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Exclusive: Ikumi Nakamura Opens Up About Kemuri, Avoiding Crunch, And Why Okami Still Inspires Her - Fan Fest 2024

In the fall of 2006, Capcom released
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– a game that mixed Japanese folklore with the exploration of Zelda. It was praised for its lavish cel-shaded visuals, which at the time were among the best ever seen on the PlayStation 2; many even said it was better than
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, which released that same year. Among the team at Clover Studio, where Okami was developed, was a young Ikumi Nakamura, who was just getting started in the industry as a “newbie” artist.


Nakamura remembers that time as something like the Wild West. Many of the shaders commonly used today were not available, the visuals were comparatively low-res, and there were “lots of limitations.” Challenging as it could be, though, she also remembers it being “really fun” discovering different development techniques that could aid her as she went. It was an experience that would inform a career that has spanned 20 years and numerous classic games.


Today,
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in the wake of her
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, where she helped spearhead the development of Ghostwire Tokyo. Nakamura’s
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made her a fan-favorite, and in her subsequent appearances she’s made a point of playing up her role as studio mascot. But talking to her in a Google Meet call, she comes across as soft-spoken and deliberate. In real life, she’s a mother who splits time between her day job as a studio head and her passion for urban exploration, with her first book due to be released in March.

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, her stylish new action game blending “traditional Japanese folklore, modern culture, anime aesthetics and international flair.” It is in many ways a summation of her career to this point, which has taken her from Capcom to Platinum, then to finding fame introducing Ghostwire Tokyo at E3 2019, and finally on to running her own studio. Revealed at
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, Kemuri reflects Nakamura’s childhood love of the supernatural with its array of spirits and fashionable Yokai Hunters.

It moves at the pace of Bayonetta, with Yokai Hunters able to run down surfaces in much of the same way as that game’s Umbra Witches, and it carries on Ghostwire Tokyo’s theme of “making the supernatural, natural.” In many ways it’s more ambitious than either of those games, though, mixing freeform exploration with multiplayer gameplay, though she’s hesitant to
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.

So with Kemuri...in a way it's like the combination of all these things and all these experiences...

Kemuri’s biggest influence is also one of Nakamura’s formative experiences in the games industry. Okami was where she got her start, and its visuals are a big part of the look and feel of Kemuri.
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, Nakamura said that Okami 2 was the project that she wanted to “make reality the most.” Kemuri isn’t exactly a sequel, but Okami’s artistic flair remains alive and well within it. In one example, Nakamura describes a technique she derived from her time at Okami, and how she passes it on to her artists.

“[W]henever I’m actually working with a character artist to, let's say develop the character's face, for instance, I always tell artists to really put in quite a bit of attention to detail on just one single stroke, even on the face and stuff like that. Just to give a certain impression or certain detail. And this idea is definitely from my experience with Okami, for sure,” Nakamura says.

She ticks off the games she’s worked on and how they’ve influenced Kemuri over the years. “Okami, I was actually working on coming up with a visual design and stuff like that. With The Evil Within, I was working more towards a leadership or management role on top of doing art and design,” she says.


She remembers working on Bayonetta, and how director Hideki Kamiya was heavily involved in the world design and writing, but couldn’t draw so much as a basic sketch to help artists with his concepts (“He was an F Minus,” Nakamura remembers.) This led to a somewhat inefficient process in which artists had to create “countless” images before Kamiya would finally say, “This is it.” Nakamura was better than most at being able to hone in on his particular vision, leading him to give her more responsibilities as a lead artist. In her own projects, Nakamura tends to be similarly uncompromising in her vision.

In 2010, Nakamura helped found Tango Gameworks with Shinji Mikami, where she remained for nine years. Ghostwire Tokyo was her first chance at the director’s chair, and it was a game that was made out of “all of the stuff that she likes” – an urban setting, a mix of the natural and the supernatural, and action. She worked on it for four years before ultimately deciding to leave in the middle of development.

“Maybe my lack of experience was why I couldn’t quite finish it to the end,” Nakamura says. She admits that she’d been “stuck in a closed-minded world for quite a while, so I felt the need for a mental reset.”

Still, she says, it’s not so easy to leave behind what you love in your childhood.

“Ghostwire Tokyo is the first time I ever actually became a director, so I was in a place where I got to make what I like,” Nakamura says. “So with Kemuri...in a way it's like the combination of all these things and all these experiences...Perhaps that's what Kemuri is.”

An oasis in a troubled games industry


Not long after leaving Tango Gameworks, Nakamura visited Sony Santa Monica and met Cory Barlog. It was an experience she enjoyed so much that she considered working there, but “all such discussions vanished” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Still, the experience had a positive impact on her, and she began to wonder if she could recreate the “friendly vibe” of Sony Santa Monica in Tokyo.

The result was Unseen, which she describes as something like an “international school” – a vibrant and diverse collection of artistic talent from all over the world. Among them is Unseen Chief Technology Officer David Steinberg, who moved from France to Tokyo in 2010. The approach is not without its challenges – work is frequently slowed by the need for constant translation – but it gives Unseen an optimistic air that it likes to highlight as much as it can.


The studio’s workspace is housed in a disused warehouse, but manages to feel cozy thanks to touches like fake bonsai trees and a plush tent filled with comfortable chairs and pillows (Nakamura jokingly refers to the area as their “glamping” space). In many ways Unseen feels very like a space built by artists for artists, with a layout that was painstakingly modeled within Unreal Engine.

Nakamura resists comparisons to family, seeing it instead as a diverse team of professionals working toward a common goal. Still, its warm atmosphere stands out in a troubled games industry where funding is drying up and
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. Nakamura has experienced her own share of upheaval, having been part of the transformation of Clover Studio into the independent company that would eventually become PlatinumGames.

“We recognize the difficulties faced by other studios in the industry, and our hearts go out to those who have encountered layoffs and funding challenges. In such a dynamic landscape, we've prioritized a people-first approach, ensuring the well-being of our talented team members while maintaining a creative and collaborative atmosphere,” Nakamura says.

“Our talented crew is our most valuable power-up, and we're committed to ensuring their well-being on this epic quest. Unseen's office and the artists' home offices have been officially designated as the ‘Layoff-Proof Zones,’ Because who needs downsizing when you can have a fortress of creativity and job security?”


Of course, such a sentiment plays a little differently in Tokyo, where Unseen is based. As Nakamura herself acknowledges, layoffs are difficult if not impossible in Japan. Still, its commitment to a worker-positive environment makes it seem like an oasis of positivity in an otherwise struggling industry. Indeed, layoffs elsewhere have led many developers to apply at Unseen, though Nakamura says the studio is quite selective owing to its emphasis on studio culture.

Another way Unseen stands out is in being a woman-led studio in the still male-dominated games industry, where progress for women into leadership positions has remained painfully slow. “It's definitely a minority in Japan for sure, for a woman to actually start the company and become a CEO and stuff like that,” Nakamura tells IGN.

... A studio that can ship a very high quality game without the crunch is our goal

She talks about how she “didn’t really think much at all about being a woman” while going about a career. But when she started Unseen and gave birth to her daughter, she found herself struggling to adapt.

“Many strange things happen to your body after you actually give birth. And just having all these changes in [me], and also running a new job, CEO… it was quite different for sure,” Nakamura says. “And then for a while, couldn't really adapt fast enough through these drastic changes in being a CEO and also being a mother and stuff like that. This is where it really made [me] realize, ’Oh, I am a woman.’ That's about it for how I feel about women running a studio.”

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, director Misuzu Watanabe and Nakamura talk frankly about the challenges of being a mother in the games industry, with Watanabe working remotely from home in Osaka during the day while looking after her child. According to Watanabe, “very few companies” told her it was okay to be a mother. Nakamura’s message to Watanabe?

“Don’t give up anything.”

Ahead on their way


Having finally revealed Kemuri at The Game Awards, Unseen is ready to begin an extended period of development. Nakamura isn’t revealing release timing or even which platforms it’s coming out on, but she’s conspicuous in her praise for Steam and PC gaming in general, saying that it’s “essential to recognize the dynamic pulse of PC gaming.”

“Particularly, the accessibility of high-performance PC setups has led to a noticeable shift, with a growing number of players embracing PC gaming. This trend empowers developers to create more sophisticated and intricate games, providing players with a broader spectrum of genres and experiences,” Nakamura says.”

She singles out Steam, which has become much more popular in Japan over the past several years. “As a digital distribution platform, Steam has undergone remarkable evolution, offering players easy access to a plethora of new titles and providing developers with a stage to showcase their unique creations. The growth of Steam injects innovative energy into the entire PC gaming industry, promising ongoing evolution and anticipation for what's to come.”

Whichever platform it’s released on, it may be a while before fans get to play Kemuri. According to Nakamura, Kemuri is currently experiencing a “healthy delay” that she chalks up to Unseen’s “dedication to pushing artistic boundaries and meticulously considering how to translate their passion into an unparalleled user experience.”


Asked to elaborate, Nakamura points to some of the challenges inherent in communicating in English and Japanese. She’s also keen on crunch within her studio, which is an environment she knows all too well through her long career in the games industry. She specifically points to Hades developer Supergiant Games as an inspiration on that front.

“They actually completed a very hype-worthy game…without the crunch,” Nakamura says. “I really like the idea, but at the same time in my experience for working for many different studios before Unseen, I have no experience of really shipping a title without crunch. So I don’t really have a precise vision of or image of how we can actually do that…but a studio that can actually ship a very high quality game without the crunch is our goal.”

One way or another, Nakamura and her team are just beginning their journey, and it’s far too early to say how it will end. But in an increasingly grim industry, Unseen is at least one studio where optimism still reigns.


Kat Bailey is IGN's News Director as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.

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