Squad-based shooters got their first taste of paranoia as UK developer Computer Artworks created a sequel to John Carpenter’s cold day in hell. Blood on snow, axes buried in a frozen doorpost, a dog’s head splitting open like the petals of a flower: as a videogame license, The Thing is intriguing but unconventional.
John Carpenter’s story of shape-shifting alien infection descending on the crew of an Antarctic research station carefully rations imaginative and oddly lovable splatter while also creating a taut psychodrama. Though it satisfies the guns-and-monsters credentials for a thirdperson shooter, the strength of the 1982 film lies not just with the horrific special effects transformations, as humans turn into alien freaks, but in more problematic territory for games: the mistrust that grows in a situation where anybody could turn out to be a monster in disguise.
Throw in the fact that the film is two decades old, and that its ending is a near-perfect piece of polished ambiguity which has long proved sequel-proof, and that simple sojourn into a world of monster closets begins to look a lot more complicated. So it’s apt that Computer Artworks, the developer which finally took up the license, was intriguing but unconventional too. As the name suggests, the company founded in 1993 by pioneering digital artist William Latham started out a long way from videogames, providing unnerving computer visuals for acts like The Shamen, and creating the immensely successful Organic Art application.
Feeling the lure of more complex projects, Latham’s company eventually left such abstract work behind to create PC game Evolva in 2000. A thirdperson action title featuring a genetic engineering character-upgrading system, Evolva was an ambitious project for a company starting out in games.
“The types of deals in those days were more healthy,” says Latham. “Virgin, the publishers, were keen on innovation, and Evolva did lots of innovative stuff like picture-in-picture and being able to switch between characters.”
Such a focus on pushing boundaries was to become a recurring theme for Computer Artworks as, acknowledges Latham, were the difficulties inherent in such a focus. While Evolva promised the prospect of freeform mutation, the team discovered that if the experience was too open-ended, the player could lose their way. “Eventually, we had to spend a lot of time constraining what the player could do so that the game made sense.”
Evolva cemented Computer Artworks’ reputation as a developer with a special skill for disturbing imagery – just the kind of team Universal was looking for to develop a videogame sequel to The Thing. In turn, Latham was delighted to find a project that allowed him to continue experimenting, but with the backing of a strong commercial IP. It was this dynamic which would define the game.
If Latham was worried about the pressures a huge publisher and a mainstream license might bring to his individual and rather cerebral company, he hid it well. It helped that it was Universal which chose Computer Artworks in the first place, largely on the strength of Latham’s own previous work, and this respect and understanding of the developer’s skills seems to have been in evidence throughout production.
“[Universal] were very good to work with,” says Latham. “They told us to come up with original ideas. It wasn’t like a Harry Potter license. There weren’t strict guidelines, as long as we retained the quality of the original work.”
Universal wanted a true sequel, with a story that took place shortly after the film’s climax. Quickly, a basic plot was outlined and the gameplay started to emerge: a squad-based shooter in which the player would lead a rescue mission to Outpost 31.
“I’m reasonably happy with the story,” says Latham. “One of the problems with game production is time. There are a couple of passes on the script and then: wham! You’re straight into production. One of the most sensible things I did was get a very good storyboard artist, Paul Catling, to do visualizations of what the game would look like. The story then came out of a dialogue between Andrew Curtis, the design lead, and producer Chris Hadley.”
Between them, Hadley and Curtis would settle on an ingenious solution to the problem of the film’s ending, in which the last two survivors of Outpost 31 sit out a mistrustful stalemate, each suspecting the other to be an alien impostor. The first level of the game reveals a single frozen body, leaving the question of what became of the other survivor to ferment in the player’s mind and urge them forwards.
As the team entered development, the game’s central concept came into focus: the player’s need to constantly keep morale high among his AI teammates, giving them ammo or weapons to keep them calm, testing them for alien infection, and ensuring that nothing in his own behavior makes them suspect him of being an alien himself.
“It was early days for squad-based games, and the fear, trust and infection mechanic was quite innovative for the time,” says Latham. “It came from very early meetings where we all watched the film to come up with brand identifiers. We decided there should be a novel AI element that mimicked what happened within the film: you never know who’s going to turn.”
This idea would lift the game above a simple shooting title. “Originally, the game was going to be a lot more open and dynamic: any event could happen,” says Latham. Ultimately, however, as with Evolva, the developers found themselves reining in an innovative idea that was starting to threaten a coherent experience. “We had to scale it back,” sighs Latham. “There were a few cheats to make it entertaining. We tried to mimic human behavior, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter too much how you treated your teammates.”
It’s tempting to see such ‘cheats’ as the result of publisher pressure, but Computer Artworks itself was the driving force behind the changes. Admitting that the team had ignored, to their detriment, a lot of the playtesting feedback they received on Evolva, Latham was determined not to let things get over-complicated this time.
“UK developers are famous for innovation, but in the longer term that hasn’t been to the UK’s advantage. The consumer doesn’t always want that extreme level of innovation. Computer Artworks was always pushing the boundary, but in some cases we’d push it too far, and the fear, trust, infection mechanism was a case in point.”
Despite such issues, the finished game is clever and compelling. The slow opening is perfectly paced to create a sense of claustrophobic dread, and even given the limitations imposed on the AI system or the scripted set-piece transformations as NPCs erupt into aliens at specific moments, the suspicion created when a new potential teammate appears is a more than ample reward. More importantly, the cabin fever of the original film is captured beautifully. While the hardware placed limitations on the degree of flesh-tearing horror Latham’s team could create, the excellent art direction, with its eloquently suggestive tableau of hours-old bloodstains, echoes the film.
“I think given what the technology allowed I’m very pleased with the game,” says Latham. “It’s one of those games that people still talk about, and other games have imitated the AI mechanisms. In the industry people are still aware of it. It is of the period, but I think it still holds its own.”
It was inevitable, though, that The Thing would pay a price for being ahead of its time, particularly in its original aim to have AI-driven NPCs really affecting the storyline. “It would be interesting to have a crack at it on PS3 today with procedural technology,” says Latham, wistfully. “But there’s always that balance. You give the player the option to wander left and right, but you’re ultimately taking them down a funnel to guarantee some kind of story element.”
The Thing sold over one million copies, topping charts in the UK and Germany. However, despite its success, Computer Artworks closed its doors in 2003, a year after the game’s release. “We finished The Thing and there was a gap before we signed any other products. Because things were slow, we then signed a number of other deals that we probably shouldn’t have. A classic scenario.”
Compounding that, the relationship between publishers and developers was changing. “Quite a few other UK developers went bust that year. Creators of games, unless they’re big-league, have become service providers. In the film world, the director might have a lot of clout – in the game world creative control is passed back and forth depending on how the publisher feels.”
Today, Latham is still working in the liminal zone between art and entertainment. As founder of Games Audit, he offers project management services for the videogame industry, applying the lessons learned from managing Creative Artworks. As a professor of computing at Goldsmiths College, he also teaches an MSC course in games and entertainment programming, while heading various research projects.
“One thing I’ve learnt is that you need to draw a distinction between entertainment and research and art,” Latham concludes. “I’ve gone back to the research and art side. We’re doing a project with Imperial College, taking DNA sequences and presenting novel types of visualizations.” While this is bioinformatics rather than game design, it’s applying game programming techniques with the potential aim of creating new medicines. “We’ve written software which simulates the way proteins fold, which has implications for cancer,” says Latham. “From my point of view I’m back doing innovative work. Some of the morphological aspects which were represented in entertainment form in The Thing, I’m now investigating in the real world.”