Three years have passed since Shinji Mikami set up Tango Gameworks. While the studio has yet to release a game, news of its current project, The Evil Within (AKA Psychobreak), is sending shivers of fear across the world. The game represents Mikami’s return to the survival horror genre he created with Resident Evil in the mid-’90s, and revolutionised in 2005 with Resident Evil 4. So what’s different now?
“Not much has changed when it comes to instilling terror in the player,” Mikami says. “But people have got used to the tropes of horror and they know what’s coming next, so in that sense it is harder to make them afraid.”
That’s the reason you will be made so powerless in The Evil Within. Scarce ammo, confined spaces, near-invincible enemies that necessitate lots of running and hiding: it’s a world designed create an air of tension and make you dread conflict. Mikami himself, however, is becoming less tense now the game is creeping inexorably closer to its 2014 release date.
“It’s still difficult to manage a team, but things are coming together now that the game is in a playable state. So, compared with a couple of years ago, it’s easier,” he tells us in a hotel suite near a packed Tokyo Game Show 2013, where The Evil Within is currently on display in the form of an extended theatrical trailer. “Making games is always like a rollercoaster: really fun times, but also really busy times. When you ride a rollercoaster, the uphill part is scary and fraught and lasts for a long time, and the downhill part – the fun, exhilarating part – is over in a flash.”
At least he’s free of the frustrations of working within a big organisation; he certainly feels more comfortable heading a closer-knit team at Tango. As leader of ZeniMax’s only Japan-based studio, he also says he enjoys a good balance between autonomy and being a part of a bigger company with a vast talent pool.
“We still feel a strong spirit of independence,” he says. “Bethesda respects creative people and creative freedom, so in that sense it is an ideal group to be a part of. And if we want to learn technical knowhow from another studio, they are all very open.”
One way Mikami wants to grow Tango is to pass on the things he has learned to a new generation. This is a hot topic in Japan at the moment, where the management at major game companies can go unchanged for decades. Keiji Inafune, another Capcom alumnus, has set up his own Inafune Academy, a special school of game design, to train new faces. And Namco Bandai executive VP Shin Unozawa pleaded for young game designers to shove their bosses out of the way during his keynote at TGS 2012.
“One thing I want to focus on is to nurture younger staff, and I think now is the right time to do that,” Mikami says, although he also notes that it might take Tango five to ten years to create a really strong team.
In the meantime, he has to maintain a fragile balance between giving his workers space to grow and shaping his games. “The most important thing for building motivation is to let them do the work they want to do,” he says. “But the disadvantage of that approach is that if everyone’s doing what they want, the game becomes inconsistent. To find the balance, you must watch what they’re doing carefully and check their progress, while not forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. We haven’t quite got there yet. Probably on the next title I’ll have to be stricter to maintain that balance.”
Mikami singles out three of Tango’s staff as future directors: apprentice game director Ikumi Nakamura, who worked on Bayonetta; art director Naoki Kataki; and design lead Shigenori Nishikawa, who directed Mad World. “If people with character as strong as those three work together, there will be no arguments!” he laughs. “So in future I hope they will each have their own projects. But Tango is still a new studio and it has yet to establish its colours, so it will take time. I hope to find small projects to entrust to each of them soon – small games like Journey.”
Mikami indicated even before The Evil Within was announced that his next game could be his last. His interest in breeding new talent was a key reason for founding Tango, and he was worried that he would have to spend more time managing and away from the director’s chair as the studio grew. But now, a couple of years later, he says he has no intention of stepping back from game development.
“I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop doing creative work,” he says. “We’re a studio that makes things, and that means we need a leader who also makes things. So I don’t think I’ll be taking my hands off the wheel completely. I want to give younger staff the chance to make games – that’s something I’m very passionate about – but I’m not sick of making games or anything. I want to continue in a creative role. That will never change.”
His duties at Tango might widen the gaps between his games, however. The Evil Within is Mikami’s first game since 2011’s Shadows Of The Damned, an ill-fated horror-comedy produced in collaboration with No More Heroes director Goichi ‘Suda51’ Suda, with whom Mikami had previously made Killer7. Shadows Of The Damned was hampered by creative differences between its developer and publisher, and failed to find mainstream success.
The Evil Within looks to be much more serious in tone, and perhaps the most disturbing Mikami game to date. Protagonist Sebastian Castellanos, a cop investigating mysterious goings-on at a blood-soaked mental hospital, is all too human. For instance, an early section of the game sees him limping painfully after being attacked by aderanged butcher with a chainsaw. You are not a superman in this game. Play incautiously and you’ll be a dead man.
But Mikami is right about the tools of horror having not changed much in the last few decades: Castellanos will have to contend with several horror staples, including corpses hanging from the ceiling, giant spider-lady monsters, and human-looking wretches covered in spikes and barbed wire. And while you will be able to use traps placed around each stage to your advantage, you could just as easily fall foul of them. Seeing rows of spinning blades close in on both sides of the gigantic wraparound screen at TGS did not have a calming effect on onlookers.
“The scariest parts will be when you encounter enemies that cannot be killed with a gun,” Mikami grins. “Even if you shoot them they won’t die, so you’ll have to run or use a trap to beat them. That should be fun – and also scary.”