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How Ghostwire: Tokyo Fuses Japanese Folklore and Modern Intrigue

Ghostwire: Tokyo, the upcoming game from Japanese developer Tango Gameworks, leverages the technologically advanced environment of Tokyo while incorporating traditional Japanese landmarks like shrines, temples, and torii gates. This mix of the here and now and the traditional is a departure from the company’s previous games, and Ghostwire: Tokyo is not a horror title like the Evil Within series.  

Director Kenji Kimura, producer Masato Kimura, and concept artist Kenta Muramatsu spoke with WIRED about how they incorporated modern and traditional aspects of Japanese culture in the game, which is arriving March 25.

Seeking Inspiration

Kimura says he was inspired by books like Valis by Philip K. Dick; Passage by Connie Willis; The Blossoming Flower Dies, Reality in a Dream by Chohei Kanbayashi; and The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul by JD Bernal.

“The way these books utilize the understandings of things such as the spirit, the soul, the mind, the conscious and unconscious, and death are close to what I myself have felt,” Kimura explains. He was also influenced by Tool's “Pneuma.” The lyrics of the song left a strong impression on him, and it’s one of the songs he listens to most often when he goes on walks.

He says, “When I listen to it, the thinking about life and death in my mind just naturally gets linked to the thoughts that I tried to embody in Ghostwire: Tokyo.”

Kimura tries to go on walks or listen to music often because it clears his mind. When he was thinking about mission content featuring a specific character, one of the songs he listened to was Sia's “Waving Goodbye.” It was another instance of the lyrics naturally matching what he had in mind for the character’s feelings.

Muramatsu also walked around the city and visited shrines, temples, and other locations. “Just looking at pictures, you only get one image of what those would look like,” Muramatsu explains. “But when you actually go there and see how they look from different angles, that is all part of the inspiration for creating the art within the game.”

Tango Gameworks had the idea of using Tokyo as the setting for the game long before focusing more specifically on the Shibuya area. The environment in Ghostwire: Tokyo closely resembles the real-life city, so the team was able to reference Tokyo itself.

The blend of traditional and modern also extends to the real world. Tokyo has many modern buildings close to each other, but if you go to the next block or between the alleyways, you might find a shrine or other traditional structure. For the team at Tango Gameworks, the game’s setting is their everyday life. But the mix of traditional and modern structures is part of the intrigue for those who don’t live in Tokyo.

To help immerse the player, the team designed Ghostwire: Tokyo’s protagonist, Akito, to look like a regular Japanese person. However, the team also had to be mindful to not make him blend in with everyone else. By default, Akito wears a light blue jean jacket over his white shirt, with a fanny pack slung over his shoulder, along with beige jeans.

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Akito gets possessed by a phantom named KK that manifests in his right eye and gives him supernatural powers. While they have different agendas, their common goal is to figure out the truth behind the Vanishing, an event in which almost all of Tokyo’s population mysteriously disappears.

As players progress through the story, Akito’s everyday appearance is meant to reinforce his character. “How did Akito end up being representative of the normal Japanese guy? It just naturally ended up being that way,” says producer Masato Kimura.

Behind the Yokai and Visitors

After launching The Evil Within 2 in 2017, Tango Gameworks wanted to try something new. The biggest reason the studio didn’t want Ghostwire: Tokyo to be another horror game is because of its setting and folklore. The yokai-related stories and urban legends within the game weren’t intended to cause fear. They are meant to be more like representations of nature itself and entities we live alongside in daily life.

“We wanted players to experience the fascination, the charm that people would feel when they, the supernatural, show themselves in their natural day-to-day backgrounds,” says Kenji.

In popular culture, yokai are essentially Japanese spiritual creatures, ghosts, and supernatural beings. But in Japanese culture, yokai can also explain natural phenomena, so they’re not necessarily good or evil. For example, there’s a yokai called the Kama Itachi, which is a kind of weasel creature that has sharp claws and flies with the wind. Elders would explain to children that the windy conditions outside were the result of the Kama Itachi flying around and warn them that it would hurt anyone who walked around outside with minimal clothing.

In Ghostwire: Tokyo, these spirits are called Visitors. In Japanese, they’re called マレビト  (pronounced mah-lay-bee-toe), which means “a being that comes from another world.” In Ghostwire: Tokyo, “another world” can apply to many concepts, such as the other side of the ocean, the other side of a mountain, or even the other side of consciousness.

