If my math is right, Shinji Mikami, the designer behind gaming classics like Resident Evil and Vanquish, is 55 years old. But as it turns out, my math, according to Shinji Mikami, is wrong.
“You're off by one but you're very close one,” laughed Mikami on a recent call with Waypoint.
Mikami is 56 years old and the reason we’re talking is because, in less than two months, his studio Tango Gameworks will release its newest creation, the neon-tinged Ghostwire: Tokyo, a first-person action game once described by its developers as “karate meets magic.” Though set for release exclusively on PlayStation 5 and PC, Mikami’s studio was bought by Zenimax Media in 2010, before Zenimax itself was bought by Microsoft in March 2021. It’s one of two timed exclusives from a previous deal with Sony. The other game was Deathloop.
Though Mikami founded Tango Gameworks and directed its first release, 2014’s The Evil Within, he’s stepped back from directing, allowing others to take the reins. (But hasn’t counted out making another game.) He’s still involved in design work, but Mikami’s been making games since 1990—his first title at Capcom was contributing to the quiz game Capcom Quiz: Hatena? no Daibouken—and his career’s been on a rocket ever since Resident Evil, his directorial debut, became a surprise hit in 1996.
“Biohazard [Resident Evil] was such a success that he was pushed into that more of a senior position,” said Ghostwire: Tokyo director Kenji Kimura, who was sitting with Mikami during our interview. “There wasn't a process that trained him in that fashion.”
When asked about what it was like to suddenly be in charge of games instead of making them, Mikami mostly shrugged—he didn’t have an option but to start making decisions.
It’s been more than 30 years between that quiz game and Ghostwire: Tokyo.
A screen shot from the video game 'Resident Evil.' Courtesy of Capcom
When asked about something straightforward, like his thoughts on a game, Mikami was quick to respond. He’s enjoying Ghosts of Tsushima, for example, and was impressed “a foreign team was able to grasp the coolness of Japan” and sees it as a bar to match. He’s also into the mobile game Uma Musume, which Wikipedia describes as where “great racers of the past have a chance to be reborn as horse girls.” His favorite horse is Mejiro McQueen.
But when asked about his age and his career, Mikami took much longer to answer. The designer admitted he “can’t remember things as much as I used to,” and it’s contributed to a desire to make more streamlined games with fewer pieces of information to memorize.
“That way, I can understand it and that way I can enjoy it, too,” he joked, albeit with a laugh that suggested plenty of truth behind the answer.
Asked for the biggest difference between 20-something Mikami and middle-aged Mikami, the one now running a company and decades of experience, he had two answers: ignorance and energy. He used to have more of the former, and now has a lot less of the latter.
“I don’t watch any of the old games that I’ve created. I do get bored with things that I already worked on. Maybe it's just me moving forward.”
Arriving at this moment, with Ghostwire: Tokyo nearly done, has been a process that Mikami admits was never a sure thing. When he stepped back from directing after The Evil Within, the studio pivoted towards a sequel, The Evil Within 2—aka familiar territory. (It’s also a very underrated game.) Ghostwire: Tokyo meant starting from scratch, which also meant it was also a lot harder to get greenlit. Because while Mikami runs Tango, he still answers to the people above him, once at Zenimax and now Microsoft. They greenlight the games Tango makes.
Ghostwire: Tokyo started under the working title “Snowfall” and was originally set on a ski mountain in Northern Europe. During the conceptual phase of the project, the original director fell ill and in stepped Ikumi Nakamura, the woman who stole the Internet’s heart at the game’s debut, and who Mikami described to me as the “now famous Ikumi Nakamura.”
“It didn’t feel like a presentation,” wrote Polygon’s Patricia Hernandez about Nakamura’s step onto the public stage. “It felt like a friend telling me a good story about something cool that they’re working on.”
Mikami called Nakamura, who also started at Capcom and worked on games like Okami and Bayonetta, a “great concept artist, great visualist,” who was able to develop a new look and feel for the game that was then called Snowfall. She chose to set the game in Tokyo.
“There were many times where I felt this might not work because of the greenlight process, but the visuals were so awesome,” said Mikami. “That made me feel like I should really try to be pushing to get this greenlit harder.”
Just months after Ghostwire: Tokyo was revealed, Nakamura also stepped down, citing that she’d been “ill for some time” and referencing how demanding it was to make video games.
“You can’t make games if you’re not healthy,” said Nakamura in a documentary about her work. “I started wondering whether there wasn’t a way for me to make games while feeling better. I took the decision to quit before it was too late.”
Mikami didn’t reference her departure in our conversation.
In the same documentary, Nakamura said she believed her on-stage performance at E3 was a disaster. In reality, Nakamura had become an online hit, a moment reflective of the new ways players interact with both the people who make their games and games themselves.
One of the bigger shifts over the course of Mikami’s career has been how many people don’t even play games—they watch others stream them. This has been especially poignant for Mikami’s specialty, where early YouTube creators like PewDiePie helped pioneer the now incredibly popular genre of recording yourself being scared while playing a horror game.
“To be honest, initially, I was surprised by that,” said Mikami, “because as a game creator, I want people to play the games that I create.”
Then, Mikami watched someone playing Dead by Daylight, the popular multiplayer horror game, and watched a streamer experience the infamously bonkers ending of Inside, the cinematic puzzle game from the developers of Limbo. Then, apparently, streaming clicked.
“What this phenomenon has done is it has created another level of a new audience and expanded the audience in that way,” he said. “Now I think it's a good thing.”
A screen shot from the video game 'Ghostwire: Tokyo.' Courtesy of Tango Gameworks
(We managed to communicate about the ending of Inside without the use of an interpreter by using our hands to pretend we were an enormous ball rolling forward. When Mikami experienced the ending of Inside, he told me that he “thought the world had changed.”)
What he doesn’t do, however, is watch anyone play his old games.
“I don’t watch any of the old games that I’ve created,” he said. “I do get bored with things that I already worked on. Maybe it's just me moving forward. It's not just for the titles that I've worked on, it's just the way I am with other things, too. I'm not really interested in sequels.”
“The way Mikami-san works is when he's working on a game he's playing the game a lot, he's got his hands on the controller a lot,” added Kimura, “but after he's finished with it, he's pretty much done.”
Soon, Ghostwire: Tokyo will be done, too. And then what?