The original release of Ghost of Tsushima was a triumph in many ways. From a narrative design point of view, it was the most well-considered entry in the modern open-world action-adventure genre. Its discoverable map activities were things like composing haiku, which gave us insights into our character Jin Sakai’s temperament and allowed for player expression, and taking baths in hot springs, which both increased his maximum health and provided a relaxed moment for him to express his thoughts on various subjects.
Despite this, I feel like I got to know Jin Sakai far more in our few hours on Iki Island, an expansion added with the Director’s Cut, than in the entire original campaign. I’m being slightly reductive here, but his character back in Tsushima was thus: ‘stern, thoughtful samurai, hard childhood’. We explored the game’s supporting characters in satisfying detail, but Jin suffered from blandness due to his unwavering stoic heroism. Even his decision near the start of the story to break the samurai’s bushido honour code, and be willing to assassinate enemies, felt more like a necessity of the genre’s gameplay than an expression of Jin as an individual, especially since he never defends this position convincingly when challenged.
ARE WE THE BADDIES?
Furthermore, one of the most popular criticisms levelled at the game’s original release was for its veneration of the samurai. In Ghost of Tsushima the samurai can be inflexible or uppity, yes, but the fact that they were historically a mostly hereditary class with a licence to kill, and were often atrocious warlords, is completely sidestepped. All characters (except the baddies) are happy and deferent in the presence of a samurai, who are undoubtedly depicted as the rightful rulers of Tsushima.
But it seems the developers took this on board, as on Iki, there is no love for the samurai. Jin has been there before, it turns out, as a child on one of his father’s campaigns. The senior Sakai, while adhering to bushido, nevertheless butchered the local populace, branding any who defied him as ‘raiders’ much the way that modern oppressive regimes abuse the labels ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgent’, using them to justify brutal executions. To the game’s credit, it takes Jin quite some time to stop seeing the resistant people of Iki as ‘misled’, or merely criminal ‘raiders’, and understand his father and samurai-ness for the deeply flawed things they are.
That said, the expansion generally reasserts the samurai myth. Jin reaches a new state of mind, one in which samurai-ness is no longer a dogmatic code or birthright, but instead it’s how Jin chooses to express his deeper-held beliefs that he must stand up for what his heart tells him is right and be a defender of the people. Artistically, it’s saying that being a samurai (or warrior, more generally) doesn’t necessarily mean one is good, so ‘goodness’ must come first while the world still needs ‘good warriors’.
All of this is more than just an ethical position. On Iki Island, by forcing Jin to struggle with his samurai-ness, he’s made to delineate himself against that heritage; he becomes an individual. This is further enhanced by other narrative design innovations which bring us closer to the protagonist. For example, in Tsushima, a type of location you encounter on your travels are the Inari shrines, to which you are led by playful, pettable foxes. When you reach one, Jin silently gives a prayer, and the game moves on. But on Iki, these are replaced by animal sanctuaries featuring cats, deer, and monkeys at which Jin lingers while you play a flute minigame and he recalls his late mother teaching him respect for nature and music. It’s a big improvement: in addition to a lovely open-world location and interaction, you’re also learning more about Jin and perhaps what has made him different from other, more warlike, samurai.
Finally, the Iki Island expansion also thrusts us into Jin’s inner world more literally, using the trope of the ‘Enemy Within’. Soon after reaching the shore, the antagonist forces Jin to drink a psychoactive poison, which semi-permanently destabilises his mind. This conceit allows a hallucination of the antagonist to actively haunt Jin, exposing and jabbing at his emotional weaknesses. It also means that Jin is frequently thrust into visions of his hopes and fears: a dead farmer’s body on the side of the road is more than just an indicator of the Mongol occupation, it becomes a hallucination of Jin’s father’s corpse whispering a damning line once uttered by the late Lord Sakai. By the time we leave Iki, we know Jin intimately.
I came away feeling that Iki was the best of Ghost, and it dawned on me that this feeling was familiar. The Lost Chapters was my favourite part of Fable, so too Left Behind with The Last of Us, and Burial at Sea with BioShock Infinite. Thanks to their shorter run times and tighter focus, each of these expansions hit harder, proportionally, than the original product. But they also benefited from a mechanical maturation which gave us Iki Island’s animal sanctuaries and The Lost Chapters’ alignment-based spells and more interesting enemy design. Not only that, thanks to lower production stakes after the ‘big ticket’ launch has passed, we get more adventurous stories and points of view being explored, such as the parallel reality shenanigans as Elizabeth in Burial at Sea and the queer representation in Left Behind.
So DLCs, expansions, and ‘expandalones’ such as Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales offer developers a step back from the pressures of risk-averse triple-A production, while still benefiting from that experience, and allow designs to be enriched by the think pieces and huge swathes of player data which have followed since launch. In short: long live the expansion pack.
GHOST OF ARKHAM
The toxin-induced hallucinations Jin experiences on Iki Island are particularly reminiscent of those found across Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, particularly in that hallucinations aren’t restricted to scripted sequences. Joker, or in Jin’s case ‘the Eagle’, can appear and undermine the player mid-fight, or as you zipline up a random Gotham building, or as you stop to behold an Iki sunrise. It’s the true potential of this narrative device: no matter how off-piste, the player is at the mercy of story and character development.