Mplaying games is a long, old road – five years or more, often, from conception to actual release – and when Kenji Kimura got hung up on ideas for the game he was directing, Ghostwire: Tokyo, he wandered the streets of Tokyo to get inspired. Walking through the back streets of Shibuya, where the city’s ultra-modern architecture rubs up against ancient shrines and traditional houses, he could imagine a Tokyo eerily emptied of people by a paranormal event; how it would look, how it would feel. So, a few years inside the production of Ghostwire: Tokyo, something similar happened. Like many cities around the world, Tokyo suddenly became deserted as people were confined to their homes in the early stages of the pandemic.
“It suddenly felt so creepy to walk in the city because we had to be scared of something we can’t see,” Kimura says. “If we were to go somewhere, we would not deviate from the shortest route.” The team he led at Tango Gameworks moved from their Shibaura office to homework and ended their game about a ghost town while living in one.
“In the worst moments of the pandemic, when we locked the city, it was very strange,” adds Masato Kimura, the game’s producer. ‘There was no one walking on the street. It felt unreal. When you take the Yamanote train line, it is supposed to be packed, especially during rush hour, but there was just no one on that train, even during the commuter time. Tokyo is such a populated city, but once you take all the people out of it, you start to get that feeling of loneliness and melancholy. “
In the game, a creeping fog erases the crowds in Shibuya, sweeps across the city, leaving piles of clothes in the wake. It’s an action movie and a ghost story that casts you as a young guy, Akito, who survived the paranormal event because he was possessed by a vengeful spirit. Akito shares his body with this spirit and discovers that he can fight the headless schoolgirls, creepy faceless wage earners and other ghosts who are now at large instead of the human population.
As players, we spend our time exploring the city in all its eerie, unsettling emptiness, defeating ghosts with magic, trying to track down Akito’s sister, and exploring the stories of the people who used to live there. Unlike many modern games with large budgets, it’s an enclosed experience that takes 12 hours or so to complete, and the controlled scale means that every aspect of the game’s compressed Tokyo is amazing to look at, from the posters in the grocery store windows to the neon-lit streets to the impressively tall buildings, full of aggressive yōkai – supernatural creatures.
Both Kenji Kimura and Masato Kimura, who are not related, credit Ghostwire’s striking atmosphere to Junya Fuji, the environmental designer who characterizes the special paranormal effects he created as the game’s “secret sauce”. The project began as a sequel to The Evil Within, Tango Gameworks’ successful 2014 horror game, but it soon became clear that it was becoming its own thing. The city itself was the main inspiration; before there was any story, any characters, even any idea of how the game itself would play, the team had spent years repeating its eerie version of Tokyo. This is very unusual in game development; the gameplay idea usually comes first, and everything else from art to music and history has to fit around it. But this alternative approach gave developers the freedom to get their vision of Tokyo right first and see where it led them.
Fuji says he constantly had a key phrase in mind at this point: “This is not a horror game”. “How do we do something scary, uneasy, eerie, but not horror?” he says. “It ruled out some things – no bloodstains, no bloodstains, these are horror games. Without using the usual things, how can we create this new feeling of discomfort but still familiar?
“About a year or so after the project started, we had another year to think thematically: what people would be in the city, what would their feelings and emotions be, and how would we capture those emotions and apply them to the city itself, if there were no people left? Without thinking too deeply about game systems, we tried to keep these people’s feelings and emotions at the core of the project. “
“One inspiration was a movie Dark City: both the lighting and the feeling that something ominous was in the city that overcame it,” Kenji adds. “We chose a place that people were familiar with, one of the first places that people imagine when they think of Japan – and from there we created this great event that people would disappear. From there, we were able to develop the concept of this game. “
Ghostwires Tokyo is for sure creepy, and not just because of all the ghosts. It’s a familiar place to most people with no connection to Japan, even if you’ve only seen it in movies or games or TV series, and to experience a version of it that is so realistic but also deeply wrong, gives me beating. “The city itself is our biggest inspiration,” Masato says. “If you’ve been here, if you’ve lived here, you know that Tokyo has a lot of supermodern groundbreaking buildings along with very old, traditional shrines and houses, and by walking a few steps you can feel like you ‘have stepped in. into another world.
“In this city, these wildly different things can be right next to each other. We wanted to capture that mix, strangely pieced together like Tokyo is, and put it into a game that emphasizes and adds to it. We thought it could turn into something really interesting. “