The experience of playing a narrative-focussed AAA game is getting progressively closer to the experience of watching a movie or a TV series, in terms of both visual fidelity, and of dramatic sophistication. Actors and writers who also work on film and TV are now routinely employed, and rather than recording a series of voice-over one-liners they are coming together on soundstages to play out scenes wearing motion capture gear. At the same time, game designers are thinking about the overall narrative of their game less in terms of a series of escalating boss-fights, and more and more in terms of character development. Games sometimes tackle controversial social and political themes, and their heroes may be morally ambiguous figures.
However, the big-budget, major-studio games do find it quite hard to put away the ‘childish things’ they’ve inherited from… well, ultimately from Space Invaders. There’s a powerful imperative to neat narrative closure, and to some kind of victory for the playable protagonist, for which the player can feel responsible. There is also an almost irresistible need to justify violence as a means to good ends, given that it is a primary gameplay mechanic of all AAA games. This results in a moral compass that is heavily weighted toward the politics of Golden Age Hollywood, where whatever out-group is defined as the enemy can be slaughtered without compunction. Even when an earnest attempt is made to question the utility of violence, as in The Last of Us Part II, no AAA game that I’ve encountered has been able to resist the powerful fan-service pull of having the player ‘win’ the game.
Ghost of Tsushima is unusual in paying homage to a particular film director, although most games can be related to movie genres. The work of Akira Kurosawa, the most internationally famous Japanese director of the twentieth century, is a direct inspiration for the visual aesthetics and narrative pacing of this game. Dramatic moments in the game are cinematically framed—the tense stand-offs before duels never ceased to delight me, and they are always adorned with some kind of exquisite environmental detail, like falling maple leaves, or a field of flowers rippling in the wind.
This is not the first time that Kurosawa’s schtick has been appropriated by the Western entertainment industry: Seven Samurai (1954) was remade in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, and Yojimbo (1961) was egregiously ripped off by Sergio Leone in For A Fistful Of Dollars (1964). But it is probably the first time that a non-Japanese game has reflected this particular Japanese self-image back on itself—and the game has been extremely well-received in Japan. Toshihiro Nagoshi, creator of the Yakuza series and Sega’s chief creative officer, said ’it’s the kind of work made by non-Japanese people that makes you feel they’re even more Japanese than us. I think it’s amazing’.
This is the most abiding aspect of the playing experience. It’s the most exquisitely beautiful naturalistic game I’ve ever played. The landscape is designed to be picturesque from almost any angle, and as the player moves through it, a succession of perfectly framed scenes present themselves. Every building, every domestic object, every weapon, every item of clothing, every roadside shrine has the proto-modernist hand-crafted perfection that Western eyes have been trained to associate with Japanese visual culture. Mists, breezes, rainstorms and sunsets animate the landscape just as they do in Kurosawa movies, and the characters move in combat with the grace of dancers. The environmental noises, soft or thunderous, and the birdsong were recorded in Japan, and heard on headphones they draw the player out through their ears with a preternatural sense of place and presence.
This is a game to spend time in, then, not simply to play. Ten minutes spent riding your horse along the coastal cliffs of this imaginary Tsushima Island does not feel like time wasted. This is a feeling which extends to many of the activities in the game. There are hot springs scattered across the island setting, bathing in which will enhance the character’s health, while giving them an opportunity to reflect on the events they have been experiencing. The player can also find a selection of spots in which to compose haikus, by selecting from a number of choices for each line. The finished poems are pretty poor, as the available lines are almost always abstract feelings rather than concrete images, and haikus are completely anachronistic to the thirteenth century setting, but that simple of action of sitting your character down and choosing the lines of a poem is extraordinarily calming.
