Something About Japan: Shinji Mikami on next gen development and the return of survival horror

Tango Gameworks head Shinji Mikami, currently hard at work on The Evil Within – his return to the survival horror genre he created with Resident Evil – gave his opinions on developing for PS4 and its effect on his game during an interview with game news website 4Gamer last week.

When asked how the next-gen tech has helped to make a game that might not be possible on PS3, Mikami replied, “It has enhanced our commitment to detail. As a result of being able to say ‘We can do this,’ ‘We can do that’, the grade of the visuals overall is much higher. Reality is important in horror. Even in a fictional setting, if it looks realistic you can believe in it. So thanks to next-gen hardware we can take it to one level higher than before.”

While many developers are singing the praises of PS4’s non-bespoke chipset as being easier to program for, Mikami said that he is not yet 100 per cent sure. “To be honest, there are areas that we’re still figuring out,” he said. “I’ve never got to grips with any hardware after making just one game though, so once I’m more familiar with developing for it I’ll be able to see its merits more clearly.”

He was also not in any rush to offer a gushing endorsement of the console’s specs, saying, “To be honest, I don’t yet fully grasp it. For me personally, more than the evolution of the hardware, it’s the evolution of the engines and the tools that are important for development. It’s a wonderful part of the framework that the hardware regularly evolves. To make the hardware relevant you need the right engines and tools. And the most important thing of all is the human hand. Quality craftsmanship. As the hardware evolves, we are reaching a point where we disregard the skill of the craftsman. In that sense, these are pretty tough times.”

He admitted that the evolution of hardware is of course important in pursuing better graphics and therefore a more realistic and scarier setting. “The resolution increases,” he conceded, “and as for lighting, in the past you could only do it roughly, whereas now you can fine-tune it. In order to create true dread without any filter, it’s important to be able to create a palpable atmosphere. In that sense, the specs of the PS4 are alive.”

He said that he felt the subtly rejigged DualShock 4 is a “genuine improvement” over the PS3 controller, but remained wistful for the once-rumoured sensory inputs that Sony decided not to include this time. “If they made a controller that can tell when you’re lying by reading your heartbeat and the sweat on your hands, that would be really interesting,” he said.

Speaking more generally about his new game, he explained that “The Evil Within will go back to the roots of survival horror and give new power to the terms ‘horror’ and ‘fear’.” He defined survival horror as “when you squeeze the controller and experience fear.

“Back when I was first making survival horror games, I had the concept of being ‘on edge with dread’. Fear that you feel through the controller, as you tense up nervously. Shooting your gun at an enemy with everything you’ve got while thinking, ‘Just die already’. That’s the sort of fear I’m aiming for.”

He said that the benefit to creating a new IP is that is comes without the baggage of expectation, a problem that has blighted recent entries in the Resident Evil series, which he abandoned when he left Capcom after Resident Evil 4.

“Survival horror games in recent years have gradually shifted from being about fear to being more about action, but since The Evil Within is a new title, there are no pre-existing fans to worry about satisfying,” he said. “Therefore it’s easy for me to get closer to the sort of balance of survival horror that I think is best. In that way, The Evil Within is being developed under peak conditions. Game fans are expecting horror, and they’re going to get it.”

One way he has ramped up the dread is by disempowering the player, with limited ammunition encouraging a more resourceful approach. “You’ll be able to use traps, of which there are two varieties,” he said. “One lot are in predetermined locations on the map, while the other type you can carry around. If you don’t notice the ones on the map, you could get caught in them yourself. But as you get used to it you’ll be able to use them against enemies.

“There is also a ‘sneaking’ action. When you are low on bullets, traps and sneaking will help you to survive.”

Mikami explained that the game will feature a minimal soundtrack. “There aren’t many pieces of music. The air, the presence of an enemy, breath, footsteps. To exaggerate the feeling of really being in that location, we’ve kept the music to a minimum.”

He also praised the work of Tango’s art director Naoki Katakai, who he said is responsible for the game’s emphasis on ambience. “His use of space and atmosphere are a great match for survival horror,” said Mikami. “For me, if you can get the lighting just right, you can enjoy the fear. Katakai is extremely good with lighting. Lighting with strong contrast. His stylish lighting suits the horror.”