(This article is spoiler-free)
There are two kinds of great games.
The first kind is what I call the ‘spike’ game. It’s a game that does a few things (or one thing) extraordinarily well. Without those qualities, the game would be competent, but not exceptional. The greatest games have multiple spikes.
Take God of War 4, where the Leviathan Axe and the successful reinvention of an iconic video game character come to mind. Or consider The Witcher 3, where choice driven narrative, unprecedented attention to detail, expansive world building and meaningful secondary content elevate the game to greatness. To be clear — these games deliver with proficiency across multiple dimensions. The point is that insofar as greatness is defined by the influence and legacy of the game, one doesn’t expect, for instance, to see The Witcher 3’s combat system being discussed as a milestone in video game history. The greatness comes from the spikes.
The second kind of greatness is quieter, more subtle. The game doesn’t have many spikes. When you study its parts, the game appears to have a workmanlike quality to it; competent, but not compelling. Yet the game is great, because it amounts to more than the sum of its parts. That’s Ghost of Tsushima.
Ghost of Tsushima is the ultimate immersive experience. It is a majestic tree grown out of a tiny seed; every branch, every leaf, can be traced back to the core idea that seeds the game — that you are a samurai. Focus on one branch or one leaf, and you lose sight of the bigger picture; step back far enough and the tree comes into view in all its majesty.
Immersion is one of the most difficult things to achieve in video games. In part, this is because it’s difficult to define what’s immersive and what isn’t.
Consider Red Dead Redemption 2. RDR 2 is an immersive experience, but is it immersive because Arthur has to squat and visibly search pockets for you to be able to loot a dead body, or despite it? Is Ghost of Tsushima more immersive because you’re able to loot dead bodies whilst on a galloping horse? Is getting violently knocked off your horse for running it into a branch more immersive than riding a horse that is unflappable in the face of physical obstacles? This is not to say that Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t care about realism; in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you gain the ability to walk away from arbitrarily large falls without damage. In Tsushima, the analogous ability has a height limit, and you’ll die when falling from higher positions. But the decision is informed by the game’s idea of what a mythical samurai can and can’t do than by the elusive target of realism.
And there are no right answers here — a case can be made that what’s immersive in Ghost of Tsushima’s surreal setting may not be so in RDR 2’s realism driven design.
That said, to me, Ghost of Tsushima’s choices are inherently more satisfying than those of games that use ‘realism’ as the primary justification for gameplay decisions. The fundamental disconnect is that when Arthur squats to loot someone, I don’t really want to squat — I just want the loot. To me, the gap between player intent and character action is where immersion is made or lost. The gap cannot be avoided for all players at all times; when you approach a hot spring in Ghost of Tsushima, if your intent is to get that health bump, then the hot spring meditation mechanic breaks immersion for you. If your intent is to bathe in a hot spring like a samurai supposedly would have in those days, then the animation immerses you further.
And this brings us back to the core thesis of this article. RDR 2 is committed to realism as much as it is to the wild west ethos. While it unquestionably nails the latter, it arguably subtracts from that experience by servicing the former. On the other hand, Ghost of Tsushima is wholeheartedly committed to the romanticized samurai portrait that is enshrined in popular culture. Every facet of this game hones in on that core theme with a clarity and simplicity reminiscent of the samurai code of honor Jin struggles to follow.
I’m seeking out a shrine in the vicinity of a beach. As I walk by, a straw-hat ronin calls out to me. Without leaving his fishing rod, he remarks, “Prepare for battle. I’m ready when you are.” Jin attempts to dissuade him, but the ronin courteously declines, saying, “I promised to face you. I may only be a ronin, but I keep my word.” Then the duel begins. As Jin gains the upper hand, he offers another chance for surrender. Again, Tomotsugu politely refuses. Jin defeats him, and quietly voices a wish. “I hope you find true honor in your next life.” A tale told in a handful of sentences.
I know little of Tomotsugu’s background, but I know he has a sense of honor, and I know he is misguided. Because I’m a samurai in this game, that’s all I need to know. By clashing blades, warriors understand one another — Ghost of Tsushima astutely realizes this, and finds a way to weave it into minimalistic vignettes that pepper the game.
Jin can unlock powerful armor and potent special attacks, but he doesn’t do so by grinding or collecting resources. Instead, he listens to mythic tales from musicians, and pieces together the truth behind the legend. The special attacks are unlocked by dueling an adversary who knows the move; as you fight, you observe and learn the move before defeating the adversary with the move. What could be more sublimely samurai-like than to master your opponent’s greatest ability amidst a duel to the death and use it to overcome them?
But there’s a more subtle observation here — Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t have one combat mechanic. Even without counting stealth, it has at least three. Duels, standoffs, and regular combat. Each cover a unique facet of the samurai experience, and so each one is in the game.
There is the much-talked about wind based navigation. But there’s also playing the flute to change the weather, or bowing to pay respects to fallen comrades or shrines. Mechanics that seem trivial in isolation, but serve to immerse you evermore into the samurai ethos.
One of the greatest strokes of genius appeared in an update to the game — the Lethal difficulty mode. In Lethal difficulty, you die in one or two hits. The brilliance is in the other side of the coin — your enemies also fall to a few blows from the sword. This fundamentally changes the nature of the game, creating a fluid combat experience where every weapon in your arsenal is made to count. When you play well, it looks no different from a samurai film depicting a skilled swordsman taking down hordes of enemies. Except, in this case you’re actually doing it. That’s the kind of realism video gaming needs more of; realism that derives from sound thematic ideas that underpin the game.
One could continue to list the many ways the game immerses you into the samurai setting, but it’s worth circling back to underscore what drives all of these choices — commitment to the singular goal of delivering the ultimate samurai experience. Pitch perfect decisions flow organically from that vision, amounting to an extraordinarily immersive game. I would love to see Sucker Punch’s incisive clarity in game design applied to other thematically rich backdrops — the wild west, vikings…perhaps pirates?
Ghost of Tsushima may not find a place in video game history the way most traditionally great (spiky) games do. Instead, its influence will likely be more insidious. When game designers consider whether realism is the north star to move toward, the image of Jin looting dead bodies from the back of a galloping horse might dissuade them. When they devise ways for characters to acquire new abilities, the picture of Jin facing down a ghostly enemy wielding the legendary Dance of Wrath technique in a duel to the death might inspire them.