As video games have evolved into a technological and economic behemoth, they have attracted some consumer attention and spending away from movies. In part to appeal to filmgoers accustomed to the high production values of the big screen, large-budget games often aspire to a cinematic aesthetic and a degree of spectacle, with elaborately staged narrative sequences featuring celebrity actors. Players, though, have not always embraced this approach. Film grammar can certainly be useful for lending an emotional dimension to the imaginary worlds that designers create, but it’s rare for any game to succeed as both a narrative and an interactive experience.
Ghost of Tsushima, released this summer for PlayStation 4 (the most successful of the latest generation of home systems, with over 100 million consoles sold), is unique in its layering of visual detail and narrative structure onto well-honed game design. If you’ve ever watched a samurai film and been struck by specific images—reeds billowing in the wind, silhouettes perched stoically on the horizon—you may be surprised at how immersively this game replicates the visual economy of the genre while also evoking the human emotions of warriors grappling with duty and sentiment.
Set during the thirteenth-century Mongol invasion of Japan, Ghost of Tsushima pays homage to classic chanbara films—especially those by Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi—and follows Jin Sakai, an orphaned samurai torn between honor and survival and adopting increasingly desperate tactics in his fight to repel the enemy. Tsushima’s developers, Sucker Punch, a Seattle-area studio best known for the superhero game series Infamous, have infused this complex story with elegant game mechanics distilled from the past decade of open-world game design, allowing the player to roam in a large virtual space and choose freely from a set of missions and tasks.
I spoke with Tsushima directors Nate Fox and Jason Connell about the films that inspired their work and the ways that the art of game design draws from moviemaking.
I’m interested in the ways this project intersects with classic samurai movies. I’ve never played a game made by Western developers that was set in Japan and has this degree of detail in the world building. I thought we could start by hearing more about the genesis of the project and how feudal Japan became the setting.
Nate Fox: We are massive fans of the “wandering samurai” experience represented in films like Yojimbo or Sanjuro. And it seemed like a good fit with an open-world game, where you have the freedom to walk into a town as a samurai and then solve problems that people have there with your wits and the edge of your sword. The fantasy is very powerful. Games are interactive, and they are just the right way to make experiences that were previously exclusive to cinema come to life on consoles right now.
Jason Connell: We played around with different ideas, but it was pretty obvious that the samurai concept had the most energy and passion behind it. The ideas of how it could play and how it could look just kind of started writing themselves. There was so much great entertainment to pull from but not an overwhelming number of prior games, and that made it more exciting because we felt like we could go into uncharted territory.
What was your familiarity with samurai films and Japanese cinema before you started working on this game?
Nate: When I was growing up, my best friend’s family was from Japan. One night, his mom was over at our house watching this miniseries called Shogun with my mom, and she acted as an interpreter and called out what was wrong. I felt like the curtain was being parted a little bit on this place that I’d only heard about from [my friend] Keita.
Later we saw the movie Yojimbo. While the sword fighting was exciting, it was the scene where a friendly dog walks by with a severed hand in its jaws that really stuck with me. It was so much rawer than anything I’d seen in American films. I was hooked!
Ever since, I’ve been very interested in these movies that I feel a connection to through my relationship with those people who were formative in my childhood. And you can’t watch these classic samurai films and not get excited by the sparseness and the economy of the emotion and the storytelling. Everything feels like it’s been stripped down to the most essential components, and as a creator I admire that kind of design and its negative space. American westerns come the closest to it, but you’re not going to ever beat something like Seven Samurai for elegance.
Jason: My story is maybe far less interesting than Nate’s. I grew up in a rural area of Alaska, and my father loved Star Wars and we watched it religiously. I went into art school and wanted to make video games and then got into photography, and at one point I realized that Star Wars feels very similar to westerns. And then I dug into that and was like, wait a minute, all of this actually comes from something else. I found The Hidden Fortress and went into the depths with Kurosawa. Movies like Ran transformed my feelings about cinematography and photography.
I very much felt the Ran influence in Ghost of Tsushima’s introduction sequence. I always like hearing how people got started with movies and media, and how the different strands came together for them.
Nate: There are some aspects of making a game that are similar to movies. We’re often looking at films for an emotional touchstone as a way to communicate a top-level idea, because cinema is a language that all of us share. And working on a game, you’re going to cast actors, write scripts, block out scenes, and of course there’s cinematography and scoring. A lot of that is mostly relevant to the noninteractive cut scenes in the game, but, frankly, those are not the reason we’re making games.
We’re making games so that you get to be very present in the action. In this way, they are totally different from movies; the feeling of discovery when you crest a hill and see a sunset—all that is dynamically occurring. And you know that it’s your own experience. Nobody set that up for you; you just happened upon it. That’s entirely part of the interactive medium. And with many games, you’re making a new thing as you go. The technology is always changing, the controls are evolving. You need some reference points to get the team all aligned behind one vision, because the game that you intend to make is unlike anything that has ever been made before.
