One of the best action games of the year came from a studio with no experience working in the genre. And according to John Johanas, the director behind Hi-Fi Rush, that only helped to make the game even better.
“If we were experienced with action games, it'd be very easy to jump in thinking, Okay, how deep are these mechanics? How far they're going? Instead, we focused on very simple things like basic attacks and making them feel good,” Johanas tells Inverse. “Then we built it out from there.”
The result was one of 2023’s standout hits, which delivered an electric guitar to the head of the video game industry when it arrived unexpectedly in a January Xbox presentation. Even more surprising was that Hi-Fi Rush came from Tango Gameworks, a studio known for horror titles like The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo.
It also represents a seismic shift for the studio.
“It definitely gave us a confidence boost of doing something weird that we're not particularly known for or have the skill set in, and if we devote ourselves to that we can pull it off,” Johanas says.
As 2023 comes to a close, Inverse catches up with Johanas to learn how Hi-Fi Rush delivered on the team’s vision, how its success changed Tango, and why we’re seeing more games integrate musical elements.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why do you think players took to Hi-Fi Rush so much? Do you think it fulfills something that people have been looking for?
We wanted a game that felt nostalgic but not just a rehash of something that already existed.
You see a lot of retro remakes that are literally just recreating something, but not putting a current-gen quality or spin on it. We wanted something that tapped into that era where it was about being creative and having wacky ideas that were just fun to play.
I did see that in a lot of comments, especially when it came out of people being like, “This is just a video game-ass video game.” Or, “This reminds me of the GameCube era and Dreamcast era,” which were exactly the things we were aiming for.
I like to think that came from our passion as developers. Games are just getting so complicated. They take so long to beat and have incredible, fully detailed systems. We just wanted something that was fun and simple, but also rewarding to play.
In a recent Xbox Wire piece, you talked about Hi-fi Rush having a bigger budget than people expect. How did you deal with the risk of developing this game, which was wildly different for Tango? How important do you think risk in general is to game development?
Realistically, at this point, every project is a major risk. Our risk is weirdly different because it was risky in the sense that it didn't match the portfolio of everyone that was involved, right? Greenlighting it for a studio that only makes horror, and Bethesda as a company or publisher that only puts out games that are more for adult audiences. There was a lot of risk in that sense of, is the content of this game going to be denied at some point, despite the fact that we think it's a good game.
But if we're talking about risk in general, games today cost an incredible amount of money to make. So even making something that's theoretically safe, but costs a lot of money, could theoretically, get lost in the fold and not perform as well. Any title is a risk, but it's a different type of risk.
Ours was a little more of a creative risk. Obviously, you mentioned the budget, and while I'm not going to give out numbers, the point there was to illustrate that people were just offhand saying like, “Oh, it's made by 10 people and probably costs pennies to make?” No it’s not, it's very difficult to pull off. So don't expect a smaller team of just a couple of people to produce this type of quality in that respect.
You also talked about how the team put together for Hi-Fi Rush wasn’t versed in making action games like this. How important do you think that idea was to the final version of Hi-Fi Rush?
The fact that we were not super familiar with the genre, not just action games, but the music element as well, helped ensure that what we were making met that accessibility target that we were looking for. If we were experienced with action games, it'd be very easy to jump in thinking, “Okay, how deep are these mechanics, how far they're going.” Instead, we focused on very simple things like basic attacks and making them feel good. Then we built it out from there.
We didn't have any preconceptions over what's the correct way to make this game. We had to figure it out as we went along. If we had someone who is very familiar telling us, No it has to be like this, that would have shifted it to be a very normal action game, rather than the game that we were trying to make
I think having a lot of people learn the process of doing it while they were doing it, and making it for the game that we intended to make, prevented certain generic things from coming in. Just doing it because it’s what an action game is supposed to do. We would play other action games and break them down, and we'd say we don't like this, why don’t we like this, and then figure it out together. That helped in terms of team building too.
Hi-Fi Rush is part of an interesting trend that has popped up this year, marrying music with video games, like with Stray Gods and Alan Wake 2. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on blending music with video games and how would you like to see the medium do that moving forward.
For me personally, I didn't feel like there was a game that had quite the interaction between the music and the gameplay as I preferred in terms of an action game. It felt like you were either playing to the music or music was there to accentuate the gameplay, but had no connection to it.
Since we started developing this game, it was interesting that we saw, like, BPM: Bullets Per Minute or Metal Hellsinger. But it was coincidental that stuff was coming up when we were developing the game, and we weren’t inspired by it.
But it helped us reinforce the idea that this is a type of game that I think people are generally interested in. Also, part of the way that we're even able to make this game was because there's been a huge jump in the way music programs are able to integrate within engines and gameplay.
I remember, even in the early Evil Within stuff, we tried to connect musical elements to the gameplay. We were able to do this pseudo-dynamic stuff, but I don't think we could have made this game 10 years ago because you’d need to have a whole systems team create a unique system based on that.
We use this program Wwise, which, if you look, pretty much every game now uses this as an audio interface. But the toolset in there now enables us to work much more closely to music data to create these games. You don't need to be an actual audio programmer just to do this in general. So seeing this pop up more just shows that the availability of technology to make things like this, I think is easier to do. Which is great, because we can get people to create new experiences based on music, that fits the game they want to make. Tools have advanced so much that it's becoming less of a barrier for people to experiment.
Has Hi-Fi Rush changed how Tango makes games in any way? Has it changed your approach to development or given the studio any new ideas?
I would say yes, for multiple reasons. It definitely gave us a confidence boost of doing something weird that we're not particularly known for or have the skill set in, and if we devote ourselves to that we can pull it off.
But also, this is actually the first game where we did a lot of post-mortem talks at events. We went to, we call it the Japanese GDC, it’s called “CEDEC.” We had our teams break down there the way they approach stuff, and a lot of key members when they were going through that post-mortem process and making these presentations realized, “Oh wait, we approach this in this way. This is very useful not even for this project specifically, but projects in general.”