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Creating a house of horror: Shinji Mikami on Tango Gameworks' road to Ghostwire: Tokyo

Resident Evil creator and Tango Gameworks’ studio head Shinji Mikami wants to direct one more game… but not just yet.

It’s impossible to separate Tango Gameworks from Shinji Mikami. The Tokyo-based studio employs legions of developers, but the Resident Evil co-creator is still firmly recognisable as the face of Tango Gameworks, well over a decade after departing Capcom to found the studio.

You’d think it’d be natural for the director of games like God Hand, Vanquish and Dino Crisis to take the reins once again at a new studio, especially with around two decades worth of directing experience under his belt. But this simply wasn’t the case. “I started Tango with the vision of creating a studio that gives young and talented creators a chance,” Mikami tells VG247.

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Mikami explains that Tango’s primary goal was to – specifically – make games from the “outstanding talent of young creators.” Yet, Mikami would end up directing Tango’s debut game with The Evil Within arriving in 2014, a survival horror game combining the inventory management of classic Resident Evil games with grotesque monsters and adrenaline-pumping boss fights.

Being forced to direct and step back from his goal of showcasing new talent in the first game was a disappointment for Mikami – but a necessary one. A report from Polygon published in 2014 revealed that Tango’s debut project was an open-world sci-fi game inspired by the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which was scrapped when the studio ran into financial issues. Mikami is pretty casual about Tango’s baptism of fire all these years later, merely acknowledging that The Evil Within was never planned to be the studio’s debut game in 2014. Onwards and upwards, right?

In the early days, the cards were stacked against the fledgling developer – it doesn’t matter if the guy that created Resident Evil is your studio head if you just can’t get the staff. Though his goal was to usher in a new generation of developmental talent, Mikami struggled to hire developers for Tango in the early days. The studio director points to the rise of “social games” as a primary reason for Tango being founded in the first place, as many console developers were switching over to this money-spinning new wave of titles (especially in Japan). But this made it tough to hire developers for more ‘traditional’ projects. 2013 saw the launch of new Angry Birds, Call of Duty, Temple Run, Dota, and Clash of Clans games on mobile devices, so it’s easy to see why Mikami and his unproven new studio found it tricky to draw established console developers away from rising juggernauts in the mobile space.

What led to The Evil Within, eventually, was an acquisition by Zenimax, Bethesda’s parent company. “They really value the creativity of us at Tango,” says veteran producer Masato Kimura of the Zenimax group, who has worked at Tango since the buyout over a decade ago in 2010. Kimura explains that instead of Tango looking to their parent company for guidance, it’s really the other way round – Zenimax will often consult directors at Tango (namely Mikami) as to what the studio wants to do. “It’s never about what [Zenimax] wants to do,” Kimura adds.

Development studios obviously change personnel over time, and Tango Gameworks was no exception. Mikami explains that, while wrapping up development of The Evil Within, “those who matched well with Tango stayed and those who didn’t left.” What was left, ultimately, was a “trusting bond” between a tight, well-oiled development team that was able to launch The Evil Within 2 just three years later in 2017, pivoting to an excellent open-world with the same bloodthirsty combat. Mikami’s trust in his staff (and his insistence on highlighting the ideas and talent of young developers) was starting to pay off.

It was clear that Tango Gameworks was finding its feet. In the years following The Evil Within 2, the studio expanded. Hiring more staff helped the development studio grow – in Mikami’s eyes at least – although the co-founder says he still feels like Tango is ‘under-staffed at times’. That hasn’t stopped the Tokyo studio from taking on multiple games at once in more recent years: incoming waves of new staff allow Tango Gameworks to explore multiple projects simultaneously and give Mikami the opportunity to showcase that new talent he’s so long been so passionate about.

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Enter Ghostwire: Tokyo. Taking place in a deserted Shibuya City, Ghostwire is a more action-oriented venture than either Evil Within title, and largely focuses on the player battling demonic Yokai around the city as they struggle to unravel the mystery of why everyone has inexplicably vanished, leaving only their clothes behind where their bodies once stood.

Although it was Mikami who took to the stage at Bethesda’s E3 2019 presentation, Ghostwire itself was debuted by the absorbingly charismatic creative director Ikumi Nakamura in a presentation that many saw as a ‘passing of the torch’ from the stalwart Mikami to a younger creative. It may have taken a good seven years, but here – in front of a global audience – Mikami was fulfilling a goal he’d had since establishing Tango Gameworks. Nakamura’s warming stage presence immediately drew attention to Ghostwire: Tokyo, a game that looked enthralling enough already.

