In an room in need of air conditioning in the Los Angeles Convention Center last week, game developer Nate Fox held out his left hand, palm down, paused and then slapped the top of it with his right. “Do you know—[slap]—that?” he asked.
He wasn’t sure the name of the playground game he was referencing, but figured I knew what he was talking about. He was talking about the one where two people take turns seeing if they can slap each other’s hands before the other pulls away. “That’s what we’re trying to get over and over in the game.” He slapped his hand again.
Fox wasn’t demonstrating some new hand-slapping game but, rather, the very large, very slick samurai game he and his team at Seattle-based Sucker Punch are making for the PlayStation 4. Ghost of Tsushima was announced late last year, the first game from Sucker Punch since August 2014’s Infamous First Light.
The hand-slapping was Fox’s way of emphasizing the value of tension, the moment of anticipation before one person or the other strikes, a test of who is going to move first. It’s integral to the flow of Ghost’s combat and the way Fox hopes people will play this game many years in the making. He wasn’t sure people would be into it and still can’t know until more people get to play it. Ghost was only playable by developers at E3.
There are many unknowns around Ghost of Tsushima, a new game from a studio that’s made three original games and twice as many sequels and expansions—building the Sly Cooper and Infamous franchises in the process—in its nearly two decades of existence.
“It feels wonderful to think new thoughts, to be a different kind of game team,” Fox said. “It’s exhilarating to not know the path to solve a problem.”
Ghost does not obviously resemble the cartoonish heist capers of the Sly Cooper series nor the urban super-hero adventures of Infamous. It’s a serious samurai adventure set on Tsushima Island, a real Japanese island invaded by the Mongols in in the 13th century. It’s not meant to be a history lesson, and it doesn’t use the historical figures of the time. (The studio had considered using real people’s names but were advised that’d be in bad taste.)
“One of the things we knew was really important was having a really strong core character fantasy, something you can easily communicate to people,” Fox said, describing the process of coming up with the new game. “It came alive when I actually read about the Mongol invasion of 1274 because there’s a clear battle line drawn there. The enemy is very apparent. The stakes are really real. So you have a landscape of conflict that needs you, the players.”
Players control a samurai named Jin Sakai. The last name is a nod to one of Fox’s influences, the comic book creator Stan Sakai and his long, esteemed run of a comic about a rabbit samurai called Usagi Yojimbo.
“I read Usagi Yojimbo because the characters in it treated each other like people and with a lot of dignity even though there were anthropomorphized,” Fox said. “It just seemed like the perfect video game adaptation: this wandering ronin that would kind of fall into problems and help solve things. And because he’s a samurai, people viewed him as a problem-solver. I was hot to make an open-world Usagi Yojimbo game.”
Movies are an inspiration as well. Fox cited the film 13 Assassins and the works of Akira Kurosawa, which he noted were themselves homages to Westerns by the American director John Ford.
The real island is an inspiration as well, one that Fox visited in a trip that sounded as if it sobered Fox and his team from getting too fantastic with the game. “Every year in the fall they have a celebration to commemorate the invasion. It’s hundreds of years later and it’s still part of the culture and place. I got back, and I felt a duty not to screw it up, not to be callous or cavalier but to be respectful.”
Fox said his team consults with PlayStation’s Japan Studio to be sure they’re handling the subject matter with appropriate sensitivity. “We did not want to be insular,” Fox said. “We hire a lot of experts in the field.” The game’s lead voice actor, he noted, was born in Japan and now lives in the U.S.
Ghost of Tsushima’s E3 demo shows a beautiful island and bloody combat, with samurai duels set beneath falling leaves. It’s romantic and gritty. It’s also hard to judge, since the game is hands-off for now. Despite the length of its development—”it’s a big island,” Fox remarked—it doesn’t have a release date. At E3 it runs on the PS4 Pro, but it’s not yet being put in the hands of reporters to try.
Asked if it pulls from Sucker Punch’s prior work much, Fox noted that the roots of the acrobatic platforming from Sly and Infamous have grown into this game, too: “We’re really dedicated to letting people dictate how they go about solving problems. Navigation is a big part of that. It seems like a small part of the demo, but him being able to smoothly jump off that fence onto that bell tower and then grapple, to me that is a huge promise to the player in an open-world game that they can go where they want.”
Fox sees the game as a descendant of his samurai cultural influences. “This is the continuation of a storytelling tradition that hopefully resonates with people,” he said.