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‘Ghost of Tsushima’ Director Nate Fox on the Challenges of Making a Playable Akira Kurosawa Movie

Forging the soul of Akira Kurosawa's samurai movies into the body of a mega-budget video game, "Ghost of Tsushima" is a singular experience.

“Ghost of Tsushima”

“For me, filmmaking combines everything,” Akira Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography. “That’s the reason I’ve made cinema my life’s work. In films, painting and literature and theatre and music come together. But a film is still a film.” Reading those words today, at a time when movies are starting to feel more like video games and video games are starting to feel more like movies, it’s tempting to imagine how Kurosawa might have felt about a digital medium that’s developed the capacity to ingest all of his favorite art forms, and combine the “everything” of filmmaking into something even more.

Would the famously dictatorial auteur — whose career marshaled several different mediums and bridged together disparate worlds — retch at the idea of a grubby-handed audience being able to control an artist’s work from the inside out? Would he have shared Roger Ebert’s opinion that “video games will never be art,” no matter how many art forms they Frankenstein into one? Or might Kurosawa have enjoyed the all-encompassing experience that interactive storytelling can offer, and how palpably video games encourage players to resist the feudalistic thinking that he raged against in many of his best movies? After all, we’re talking about someone who emerged from World War II with such bitter disgust for blind nationalism and the supposed “immorality” of self-assertion that he invented Toshirō Mifune two years later.

Kurosawa began to lose his sight when Atari was the video game vanguard, and he died when the likes of “Metal Gear Solid” and “Parasite Eve” were just starting to explore the medium’s cinematic potential, but — at the risk of sounding a bit too “Anne Frank would’ve been a Belieber” — it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think Kurosawa might’ve enjoyed a game that forced players to forge their own path through Japanese history. Given the origins of his own influences, he might have understood if said game were made by a team of Americans.

That’s certainly what Bellevue, Washington-based game studio Sucker Punch Productions was hoping when they asked the Kurosawa estate to give its blessing to “Ghost of Tsushima,” a blockbuster Playstation 4 exclusive that transmutates the soul of chambara masterpieces like “Seven Samurai” and “Sanjuro” into a massive open-world video game in the vein of “Assassin’s Creed” or “The Witcher.”

The request was far from a sure thing. On the one hand, it wouldn’t have been the first time that the late filmmaker’s estate endorsed a video game based on his work; Kurosawa’s own son personally contributed to a futuristic 2002 brawler called “Seven Samurai 20xx,” and even convinced Ryuichi Sakamoto to compose the score. On the other hand, “Seven Samurai 20xx” was a spectacular piece of crap that tasked players with defending a village from an invasion of mutants, cyborgs, and robots led by an evil humanoid known as the “Zex Beast.”

Sucker Punch had slightly more faithful intentions. “We really wanted to pay respect to the fact that this game is so totally inspired by the work of this master,” “Ghost of Tsushima” director Nate Fox told IndieWire during an interview two days before launch. “We tried to show the Kurosawa estate the tone of the project‚ that it wasn’t meant to be a fantasy game, and that we took the characters very, very seriously.”

There was also another part of the equation to consider — something that would explicitly codify the connection between “Ghost of Tsushima” and its influences, and perhaps even have the power to bridge the gap between them.

“We knew early on that we wanted to include a black-and-white filter so that you experience the game in a way as close to the source material as possible,” Fox explained, and when we approached the Kurosawa estate we provided a video that showed what a monochrome ‘Ghost’ would look like,” an effect his team varnished with errant “film” scratches, a soundscape that warped around the audio technology of the 1950s, and gusty weather effects that mimicked how the wind itself would yield to Kurosawa’s vision.

Sucker Punch wanted to call it “Kurosawa Mode.” The director’s estate let them.

Playing in “Kurosawa Mode”

That optional filter — which players can toggle on and off at any time in one of the game’s menus — has already become one of the defining features of “Ghost of Tsushima,” if only for how lucidly it reframes the relationship between movies and video games. Perhaps a film can’t be a game (it’s still debatable if a film can even be successfully adapted from a game), but can a game contain a film? Or, for that matter, capture the essence of a storied filmography?

