“It’s important to many people at Sony that we get this right.”
Chris Zimmerman is talking about the depiction of Japan in Ghost of Tsushima, the videogame his studio Sucker Punch demoed at E3 this week. Set in 1274, during the first Mongol invasion of Japan, Tsushima finds Sucker Punch in an unusual situation: they’re an American developer making a game about Japanese history for a Japanese publisher. That relationship with Sony is key to ensuring that Sucker Punch remains respectful and accurate in its depiction of Japanese history and culture, according to Zimmerman.
That accuracy is less about broad strokes and more about the finer details that many might not even consider. As Zimmerman says, “We haven’t done anything where we’re like ‘we want to do this’ and they go ‘no, that’s not Japanese.’ It’s really more about innocent mistakes.”
He gives an example of the kind of input Sony’s Japanese producers have made during the game’s development, pointing to the demo they showed at E3. In the demo the character Masako saves the main protagonist Jin from a Mongol assailant. “What we’d written for her to say then was ‘Hello, Jin. You’re late.’ And our Japanese producer was like, ‘no, that’s not Japanese at all. She would never say that.’ So we just edited it to ‘Jin, you’re late.’ So little things like that, that we would just dismiss.”
Another example: the characters in the game speak in Japanese. It’s set in 1274, though, and so obviously the language is not exactly the same as the one spoken today. Neither are the kanji that are used on-screen at the start of vignettes. To keep Tsushima as accurate as possible, Sucker Punch had to make sure the language matched the time setting.
“We try to find people that are native Japanese speakers for our cast, like Daisuke [Tsuji], the lead actor,” Zimmerman says. “But it turns out we still need a dialect coach on stage, because he needs to not speak modern Japanese, he needs to speak 13th century Japanese. So he needs to be coached in how to say things. And when we write things on screen, those are not modern kanji. Those have to be 13th century kanji. So it’s important to us to have a team of people around to make sure we get all the details right. Would you have known those aren’t the right kanji? But somebody will, right? All the details are like that—they don’t have to hit for everybody. Knowing that we’ve got it as right as we can, knowing that those details are going to hit and make the game more special for people, are kind of what we’re aiming for.”
Zimmerman also touts a “strong Asian presence” within the team at Sucker Punch, in addition to Sony Japan’s more remote vantage point. And when they need specialized knowledge, they reach out to the relevant experts. “We’ve worked hard to make sure that we’re bringing in appropriate people to help, whether that’s talking about syncretism in Japanese religious life, or whether it’s getting the details of the conversation right, or if it’s about making sure the swords are appropriate. It’s not just Sucker Punch—it’s everyone that’s working with us to make sure that his game is all it can be.”
When Sucker Punch first pitched Tsushima to Sony, one of their concerns was how the company would react to an American studio tackling this subject matter. As Zimmerman remembers wondering, “Is this going to be okay with Sony as a greater corporate entity?” “It was really surprising and gratifying to hear the answer was yes,” Zimmerman says, adding that “they’re excited about us doing this.
“They don’t think we’re going to make the same game a Japanese studio would make about this time period, and that’s okay.”
The demo shown at E3 didn’t reveal much about how Tsushima will present its characters or frame its story, but it did show off the detailed world that Sucker Punch is building. Characters ran through a lush forest, with a thick green canopy shading everything below—“it’s inescapable just how green everything is,” Zimmerman says. A crucial battle occurred on a field covered with cherry blossom petals. As the warriors danced with each other their feet made the petals scurry, their path momentarily visible in the leaves that blanketed the ground, all in the shadow of a Shinto shrine.
Zimmerman likes to say that Sucker Punch is “trying to build a time machine” with Tsushima. They want to transport the player to a Japan that existed 800 years ago, and they want to retain a degree of accuracy in doing that. This isn’t history, though. It’s fiction. It’s a videogame. Liberties have been taken, both with the story and with the game’s depiction of Tsushima Island itself.
“There’s no test at the end of this,” Zimmerman notes. “And there are no footnotes in this game. It’s an original story but it’s set in a real time and place. And that’s kind of how to think about it. Is the island a literal representation of Tsushima? No. We’ve been to Tsushima—it’s pretty boring. You don’t want the game to be exactly Tsushima Island, there’s just one note there. We want your journey through Ghost to feel like you’ve visited Japan in the large, and so that means experiencing something other than deciduous forest. It means the big open grass fields, this dense verdant forest, abandoned monasteries, mountains, water, swamps, everything. You want to feel like you’ve been there. You want to see a rice paddy. We’re not tied to the literal truth of what happened. We’re not telling a historical story, we’re telling an original story set in a historical place and time. It’s just a fascinating place in time. It’s perfect for a videogame, and we’re just happy nobody did it before us.”
CORRECTION: Due to a typo, we originally quoted Zimmerman as saying there were “footnotes” in the game. The accurate quote is “there are no footnotes in this game.” That’s been corrected.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.