous monsters that take a significant chunk of your resources to bring down, but The Thing instead aims for quantity. Needing to replay stages in full because you ran out of bullets fighting dozens of monsters dilutes the fear it builds up when you’re just walking around with three characters and wondering which one you can risk testing with your only needle, or which one you can trust with a pistol.
Computer Artworks’ gamble on guns wasn’t wholly ill-advised. There’s precedent for it in the world of sci-fi-tinged body horror. Ridley Scott’s Alien was nauseating as well, a dreadful spin on the same slasher formula Carpenter nailed in Halloween. The terror of the Xenomorph in that movie was its seeming omnipresence. It could be anywhere on that spaceship, and tracking its movements only made it scarier to think about how it could lay eggs in your body just to destroy that body later. Carpenter funneled that sense of bodily helplessness and revulsion back into The Thing shortly thereafter; the Thing couldn’t be anywhere, but it could be anything. In following up Alien, James Cameron used that original monster to create a new kind of anxiety, that of an unstoppable force. The Thing game tries to do the same, milking a thrill out of multiplying its creatures into a flood, a threat that used to be hauntingly intimate now writ large.
But what worked for Alien doesn’t work for The Thing, in part because its monster needs specificity to be terrifying. Yes, the Thing can become anything, but it hides by becoming the things you already know. It’s not scary as an army of vomiting beasts. It’s just an annoyance. When those irritants fade away and you’re out in the snow wondering how to best use the tools you have left not just to survive, not just to keep your comrades alive and trusting you, but to ultimately figure out which of them might become the next monster in disguise, The Thing is grand. It’s not exactly nauseating, but it’s close enough to get you sometimes.
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