Like “Death Stranding,” the “Uncharted” series, and a handful of other games before it, “Ghost of Tsushima” is so much fun because of how it asks those rhetorical questions. And like those aforementioned titles, Sucker Punch’s epic invariably proves frustrating for the answers it provides for them anyway (“kind of,” “in broad strokes,” and the more Ozu-like “yes, but…”).

Set on the island of Tsushima circa 1274 during the first Mongol invasion of Japan (312 years before “Seven Samurai,” and roughly 800 years before “Seven Samurai 20xx”), the game’s familiar — if unambiguously fictional — story casts players as a highborn warrior named Jin Sakai as he decides to do whatever it takes to defeat Khotun Khan (Genghis’ invented grandson) and prevent the foreign marauders from reaching the mainland. A stoic type who “Brockmire” actor Daisuke Tsuji plays as more Tetsuya Nakadai than Toshirō Mifune, Jin was raised by his ultra-proud uncle Shimura (a nod to Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura) to honor the way of the samurai and confront his enemies head-on.

“Ghost of Tsushima”

But Khan’s army isn’t much interested in standing on ceremony — they introduce firearms to Japan in the game’s third act, echoing Kurosawa’s favorite motif for expressing the violence tension between the old world and the new — and Jin recognizes that he’ll only be able to win this war by discovering a different way to fight it. He’ll only be able to ensure his people’s future by betraying a defining tenet of their past. Over the course of the ~40-hour adventure that follows, Jin’s gradual transition from humble samurai to mythical “Ghost” will see him becoming a legend, slit a zillion throats via some more ninja-like stealth mechanics, and risk his relationship with the only blood relative he still has left.

The conflict sewn into that premise alone is enough to indicate a certain incompatibility between the narrow constraints of a samurai lifestyle and the sweeping demands of an open-world game like “Red Dead Redemption,” but Fox saw an almost Mishima-esque harmony between sword and code. “Honestly, I think the genre of a samurai film is an excellent fit for an open-world game. So many of these stories are about a samurai or ronin who wanders into town and solves a problem with the edge of their sword — that is a perfect set-up for an open-world game, especially one that’s based in exploration, and where you’re dealing with an anthology of different stories,” the director insisted, referring to a multitude of side threads that prove to be a bit less predictable than the game’s main plot.

If that emphasis on exploration has some precedent in samurai fiction, the island of Tsushima — while enormous for a video game map, and strikingly gorgeous by any kind of artistic standard — is still too small and ensconced by the same overall conflict to offer the sort of serialized, stranger-in-a-strange-town energy that Kurosawa imported from his favorite Westerns and brought to “Yojimbo.” At the same time, the open-world approach prioritizes the scale of the environment over the specificity of its various enclaves in a way that can deflate the movie-ness of it all.

“Ghost of Tsushima”

One early mission, for example, allows us to roleplay “Seven Samurai” by having Jin help a defenseless village prepare itself against a coming band of Mongols. In the film, Kurosawa subtly teaches viewers the geography of the area during expository dialogue scenes, so that the audience is able to have a handle on the action when the mud hits the fan a few hours later; as a result, the climactic siege is one of the most visceral and immersive ever shot. In the game, an NPC walks Jin through the area during an unskippable cut-scene, but it doesn’t look much different than any of the other hamlets you’ll find around Tsushima. When the Mongols finally arrive, you slash them to death just like you would anywhere else, as your newly acquired knowledge of the area gives way to the same tactics you used to kill the last mob of invaders. By too literally trying to recreate a cinematic element from the movie that most inspired it, “Ghost of Tsushima” only underscores its fundamental gaminess.

The Cinematic Feel of In-World Fighting

But there are other areas in which “Ghost of Tsushima” manages to thread the needle between cinema and video games with such divine alchemy that you’re liable to forget you have a controller in your hands. While the painterly splendor of Jin’s world is more indebted to the heightened exoticization of “The Last Samurai” than it is the slice-of-life coloring seen in the likes of Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai” trilogy, the sword duels are pure enough to make Musashi Miyamoto himself bow with respect.

