From the Japanese point of view, there is no way around it. Sucker Punch Productions, the maker of the Ghost of Tsushima samurai epic, is a gaijin studio. Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigners, and it’s usually not a kind word.
But in the case of Tsushima, there has been almost universal praise for the beautiful art and respect for history and Japanese culture in Sony’s last major exclusive for the PlayStation 4 game console. It debuted July 17, and people bought more than 2.4 million copies in its first three days of sales. And Japanese reviewers loved the game, which roughly depicts the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274.
I interviewed Nate Fox, a game director at Sucker Punch. We talked about how the studio went about making the game, starting with its painstaking research into Japanese history, inspirations such as filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and the comic book Usagi Yojimbo, and consultation with Sony’s vast developer resources in Japan.
Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world adventure where you fight as a samurai defending his homeland. Jin Sakai has to make choices between the honor of the samurai code and the dishonor of fighting in stealth like a ninja against impossible odds. I played through the whole game and talked with Fox about everything from the inspirations to the ending. We talked about being sensitive to cultural appropriation.
We also talked about why Guitar Hero players make the best samurai.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
We talk about story spoilers in this interview — Ed.
GamesBeat: I know you have talked about the influence from things like The Seven Samurai and Usagi Yojimbo. What do you think was most influential?
Nate Fox: I could tell you the percentages for me, but the game is made by this big team. When you say, “Hey, let’s make an open-world samurai game where you get to explore feudal Japan,” everyone draws from their own impressions of what that means. Early on in production I did a questionnaire for the team. When people think “samurai,” what’s their core concept of what that is? When we deliver a samurai game, we’re harnessing what people’s imaginations say is true.
The center of it was The Seven Samurai. That was the foundational concept for so many people about what a samurai story is. For me it’s definitely The Seven Samurai, and it’s definitely Usagi Yojimbo. Probably Usagi Yojimbo, for me, is 40 percent of the mix, and then it’s a combination of The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo with a bit of good old Lone Wolf and Cub.
Have you ever read Usagi Yojimbo?
GamesBeat: No, that was new to me. I’m not so great on Japanese culture sometimes.
Fox: It’s kind of weird. It’s written by Stan Sakai, who grew up in America, but grew up watching all these classic films. He’s translating Miyamoto Musashi’s life in a loose way, in this very easy-to-take-in format of comics, with anthropomorphized animals. I feel like it’s the perfect way for people to get exposed to the genre if they’re maybe intimidated by a three-hour movie like Seven Samurai.
GamesBeat: It felt like a lot of the influence there was on the open world. A ronin could just go somewhere and start helping people.
Fox: Absolutely. The [Kurosawa] movie Yojimbo does this as well. This lone figure, the lonely warrior, against this big tapestry of nature, wandering and finding a place in need, or coming upon somebody on a mountain path, and it’s their job to help the people around them — that’s the classic setup for serialized adventure. It plays very well into an open-world game. We want you to get lost in the landscape of Tsushima. You come upon people and get involved with their stories, instead of feeling like you’re driven down a path.
GamesBeat: With The Seven Samurai, if you look a bit more closely, it seems harder to see the influence. How would you describe that part? The storyline is very different. Even things like the humor really aren’t the same.
Fox: That movie is incredibly rich on so many axes. We get close to it, but that’s like saying, “Oh, we wanted to write great dialogue, so we modeled it after William Shakespeare.” We’re talking about the best form of art ever created here. We’re aiming for the stars.
Seven Samurai is important to me because it talks about people who are helping others selflessly, and it’s also talking about the difference between the samurai and the peasants, and their relationship to each other. How the two groups interconnect. If you look at Ghost of Tsushima, Jin Sakai, as he transitions to become the ghost, becomes a hero of the people of the island, he rejects his identity as part of this narrower caste of samurai. In that way, it’s talking about some of the themes in Seven Samurai. It’s not as elegant as the movie, but again, that movie is peerless.
Honor and dishonor
GamesBeat: I liked the balance between the idea of honor and dishonor, the samurai and the ninja. Some people pointed out that the ninja weapons are so cool that you can’t keep from using them. It sort of undermines the honorable path.
Fox: In a game, we’re really telling one story. Jin is absolutely walking away from the man he thought he was going to be in order to become the person that, morally, he feels he needs to be for the people around him. That means doing things like using poison or explosives that he wouldn’t have thought he would use in the past. That these weapons are too fun not to use, that’s our intention.
We want you to be empathetic with Jin and experience what he’s doing, where he‘s going, not just through cutscenes, but also through the way you play the game. You find it’s more expedient, or it just works better, to stab people in the back. But you’re reminded throughout the narrative that the people around you view that as loathsome, and there are repercussions to unleashing that kind of chaos and showing that it works in the wider world.