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There’s also the well-known Nekomata, a cat yokai. In Ghostwire: Tokyo, these play various roles and are noncombative. Players can purchase items and sell items to them. But there are malevolent spirits as well. The Kuchisake-Onna is one such creature. Dating back to Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), she’s a malicious spirit in the form of a young woman who covers her face with a mask to hide the ear-to-ear slashes across her face.

She will then ask her victims if she’s beautiful. If they say “yes,” she’ll pull down her mask, revealing her scars, and ask the same question. If the victims get scared and change their answer to “no,” the Kuchisake-Onna will kill them. In Ghostwire: Tokyo, the player’s answer is the difference between life and death. Choose wrong, and she’ll attack.

Muramatsu created 20 to 30 pieces of concept for each yokai in the game. The general Japanese public already had preconceptions about yokai, and the team wanted to add their own flavor to their designs. To do that, the yokai were designed to look as realistic but also authentically Japanese and spooky as possible. According to director Kimura, the goal was to make the player feel like the paranormal yokai could naturally coexist with everyday objects and environments.

“The design approach was to take the familiar aspects of these creatures from urban legends, folktales, folklore, and ghost stories that we in Japan relate to, and put them into the designs,” Muramatsu explains. “But while doing so make them so that regardless of where the player lives and is from, the player feels this sense of realism.”

The yokai in office attire are called Rainwalkers and are based on the Noppera-Bo, which are faceless ghosts disguised as humans. Usually, Noppera-Bo only scare their victims, but in Ghostwire: Tokyo, these ghosts attack the player on sight.

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Their designs also come from Japanese urban legends. Kimura, the director, thinks urban legends reveal what humans are most anxious about and can point to big life changes.

“To almost symbolize that, we have designs that are inspired by scenes in life, like preschool, grade school, middle school, high school, a commuter going to work, marriage, and funerals,” Kimura explains. Why Visitors are depicted that way in Ghostwire: Tokyo is something people will have to discover while playing the game.

Tools for Ghost Busting

The enemies in Ghostwire: Tokyo aren’t made of physical matter, so when it came to designing the weapons in the game, it didn’t make sense to incorporate conventional options like guns or knives. “If the enemies are paranormal, then we probably need to use paranormal kinds of abilities if we are going to fight them,” says Kimura.

In Japan, the bow and arrow are often used during ceremonies and can be found in shrines as symbols to purify evil. In that context, it made sense for Akito to wield a bow as a long-range weapon. It was a challenge to stay away from modern-looking bows that are depicted in competitions on TV.

The team wanted to stay on the traditional side, designing a bow that was depicted in old murals and paintings. In Japanese folklore, villagers would use bows and arrows to fight against evil spirits.

Continuing with the paranormal theme, the development team added Ethereal Weaving, which combat director Shinichiro Hara describes as “karate meets magic.” Akito utilizes hand movements inspired by Kuji-kiri hand gestures to cast spells. Ethereal Weaving also incorporates elements of Onmyodo, a Japanese system of magic and divination, as well as Ninjutsu martial arts.

The offensive aspect of Ethereal Weaving has three elements that are commonly found in Japanese culture: fire, water, and wind. In Ghostwire: Tokyo, the wind element is the fastest of the elements and acts as the quick pistol in the game. Water spells have a wider range that’s more like a shotgun. Lastly, the fire element acts like an explosive. When players block incoming attacks, that’s the earth element coming into play.

Muramatsu adds, “When we went deeper, that also helped us to think about what kind of playlike hand gestures to use when you launch those attacks. And a lot of the inspiration came from those elements.”

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Ghostwire: Tokyo has a strong visual identity. The contemporary setting mixed with supernatural and historical-cultural elements provides a distinctive experience.

Kimura, the producer, explains that because of Tokyo’s mix of modern-day and traditional buildings, the game isn’t just horizontal; it’s also vertical. There are buildings you can climb and freeways to run around on, the result of the Vanishing leaving Tokyo nearly empty. You wouldn’t have this kind of opportunity in real life.

The team wants the player to feel like they’re in Shibuya and experience a sense of normalcy, despite the paranormal attack. Muramatsu says, “It’s definitely an unusual circumstance that occurs in the game, but there’s still that ‘everyday’ kind of sense to it; that kind of balancing mix is very unique to this game. We hope that players get that sense and enjoy the game.”


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