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September 15
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Creating the Way of the Warrior for GHOST OF TSUSHIMA

By TREVOR HOGG

There is mystique associated with the samurai code of honor known as Bushido (‘the way of the warrior’), but do you remain faithful to the code if the enemy does not obey the rules of warfare? That prevailing question is explored by video game publisher Sucker Punch Productions in Ghost of Tsushima, which takes place in feudal Japan during the Mongol invasion of Tsushima Island in 1274.

“From the beginning, the game was always about a samurai who had to sacrifice his honor in order to save his home from Mongol invaders,” states Nate Fox, Creative Director at Sucker Punch. “However, the details of that story and gameplay evolved over time as we iterated on better and better ways to get across the core concept. Nothing too radical; we didn’t go from a first to third-person camera or anything, but we had a few bad prototypes and missions along the way.  We chuck the bits that aren’t working out and double down on what’s strong; that’s game development.”

Nate Fox, Creative Director, Sucker Punch Productions

A great attention to detail went into realistically depicting blood splatters on the characters and weaponry. 

A central component was embracing an open-world concept. “By making the game open world, we could lean into exploring the landscape itself, getting lost in Tsushima as you followed your curiosity about what’s over the next hill,” explains Fox. “Having an open-world design also allowed us to put in an anthology of stories that the player can discover. While Jin’s transformation from Samurai to Ghost is the central narrative experience, along the way you’ll meet loads of characters, each with their own story branch to dig into.” Players can decide between combat and exploration. They get to choose not only what type of mission they want to take on, but even how to complete the mission. Do you use swords or stealth? Come to think of it, the player could decide to not even go on a mission, instead they might choose to go hunt for collectibles or chase after foxes. There’s a lot to do in Tsushima.”

“We had two groups make two separate trips to Japan,” remarks Joanna Wang, Environment Art Lead at Sucker Punch. “They visited numerous places, brought back tens of thousands of reference pictures, and shared them teamwide. We recorded birds, nature sounds, photo-scanned the ground from Tsushima Island, and used them in the actual game. This was a way for us to bring a little piece of the real island of Tsushima to players. Other highlights from the trip included experiencing the culture of Japan, watching a traditional shrine ceremony, smelling the burning incense in the temple, listening to the monks chanting, and even feeling the moisture in the air. Those sensory experiences are hard to translate through words or even pictures, but it inspired us so much for the rest of the project. It was truly a special trip.”

Joanna Wang, Environment Art Lead, Sucker Punch Productions

The wind makes for aesthetically dramatic moments but also serves as a navigation device for players. 

“In order to try and capture the feeling of classic samurai films, we chose our camera angles very carefully,” remarks Fox. “A third-person camera is a must for showing a lone samurai riding in a sea of tall grass or staring down an enemy in a duel. Without that cinematic feel to the game, we wouldn’t have been doing right by the samurai fantasy.”

The original desire was to have a vibrant game with rich colors. “But we got feedback from our Sony Japan colleagues that the game wasn’t green enough,” reveals Jason Connell, Art/Creative Director at Sucker Punch. “After visiting during our research trip, I began to understand the feedback. As we progressed through the game’s development, saturation and bold use of color in nature became a theme. We weren’t going for pure realism though. We always wanted to create large fields of single flowers or dense forests of a single type of tree as a way to bring style to the game. Creating a good black and white filter is challenging when you have so much saturated color use, but we found a good balance in the end.”

Animals and the wind are characters that organically and subtly guide players.  “Jin Sakai loves his home,” observes Connell. “This is where he grew up and we’re always looking for ways to connect players with that simple truth. We are also always trying to keep UI out of your face and your eyes on the beautiful art. Eventually, ideas like following a fox or guide birds are created, and it’s just a great way to accomplish both of those goals in a poetic way.” A complicated process was simulating the wind and its environmental impact. “Given our ambitious goal of wind as a visual and gameplay element, often times our FX budget was used on environmental support,” states Connell. “In some cases, upwards of 60,000 individual leaf particles blowing in the wind or waiting to be kicked up by a warrior in a duel.”

