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The History of Ghost of Tsushima – A 6 year tale about the development of the last Sucker Punch game of the PS4 era.

Gamingtodaynews1e - The History of Ghost of Tsushima - A 6 year tale about the development of the last Sucker Punch game of the PS4 era.
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Hello!

My name is Nickadimoose and I'm an amateur game historian. I spend my time making videos for YouTube and doing write-ups about the history of video game topics, or at least I try to when work affords me the time. Today I wanted to cover the History of Ghost of Tsushima, how it was made, the design decisions, the inspiration for it, as well as just generally talking about the game's positives and negatives aspects.

As a warning, this text has references to how the beginning of the game plays out, as well as some hints about how the story progresses in terms of the main character. If you've not finished the game or you're still playing, you may wish to hold off on reading.

After the release of Infamous Second Son and First Light in 2014, American based video game studio, Sucker Punch Productions, were looking to undertake a new challenge; after developing the Infamous franchise for 9 years straight, they wanted to test themselves creatively as a studio and make something new and different.

Though they didn’t know what they wanted to make yet, they did know one thing: that the next game had to be open world, as creative director Nate Fox explains:

“We wanted to stay open world because we’re giving authority–power to the player. We didn’t want to walk away from that, we think it’s integral to modern gaming that players are in charge.” – Nate Fox, creative director for Ghost of Tsushima.

They began to explore a few ideas, just conceptually, like pirates, Scottish Outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor, the Three Musketeers and about 70 other suggestions, but none of them felt right. Then things fell into place when they pitched one, simple concept: a Japanese samurai in feudal Japan.

It sounds perfect, doesn’t it? It’s a concept that you can instantly visualize the moment you say it.

After they settled on the idea of making a game about a samurai, it was easy to draw inspiration from outside sources and arguably none were more influential than legendary filmmaker & screenwriter, Akira Kurosawa.

For most western audiences, Kurosawa's films were the first real taste of Japanese culture. He earned renown as a filmmaker during World War II, but it wasn’t until the release of Rashomon that he would go on to become a legend. It was his unique style of focusing on the natural beauty of the land, as well as exploring the depth of his characters’ emotions that made his films so successful. This is where a lot of people developed their love affair for the iconic, honor bound samurai, including many at the Sucker Punch studio headquarters. It’s in Kurosawa’s works that a lot of Ghost’s art style and direction would be given life.

Ghost of Tsushima would borrow heavily from Kurosawa’s films for it’s visual design & overall style. Even though I couldn’t find a source saying so, I’m sure it was something like Seven Samurai that inspired the stand-off mechanic in Ghost.

It wasn’t until they poured over the history of Japan that the last piece of the conceptual puzzle finally fell into place. They now had a setting for their Kurosawa inspired, samurai epic.

The Mongol Invasion of 1274 was the first strike against Japan by Mongolian emperor, Kublai Khan.

Kublai Khan, a descendant of THE Khan, had just forced the subjugation of Korea and taken the area around modern day Beijing, creating the capital of Khanbaliq. In order to further unify his power in the region, he set his sights on the island of Japan.

On November 4th, 1274, more than 23,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean soldiers, carried across 700 ships, poured onto the sands of Komoda Beach at the northwest tip of Tsushima Island. The Jitodai, So Sukekuni, gathered what little fighting men he had available in such a short time, 80 samurai, and began the impossible task of defending the island from the Mongol horde.

Faced with such impossible numbers, So Sukekuni and his brave samurai were overwhelmed and Tsushima was taken.

Over the next month the Mongol Navy ravaged island after island until they were met by a typhoon over the waters of the Sea of Japan, that would come to be known as the kamikaze, or the divine wind. 75% of the Mongol fighting force were lost to the kamikaze and what remained of the fleet pulled back to the shelter of Korea, biding their time & eventually recovering enough for a 2nd attempt in 1281.

As far as historical accuracy goes, the opening to Ghost of Tsushima is pretty faithful: 80 samurai, led by Lord Shimura, ride to Komoda Beach to stop the first step of the Mongolian invasion of Japan. The defense force crumbles, little by little, until the only people standing are Shimura and his nephew, Jin Sakai. In one last desperate bid, they charge Khotun Khan, intending to take his head, but ultimately fail. Shimura is taken captive and Jin is left on the beach, wounded and dying.

