Director Shinji Mikami and his cultivate the perfect mood for Bio Hazard, and wrestle with longer hours and discontent from Capcom’s higher-ups.
Horror House: The Making and REmaking of Resident Evil
Chapter 3: Don’t Open That Door
Whoa! This hall is dangerous!
To ratchet up the tension, Bio Hazard took its time pulling back the curtain on its undead rogue’s gallery. The game begins with a cinematic explaining that players are part of S.T.A.R.S. Alpha, the most seasoned of the division’s elite officers. The Alpha crew converges on a wooded area where members of Bravo team were last spotted and are immediately set upon by dogs—but no ordinary dogs. Their eyes dangle from their sockets like light cords, and their flesh hangs in strips like sloppily applied strips of paper machete.
Not even the most veteran S.T.A.R.S. members could stare into the face of such horror for long. They scatter, making for a mansion looming out of the shadows. Inside a foyer, they do a quick head count and realize not all of them made it. Jill (or Chris, if players selected him) sets off to investigate, performing a sweep of an adjacent dining room. Nothing… except a puddle of blood near a fireplace.
Only one other door provides egress from the room. Players take it and find themselves in an empty hallway. Doors line the corridor to the right. To the left is a bend. They follow it, and find what appears to be a man in torn clothes feasting on the corpse of one of their Bravo team compatriots.
“I like scenes where you ask someone what they’re doing, and when they turn around…” Fujiwara cuts off with a laugh. “I made a special cutscene for that part. If we’d had the PlayStation drawing the graphics in real-time, it wouldn’t have been as scary.”
The cutscene, rendered with CG graphics that show grisly furrows in the zombie’s face, and the blood smeared over its lips like strawberry jam, sets Bio Hazard’s tone perfectly. Music is low and eerie. The player’s footsteps echo through empty corridors, accompanied by the occasional ambient noise—chirping crickets, wolf howls, and the steady tick-tock of a grandfather clock. In another nod to Sweet Home, players who took the time to comb every room could find lab reports and diary entries describing the slow and agonizing transformation from mortal into brainless undead.
Graphics, sound effects, a moody soundtrack, and text mutated together into a multi-headed audiovisual beast. “Top of my list is how we were able to realize a kind of scariness that would automatically put players on edge, even without them being consciously aware of it,” Mikami explained. “I was also really pleased with the graphics: in its day, at least, Bio Hazard looked real. Another of my favorite aspects was how the sound effects and music would make the player feel intimidated. And, of course, I was very pleased with how we presented the zombies in the game.”
Some zombies announced their presence. They limped and staggered, and the chomping sound of broken teeth chewing flesh could be heard from a good distance away. Obscuring enemy positions was a way to build the zombies up in the player’s imagination—turning them from regular people who had suffered terrible fates to grotesque monstrosities barely recognizable as former human beings.
Almost a Jill Sandwich
Players could deal with zombies in a number of ways. One grenade from Jill’s bazooka blew them to bloody smithereens. Unloading a magazine of handgun ammo might—depending on calculations in the code—result in a zombie’s head bursting like a melon dropped on concrete. The shotgun presented an appealing risk/reward scenario. It could be unloaded into an enemy, knocking them down or killing them outright if players were lucky. Or, players could let a zombie draw uncomfortably close, then aim the shotgun up and pull the trigger. If the zombie was close enough, its head would pop. A zombie crawling along the ground could latch on to the player’s ankle; frantic button mashing triggered a curb stomp and much worse than gum stuck to the bottom of their shoes.
Though every monster could be killed, not every monster should be. Bio Hazard was not Doom. In id Software’s run-and-gun opus, players found bountiful caches of health and ammunition, a tacit encouragement to blast every demon and zombie that crossed their path to smithereens. Conversely, there was a paucity of medical supplies and bullets in Bio Hazard. Players must pick and choose their encounters. If, after a few trips to and from the save room in the east wing, they determine that they’ll be coming to and fro rather often, they might decide to clear enemies out of that area. Little-used avenues containing several monsters, or even one, should go untouched; why waste valuable ammo killing bad guys that will never bother players again?
