Ghost Of Tsushima (And: The Odd Thing About Sacrifice)

  • Completion Date: March 2020
  • Platform: PC
  • Completed: Main Story
  • My Completely Subjective Score: 7.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: There are spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima throughout this post (yes, big end-game ones)! This is your warning! Enjoy, and as always, Game On.

People say we play video games to escape. It’s true, I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest that this is probably the reason that some (and maybe many) play video games. For me, I can hope that it’s not the reason I play. For me, I think I play for one simple reason: It’s because it’s what I’ve always done, and I can remember many fond memories in front of a monitor or TV screen grinding XP in Everquest, or my friend introducing me to the Metal Gear Solid series, or finally beating one of the big side bosses in the latest Final Fantasy series (a true accomplishment).

However, for those who want to escape (I’m not encouraging you to), there are many ways to do so. Video games often transport us to a place wholly different from the monotonous landscape and tempo of the life that we’re used to. We’re thrust into situations that we have never encountered in our lives, and we’re faced with life-and-death situations, where we alone are responsible for the outcome.

Such is the case with Ghost of Tsushima. For the majority of us, we have no sword skills, and could not call ourselves a Samurai. Most of also don’t live in Japan, let alone Tsushima. Therefore, we get to live someone else’s life and face their harrowing journey, all from the comfort of our living room, and all with innocuous consequences. Whatever we choose – whether we die or let our guarded captor perish – all will be well in the end. There’s always a respawn point, and there’s always an auto-save.

However, though most of the components of the game are unfamiliar (and therefore exciting) for us, there are also some that we are able to connect with. Most of us know what it’s like to come face-to-face with a life-changing event. Most of us know what it’s like to have age-old friends turn against us. Most of us have had to do with estranged family ties. And most of us, as the title suggests, have had to sacrifice something dear to us.

Ghost of Tsushima is an homage to older Samurai movies such as Seven Samurai, especially ones created by one of the most revered directors, Akira Kurosawa. It even gives a very cool option to play the whole game in a grainy black-and-white, given it some very nice replay value if you want to experience the game through a slightly different lens (pun intended).

In the game, you take on the role of one Samurai named Jin Sakai. The game opens cinematically as you attempt to stop the advancing Mongolian army, led by the dastardly Khotun Khan (a really big jerk-face). Due to the unfamiliar and dirty tactics of the enemy, the Samurai suffer a brutal defeat. In fact, there are only a few Samurai left alive. Your uncle and only remaining family, Lord Shimura, is taken captive. You, Jin Sakai, are nearly killed, but you are rescued by a woman named Yuna. At first, Jin Sakai does not ask too many questions about his rescuer, and is very thankful that she was able to keep him from death. However, he quickly learns two things. First, Yuna is a thief (this is the worst kind of person to deal with for an honorable Samurai), and second, Yuna had a motive for rescuing Jin. She needs him to help rescue her brother, Taka.

The bad guy doesn’t disappoint with his face – that’s the face of a bad dude (via ghostoftsushima.fandom.com)

The Mongols were so successful at defeating the Samurai because they had no honor. The Samurai showed their faces, announced themselves, and were sure their opponent was ready before they faced off against them. The Mongols used every dirty trick known to them in order to achieve victory. Jin now finds himself in an unfortunate predicament. He is one of the few Samurai remaining on Tsushima island, and he knows he must rescue his uncle. How, then, can he hope to defeat such an army? Yuna, it turns out, has the answer, but it’s nothing Jin wants to hear. Yuna convinces him that the only way to beat the enemy is to join them in using the dishonorable tactics that the Samurai so abhor.

Slowly, Jin comes to turns with the fact that he is unable to win without adopting these new tactics, and he slowly finds himself slipping further and further away from the honorable Samurai he once knew himself to be. In fact, by the time he rescues the honorable Lord Shimura, his uncle is barely able to recognize the man that Jin has become. The tension continues through the rest of the story until the very end.

I think if you have been following me, you’ll know that I’m just not a huge fan of the open-world video game. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I simply have far too little time on my hands to properly explore this fairly expansive world. In my days at college, when I stayed up until six in the morning most nights playing Everquest, I would have coughed at a forty hour game, grinding through it in a few days. Nowadays, it takes me more than a month to come up with that amount of time (if it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not – okay, maybe just a teeny weeny bit – venting is probably a better world for it – oookay, moving on). It’s not just the time investment that I don’t really like. I just really don’t care for side quests. I know full well that nothing jaw-dropping is going to happen in a side quest, because it’s just that, a side quest. It’s most likely going to be a fetch quest where we learning a teensy fact that fleshes out one of the characters in the story (and sometimes not even that – sometimes it’s as simple as “random guy needs some rice so he doesn’t, go get him some rice” – you get the rice, and he says, “thanks!”, quest complete! Wow, immersion complete). And these days, side quests are actually just the starting point. Games are now adding all sorts of different types of side quests, to the point where you honestly get confused about what you’re supposed to do to advance the story (I had this problem with Middle Earth: Shadow of War (check out my review here, wink wink nudge nudge).

Oh, Lord Shimura, the things that could have been (via primagames.com)

Luckily, in this game, all objectives were very clearly marked. I knew which were the main quests and which were the side quests. Unfortunately, there were also what I’ll call mini quests, which had to do with seeking out hot baths, fox dens, shrines, bamboo strikes, etc., for some paltry gains such as a very (very) minor increase to your health or stamina bar. It’s here, among the drowning waters of the mini quests, that I believe many gamers find themselves defeated. It’s agonizing trying to decide whether to pursue these mini quests or not. Certainly, the first few of each mini quest grants some decent rewards for just a little effort, and so it’s easy to say to yourself, “let’s just do them all”. However, twenty or thirty hours into the game, after you’ve done dozens of each, your fortitude begins to waver, and you find yourself trying to remember, “why did I want to do these again?”