Even though this is the last event you’ll play in Ghost that matches up to the historical account of the true invasion, you have to admit this is the perfect place for an open world adventure to start: it’s up to you, samurai shamed in defeat, to raise an army against your oppressors, so you can take back your family, your honor, and your home.

Although it sounds easy on paper to see how the story would evolve from here and how the rest of the game would take shape, it would be nothing of the sort for the development team.

Ghost would prove to be unlike any game Sucker Punch had ever made. The road to the finish would be fraught with challenge and that challenge would threaten to bury them during every stage of development. They would need perseverance and fortitude to make it through the six long years it would take to turn a simple samurai fantasy into a full scale epic.

The art of Ghost is perfect, you have this seamless blend of natural beauty contrasted against the horrors of a brutal occupation. As you progress through the story the scenery changes along with the hero–the bright, vivid colors slowly begin to take a turn towards the bleak.

The wonders of the natural environment are still there, but they don’t stand out as starkly anymore. As you get sucked into the story, your eyes instead begin to fixate on the devastation left in the wake of the Mongol army–dead bodies strewn along the roads, houses ransacked and burned, forests stripped bare and lives forever changed and because you notice all of this a bit more, that note of pure beauty for the land doesn’t stand out as much as it did in the beginning.

You’re instantly grounded by the stakes of what you have to do as the player and the knowledge of what will happen to this beautiful place if you fail. It’s masterfully done and no doubt was a tremendous effort to achieve.

Despite how complex the task of creating a 13th century Tsushima Island was, the entire process began pretty simply: with a 10 hour flight across the Pacific Ocean.

At the beginning of the year, the research team, including lead artist, Joanna Wang, took a trip to Tsushima Island to see it for themselves: the goal was to get a sense of the island’s natural beauty, so they could take pieces of it back to the studio in Washington. To that end they recorded hours upon hours of bird song, the stillness of nature, they even photo scanned some of the local flora–in a blog written by Joanna, she talks about the experience and the motivation behind such meticulous work.

“Ghost of Tsushima is by far the biggest game we have ever made. The map is divided into three regions filled with more than forty diverse Biomes and hundreds of points of interest. Our goal when building an open world game is always if you can see it, you can reach it, with as few exceptions as possible. You will journey through lush forests, cross boggy swamp lands, and enter into frozen mountainous landscapes.

We collected so many references from movies, games, paintings, and even travel posters to draw inspiration. We want to present you with an authentic, believable world, a world that would call out to you, inviting you to explore, a world that is rich and full of surprises.” – Joanna Wang, lead artist on Ghost of Tsushima.

Thanks to being a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment, a Japanese company, the research team were able to make contact with the island’s locals, including artisans and historians, who could educate them on the island’s rich history & culture.

They would take a second trip in November, once again touring the island, speaking with locals, observing seasonal changes and even attending the festival on the sands of Komoda Beach, honoring the brave dead. It’s safe to say these trips helped develop the art-style of Ghost of Tsushima into what we know today; for a developer to be able to visit a place in person, not only once, but twice, is rare in an industry dominated by huge bottom lines and a laundry list of bankrupt studios. It was a gift. A gift they would take back home to their studio in Washington.

However they couldn’t just replicate Tsushima on a 1 to 1 scale, the island was just too big, so they were faced with the task of creating an island that could mimic the feel of the original, without the scale. Instead of creating individual assets and trying to disperse them over the world in a natural way, the team chose to focus on creating multiple procedural generation tools. The procedural generation would make the environment look more natural and also be more time efficient if changes were needed down the line.

Those procedural generation tools no doubt gave them a freedom of control that allowed them to change the environment to suit the vision they were after; whether that was removing dense foliage to keep players from getting lost in a lush forest, or just keeping the horizon clear so the visual cues could be readily seen, it was a balancing act to keep the environment navigable, but genuine.

I love how they’ve done those small visual touches too; the guiding wind for quest locations, the foxes leading to inari shrines, the torii gates, the smoke on the horizon, the golden birds, all these very visual elements that keep me engaged in the world and that gorgeous art style. It’s a really effective design.

All those visual cues wouldn’t stand out nearly as much if it wasn’t for the minimalist design for the heads up display though. In an interview with co-founder of Sucker Punch, Brian Fleming, he spoke about the inspiration for the HUD and why they chose such a simple concept:

"The art, the way that buildings are outfitted, everything in Japan tends to celebrate negative space, it tends to not be cluttered, it wants simplicity, so that has to radiate through everything we do.” Brian Fleming, co-founder of Sucker Punch.

