One of the inevitabilities of doing critiques of video games is encountering a game that has an interesting design but dull story or good story but bad design. In the former’s case, it’s not really necessary to finish the game because after a few hours you’ll have learned the gist of the system. So I’m going to be frank and admit that I didn’t finish The Thing, but saw a lot of interesting ideas going on. I ended up quitting at about the same point as Alec Meer in his retrospective piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. After the tenth time of doing the same 20 minute battle only to fall off a piece of scaffolding and start over, I’d had enough. A brutally distant save point system combined with too many awkward insta-kill puzzles resulted in a game that was too tedious. The plot itself is what would happen if you took the script of Aliens and swapped out all the words with ones from The Thing. Minus the interesting female lead, motherhood overtones, and space travel. But, beyond all of that, there is a very interesting squad game design along with an excellent illustration of misusing cutscenes.
Like any survival horror game, this is a system of managing finite resources. Going outside drains your stamina, meaning you can only be out for a certain period before you start to freeze to death. Ammo and health packs are often in short supply while enemies are in abundance. What gets added to this mix is squad mates who each have a specific job. One is a glorified key card (they’re the only ones who can fix certain electric panels), another is an unlimited source of health, and the third is an extra gun. What’s interesting is that your squads have both a trust and sanity bar. Most people you meet will think you’ve been infected by the alien (and thus under its control) so you have a variety of ways to earn their trust. What’s interesting is that all of these involve sacrificing resources. You can give them a gun, heal them, etc. This trust can also be lost if you accidentally shoot them, hide from a fight, or just ditch them. No trust means they don’t accept orders, and in the case of the medic or engineer you often need them to. The catch is that anyone you come in contact with may also be infected by the Thing. So when you’re handing over health kits to keep a squad mate alive, you might find out a few minutes later that the whole thing was a giant waste. This is a perfect example of a game design using two conflicting needs to create tension. On the one hand, you can always use an extra gunner and the medic is obviously handy. On the other hand, they are eventually going to get infected and turn on you. You can get your ammo and gun back from the corpse after you kill them, but the much rarer health kits will be long gone. Making that choice adds an unexpectedly unique kind of resource management to the game. The game does destroy the replayability of this feature by making the infections linear. The people in your party will either die or cross an invisible line and instantly become infected. There is no keeping them intact after a certain point, making it possible to maximize resources when such an ability shouldn’t exist.
Another interesting thing about the squad game design is the sanity meter. Whereas the average player may be quite desensitized to gore and swarms of aliens coming after them, the AI of your squadmates is not. Walk by a shredded corpse and someone on your team might vomit. Leave them in the blood filled room with human entrails and their fear will spike up. They typically tend to be less responsive to orders and less able to handle their weapons when they are frightened as well. If they get scared enough they’ll either curl into a ball crying or worse, shoot themselves. What’s remarkable about this is that the system forces the player to be aware of all the violence and gore. Most research into how games desensitize people is fairly suspect, but the more probable reason the player gets desensitized is that they are seeing the same death scenes and visuals repeatedly. To someone whose never played GTA IV, watching someone screw around with a rocket launcher might seem horrific. To that player, it’s just the same reaction they’ve seen dozens of times. Preventing that desensitization from happening, that tuning out of the game’s themes and focusing purely on victory, is a laudable goal. Every time the player notices a squad mate freaking out, looks around, and thinks “Hey, This is pretty gross”, that player is dragged back into the experience. Every time I’m getting swarmed by enemies and one of my squadmate wets their pants (this will happen) I’m reminded of how crazy the whole situation has become. Finding a new way for the game design to communicate what the plot is telling me is a remarkable accomplishment for any game.
The game suffers from a classic case of ‘I wish I was a movie’, and you get this sense from the constant barrage of cut scenes that aren’t induced by player input. Mixing cutscenes with a game is a tricky work because they always need to be voluntary, never an interruption. Given the intense difficulty the design creates, there’s no need to turn it into a cutscene every time I see someone that wants to talk. The player probably going to be willing to hear them out just to get their help. Since they don’t resemble any of the other enemies, you’re not going to accidentally shoot them like in a game full of humans. The trust meter will also deter this kind of conduct since accidentally shooting another person means they won’t take orders. If the game has to keep taking control away from the player because they don’t care what people are saying, that’s a foundational problem with the design, not an excuse to force something on the player. Any incentive to obey a game’s plot is always going to seem artificial when you look at it purely from the design perspective. You can’t let the engineer die because you need him to open a locked door. You need health so you need the medic. The motivation isn’t the much pleasanter “I can’t let him die because he’s a fellow human being” that the plot is conveying, but is that really a flaw? Every good story has basic rules of conduct and morality governing it. A system of rules is not going to generate an emotion by itself anymore than the Penal Code of your home country is going to make you love everyone because murder means going to jail. The rules establishe a mode of conduct that you cannot engage in without consequences, the people you meet and personally enjoy are what generates the higher emotions of concern. That’s how the plot/art/sound and game design interact, the design is the skeleton, the rest is the flesh & blood that gives it life. The cookie cutter plot, parade of grizzled soldiers, and the generic plot twists make The Thing do little for this idea of games. Its skeleton, however, is quite a remarkable piece of work.