Backed by a growing team of eager developers, Shinji Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara lay the groundwork for Mikami’s house of horrors.
Horror House: The Making and REmaking of Resident Evil
Chapter 2: Special Tactics
They have escaped into the mansion…
Shinji Mikami wasn’t fated to wander the haunted halls of Bio Hazard (later renamed “Biohazard”), his spiritual successor to Sweet Home, alone.
After sequestering himself away for approximately six months to map out the basic conceits of the game—haunted mansion infested with undead, a small team of vulnerable characters, puzzles that must be solved to access new areas, and a first-person camera view for maximum immersion—Mikami was joined by more recruits. Hideki Kamiya, Hiroki Kato, and Kazunori Kadoi joined him as co-system planners, the division of development teams responsible for conceiving and implementing game systems such as the engine responsible for rendering graphics and dictating what players could and could not do. Jun Takeuchi headed up character modeling and rendering, and Motoji Fujita and Ippei Masuda took charge of constructing the stages on which Bio Hazard’s horror play would unfold.
“Except for myself, most of the staff on the Bio Hazard team [were] newcomers to Capcom,” Mikami told Now Gamer in 2010.
Even Mikami was something of a “newcomer” to game development. Prior to Bio Hazard (later renamed “Biohazard”, his experience consisted of four Disney-licensed games for Nintendo’s Super Famicom (Super NES in the States) and Game Boy. Kamiya, Kato, and Kadoi all cut their teeth on Bio Hazard, as did Fujita and Masuda. Takeuchi was the most skilled of the bunch, having helped construct backgrounds in Capcom’s bestselling Mega Man and Street Fighter II sequels across a breadth of console hardware that included Nintendo and Sega platforms.
Takeuchi and Mikami knew Super NES and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis hardware well enough, but very little of their experience could be applied to Bio Hazard. At the outset, Capcom producer Tokuro Fujiwara wanted to target Sega’s forthcoming Saturn console and Sony’s nascent PlayStation. Both platforms possessed the processing power to render 3D graphics, and would store media on CD-ROM. On paper, that meant more richly detailed backgrounds, characters, and gameplay possibilities than what was possible on 16-bit consoles.
It also meant everyone, Mikami and Takeuchi included, would be making things up as they went.
“We carried on like that for about a year, but then that development program had to be suspended,” Mikami said, referring to the Saturn version. “It was hard enough making Bio Hazard for one piece of new, original hardware – developing it for two types of hardware at the same time was just too difficult because of a lack of development staff and a shortage of the necessary skills. That’s why we decided to whittle things down to just the one console version.”
Paring down development to one console instead of two was only one stumbling block Bio Hazard’s fledgling team encountered. As in Sweet Home, the majority of Bio Hazard took place in a lavish estate set far back in dense woods. The estate was enormous — three floors of bedrooms, parlors, and studies, plus hallways to tie it all together. For inspiration to design his mansion, Mikami looked to the Overlook Hotel, the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. He appreciated the dichotomy between the Overlook’s opulence and the unnerving sense that its beauty was only skin deep.
That below the surface, something sinister lurked.
Grounding Bio Hazard in a relatable setting was instrumental to fomenting anxiety in players. As Mikami explained, “I began by coming up with a scenario that had an eerie atmosphere. The critically important point here was to create a world where you could see some evidence that people had been living there, and then introduce zombies so that players would happen to meet them within that kind of environment.”
Vulnerable characters went hand-in-hand with a setting rooted in reality. Sweet Home’s ill-fated party of filmmakers were defined in terms of their special items. Mikami sought to intertwine characters and gameplay even more tightly in Bio Hazard. Rather than put players in charge of a party—Sweet Home had been an RPG, after all—he took a cue from 1992’s Alone in the Dark and let them choose between two: Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, members of Special Tactics and Rescue Squad, or S.T.A.R.S.
Deciding to play as Jill over Chris, or vice versa, allowed Mikami to tell slightly different stories that would lead to different endings, another callback to Sweet Home. Although Chris and Jill would take more or less the same path through the mansion, each would meet different characters along the way. Rebecca Chambers, a young medic, could heal Chris at certain junctures in the story, and even brew and administer a poison capable of killing a certain boss in a single stroke. Jill would team up with Barry Burton, a veteran S.T.A.R.S. officer who, unbeknownst to Jill, was wrapped up in his own problems involving a rogue member of the team.
