First revealed at Paris Games Week in 2017, information trickled from the studio through the last three years, but gameplay only had its debut reveal this May during PlayStation’s State of Play livestream.
During State of Play, Sucker Punch showed off combat, customization and exploration. Notably, the game does not feature waypoints, with wind replacing that traditional mechanic as a means of navigation.
The Washington Post recently interviewed Jason Connell, creative director of “Ghost of Tsushima,” where he provided his perspective on open-world map size, the conceptualization behind the wind, why the studio settled on feudal Japan and potential uses for the grappling hook. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“Ghost of Tsushima” is a tonal shift for Sucker Punch Productions, especially when taking into account your studio’s past games. Why did you decide a samurai story in feudal Japan was the next best step for your team?
Jason Connell: Sucker Punch games have always focused on some sense of core identity, whether it’s a thief or a superhero. When we had the opportunity to make a new game, which doesn’t come across our plates very often, we go back to that exact same question of, “What kind of fantasy do we want to fulfill?”
Both [co-creative director Nate Fox] and I are pretty big fans of samurai in very different ways, whether it’s film or graphic novels or even some video games. We put a pitch together and came up with the idea and it felt like a great fit for the team, working with Sony Japan and some other people.
And then it felt like a good evolution of the tech we built for the last game ["Infamous: Second Son"]. It’s been a good hurdle for us and an opportunity to try something new that we’re passionate about.
Sucker Punch showed you can play as a samurai (a more action-oriented, direct approach to combat), or as a ghost, slinking in the shadows and assassinating your enemies. Does playing as a samurai or ghost have an advantage over the other?
JC: To clarify, the game is about a samurai who evolves and turns into the ghost over time. So there’s never really any kind of binary switch. You don’t have to play this way or have to play that way. [There’s no choice] that locks out the other one.
As you become the ghost and start evolving your tactics, you can start utilizing them in your combat. [During State of Play,] we showed that ghost section that was at night. At any time, you could have just stopped playing stealthily and jumped down and fought like a samurai. There’s no harsh divide between the two because [the protagonist] Jin, who he is in his heart of hearts, is a samurai and always will have those skill sets. You’re just evolving into this ghost and wrapping it into your abilities.
That’s a shift as well, looking at say “Infamous: Second Son” where players were forced to choose if their character was good or evil. It was more a structured decision that leads you down one path or another. Was that intentional to move away from?
JC: Yeah, I think structured is a good word. [In the Infamous series,] there’s this structure to follow if you want to choose good or if you want to choose bad. There are decisions and choices that have ramifications, and the focus is about that.
In this game, we really wanted to tell a story, a very clear story about one samurai in this world of Tsushima. We want to focus on his narrative journey, one very specific journey of him going against everything that he’s been taught and turning into this legendary feared samurai that is now the ghost.
What else can you talk about in terms of story?
JC: So, Jin — his name is Jin Sakai — we actually showed a scene [about him] in our trailers a while back, during The Game Awards around Christmas time. We open up that trailer with a younger version of him.
So this kid, his entire life, up until his adulthood, has been taught a very specific way of life by his family and peers. That’s just his fit in society. But this all comes crashing down as the way of the samurai has no match for tens of thousands of warriors that just landed at their beach. And his philosophy is challenged.
He cares for his home deeply, like Tsushima is his love. And he has people in his life that tug at him in different ways. He has some people that encourage him to do what’s necessary, and maybe that means challenging his ideals. And he has other people in his life that are, frankly, death before dishonor. These are people that refuse to bend and change the way they look at the world. And those two types of people around him help [the player] see what’s going through his head as he’s navigating some of these choices as he becomes the ghost.
Does the wind replace waypoints completely?
JC: To me, there’s nothing worse than just having a ton of elements on the HUD stealing the attention of all the beautiful art and landscape that’s out in front of you. It undermines everything, but that stuff always serves a purpose in every game. So if you remove something, you have to give function somewhere else. The wind is our answer to, “How do you navigate the world? How can you find things?”
And then sometimes it’s more about, “Hey, I’m actually looking for a specific thing, collectible or flower.” And the wind will point you in the direction where the nearest one is. So there’s different ways the wind can help augment your gameplay. Having said that, there’s no waypoints on the screen. We tried really hard to not have any on screen while you’re in the game. In fact, we have a dynamic UI that goes away and comes back only when you need it.
