The making of a beautiful game with an epic premise and story.
Let’s explore the story behind the making of Ghost of Tsushima, an epic, open-world action RPG set in feudal Japan during the period of Mongol invasions. It was created by Sucker Punch, the creators behind Sly Cooper and the Infamous series.
The Next Project of Sucker Punch
From 2011 to 2014, Sucker Punch worked on various games in the Infamous franchise. In 2014, they released Second Son and, several months later, First Light. While they were working on these, they started to lay the foundation for their next work, the project that will become Ghost of Tsushima.
Jason Connell: In 2014, we released the Second Son, and about seven months later, we came out with First Light. Around a year from that, PS4 Pro was released, and we supported it with our games.
But behind the scenes, what we are really working on was trying to find out how do we create a new game if we are going to move on from Infamous. It’s got to be awesome. So, what is the process to get there?
Nate Fox: When we were planning for our next project, we wanted to stay open-world because we were giving authority and power to the player. We didn’t want to move away from that. It’s integral to modern gaming. Players are in charge.
The Pitch for the Next Game
Now that the company is aligned in its goal to move on and create its next masterpiece, the question is, what kind of game will it be? It is fascinating to see the creative process within Sucker Punch.
Jason Connell: I think in true Sucker Punch fashion, we handled that with, “Hey, what does everyone at the studio think? And I believe we had about 70 to 72 pitches. Seventy-two ideas that kind of all formed from various corners of the studio. And we tried to coagulate that into one idea. It turns out these things are really, really hard.
Nate Fox: We discussed and thought a lot about open-world titles and what makes some of them just beautiful and great. And we decided and settled on wanting to have a clear fantasy as the player. Who are you in the game? What are the things you will be doing in this world?
A Samurai Game
During this brainstorming, they went through the different pitches until they settled on a single idea. An idea that is so engaging that to hear it is to want to play it.
Nate Fox: And then we came upon this game idea, which is awesomely simple. To hear about the story is to want to play it. Who does not want to go to feudal Japan? Who does not want to be a Samurai with a Katana on their hip?
Jason Connell: When you tell someone that he got to play a Samurai, you don’t really have to say anything else. You just have to say that fantasy, and everyone just builds a list of scenarios and stories and gameplay scenes that you might get to experience in that.
Finding the Plot for the New Samurai Game
With the team deciding on a Samurai game, it’s time for them to look for an engaging game plot. Japan has a rich history and lore about Samurai, but Sucker Punch hit on a gold mine, one that involves a world-conquering emperor who holds more than half of the civilized world in his hands.
Nate Fox: When we learned and focused on the Mongol invasion of Tsushima of 1274, it all clicked. Suddenly we knew who the heroes were, who the villains were, and what the stakes were for the world. And now we have our video game.
Jason Connell: Our new title is an action, adventure game where you play as a Samurai in feudal Japan. We were taking inspiration from that historical period when the Mongol army invaded Tsushima Island.
That is the place that you’re going to protect, a huge island filled with a lot of different places, towns, and people. There’s so much to learn, so much to see.
Big Samurai Fans
Earlier, we shared the 72 pitches that were considered for the creation of a new game. Apparently, the winning idea came from both Nate Fox and Jason Connell. And it all sprang from their mutual love for anything related to the Samurai, whether in films, books, manga, or games.
Lone Wolf and Cub
Jason Connell: Both Nate Fox and I are pretty big fans of Samurai in various ways, whether through films or comic books, or even video games. We prepared a pitch together and came up with the idea, and it felt like an excellent fit for the team, working with Sony Japan and some other people.
I have been a big fan of Samurai manga since 5th grade, from Lone Wolf and Cub to Usagi Yojimbo. The kinds of characters, landscapes, betrayal, and sacrifice in those stories are a gold mine ready to be translated into a videogame. Our artists and engineers working at Sucker Punch have created and brought this world to life on PlayStation 4, from tall grass swaying with the wind to the cry of a far-off crane. We aim to make it feel immersive and real. Everything that was shown in our debut trailer was captured in our game engine; that’s the interactive world we’re painstakingly creating together. That’s the world we’re going to set on fire.
Nate Fox: During the development of Sly Cooper, I was writing the dialogue for the game. Sly Cooper features human-like animals. It reminded me of a manga that I had read years before. I began rereading it actively to get a feel for how characters can converse with each other with a lot of respect. It’s this manga called Usagi Yojimbo.
So I’m reading Usagi Yojimbo. It’s this huge collection of stories about a samurai who journeys in feudal Japan, explores new towns, and uses his wits and the blade of his katana to solve problems. I told myself, “Man, this would be a dynamite thing.”
