In a world where cultural appropriation is a sensitive topic that can trigger the sensitive and woke, developing something that is easily recognisable yet focused on the rich heritage and traditions of another way of life, as well as a new IP (intellectual property), is no mean feat. And hoping it is a success is another thing.
But with Ghost of Tsushima taking the world by storm with its brand of open-world exploration and a wonderful take on the samurai culture, Sucker Punch Productions has established themselves as one of the true greats.
To have a better understanding of the process and the burden of history, we sat down with Brian Fleming and Chris Zimmerman, two of the founders of the studio, to talk more about the latest game that some are calling the swansong of this generation’s greatest game console, Sony’s PlayStation 4.
For the uninitiated, Ghost of Tsushima follows the adventures of Jin Sakai, the last remaining samurai on the island of Tsushima following a Mongolian invasion in the 1270s. With the overwhelming might of the enemy against him, the samurai must embrace a different way of warfare, in order to take his revenge, and drive the invaders back.
Some of the historical aspects in Ghost of Tsushima may be fictional, but its foundations are built on solid research – from the Mongol invaders or the actual island of Tsushima, Sucker Punch has done their homework in marrying that context into the game.
To start with, the developers leaned heavily on history, and in particular, Stephen Turnbull’s The Mongol Invasions of Japan, 1274 and 1281, as the game’s foundation.
“One of the most important books, historically was, it’s called the Mongol invasions of 1274. And it was really kind of our Bible and it really talks about the technology, the leadership style, the way they organize their armies, the scopes of the battles, how they were approaching,” said Brian Fleming.
In our previous interview with Game Director, Nate Fox, the team had also “reached out to experts in many fields, from religion, to architecture, to clothing, or to motion, on how best to recreate the culture of the time.”
Zimmerman added that the team managed to get their hands on certain scrolls from that time period, which gave them more of an insight as well. “The contemporary documentation of the Mongol invasion of what happened and this is how they looked. And this is where they went, and this is how it’ll happen was something Sucker Punch could “build from,” explained Zimmerman.
Together with the help of other PlayStation first-party studios like SIE Japan Studio, it was an exercise in achieving as much as possible in the most effective way. Helping players to immerse themselves in this time period, understand the helplessness of the people of Tsushima against these all-conquering warriors, and fall in line with Jin Sakai’s evolution, were key to the whole experience.
This examination of an empire that spanned over most of Asia was fundamental to creating a believable world, and after poring through all the myths and legend, the developers narrowed it down into the war on the island of Tsushima.
Characters also play such a huge part in Ghost of Tsushima, and determining how they look, sound, and feel was paramount in bringing players into this conflict. That meant casting the right people with the right writing, providing that dramatic flair without venturing into caricatures.
For a new IP, this meant “a little bit of exploration” by the devs. As scenes were being written, the casting was being done as well.
It’s a fun challenge, right? I mean, it’s a luxury. And to be put in a position where we do get to do original properties, we get to invent new worlds and new games, new styles. But it is a privilege, right?
Not everybody gets the opportunity to develop something like Ghost of Tsushima and characters like Jin Sakai, from the ground up. So it’s something we really enjoy doing, you know, inventing stuff from scratch, creating a whole new world.
Referencing Lord Shimura’s big speech at the very beginning of the game, Fleming emphasised just how much actor, Eric Steinberg, nailed that scene. “I remembered thinking, oh my goodness, I would ride with that guy.” It was the manner of delivery, the presence, and the commitment to the characters that helped Sucker Punch choose their cast.
“Each one is a little challenging finding the right tone and, and the way to write the characters so that they are really, you know, both appealing and also stay grounded in the world,” he added.
Khotun Khan, the main villain of the entire game, is played to perfection by actor Patrick Gallagher. The memorable performance does not just give influence to the rest of the Mongol tribes, but also gives players something to learn from.
Khan’s “controlled menace made us understand that these guys aren’t monsters. They are super, super experienced. They know what their objective is and they candidly are looking for the simplest solution to getting you to surrender,” Fleming explained.
“If they can talk you into it, because they’re gonna overwhelm you anyway, all the better. It really radiated from Patrick’s performance, you know, his physicality, the way he carried himself. That was the archetype for all of the Mongols.”
Zimmerman concurred, reinforcing the idea that these enemies have “conquered the world. So you really want that to come across in the game. And they think they’re unstoppable. Right, because no one has stopped them.” Until they come upon Jin Sakai, that is.
This is definitely not the first time the studio has ventured into creating new characters for a new IP. Being able to stretch their creative muscles for Jin Sakai harkens back to their pedigree with the likes of Sly Cooper, Cole MacGrath, and Delsin Rowe.
