Two years later, shortly after “Tsushima’s” global release, reviews of the game were published in Japan. Excerpts of these reviews were then translated and published in Kotaku. This time, new tweets from Bradford critiquing the discourse surrounding the game attracted far more attention — and most of it expressly negative.
“Immediately I saw folks flooding in my DMs,” said Bradford.
The excerpts shared by Kotaku were overwhelmingly positive — and this positivity was being leveraged against those who had expressed misgivings about the game. The logic was simple: If the game is about Japan, and reviewers in Japan like the game and don’t see any harm in its representations, then that perspective is the most authoritative. Views and opinions from outside of Japan are invalid, even if they’re coming from someone of Japanese descent.
“People have rallied around those reviews as sort of a ‘f--- you, we don’t have to listen to [your] criticism, you’re probably not even Japanese, you’re probably Korean, you’re probably white,” said Kazuma Hashimoto, a translator and critic who wrote about “Tsushima” for the gaming website Polygon. “Because of [those reviews,] a Japanese person criticizing the game in English must not, therefore, be Japanese.”
The world of video games is one of fierce brand loyalty. The simplest, best-known example of this is the “Console Wars” of the early ‘90s, between Sega of America and Nintendo. Egged on by marketing material published by these two companies — in one memorable ad, Sega called out their rival, claiming that the Genesis, “does what Nintendon’t” — consumers dug themselves into warring camps, pitting one piece of consumer tech against the other.
Since then, this tribalism has evolved. Crucially, people who play games no longer need to be encouraged by publishers or developers. In fact, in sharp contrast with prior years, the biggest players in the console market have either ignored each other or expressed an interest in partnership in the run-up to the coming console generation.
But “Tsushima,” the last real AAA title of the outgoing console generation, is a pointed reminder that although publishers may want to move on from “console wars” and fandom-centric marketing, those dynamics are still alive and well. And even if game companies have chosen a more detached, “staying in our own lane” marketing posture, players will still seek to police critical discourse surrounding their favorite products. This open hostility to anyone with an alternative view is ultimately detrimental to intelligent discourse or criticism.
“There’s a silencing effect on the broader conversation, which is the worst part,” said writer and editor Yussef Cole, who recently co-edited a collection of criticism on “Ghost of Tsushima” for Bullet Points Monthly. “Games are a cultural object, and there’s a lot of value in talking about them and exposing their impact on culture… [But] marginalized people who aren’t stable in the industry aren’t going to want to wade into what is a pretty toxic place.”
“Tsushima” is a unique game. Most games that take place in pre-modern Japan focus on the “Sengoku” or “Warring States” period from 1467 to 1615, an extended civil war that saw a range of colorful warlords jockeying for control of Japan. By contrast, the Mongol invasion of 1274 that is “Tsushima’s” focus was mostly a series of defensive campaigns that further affirmed the strength of the Japanese military and the nation’s identity. Since before World War II, this pre-industrial mythic past was a ready source of overt and covert messaging to evoke strength and vitality.
As reviews were first published — before the game was available to the general public — conversation in critical circles revolved around how the game treated topics such as nationalism and whether it was too deferential to the mythic past of Japan. In response to these questions, many on Twitter began to pester critics and reviewers whose views did not align with their own during this pre-release window.
Hashimoto pointed to the Kotaku excerpts from Dengecki Online and Famitsu Weekly, Japanese videogame-centric websites akin to IGN or GameSpot in the United States, as the nucleus around which antagonistic rhetoric was forming.
“This is the first time [I’ve seen] Western speaking people using the same talking points as Japanese nationalists,” said Hashimoto. “[Kotaku] basically picked the best things these reviews had to say about the game. [Meanwhile,] there’s an entire portion of the Famitsu piece that says, ‘it’s not accurate but it looks nice.’”
This selection had the expected impact on an audience already primed to enforce a positive view of the game.
“In ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ there are good Asians and bad Asians and it clearly defines that line,” said Bradford. Outside of the game, similar lines were being drawn.
“[Reviews like those reprinted in Kotaku] center non-diasporic Japanese voices,” said Haru Nicol, a video game and media writer. “It centers [domestic Japan] as the one true Japanese voice and is used to invalidate diaspora Japanese voices who have different concerns and different worries about how they’re represented.”
The effect of this is the creation of a straw “authentic Japanese experience,” inaccessible to those who do not live in Japan, a standard those living abroad are evaluated against. Living in Japan would mean that a Japanese person would be a part of the majority culture. Living abroad, as many of those being harassed online do, they are unable to escape the fact as a minority elsewhere they must be a representative to Japanese culture, willing or not. And often, the form of Japanese culture that has been exported around the world has tied in one way or another to the image of the samurai.
For decades, the samurai has been a safe icon in pop culture to portray a strong, vital Japan, mirroring the use of cowboys to evoke ruggedness and individuality in the United States. But in its use of this iconography, “Ghost of Tsushima” is not strictly historical. Instead, it’s “based on how Japan would like to be viewed in the wider world,” said Nicol.
This line of criticism isn’t new.
“What a lot of the Western audience doesn’t understand is we’ve had this conversation before,” said Hashimoto. In 2004, the American film “The Last Samurai” performed well critically and financially in Japan. At the time, New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Motoko Rich ascribed this success to director Edward Zwick’s “lack of native familiarity with Japanese culture.” Zwick benefited from not being scrutinized the same way a Japanese director might have been, on historical, visual, or political grounds.
In other words: “Japanese people put the bar so low. They are kind of like, ‘well white people made it so it’s fun, it’s good, it’s nice,’” said Hashimoto.
The act of excerpting and translating itself complicates the situation. “Western press covers [Japanese reviews] in a limiting and orientalist way. Because there’s a language barrier, you really are filtered through very specific perspectives,” said Cole.
Translation is an act with motivation, and involves choices and tradeoffs. These can result in the erasure of nuance or themes. Last year’s Netflix translation of Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example, dramatically undercut a key scene’s homoerotic valence. Translating only excerpts and presenting it as representative of the entire text without context presents additional issues.
The selective translations of “Tsushima” reviews ended up feeding into the marketing hype cycle, leading to argument and, in some cases, harassment. Presenting these reviews as the authoritative “Japanese” take narrowed the pool of who is “Japanese” to only domestic Japanese nationals.
All of this belies the need for a broad, honest conversation about games that can and should be had. “I think the [domestic Japanese] reviews are absolutely valid and absolutely deserved to be looked at,” said Matt T.M. Kim, a reporter with IGN. “The problem that happens is that articles like that are never used in a way to broaden the conversation.”
Fundamentally, what everyone pointed to as a main problem with having balanced, yet incisive conversation was the audience. Hashimoto and Cole both pointed to the expression of consumer-based tribalism, which encourages tying one’s identity to brands, and feeling as though perspective and criticism is an attack.
"I don’t think pop culture needs warriors to take up the arm to defend Metacritic scores or a review,” said Kim.
David Shimomura is a writer based out of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @UnwinnableDavid.