The forgotten landscapes inspiring Ikuma Nakamura’s video games

Going under the pseudonym Tommy, the Japanese game designer has spent more than 20 years traversing and photographing abandoned locations

Renowned Japanese video game designer Ikumi Nakamura has released a new book titled Project UrbEx, which details her two decades of urban exploration. Known for her work on games such as The Evil Within and Ghostwire: Tokyo, this publication reveals for the first time her second greatest passion in life, as well as how this hobby has informed her successful career in video games.

Beginning in 2004, “before the internet and smartphones gave everyone all the answers, all the time”, Nakamura began challenging herself to find hidden and abandoned locations that she would hear rumour of on forums dedicated to urban exploration. She instantly fell in love with the process, writing in the book’s introduction that every trip felt like “a modern-day treasure hunt”.

Photo from Project Urbex by Ikumi Nakamura a dilapidated amusement park
All images from Project UrBex © Ikumi Nakamura
Photo from Project Urbex by Ikumi Nakamura showing a UFO shaped building

Over the years, Nakamura has visited countless destinations around the world, navigating her way through dilapidated buildings and often using stealth as a means of gaining access. Along the way, she documented her findings, capturing the crumbling, precarious interiors and façades of structures that had long been forgotten. Preferring her own company, she typically undertook these journeys alone, though on occasion she would bring a select few friends.

Beyond merely an escape from her virtual experiences, Nakamura says these trips have been invaluable in helping her to build detailed, immersive video game worlds. Many gamers will be familiar with the kinds of abandoned, occasionally apocalyptic landscapes revealed in Nakamura’s photographs, yet this won’t necessarily be because of their own adventures in the real world; instead, they are reminiscent of the digital environments found in the games they play – rugged, mysterious places that imbue these worlds with a sense of wonder.

Photo from Project Urbex by Ikumi Nakamura showing two run-down buildings in an overgrown street

Writing in the book’s foreword, Liam Wong, fellow photographer and former Ubisoft game designer, says: “Ikumi’s work is a testament to the power of photography to inspire new worlds that are visually stunning and unforgettable, transporting the player to places informed by reality.

“Her photographs capture the essence of the environments she has witnessed – spaces which are often forgotten, overlooked and unseen. These are more than just a record of neglected spaces, however; they are also a meditation on the nature of time and memory. She shows us the beauty that can be found in even the most desolate of places.”

Photo from Project Urbex by Ikumi Nakamura showing a cluttered abandoned interior

In Project UrbEx, these photographs are brought together with sections of playful travel writing, video game design theory, and manga comic illustrations, providing readers with an insightful look into Nakamura’s escapades, as well as how they have served as bountiful sources of inspiration for her games over the years.

“The standard narrative is that mankind has done nothing but defile and destroy our world,” writes Nakamura. “I dispute that. I think the places that humans have built and then abandoned have their own unique beauty. The power stations, factories and apartment blocks we no longer use may not be palaces, but they are fascinating records of our time on the planet.”

Photo from Project Urbex by Ikumi Nakamura showing a village set into a green hillside
Photo from Project Urbex by Ikumi Nakamura showing a dilapidated, overgrown arena shaped building

Project UrbEx is published by Thames & Hudson;