For the most part, yesterday’s Bethesda E3 press conference was about as standard as they come, albeit with a dash of pretending Fallout 76's sudden shift in a more traditional direction was Definitely The Plan All Along. However, one moment stood out: Tango Gameworks creative director Ikumi Nakamura took the stage and animatedly introduced her team’s new game, spooky action-adventure GhostWire: Tokyo. Just like that, the internet was aflood with gifs and memes.
Nakamura broke the larger script of E3, which gains another milquetoast page every time a man in a blazer shuffles onto the stage to deliver a flowery ode to ray-tracing with all the expressiveness of someone who regularly gets mistaken for a mannequin when they shop at malls. She cracked funny jokes in English despite admitting she was “nervous” and that she was going to have to “do her best” to speak the language. She struck poses. She wore a cool, all-black outfit. She seemed to be having a genuinely good time on stage, expressing awe at the size of the crowd before her.
Even though it was just a brief introduction to Ghostwire: Tokyo, her segment came across as authentic, spontaneous, and heartfelt—a welcome reprieve from rehearsed marketing speeches and sleepily-recited teleprompter babble. The trailer for the game, meanwhile, was rife with eerie supernatural imagery and stylish design (also, the most realistic bowl of ramen I’ve ever seen in a game). It was utterly inscrutable, but striking.
It makes sense that Nakamura was so well-prepared for the spotlight. She’s been working on major games since 2004, beginning with Capcom cult hit Okami, for which she designed backgrounds. Since then, she’s taken on increasingly central artistic and creative roles on the likes of Marvel vs Capcom 3, Street Fighter X Tekken, Street Fighter V, Bayonetta, The Evil Within, and The Evil Within 2. Basically, if you’re a fan of action-oriented Japanese games, there’s a solid chance you’ve played something she had a hand in shaping. Now she’s creative director on GhostWire, having been introduced on stage yesterday by legendary Resident Evil (among many, many others games) designer Shinji Mikami. A passage she contributed to the Evil Within art book gives some interesting insight into her design philosophy:
“Reality and horror are inseparable,” she wrote. “If you overdesign, you force the player, and without any design the experience becomes less memorable. Just having blood splatters and heads chopped off is not enough. This is only scary for its grotesqueness and is not what we were looking for with Evil Within. Realizing this idea in the visuals of a video game is incredibly difficult, one of the more difficult challenges game designers face.”
Yesterday evening, fans enjoyed seeing her in the spotlight. Some are now drawing art of Nakamura and meme-ing about how “adorable” she is and how she should be “protected at all costs.” While much of the praise she’s received seems rooted in genuine admiration, some have argued that more extreme variations on these reactions are not appropriate, given the way Western society tends to infantilize Asian women. It’s a line gaming and internet culture often cross when it comes to women both real and fictional, and uncritically maneuvering dialogue in the “so cute, must protect” direction can undermine the accomplishments of the people fans believe they’re cheering for. Despite that valid criticism, Nakamura herself has been enjoying the fan art, calling people’s drawings of her “treasures:”
As of today, Nakamura has more Twitter followers than her boss and mentor does. I’d say she’s off to a solid start, but like many other people who don’t fit the typical mold of E3-presentation-ready video game executive or designer, she’s been at this forever. Just quietly, in the background, while dudes in blazers sleepwalked their way in and out of the spotlight. For Nakamura, this sort of recognition on a major stage is, if anything, overdue.