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Balancing history and fun in Ghost of Tsushima

Ghost of Tsushima is one of the last PlayStation 4 exclusives, and it’s an unexpected offering from a studio that is largely known for modern superheroics and Sly Cooper. Ghost of Tsushima is set on Tsushima Island, during the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Japan. The island, once under Japanese control, has become a strategic battleground.

Mari Takahashi, a correspondent on our Quibi show Speedrun, recently sat down with Sucker Punch Productions studio head Brian Fleming to ask him about the process of researching and creating a game that retells Japanese history.

[Ed. note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

Mari Takahashi: What sort of research went into creating the game’s settings, its characters, and just bringing life to history?

Brian Fleming: Well, there’s a couple of different tracks there, right? Because the game is set in a historical context, but the characters are original works of fiction. We had a bunch of work to do, to create the stories and the characters that lived in that world. But it really began with research, and so the creative directors each led a trip. They were accompanied by the personnel from Sony Japan as well. They all went out to Tsushima, stood on the beach where the invasion happened, met with the local artisans. The historians took tons of reference photos, and also visited other historical sites from that period in Japanese history as well, on the mainland, and just began the process of learning. And then we began to locate experts in the religion of the time — the collision between Shintoism and Buddhism that’s going on — and people who are experts in the martial arts. Some of them more modern, some of them traditional, and all of that is the fuel for the fire of then inventing a story and characters and creating a game.

We actually sent one trip, uh, I think it was in the summer and then another one in November. And the reason we went in November is, of course, this is the anniversary of the invasion. Every year still — this is 700-odd years after the invasion — every year they have a festival, and they commemorate the great battle that took place on Komoda Beach.

Image: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Then you have just a panel of people that we’ve met over the past five or six years. The most frequent team of people who worked with us, of course, were our partners over in [Sony International Software Development] and Sony Japan. And they were very able to point out the things that we thought, that were in error, or things we didn’t realize were mistakes. Whether it was different construction techniques or the types of bounds you would use at a Shinto shrine versus a Buddhist shrine — all these things that, you know, to our Western eyes, we would not see those mistakes.

They would immediately bring us along and help make sure we saw this all correctly. So a large part of our process was: We’re fortunate enough that we all work at Sony, at a Japanese company, and they were able to bring all of their personal experience to the project. And we’re so grateful for that.

You’re trying to be honest, you’re trying to be careful with the material, and at the same time, even the written histories of the 13th century are really quite spotty. You can go read the most authoritative historical documents and discussions, and even those don’t always line up. There’s not this really crisp sense of “this absolutely happened this way.” Everything has an interpretive quality to it. And I think we feel like we’ll succeed if we are really respectful. If we’re careful, and if we, as part of our journey, embrace the learning of the history ourselves — if we just say, “Hey, you know, one of the great pleasures of the last five years has been learning a ton.”

We speak about authenticity, of bringing not only culture but mannerisms of characters to life. How do you capture that?

Well, I mean, I don’t think we’d ever say that we’ve succeeded in becoming authentic, because of course, we’re doing our best. And the way we try to do our best is by having experts, whether it’s reviewing the scripts or it’s down at the motion capture shoot, helping with mannerisms, helping with the way that people would space themselves, you know, to show the appropriate amounts of respect. And it might even be as simple as just, you know, dialect choices or intonation. We have made efforts at every point along the way to do our best, to represent this stuff with great care. Hopefully that shows in the final work.

There’s a million ways to mess it up, right? You can mess it up with a goofy animation that you know is funny, but maybe it breaks the tone. And it could be with a line of dialogue that, again, just isn’t the right tone. So you’re constantly looking for things that just don’t fit. And you’re always trying to comb those things out and get everything to be aligned with the story that you really want to tell. It’s a process of iteration for us.

There’s a moment when you’re in one of the main squares and you hear two women, like, gossiping, just in the background. And the way that they gossip is so — I mean, obviously the VO is Japanese — but the way they do it is so Japanese, and I loved that there are little nuances like that that’s captured. Because it’s like this polite gossip, or it’s just like, “Oh, don’t you think that blah, blah, blah, blah.” But it’s so Japanese. It’s great.