Defining the Samurai Through Films
Nate Fox shared that most people’s concept of a Samurai was derived from the films that portrayed them, like in the case of Akira Kurosawa movies. He acknowledges this and shares that they are actively adopting these perceptions into their game.
Nate Fox: When we ask most people what a Samurai means to them, the most common answer, and the winner, even for me personally, is the movie Seven Samurai. I am a big fan of this film.
This film is a masterpiece. There are various conventions of classic samurai films that we thought, “This is it. If we can capture these conventions, the swordplay conventions, the way nature is presented, the way that respect is exchanged between Samurai and the peasants and other swordsmen, if we can capture that and place them into this game, we will have something that is really special.”
So we learned and became students of these films and turned some cinematic conventions into interactivity.
A large part of the Samurai identity comes very much from Samurai movies. However, we aimed to do right by providing a sense of authenticity, and that meant admitting that a group of American developers did not know what they were talking about and drawing in experts from various relevant fields to guide us on what it was like at that period. We have multiple experts on religion, costume, and motion. We included them early and often to review the game.
So many of the cinematics in our game are a love letter to Akira Kurosawa.
The Research for Ghost of Tsushima
To ensure faithfulness and accuracy in the cultural references throughout the game, Sucker Punch employed experts and historians from various fields to consult on multiple topics, including religion, music, and architecture.
Nate Fox: I was fortunate enough to join the research trip to Tsushima Island with the team. As soon as we arrived and got off the plane, we went to this location. It’s on the top of a hill, and I got to stand and overlook the bay. In the game, you’ll be able to go anywhere you can see from here.
In total, we had two trips to Tsushima Island. We consulted a lot with experts in different fields, from how a samurai would hold their katana, to how they drink sake, to experts in the dialog and religion of the time.
It helps that we are part of Sony. They even went so far as to help us with audio recording so that the game sounds faithful. Those partnerships elevate the feeling of the game as though you are wandering through feudal Japan.
Defining the Art of the Game
The art direction of Ghost of Tsushima drew upon the movies of Akira Kurosawa to capture the essential feel of a Samurai film. This includes a sense of motion and movement in every frame of a scene.
Sense of Motion and Movement
Jason Connell: We made an art direction goal very early on that everything must move, like the capes, bushes, grass, flowers, and flags. They all must move with the wind.
That was quite a challenge for us technically, but I’m glad it was one of our original goals because, later on, it turned into something far more significant, the way we actually let the players move through the island. It was almost like an arrow pointing you in a certain direction.
Ghost of Tsushima’s Art Style
Jason Connell: Ghost of Tsushima’s style began with reference trips, thousands of photos, research, watching films, you name it. It also meant studying and obsessing over the work of artists that pioneered various styles in the samurai genre. Ghost of Tsushima’s setting is aimed to transport you and create an impression upon you with color, movement, and simple yet memorable compositions.
The character art and designs are inspired by our favorite films and historical sources while stylistically having a lot more contrast and detail to push through to the foreground.
All of this is to craft a love letter to what has inspired us to make this game and deliver the ultimate wandering samurai fantasy with a beautiful but dangerous world.
Minimalist Design - Immersive Game
One of the primary goals during the game development is to make it as thematic and immersive as possible. They achieved this by applying minimal UI on the screen during gameplay and introducing innovative game mechanics that keep the player immersed in the game.
Jason Connell: Hey, that cool bamboo forest over there, I really want to explore it. I want to go in that direction and see what’s there. There are no waypoints. There is no such thing as going here and looking at these bamboo forests. By just making the world beautiful, we want it to be inviting to the player.
And then there will be times when, “Hey, I’m actually searching for a specific thing, a collectible or a flower.” And the wind will guide you in the direction where the nearest one is.
We tried really hard not to have any UI elements on the screen while you’re in the world. In fact, we designed a dynamic UI that goes away and comes back only when you need it.
The Guiding Wind
One of the innovative game mechanics they introduced for the game is called the Guiding Wind. It enables the game to tell you the direction of your target location thematically and in the most immersive way possible.
You have the power of the wind to guide you.
Jason Connell: Fortunately for us, one of the original Art Direction goals was to include the wind and a sense of movement wherever possible. This has both historical contexts as well as film reference overlap. A couple of years into development, the game started to look stunning, and we wanted to create a means to keep people in the world. Since we had achieved those early design goals and the wind was amazing visually, we decided to try and see if it could actually point you to a target location. It totally worked!
We’ve iterated and refined it a bunch since then and expanded on it as an exploration utility to not only bring you to your next tracked location or objective but also to help you find hidden collectibles if desired.
Ghost of Tsushima Goes Gold
After more than four years of active development, the game went gold on June 22, 2020.