Ghostwire: Tokyo's authentic representation makes a mockery of Ghost of Tsushima and Sifu's cultural tourism
Tango Gameworks’ open world may be formulaic, but its setting has a depth that could have only come from a Japanese studio.
Head to this marker, kill all the enemies that spawn, uncover more of the map, head to one of the new markers that just popped up, talk to an NPC, go to the next waypoint, fight some more enemies, go back to the quest giver, get your reward. Rinse and repeat. Break down Ghostwire: Tokyo to its basic gameplay fundamentals and you have an open world game as formulaic as they come.
But the activities take on a new meaning when, instead of clearing towers, you’re uncovering more of the map by cleansing corrupted Torii gates. Their locations aren’t just random, either – they’re often located at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, and in rare instances they become literal gateways to another dimension. Just outside the shrines, you’ll also find stalls where you can buy charms or snacks, though given the supernatural fog that’s swept the city, some of these have looked in better shape.
Likewise, those rudimentary fetch quests take on more significance when they draw you into discovering the many yokai of Japanese mythology that have interwoven themselves into Japanese society. In Ghostwire: Tokyo, they take on different roles – from threats to collectibles, merchants to quest-givers. Then there’s just how it all looks as well: a beautiful recreation of a new-gen Tokyo that would make Yakuza’s RGG Studio sweat. All of these things make Ghostwire’s world come alive – ironic for a game where everyone has been spirited away.
It’s also a kind of cultural specificity that could have only come from a Japanese developer like Tango Gameworks, a studio that runs wild revelling in its Japanese identity and all of its nuances – a welcome departure from trying to play towards Western audiences hungry for more Shinji Mikami survival horror.
The richness of Ghostwire’s setting only shows up the shallow representation of the likes of Ghost of Tsushima and Sifu; games set in Asia but made in the West, primarily by white folks. Regardless of their intentions, what we get is superficial cultural tourism (at best), and games that play into "pre-existing stereotypes and cliches" (at worst, per Uppercut).
Let’s consider Sucker Punch’s samurai game, which has the audacity of naming one of its modes after legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa... because it happens to be in black and white, and it has Japanese audio (which was botched in the original release since the lip-sync was made for the English dub). At least having authentic language options as an option is an improvement over Sloclap’s martial arts game, Sifu, which only added Chinese audio post-launch. Subs and dubs may be ultimately down to personal preference, but it’s still telling that Ghostwire has the Japanese audio as the default, which it also largely stuck to for its marketing.
Sucker Punch and Sloclap seem to be thinking of representing cinema first, rather than the actual culture itself. Sifu is not so much a game set in China so much as it’s a fusion buffet comprising different aspects of Asian cinema, with the first level paying homage to both The Raid and Oldboy. But even comparisons with Hong Kong martial arts flick are at odds with the game’s serious revenge plot and hardcore mechanics – there’s none of the slapstick of Jackie Chan or anything quite as imaginatively bonkers as what you'd get in the genre (and if Sloclap did care about representing Hong Kong cinema, perhaps it should have prioritised a Cantonese dub over a Mandarin one...).
Just why are these representations so awfully dour and po-faced anyway? Sucker Punch conveniently ignores how Kurosawa’s films, besides including the later ones made in colour, also had plenty of humour. Indeed, that balance of heavy and light tones is something you find more obviously in Ghostwire, where you can be helping quell the cursed rage of a tragic spirit one moment, then help another spirit’s unfinished “business” in the loo the next.
More importantly, the intent and usage of cultural elements in Ghostwire is more considered – rooted in Japanese society and beliefs, and logical (if you think about it). Ghost of Tsushima’s collectibles often feel like a Japanese cultural pick-n-mix: upgrade your skills at Shinto shrines! Increase your max health at a hotspring! Compose haiku a few centuries before it was even invented!
Sure, Ghostwire has a hell of a lot of collectibles that might seem incidental – daruma dolls and hanafuda cards, and so on – but they also come with detailed descriptions explaining their cultural significance. Their placements even serve a purpose, such as a Japanese sword that you find in an abandoned construction site – it seems quite random, until you learn that this was also the site of an old samurai manor.
These collectibles and descriptions even extend to the seemingly mundane; descriptions may explain the popularity of a certain model supercar, why some magazines throw in fashionable handbags as a bonus item, or give you lore about your favourite Japanese snacks as you wolf them down and regain health. Perhaps one of the game’s most wry observations is the prevalent use of plastic bags in Japan, even when carrying a single item.
That same thoughtfulness Tango Gameworks applies to its item tet can be seen in the mechanics. Using your hands to make gestures (Kuji-kiri) to seal corrupt spirits lines up with hand gestures found today in Shugendō and Shingon Mikkyō, and there’s even a logic behind having a bow as your only conventional weapon, since archery does have a connection to a Shinto ritual in Momote-Shiki.
My favourite aspect comes from the way you rescue all the spirits floating around Shibuya using a Katashiro. In Japanese tradition these paper dolls act as a human substitute for self-purification, so you can see the logic of using this to absorb spirits of humans who have lost their corporeal forms. But that’s just the first step, as you then take these Katashiro to a specially-wired phone booth that can transfer the spirits out of the fog-invaded capital.
I don’t doubt that Sucker Punch and Sloclap love the cultures they want to represent and did their research properly, but there’s a limit to how faithfully you can represent something when your team lacks people with that lived experience and heritage – let alone then taking that knowledge and giving it a unique twist like Tango Gameworks has here.
I hope Ghostwire gets the audience it deserves but I fear it will ultimately be sidelined as a niche, much like Yakuza – another franchise that’s always embraced its authentic representation of Japanese culture – has for most of its life. Yet, while there is fair criticism that its open world design is on the side of rote, I don’t recall quite the same consensus for Ghost of Tsushima’s bang-average open world template (which was lifted from Assassin’s Creed 2).
Instead, Sucker Punch not only bagged awards, it even won over Japanese audiences, including Yakuza creator Toshihiro Nagoshi, who described it as “the kind of work made by non-Japanese people that makes you feel they’re even more Japanese than us” (I think he meant to say ‘people who have bigger budgets and resources than us’, but hey, I’m no translator).
If you’re fascinated by Japanese culture and want to see it faithfully represented and beautifully executed by a Japanese team, then you owe it to yourself to play Ghostwire: Tokyo. Ghost of Tsushima may have scratched the surface of the nation's rich heritage, but there's nothing like a team that knows it inside-out when it comes to authenticity and spirit.