Alright, enough with all these (pretty minor) flaws. Actually, flaws is probably too strong a word. There are so many gamers out there who probably adore the endless questing, wanting to pursue that platinum trophy, and appreciating that the game adds some additional content to make the price tag worth it.

One of the things that will strike you as you enter the game is that it’s gorgeous. The graphics are probably some of the best available today, and I wasn’t even playing it on a ps5. Actually, near the end of the game, I was switching back and forth between Valheim and Ghost of Tsushima, and the difference was staggering. Of course, Valheim doesn’t really aim for graphical superiority, instead opting for an odd hybrid of low-fi textures and hi-fi lighting, but even so, the contrast was really startling, especially when switching immediately from one game to another (I suggest trying this). The landscape for the game was nicely done, with contrasting colors that makes the quality stand out even more (fields of red and purple flowers, tall grass where Jin can hide, etc.).

Gorgeous graphics? check (via press-start.com.au)

The game also attempted a minimalist HUD (heads-up-display, aka all the stuff on the screen that keeps track of your health, enemy locations, etc). One feature that got a lot of hype was the guiding wind, which replaces the typical glowing path or arrow to your next destination. The guiding wind appears as exactly that, wind, and you can see it blowing through trees, grass, and as air streams, indicating the direction of your next objective. I did appreciate this, but I personally was never really bothered by a clunky screen, so I think I probably under-appreciated it (hey, I’m an MMORPG guy, I’m used to ridiculously clunky screens).

The combat and physics were probably one of the best things about the game. Everyone and everything felt solid, which unfortunately is a word that you’ll either understand or won’t. Every cut with your weapon felt fluid and realistic, and I think the developers did very well balancing the fact that you are slicing someone with a sword and with the fact that they still need to be hit multiple times before they fall. Each hit was portrayed as a superficial cut, until the last one, which cut deep into the enemies more vital areas (chest or head, etc.). The game is brutal, by the way, with sprays of blood all over the place, which you might know that I don’t really care for, but if that’s your game, there’s plenty of it here.

As far as the story goes, I think it was pretty engrossing and immersive. There was a nice juxtaposition between the honorable Samurai and the dirty Mongols, and it made for some good material to explore. Besides the main quest, Jin had several allies who also had multi-part side quests. This, I think, is probably the best way to do side quests, because you have multiple parts to allow the characters and the plot of each to breathe a little bit, before you go back in for another dose of that particular adventure.

Am I gonna win? Of course I’m gonna win. I’m Jin Sakai – the ghost (via t3.com)

Of course, the main quest is always the one I’m most interested in. After all, there’s a reason it’s the main quest. And it seems pretty clear to me that the main quest is two-fold (as any plot should be). First, the external quest of rescuing Lord Shimura (Jin’s uncle) and ridding Tsushima of the Mongol invasion. And the internal quest, Jin’s controversy within himself. Each time he wins a battle, it seems that he loses a little more of who he is – an honorable Samurai. By lurking in the shadows, using poison, and dispatching enemies with barbaric rage, he becomes something he never dreamed of. Each fight, he sacrifices a little bit more of his honor. And, in the end, he sacrifices what is most important to him – his family.

And so, it seems to me that the prime topic of study in Ghost of Tushima is the topic of sacrifice. I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit since I finished the game, and realized that this was likely the main area of study for the game (what’s that? you thought that video games were just angry people hitting each other with pixelated weapons, the main competition being who can make the bloodiest, goriest game? Sorry, my friend, you’ve been duped by another person who also doesn’t play video games).

So, let’s take a look. Here’s the Merriam Webster’s definition of sacrifice:

destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacrifice

. . .

Although the word sacrifice carries some weighty connotations, I can’t help but feel that it is a core part of our lives. Sacrifice in itself seems to be the antithesis of selfishness, as long as we think of selfishness as the idea of instant (or near-instant) gratification. We go to bed early so that we can wake up in the morning and be a better person, having rested the full amount our body needs. In that way, we’ve sacrificed something immediate (maybe another episode of our favorite show or another hour of that video game we’re trying to finish) to gain something in the future, and most likely this will not only benefit us, but those around us as well.

Yuna, Jin’s savior and peril (via ghostoftsushima.fandom.com)

And I think, as we grow up, we learn to sacrifice a little bit more of ourselves, each and every day. I remember that it used to be a pretty big deal for me to do something that would now seem trivial – doing my chores on time, taking out the garbage, letting someone go in front of me in line. Now that I have a family, sacrifice has become a way of life. We sacrifice our free time, our passions, sometimes even our well-being, all so that the people in our lives can gain some benefit, no matter how small it can be (btw, I’m currently sacrificing sleep so that I can finish this blog post this weekend – you are ever so welcome).

And, the oddest thing happens. The more we sacrifice – the more we give up on the things we want and give others what they need – the more joy we gain. At first, maybe we sacrifice because we have no choice – the children need feeding, and care, and play, and to go to bed on time. But as time trudges on, and as we lose a little bit more of ourselves, we eventually find that maybe sacrifice is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.

I love you, Sarah, Nathan, Emmy, and our newest member, our dear baby boy, Jesse.

Game On.

By Steve Bongiorno

I write about gaming, books, faith, and family.

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