The game’s standard fight system is an addictive refinement of the “Assassin’s Creed” style, with the player encouraged to swap between four different stances depending on the kind of enemy they’re facing. But the breathless standoffs that occur throughout Jin’s adventure are where Fox’s vision most vividly comes to life, as “Ghost of Tsushima” captures the wait-and-release tension of Kurosawa’s sword fights by embracing a degree of stillness that most video games would have tried to debug.

“Getting the combat of the game to feel like what it looks like in a samurai film was something we needed to get right, Fox said. “Getting that stillness and then that quick action and precision of sowing the sword just the right way was crucial to realize our ambition of making an interactive samurai movie.” It never grows any less tense: Watching a rival swordsman and waiting for him to make the first move, a fraction of a second in your reaction time can make all the difference between slicing through an entire Mongol camp and having your lifeless body kicked around by a circle of laughing enemies. It’s the best fight system of its kind since “Bushido Blade.”

“Ghost of Tsushima”

The game is also punctuated with a handful of one-on-one duels that use a side-view camera angle to convey the life-or-death formality that films like Kobayashi Masaki’s “Harakiri” imbued them with. Some players might balk at the long cut-scene that leads up to each fight as Jin unsheathes his sword with a flick of the wrist, but these are the moments where Sucker Punch works its magic — where the tension of watching an iconic samurai duel is compounded by the knowledge that you’re going to be tagged in at any moment, and “Ghost of Tsushima” is temporarily suspended in this sublime limbo between movies and video games.

“A lot of what can create a feeling of intensity or just specialness comes from the pageantry of the presentation,” Fox said, going on to explain that he feels games can sometimes make inroads towards film by easing players’ fingers off the controller. “Take the way we have you start missions: There’s a title card that shows the name of the tale, and then and that leads to a cutaway of a broken pot or some other object that reflects the internal thoughts of the characters in the scene. There’s a very strong cinematic quality to such moments — they’re not interactive, but these short visual statements epitomize how we can add to the soulfulness of the game without saying ‘I always have to have my fingers hitting buttons.’”

Building a Worthy Protagonist

That approach served Fox’s team well when it came to creating a certain aura around their protagonist — terse, but complex. “Stoicism is a very tricky thing to navigate,” Fox said. “It’s something that people associate with samurai in these films, and yet as a player you want to feel like you’re inhabiting Jin’s shoes, and are inside his head. Him being tight-lipped and stern and not expressing much is true to the genre, but trying to thread the needle between samurai stoicism and emotional relatability is something that we worked hard on.”

In a film, it would have been easy to hide Jin inside the shadows of his interiority and keep him at a cool remove, but a long adventure game like this can’t afford its protagonist to be an empty vessel. Silent heroes might work in certain JRPGs, but “Ghost of Tsushima” only works so well as a samurai movie simulator because Jin accommodates the player without vacating his body to them — because his characterization allows for us to be him and watch him at the same time.

It’s a dynamic mirrored by the game’s approach to the samurai code, which eschews the literal moral barometer used in Sucker Punch’s “Infamous” games for something a bit more fatalistic. “All players are going to see Jin become the Ghost,” Fox explained, but they do have a say in what the Ghost does. “We wanted to tell one particular story about a samurai who has to sacrifice his honor in order to become something new and save his home, so we never wanted to punish you for doing things that were ‘dishonorable’ like backstab assassination. At the same time, we wanted to show that this is hard for Jin. He understands that he needs to go against his uncle’s teachings, and he’s going to do it, and lord knows the player are going to want to do it because they’re so accustomed to killing from other video games. But it was important for us to have Jin pick a moment to say ‘this is why I’m doing it,’ and to make clear that he wasn’t coming to that decision with glee.”

And it builds to a final choice that Fox’s team leaves at the players’ feet; a decision that forces you to reckon with the nature of Jin’s transformation, and color in the gray areas that lingered after the final scenes of Kurosawa’s black-and-white samurai movies. Jin is more than just an avatar, but when it comes to his legend, Fox says “the period at the end of this sentence is defined by you.”

“Ghost of Tsushima”

That careful mediation between passivity and control is emblematic of the various balances that “Ghost of Tsushima” tries to strike: The balance between honor and survival, tradition and individuality, and also the balance between domestic and foreign perspectives. In this day and age, it wasn’t lost on Fox and his American development team that they were telling a story that didn’t belong to them.

