Ghost of Tsushima puts the player in the sandals of Jin Sakai, a man raised as a samurai in 13th century feudal Japan fighting the forces of the Mongol invaders of his rural island home. Following the killing of many samurai at the hands of the mongols, Jin realises his traditional samurai training and honour might not have what it takes to win. Here, you (the player) take control and can develop Jin in the way of the Samurai, vanquishing enemies in face-to-face sword combat, or fully adopt the way of the Ghost, attacking from the shadows with distraction & fear. Allowing the player to explore both sides of Jin’s combat has won over players and critics, having become the fastest-selling first-party original IP debut and receiving great reviews. However, that’s not the only dichotomy to be found in the PS4 game.
Some video games try to make their player really feel like the character they’re playing as. When the main character is silent in order to cause you to mentally fill in the gaps, for example. Whereas some games make the protagonist their own distinct character, and the player is really just pushing them from A to B. Like if you, personally, wanted to prioritise charm over casualties, but Kratos insisted an axe to the skull was the best negotiation method available. Armando Troisi, BioWare Lead Cinematic Designer on Mass Effect 2, described that difference as a ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ perspective. But here’s how Jin Sakai combines elements of both to walk his own path.
Being the character
Have you ever talked to someone about a game you played and said something along the lines of “that’s my character” or ”I chose to do that”. Playing with a subjective perspective in a game involves elements that make you (the player) really become the character. Customising your character’s appearance, choosing the skills they develop, deciding what to say from multiple dialogue options – these are the things that help bridge the mental (and digital) void to make you feel like the person doing the jumping, punching and kicking. Role-playing games are the most popular genre told this way, from Dragon Quest’s silent protagonist to Fable’s morality scale to Breath of the Wild’s flexible problem solving.
In Ghost of Tsushima, the player can alter Jin’s appearance with multiple coloured clothing options, and also experience the game with Japanese voice acting and through a grainy black & white film filter called Samurai Cinema. Having the choice to run alongside foxes in a flowing bright yellow outfit under an iMovie instagram filter like a bloodthirsty Snow White, gives the player authorship over their character and experience. This level of control allows you, in a small way, to see yourself in Jin.
Controlling the character
The other end of the scale is the objective perspective. In these games, the protagonist has their own looks, personality & beliefs, instinctively reacting to the game’s story beats and deciding the next action to take. You control the character, killing a couple hundred henchmen along the way, but interaction and story progression belongs to Jin. Peter Parker in Spider-Man throws out a cheesy one-liner every other minute, while Trevor in Grand Theft Auto 5 makes a number of (frankly) psychotic choices. Both actions are probably very different from how you’d react in similar circumstances, but they’re true to their them. Games delivered this way have brought out the most memorable characters and loved plotlines in video games. The type that studios like Naughty Dog and Rockstar North pride themselves on, even Ubisoft and Platinum Games to an extent.
Ghost of Tsushima establishes Jin as a samurai born and raised; a man in control of his own power openly declaring fights to the death with the meekness of a WWE wrestler. It then challenges him with tragedy, bloodlust and the effectiveness of ninja-esque fighting tactics antithetical to the samurai code of honour. You, as a player, are never able to choose whether to befriend a mongol to gain access to a stronghold. But you are able to experience a precisely-told story, crafted by Sucker Punch Productions, about a complicated samurai with an internal conflict that has ramifications on the characters and world around him.
Double edged sword
Letting the player have control over Jin, his fighting style and appearance gets you invested in the character. While experiencing Jin’s transformation into the dishonourable ghost at the cost of his samurai pride gets you invested in the story. Many games attempt to walk the line between the player-driven and character-driven storytelling. Detroit Become Human features multiple dialogue branches. Watch Dogs Legion alters the point of view character constantly. The Mass Effect series, alongside many other techniques, calculates personality alignment and NPC relationships. Whichever way you cut it, adopting the guise of a samurai-ninja in Ghost of Tsushima feels extraordinarily cool. It might have only been cooler if Ubisoft had made the Assassin’s Creed Feudal Japan game every one asked for years ago, rather than a game all about boats. Again.