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The Beautiful Storytelling of Ghost of Tsushima

Thumbnail cover image The Beautiful Storytelling of Ghost of Tsushima

Spoiler Alert

This post will contain spoilers!

What makes a good game?

I've enjoyed games since I was a little kid. Some of my most vivid memories come from when I was playing games. Pokémon, Spider-Man and a game called "The World Ends With You" are the ones that stick out the most.

When I look at those three games some of the common themes are heroism and adventure.

But if you want a game to live in your memories it has to have one important thing; a good story.

Sure a game can be fun. It can be addictive. It can be exciting. But those are temporary feelings. The best games are the ones that impact you long after you've finished playing it. And the only way to achieve that is through its story.

What makes a good story?

This is a topic I'm definitely not qualified to talk about. I don't write stories so it's difficult to articulate exactly what makes them good.

A way to tell if I enjoy a story is by identifying whether I actually care about the protagonist or other characters within the story. This is something I've heard people talk about often in the game development world. When you're playing a game and a close friend or ally of the main character dies, it's supposed to make you feel sad, or some sort of emotion. If you don't really care about that character dying, then the storytelling hasn't done it's job correctly.

Ghost of Tsushima (GOT) tells it's story so well, it's difficult to find other games to compare it with.

Overview of GOT

GOT is a game about the Mongol invasion of Tsushima, one of the Japanese islands. You play as Jin Sakai, a Samurai and nephew of Lord Shimura, the islands highest Lord.

The game starts with you and 80 other Samurai defending Shimoda beach as the Mongols start their invasion of Tsushima. The Mongol army consists of thousands of Mongols arriving by ship, and the Samurai are severally outmatched, resulting in a blood bath where there are no surviving Samurai except you. Your uncle, Lord Shimura, is captured by the Mongol leader Khotun Khan.

Jin is found and nursed back to health by another islander. Together they start taking back the island from the Mongols.

The most prominent concept of the game is Honour. In Japanese culture it is a belief that you must always fight your enemies with Honour. This means that you face them head-on and that they must be aware of your challenge to fight to the death. It is against their beliefs to use guerilla tactics or to cause their enemy to suffer. Their deaths must be quick. This belief is so strong that the Samurai would rather die than fight without Honour.

As the story progresses, Jin realises that to defeat the Mongols he must not fight like a Samurai. The Mongols had studied everything about the Samurai and identified their belief in Honour to be predictable and hence their weakness.

Jin learns new skills, acquires new weapons and becomes more and more submerged in fighting like an assassin, rather than a Samurai. Word spreads across the island that there is a "Ghost of Tsushima" that is killing Mongols in stealthy, ruthless and unpredictable ways.

Jin knows very well that embracing his darker side - the Ghost - goes against the code of Honour, but he justifies it by claiming that resorting to these methods is the only thing that will save the people of Tsushima.

The ending of GOT

Eventually, Jin manages to defeat Khotun Khan and stops the Mongol invasion before it leaves to conquer the rest of Japan. However, doing this came at a huge personal cost. He was stripped of his Samurai status and an order was given to Lord Shimura to kill the Ghost.

The last scene of the game is you facing your uncle in a fight to the death.

This is where most of the conversation sparked:

You defeat your uncle and he asks you to honour him a warriors death (kill him immediately). So you now have a choice:

  1. Walk away
  2. Kill your uncle

Almost everyone immediately says they're not killing their uncle and they walk away. The problem with this is that he is going to die anyway. One of three things will happen:

  1. He kills himself to prevent suffering a terrible death (he's bleeding out from the fight you just had)
  2. He bleeds out and dies a terrible death
  3. Miraculously he survives and the Shogun sends someone to kill him because he did not kill the Ghost.

So again, either way, he dies.

My argument for why you should kill your uncle is the following:

As Jin evolves he fights more and more without Honour. But he is aware of this. He knows that he has broken the code and he accepts that. But he still believes that it had to be done otherwise they would have lost. By walking away from your uncle it is proving that you have gone down the path of the Ghost and that you are no longer Samurai. It proves you don't believe in Honour. But I believe that his bond with his uncle is the only thing that makes him remain Samurai. As a parting gift to your uncle, you can show him and yourself that going down the path of the Ghost was just a means to an end and that you still have Honour.

The theme of GOT: Sacrifice

I believe what makes Jin Sakai a character that so many people have connected with is that he had to sacrifice so much to achieve what he believed was right. Throughout the game he loses friends, family, belonging and his identity. All for the sake of saving Tsushima.

There's another hero that has a very similar story - Peter Parker.

A lot of Spider-Man stories follow the arch where he loses a loved one by the end. Depending on the comic, game or movie, he either loses Harry Osborn (his friend), Mary Jane or Aunt May. Sometimes all of them. But he always goes back to being Spider-Man because he knows the city needs him regardless of his personal life.

The final scenes of GOT are so emotional because of the story about you and your uncle. There are countless flashbacks to when he took you in, trained you, and eventually got official permission to adopt you. These moments build up the relationship between Jin and his uncle, showing you just how strong it is. The fact that not only he dies, but he dies by your own decision to pursue the Ghost is what makes the story so gripping and gut-wrenching in the final moments.

This theme of sacrifice is an amazing way to tell a story. No wonder Ghost of Tsushima has received the appreciation it did.

I'm very interested in story-driven games. If you have thoughts on GOT or other games, let me know on Twitter.