“It’s a fun challenge, right? I mean, it’s a luxury. And to be put in a position where we do get to do original properties, we get to invent new worlds and new games, new styles. But it is a privilege, right? Not everybody gets the opportunity to develop something like Ghost of Tsushima and characters like Jin Sakai, from the ground up. So it’s something we really enjoy doing, you know, inventing stuff from scratch, creating a whole new world,” says Zimmerman
Even the katana that Jin uses has an extensive backstory. The Sakai Storm is a prized katana, that is full of the Sekai family iconographies. Players can get a closer look at the tsuba (the handguard), which is represented by storms and lightning bolts. It is no coincidence then, that the Mongols view Jin as synonymous with a ferocious storm.
We wanted to capture the wonderful palette that Japan and Tsushima offered. Even our Japanese partners at Sony kept telling us about how important this was.
And we really strive to capture that. As we move through different times of day, we use the sky and its ability to colour the entire scene with the weather.
“One lone Samurai is fighting back against them and, and winning in a way where they’ve never been defeated, right? So, they have to think that there’s something more than human about him right?” Zimmerman said.
“I mean, how else could one person be doing this right? So Jin is the storm made flesh as far as they’re concerned, and they grow to be terrified of this guy because it’s something they’ve never seen before.”
Fleshing out these characters has never been easy, and Fleming alluded to that when it came to Ghost of Tsushima. “It’s an undertaking that’s full of failure. You have to be able to continue, to have really bad weeks in a row and still be able to keep trying because these kinds of things have their ups and downs.”
“It takes a team of people who are at least confident enough to find a way out of it, it is quite a difficult, creative challenge.”
That creativity certainly displays itself when it comes to the visuals, Ghost of Tsushima stands up there with the best of them. The use of colours and the world at large does not just immerse you in the game, but evokes plenty of feelings as well. It was clear to the team just how important that was.
“We wanted to capture the wonderful palette that Japan and Tsushima offered. Even our Japanese partners at Sony kept telling us about how important this was,” Fleming explained. “And we really strive to capture that. As we move through different times of day, we use the sky and its ability to colour the entire scene with the weather.”
This, of course, extended to the Mongol tribes that stand in Jin Sakai’s way as well.
“Each one of them has a different colour scheme to help preserve some identity for the player so that they don’t get overwhelmed by the diversity of enemies in the game, to make sure you understand what kind of which group these belong to,” Fleming continued.
In the fight against the Mongols, there is a sense of duality that rages inside of Jin. His devotion towards the honour of the samurai has to compete with his inevitable need to turn to the ways of the Ghost. While players can affect this tangibly, Sucker Punch has also made sure you will see the differences in more subtle ways.
“As Jin evolves as a character and his abilities evolve, the equipment he uses tries to mirror that journey. Some of the things that you end up being able to do later in the game that you have to invent, to fight back, get reflected in what you wear and how you wear it,” Zimmerman explained.
What we found for the karma system, for better and for worse, is that If people chose in the very first choice of the game, good or bad, then they would stick to that decision almost exclusively through the entire rest of the game, there was never a choice, they made one choice.
This can also be felt in the way the weather system works. Depending on how players are doing in a region, the world reacts in certain ways. As you clear out the invaders from a region, you might find “the weather is fairer there,” Fleming added.
This change in the weather system probabilities is not immediately apparent, but works delightfully under the radar to convey a sense of progress and hope to the players. This line of thinking has been part of the Sucker Punch DNA for a while now, as both Zimmerman and Fleming recall fondly.
“You know, Chris and I spent nine years making games that had A/B choice. Do I choose to be good or choose to be evil. Everything we would do, we would change, you know, the amount of trash on the ground and the weather and everything, and it was very hard to notice this,” explained Fleming.
“And so I think what you see is that we’ve sort of not tried to make it a big feature, but to say, hey, use this as a sport in the background, because it’s not going to be something that players will perceive explicitly.”
That same duality will have many players wondering why not implement the same karma system that the Infamous games are, well, famous for? The answer is simple, the team wanted players to feel the same struggle that Jin is going through.
“What we found for the karma system, for better and for worse, is that If people chose in the very first choice of the game, good or bad, then they would stick to that decision almost exclusively through the entire rest of the game, there was never a choice, they made one choice,” Fleming explained.
Zimmerman added that “Jin never stops being samurai. He’s always a samurai.” He just so happens to be doing other stuff as well, even if it is “going against what he’s taught.” The way Jin can fight back is that “he is just choosing to define that in different ways.”
In a way, Jin Sakai is both held back and emboldened by the history of the samurai, the same way the team over at Sucker Punch Productions would have felt during the development of Ghost of Tsushima.
Yet, just like their hero, the end product has been a monumental success, and the studio can look forward to the plaudits as they make yet another mark in the Playstation history books.