GamesBeat: You had this great success at being a Western studio making a game about Japan. I wonder what that balancing act was like, how you approached that as outsiders.
Fox: The first and most important step is to fully recognize that we, as a bunch of people in Washington state — we don’t know enough to succeed. We’re totally ill-equipped to do this game justice. Once you say that out loud to yourself and to the team, then you expand your concept of what a team is. You talk to experts to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
It’s really the experts in motion or dialogue or cultural conventions that helped us early in the process, and helped us all throughout the process. Playing the game all the time, giving us feedback on things we didn’t know were mistakes so we could correct them. If we have any success in this regard it’s because of the help of experts.
GamesBeat: It must have been tough to figure out what mattered about history and what didn’t in that respect. I saw someone mention that there were katanas in the game instead of tachis, and tachis might have been more historically appropriate, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the swords. I didn’t realize that detail was even there, but to someone else it might have mattered.
Fox: Absolutely. We definitely are inspired by a real historical event, but the game is not a historical reproduction. It’s really striving to create a feeling of authenticity against those classic samurai films. Things from different time periods might be put together, so it’s a little anachronistic.
The case you brought up, about tachi swords, for a while in the plot we had a moment where the tachi would break inside of the boiled leather of the Mongol armor, which is what really happened. The katana became more prevalent as a result of this battle against the Mongols in 1274. We ended up not doing that because we wanted to have the swords in the game have this long history. Your blade was passed on from your grandfather to your father to you, to show you’re a part of a lineage. The katana is the quintessential icon of samurai the world over. In this regard, we absolutely broke history.
GamesBeat: And that icon was conveyed more through films, so if people are fans of films, they might say, that’s not what I’m familiar with.
Fox: The katana is iconic. If I said, “Do you want to play a game about being a samurai in an open world,” immediately the image that jumps into your head, the thing that’s the most vibrant, “I get to hold a katana and be in these tense battles with it.” You don’t think, “I’m going to have a naginata.” Legit weapons of the time — or a longbow, which was actually the most prevalent weapon of the time. People would shoot each other. They wouldn’t get in sword fights.
We went there because that’s the center of people’s concept from these classic films. We’re really shooting for classic samurai cinema and the feeling of being in this jidaigeki film, versus total historical re-creation.
GamesBeat: Is there any balance in terms of people who would say this is cultural appropriation? When I started thinking about that, as a Japanese-American, I got really twisted around in those arguments. But I wonder how that part went in your heads. How do you question yourselves to make sure this is authentic and not appropriated?
Fox: We wanted to make sure that the game was as respectful as possible. That’s a part of talking to experts. At first, when we started the game, we were using real characters, the names of real people that were on Tsushima at the time, and we were told that could easily be offensive to people from those families. We instantly stopped that and decided to make all fictional characters. We’re very lucky to have the help of Japan Studios, being a part of the PlayStation family, interacting with us to help guide these choices. They were some of the experts that helped us out. They led our trips to Tsushima when we did research. We felt more comfortable in the studio knowing that we had that kind of guiding hand.
For me personally, as a maker of entertainment, I love this genre. I love these comics and these films. That just means I’m a fan. But I think about spaghetti westerns, which are made by Italians, shot in Spain, about a genre that isn’t Italian, but these films are a love letter to the genre, and they contribute to the genre. For everyone who loves westerns, they’re glad just to see more westerns in the world. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an excellent film, even if it’s made out of a culture that’s not necessarily the source of the material. When we were working on Ghost of Tsushima, that was really the goal. Just to contribute to the genre, because it’s something that we love.
GamesBeat: There was that side concern about how other Asian countries might not appreciate Japan being cast in such a sympathetic way, as the victim of an invasion.
Fox: It is a story about an invasion of your home by a foreign army. This game is taking the point of view of the people of Tsushima, the Japanese people. You could absolutely make a game or tell a story from the point of view of the Mongolians, who in their mind are going to bring an everlasting peace to the people of Japan, who fight among themselves, who don’t have all these technological wonders that the Mongol Empire of the time had. They were incredibly advanced. You just have to take a side when you’re telling a story. Ours is the point of view of the Japanese population.
The open world of Tsushima
GamesBeat: I was looking around what some critics had said. One was talking about “Assassin’s Creed: Japan.” It sounded a bit derogatory, talking about a cookie-cutter open world. It seems like when you set out to do a game like this, you want to differentiate it. You want to make it something very different. What kind of thought went into that, how to make the open world different?
Fox: We knew we wanted to give people the fantasy of being a wandering samurai. All of our choices come together to support that basic fantasy. The best example of that is the guiding wind, where you’re in the landscape, and instead of having a mini-map with a ton of icons, we tried to get rid of all that so you’re in this more cinematic moment of experiencing nature around you. In these movies and comics, you always see these shots that feel very tranquil, and then that’s juxtaposed with these sharp moments of violence. All of the choice we made to build the game were toward that.
