Last year was terrible, and this year isn’t shaping up to be so great, either. But one of the bright spots of 2020, entertainment-wise, was Ghost of Tsushima, a samurai stealth video game from American developer Sucker Punch Productions. I wanted to be transported away — not necessarily to another country, but to a time in which COVID-19 didn’t exist. Thirteenth-century Japan fit the bill pretty well.
One of the great strengths of video games is their ability to immerse. When Ghost of Tsushima first hit the PlayStation 4, I found myself battling through the 1274 Mongolian invasion of Japan, controlling a stealthy samurai named Jin as he snuck around enemy encampments, faced samurai foes and liberated his fellow countrymen. On Aug. 20, the game got a director’s cut on the PS4 and PS5: Perfect for those looking to escape this year, too, even if only temporarily.
While the game is set in a real place, and takes place during historical events, Ghost of Tsushima is a work of fiction, as is the protagonist Jin Sakai. Inevitably, a lot of nit-picky details about Japan aren’t quite right.
Whenever video games or books are created by people outside Japan, there are the inevitable concerns that they’ll screw it up. There’s good reason for said concerns, because the final product can feel “off.” Maybe the characters are wearing their kimono incorrectly, or maybe the creators have taken liberties with Japanese culture. In Ghost of Tsushima, for example, flowers bloom out of season, and the in-game sake brewery features equipment that wouldn’t be invented until much later. But honestly, these are minor faux pas. The game does get a lot right.
Even though the game was designed by an American studio based in Washington state, it had the full backing of Sony. Members of the studio came to Japan on research trips and even visited Komoda Beach on Tsushima island, where the Mongol invasion landed. Even the sounds of Japanese birds were recorded for the game. A big part of the team’s success in getting Japan right was, well, involving Japanese people in the creative process — something many Hollywood films set in Japan tend not to do (or, at least, don’t do well).
“I think it would have been immensely harder if we had not had the Japanese localization team that was helping us so much throughout the course of this project, even from very early on,” Ghost of Tsushima creative director Jason Connell told website Eurogamer. It wasn’t just that the game’s developers had a Japanese localization team: They actually listened to them.
The game isn’t a documentary of 13th-century Japanese culture. But what makes the game work so well is that it’s hyperaware of how Japanese samurai movies have been depicted in popular culture. For inspiration, the game’s creators looked to Japanese cinema, especially the films of Akira Kurosawa. In Ghost of Tsushima, there is a “Kurosawa mode” filter that turns the screen into grainy black-and-white film stock a la samurai films of the 1950s and ’60s. What makes Ghost of Tsushima even more fascinating is that it was also inspired by 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, a game that wore its influences of Italian director Sergio Leone on its sleeve. Leone himself was influenced by Kurosawa, and his 1964 film, “A Fistful of Dollars,” is a remake of “Yojimbo” (1961).
Playing Ghost of Tsushima evoked similar feelings to when I played Red Dead Redemption when it was originally released. The games are both open world, but the gameplay is fundamentally different. I grew up in Texas and, as a kid, traveled extensively through the Southwest. Certain landscapes transported me back, even as I played the latter in Osaka. They were not exact recreations, but they got enough evocative details right.
Ghost of Tsushima also does a superb job evoking the idea of a place. It feels like you’re visiting a shrine in fall — it’s not exactly the same, but it’s like a memory that’s idealized and romantic. Besides being fun — and you cannot underrate the game’s fun factor — this is one of the secrets to Ghost of Tsushima’s success.
It might also explain why the game was so well received in Japan. As I noted on Kotaku shortly after the game was first released, the country’s game press praised Ghost of Tsushima, not only noting the lack of awkward Japanese expressions or odd culture references, but also the game’s storyline and the way it played.
Perhaps one of the biggest compliments of all came from Sega’s Toshihiro Nagoshi, who created the Yakuza series of games, which obsessively bring modern-day Japan to life, with an underworld spin. Nagoshi acknowledged the game’s creators did a massive amount of research and added that he honestly felt it was a game that should’ve been made in Japan.
“There’s like a notion that Westerners don’t understand things (about Japan), but that hypothesis itself is mistaken,” Nagoshi said, adding that the game was “so great.”
If you missed Ghost of Tsushima the first time around (or just want to play it again), the director’s cut features a new location to explore — Iki Island — to keep you immersed in a different world for longer, even if there are roaming gangs of swordsmen ready to slice you in half.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.