Sony Interactive Entertainment
Modern games are beautiful. Where narratively, cinematic games have struggled to escape the shadow of the average blockbuster film, the visual finesse most gameworlds flaunt – shape, colour, texture, balance, light and so on – regularly surpasses a lot of cinema. The average moviegoer tolerates far less visual experimentation, and far uglier images, than the average gamer. Modern gamers are greedy and sophisticated visual aesthetes – they have high standards.
Ghost of Tsushima is a Japanese samurai game, produced by Sucker Punch, an American developer. It is set in 1274, during the Mongol invasion of Tsushima Island. It is a fine action-adventure game as well as a loving homage to samurai cinema. And it is also one of the most outrageously beautiful games I have ever played.
Events open on the arrival of the Mongol fleet. You are Jin Sakai, a samurai lord tasked with repelling the invaders. After charging headlong into a fiery swirl of spears and arrows, Sakai is felled, the battle is lost, and a beloved uncle is captured. Later, an unwinnable fight against a burly Mongol lord reveals Sakai isn’t yet capable of playing hero (the lord chucks you off a bridge). In a familiar conceit, Sakai must gallop around the island on the back of one of three disturbingly lifelike horses, honing his skills against weaker Mongols until he is ready to return and save his uncle.
This invasion actually occurred but I can’t speak to the game’s historical authenticity. (Japanese critics, however, have lavished it with praise.) Regardless, this isn’t a historical game. Instead, Ghost is set in the world of samurai cinema – the landscape of Akira Kurosawa, to be precise. There’s even an optional Kurosawa Mode, a display setting that conjures up a film grain, black-and-white filter and the director’s trademark gusty winds.
This filter, along with one of the most sophisticated photo modes I’ve ever seen, suggests that Sucker Punch are quite aware of how visually compelling the gameworld is. Why else would they include technical details like aperture and lens length adjustments? They want you to marvel. Jason Connell, the game’s art director, stated that the team aimed to capture the constant movement of Kurosawa’s films. This influence is everywhere apparent – in the bristling trees (Rashomon) pounding rain (Seven Samurai) arrow hails (Throne of Blood) charging armies (Ran) and, of course, in the game’s wind sat-nav, which blows towards your next quest. The island of Tsushima shivers as if brushed by an unseen hand. Night sweeps into day, and the sun flushes a spectrum of fiery hues. Seasons seem to coexist in service of colour coordination – you fight in the rain of perpetually swirling, many-coloured blossoms, like the assassins in Zhang Yimou’s Hero. (No doubt leaving behind a Sisyphean raking job, reserved for the samurai who fails to learn his clan’s motto).
All of this amounts to more than mere homage, because you get to do the exploring. You are in the world. Critics sometimes talk about the visual sweep of cinema (and oppose it to the interiority of novels). Games offer this optical reward, but they also provide that feeling of chance discovery – some moments to call your own.
Gameplay-wise, Ghost borrows a lot from the Batman Arkham series, from sensing enemy positions through walls, to flicking between them as they crowd around waiting to get a slap in. Still, it’s a fine, if a touch repetitive, system. Sword fights feel smooth and weighty – you glide over to your enemies, grunting satisfactorily as you cleave them into ribbons. Blood spurts out like a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s gracefully violent, like the violence of a certain filmmaker. Sakai improves his skills and armour as he travels. The latter are importantly lavish – gamers love to play dress up.
Ghost’s story is slightly derivative, yet tonally well-measured. By this, I mean that action-oriented heroes suit action-oriented games. Sakai – who racks up the ungodly body count you might expect from a game that is partly about the beauty of violence – is a man at peace with killing his enemies. The game avoids limp ruminations on the morality of killing, and instead largely concerns itself with how you kill people – from the shadows or face to face. In one early scene, an assassin tries to murder your uncle, but is thwarted. Your uncle tells you to look him in the eye and disembowel him “with honour”. Then the two happily run home for octopus dinner.
My favourite moments with the game occurred outside of fights and cutscenes. It’s a simple kind of beauty, sure, but if we must all be locked in our homes periodically for the next several years, at least open world games provide a sense of adventure, a sunlit loveliness. Ghosts has such an absorbing beauty that it repeatedly compelled other quarantined housemates passing through the living room to stop mid-stride and stare as I crested another hill of white waving pampas grass, bound for some woodblock print temple nestled in the pure serene.
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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