There is a concept in video games called the “vertical slice,” in which developers highly polish a small portion of an unfinished game to convey what, hopefully, the whole experience will eventually look like. Vertical slices are extremely common early on, when a game is being pitched and seeking funding, or when being presented at a splashy convention.
The Thing, a third-person survival horror game from 2002 that acts as a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s iconic 1982 film, feels like a vertical slice that ended up on store shelves, a video game filled to the brim with wide-eyed ideas that almost immediately collapse under the weight of that same ambition. It’s admirable. Playing The Thing in 2022, as we did for our most recent Waypoint 101 entry, it’s not hard to see why the last game from developer Computer Artworks, who went out of business after The Thing released, is talked about as an overlooked game. Definitely not a classic, not quite a gem—but absolutely interesting.
Our past retrospectives, like Ren with We Know the Devil/Heaven Will Be Mine and Rob with Sid Meier’s Gettyburg!, were games with personal and historical connections to Waypoint. Outside of really liking Carpenter’s take on The Thing and growing up on Resident Evil games, my decision to ask the rest of Waypoint to experience The Thing was because I wanted to find out why people viewed the game as a curiosity in a pre-Batman: Arkham Asylum era when licensed games were largely exploitative trash seeking easy dollars.
Even as Carpenter’s film quietly grew in esteem, it was never a franchise. But given how much of Resident Evil’s own aesthetic owes to movies like The Thing—it’s impossible to look at the original game’s mutilated dogs and tyrants and not think of Carpenter’s own monstrosities—it makes sense, in retrospect, why Universal and Konami would gamble on the rise of survival horror being enough for players to be interested in a game version of The Thing. And it makes even more sense why Computer Artworks saw this as an opportunity to launder a bunch of enterprising, if undercooked, design ideas through the adaptation, too.
The incredibly gross but oddly mesmerizing puppetry of The Thing is what most immediately comes to mind with The Thing, but what makes it work as a film are the character dynamics drilled out of its basic premise: an alien organism that can assume the form of living creatures, even humans. Lots of movies are built around trust and deception, few involve a highly intelligent alien life form that can literally become indistinguishable from your friend.
The game, smartly, tries to break this idea down into a series of systems to generate tension between the player and the simulation elements. Your character, the bland and personality-less Captain J.F. Blake, cannot become thing-d, but everyone else can—in theory. While investigating the same antarctic research stations depicted in the film, up to and including the setting for the film’s famous ending, players can recruit squadmates to act as soldiers, medics, and engineers. These named characters can not only be thing-d, but they experience anxiety and fear, as well. If they witness a trauma, their anxiety goes up, as reflected by their dialogue and modeled avatar very obviously losing their shit in the game’s various menus. If they experience enough anxiety, they can “crack,” and do everything from running away to pulling out their gun and shooting everyone around them—including you.
Simultaneously, any one of those seemingly helpful squadmates can, at any time, become thing-d. At least according to The Thing’s long and text-heavy tutorial sequences, which have explanatory text that reads like the original pitch document pasted into the game itself. You can use a helpful testing kit to double check, but minutes later, while that character was out of sight? That test is no longer valid, and that medic may have become an interloper.
The novel-length explanations of the game’s mechanics are at first exhausting, before exerting a revealing charm, because the developers are clearly very excited about what they’re putting in front of you, and know it’s going to come out of left field for some players.
Because on paper, this sounds compelling and in-line with the exciting AI and systems experimentation happening on the PC side of things during the same era, with games like Deus Ex. And to The Thing’s great credit, the opening hours are a surprisingly solid execution of these ideas, as the game walks you through carefully crafted sequences of action and tension that slowly introduce all of these ideas into the mix, clearly building towards the game removing its hand-holding and allowing the systems to do their work.
This culminates in a set piece near a kitchen, where the player finally has multiple squadmates with varying roles and different ways of dealing (or not dealing) with stress, and the seemingly very real threat that any one of them could transform at an inopportune time. One squadmate ran away after a firefight, another transformed into a thing. I was guiding a squadmate from one room to another to try and calm them down for a minute. And it was at this point while streaming the game with Rob, we turned to one another and went “look, if the rest of the game builds on what they’ve got here, we could be in for something special.”
Sadly, we were not.
Part of what makes games that promise “anything can happen” exciting is learning, over time, how the developers did and didn’t account for various situations the simulation can produce. What happens in The Thing, however, is learning how many situations the developers didn’t account for, but then clearly had to patch over with frustrating solutions.
Here’s one really good example. Your character can repair basic equipment that’s broken, but anything more involved requires an engineer. It’s not hard to see how this could create some tricky situations for a level designer. If you require that players have an engineer to advance a puzzle, what does that mean for their randomized potential to get thing-d? In a moment of boredom, I decided to start shooting an engineer in my squad, who then immediately revealed themselves to be an alien—oh shit. Well, except the next puzzle explicitly requires that engineer, which means the game then defaults to a “game over” screen. Naturally, you might ask, what happens if you give the engineer a blood test? The game is consistent, at least: they’re revealed as an alien and the game over screen hits.
The cover art to 'The Thing.' Artwork courtesy of Giant Bomb
These further cracks appear after the game reveals the randomness of being thing-d to be a scripted affair, with squadmates coincidentally transforming as they cross certain thresholds in The Thing’s level-based design. You can see the limitations of the world squeezing the systems in real-time, preventing them from interesting play even within their primitive playgrounds. The demands of the game’s plot and rigid level structure are too restrictive.
“The infection system was conceived as a simulation that had the capacity to play out differently each time you played the game, leading to potential replayability,” said The Thing artist and designer Andrew Curtis in an interview with Eurogamer from 2014. “However, the game was also very story-led with set-pieces that required specific characters getting infected at certain times. These two aspects were constantly pulling in different directions. I think we ended up with a slightly messy compromise with good story elements and a genuinely new mechanic but also some logical inconsistencies which, ironically, became glaringly obvious if you played the game more than once."
Similar versions of this play out over and over, before The Thing throws up its arms and becomes the most boring version of itself: a run-and-gun shooter where players mow down dozens and dozens of mindless enemies. No more systems or randomness, only the dull satisfaction of watching polygons crumble from a mile away beneath a sniper scope, before players are tossed into a helicopter to dump bullets into a screen-filling monstrosity. Whether the developers simply ran out of time, resources, or simply didn’t know how to translate their experiments into an experience that could undergo the rigor of a player? Who knows.
But by the time credits roll, you’ve long forgotten the contact high from that kitchen area.
Revisiting older games without baked-in nostalgia is already a difficult proposition, because without the fuzzy positive memories, it’s extremely difficult to situate yourself in the context the game was released in and fully appreciate what it was trying to do at that point in history. Playing games from the past requires a deft hand, because so much of video game design is specifically iterating on the past, often making it hard to fully appreciate what came before.
The Thing had some radically cool and inventive ideas, even if didn’t know what to do with them. Perhaps the coolest takeaway from having played it is realizing that, even today, not many games are trying to do what The Thing attempted. It’s still exciting. With rumors that Carpenter might revisit The Thing in some capacity—for my money, a TV show is the best route—maybe there’s also an opportunity for a new video game version of The Thing, too.
Can’t you imagine all of this, set in some kind of semi-open arctic world? I sure can.