If all of this isn’t enough for you, you can switch to ‘Kurosawa mode’, which emulates the black-and-white film-stock that Kurosawa habitually used, and switches the dialogue to Japanese with English subtitles. And then, to all intents and purposes, you’ll be playing a samurai movie. Or will you? The two films I mentioned above which were remade as Westerns paint particular pictures of feudal Japanese society, in which ordinary people are at the mercy of armed men—be they bandits, lordless ronin, or samurai landowners. This is the social truth of feudal society, any feudal society: peasants are chattels, either in law or in effect, and their lives are rendered chaotic, unpredictable, and short by the coercive violence of an armed landowning class. Kurosawa was consistently critical of the samurai class and their code of bushidō, despite making members of that class his leading characters. That critical inflection is entirely absent from Ghost of Tsushima, whose samurai characters are honourable, kind to peasants, and only fight when it is right to do so.
This is a game, of course, and games can be forgiven for a lack of historical rigour. The island setting itself makes fast and loose with the real Tsushima Island, despite sharing its rough outline, and nobody really believes that any historical samurai could be as devastatingly effective in battle as the ones depicted in games and movies. The kind, honourable knight-in-armour is a favourite trope of Western fantasy and historical fiction, one which we know bears scant resemblance to the historical landowning class of feudal Europe, but we like the romantic stories in which they appear, and we understand them to be fairy tales—knights and their code of chivalry could be substituted readily for samurai and their code of bushidō. Or they could be if the historical circumstances surrounding both their historical existence and their mythology were similar, but there are important differences.
The samurai class was not divested of its status, and of its traditional role in rural society, at a time that is so historically distant that it feels barely relevant, as is the case with the knightly class of feudal Europe. Instead it continued to rule in name until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and after the institution of the prefecture system in 1871 its members continued to populate the upper echelons of Japanese society, as state bureaucrats and business owners. The code of bushidō did not vanish with the disestablishment of the feudal regime, but was manipulated to become the basis of the new state’s value system—nobody invoked chivalry as a basis for the values of England’s imperialist project, for example, but bushidō became the basis for unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor and his agents.
After WWII, nostalgia for the traditional Japanese class system became a central plank of Japanese nationalism. The samurai were remembered as honourable, honest, incorruptible, courageous custodians of the countryside and of Japanese values. There is a moral element to Ghost of Tsushima’s narrative, in which samurai values are antagonistic to the sneaky, dastardly methods the player must adopt to defeat the invading Mongols. The protagonist must sacrifice his honour, the ultimate sacrifice that could be asked of a class whose members would willingly sacrifice their lives in service to their lord. The purity of the samurai is sacrificed to defend against the encroaching modernity of the Mongols, with their gunpowder and their syncretic appropriation of all cultures and societies. Against other Japanese such atrocities would be unnecessary, unthinkable—but against unscrupulous foreign invaders… This moral agon serves to reinforce a nationalist construction of identity, in a way that quaint tales of chivalrous European knights do not.
So while the game looks like Kurosawa, there is an important sense in which it is not Kurosawa. Its samurai are the ‘good guys’, and like all ‘good guys’, they can only exist in a fantasy which others and dehumanises their opponents. That most computer games present just such a fantasy is a fundamental function of making conflict ludic—I might sound like I’m trying to spoil the fun to be had in this magnificent open world, but ‘stop spoiling our fun’ is the cry that rings out whenever privilege is injured, or oppression highlighted. Peasant and merchant class characters do feature in the game, and their travails are not entirely effaced, but the samurai class are clearly absolved of all responsibility for their suffering—when any humane analysis will confirm them as its architects.
Of course, I did have fun in this game—an enormous amount of fun. Its narrative is involving, and its core gameplay mechanics are a delight. After a while, it becomes repetitious, as you meet your thirty-seventh group of wandering Mongols, and bathe in your nineteenth hot spring—but there is always pleasure to be had from the environmental design, and the sheer beauty of the whole thing. This is an aspect of open-world design that other developers have handled better—The Witcher 3, Horizon Zero Dawn and Grand Theft Auto V all manage to weave a narrative through an expansive open world without making you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over again. But when you’re in the late stages, with the whole panoply of sneaky, nasty methods at your disposal, there are few experiences in gaming as satisfying as taking out a Mongol encampment in Ghost of Tsushima. Someday another open-world game will come along which nails the gameplay, the storytelling, the world-building, the visuals, and the politics as well as Read Dead Redemption 2, and while we wait for it we might as well play this.