In “Ghost of Tsushima,” the latest PlayStation 4 exclusive from developer Sucker Punch that releases this Friday, players step into the shoes of Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior during the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274. In the process of protecting Jin’s homeland from the invaders, players can traverse just about every inch of Tsushima Island — making for a vast, exploration-heavy open-world game that rewards curiosity and is loaded with small details.
Transporting the player to feudal Japan, especially into a take of the island that’s so thorough, was no easy task, but it was an exciting challenge, Joanna Wang, Sucker Punch’s environments director, told Variety. Creative directors Jason Connell and Nate Fox have been open about taking inspiration from Japanese cinema, especially the films of Akira Kurosawa (there’s even an option for a “Kurosawa mode,” which places a black-and-white cinematic filter over the game), but “Ghost” had the team taking pieces from all kinds of sources, from old ads to historical documents to the island of Tsushima itself.
Below, Wang breaks down how they embarked on the massive task of building the world surrounding Jin’s samurai journey.
Down to the Details
While “Ghost of Tsushima” doesn’t recreate the island brick-by-brick, the team was focused on getting the details right to foster a feeling of authenticity. Sucker Punch took several research trips to Japan, and Wang described a bit of “culture shock” for much of the team — “even the air, the moisture in the air” felt different. They recorded audio of the different birdsongs, in addition to some of the nature sounds, and photo-scanned the leaf texture. They also took advantage of Sony Interactive’s localization team in Japan; Wang recalled getting some surprising feedback about the island’s rocks from them early in development.
“They mentioned, ‘oh no, the world is not lush enough, especially rock,'” she said. “We were like, ‘What do you mean? Rock is rock.’ They sent us lots of references to say, ‘Hey, this kind of rock, I feel, is more fitting into the Japan – you see them in Japan. But this kind of rock is more sharp, or something you see more in other types of the world.'”
Aside from just the environment and architecture, there were cultural notes that Wang took from those visits that made their way into the game. She remembered buying a small souvenir in a shop from an elderly man, and the way he carefully wrapped the gift in a certain type of special paper.
“It was so amazing, even to just look at how he wrapped that little gift for us,” she said. “So that little detail we felt we wanted to go into adding – it’s so different than the West, and we wanted adding that feeling of it.”
Filling Historical Gaps
Of course, when the team visited Japan, they were doing so hundreds of years after the game takes place. To truly transport players back to 1274, Sucker Punch had to look at all kinds of details — not just surrounding the Mongol invasion, but what day-to-day life really looked like for the citizens.
“We tried to find out if they are eating eggs during that time, or if they’re eating meat,” she said. “You want to make that world feel lived in.”
When creating a farm village, Wang’s team had the idea of peppering in some apple trees to make the area stand out. But in their research, they realized that apples hadn’t been imported and grown in Japan until the 1800s. It’s not something that would have drastically changed the game if it were included, but it was an example of how important the details were in emphasizing immersion.
“It’s not like one apple tree is a big deal,” she said. “But I feel, you know, there are certain elements – the reason why people feel this is ancient Japan is those tiny little details to make you feel it’s believable or not.”
And there were liberties that needed to be taken for the sake of gameplay. Wang noted that, in their trips to Japan, some of the people on the team couldn’t walk into some of the older buildings without hitting their heads on the doorframe, as structures from 13th century Japan tended to be on the smaller side. “Ghost’s” buildings, however, needed to have more room for combat and exploration, so Wang said they made the interiors a bit bigger while focusing on making it “feel” small when the player first walks in.
Encouraging Exploration Through Environment
“Ghost of Tsushima” has such a huge world that it could be overwhelming, but there are plenty of little touches that the game adds to guide players in the right direction. Foxes and golden birds, for example, show up during travels and, if followed, lead players to spots of interest. Wang said the team was conscious of incorporating that into the environment as well — there is always something that could catch the player’s eye.
Wang remembered Connell showing a clip of a classic samurai film early in development, and taking notice of how two samurais stood facing each other, motionless, while everything else in the scene moved around them. She said they made a point to include that sort of imagery in the environment, even going so far as to “exaggerate” the foliage.
“We ended up treating our environment like a character,” she said. “It’s moving, it’s breathing. It’s giving you directions.”
As far as creating each individual area across the island, Wang said they eventually found that a “less is more” approach encouraged free exploration. Tsushima Island, she noted, is lush and mountainous, and having the game packed with mountains would cause some traversal issues. She remembered being inspired by a picture of a huge pampas field in Japan, and wanting to recreate that in the game — a rolling field of pampas, going on for miles.
“It’s something very memorable, and then once you travel there, you just want to roll in that grass field,” she said. “So after that moment, we realized, ‘oh, this is actually successful, but we made this area successful because we simplified.'”
More than anything, Wang wanted to make the areas memorable, and give the players reasons to explore.
“If you’re climbing on the top of a mountain, if you look around it, you will see a golden forest on your right hand and then there’s pampas field on your left hand and then, far away, there is a green grass field with water,” she said. “And then far away, there is yellow swampland. So it’s giving you that visual – you already feel like ‘I want to go there, I want to do this,’ and that richness, that’s what we tried to present.”