It’s rare to be genuinely surprised these days. Video games take incalculably long to develop in the modern era, and cost so much to produce, that companies understandably announce them well in advance, in hopes of building hype by the time they’re finished. That’s just marketing 101. But Hi-Fi Rush, Xbox’s energetic and indescribably gorgeous action game where you attack on the beat, appeared out of nowhere last month, pulling off what’s dubbed the “shadow drop,” where a piece of media is announced and released simultaneously.
And Hi-Fi Rush is not just a pleasant surprise, it’s already a contender for game of the year, with an unmistakable look that plausibly blurs the line between video game and real-time cartoon and a delightful mashup of Devil May Cry’s fernetic action and PaRappa the Rapper’s satisfying taps to the music. It’s a game nobody knew they wanted, yet it’s here.
“If you’ve ever played music on stage and you nail something—you’re playing that chord exactly when the symbols are smashing or something, there’s just this weird energy that comes from that,” said creative director John Johanas in a recent interview with Waypoint. “And that’s where the idea of ‘okay, everything just has to land on the beat and you feel like you’re part of that.’ Which I just feel hadn’t been done in this type of way before.”
The funny thing is that while Hi-Fi Rush is an excellent action game that feels inspired by games like Bayonetta, Johanas can’t play those games very well. On the other hand, growing up, he was constantly drawn to music and any game that incorporated music. Johanas started by playing saxophone in high school band class, but today considers himself “a terrible musician,” who can play guitar, bass, drums, and piano to varying degrees.
For many video games, the audience goes through a familiar process. First, a CG trailer that hints at how the game might look and feel. Later—perhaps years later—a look at gameplay. Hi-Fi Rush appeared out of nowhere for basically everyone except the people who made it.
“The way that development started helped define how complete the package is,” said Johanas. “I noticed a lot of people saying how polished it is, or how the vision is so clear.”
When Tango Gameworks finished the original The Evil Within, designer Shinji Mikami’s return to the action horror genre he helped define with Resident Evil 4, the entire team immediately moved onto The Evil Within 2. There was no time to waste, which also meant there was less time to think. Johanas was a writer and designer on the first game, but took over creative direction on the second—and frankly, much better!—sequel. When production on The Evil Within 2 wrapped, some team members shifted over to already-in-development Ghostwire: Tokyo, while Johanas and a handful of others were given creative license to be quiet and experiment.
Hi-Fi Rush is the result of that quiet experimentation.
“We specifically didn’t have any graphics in the beginning,” said Johanas. “We said it has to survive on gameplay alone.”
One of Mikami’s recommendations to Johanas and the team early on was to develop the game without a user interface (UI). If you’re making the game centered around music, Mikami challenged the Hi-Fi Rush developers to see how far you can go without telling the player anything about what they’re being asked to beyond what they can see and hear.
“When you see UI, you think, ‘oh, I have to press it to that button,’” said Johanas. “This was a tricky challenge. How can we convey as much as possible without saying, ‘hey, press here, or you’re going to miss,’ so you don’t feel bad. We did a long time without any UI.”
Hi-Fi Rush layers mechanics on pretty fast, but at its most basic level, players tap buttons to execute attacks. A basic attack might be hitting X X X X, while a heavy attack might be Y [BRIEF PAUSE] Y Y. Crucially, attacks still happen if the player is off the beat, but they’re more powerful in rhythm. There are cues everywhere about the neverending beat that defines the game. The main character, Chai, snaps his fingers to the beat. Whole pieces of the environment, like pipes and platforms, move to the beat. What Johanas found while making Hi-Fi Rush was that people found their way to the beat in surprisingly different ways.
“We specifically didn’t have any graphics in the beginning. We said it has to survive on gameplay alone.”
“We thought we had one solution where we have 808 the cat over your shoulder, just giving you the pulse,” said Johanas. “And some of the initial feedback was like, ‘oh, I didn’t even notice it was there.’ But then we had some other people and they’re like, ‘wow, that thing was essential. I was always looking at that, that helped me out.’”
These kinds of tweaks happened all throughout development. One developer who joined the team as it was increasing in size noted Chai’s snapping was on the first and third beat of the measure, and suggested it should be on the second and fourth beats, because it’s more akin to “a natural drumbeat, one that you’d do with a kick drum.” And so, the snapping changed.
Over time, the resistance to more UI broke down as conversation turned to approachability. (Can I Play That? has a breakdown of the game’s accessibility features.) Even if the game is seemingly filled with cues about how to play, and the music is finely tuned to allow players to gradually internalize the beat and rely only on their intuition, it might not be enough. That’s why, eventually, they added a (fully optional) meter at the bottom of the screen that removes abstraction entirely and literally shows the beat timing in real-time.
“I think first games start with thinking [we are a] rhythm game, first let’s put all this stuff in, so you know when to press the beat,” said Johanas. “For us, it was the other [way], we want to see if you can internalize as much as possible. If you’re struggling, what can we do to give you help? It was almost reverse engineered.”
There was a sense of reverse engineering when it came to the game’s striking visuals, too.
“Our initial concept art was literally the first stage, when you’re on that rooftop?” said Johanas. “And I was like, ‘whatever we do, we need it to look exactly like this.’”
No one at Tango Gameworks had any experience working in this style before, which Johanas dubbed a version of “cel shading” inspired by classics like Jet Set Radio, Okami, and Viewtiful Joe, games with aesthetics that “felt like you’d never seen something like that.”
Even though the studio was flying a bit in the dark when it came to developing the expertise to pull off the look that would eventually become Hi-Fi Rush, Johanas kept this notion of matching the game’s concept art as his guiding light. When in doubt, look back at the art. At times, they would literally hold the concept art up to the game and compare the two pieces.
And then, one day, Johanas knew they’d nailed it.
“We knew we had it when someone who is working on Ghostwire came over and was walking by the computers and he was just looking at it,” said Johanas. “He’s like, ‘this is some cool concept art’ and I was like, ‘this is the game.’”
The one remaining question I had for Johanas, then, was simple: uh, Zwan? It’s normal for games with licensed music to advertise and promote the artists and tracks meant to appear in the game, but typically, these are either all-time classic tracks you’d hear on an oldies station or something modern. It’s not, you know, frickin’ Zwan, the 2001 abandoned rock “supergroup” formed by Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Jimmy Chamberlin (Smashing Pumpkins), Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle), David Pajo (Slint), and Matt Sweeney.
Zwan released one really good single, “Honestly,” and one pretty decent album, Mary Star of the Sea, before everyone realized what others already knew: Billy Corgan sucks to work with.
The reason Zwan is on the soundtrack, though, is because the band is inseparable from Hi-Fi Rush.
“I’m not joking that [“Honestly”]—that was the mood maker piece,” he said. “When we started the game, I remembered that song, and I’m thinking “what can we make that has that vibe of just feeling good?” It’s almost offensively positive. [laughs] I don’t know if it’s possible to say that. But this should be it, because it’s all about having a good time. And it’s weird that I guess the history of the band is that it wasn’t actually that great of [a] time for them. [laughs]”
Johanas wrote the script for Hi-Fi Rush exclusively while listening to “Honestly” on loop.
“With rhythm games, or music games, even if it’s not your favorite type of music, if the experience is good, it doesn’t matter is what I kind of noticed,” said Johanas, “Even genres that I’m not super big fans of, if the experience is well done, it’s something that is approachable to anyone.”
Yes, including Zwan.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is email@example.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).
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