Ghostwire: Tokyo studio head says making games shouldn’t feel like “prison”

Shinji Mikami wants to spare his staff the “fun hell” of his early years as a developer.

Exploring the desolate cityscape in Ghostwire: Tokyo feels like stepping into hell — in a fun way.

The upcoming first-person action game — developed by Tango Gameworks and published by Bethesda — merges eye-candy virtual tourism with the trippy cinematic visuals of Inception and Doctor Strange. One standout moment from a recent press demo sees our everyman protagonist Akito pursue a restless spirit into an apartment building, only for the walls and fixtures to suddenly kaleidoscope sickeningly out of place. Floors become ceilings, toilets dangle sideways, and gravity ceases to matter. It’s the horror of the real suddenly becoming surreal.

Thankfully, there are also fuzzy buddies to pet along your journey.

Save the world, but don’t forget to give some pets.

Tango Gameworks / Bethesda

Ghostwire: Tokyo’s executive producer, the iconic Shinji Mikami, knows a thing or two about “fun hell.” During his nearly 25 years at Capcom, he created a little-known series called Resident Evil. Then in 2010, he founded Tango Gameworks and reinvented survival horror with 2014’s The Evil Within and a 2017 sequel.

Mikami says it’s a “calling” to foster a studio environment that gives young talent a voice while ensuring that making video games doesn’t become a survival horror experience in its own right.

“When I look back, it was a fun hell,” Mikami tells Inverse of his early years in the industry. “It was kind of like being in a prison where I was allowed to make games freely.”

Inverse spoke with Mikami, Producer Misato Kimura, and Game Director Kenji Kimura about the creative process behind Ghostwire: Tokyo, the challenge of maintaining work-life balance in a notoriously demanding industry, and the importance of nurturing young talent.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Shibuya Crossing lays desolate in Ghostwire: Tokyo.

Tango Gameworks / Bethesda

While Ghostwire: Tokyo has supernatural elements, it’s more of an action-adventure game than something like The Evil Within. Why did you choose this direction?

Mikami: The director at the time, Ikumi Nakamura, chose this genre. As a studio, then and now, we always like to move forward with good ideas from our young talent. It’s more about moving forward with whatever good idea is on the table at the moment. We’re not fixated on being tied to a certain genre.

What can you tell us about the main character, Akito?

Kenji Kimura: Akito is a normal guy living an ordinary life in Japan. We wanted to make it very easy for gamers to be immersed in the game, so he’s someone for everybody can project their own emotions onto.

Akito finds his city radically altered in Ghostwire: Tokyo.

Tango Gameworks / Bethesda

How do you balance fresh and familiar ideas to create memorable experiences?

Mikami: Our thinking there isn't based on a lot of logic. We try things out and then we play it on the screen. We look at things from a gamer’s perspective to choose which ideas are good.

Masato Kimura: The ways we can do things in games have changed over time because technology has changed. Even the platforms have changed. Now there are mobile games and VR to express new ideas.

What were some of the opportunities and challenges of integrating figures from Japanese folklore into a contemporary setting?

Kenji Kimura: There are a lot of shrines and Jizo statues peppered throughout the city. Some are based on religion, others in folklore and what older people have taught their children. There's a lot of history is rooted in the culture. That was very appealing to us.

Most of the team grew up in Japan, so we didn't have to do too much research. Through discussion, we would hone in on figures and stories that were cool and intriguing. Even walking through the city, we'd find inspiration and then bring certain items or ideas into the game.

The eerie beauty of an empty Shiba Park.

Tango Gameworks / Bethesda

I was struck by the music from the Ghostwire: Tokyo demo. How involved are you in the creative process on the audio side of things?

Kenji Kimura: We put a lot of energy into making compelling music. We drew from gagaku music, which is typically used in traditional performances where dancers wear hannya masks. We’ve combined that with the EDM-inspired music that you would normally hear while walking around Shibuya.

“We’re not fixated on being tied to a certain genre.”

Akito challenges one of the Visitors in Ghostwire: Tokyo.

Tango Gameworks / Bethesda

There’s been a lot of discussions lately about working conditions in the gaming industry. How is Tango Gameworks different from other studios?

Mikami: We've been working remotely now for about two years. Initially, it was a really difficult shift to working from home. But after about three months or so, we got the staff to be more comfortable with the amount of work that needs to get done and the expectations that are set.

Some people were concerned that working at home would feel endless because there's nobody to stop you from working. We've had discussions internally to reduce that. We also have regular discussions with the project managers to make sure tasks are delegated in a way that there is a clear end to things. We're doing our best to make sure working conditions are good for as many of our staff as possible.

This information might be too raw, but we did a third-party stress check yesterday. The results say our workplace is a very healthy, and good environment. So a lot of our staff seem to have acclimated well to the work-from-home situation.

What were some of the frustrations you dealt with early on in your career?

Mikami: It was a totally different time back then. We're talking like, way back, right? In short, yes, it was hell. But it was also really fun. I want to stress that the fun part was very important.

It’s so weird. When I look back, it was a fun hell. It was kind of like being in a prison where I was allowed to make games freely. To clarify, that was ages ago.

Hallowed spaces take on a sinister tone in Ghostwire: Tokyo.

Tango Gameworks / Bethesda

What lessons did you take from your time at Capcom?

Mikami: At Capcom, I was able to make big things. But after I left, I realized that I was able to do that because there were so many other people helping me and supporting me. The backbone of the company was a big part of that creation.

When I was establishing Tango, I was thinking about how I could let younger talents get a chance to make more games and I realized it would probably be easier for me to make my own studio. That was a calling for me, to create a studio that allows for that.

Nowadays, you’ve started seeing other studios giving younger talent more of a chance. Platinum Games has started to do that. But if you’re trying to join a studio that already has maybe 200, 300 people on staff, the first three years or so, you'll most likely just be making graphic assets.

Ghostwire: Tokyo comes to PlayStation 5 and PC on March 25, 2022.

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