It was a choice that could have easily backfired if the balance hadn’t been maintained between the player, the combat and the natural world; simplicity is good, but if it’s not backed up by every element of design, that same simple concept will only frustrate players.

Thanks to artists like Joanna Wang and the dedication of the research time, the art of Ghost of Tsushima stands above all other titles of the PS4 era. It’s simply exceptional and makes the world feel rich and alive.

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Combat is at the core of Ghost of Tsushima, making or breaking your experience; at first glance I thought combat would be rather clumsy, but there’s this wonderful element of finesse and polish to it that you don’t understand until you try it for yourself. Throughout my time playing Ghost I felt that Jin’s movements looked real and deadly. It was only afterwards, while researching this project, that I discovered just how real it truly was.

Thanks to the help of two samurai, Masakumo Kuwami & Ryusetsu Ide, the combat of Ghost came to life in the mocap studio. The pair worked tirelessly with animation director, Billy Harper, to really nail down the specifics of how a samurai would move, how they would strike, how they would block, everything the animation team would need to recreate Jin’s fighting style faithfully.

It wasn’t only the combat they went through the trouble of portraying accurately though; thousands of hours of actor movements, actor expressions and even the horses were recorded by Billy Harper and the animation team, all to bring the world of Ghost to life and make you feel like you’re in control of a genuine samurai.

A samurai epic wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful score though and thanks to the work of Shigeru Umebayashi and ELAN Eshkeri, we have one.

In a blog written by Sucker Punch audio director, Bradley D. Meyer, composers Umebayashi and Eshkeri spoke about their experience with making the games’ score, including a look at the inspiration behind Jin’s iconic theme, Way of the Ghost and The Heart of the Jito.

Jin’s theme, “The Way of the Ghost,” was one of the very first pieces I wrote. Usually productions are ready for music after everyone else has been working on the game. As much as you might understand the story, it always takes time to really get under the skin and appreciate the depth of well written characters and story. While some of my first sketches evolved, this theme really stuck. It’s all about how the people of Tsushima see him. He is their hero: strong, infallible, inspiring and full of hope, but what really fascinated me about Jin is the contrast of what is going on inside him. In order to save his home and the people he loves he must go against everything he was taught to believe in and break the code of the Samurai. Throughout the game, Jin is a character in deep emotional conflict and this, above all else, is what drew me to Ghost.

The historical setting is fascinating. I began to study ancient Japanese music, folk songs, court music, sacred music and taiko, as well as the different pentatonic scales used in Japanese music. It is a very rich world full of a lifetime’s worth of exploration. In the game’s score I used Shakuhachi, Koto, Shamisen, Taiko Drums and Chants, and my favourite discovery, Biwa. The Biwa is an instrument that Samurai used to play and the art of it was almost lost — there are now only a few players in the world! Luckily, I was able to find one of them to play on Ghost. It’s a really special sound and you can hear it on 'The Heart of the Jito.'

I wanted to create an emotional world that would not only support the narrative and action beats of the game, but I hope it also completely draws the player into the heart and soul of Jin’s emotional journey." – Elan Eshkeri, main composer for Ghost of Tsushima.

"When listeners hear the music for the game, I hope that they feel the hearts of the people of Tsushima – those who love the land, living and plowing with the natural bounties it offers, and those of the warriors who take their katanas and follow the way of the samurai." – Shigeru Umebayashi, main composer for Ghost of Tsushima.

It really speaks to the power of musical composition that even if you knew nothing about the story, just hearing the first few, quiet notes of Way of the Ghost, you can feel the weight of it – it’s evocative and daring, speaking to the core struggle Ghosts’ story emphasizes without having to say a word.

Like all great works the score highlights and pulls on the emotional strings of the listener, emphasizing the positives along with the negatives, punctuating the established tone. It doesn’t try to force you to emotionally bend in these moments, one way or the next, but instead allows the story to carry you along until the music is needed to drive home the point.

All in all, the score for Ghost of Tsushima is a marvel, transporting listeners back to 13th century Japan and what it means to be a samurai.