Likewise, players could only save at typewriters, and saving cost one ink ribbon, a resource also in great demand and short supply. Saving every time players killed an enemy or solved a puzzle was ill-advised. Risks had to be calculated. Better to save after playing 20 or 30 minutes, or immediately after killing a boss like the giant snake in the attic, in order to conserve ammo.
Resource management, caution, and prudence, not itchy trigger fingers and a dependence on saved games, were the keys to success.
But Mikami did not want Bio Hazard’s buckets of blood and near-palpable dread to suffocate. As a matter of fact, the game almost took the opposite tack. Three weeks into his initial design work, Mikami jotted down notes for comedy motifs and tones. “I ended up discarding the idea when it became apparent that it would take an unreasonable amount of time to implement,” he explained. Even so, he “felt that the horror and comedy genres had many things in common and were very closely linked. I think if I’d had a chance to experiment more, the results could have been really entertaining.”
Comedic elements found their way into the game, albeit unintentionally, perhaps. The dialogue was so hackneyed, the voice acting so cliché, that cutscenes functioned as intermissions: a brightening of the theater lights to dispel the anxiety of inching through candlelit attics and waterlogged laboratories rotten with undead.
In a 2014 interview, Mikami took ownership of the hammy acting and writing. “That was just a coincidence. Because we’re Japanese we don’t really understand English, so the original script was in, of course, Japanese and someone translated it into English; and I didn’t know the quality of the translation really. Then the actual voice recording was done in Japan, and the voice actors live in Japan, and when they spoke the dialogue in English it was very fast so I couldn’t really follow. So I asked those actors to speak slower, so that’s what happened. It’s my mistake!”
Puzzles, too, broke up the tension nicely. Between dodging zombies, dogs, hunters, and worse, players had to solve puzzles in order to gain ingress into dusty wings of the mansion. While monsters roamed most corridors, rooms that emphasized puzzle solving—a disused bar containing a secret alcove that could only be opened by playing a specific song on a grand piano, a gallery lined with paintings that had to be examined in a precise order—were absent of threats, leaving players to concentrate solely on determining what items they needed and what actions must be taken to proceed. In this way, Bio Hazard was as much a classic adventure in the vein of King’s Quest and Myst as it was a survival horror game.
For all its campy dialogue, Bio Hazard ended up being so visceral that Capcom censored the opening cinematic, shot with real actors and props instead of computer models, in some versions of the game.
“It was pretty harsh for its time,” Fujiwara said in response to Bio Hazard’s violence and gore. “So, of course, there were some people opposed to it. It was almost like an adventure. We developers also had a good amount of logic and common sense, so, of course, we sometimes put on the breaks as well. Instead of worrying about whether the team would go too far if I left them alone, I encouraged them to make things even nastier. After all, if something ended up being really bad, we could always cut it later. It’s normal for people to self-censor, so it’s not an easy task to stop worrying and just do whatever you like.”
Looking back on Bio Hazard, Mikami can’t help chuckling. “You couldn’t really call Bio Hazard ‘beautiful’ now. It was incredibly difficult to produce the game for the PlayStation hardware back then,” he said.
While time has weathered Bio Hazard’s visuals, there’s no disputing its atmosphere. Even today, players who approach the game in the right frame of mind—understanding and accepting that a low-poly PS1 game from 1996 can’t and won’t look as gritty and realistic as contemporary horror titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent—will still experience the chills and thrills the development team labored over.
“Another significant [objective] was to ensure that a sense of fear would be generated by the events in the game,” Mikami explained. “The motivation for this was that I wanted to shock players with the perfect timing of events, while also having strong control over the player’s mentality, so that the fear factor would become self-reinforcing thereafter.”
In the estate, where it was revealed an outbreak of a biological agent capable of transforming man into unspeakable horrors, S.T.A.R.S. members and NPCs dropped like flies, as Bio Hazard’s story transpired.
Mikami’s team grew at an inversely proportional rate. He had broken ground alone in 1994, then grown to an intimate crew of nine. During the final months of development in early 1996, more than 50 developers plugged away on Bio Hazard.
