Saturday, February 25, 2023
A jungle, steaming and teeming, on an island. A maze of city streets, doused in flames. A village touched with autumnal rust. And a mansion in the middle of a wood. What unites these disparate places? They are all dampened by a sense of seeping unease, for one, which is just as well, given that three of them are the settings of Resident Evil games. Deeper still, each of them harbours a research facility – usually tucked away underground, or nestled behind barbed-wire fences. The aim of the research is rarely clear, but almost always involves creatures, caged in and coaxed toward mania or mutation. Rarely do the cages hold. The chief researcher, in all cases, is not a man in a white coat, but a man often seen sporting a baseball cap, jeans, and a light jacket. His name is Shinji Mikami, and the news this week is that he is leaving the studio he founded, Tango Gameworks, and we don’t know where he is going.
This is a shock. Not least because Tango Gameworks has unleashed a string of intriguing titles, from The Evil Within (the last game that Mikami directed) to Ghostwire: Tokyo and, just last month, Hi-Fi Rush – which was itself a shock, announced and released on the same day and daubed in lollipop colours. It was far from the horrors in which Mikami is fluent. Then again, he did warn us all, last year, that the studio would not be boxed into that genre, and bound by the obligation to scare us. “I hope to eventually change the image that Tango Gameworks currently has,” he told Famitsu. Nonetheless, Mikami of all people would appreciate the shock of the announcement, the emotions that are compressed into it: alarm, puzzlement, and the low hum of excitement.
There is also, it must be said, the lingering potential for sadness. This may well mark Mikami’s retirement. After all, what else is there to tempt him back into games, after he has captained his own studio and overseen its rise to prominence and profit? Tango was acquired by ZeniMax Media in 2010, which was, in turn, swallowed up by Microsoft in 2020. Could Capcom lure him back into development with the promise of a Resident Evil? And would he want to return to the series he created, with which he made his name and staked his claim on the landscape of video game horror? If he does bow out, then we will have lost one of gaming’s true originals, one whose work is every bit as unmistakable, as smudged with the eccentric fingerprints of its creator, as that of Kojima and Miyazaki.
Mikami is one of our greatest pulp developers. The fact that he has often worked with lavish budgets is neither here nor there; his games have the kick of cheap texture. On the surface, they are unconcerned with subtlety. They echo with low-rent dialogue and dumbfounding plots, but lurking beneath, like one of those lab-bred beasts, is something rarer. His games have a habit – like the best B movies – of burrowing under our skin and hanging around. The Mikami signatures are many, and you can play through his work with an eye for gathering up the calling cards.
There is his abiding fondness for acronyms, and the way they cut through complication and buff the dreary into something chic and smart. Hence the special tactics and rescue service, from Resident Evil, a dull designation that was tweaked into S.T.A.R.S., where it twinkled in our memory ever since. There is the slightly more stuffy S.O.R.T., from Dino Crisis, which stands for secret operation raid team. Then we have C.A.M.S., or computerized armament management system, from P.N.03. That drab title, too, is an abbreviation, though its full name, Product Number Three, is just as unlikely to thrill. Its heroine was clad in a suit of clinging metal, wore a pair of orange shades, and was weighed down by the unwieldy name of Vanessa Z. Schneider. Her mission? To shoot her way through – you guessed it – a research facility.
When Mikami’s games don’t reach for acronyms, they settle for theatrical capitalisation. Think of the STEM system from The Evil Within, which entailed people plugging their brains into a bathtub-like contraption, as their consciousness drained away and they fell into a dream world. And in Hi-Fi Rush we have SPECTRA, an AI program that cultivates a taste for mind control. Mikami didn’t direct that game, serving instead as an executive producer, but his influence, even in the games he doesn’t direct, can often be felt. As far back as Resident Evil 2 – which was directed by Hideki Kamiya, with Mikami as producer – he exhibited a knack for not just stirring up success but steering others toward it.
Take Ghostwire: Tokyo, whose creative director was Ikumi Nakamura, a protégé of Mikami’s, who followed him from Capcom to Platinum Games and thence to Tango. In its structure and its play, that game was far from Mikami’s corpus, animated by a fresh style. It was an open world, set in a deserted Tokyo, drubbed by pouring rain and pained by phantoms. And yet, there it was, hanging in the night sky like a guiding beacon: the moon. Mikami has long nourished a fixation with the lunar, lapping his games in its music and its milky light. Think of the save points in The Evil Within: bright-white mirrors, out of which leak the meandering notes of Clair de Lune, by Debussy. And of the Spencer Mansion, from the original Resident Evil, through which Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played, as the solution to a puzzle. That same tune resounded in Ghostwire: Tokyo (performed by Mikami himself, no less), becalming our nerves, and you could feel him casting a reassuring glow on the whole enterprise.
All of which is to say that Mikami’s influence will likely continue to be felt at Tango. If the games are anything to go by, his guidance was more akin to STEM than to SPECTRA: it doesn’t feel as if the team around Mikami were bent to his whims, rather that they were happy to be hooked up to his shared vision. It could well be that we get one last game from him. In 2020, he said as much: “My thinking is that if I had a chance to make a game from the beginning to end that’s completely my vision, then definitely, that would be my big last project as a director.” In any case, if Mikami does decide to retire, we will be poorer for his absence; but the rare and incurable strain of his legacy, at Tango and further afield, will continue to spread.
Saturday, February 25, 2023 @ 02:40 PM
Sunday, February 26, 2023 @ 10:45 PM