The unlikely story behind Hi-Fi Rush: Pitching the most “un-Bethesda” game to Bethesda

Jeremy Gan
Hifi rush cutscene image

Hi-Fi Rush’s director, John Johanas, sat down with us at Dexerto to discuss how the game was brought to life despite being so different in comparison to his previous works and frankly, different from anything else on the market. 

Nobody could’ve predicted the huge success of Hi-Fi Rush. Suddenly announced during Xbox’s January 2023 Developer Direct, and released shortly after, the game was not only a massive departure in tone and gameplay for Tango Gameworks, but nobody knew anything about it beyond the quick announcement. It was a surefire surprise for any who jumped in right away.

Before its debut in the Dev Direct, there were no trailers, no demos, nothing. It was a sudden stealth drop the likes of which we scarcely see due to the obvious risks involved. Yet, the game in all its colorful quirkiness and unique rhythm action gameplay managed to captivate the masses.

Here came a new project by Tango, creators of The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo, stealthily dropping as their most vibrant game by a mile, one that felt more Edgar Wright than their previous John Carpenter-esque releases. 

So how just exactly how did Hi-Fi Rush come to be? We went straight to the source and spoke with the game’s director over lunch in a recent interview.

Hi-Fi Rush’s departure: A post-Evil Within production

John Johanas, fresh off directing The Evil Within 2, Tango’s second game, and working on the horror series for seven years, wanted to create something different. During that time, Ghostwire: Tokyo was already in development as the studio’s next big title, however, Tango was slowly being recognized as a horror-only game dev team. 

Johanas remarked, “If we’re gonna try something different, we gotta try it now because we’re getting further and further pigeonholed to this horror image.” 

hifi rush cutscene image
Hi-Fi Rush was a massive departure for Tango as intended

And it was around that time he felt the studio’s next game could be an opportunity for them to create something remarkably different. However, he added that they didn’t want to make something different just for the sake of it, that it had to necessitate its uniqueness.

In fact, Tango’s founder, legendary game director Shinji Mikami, who’s responsible for Resident Evil, Phoenix Wright, and a whole host of classics, also felt the same way. 

“Mikami-san at that point, also didn’t want the studio to just be a horror studio. So he was like: ‘OK, so all these things we’ve been talking about for a long time? Now let’s actually do it.’.” 

And just like that, Johanas’ and the team’s idea to create a game that was brighter, more colorful, more fun, and an overall departure from what they’ve done previously, became a reality.

Pitching the most “un-Bethesda” game to Bethesda 

Johanas once remarked that Hi-Fi Rush was the most “un-Bethesda” Bethesda game to come out. But just like any game, it started off with a pitch. 

“Think of it as two phases,” Johanas explained to us, detailing how the first phase went. “I pitched it internally to [Tango Gamework] as the next project that would be interesting to us as developers, and as developers, we were excited about it.” 

Shinji Mikami, who was also present at that pitch, was in full support of the game. “At that point, Mikami-san was looking at the project and was like: ‘This is really cool, it’s interesting, and it’s different than what we’ve done before, but is also a good challenge.’” 

Luckily for the team, there was a Bethesda executive producer also present at the pitch meeting, who also thought the game’s concept was “very cool”. But this EP wasn’t quite as convinced. 

“I also pitched it as that, this is the most un-Bethesda game possible. And they were like: ‘I agree. They’re probably not going to say ‘ok’ to this’,” Johanas joked of the unnamed executive’s reaction. 

The pitching meeting wasn’t a unanimous agreement. Before getting the green light, the devs were asked to make a prototype of the game, without all its trademark art, just to show off their idea because many higher-ups couldn’t wrap their heads around it in theory. 

“You don’t expect us as a horror studio to make this game that’s fun, rhythm action… Like what does that even mean on paper?” Johanas recalled. “Even in that first meeting, people didn’t quite understand what that rhythm action means.”

However, the gameplay presented in the playable prototype was, as Johanas remarked, “eerily similar” to what the final game would be like, which goes to show just how strong a vision the team had for their idea. “It’s like the same game,” he said. 

In fact, the prototype in itself was already such a departure from Tango’s other works that people who internally checked out the game didn’t even know it was them who were responsible for it. 

“People played that without knowing we were making it… and people played it and were like: ‘This is really fun! My god, who’s making it? We should make this game.’

The second phase was bringing it to Bethesda. With concept art, which he admits wasn’t exactly finalized, and a playable prototype that people loved in hand, they approach the video game giants to possibly greenlight to project. 

Of course, they eventually got the go-ahead, but it wasn’t without a fair amount of hesitation. “While there was some, ‘we don’t know, we’ve never done something like this before’, there was a lot of excitement about doing something different.” 

Creating Hi-Fi Rush’s gameplay: Rhythm action is the future

When explaining his influences for the game’s combat, Johanas briefly pointed out a particular action scene from Shaun of the Dead by Edgar Wright, of which it’s quite clear the teams took quite a bit from inspiration. 

The scene was the bar fight scene in which the main characters fight off a single zombie with their attacks synced up to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. 

Naturally, that idea was morphed into their prototype build which was surprisingly similar to the end product. However, the idea of rhythm action wasn’t exactly as well known as today with games like Bullets Per Minute, Ape Out, or Sayonara Wild Hearts. 

“When I pitched the game, I felt like there was nothing like this that existed, so that’s why I think it’s kind of worth doing,” Johanas said of their initial idea of Hi-Fi Rush, saying they didn’t choose to do it because it was something other devs had already jumped on.

Rather, he puts the proliferation of the specific style of action gameplay down to the fact technology has made it much easier for devs to sync up audio and gameplay.

Hifi rush gameplay image
When first pitching, Hi-Fi Rush’s rhythm combat was unlike anything that came before, despite the plethora of rhythm action games out right now.

Yet while these earlier examples found some success, they weren’t an exact clone of what the team was looking for. “It didn’t give me the feel that I was personally looking for at the time,” he said. 

“Which was that combination of character action game of you being in control and full freedom of your character, with everything syncing up like a music video.” 

And that shows in the game’s combat. During non-boss fights, each hit from our character, Chai, feels as if we as the player were composing the song off the cuff yet also swinging our makeshift axe/mace around in sync to a preexisting track. 

And even when a Nine Inch Nails or Fiona Apple song is played non-diegetically along with our fights, it doesn’t feel like it’s just a song to add to the atmosphere of the fight, rather it feels as if every action is in tune with the beat. 

But did the steady drip of rhythm action games discourage the team from their vision? No, it did not. Rather, it helped them justify the fact there is a market for rhythm action games and that they were on the right track. 

“It was actually almost reinforcing,” Johanas said. “This is an idea people want. People are making these games, they’re spending time making these games, they’re maybe in a different direction, but the idea of this music combined with the gameplay is something that inherently has an audience that are enjoying it.”

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