There are absolutely a lot of similarities between our game and others that feature horse-riding or history or sword-fighting, Assassin’s Creed being an excellent example. But we didn’t really think about the game in relation to trying to be like other titles, so much as just being as solely focused on the samurai fantasy as possible.
GamesBeat: That helped draw out the beauty of the world, the fact that you didn’t have the interface blocking it. The Divine Wind (known in Japanese as kamikaze) itself, how did you come up with that as a navigational tool?
Fox: Early on in development, because of looking at Kurosawa films, we rigged everything to take wind, so the scene would always be dynamic. We could have a samurai that was just standing still, looking strong by not moving, because the world was thrashing around him. It’s a big standard in those films. We knew we wanted to do that.
We implemented things like a waypoint, or even a line on the ground telling you where to go, and it felt horrible. It felt like you were being led by the nose, told what to do. We thought about excellent games like Shadow of the Colossus, where you would hold up your sword and the light would say, “Colossus over there!” but it wouldn’t tell you exactly how to get there. You had to look at the landscape, be there in the landscape in order to find it. So we tried using the wind in that way, because we had already rigged up the world to react to it. It became your guide.
GamesBeat: I remember that I hated parts of Red Dead Redemption, and I loved Tsushima in the same respect, all because of fast travel. It’s funny how you can create this absolutely beautiful world, but all people want to do is fast-travel through it.
Fox: If you’ve traveled there once — we try and respect your time. If you’ve already made the trip once, unlike a road trip with your family, we just want you to be able to warp back. You’ve seen the sights.
GamesBeat: The other thing was the fast loading times. People have complimented that. Did that take something special to pull off?
Fox: Fast loading times come from a lot of engineers and artists trying to get things to be smaller. There’s no magic in that. It’s just a lot of hard work.
GamesBeat: Did you expect the photo mode to be so popular, and the Kurosawa mode?
Fox: We’ve been surprised at how photo mode has been so embraced by fans. Of course, we love our game world. We worked hard to make it beautiful, the way we picture feudal Japan in our mind’s eye. It’s very idyllic in that mind’s eye. Photo mode is a way to celebrate that. It’s like the haiku minigame. It’s a moment where you can stop and spend your time looking at nature and enjoying it, without this concept of threat or fighting or pressing need. You just get to relax.
Photo mode is a way that people can feel like they’re interacting with nature in a different sort of way. You get a shot of the sunset or the leaves that is solely, totally, your own. It’s a snowflake that you made. That’s great. Games can do that. It’s harder to do when you’re watching a film or reading a book. I’m glad that players are participating in the game world through photo mode.
GamesBeat: I did wonder if things can really be as beautiful as they are in the game. I was thinking mostly of the red training dojo, where Jin and his uncle go. I was thinking, “There can’t be a place that looks like that.”
Fox: I’ve been to Tsushima, and it is extremely beautiful, but it’s not as diverse as the island of Tsushima in our game. We went in for a greater variety of biomes, because we’re trying to give you that samurai cinema feeling, where the samurai will start in one village, you see the wide shot of him trudging across the hill, and then he’s on a snowy mountaintop. Films do it, give you this variety of experiences. So we put that into our world.
GamesBeat: I take it that the Kurosawa mode is pretty popular? Are you hearing a lot about that?
Fox: I do not know the stats on Kurosawa mode, actually. We put the Kurosawa mode in the game to acknowledge the fact that we were huge fans of this genre, and to just make that evident. If you first experienced samurai fiction through the lens of these black-and-white films, what better way to have a greater feeling of authenticity to it than by putting in that black and white with film grain and scratches on it? As well as the audio changes. I thought people who were big fans, like myself, would think it was really cool. I didn’t think it would be as widely appreciated. If you go to Comic-Con, what percentage of the people there do you think are Kurosawa fans?
GamesBeat: Ninety percent?
Fox: I would have guessed it was smaller, but you might be right, after looking at people’s response to Kurosawa mode. It could be 90 percent. I didn’t know it was that widely known about.
GamesBeat: Was this one of the reasons you guys consulted with the Kurosawa estate? Just to have them get on board with things like that?
Fox: Well, we weren’t going to use anybody’s name without permission.
GamesBeat: It’s not as hard as a game like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the 2019 game by From Software. Did you want to talk about that, how accessible you wanted to make a sword-fighting game?
Fox: The game is aimed at a very wide audience. We didn’t want to have the challenge be something that could keep people out of the narrative experience, or the experience of just exploring Tsushima. We did want players to get a good challenge if that’s where they were at. We spent a lot of time building a sword-fighting system that was hard, but fair. If you make it fair, you can dial up the difficulty — the speed of attacks, the parry windows, the rate at which people come at you — and it still holds together.
