‘The Thing’ (the Video Game) Also Deserves a Remake

The Thing prequel — though let’s be honest, it’s really a remake — comes out in theatres today. It’s debatable whether this story of paranoia needed another prequel/remake, but while they’re at it, how about remaking the game too? Because there’s no debating that The Thing game needs an update.

The Thing had some great ideas. It used its Arctic setting well: Going outside was dangerous because the cold would literally kill you after a few minutes, draining your health unless you found a building or fire to warm yourself at, and it was hard to see where you going due to a heavy wind. You had to follow the ropes tied between buildings, otherwise you’d get lost and die. It was a harsh place, even without taking the aliens into account.

But the bigger selling points were its fear and trust systems. You played as part of a team that was sent to investigate the destruction of the American base, so you were often with a squad of other characters. You lost or gained their trust depending on your actions. Kill someone you think has been “turned” and you’d lose their trust. Use a special kit to prove someone was turned and you’ll gain trust. Test yourself or hand out weapons and ammo would also gain you trust. The environment affected how scared your team was at any given time, whether it was bloody or safe, dark or light, as well as the number and size of “thing” monsters you were fighting. If someone became too scared they might snap, running away, shooting randomly, or just shooting themselves. On paper, it sounds like a great way to evoke the paranoia and suspense of the film, but in practice, it just didn’t work.

Losing trust was rarely an issue as long as you didn’t make a habit of killing your squad mates indiscriminately. Yet with test kits and ammo being scarce resources (this was sold as a survival horror game, after all) gaining trust was too hard to be worth the effort. Your team would still fight, even if they were suspicious of you, so why bother wasting that test kit? Fear was the bigger issue but that ended up feeling too scripted: You’d walk into a bloody room and a guy would kill himself even if he wasn’t on edge — like he only did it because the developers programmed him to do it.

It was the reliance on items that hampered the trust systems, and the reliance on the environment that hampered the fear system. Being able to control how items are passed around allowed you to easily control the trust levels, and since fear was tied to the environment, any memorable suicides always ended up happening in the same places. There was too much control inherent in these systems for them to evoke the desired paranoia. Such fear demands a more complex AI, one that can’t be controlled with items, one that watches you and analyzes where you go, what you look at, and for how long — a system similar to the psychological profiling of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which profiles the player based on how long and how often you look at beer bottles or sexy calendars, and whether or not you decide to explore the women’s restroom. To be effectively scary, the player has to be able to act suspiciously and lose an AI’s trust without even realizing it because nothing kills paranoia faster than predictability.

And it was predictability that ultimately ruined The Thing game. A personal anecdote: at one point, I was running through the cold with a single squad mate when he suddenly turned into a “thing” monster. I had done nothing to cause it. He hadn’t gotten attacked. He just turned. Since I liked him and wanted him to survive, I reloaded a saved game from several hours earlier and spent an undue amount of time and effort making sure no “thing” monster ever touched him — just in case that’s what had happened the first time. But as I found myself once again running through the cold — at the exact same spot as before — he still turned. I then realized that this was a scripted event. If I had any other survivor with me, they would also turn as soon as I crossed this invisible line because the developer wanted me to be alone for the next part of the game. You could only take a survivor so far; you couldn’t actually rescue anyone. It was so disheartening that I quit and never actually finished the game. Once I knew how predictable it all was, the game couldn’t be scary.

Paranoia demands randomness. Rather than just kill my team at certain pre-set points, a better Thing game should randomly decide whether or not a survivor is infected upon my meeting them, and then have them act accordingly, waiting for the right moment to kill stragglers while deflecting suspicions towards others. In other words, it demands an AI not possible on the old PlayStation 2. Thus, a remake is in order.

Personally, I’d love to play a Thing game with a survivor system like Dead Rising, in which you find people and take them back to a safe house. I’d love to see multiple paranoid AIs interact with each other, forcing the player to arbitrate. Every time that you leave to look for more survivors you’d be leaving the AI to act amongst itself; a pent up bottle of fear and violence just waiting to go off. You’d never know who, if anyone, was infected, and you’d constantly face the disturbing possibility that you could return to find everyone slaughtered by their own hands or by an alien because you trusted the wrong person. You’d have an emergent story that reflects the same paranoia as the movie does.