By the end of Bio Hazard, after solving the riddles of the mansion and making their way into a secret underground lab, players would be able to save their ally—Rebecca or Barry—plus find and rescue Jill or Chris, depending on which character they’d chosen at the beginning of the game. Alternatively, they could save one or neither; the ending cinematic reflected their choices and spurred players to go back and do a more thorough job exploring the grounds.
Beyond opening up branching paths in the narrative, Jill and Chris represented distinct play styles. Chris could take more damage and packed a lighter, but could only carry six additional items. Jill’s slimmer frame made her more susceptible to punishment, but she carried a lockpick with which she could open most doors, and could lug around eight items. Both characters would also find different weapons over the course of the game.
Fundamentally, Jill and Chris represented difficulty levels. Jill’s larger inventory, the lockpick that made her the “master of unlocking,” and bazooka — found early on — suited novice players interested in trying Bio Hazard but leery of the horror theme and challenge of managing scarce resources. Chris, who had to find rusted keys strewn around the mansion to unlock doors Jill could pick, and who didn’t find the ultra-powerful Magnum handgun until late in the story, appealed to players looking for a challenge.
Jill Valentine was (and still is) a study in creating strong female characters. True, Jill couldn’t withstand as much damage as Chris, and her ability to carry more items and explosive weaponry made selecting her Bio Hazard’s de facto “easy” mode. But the fact that she faced the same enemies and puzzles as Chris, and her attire—a full-body uniform low on skin and high on practicality—put her on the same level as her beefier counterpart.
So highly did players and critics come to think of Jill as the Bio Hazard series continued that the decision to brainwash her, dye her hair blonde, and fit her in a skin-tight, black, leather jumpsuit in Bio Hazard 5—the first sequel made following Mikami’s departure from Capcom—angered rather than titillated the series’ millions of loyal fans.
Mikami discussed the subject of female characters in an interview with The Guardian. “In some games, they will be peripheral characters with ridiculous breast physics. I avoid that sort of obvious eroticism. I also don’t like female characters who are submissive to male characters, or to the situation they’re in. I won’t portray women in that way. I write women characters who discover their independence as the game progresses, or who already know they are independent but have that tested against a series of challenges.”
To that point, Mikami was candid in admitting that he did not care for the Rebecca Chambers character. Given a secondary role in Chris’s campaign, Rebecca went on to take a starring role in Bio Hazard 0, a prequel not under the auspices of Mikami. “If I had to name the woman character I most disliked in my games it would be Rebecca Chambers,” he said. “She’s submissive, she’s not independent. I didn’t want to include her but the staff wanted that kind of character in the game, for whatever reason. I’m sure it made sense to them. And in Japan, that character is pretty popular.”
Where they thought it was safe.
Displaying the game in first-person, through the eyes of players, would entrench them in dread that would escalate with every step—seeing zombies shamble toward them, arms outstretched and teeth gnashing as if already tasting fresh meat; spotting bloodstains on the walls and floor, hinting at something unspeakable lying in wait around the next corner; and so on. Polygons would be used to render characters and environments, setting up Bio Hazard as a full 3D, technical tour de force. While the atmosphere looked to be on point in early prototypes, the PlayStation hardware flagged.
“With the first-person viewpoint, my desire was to generate fear by using [polygonal] figures,” Fujiwara explained in an interview with Continue magazine. “When I actually tested it out, however, I found that I had to reduce the quality of the graphics.”
“Initially it was intended to be a full 3D production, but we had to give up on that idea and modify Bio Hazard to use pre-rendering: if we hadn’t done that, it would have been impossible to properly realize my plans for the game,” Mikami said.
Several months into development, the decision was made to retool the game to a third-person view. Environments were reduced from polygons to pre-rendered spaces. Polygonal characters would be able to move through them, but not alter them—like characters come to life in photographs.
The camera, however, would not follow players as they moved around, a la other 3D action games like Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 (both of which would be released in 1996 along with Bio Hazard, and contributing to the bedrock of 3D game design). Each background was divided into segments, with each segment shown from a fixed perspective. Sometimes the camera was set low and at an angle, a method of purposefully disorienting your view. Other shots showed you from above, up close, or behind as you walked further away. The camera might give players a long shot of one hallway, only to switch when they got halfway down the corridor.
