Ghost of Tsushima is one hell of a confident game. Masterful in all of its systems. Literary in its ambition. Tried-and-true within the gameplay of its genre. The main game alone deftly handled an entire cast of complex characters. Scarcely an individual exists in the game that isn’t dealing with a life-altering moment. And all the inhabitants of Tsushima and Iki show mixed emotions and make surprising decisions in the face of their reckoning. Open world games often sacrifice plot cohesion in exchange for more player freedom and emergent storytelling, but I’m so glad that Ghost of Tsuhsima – as open as its world is – tells a grand, focused tale. I can’t recommend it enough. And once accomplished, taking on the Iki Island DLC proves as compelling an arc, if not as long. Perhaps an even deeper one because of how well its final moments build off of the main game!
Spoilers below for both Ghost of Tsuhima and the Iki Island DLC
At the end of Iki island, after the leader of the Mongol Eagle Tribe has been defeated, the writers at Sucker Punch leave players with an awesome gift. It takes the form of one last mission that is pitiful in its difficulty, but incredible in its understanding of the game’s themes. It’s titled “A Mother’s Law”. Fune, the leader of a band of pirates-turned-resistance-fighters on Iki island wants Jin (the player’s character) to help raid one of the Mongols’ last remaining supply ships under the pretense that it would keep her men fed for the duration of the war. This simple request, made after it’s clear that the island is safe, leads to a wonderful tonal payoff for the entire plot.
From the outset of the game, Ghost of Tsushima quietly but undeniably makes you choose between fighting with honor or becoming an assassin. The “Ghost” of the title. In terms of gameplay, you can absolutely do both. However, moments will come in the main story and side quests where “dishonorable” stealth and guerilla tactics will give Jin the edge he and his island so sorely need in the face of the Mongol occupation. The game’s only punishment for doing this is to send bad weather your way more frequently. The thunder storms that whip around you more frequently as you rack up stealth kills are Nature itself speaking to Jin’s nature. In a clever tie to real history, the invading Mongol fleet of 1281 was sunk by a typhoon. In the game’s reality, the weather unleashed by Jin’s lack of honor helps bring the Mongols down. The marines who remain are sitting ducks for seasoned pirates like Fune’s crew.
Further down the thematic well, is the game’s opening in medias res: Jin’s uncle and adoptive father, Lord Shimura, is taken as prisoner of war by the game’s primary villain, Khotun Khan. Shimura makes it clear that he is willing to die according to the code, leaving his people leaderless. Meanwhile, Jin has been rescued by an outlaw named Yuna who gently nudges him toward – or at least makes him more comfortable with – using the underhanded tactics their desperate situation calls for. As Ghost of Tsushima plays out, Jin untethers himself from the strict code of Bushido that binds the ruling class. He comes to live in the morally gray territory where all of life’s hardest decisions dwell. Lord Shimura does not. Smug in his confidence that it would be better to die by Bushido than adapt to the new kind of warfare the Mongols represent, the family bond between Jin and Shimura frays, then snaps.
The Beginning is The End is The Beginning
What has this beginning to do with Fune’s mission all the way at the end of the game? Well, Fune, already an outlaw and former rebel against Jin’s family, has also lived life by a code. One dictated by the cutthroat life of a pirate. Like Lord Shimura’s Bushido, this pirate’s code has set the next generation up for failure. Fune has a daughter named Toki. When Toki was a child, Fune gave her an opiate to ease the pain of a broken arm. Following in her mother’s footsteps as a raider, Toki would go on to find that being a pirate provided easy access to her drug of choice. She soon became an addict and a liability to her crew. By young adulthood she slid from promising pirate to addict and prisoner aboard the Mongol fleet. Infiltrating one of the last ships gives Fune a convenient excuse to retrieve her. Much like the other samurai who scoff in disgust at Jin’s willingness to sacrifice his honor to win the war, Fune’s pirates balk at risking the whole crew for the sake of one pitiful drug addict.
As a parent, Fune is trying to do an honorable thing in spite of her dishonorable life as a raider. Inversely, and in the name of the greater good, Jin has been on a journey toward dishonor in spite of an honorable life as a samurai. Fune, by risking life and reputation to save her now-catatonic daughter, is the admirable parent Lord Shimura couldn’t be. And Jin is the child who walked the kind of dark path that Toki got lost on.
No less a writer than Shakespeare summed this theme up in two sentences: “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied. And vice sometimes by action is dignified.” Ghost of Tsushima is full of confident and subtle storytelling like this. It is a true epic that spans the generations of its cast. Look at any recurring character and you’ll find smaller-scale stories of unsavory people bumbling their way toward a good deed, and saintly types in a losing battle with their inner demons. The framing device that “A Mother’s Law” creates with Jin’s story in the early game is masterful writing. Shakespearean? Maybe not. But then again, Akira Kurosawa used samurai to retell King Lear.
Have you played to the end of Ghost of Tsushima and Iki Island? What did you get out of its story? Tell us about it down in the comments or over at the Boss Rush Discord!
Featured Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment
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