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‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ developers scoured the real-life city for ghost stories

(The Washington Post illustration; Bethesda Softworks)

In imagining the setting for “Ghostwire: Tokyo,” game director Kenji Kimura said he walked around real-life locations in Japan’s capital and imagined what kinds of supernatural beings could be lurking in parts of the city, for instance, within the transit system.

“There’s an urban legend saying that if you wander around at night and go to a subway station and you ride a train with nobody on it, it might just take you to the other world,” Kimura said during an interview with The Washington Post, translated from Japanese. “And we thought, ‘Hey that’s something that could be very interesting if it did happen in real life. Let’s see how that would feel like if we put it into the game.’ And then it just turned into a side mission for our game: the nameless train station.”

Developed by Tango Gameworks and set to be published by Bethesda for Windows and PlayStation 5 on March 25, “Ghostwire: Tokyo” is a first-person action-adventure game set in a version of the city overrun by specters. Players use elemental powers to uncover the mystery of why citizens have disappeared.

Tango developers said they drew upon science fiction novels written by Philip K. Dick, Connie Willis and Kambayashi Chohei about near-death experiences when crafting the atmosphere and story of “Ghostwire.” They were further inspired by Japanese traditional folklore and the contemporary setting of Tokyo.

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Just like in real life, the city in “Ghostwire” features modern buildings beside older homes and shrines. The transition from contemporary life to a bygone era can be as short as walking a street block. Yokai, or spirits, live in alleyways and city sewers. The developers adapted stories that have often been told to Japanese children to explain natural phenomena and to sate young curiosity.

“There’s simply not enough time in the world to do all [folklore stories] inside a game, but some of the deciding factors for me as a director were to actually just go to those locations in the city and take a look around and sometimes sit down and think, ‘This would be cool if it were true,’" Kimura said.

Kimura said his walks also included attempts to observe and understand the personalities of people similar in age to the game’s young protagonist. To that end, he visited a department store, Shibuya 109, which he described as a “fashion mecca for high school girls.”

“Me being an older guy, I felt weird being in it, but I did walk around to get a sense of it and it did make me feel like a teen again,” he said, laughing.

While the promotional imagery and trailers for “Ghostwire: Tokyo” range from spooky to somewhat terrifying, both Kenji Kimura and game producer Masato Kimura insist they aren’t creating a horror game, unlike the studio’s previous survival horror series “The Evil Within.” Not all yokai are scary, they said. Nekomata, a cat wearing a kimono, for example, is a yokai with whom players can buy and sell items.

“We don’t want to create a crazy, weird type of game,” Masato Kimura said. “We want to create a place that feels natural and normal but it has some unnatural and abnormal moments that are peppered throughout, so that they’re hidden. Or sometimes they’re obvious, but it feels more natural and more of a normal experience. These are things that you would encounter or you may notice while you’re walking through.”

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Kenji Kimura agreed, saying, “We’re not aiming to make people feel scared. We don’t think that Japanese gamers might feel that they are more scary in that regard, but maybe they’ll find them a little more personal, when they get the sense that this is based on something that they’ve heard of before.”

The developers based the design of the enemies in the game, called visitors, on Japanese kaidan, or ghost stories. One character, called Shiromuku, is a large bride wearing an all-white kimono and hiding her face. Another wears a traditional hannya mask, representing a demon’s face, commonly seen in Japanese Kabuki theater.

To fight these enemies, the in-game protagonist uses their hands to channel elemental powers. Finger and hand gestures create spells that remove spirits from haunted areas. The developers chose to make the game in first person and to incorporate 3D audio to give players a more immersive experience.

While fighting enemies, players must open up cores that exist in the visitors’ bodies and then throw a wire to pull out the core and crush it, effectively exorcising the ghosts. Tango developers worked with Sony to utilize the PlayStation 5 controller’s unique haptics and vibrations.

“We were able to really create the sensation that you just hooked something onto the core, you’re pulling it out, and that sense of crushing it. That’s something very satisfying, and we can’t wait to have players experience it,” said Kenji Kimura. “It took a lot of time to hone things and figure out what to polish.”

The covid-19 pandemic struck near the end of development of “Ghostwire,” ultimately delaying the game to its current release this spring.

“Finalizing the details of the game definitely took a long time because of the pandemic,” Kenji Kimura said. “But also just the inability to have casual talks with other folks by the office affected the organic, natural process of making games.”

Kimura added that he encouraged people to have small talk over video calls, instead of focusing solely on work.

“You can’t make a good game if everybody’s angry at each other,” he said.