Adhering to Authenticity

“We were very aware that our backgrounds were not equal to [the task of] recreating the feeling of Kamakura era Japan,” Fox said, “and so the first thing we did was reach out to experts in disciplines like religion and motion to give us feedback throughout production.” He also stressed that working for a giant Japanese company like Sony allowed for an extra degree of authenticity and quality control along the way.

Of course, field recordings of the wildlife and insects that live on Tsushima don’t preclude the kind of cultural hegemony that put America on the map, but Sucker Punch largely played things safe by repurposing the genre’s most common stories. “This game is definitely inspired by a real moment of history,” Fox said, “but it is not a historical document — it’s a fictional saga with all invented characters, and our version of Tsushima island is a collection of many different biomes that you would associate with mainland Japan,” a bummer for anyone who thought a 43-mile island might actually contain tropical beaches and sub-zero mountaintops at the same time.

Fox and his team were understandably relieved when the Japanese press flipped for “Ghost of Tsushima,” the gaming bible Famitsu offering a Western game a perfect score for only the third time in the magazine’s history. But American gamers — Asian-American gamers most of all — remain wary.

For one thing, Kurosawa Mode feels like the kind of detail that could speak to a broader sort of cultural fetishism. Even that flourish, however, reflects the extent to which “Ghost of Tsushima” recognizes that players will forget their own relationships with the game. Fox even stressed that playing through Jin’s entire adventure with that filter on would keep players from engaging with the full vitality of the world around them. “‘Ghost of Tsushima’ was fundamentally built with color in mind,” he said. “The game is completely playable in Kurosawa Mode, but I think that you miss a lot of the diversity of what it has to offer if you exclusively play it that way. It certainly gives you a strong appreciation for the lighting in Kurosawa’s films, and how that cinematography uses contrast to guide your eye.”

“Ghost of Tsushima”

Told that it’s especially satisfying to flip the filter on during the duels, Fox responded that “toggling back and forth makes a lot of sense to me. It’s sort of like air conditioning in your car.” He also reflected on how the process of creating Kurosawa Mode allowed them to see the rest of the game through new eyes. “Playing through it in black-and-white, we started to notice a lot of things that we had taken for granted in color — we saw that some things needed to be amplified to greater contrast ratios, and that certain interactive elements needed to be shape-based rather than cue-based. Kurosawa Mode showed us the need to modify the texture of the color mode in a way that ultimately made the entire game more accessible to people who are colorblind, and ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ works better for everyone as a result.”

Of course, it isn’t that easy to satisfy all of one’s masters, and the thinking behind Kurosawa Mode proves to be something of a double-edged sword. The more that “Ghost of Tsushima” resembles a samurai movie, the more you notice the ways in which it falls short, and into an uncanny valley of its own design.

The most striking example is something that American cinephiles — who will surely choose to play the game in Japanese with English subtitles —  will catch on to right away: The characters’ mouths are synched to the English-language audio track, which detracts from the excellent performances of the game’s Japanese cast and endows this mega-budget work of art with the cheap veneer of a night at the grindhouse. “We recorded the game in English primarily because we are English speakers,” Fox explained, his pride in the game tinged with a hint of regret for its imperfections. “For us to understand the detail and experience the nuance of the characters’ emotional beats, we needed to be totally present for those when writing, directing, editing, and shooting those scenes. Simply put: The lip sync is in English because the development team is all fluent in English.”

It’s an undeniable imperfection, even if correcting for it might have been logistically impossible. But it’s also a shortcoming that speaks to the fundamental challenge of splitting the difference between a classic samurai film and a cutting-edge open-world experience — between a movie that interpolated different cultures, and a game that hopes it will speak to all of them.

Much like its hero, “Ghost of Tsushima” is forced to navigate the demands of two very different worlds. Certain sacrifices have to be made in order for it to get the job done. A film is still a film, and a game is still a game, but even in spite (or because) of its flaws, “Ghost of Tsushima” is rewarding for how defiantly it challenges its master’s thinking. No medium combines everything, but in the right hands they can all forge each other into something more than the sum of their parts.

“Ghost of Tsushima” is now available on the Playstation 4.

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