Retooling Bio Hazard’s perspective created lots of extra work for the team. Not that they complained. “The team generally wasn’t very experienced at all, and it meant we had to go through an awful lot of trial-and-error experimentation during the development process,” Mikami admitted. “In spite of that, the team had an incredibly positive attitude, and I’m sure that was connected to how we were able to produce such a good game.”
Bio Hazard’s 180-degree switch from first-person to third-person with static camera angles came with trade-offs. On the one hand, Chris, Jill, and the bestiary they faced got graphical touch-ups. On the other hand, the camera didn’t follow. Pre-rendered backgrounds cannot scroll; players can only see precisely what the director chooses to show them.
That inability for players to position the camera played right into Mikami’s hands.
Players could hear them—the zombies, snorting and groaning and lumbering. But they couldn’t see them.
That was the point.
“I remember thinking if the enemies were only scary because of the possibility of ‘game over’, it wouldn’t be sufficient for me to reach my goal with Bio Hazard,” Mikami said. “There had to be more to it than that. We used features such as the zombies’ moans and their footsteps as omens throughout the flow of the game. Even if you knew before looking round a corner that a zombie was going to be there, we set up blind spots so that players wouldn’t be able to see the zombies [immediately] and that in turn produced an uneasy feeling that caused players to feel afraid.”
Bio Hazard’s use of pre-rendered backgrounds came with a useful side effect. Because players could not adjust the camera, there was no way to peek around the corner and spot exactly where zombies stood. They were at the mercy of each room’s preselected viewing angle. When they reached the edge of the screen, the camera adjusted itself, displaying the environment from another immutable angle.
Thus, players were forced to rely on other senses. Hearing enemies triggered instinctual reactions. The player’s pulse quickened; their heart raced. The zombies might be one screen away, or waiting in an alcove that Mikami and his team deliberately hid from view.
Mikami’s carefully plotted camera angles and monsters became the stuff of legend among horror fans. At any moment, they might round a bend and find a group of zombies huddled over a corpse, or a lone undead spinning on its heel and lunging for their throat. Arguably the most famous instance is a long, quiet corridor flanked by windows. As players strolled along, the shattered was silence by a zombie dog exploding through the glass and hitting the ground running just as loud and exhilarating music kicked in.
Due to the PlayStation’s low memory, environments had to be loaded in chunks. Doors demarcated areas and served as loading screens, but Mikami folded that shortcoming into Bio Hazard’s atmosphere. When players opened a door, the screen went black, the door appeared, the knob slowly turned, and the door creaked open as they waited nervously to see what the next room had in store.
Restricting the player’s line of sight could be troublesome. It wasn’t always easy to aim at a zombie when geometry or monsters obstructed the player’s view. Another problem lay in the controls, which some players and critics found harder to wrangle than the game’s decayed terrors.
Mikami and his team knew that a traditional control scheme wouldn’t work in a game that relied on predetermined views. Pressing left to move left might feel awkward in a room where, say, the camera slanted the view in a confusing way. Immutable controls seemed the perfect fit. Player-characters controlled like tanks: pressing up or down always moved Jill and Chris forward or backward, respectively, while pressing left or right rotated them regardless of the camera’s position.
The “tank controls,” as they became known, proved divisive: Players either got the hang of them, or cursed Capcom’s developers as they steered Jill and Chris drunkenly down halls and into the open arms of zombies.
Bio Hazard’s developers anticipated frustration over the control scheme. “The style of play wasn’t the most intuitive, but, provided players were able to get used to it, I think it was the best way we could have done things. We were weighing the pros and cons of the different control systems right till the very end,” Fujiwara admitted.
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Preview for Chapter 3: Director Shinji Mikami and his cultivate the perfect mood for Bio Hazard, and wrestle with longer hours and discontent from Capcom’s higher-ups.
The following sources were helpful in writing this article:
* This article was revised from the original published in RETRO Videogame Magazine issue #10, published in February 2016.
* “The Making Of Resident Evil.” Now Gamer. http://www.nowgamer.com/the-making-of-resident-evil/.
* “Shinji Mikami: the godfather of horror games.” Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/30/shinji-mikami-evil-within-resident-evil.
* “The Man Who Made Ghosts’n Goblins.” Glitter Berri’s Game Translations. (Original article published in Continue, a Japanese gaming publication.) http://www.glitterberri.com/developer-interviews/tokuro-fujiwara/.