The Half-Real World of Ghost of Tsushima

The game is hauntingly beautiful, but it reshapes history and geography.

A scene from Playstation’s Ghost of Tsushima.
A scene from Playstation’s Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Entertainment

A scene from Playstation’s Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Entertainment

Up until last month, when I told fellow Americans that I used to live on the Japanese island of Tsushima, they inevitably responded, “Where’s that?” They’d never heard of the island, let alone the small town of Toyotama where I lived. Now, thanks to Sucker Punch Productions’ PlayStation 4 game Ghost of Tsushima, about a samurai battling the Mongol invasion of the island in 1274, I see lots of people talking about the bloody assassinations they pulled off in places like the fishing village of Kechi, where I used to go to the gym and then get food at the popular chain Mos Burger once a week.

That Americans hadn’t heard of the island isn’t surprising. Even most Japanese people, when I tell them I lived there, reply, “Really! I’ve never been.” Tsushima is remote and rural. Ninety percent of the island is forested mountains. Fishing villages cling to the jagged coastline, and small farms are tucked in narrow valleys. The game’s gorgeous visuals will likely draw many curious visitors to the island—or they would, if COVID-19 hadn’t put a huge chunk of the world in quarantine. Ghost of Tsushima captures a lot of what makes the island special, but it also makes decisions about what to leave out, geographically and historically. And when far more people visit the virtual versions of places than the real ones, those decisions matter.

With global travel restrictions keeping most of us at home, video games provide a vital outlet for exploration. Open-world games like The Legend of Zelda have always transported players to new realms like Hyrule, but with today’s realistic graphics and complex plots, games such as Assassin’s Creed and Ghost of Tsushima let you explore virtual representations of real places and real moments in history, from Renaissance Florence, Italy, to feudal Japan. You can satisfy your wanderlust (and bloodlust) from the comfort of your couch. You’re not going anywhere else, after all.

Aso Bay on Tsushima.

Aso Bay on Tsushima. Austin Gilkeson for Foreign Policy

Of course, it’s not quite the real thing. The digital geology that shaped the virtual Tsushima followed different laws than those that created the real island. Tsushima doesn’t map directly onto Tsushima. The actual island is too large and mountainous. It’s been flattened—quite literally. Take it from me, a journey across the real Tsushima on foot or horseback would be far longer and more tedious than what the game protagonist Jin Sakai undertakes.

The digital geology that shaped the virtual Tsushima followed different laws than those that created the real island.

Playing Ghost of Tsushima after living on the island is like stepping into a dream: Everything looks familiar, but it’s scrambled in odd ways. The game’s Golden Temple, with its long stone staircase flanked by Buddhist statues, is a grandiose vision of Banshoin Temple in Izuhara. My favorite place on the island, Toyotama’s ancient Watazumi Shrine, appears in the game as Cloud Ridge Shrine. While Cloud Ridge doesn’t look much like Watazumi (save for the tide-lapped torii gates), it’s obvious that Sucker Punch did its homework. The town of Toyotama takes its name from the sea goddess Princess Toyotama, also known as Otohime. She isn’t around to offer any charms or messengers in the game, but she still makes her presence felt. The nearby Urashima Village alludes to the Japanese folktale of the fisherman Urashima Taro, who visits Otohime in her undersea palace. Turtle Rock Shrine’s charm comes from the deity Hoori no Mikoto, Princess Toyotama’s husband, and Hazy Cliff’s is from her father, Ryujin, dragon-god of the sea. Even though the virtual Toyotama doesn’t physically resemble the real one, it deftly captures the town’s salty mythology.

In Ghost of Tsushima, reaching shrines like Cloud Ridge—and the valuable charms they give you—requires death-defying jumps, rope swings, and rock climbing. Obviously, the shrines on the real Tsushima are much more accessible; most have parking lots. The gods are not fools. They want your money and your offerings. But video game gods have a different sort of devotee, one who wants to overcome dangers and puzzles to gain the charms you can normally purchase for a few hundred yen from a part-time shrine maiden.

One real shrine that is actually a challenge to reach can be found at the summit of Tsushima’s Mount Shiratake. Its avatar in Ghost of Tsushima seems to be the Golden Summit Shrine. As in the game, it’s a steep scramble with ropes to the summit, though thank the gods you don’t have to actually swing from any of them. Like Jin, you also have to squeeze inside a cave, but on Shiratake that’s the shrine itself: a dark aperture in the rock where you’ll find a sacred mirror on a stone altar frosted with melted candle wax. Ironically, for all its violence, the game’s a bit prudish compared to real life. Mount Shiratake is a fertility shrine. And it’s easy to see why, once you make it up the ropes to the top. The mountain has two massive granite outcroppings on its summit. One is undeniably phallic. The other, where the cave shrine is, looks like a monumental stone vagina. Local legend says that if you’re pregnant and make the long hike to the top, you’ll give birth to healthy babies. Players will have to create a coded modification to the game to simulate that particular blessing.

Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is required to explain itself. It has to account for its choices. Slow, unthinking tectonics and erosion have made Mount Shiratake’s fertile power self-evident to the human eye. But Sucker Punch would need a compelling thematic reason to send its digital samurai clambering between colossal, rocky labia. Disbelief has to be suspended, and that can mean sanding away reality’s more surprising edges.

One of the game’s most exciting missions uses a very real setting: the imposing mountaintop fortress of Kaneda Castle. In the game it’s a stronghold for both the Mongols and the Japanese, though in reality by 1274 Kaneda had been abandoned for hundreds of years. It was built in 667 when Japan, fearing a continental invasion that wouldn’t actually occur for another six centuries, built the fortress overlooking Aso Bay. Today the outer wall still stands, a curtain of stone running atop a hill high above the bay. While the Mongol Empire didn’t occupy Kaneda Castle, its in-game name and appearance are a nice nod to the island’s real history and geography.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for one of Ghost of Tsushima’s most popular features, the red foxes. The foxes function as guides in the game, leading Jin to hidden places and items, often at small shrines to the agricultural deity Inari. Inari shrines in Japan are famous for their guardian fox statues, and the animals are said to serve as Inari’s messengers. It’s a neat use of Japanese folklore and mythology, especially in a game with an international audience. After all, many cultures around the globe see foxes as intelligent, spiritual creatures. Of course you’ll follow them.

There’s one little problem: Red foxes don’t live on Tsushima. Neither do the Asian black bears that pop up in the game. The island has its own unique ecosystem with endemic species of deer, marten, pit viper, and leopard cat (which serves as the island’s mascot). A true Tsushima game would have Jin following leopard cats around. As much as I like the foxes, they took me right out of Tsushima. The game’s clever use of broader Japanese culture ended up erasing the specificities of its setting.

And it points to a more meaningful erasure. Tsushima has been a locus of Japanese-Korean relations, trade, and conflict for centuries—you can see Busan’s skyscrapers from the island’s northern tip. Korean influence is apparent in the island’s dialect, cuisine, and festivals, and today South Korean tourism is one of the pillars of Tsushima’s economy. That influence is important to the game’s setting, too. Kaneda Castle was a Korean-style fortress, and the actual invading army was as much Korean as it was Mongolian—but in Ghost of Tsushima, Kaneda appears as a classic Japanese castle, and all the enemies are nomadic horse-archers. The game flattens the island, whose history, culture, economy, and ecology are defined by its location between Japan and Korea, into a standard Japanese fantasyland where you play a samurai/ninja fighting against foreign invaders.

<em>Ghost of Tsushima.</em>

Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Entertainment

Sucker Punch, an American company, probably didn’t mean this erasure deliberately, although it’s possible they left it out exactly because virtual histories can get contentious. The geopolitics of digital domains can be as fraught as the real thing, and that will only increase as video game landscapes become more realistic. Even back in the 2000s, online multiplayer games saw some Chinese and South Korean players arguing over whether the medieval kingdom of Goguryeo was Chinese or Korean. But that’s the peril of virtual exploration. For all the photorealistic scenery and careful research, it’s still somebody else’s sandbox. You’re hemmed in by the limits of other people’s imaginations, agendas, and rendering budgets.

Still, with most of us locked down for the foreseeable future, Ghost of Tsushima and games like it provide a good scratch for our travel itch. Before the pandemic hit, my wife, Ayako, and I had discussed returning to Japan this summer or fall and finally visiting Tsushima. She and our 6-year-old son, Liam, have never been to the island, and I’ve always wanted to take them. Now we’re stuck at home in the Chicago suburbs, half a world away. But the other day, Liam came and sat on my lap and together we watched Jin Sakai as he leaped over rocky chasms on his way to Cloud Ridge Shrine. It’s no Watazumi, but it’ll do for now. And who knows, maybe the next time I rendezvous with the thief Yuna in the fishing village of Kechi, I’ll even find that Mos Burger again.

Austin Gilkeson's writing has appeared at Tin HouseMcSweeney'sCatapultVultureTor.comThe Toast, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and son just outside Chicago.