Mikami’s plan to put new faces front and centre worked well – maybe too well. Just a few months later, Nakamura would resign from Tango, going it alone as a freelance artist and creative director. As Mikami explains, though Nakamura might be gone, her creativity still remains in Ghostwire over two years later: the choice of the first-person camera perspective for added immersion was her initiative, as was the colour palette inspired chiefly by iconic anime Ghost in the Shell.

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Stepping in to fill the void left by Nakamura’s departure is Kenji Kimura, Ghostwire’s current creative director and another young developer under Mikami’s tutelage, who now has his hands full trying to wrap up and ship the game for release for PS5 on March 25.

“It’s the first time for me working as a director, and it’s my first time working with Mikami” says Kimura. Kimura has been in the games industry for a relatively long time, jumping into the career right out of university, but he’s still growing as a creative, and readily admits that there’s been a “lot to learn” from Mikami, and there were moments where he “felt a little lost” after taking on such a big – and important – project.

Bringing in a new generation of creatives is making a notable difference in the game; Ghostwire features other departures from The Evil Within aside from the immediately-noticeable camera change. Both Evil Within games featured conventional firearms, but Ghostwire does away with guns since “Japan isn’t a nation where firearms are easy to get hold of”, producer Masato Kimura says. What’s risen up in place of guns is, somewhat surprisingly, a bow and arrow. This is partly because “Japanese ceremonies use arrows for cleansing purposes”, Kenji Kimura adds.

A greater emphasis in combat is placed on “hand-action spell casting,” as Mikami dubs it. This system, where ethereal powers emanate from the player character’s hands, has its basis in Jiu Jitsu, which Kenji Kimura reckons has gained popularity through hit anime/manga JuJutsu Kaisen. These attacks, utilizing spiritual powers via the protagonist rapidly shifting their hands into various patterns, are chiefly used to dispel the “spirit enemies” that haunt Ghostwire, which have invaded Shibuya City since the population suddenly vanished.

“In the English terminology we call them ‘Visitors’ because they’re visiting us in this world,” Kimura says of the ghostly enemies. These enemies aren’t your gangling archetypal demons you might be accustomed to in The Evil Within, for example, but can take the appearance of ordinary people. “You might be strolling alongside a Shibuya sidewalk and see what you think is a person”, Kimura says, “but as you approach them, you might realise they don’t even have a head.”

These enemies are actually based on Yokai. No, not the demonic entities with glowing horns you might have seen in Nioh, but more like “urban legends,” according to Kimura. “In Japan, Yokai are often featured in bedtime stories read to young children”, the creative director says, “carrying messages of how to be a better person or citizen. The Yokai embody more of a ‘spooky’ atmosphere for Ghostwire”, says Kimura, straying away from the pure survival horror of The Evil Within games, but still rooted firmly within an unsettling atmosphere.

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Partway through development of Ghostwire, Tango parent company Zenimax was acquired by Microsoft. In a seismic shift in the gaming industry, all Bethesda-owned developers were made the property of Xbox, including Tango Gameworks. Somewhat unexpectedly though, Ghostwire remained a PlayStation 5 exclusive, with Xbox pledging to uphold all agreements made prior to the acquisition. Still, Mikami thinks they’ll “most likely have something for Xbox,” in the future with regards to Ghostwire.

Despite this shift in ownership, for development staff, very little has changed. “Working with Xbox has been really smooth,” Kimura says, “although that part has been mostly handled by Mikami,” the director adds. “Having Mikami at the top of Tango to make decisions that are sometimes difficult just makes things really smooth,” Kimura explains, making sure to add that Tango generally receives “a lot of help and support” from Xbox and Microsoft.

With Ghostwire winding down development, Tango’s already preparing for the immediate future. Mikami himself announced late last year that a new project under The Evil Within 2 director John Johanas is already in the works, and neither he or Kimura will say whether it’s straying away from the survival horror genre Tango has become known for through The Evil Within.

One thing’s for certain though: Mikami explains that survival horror is “not at its peak of popularity,” with more excitement being geared toward pure horror experiences. "The tide is low, there’s not a big wave behind it,” he explains, opting for a surfing metaphor for some reason. “Survival horror is at the low end of the wave right now, so a surfer wouldn’t go out there. It’s probably just best to wait for the bigger wave, until the time when there is a big enough survival horror game that’s much more well accepted."

What we do know about this next game is that, similarly to Ghostwire: Tokyo, it won’t be directed by Mikami himself. But that doesn’t mean he’s done yet. At 56 years old, Mikami has been developing video games for over three decades at this point, and reiterates to us that it’s still his plan to direct one final game before he eventually retires. “We don’t want him to say it’s his final game,” Masato Kimura reluctantly adds from the other side of the room. Mikami might have founded Tango Gameworks based on the idea of giving young creatives opportunity, but he’s still planning for one more trip to the director’s chair.

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