GamesBeat: I thought the bamboo strikes were very unfair. Seven button pushes in how many seconds?
Fox: [Laughs] We view mechanics as a metaphor. You’ve got these button strikes. You need to just memorize them and not think about it. They just have to be done. Did you ever play Guitar Hero?
GamesBeat: Oh, yeah.
Fox: Right. Did you ever play when it got really hard, and you had to get out of the way of your brain to do the fingering? It’s hard, but the only way you succeed is when you don’t think about it. You just rely on muscle memory and let it happen. We were trying to emulate that feeling of not thinking, just doing, in order to succeed at the perfect strike.
GamesBeat: So, guitar players make the best samurai?
Fox: In our game, yes. The guy who implemented that bamboo strike game, he’s an excellent guitarist. He can do them all on his first try. And it doesn’t mean anything to him. He just looks at the buttons and intellectualizes what he would be doing with his body. I’m like you. It takes me more than one try. It’s like speed-dialing a phone. But you get it after a while. Hopefully, you’ve succeeded at them all with practice.
GamesBeat: I did want to get to the ending a bit. It felt like one of those no-choice endings, like you wanted to make a point. You have to fight your uncle. You do get the choice of sparing him or killing him, though. What were you thinking about how to structure the ending.
Fox: The story is about somebody who has to let go of who they thought they were going to be, to sacrifice himself for others. The most important thing in Jin Sakai’s life is his relationship with his uncle, his father figure. We needed there to be ramifications for Jin’s actions, and that was the death of his old identity, both as a samurai and — the point at which his uncle is dueling him to the death, their relationship is over.
Giving players the choice, at the very end of Jin’s journey, to decide if they wanted to give Jin’s uncle the peace that he asks for, or to just walk away and say, “I’m done with all of the morals that you hold, uncle,” seemed like the right way to get players emotionally present for the period at the end of the sentence. Jin needs to do that final action to say, “I’m done with my identity as a samurai.” You get to play that and get to own that.
Not everybody does. Some people, in that last moment, their connection to Shimura, their feeling of duty to him overwhelms that sense of, “I’m done with my identity as a samurai.” They give Shimura what he wants. I love watching streamers who take time to think about it, because it says that they’re emotionally present in that moment. In the same way that getting rid of a mini-map makes you more present in nature, it means the game is more alive to me.
GamesBeat: I felt like there was an interesting echo in Masako’s story, where you have to fight her. It’s a part where allies turn on each other. It turns out differently there. It’s a different kind of mirror to the same situation.
Fox: All of our side characters are there to be satellites around Jin’s transformation. Masako’s intense need for revenge is similar to how Jin feels. Masako just takes it one step further. Sensei Ishikawa’s relationship to Tomoe is similar to the relationship between Jin and his uncle. The failures and successes there are present in the game to get you thinking about Jin’s relationship with his uncle.
GamesBeat: There’s a point to all the sidequests and side relationships involving the other characters.
Fox: Right. When we start a game like this, where we know it’s going to be a huge anthology of stories, we write down a few themes, and then we make sure that these stories all revolve around those themes, so that it’s one collective whole. It feels like these things are all moving in one direction. They have one meaning.
GamesBeat: I was curious about some small things, too. Do we need to know what happened to Jin’s parents? I sort of felt that I didn’t know enough about them at the end.
Fox: We’re pretty light on Jin’s relationship with his parents. This is on purpose, because we wanted the player to think about Shimura as his father figure. What we do know about Jin’s father in particular is that Jin was too cowardly to try and protect him in his moment of need, and that moment of cowardice haunts him. That feeling of — he was unable to act when the moment arrived. That propels him to want to succeed in the future. That’s about him feeling like a coward. It’s not really about his dad per se. In this story, his “dad” is really his uncle.
GamesBeat: Did you consider having a mythical or supernatural component in the game?
Fox: We wanted to make this game grounded. Most of these classic films–Throne of Blood has witches in it. But they generally don’t feature the supernatural stuff. A lot of games do feature those supernatural elements. We thought this was a great way to go after the source material we admire, and also just be different.
GamesBeat: Do stances really make that much difference in real sword-fighting?
Fox: Well, the stances in our game are largely concocted to work inside our game. The motion in our game comes from an expert, a local guy who trains a lot of kendo. This is how you hold the sword, this is how you swing. We had experts brought in from Japan who showed how to draw and stow correctly. The idea that, “This is a stance designed to take down a guy with a shield, and this is a stance designed to take down a guy with a polearm,” that’s more of our creation.
GamesBeat: Did you think about multiplayer at any point?
Fox: We were always very focused on telling this one story of Jin’s transformation. It’s inherently a single-player experience. But who knows what the future holds?