Resident Evil 4 is often spoken of as the best entry in Capcom's iconic franchise, blending an over-the-shoulder camera, action and horror in one varied, entertaining experience. Often declared a classic, it's also the reference point when fans bemoan the conceivable falling-away of standards in the series, particularly with the move towards outright action and away from fear.
There have been chinks of light since Resi 4, arguably with Resident Evil Revelations getting some key areas right, but the series is still - in the opinion of vocal fans - short of returning to its best. Yet that reference point of Resident Evil 4 could have been very different, as that project almost adopted a "pure horror" approach, which would have no doubt changed the evolution of the series.
Former Capcom scenario writer, Yasuhisa Kawamura, has spoken to Eurogamer about his role in the project; he'd previously worked on some design and concept for Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, and had been brought in to work on the fourth main game when Hideki Kamiya's initial concept - an action experience that would evolve into Devil May Cry - was rejected. Below he explains how his contributions for Nemesis were driven by the desire to create genuine horror, and how he pushed ideas to the director of Resident Evil 4.
For Biohazard 3, I wanted to explore new ways to bring horror by creating the Nemesis and using randomised, spawning zombies. This was originally supposed to be a spin-off, so I was thinking differently. I felt the 'horror' portion of the Biohazard series was stuck in a rut. Biohazard's mystery is dependent upon science and forensic fiction, and that challenges humans to understand the concept fully.
...I told him [Resi 4 director Shibata] if we want to pursue pure horror, we need to find an unexplainable concept. Let's create a setting that doesn't revolve around science or reason.
...I gathered the staff in the conference room and showed one scene from the movie Lost Souls. It's where the protagonist - played by Winona Ryder - gets dragged into another world from a restroom. This movie is not acclaimed by critics, but I found their bleach bypass skills and special effects rather striking. So I came up with the idea of Leon getting infected by a mysterious virus, and suffering from his own hallucination. There wasn't any solid story behind it - we just made something up to test the horror aspect.
The game that began to take form still used the fixed camera perspectives of previous entries and became know as the "Hook Man" version - image at the top of the article. It was shown at E3 2003, and footage is below.
The project did hit technical problems - partly due to the deal to release exclusively to GameCube initially - as explained below.
You were not supposed to know when Leon's hallucination would happen. Various hidden checkpoints would trigger Leon's fear into hallucination. Depending on player's behaviour, the structure of stage changed, so we had to create two types of 3D models. That doubles the amount of cost when it comes to design and rendering. Even if we did have the budget, it was almost impossible to cram all of that into the GameCube's memory. We couldn't even add any monsters.
Another problem was all my fault; I didn't know how to stage a balanced yet varied horror performance. Even if it were possible for a game to create a hallucinogenic atmosphere, if the horror trigger isn't scary for the player, it's over. I felt ashamed for putting the other staff through this. It was disappointing and discouraging. I still think that the idea was brilliant, but I didn't have enough skill or guts to put the plan into action. I don't know if I could done anything to prevent that occurrence. I just wanted to make a scary Biohazard game.
Ultimately Shinji Mikami stepped in due to the project's issues, and the final result became a classic. This Hook Man concept was certainly intriguing, however, and the franchise could have been an entirely different entity today if it had made the cut.
We'll never know how that attempt at "pure horror" would have changed Resident Evil, but in light of recent efforts it's interesting to consider.