Need a vacation away from reality? Blast your way through 13th-century Japan
Last year was terrible, and this year isn’t shaping up to be so good either. But one of the highlights of 2020, in terms of entertainment, was Ghost of Tsushima, a stealth samurai video game from US developer Sucker Punch Productions. I wanted to be transported – not necessarily to another country, but to a time when COVID-19 did not exist. Thirteenth-century Japan does the trick pretty well.
One of the great strengths of video games is their ability to immerse themselves. When Ghost of Tsushima first released on PlayStation 4, I found myself battling the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274, controlling a stealthy samurai named Jin as he sneaked around enemy encampments, battling enemies. samurai and freed his compatriots. At 20 August, the game has earned a Director’s Cup on PS4 and PS5: perfect for those looking to escape this year too, albeit only temporarily.
While the game takes place in a real location and takes place during historical events, Ghost of Tsushima is a work of fiction, as is protagonist Jin Sakai. Inevitably, a lot of the finicky details about Japan are not entirely accurate.
Whenever video games or books are created by people outside of Japan, there are inevitable fears that they will screw it up. There are good reasons for these concerns, as the end product may appear “unpleasant”. Maybe the characters are wearing their kimono badly, or maybe the designers 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 won’t be invented until much later. But honestly, these are minor missteps. The game is very good.
Even though the game was designed by an American studio based in Washington state, it had full support from 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 the Japanese birds were recorded for the game. Much of the team’s success in making Japan a success has been, well, involving the Japanese in the process of creation – something that many Hollywood films do. taking place in Japan tend not to do (or, at least, do not do well).
“I think it would have been immeasurably more difficult if we hadn’t had the Japanese localization team who helped us so much throughout this project, even very early on,” said Ghost of Tsushima’s creative director, Jason Connell, at the Eurogamer website. It wasn’t just that the game developers had a Japanese localization team: They really listened to them.
The game is not a documentary about 13th-century Japanese culture. But what makes the game work so well is that it’s hyper aware of how Japanese samurai movies have been portrayed in popular culture. For inspiration, the game’s creators turned to Japanese cinema, especially Akira Kurosawa’s films. In Ghost of Tsushima, there is a “Kurosawa mode” filter that turns the screen into a grainy black and white film, much like the samurai movies of the 50s 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 from 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 sparked feelings similar to Red Dead Redemption when it was first released. The games are both open world, but the gameplay is fundamentally different. I grew up in Texas and as a child I traveled extensively in the Southwest. Certain landscapes transported me back, even as I played the latter in Osaka. They weren’t exact recreations, but they got enough evocative detail.
Ghost of Tsushima also does a superb job of conjuring up the idea of a place. It feels like visiting a shrine in the fall – it’s not exactly the same, but it’s like an idealized, romantic memory. Besides being fun – and you can’t underestimate the fun factor of the game – it’s one of the secrets to Ghost of Tsushima’s success.
It could also explain why the game was so well received in Japan. As I noted on Kotaku shortly after the game’s release, the country’s gaming press praised Ghost of Tsushima, not only noting the lack of awkward Japanese expressions or weird cultural references, but also the storyline of the game and the way it played.
Perhaps one of the biggest compliments comes from Sega’s Toshihiro Nagoshi, who created the Yakuza game series, which obsessively brings today’s Japan to life with an underworld touch. Nagoshi acknowledged that the creators of the game had done a lot of research and added that he honestly believed it was a game that should have been made in Japan.
“There’s kind of an idea that Westerners don’t get it (about Japan), but that assumption itself is wrong,” Nagoshi said, adding that the game was “so awesome”.
If you missed Ghost of Tsushima the first time around (or just want to replay it), the director’s cut offers a new place to explore – Iki Island – to immerse you longer in a different world, albeit there is wandering gangs of swordsmen ready to cut you in half.
bit.ly/tsushima-dc (Japanese); bit.ly/tsushima-dc-en (English)
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