Alpha to omega
On May 4th, game documentary channel Noclip uploaded an hour of footage for Arkane‘s cancelled Half Life game. Internally called Ravenholm, Arkane set the game in the titular zombie infested town. It also featured Father Gregori, Half Life 2‘s mad priest and last known surviving human in Ravenholm.
While Noclip has shown off some of this footage in the past, this is the first time there has been a completely unfiltered look at Arkane’s alpha build. The video shows off a variety of gameplay features including bashing, environmental hazards, and electrical puzzles. Furthermore, the ability to stagger enemies and a nailgun to conduct electricity meant the game had very open combat and puzzles.
Arkane put this build together in two weeks to try and convince Valve to keep the project going. However, as promising as it looked, Valve scrapped the game in the end, and Arkane have kept the build in their system to show the Half Life game that never was.
A secretive industry
To me, this kind of pre-release behind the scenes information is fascinating. It’s no secret that the games industry is so secret, with countless cancelled projects never seeing the light of day. Whether it’s due to NDAs or that these projects are simply deleted, we don’t often hear the stories of the games that never make it to release. Even games that do release have similarly interesting backstories that are kept under wraps for similar reasons.
Resident Evil 4 is an example that did eventually make it to release. RE4 went through several iterations, the first straying so far from survival horror that it became Devil May Cry instead. Other iterations, known as “Fog”, “Hook Man”, and “Hallucination”, have been talked about by those who worked on these projects. However, “Hook Man” is the only version to have footage thanks to Capcom showing the game off at E3 2003.
From this 5 minute demo, it’s interesting to pick out the elements that made it to the final release and those that didn’t. The laser sight aiming is recognisable to anyone who played RE4. Although, the fixed camera angle, unfamiliar setting, and more zombie-like enemies show a completely different direction for this early build. Following the Hook Man version was a change in direction for the game to become the classic it is today. But still, it’s important to note how these early versions influenced the final product.
Keeping what works, ditching what doesn’t
In an interview with IGN in 2004, RE4 producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi called that build “not acceptable” for the development team. In another interview, he says that the staff “were tired of making the same stuff as well”. Put these quotes together and it’s clear that RE4 as we know it wouldn’t exist without the company first experimenting in these early builds.
Another such case of these changes can be found in Team Ico‘s Shadow of the Colossus. The game focuses around defeating 16 colossi, however they originally planned to include 48, which was then cut down to 24 after the design phase. They then cut down further to 16 after programming and modelling the 24, and seeing what worked and what didn’t. There are some remnants of these unused colossi, which range from a monkey that hung from the ceiling to a spider whose legs you had to thwack. For a game that I’ve played through more than 20 times (seriously), it’s cool to see what the team originally planned and why they ended up cutting it.
This is what I find so interesting about early versions of these games. The final versions of the games we see are all results of experimenting and iterating on previous builds. Would the “hook man” demo have made for a better RE4? Or would Shadow of the Colossus have benefited from 9 more colossi? Who knows? We can only speculate how these hypothetical games could have turned out and how, if Capcom or Team Ico did keep developing them, they would have changed by release.
From Ravenholm to release, what could have changed?
Similarly, if Arkane’s Ravenholm did make it to release, how much of it would have been the same as what we saw? We’d never know for sure, but with estimates saying it was a year out from release, so much could have been changed and tweaked along the way. The story, the gameplay particulars, the environments, all of these could well have undergone changes and overhauls before release. All we can do is look at what’s left over and speculate what could have been.
Ultimately, this is what pre-release builds give us. A glimpse into a game before it’s fully formed, ideas yet to be fleshed out, a project with potential that may never be released. It’s why I treasure videos like Noclip’s that show off a game that otherwise risk being lost to time. No doubt, there’s a ton of games out there that were, similarly, cancelled and locked behind layers of red tape and NDA. Hopefully, one day, they’ll all get their Ravenholm time in the spotlight.
Do you know about any interesting alpha versions of games? Which companies do you think have the coolest unreleased games behind closed doors? Let us know in the comments below! You can also hop over to our Discord to chat with us about everything related to gaming, entertainment, and more!