Jason Connell, Creative Director and Art Director, Sucker Punch Productions

“Given our ambitious goal of wind as a visual and gameplay element, often times our FX budget was used on environmental support. In some cases, upwards of 60,000 individual leaf particles blowing in the wind or waiting to be kicked up by a warrior in a duel.”

—Jason Connell, Art/Creative Director, Sucker Punch

Jin Sakai approaches Yagata Farmstead where he is tasked with rescuing hostages. 

It was important to have constant motion within the frame. “Every frame has some directionality,” states Connell. “This has to be considered because motion and directionality are part of storytelling. This has its incredible upsides and challenges, too.”

Exploration and curiosity are linked, says Connell. “Curiosity is a hard thing to capture. You have to work hard at it across so many different teams. Art teams would support creating unique looking trees and mountains that beckoned people. Design teams would create missions that would only give you partial information or following a trail of flowers as a clue. It’s a constant battle. Too much information and you’re not curious. Too little and you don’t know what to do at all.”

An example of Photo Mode with Jin Sakai in full ghost regalia. 

“We discussed extensively our use of violence,” reveals Connell. “This is our first M-rated game, and we wanted to make sure we were not creating a level of violence that would start to undermine who Jin was. Violence is a tool for storytelling and Jin is defending his home. But we did not want players to become numb to this, or the violence to take over as the driving purpose.”

The voice cast influenced the character animation. “We chose the actors that captivated us when watching them,” remarks Fox. “It’s really just that simple. A lot of talented people came in and read for the roles, but the ones who had you hanging off their every word, they got the job. Even if they might be off of what we originally saw for the character, we’d change things around to make it work with the most interesting performers. When it came time for performance capture,  all that personality comes through in their movement as well as their voice.”

A lot of effort went into authentic environmental work including replicating insects that populate the different regions of Tsushima. 

The Sony PlayStation game is meant to feel real. “That means that all our characters had to have dreams and flaws, just like you and I,” notes Fox. “We love them for the three-dimensional humanity they show. That goes for the Mongols too; from their point of view they’re the heroes in this story, trying to bring and everlasting peace to Japan by putting it under the rule of the Mongol Empire.”

The evolution of Jin is not predetermined. “The sort of Ghost that Jin becomes is very much in the player’s hands,” says Fox, “They can choose to develop Jin’s skill with a sword, stealth, archery or even exploration abilities. We’ve got a tech tree full of abilities to explore and a wealth of gear to augment your preferred playstyle. Personally, I go all in on archery. I like to hang back and take people out at a distance!”

Amidst the battles are moments of quiet reflection.  

Ghost of Tsushima is more about the journey than specific moments. “I’m excited for players to start exploring Tsushima, to decide to break off the main narrative path and see what they can find by following their own curiosity. It’s not so much a sequence as it is a feeling of freedom.”

A preferred method of transportation is by horseback.  

Jim Sakai approaches a shipyard where he plays to attack the Mongol vessels bringing soldiers to Tsushima. 

“By making the game open world, we could lean into exploring the landscape itself, getting lost in Tsushima as you followed your curiosity about what’s over the next hill, Having an open-world design also allowed us to put in an anthology of stories that the player can discover. While Jin’s transformation from Samurai to Ghost is the central narrative experience, along the way you’ll meet loads of characters, each with their own story branch to dig into.”

—Nate Fox, Creative Director, Sucker Punch

“We had two groups make two separate trips to Japan. They visited numerous places, brought back tens of thousands of reference pictures, and shared them teamwide. We recorded birds, nature sounds, photo-scanned the ground from Tsushima Island, and used them in the actual game.”

—Joanna Wang, Environment Art Lead, Sucker Punch

The characters and environments were also built to be showcased in black and white.

Players have the ability to control the speed of the wind.  

A samurai showdown taking place using Kurosawa Mode which emulates the cinematic style of iconic Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. 

An abandoned temple in the village of Akashima.

“Curiosity is a hard thing to capture. You have to work hard at it across so many different teams. Art teams would support creating unique looking trees and mountains that beckoned people. Design teams would create missions that would only give you partial information or following a trail of flowers as a clue. It’s a constant battle. Too much information and you’re not curious. Too little and you don’t know what to do at all.”

—Jason Connell, Art/Creative Director, Sucker Punch


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