Jason: Some of the most exciting stuff in the game was found along the way. Interaction is something you have to try and feel out. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the game, we have these standoffs, but they didn’t exist on day one. There’s also a thematic gameplay feature for navigating the island of Tsushima by following the wind, which we iterated toward as a way to interact with the game world.
Nate: Interestingly enough, the two things that you just called out are pretty firmly rooted in the cinema that has inspired us. Kurosawa films are famous for showing the natural world in motion around stock-still samurai. And the standoffs in our game are a very direct representation of the standoff at the end of Sanjuro. We look for a lot of inspiration to translate into interactivity from source material that we think represents the heart of the experience most directly.
Jason: The wind mechanic was also inspired by Yojimbo. There’s a moment in that film where Toshiro Mifune picks a stick up and throws it into the air, and it lands on the ground. He’s just charting his own destiny, letting the world tell him what to do next, just trusting that it’ll lead to something interesting.
One of the fascinating things about games as a medium is the way that technical solutions and processes can feed back into the design. Did “Kurosawa mode” [a feature in the game that applies special post-processing filters in homage to the look of 1950s and ’60s black-and-white chanbara films] emerge in the development process, or did you always have it in mind?
Nate: At the beginning of working on a game, many conversations start with “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ?” Having a black-and-white mode that made you feel like you were playing one of these classic films is something we wanted. After E3 2018 [the Electronic Entertainment Expo, one of the largest industry trade events], I can’t tell you the number of people from the press who expressed interest in wanting to play the game in that kind of visualization. Jason and I were interested in it, but that’s because we’re deep fans. But it turned out it was a much broader interest than we ever thought.
Jason: When it came time to name the mode, we tossed around a bunch of ideas, but eventually one of our producers mentioned the possibility of “Kurosawa mode.” He reached out to the Kurosawa estate, and they wanted to see a video. Of course I was like, “Wow, this can’t just be pretty good. It has to be perfect.” I spent weeks on that video; it was only forty-five seconds, but you want every single frame to look good. Because our game has so many weather and lighting conditions, we had to look at a variety of films that had interiors and exteriors and daytime and nighttime and try to get the black-and-white levels right. Finally, we sent the video to the Kurosawa estate; they liked it and we reached an agreement. Also, our audio director added a filter to make it feel like the sound was going through an older TV or older-style speakers. All those pieces working together makes playing the game feel like you’re watching a movie.
In addition to Kurosawa’s samurai films, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is another one of my favorites. The way that Tsushima’s grass billows in the wind felt very strongly connected to that film.
Nate: When we started working on duels for the game, we showed the team the famous duel in Harakiri, where the characters walk through the graveyard up to that windswept hill, staring at each other. They pose, swords come out, they pass, and then the music begins. It was important because it showed the negative space involved in fighting—not the cling-clang of swords but the attention and the anticipation and the pageantry of two people sizing each other up, which is so powerful and unique to these films. I think that movie is exquisite in this regard, and it helped us get deeper into what it would be like to be in a duel with someone.
Jason: That negative space is not always an easy or obvious thing to put into a game, because it’s slow, and everybody wants to be fast. Games have an instant gratification element to them, but some of the most exciting moments of our game happen when we introduce a pacing change that’s down and not up. Creating things like haiku or onsen [hot spring baths] or duels—if you test those with people, you might get feedback that they want them to be over more quickly, but overall the feeling that you get from them is powerful. We drew from movies to make sure that we had that feeling in the game.
Let’s discuss the cultural context of the game. I gather that you consulted with experts on some of the finer details.
Nate: As a bunch of developers in Washington state we knew we were not equipped to do right in delivering a feeling of authenticity to the world that we wanted so badly to achieve. So right off the bat we reached out to experts on things like kendo, religion, costuming, and how Mongols fought in that period to help inform us early on about the right choices to make, and they came in all along the way, playing the game and giving us feedback. Colleagues at Japan Studios set up research trips to Tsushima and other parts of mainland Japan for us. And they’ve been terrific partners in guiding us through the process of making this game, even going as far as doing field recordings for some of our audio so that the sounds are just right, in a way that somebody who was raised in Japan would be able to pick up on but someone who grew up outside Japan would not. We wanted to do it right, and we relied on these experts to tell us where we were messing up.
Jason: With every other game I’ve ever worked on, there was this excitement of adding stuff in and solving problems. Ghost of Tsushima had all that, plus this extra layer of: you’re going to learn a lot, you’re going to read a lot, you’re going to be told you’re wrong, and you’re going to be asked to change things.
What do you think Ghost of Tsushima has to offer to people who aren’t so familiar with gaming?
Nate: The game is a very accessible product in that it has levels of difficulty. Some gamers want to be challenged, while others want to get lost in a story or just explore the landscape. The game lets you scale all the way up from extremely accessible to pretty darn hard. In fact, we just added a few extra levels of difficulty, making it more lethal as well as more accessible for folks who don’t want the stress of constantly worrying about staying alive. And this is all in service of people getting access to the experience, to the story, to the landscape of Tsushima itself. If you’re not a hardcore gamer, you can play this game. And if you’re interested in video games as a medium, this would be a very good first step into it. As it builds piece by piece, your understanding of how to play it does too.