Well, you’ll be happy to know that the underlying system that played that little bit of dialogue is called the gossip system. So there you go, you correctly guessed it.

Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

It feels like that’s where you have to strike that balance between making it true to life, and then making an exciting big game. Where are those creative liberties taken?

Well, I mean, they’re taken all over the place. You start with the katana, which probably in this period of time is out of time, but it’s beautiful and it’s iconic. And so you make a compromise creatively to put it into this particular battle. But I think that the most interesting set of compromises really revolve around knowing what it is you’re making. And we’re trying to make a piece of video gaming entertainment. And so that core play experience of the way the controller feels in your hand and the way you express yourself has to be right. And there’s no formula for “right” when you’re playing it. It’s easy to get it wrong; it’s easy to make it too complicated. It’s easy to add more detail than you want. It’s easy, especially easy, to overwhelm the player with detail.

And so the key is getting the right details at the right levels, and figuring out what things the player needs to be doing very rapidly. And then there’s got to be another loop, which is: What are they doing slightly less often than that? And then there’s something that’s maybe a level above that, and then a strategic level, and you need to be giving the player basically balls that they have to juggle fast, but then also a slow ball and then a really slow ball. And it’s that combination that makes it — when it plays well, it feels almost like magic that I can do all this at once. But again, it took us, I don’t know — maybe it takes everybody — but it certainly took us a lot of time to continue to work on that loop and figure out exactly what was fun to juggle, versus just work to juggle.

Playing last night, I was definitely making those exact remarks. Like, I’m so glad that you’re able to harvest while you’re running through on your horse. You know, there’s no having to have to get off your horse to do that. There’s no having to have to take the extra time of slinging a body over your shoulder to go hide it somewhere. It just makes gameplay a lot more streamlined in what a player wants to do.

Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Yeah, it’s interesting because, like, you talk about the harvesting, and it’s completely unrealistic that you can be galloping by and collecting all this stuff. And so you make a compromise to the reality of the game. You’re not showing an animation of him grabbing it and putting it in a sack. It just happens, but that’s probably the right choice for that moment. But that same choice, if you made it when it was a door that he was going to go through — if it just popped open — it would feel wrong. Each of those choices is an intentional choice that you have to make. And it is also a conversation between us and players. And what we do in the game now is informed by the games that have been made over the last decade that explore the same space — not necessarily the samurai space, just the open-world space. You try to bring your own new elements and learn from what they’ve done well, and hopefully create something novel and enjoyable for players.

The wind [being used as an in-game wayfinder] allows for a little bit of a cleaner HUD. Can you explain the balance of a minimalistic HUD and still allowing the player to understand what to do next?

There are so many neat things that come together in this set of decisions. You have purely a desire to remove the writing on the glass, right? And to have players look deeper into the screen, to look into the distance. And the more you put onto the screen, everybody’s focus becomes the surface of their television, and you’d like them to look past that. So there was just a desire to have a relatively minimal HUD. I think also one of the things we love about this time and this culture is the use of negative space, the use of openness, the simplicity of design that culturally is very appropriate. So again, you’re looking at: How do we keep this simple? How do we reduce it?

Image: Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Then there’s the sense that nature itself, maybe, is playing a hand in this story that you’re playing. And there’s a few moments that for me are sort of magical: the moment you realize the wind might lead you somewhere. That’s a really impactful thing because it feels like nature herself is on your side. And there’s a sort of kinship that you can feel with the natural world that I think is kind of cool as well. So you have all of these things encouraging us to think, time and time again, very creatively. And really having as sharp a knife as we can have about trying to reduce the visual noise. Reduce the [idea that] everything has to have a dotted line that leads you to the end. How can we have you own that experience yourself?

The number of photos I’ve taken in game is a testament to that.

You know, we actually worry about this a little bit. That the photos — you’re taking so many photos that you fall out of the story experience. It’s like breaking immersion every time you go into photo mode, and you can’t decide if it’s terrific or terrible, I don’t know.

You can watch Mari’s conversation with Brian in Wednesday’s episode of Speedrun by Polygon, only on Quibi.

Ghost of Tsushima

In this open-world action adventure, you’ll roam vast countrysides and expansive terrain to encounter rich characters, discover ancient landmarks, and uncover the hidden beauty of Tsushima.

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