How It's Made: The world of Ghost of Tsushima

Sucker Punch Productions dove into the history books while working on Ghost of Tsushima. Screenshot by Brian Bencomo

It's easy to get lost in the vast open world that Sucker Punch Productions crafted in Ghost of Tsushima.

Without a mini-map on a corner of the screen guiding you, you have to rely on cues throughout the world to find your path. If you're not following the wind or a fox or a bird to your next destination, you're probably stopping to take in the natural beauty of the world or traveling toward a column of smoke on the horizon.

That's all by design, the developers told ESPN. Ghost of Tsushima attempted to create a game that felt immersive and authentic not only to the natural features of the Japanese island of Tsushima but also to a time in Japanese history known as the Kamakura period.

The game kicks off with a historic event: the invasion of Tsushima by the Mongol army in 1274.

"We started looking back on the historical accounts of the various periods in Japanese history, and there was this singular day when someone ... found this particular invasion," Sucker Punch co-founder and producer Brian Fleming said. "It was a light-switch moment for us. It was a moment of clarity where we were like, 'Wow, this is exactly what we're looking for.'"

In the game, you take on the role of Jin Sakai, one of the last remaining samurai on the island who attempts to rescue his uncle from Mongol captivity and then drive out the invading army from his homeland.

"On an annual basis the island of Tsushima still commemorates the invasion and the brave defenders, so we scheduled a trip to be present during that celebration," Fleming said.

The trip was one of two that a Sucker Punch team led by lead environmental artist Joanna Wang took to the island to do the necessary research to authentically recreate the world that we see in Ghost of Tsushima. Although the island in the game is not an identical recreation of the actual island and the game's storyline is not meant to be a documentary of the time period, a lot of care went into creating a world that felt grounded in 13th century Tsushima.

Fleming said the team took thousands of photos when they were on the island, paying attention to such tiny details as the different types of rocks and moss. The group also looked at old water-brush and wood-block paintings, Wang said, as well as classic samurai movies such as those made by Akira Kurosawa to capture the "true soul" of the Japanese culture from the time.

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One thing the team that traveled to Tsushima was struck by was how lush the entire mountainous island was.

"We're from Seattle, and Seattle's pretty green," Wang said, "but over there I almost feel like it's even more."

The landscapes in Ghost of Tsushima aren't all green -- there are vivid red-leafed and golden-leafed forests, too -- but they all certainly do match the description.

Along with all the photos, Wang wrote in a PlayStation blog that her team also recorded birds and other natural sounds to use in the game. The developers did such a good job capturing the essential natural qualities of the island that Fleming says they received praise from their counterparts in their Japan studio.

"We were getting this affirmation that we were managing to capture, just effectively the essential color that people who were born and raised in Japan see in their own home," Fleming said.

In fact, according to Kotaku, Japanese critics have also been praising the game for how authentically it captures Japanese culture, right down to the proper usage of written and spoken language from the time period. You can actually play the game with Japanese dialogue, however, the characters' lip movements are synched with the game's English dialogue.

Besides the lush landscapes and attention to detail in the usage of the Japanese language, Sucker Punch also took great care in creating the various structures on the island. Wang noted that faithfully recreating the structures on the island was a particular challenge due to their small size.

"We need to have combat inside of the buildings, but we still need to artistically to [design] those buildings to make them feel small [so it] doesn't really feel like walking in it's like a big, giant room," Wang said.

Back in Seattle, the developers consulted with sword-fighting expert David Ishimaru and even brought in two experts from a samurai martial arts school -- Ide Ryusetsu and Kuwami Masakumo Shike -- to their studio.

"It was terrifying, I have to say!" Fleming said of meeting the two men trained in samurai techniques.

Fleming said they were involved in motion capture for the melee scenes and also critiqued the game after looking at footage. Even something as small as the proper way to draw a katana is important, and Fleming said the two men were instrumental in helping the team learn how to portray this in the game.

In creating an immersive experience for players, the developers were trying to stay true to the overall tone of the game that sought to capture the inherent simplicity of the world they were building.

"The art, the way that buildings are outfitted, everything in Japan tends to celebrate negative space, it tends to not be cluttered, it wants simplicity, so that has to radiate through everything we do," Fleming said.

This is what ultimately led to the decision to eliminate the on-screen mini map that's a common feature of open-world games and reducing the on-screen heads-up display. In fact, there's even an "expert" mode for Ghost of Tsushima that you can turn on to further reduce the information you see on the screen.

"When we were successful in replacing [the mini-map] with the wind, we were like, 'Oh my god, we found a vein here. We can mine this,'" Fleming said. "What else can we push into the world? What else can we take off the HUD and push into the dimensional space of the game. And so you end up using columns of smoke and you end up using animals, and you end up using fireflies."

This is why foxes, which are associated with Inari shrines in Japanese culture, worked perfectly as a method for leading players to these shrines. It's why golden birds appear on screen at times to lead you to places of interest.

Simplicity was one of the overarching themes that guided the developers in making this game. Wang contrasted this with the studio's approach in making the Infamous game series, in which the developers tried to add a lot of things on screen.

"In one moment we're making a pampas field because it's a big inspiration from the actual pictures we saw in Japan," Wang said. "There is like rolling hills of pampas, it's just very stunning, so we try to make that, and while we're making that we realize we just need to take things out. We're just using that one iconic element repeatedly to kind of tell you what the island is, what the beauty is, and that's already enough. We don't need to add more stuff."

All you have to do is Google Ghost of Tsushima these days to know that Sucker Punch's dedicated research and "less is more" approach has produced a beautiful game that has resonated with both fans and critics.