So we keep a clean screen as much as possible, but there is a map. We showed it in State of Play. You can go to an option screen with a map and you can place down a custom marker or track a specific location.
Was the wind difficult to implement? What was that like to conceptualize and put in the game?
JC: This is because of our absolute love for Akira Kurosawa films, which have motion and movement and wind as a feature. It also has to do with the historical context of the wind; it’s a fascinating story where a wind came through and swept the Mongols out to sea, twice actually. And that’s a very poetic and powerful story. So there’s this beautiful historical context.
And then there’s also this cool film context. It makes it a great fit. So even from the beginning, one of the very first slides about the way the game should look, I had in there, “Art direction: we should make a game that has a lot of wind.” For motion and movement, there are huge technical challenges. So I’m glad we started from the very beginning.
When we talked about color and the way it’s going to look, wind was up there. At the time, we didn’t realize wind would turn into a greater feature. That came maybe a year or two later.
Then, we were also working on this minimal HUD and immersive experience. And we were like, “Hey, let’s try to let the wind take you.” It worked pretty flawlessly on the first week that we had it. And then we just evolved it quite a bit over the next few years of development.
You’ve mentioned that this game is going to be very challenging. Will players be able to change the difficulty?
JC: Our goal has been to create a game that if you’re excited about either playing a samurai or going on an epic adventure in feudal Japan, we want you to play our game and give it a shot.
It can’t be so hard that you give up in the first 15 minutes. That would be very frustrating for a lot of people who have a lot to gain from playing the game because they love this medium or this genre. But it also can’t be so easy that there’s no challenge to some of our biggest, most hardcore fans.
So, first of all, we do have difficulty. If the game is too easy and you want it to be a much more challenging experience, you can take it up a notch. If you find the game is a little too hard, you can take it down. Again, this is an effort to try to get as many players as possible.
The grapple hook makes me think of “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” and “Uncharted 4.” Is this tool only for traversal, or can it be used in combat too?
JC: The game is very vertical. Some of these cliffs, it’s impossible to get up there with a horse. So we really wanted a tool that would fit in the story of somebody who’s a samurai who follows the rules. And suddenly now this guy’s swinging around with a grappling hook, it fits into that story. It’s a little bit different than I would expect a samurai to move. And it also solves some of our traversal goals of having a very vertical island. So it is primarily used as a traversal navigation tool.
Is this the biggest world Sucker Punch has created yet?
Yeah. It is definitely our most ambitious title in a variety of ways. Just sheer land mass is absolutely one of them.
How important is map size to you?
JC: So one of the things that I think is really unique about our game and something I actually quite love about it — and it takes a lot of time to get right — is it’s not really about map size or content density. It really stems from the feeling that, if you’re in the open world and you’re exploring and you see this peninsula and you want to go and you find something cool out there, you need enough space in-between to feel like you’re going on a journey, but you don’t want so much of it to feel like a slog.
You really want to find that balance of, “Is there enough room in the world for me to just get sort of immersed and lost?” [You need to capture this] idea that of playing this great time capsule back to feudal Japan. And that, to me, is a very fleeting feeling. It’s very hard to capture that.
You’ve got to get the music right. You got to have the art. Everything has to be orchestrated behind the scenes to let you have that moment. If you’re constantly pummeled with bad guys and this and that is in your face constantly, it’s hard to have that level of escapism.
But again, on the other side, if it’s way too open and you have nothing to do, then some people might find it boring.
For our game, we found a good mixture and density and scale that gives us that appropriate feeling for players that just want to go on an adventure and find something in the woods or get lost in the time machine aspect of feudal Japan. It is our biggest game, but that’s kind of a notch under what it’s trying to achieve.
Following the State of Play demo, some complained that the saturation levels for the cinematic black-and-white mode look a bit off. Is this something you’re tweaking?
JC: It’s one of the relatively newer modes in the game. It’s not just a mode you turn on for a scene. It’s a mode that you turn on everywhere. It’s a filter that plays over the entire game. It adjusts the audio, it makes it sound older, puts things like film grain up and it crank the wind up to give a call out to old Kurosawa films.
But in some areas, it takes the underlying image and uses that contrast, so some of those images are more accurate and some might be a little flatter because it’s a nighttime scene.
We’re tweaking it a little bit, but for the most part, since it works everywhere in the entire world, it’s robustness is one of our goals. We want to make sure it works really well.