Stillness in one's mind
A lone pebble alters fate
Rising from the depths
From the first moment that you step onto the battlefield against the Mongol general Khotun Khan, to the last, as you choose your destiny in a battle against your uncle, Lord Shimura, Ghost of Tsushima breaks new ground in its ability - as a video game - to let gamers experience more than just a good story, but an actual living tradition in peril, to spiritually experience and taste the way it meanders around the complexity of life and war.
Despite the fact that the protagonist, Jin Sakai, antagonist Khotun Khan, and other supporting characters are fictional, Ghost of Tsushima pays such close attention to detail and homage to authenticity that one cannot but feel emotionally invested in more than just the world of this tale, but more importantly the Samurai tradition and Japanese history generally. One feels as though this is Tolkien's Middle Earth coming to life through a Japanese lens, where every flower and blade of grass speaks of ancestors who continue to inspire warriors, farmers and all that is in between.
We can speak volumes about the impeccable fighting system which Ghost of Tsushima espouses that, despite the gruesome ways in which it allows gamers to eliminate foes, beautifully conveys the regal journey of the samurai warrior as they learn their various battle stances (stone, water, wind, moon), each of which fits a particular type of enemy (swordsmen, shieldmen, spearmen, brutes).
Like other aspects of Ghost of Tsushima, here also one finds that words and descriptors go a long way in setting this experience apart from other video games. Instead of opting for terms like 'strength' or 'power' to describe a character’s advancement, the designers have resorted to 'resolve' and 'technique' as the resources that allow Jin Sakai to develop new moves and increase his life and energy.
However, the use of such terms is merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg in the brilliant spiritual traces of tradition with which Ghost of Tsushima presents the gamer throughout the course of this story. From composing haikus atop summits, to honoring shrines hidden in perilous cliffs or reflecting introspectively while bathing in a hot spring, this story accomplishes what no video game has done before: to incorporate spiritual rituals not as a passive observation or mere accumulation of knowledge, but an active pursuit of enlightenment and progression, alongside sword fighting, archery, and all the other dimensions that shape a fine warrior.
Ghost of Tsushima also accomplishes many of these tasks with utter simplicity and elegance that itself pays homage to the way of the samurai. Take composing haikus, for example. One would be hard pressed to find an easier way to incorporate poetry writing in a video game. By simply directing oneself to various elements of the breathtaking nature surrounding Jin Sakai, gamers pick three tropes, corresponding to the three verses of a traditional haiku, with 5, 7 and 5 syllables, respectively.
A similar reflection exercise takes place at each of the hot springs, where the gamers are given a chance to step away from the war and journey back into Jin’s childhood, present moment, or unknown future.
A different type of – silent – meditation occurs when Jin visits the numerous shrines ornamenting the island of Tsushima. Whether it is awe-inspiring Shinto shrines sitting atop mountain peaks or the Inari shrines which gamers find with the help of a fox, a revered animal in Shintoism, Ghost of Tsushima here again beautifully adopts spirituality as a means for character development, whence Jin Sakai unlocks charms and charm slots to enhance his fighting ability.
This entire technical foundation in Ghost of Tsushima serves, enhances and amplifies a well-weaved story that we will focus on for the rest of this blog. As a samurai, Jin Sakai finds himself fighting a Mongol invasion that seeks to destroy his native island of Tsushima both outwardly and inwardly, The wasting of lives, destruction of villages and razing of forests finds its parallel in Khotun Khan’s – Mongol general – attempt to turn the people of Tsushima against one another, to raise an army of traitors who are willing to betray their own people in return for survival.
Jin finds himself facing such a betrayal in his childhood friend Ryuzo, a straw-hat ronin warrior who joins Khan’s campaign and attempts to collect a bounty on his friend’s head. However, this blatant conspiracy is merely one in a series of challenges which Jin faces as he tries to save his land and people. Ultimately, the protagonist of this tale, the Ghost of Tsushima, finds himself facing a tradition, represented by his uncle Lord Shimura, that – to him – seems out of touch, unable to cope with changing times and enemies.
This is precisely where Ghost of Tsushima presents the most critical of questions for any and all audiences who follow a religion or spiritual path: what is the ultimate purpose of a tradition, if it is unable to adapt to the vicissitudes of time and space? Lord Shimura represents the attempt of many to equate the life of a tradition with its precepts. Jin Sakai’s uncle consistently reminds his nephew that a warrior cannot resort to methods contrary to the way of the samurai, even if it means his own demise and the death of countless people.
On the other hand, the protagonist brings forth the inevitable desire, from within the tradition itself, to adapt and change. These two contending waves clash in the final meeting between Jin and his uncle, whence the gamer is given a choice, to either live as the ‘ghost of Tsushima’, leaving behind the samurai tradition, or relinquishing this title given to him to become instead the last custodian of that ancient path of the ancestors.
Ultimately, Ghost of Tsushima’s brilliance as a story is in its ability to highlight this crucial question at the heart of our culture and society. The life and demise of tradition is a trope that we find in another world and galaxy, in Luke Skywalker’s coming to terms with the failures of the Jedi order in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Jin Sakai would probably agree with Yoda’s advice to Luke regarding the sacred texts of tradition, disciples, and their masters:
Time it is for you to look past the pile of old books … Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess. Skywalker, still looking to the horizon. Never here, now, hmm? The need in front of your nose.
Heeded my words not, did you? Pass on what you have learned. Strength. Mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.