When not fighting invaders, Ghost of Tsushima gives players peaceful ways to catch their breath. The island is littered with scenic spots that host a haiku-composing mini-game, and by the end of the journey players should have “written” quite a few of these short poems. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be very good.
“I hope I’m not hurting your feelings here, but none of these are even close to competent haiku, if you are interested in the history and value of the genre,” Jim Kacian, founder and director of The Haiku Foundation, told me via email after reading through a few of my Ghost of Tsushima-generated poems. “Do they achieve something for the game? I presume they do. But are they haiku in any meaningful sense? Not really.”
Kacian, who literally wrote the book on English-language haiku and operates the prestigious Red Moon Press publishing house, has been reading, writing, and studying the artform for 35 years. When first reached for his expertise on the subject, Kacian was quick to point out that a 13th-century samurai like Ghost of Tsushima protagonist Jin Sakai would have probably dabbled in other writings rather than haiku, which at that point in history were known as hokku and functioned as openings to larger poems. That said, he was more than happy to provide his expertise.
A lot of the failings in the Ghost of Tsushima haiku mini-games have to do with how they’re structured, Kacian told me. Upon finding a peaceful place to compose poetry, the player is provided with three trios of pre-written lines from which to choose based on their surroundings, eventually leaving them, ostensibly, with a haiku. As someone with the bare minimum of knowledge on the subject, I thought my poems were fine, if a little generic. But according to Kacian, the game doesn’t compose haiku “in anything but the most superficial and populist sense.”
“The choices offered you made it impossible to achieve anything like a ‘strong example’ [of haiku],” Kacian explained. “They are all about ideas and conclusions, not at all about the ‘thingness’ that haiku purports to employ. In each instance, the choices available to you all had a ‘point’—in other words, you weren’t discovering what is hidden in plain sight, awaiting revelation through the poem, but are asked to produce an emblem of the image offered.”
The poetry in Ghost of Tsushima, for example, relies heavily on metaphor—an abstract way of describing something by comparing it to something else—rather than the more direct language of haiku. “A golden temple” would be an actual golden temple in haiku, Kacian said, rather than the autumn forest depicted in the environment. The game’s strict adherence to the stereotypical 5-7-5 syllable format also fails to make it more than a generic haiku generator. Many serious haiku poets balk at these restrictions, which was apparently never really more than a basic guideline in Japanese anyway.
As for specific examples of Ghost of Tsushima’s haiku problems, Kacian also took the time to break down one of the examples I sent his way:
“’Brilliant it blossoms’ might be suggestive in haiku, but it would relate to something actually brilliant in blossom, perhaps a flower, or flowering tree, and that would be your first image, most likely followed by the kire (which might be a dash or a comma or a period, or simply the end of the line),” Kacian explained.
“Next would come a different image, whose purpose would be to release the depth of the image as it relates to your psychological and emotional being. Instead, a couple of verbs come out of nowhere (the tenses don’t match the first line, which suggests not too much attention was put into the verbal aspects of this project), and enter the ludicrous. Let’s presume it is a flower: Is it now struggling and crying out for help? Do flowers do a lot of crying of any sort? And what does a flower’s struggle look like? Strange, to say the least.
“But the third line, instead of creating the gap we need, simply continues the thread, and in a further melodramatic way—if this is a flower, in what way is it shattered? I can believe it’s alive, but after that emotional welter, I imagine it’s barely so. Instead of creating a haiku, the program allowed you to create an extended metaphor, which I suppose you are supposed to relate to the sensibility of the samurai—it is the samurai who is blossoming, and who has suffered the trauma and emerged, bloody but unbowed. This has nothing to do with haiku—it’s just a trope to sell some part of the samurai ethos.”
Poetry, like every artform, is subjective. While Kacian himself was hesitant to assign any necessities to the writing of haiku—he compared the exercise to asking, “What colors should a great painting include?”—it’s clear that there are foundational problems with the way Ghost of Tsushima gamifies the artistic process. It was always going to be difficult for a video game to provide players with the tools to craft competent poetry, especially in a complex format that’s rooted in a different language. Still, it might have been nice to see more effort from the developers to convey these intricacies in a game that’s presumably about celebrating Japanese culture.
“We never turn people away, no matter how they come to haiku, so if this has that effect, we’ll be grateful,” Kacian said of players finding an interest in haiku via Ghost of Tsushima. “But they will be surprised to discover what haiku actually is when they come to it (and hopefully happily surprised). Ultimately, that’s the best thing about haiku, the people you come to share time and mindspace with, and most people who come here end up staying.”
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)