John Carpenter's The Thing holds up as an early 80s film incredibly well. The isolation of the Antarctic researchers sets everyone on edge. The inky blankness of the nights contrasts beautifully with the white out conditions of the day time snowstorms. The buildings have only a precarious hold on the fierce landscape. And from the desolate landscape comes a creature that imitates any life it can find. Who can be trusted? Who will survive? There isn't any clear answer. The Thing has inspired a video game and a homemade board game (available on BoardGameGeek), not to mention the 2002 video game, and is widely praised still today. What lessons can we take from the film as a game inspiration?
The one you'll see tomorrow is the anxiety of imitation: When there is a duplicate, which character can be trusted? This is the same anxiety of the dopplegänger character in games and legend, as well as the novel and films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. By creating duplicates, there is an immediate mystery of who, but also how? In The Thing, it is extraterrestrial biology, but in a fantasy setting it could be magic, planar interactions, or devilry; each choice offering some distinction in how the story plays out, the opportunity for red herrings, and other mischief. If you want to heighten the suspense, consider how players might be turned themselves, pitting players against one another. In a one-shot, dream-like setting, or an infection-vaccination situation, these would not have to result in adventurer deaths, but may be explained by an alien mastermind, instead.
The film also excels because it builds so beautifully on the anxiety of isolation. Players are used to gathering in taverns, exploring cities, and bumping into monsters. In The Thing, the basecamp is cut off by hostile wilderness and weather from the rest of humanity. We find out that the Norwegian base has been destroyed and then frozen over, meaning that whatever is at play here has already destroyed another group. So what hope do our protagonists have now? By creating an imaginative environment of isolation, the players may not be able to rely on their brawn or special skills and instead lean on their chops as players cut off from their resources. This, incidentally, is key to the horror of films like Alien, as well. When food, water, and medicine are all in short supply, how might players change their tactics to hunt down or out-think that which is hunting them?
The Thing stands out for being willing to show a fatalistic ending. The camp is in ruins, and two survivors sit facing one another, slowly freezing to death as the camp burns. One of them has been missing and may be another incarnation of the Thing. The characters were forced to use whatever materials they could cobble together--especially explosives-- to bring the hunt to the creature, who was already working to outsmart them by creating a new flying craft. The third lesson I find so impressive, is the scorched earth policy and the use of the environment to combat the creature. When confronted with impossible odds, how might players turn the built and natural environment to their favor and be challenged to do so at nightmarish costs.
Finally, drawing inspiration from the Thing would not likely lead to a campaign, but could fit into a larger campaign. Demons with faustian bargains or powerful wizards may create strange, magical prisons to draw on these. If the players fail, then whatever mimic exists may result in an apocalyptic scenario. This, of course, could be quite inspiring! What civilization would remain if it is impossible to trust those that look like your closest friends, but may not be?
Do you think we should spotlight a movie, show, or piece of literature for our Design Notes? Let us know in the comments below!
Photo Credit: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)