Hi-Fi RUSH Interview: Tango Gameworks director on the studio’s new, non-horror game

One of the biggest games announced at last week’s Xbox Developer Direct live stream was Tango Gameworks’ rhythm action game, Hi-Fi RUSH. The surprise title, which was released on the day of the live stream, became an overnight hit thanks to its colorful visuals and satisfying rhythm-based battles.

IGN spoke with Hi-Fi RUSH director John Johannas to discuss why Tango — best known for horror games like The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo — chose a more colorful route this time around, and how it managed to make one of the biggest surprise games of the year.

IGN: My entire history talks about Hi-Fi RUSH. I’m wondering when development started on the Hi-Fi RUSH?

John Johan: It was actually right after The Evil Within 2. I directed that, and by the time we were wrapping up, we knew that Ghostwire [Tokyo] was the next game that the studio had already started working on in pre-production. Just from a personal perspective, I felt like I needed a palate cleanser.

And when you develop a game with the other team members, you talk about other games that people like. When we play games during downtime, we are talking about action games. I’ve had this idea brewing in my head for a while, but since this studio is known for being terrible, in the back of my mind I’m like, “Oh, this, this will never be approved.”

I kind of wrote this very short presentation about this idea of ​​how good it feels in trailers and movies when the hits land on the beat and it just feels like the action just feels so much more satisfying. What if we could do this in an action game? And then, just the idea of ​​rhythm action – and it’s all in sync with the music, but it’s not a rhythm game – sparked the meeting.

This is the most un-Bethesda game imaginable because we’re showing the ideas where the visual effects would be a throwback to the shadowy look of the PS2, Dreamcast and early Xbox era. I was like, “You’re probably not going to buy this, but I just think it’s a really cool idea and I have a really strong idea of ​​how it could work.”

My boss [Shinji] Mikami-san said, “That sounds really cool. It all sounds very difficult and I don’t know if it will work, but why don’t we try to prototype it.” Actually, it started in late 2017.

Because this studio is known for horror, in the back of my mind I’m like, “Oh, this, this will never be approved.”

IGN: I think Tango is mostly known by most people as a horror game studio. There’s been a lot of buzz about what your next game might be, and when the project was finally revealed, it was this bright, colorful, rhythm-driven action brawler. What does it mean for a studio like yours that you’re branching out in this new direction?

John Johan: Well, I would say that was always the intention in a way.

If you look at the original vision of the studio, it wasn’t created to only make horror games, it was created to encourage new ideas and support new developers. But we didn’t assemble a team to make the best horror game. Just like Mikami-san himself, he creates action games. He also has a history of going beyond those boundaries. We didn’t feel like we had to be limited or we needed to be limited by the image that we have of being a horror-first studio.

I think it was important to just show that we can do more than [horror] and did it well, I think that was the most important thing because it’s something that we’re super adamant about.

If we want to do it, we have to show people that we can do it and do it well, because we can’t go out and screw up our first attempt at something different. It should be good. A lot of time and effort went into this. I see some people call it an indie release or something, or a small project, and from my perspective I spent five years on it, so it wasn’t small.

IGN: One of the things I want to touch on is that the Hi-Fi RUSH is not small. I played through it and you can tell that every cutscene follows that rhythm. How difficult was it to synchronize both the cutscenes and the in-game action in rhythm?

John Johan: The short answer is extremely, extremely, extremely difficult.

The long answer is basically, we need to set up how our animation system works so that any animation you do, whether it’s a little early or late, it will always interpolate it so that it lands on the beat. We got to create this new animation flow, and people would make these cool animations, but we’d find that it didn’t feel like—hit the beat or things like that. It was constant trial and error. Fortunately, as we got further into development, most of us figured out what it took to do this, so that helped.

The cutscenes were a huge undertaking. Our cutscene director Jun Watanabe and I talked at length about how we could do that, how we could do it in the stylized stuff. We had a script and we had a BPM and we would put everything on click and we animated. I would estimate that it took about three times as long as it would have taken to make a normal cut scene.

IGN: You mentioned the cel-shade art style, the throwback to older platforms. You look at a game like Hi-Fi Rush and immediately think of some of the other classic cel-shaded games like Jet Set Radio. Why take the shady path?

John Johan: It really came from that idea of ​​it looking like a throwback game – throwback, but not retro. We also just wanted people to be reminded of games as entertainment. I thought, whatever we do, we want it to pop out and be remembered like those games you mentioned.

Internally [at Bethesda]some people had played it and were talking about it among themselves… They were like, “Did you see that game they’re making over there?”

IGN: Let’s talk about music. Does the in-game music selection reflect the team’s preferences? Is Mikami-san a fan of Nine Inch Nails too?

John Johan: Surprisingly, very early on the team said, “John, you can choose the music.” People have a lot of conflicting opinions about music, and I know that sharing a playlist is about the most awkward thing you can do. It’s a weird “open your journal” thing.

But I felt like we were going in a very definite direction, and like I said, it was a weird personal project for me, so I wanted to pick music that I grew up listening to or that reminded me of an era where I was really just having fun playing games or things that I have some left.

I wanted something that felt almost late 90s, early 2000s if that makes sense, because that’s the time I was talking about, the Dreamcast era, the PlayStation to the Xbox. A bit of a throwback, but also kind of exposure to maybe some artists that maybe even the younger generations don’t listen to.

IGN: We posted a big interview with Phil Spencer and one of the great things he said about the game’s shadow fall was the idea of ​​Tango.

John Johan: Tango will not take credit for this, it will be an idea of ​​the marketing team. They pushed him through. We knew Hi-Fi RUSH was a very big departure from what we had done before, but we also knew we had something very special to begin with.

This isn’t a horror game from a horror studio, so there may be some initial “maybe” questions. When we were looking at the idea of ​​shadowfall, we thought we’d just let people decide for themselves and play the game, basically. Because we got a lot of reports when people first saw the game internally, they said, “This looks like fun. I want to play it now.”

We weren’t trying to give people the wrong idea, to make them think, “Oh, this is a lower quality thing” or anything like that. We can show them right away. We were very confident in the product we had. I think that worked for our title.”

I think it was important to just show that we can do more than [horror] and did it well

IGN: I think one of the advantages is something like Xbox Game Pass where people with the subscription can just dive right in. Was this also considered?

John Johan: Oh yes, that was absolutely part of everything. Again, if you’re going to ask someone to buy something in the shadows, you’re probably going to get a lot of skepticism, but the fact that Game Pass exists allows people to pretty much, what you’d say, theoretically demo. But this is not a demo, but the full game. They can just play and they can almost naturally talk about the game, talk to their friends, tell them how cool it is. That’s what we hoped for, because we knew deep down that it was something special.

Internally, people wouldn’t stop talking about it. In fact, that’s how it was built at Bethesda. I think it’s a whole other story of how a game like this can come out of Bethesda, because internally, some people have played it and talked about it to each other… They’re like, “Did you see that game that you doing there?” There’s this weird kind of viral positivity just playing this game, and Game Pass just felt like a great opportunity to let something that’s maybe a little complicated, or maybe people might be skeptical of, lose that skepticism right away. by just playing it.

So far, from the comments we’ve seen, people seem to really understand what we’ve been trying to do. We even saw that there was some skepticism in the launch trailer. People said, “I don’t know…” And then people said, “No, wait. I just downloaded this. You have to try this, you have to see this.” Kinda exactly what we were hoping for, but credit to the marketing and PR team for pulling it off.

Matt TM Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. You can reach it @lawoftd.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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