'Creating a movie-like samurai experience': Inside Ghost of Tsushima
Creative director Jason Connell explains how he set out to make a playable samurai movie with his next videogame.
Two warriors step forth on a wind-swept beach as the ocean spray from crashing waves coats the black-and-white battlefield. One samurai reaches for his sword, a hand frozen above its hilt, waiting for a reason to stir the blade from its bed. His opponent remains still, all but for a cape thrashing against unrelenting gusts. The sound of a muted, dissonant violin cuts through the howling sky, followed by the fluttering of a wooden flute. This sets the stage for the "Duel of Crashing Waves," an epic battle from Ghost of Tsushima, the expansive new open-world game from Sucker Punch, the developers behind Infamous and Sly Cooper.
Jason Connell, the title's art and creative director, doesn't need to mention names of famed Japanese filmmakers, like Akira Kurosawa and Takashi Miike. Their influence is apparent from the first swings of the sword. "Certainly creating a movie-like samurai experience was very high," Connell tells EW of the main drives for developing Ghost. "If you look back at a lot of the games Sucker Punch has made, they always tend to generally focus on some kind of core fantasy, if you will, whether it was a thief [Sly] or a superhero [Infamous]. In this one, having it be a samurai felt like a good fit. We know how to make those fantasies come to life for people."
Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai and Miike's 2010 film 13 Assassins were two from Connell's research watch list that played prominent roles in crafting the studio's new legend of Jin Sakai, a 13th century samurai from the island of Tsushima who fights to free his homeland from the invading Mongols—a war that will sway him from the samurai path to become the dishonorable stealth assassin known as the "Ghost." Sucker Punch and Sony Interactive Entertainment recently unveiled large swathes of this virtual world through an 18-minute online "State of Play" presentation.
In pursuing this idea of a more "film-ic" videogame, Connell and his team of developers made note of recurring elements seen across their favorite samurai movies. In terms of the cinematography, he mentions "centered, structured frames," such as "somebody standing in the middle of a Torii gate at the shrine, using that for a frame or a doorway as a frame or a big castle gate as a frame." Ghost maintains a similar approach in centering Jin, both in the frame and perhaps even spiritually.
In terms of the music, Sucker Punch tapped Shigeru Umebayashi, a composer on films like The Grandmaster (2013) and A Single Man (2009). "He did a quick demo track for us and we were all moved and didn't look back from there," Connell says. Although, the team would come to realize "our game was so big we needed another composer." They hired Ilan Eshkeri, a former collaborator of Umebayashi's. "One of them focuses more on bringing the world alive and making sure that there's a sense of freedom when you're adventuring in the open world," Connell continues. "And the other focuses a little bit more on the core story moments."
As for the combat, Connell notes how easily enemies fall in samurai moves. Often times one, decisive swing of a katana will freeze an adversary in their tracks before the pain of their severed limb takes hold and topples their body to the ground. Movements in Ghost must be equally decisive lest Jin suffer a similar fate. Different martial arts fighting modes, like the "Stone Stance" or the "Water Stance," are better able to take down shield-men while others bring an advantage to swordsmen. "The true masters of the melee combat are going to recognize what stance does what and quickly switch to those to take out the enemies so you can start thinning out the amount around you," Connell says.
"From the very beginning, we had these conversations about all aspects of this game that we were going to create," Connell explains. "Whether it was art or characters or posters, how could it contribute to transporting people to feudal Japan and deliver a sense of tone—not a somber experience but there's this home that exists in feudal Japan for this character."
And what a home it is. The island is filled with a number of different settlements and characters for Jin to explore and fight through to secure the fate of the island. Taking either the more noble route as the "samurai" or the more compromised route of the "Ghost," Jin's main storyline sees him freeing captive villages, sabotaging Mongol stashes, and sparring with notorious figures in epic stand-offs, which are reminiscent of cinema's best samurai duels.
"If you read about the story of the actual historical invasion [of Tsushima], there's this idea that wind came threw and swept away the enemies," Connell mentions. So, wind will guide Jin to all these destinations, just as "Kurosawa uses wind at times" in his films, he notes. "Nature is a symbol for Jin's home," Connell continues. "He will sacrifice anything to save his home. So, as a player, we want you to have some type of an experience that makes him connect with his home, other than running through and killing these guys."
Nature is Jin's guide, beyond chasing the wind. He can even follow animals, such as a stray fox or diving bird, to various spiritual locations. "There are a few other elements," Connell says, "whether it's just following bright-colored flowers on missions, the foliage, the fauna."
The world on the island is so vast, Connell doesn't know how long it will take for players to finish. Some testers, he says, played the game for five or six days straight without finishing the main story. "Some of them get about halfway through, but they spend a ton of time in the world," he adds. "So, it's kind of all over the place."
It's the details, it seems, that keep players enthralled. In yet another homage to the samurai films that inspired Ghost, you're even able to play the entire game from start to finish with a black-and-white color palette reminiscent of the era of Kurosawa, Japanese voiceover, and English subtitles. The grey tone may detract from the vibrant colors populating the world of Tsushima, but it changes a scene like the "Duel of Crashing Waves" to a cinematic clash of titans. Just like Jin, who's torn between the way of the samurai and the way of the Ghost, gamers can choose between the light (color) and the dark (black and white). "We don't make a point to lock you out," Connell promises. In other words, you don't have to choose one path to take. You can choose both, depending on which the wind blows you.
Ghost of Tsushima will arrive on July 17 on Playstation 4.
Ghost of Tsushima