Working long hours and tight deadlines tightened rather than frayed at the bonds between the team. In a previous interview, Mikami said that “At the time everyone was considered equal, and once it got to be past midnight in the studio our spirits became really high. People would be running around the development floor. We’d group together in pairs and push other development staff, who were sitting on chairs [with wheels], into the elevator, then press the button to send them to whichever floor we wanted them to go to, and shout ‘Sayonara!’ We had all these funny customs.”
Bio Hazard wasn’t all fun and games. Although the team saw promise in Bio Hazard, several executives at one of Capcom’s consulting companies did not. Upon evaluating several projects, the consulting firm sent executives a memo advising them to cancel Bio Hazard. Mikami caught wind of the recommendation and saw red. “After seeing that, it just made me feel even more strongly that I would complete Bio, no matter what,” he said.
The team’s resolve butted heads with its inexperience. Their tools were rudimentary and inefficient—the development equivalents of rubbing sticks to make fire. During the final six-month stretch, everyone pulled double shifts. At one point, executives at Capcom issued a memo ordering the project be disbanded. Only the quiet but firm intervention of Tokuro Fujiwara saved Bio Hazard. He believed in Mikami, and shielded the team from the headsman’s axe.
Not every developer proved up to the task. As the schedule wore on, several employees resigned from the team, citing long hours and intense pressure. “Along the way, it got to the point where our development tools weren’t sufficient for what we wanted to do, so to compensate we worked double shifts to ensure that the team was working around the clock,” Mikami said. “The final stage of development lasted around six months, and during that time the team were mostly living at work.”
Those six months became a crucible. It wasn’t uncommon for developers to stay at work until one, two, even three in the morning. Many crashed in the office rather than drive home only to turn around in a few hours and return.
At last, discs were pressed and boxes were shipped to retail stores. Bio Hazard shambled into stores in late March of 1996. In America, Capcom renamed it to Resident Evil—a title Mikami declared “stupid.” The title “Bio Hazard” referenced the viral outbreak that kicked off the game’s events, but “Resident Evil” was devoid of meaning. (In his lengthy interview with Now Gamer in 2010, Mikami insisted on referring to the series under its Japanese name.)
Mikami was a great deal more pleased by Bio Hazard’s critical and commercial response. “Bio Hazard sold more than twice the number of copies we were anticipating it might sell. To be honest, I was surprised by how successful it was. It was just a happy accident that the PlayStation market and the [marketability] of Bio Hazard matched so perfectly. I think we very lucky.”
The game responsible for coining the term “survival horror” to encapsulate its unique blend of story, tension, and resource management, Bio Hazard was lauded for its graphics, audio, challenging combat and puzzles, and taut atmosphere and pacing. The game climbed sales charts in the UK, and as of February 1997, was the PlayStation’s biggest-selling game.
Internally, Mikami and his team gave themselves weary pats on the back.
“Once the project was complete, all of the staff felt a sense of accomplishment and they really celebrated its completion,” said Mikami. “On the other hand, I just felt relieved—and I seemed to be the only one who was completely burnt out. I knew that if Bio Hazard wasn’t a big success there was a danger that Capcom would face bankruptcy, so I felt very strongly that I’d fulfilled my responsibility.”
Promptly balling up the memo advising them to put a bullet through Bio Hazard’s brain, Capcom executives pushed for a sequel. “I felt that we had to make a sequel,” said Fujiwara. Yet he admitted that he was of two minds about continuing the series right away. “If it were up to me, I’d have taken a break before releasing the next one. I knew that trying to make the series even scarier would be no small task. [laughs] But, business-wise, it made more sense to get on with it.”
For Mikami, the originator of “survival horror,” Capcom had other plans.
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Preview for Chapter 4: After a long absence from Bio Hazard’s director’s chair, Mikami jumps at the chance to remake the original game with new technology, game mechanics, and bone-chilling scares.
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 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/.
* “The Making Of Resident Evil.” Now Gamer. http://www.nowgamer.com/the-making-of-resident-evil/.
* “Shinji Mikami interview: the master of survival horror – ‘I want to make a F1 game’.” Metro. http://metro.co.uk/2014/06/24/shinji-mikami-interview-the-master-of-survival-horror-i-want-to-make-a-f1-game-4774256/.