It was 6 years of effort, hundreds, if not thousands of design choices, the hands of hundreds of talented programmers, designers, artists, composers, directors, researchers & consultants, that produced one of the best, if not the best, game of the PS4 era.

Kurosawa would always explore this idea of the old world meeting the new in his films, clashing for the soul of a culture. If Ghost of Tsushima and Sucker Punch are representative of the PS4 era, the past, I'm hard pressed to ask: what could the future offer that’s better than this?

It’s a game that I think will always feel timeliness and with a free multiplayer DLC on the horizon, I hope we’ve not heard the last of Jin Sakai & The Ghost of Tsushima.

Anyways, thanks for reading. If you have any questions about the history, design elements or anything else, feel free. This is what I truly enjoy doing, so don't hold back.

TL:DR Ghost of Tsushima/Sucker Punch Productions took a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa's works. Also, thank you for reading or watching. As a small content creator who really enjoys doing these projects, it's always exciting to see the end result. Thank you, very much, for indulging me.

Sources

https://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/29524519/how-made-world-ghost-tsushima

(description of the type of effort put into making Ghosts’ visual art style; a discretionary tale of the use of negative space to fill in the gaps of artistic style).

https://www.polygon.com/interviews/2020/7/15/21324263/ghost-of-tsushima-research-interview-mari-takahashi

(describes the team’s interaction with Sony Japan and how they took two field trips to Tsushima island after landing on the idea. Once to study the architecture, the land and the various elements of the island, another to stand on the beaches and watch the annual ceremony for the invasion of Tsushima at Komoda Beach).

https://www.indiewire.com/2020/07/ghost-of-tsushima-interview-nate-fox-akira-kurosawa-samurai-movie-1234574709/

(making a game with filmmaker Akira Kurosawa as the inspiration; this document references quite a few of the older movies Akira went on to make and why the team at Sucker Punch took inspiration from this legendary Japanese filmmaker).

https://www.suckerpunch.com/company/

(details of Sucker Punch Productions, as well as the three releases they made about Ghosts of Tsushima over the years).

http://www.louis-chor.ca/mongolin.htm

(details of the Mongolian invasion into Tsushima Island, including more to note about the Kamikaze or divine wind, a typhoon that dashed the Mongol fleet to pieces while harbored in the bay around Hakata Bay).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sucker_Punch_Productions (Sucker Punch Productions history, as well as key-figures)

https://blog.playstation.com/2020/07/09/crafting-the-world-of-tsushima/

(a blog-post by lead artist, Joanna Wang, on crafting the environment of Tsushima Island during the team’s two trips to the island. This also includes recording hundreds of hours of bird-song. This also includes a ton of custom videos on the process of rendering the environment, a very good visual resource).

https://blog.playstation.com/2020/08/17/ghost-of-tsushima-legends-coming-to-ps4-fall-2020/

(co-op multiplayer mode of Ghost’ – seems to be headed towards a more supernatural element with the story. A multiplayer character, class based campaign with friends, as well as a survival mode and tough enemies fighting mode. Anyways, fucking excited!)

https://blog.playstation.com/2020/07/16/ghost-of-tsushima-the-road-to-launch/

(a blog-post on Sucker Punches’ Twitter that speaks about the road to completing Ghost of Tsushima, from start to finish).

https://kotaku.com/the-art-of-ghost-of-tsushima-1844693448 (a look at the people behind Ghost of Tsushima and the art-work they submitted)

https://twitter.com/BillyHarper73 (animation director’s Twitter)

https://www.vgr.com/ghost-of-tsushimas-combat-will-be-bolstered-by-historically-accurate-motion-capture/ (article about the motion capture session for the combat)

Masakumo Kuwami or Ryusetsu Ide (names of the samurai for motion capture + Twitter hyperlinks)

https://blog.playstation.com/2020/07/02/score-of-tsushima-the-soundtrack-of-ghost-of-tsushima

(notes on the soundtrack for the ghost of Tsushima game, composed by Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri as written by Bradley D. Meyer, Sucker Punch Audio Director).

https://www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/video-games-can-never-be-art (video games can never be art)

https://kotaku.com/ghost-of-tsushimas-director-on-the-risks-of-making-some-1826921875

(further influences on Ghost of Tsushima as told in an interview with Nate Fox, including the value of tension, the trip to Tsushima Island, and the inspiration for Jin Sakai)

Source: Original link


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