Hi-Fi Rush Director on the Accessibility Trick That Makes You Feel Like a Rock Star
The story behind 2023’s surprise hit.
Hi-Fi Rush is the biggest surprise of the year, a wildly imaginative game shadow-dropped out of nowhere by Microsoft. Apart from that, it’s also a wild tonal shift for Tango Gameworks, a studio known for making horror games like The Evil Within. Despite that change, Hi-Fi Rush is a massive hit with fans and critics alike.
Hi-Fi Rush is a unique mix of a rhythm and action game that tells the story of Chai, a young boy who gets the ability to “feel the beat” in the world around him. Chai joins up with a wild cast of characters, including a spunky hacker named Peppermint and her robotic cat 808, in order to take down the corrupt Vandelay Industries. Between its vibrant rhythm gameplay and surprisingly heartfelt story, Hi-Fi Rush has already gone down as an instant classic.
According to creative director John Johanas, Tango Gameworks had always planned to have a short marketing period but “gradually, that short release window just got shorter and shorter, because we couldn't quite find a good time to announce it and make it stand out on its own.”
Hi-Fi Rush explores themes related to poor working conditions and employee exploitation. Why did you feel this was an important story to tell?
It wasn't meant to be this biting criticism. While very real issues, it was more of a light-hearted jab at the idea of these large corporations being the masterminds behind everything, but the gears don't really align.
You see it internally, too. I'm not trying to make fun of our own team, but when you're making games, you can see, “Okay, these sections are not getting along.” or “We sent this email. Why is no one looking at this email!?”
You’d think that the larger a company gets, the more professional it would be, but it instead gets more chaotic. We’re lampooning that more than anything, but it's something that is very relatable to a lot of people no matter what industry you are in. A lot of people deal with how work feels like a comedy because of how things don't work out.
The whole stage where you go to R&D and have to lower or destroy their budget to stop them is actually poking fun at ourselves. Because we push for everything, we lose track of the scale and scope of things easily. That was our way of making fun of ourselves, but people said it felt very timely. When you're making a game five years in advance, you can't really plan that.
What was the initial pitch for this game? Was there any pushback, because it’s so different from what Tango is known for?
I pitched it internally to Shinji Mikami and one of our producers from Bethesda. It was a long shot that was weird, and I didn’t think it would get approved. The reaction was, ‘Oh wow. Bethesda would probably never go for this, but it seems really cool in premise. Will it actually work?”
We made a prototype to show that it's not just a cool idea on paper. Getting the first pitch approval was surprisingly positive in that aspect.
It's funny because the prototype is so close to the final product, maybe just a little bit less polished because it was made mainly by two people. That alone was fun to play, so when it finally came to pitch it with Bethesda, we already had people saying, “This is really, really fun.”
Rhythm For All
How important was it to make the game accessible, and were there any ideas in that regard that didn’t make the final cut?
Accessibility was a big factor for me personally. I knew that we couldn't make a game that was so hardcore in its rhythm sensibilities without making it playable for people that aren’t a musician. People are gonna look at it as a colorful action game and assume it's accessible, so we need to address that.
Right from the beginning, the idea was that the game syncs up everything for you. So even if you're not on the beat, you'll feel like you’re on beat. You're not a rock star — but you can feel like one.
The tricky part was figuring out, if everything's automated, where's the player’s agency? How do we reward you? The very easy thing in game design is to make it have a negative loop: If you don't press things correctly you fail. We tried our best to make it as accessible as possible with a positive gameplay loop. It doesn't matter if you don't press the button on time, but you'll get bonuses if you do.
A lot of our accessibility options address full hearing issues. We wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the game. A lot of people understand rhythm differently and how it’s visualized. 808 being over your shoulder and showing the beat. Some people thought, “This is useless, I never see it.” and some said, “If that wasn't there, I wouldn't have been able to keep the beat.”
Our small team couldn't have its own accessibility team. But I'm glad that we were able to do what we did. But I feel like there's always room to improve and add more of those options. Hopefully, it's something we can iterate on. Like, we've done this, so with the next one we could add in more.
Most of the characters in the game are named after food items. Why is that, and where did the idea come from?
Honestly, there's no deep reason behind it. I always hate naming things. I'm terrible at it. I just started writing out names on a Post-It that sounded like they could be a name you don't see often, but also fun. They wound up being a lot of food items.
I didn't want to pinpoint them as Americans where there’s “George” and “Jim.” But also not super cool anime trope names like “His name is Blade.” It’s goofy and silly in a way that matches the world that we're making, where nothing is super serious either.
More to the Story
Chai is really relatable, but we don’t know much about his backstory. Is that something you hope to explore more later?
Initial drafts of the script did have more going into his background, but as we were going through the script we realized that it wasn't really essential to understanding who he was as a character. There's this whole arc in it, and in a weird way, it’s more of Peppermint’s story than Chai’s story, even though he has his own arc.
We didn't want the game to get bogged down in so much storytelling, in a way that Chai can almost be a blank slate of a character, and you can put yourself in his shoes. What’s more important is establishing what kind of person he is at the beginning of the story, and then what kind of person he is at the end. He’s still a work in progress like we all are. You're not gonna just immediately, over the course of a day, change who you are. But you can find an experience to grow through.
Is it something that needs expanding? I would say for the type of game that we made it's not quite necessary. Maybe some people really want to know about it, but who knows what will happen? Maybe that’ll be the running joke: no one actually knows where this guy came from. Who are you?
“Doesn't matter, man.”