I’m really just daydreaming here, but the point is that technology has advanced far enough that a developer could make a game that more effectively captures the fear of the movie. The Thing shouldn’t be an action-shooter, which is what the 2002 PS2 game was. For that reason alone, the game deserves a remake.

PopMatters’ own G. Chrisopher Williams accurately described the RPG-like allure of League of Legends:

Gain a level, choose a skill, keep fighting. Gain some gold, teleport home, buy something really cool, get back to killing. These are all elements of role playing, combat with foes both great and small, developing a character’s skill sets on your own terms, and generating enough loot to make yourself a god, just served up really, really, really, quickly. (“Living for the Short Term Grind”, PopMatters, 5 October 2011)

Before the release of Dominion, this quick pace spanned the length of a game that took — on average — 45 minutes to complete. A really quick game in the traditional mode might breeze past in an astonishing 20 minutes against a truly terrible team. An average game of Dominion lasts roughly 20 minutes with my fastest match coming in at just over seven. The game itself, a “king of the hill” variant in which players control capture points to tick down an enemy counter to zero. The speed, map, and mechanical changes in Dominion fundamentally alter the tenuous balance the game had established (if it had it at all) prior to its launch. While this new game mode is an absolute blast, it suffers from obvious and painful balancing issues.

Dominion simply cannot handle the bloated amount of League of Legends characters and maintain any semblance of balance. Play a few rounds of Dominion using the draft system, and it quickly becomes clear that the same set of characters appear absolutely overpowered. These are the same characters from the regular mode, but here on the Crystal Scar, they become nigh unstoppable.

Take Poppy, for example, a melee tank character who can charge into enemies, knocking them back. If she knocks them into terrain, they take massive damage and become stunned. The Crystal Scar is so dense with terrain that avoiding this maneuver requires a great deal of skill. Similarly, most combat encounters take place one-on-one, instead of in large team fights. Therefore, characters like Jax, whose abilities make him excellent at taking out one champion at a time, is almost always banned from Dominion. Akali, with her proficiency at carving up single-targets and dissapearing from combat quickly makes her an absolute terror.

Meanwhile, champions like Amumu, who shines in large skirmishes, becomes significantly underpowered in Dominion. The lack of neutral jungle creeps also undermines the jungling ability (the practice of earning experience and gold predominantly from neutral creatures) of certain characters. Characters who can quickly escape battle also benefit most from the health potions scattered about the map, allowing them to initiate, flee, and initiate again quickly and efficiently. Veigar and Nassus, two characters with abilities that improve greatly over time, have become nearly useless in Dominion where games are over well before their abilities become powerful. Likewise, the numerous support characters in the roster are largely ignored by competitive players because their abilities that are so helpful in team fights are wasted in the numerous small skirmishes that define Dominion.

Regardless of team composition, a group of highly skilled players will always trounce a group of unorganized amateurs. Also, the draft mode option allows players to ban the four most overpowered champions. Nevertheless, Dominion is painfully unbalanced given current champion options.

Unfortunately, I doubt Riot can ever fairly balance both the regular mode and Dominion mode of League of Legends. Increasing the stats of one champion in Dominion may give this same champion an unfair advantage in normal play. They have tried to address this concern by balancing the game through items, offering players Dominion specific items that can help level the playing field and make weak characters viable. Yet balancing the panoply of options with more options seems like a losing battle.

Simply put, Riot has raised its community’s expectations too high. Riot has launched a new champion with startling frequency, and each time they must wrestle with balancing issues as the game dynamics shift slightly to make room for new play styles. Players have grown accustomed to receiving new and ever changing champions, even though the influx of so many character options has exacerbated the balancing problem. Meanwhile, Riot has spent a great deal of time and effort in making their game a viable competitive experience for professional gamers.

Riot has done such a good job at satisfying their player base, that they have outpaced their own ability to balance the game. With Riot’s serious approach to high-level play, players have come to expect a balanced game that may never exist. Riot will need to make a strategic choice about the League of Legends’s competitive future and decide to what degree a hopelessly unbalanced game mode can be integrated with their existing pro-gaming plans. They also need to temper player expectations and convey to their community that League of Legends may never be complete. Although Riot has heretofore developed an excellent rapport with their community, managing a relationship around such a quickly changing play experience may prove more difficult than balancing the game itself.


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