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‘Ghost of Tsushima’s’ Haiku Help an Already-Great Game Stand Out

Though Ghost of Tsushima synthesizes a lot of the best design ideas from other open-world games, there is still room for originality in the genre…

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After slaughtering a group of bandits in a merciless standoff, Jin Sakai spots a fat yellow bird. He follows it, through a bamboo forest and over the crest of a hill, to a white rock with a mat and some candles. Then, something amazing happens: Jin sits, removes his sword, and composes a poem. The entire act only takes about two minutes, maybe less. Though Ghost of Tsushima synthesizes a lot of the best design ideas from other open-world games, there is still room for originality in the genre. These short, simple pieces of reflection and self-expression make this game unique among others of its type.

A world’s reflection,
Submerged deep in nature’s shade,
Sturdy do we stand

Ghost of Tsushima has become the top-selling new PS4 exclusive ever made. The game is a runaway success, a swan song for the PS4 and a feather in developer Sucker Punch’s cap. It’s been lauded for the incredible photo mode, satisfying combat, and attention to environmental detail. Ghost of Tsushima is also peak “open-world adventure game” with all the endless collectibles and myriad side quests that entails. Collectibles range from the standard scrawled-off note left behind by an NPC moments before death to banners hidden in the most remote locations of Tsushima. But there are also points of interest that are designed to push players to explore the environment and see something different. The haiku locations fall into this latter category.

Haiku have been part of the Japanese literary tradition for centuries, but have never really been explored in a video game before. Popularized in America by Jack Kerouac and other beat poets in the 1970s, the structure of haiku poetry is familiar: three lines with seventeen syllables total. The goal of these short poems is to freeze a moment in time. At their best, they create a snapshot that conveys a fleeting feeling of happiness or the pang of a lonely winter’s night. In her introduction to Basho: The Complete Haiku, Jane Reichhold writes that haiku are “so succinct and ambiguous that the reader must supply his own images and make leaps and connections out of acquired experiences to realize the complete poem.” The haiku created in Ghost of Tsushima may not reach the level described by Reichhold, but that’s a limit of the medium. They still manage to capture a moment in time. In a game full of destruction, the haiku locations and the headbands acquired at them are little memorials to player self-expression.

In Ghost of Tsushima, where the player character slaughters literally thousands of people over the course of the game’s length, the haiku locations seem incongruous to the action. Not only that, but their very presence is anachronistic. The island of Tsushima was invaded towards the end of the 13th century, and haiku, as we think of them today, didn’t come into popularity until around the 16th century. So either wayward samurai Jin Sakai invented the modern haiku some three hundred years before they were in the popular consciousness, or Ghost of Tsushima is playing fast and loose with touchstones of Japanese culture.

That the haiku in this game are anachronistic is not necessarily a bad thing. Poetry still existed in medieval Japan, just not as refined as what Matsuo Bashō and other masters of the form would eventually create. The poetry that Jin creates is, unfortunately, less than stellar. Players can compose their haiku in short sequences where Jin looks to the nature surrounding him, a river here, a tree trunk there. The poems are composed line by line, but they often come across as a little stiff instead of feeling organically written. This is to be expected; the game is not titled Poet Laureate of Tsushima. At the end of the day, the haiku locations are really just one more place to find a cosmetic accessory. But even though their composition may be rudimentary, a player-made haiku is still far and away one of the most unique collectibles ever designed for an open-world game. But they become something beyond just fulfilling a checklist.

Overwhelming force,
Overtaking all it sees,
Rushing to the end

What these locations really offer is a moment of reflection. Ghost of Tsushima has dozens of hours of gameplay, hundreds of collectibles, and thousands of pieces of loot. If you’re a denizen of the internet and trying to plow through the game before having the plot spoiled, there is hardly a moment to slow down. Finding a haiku location forces players to pause. To take in their surroundings. Even if the results rarely capture the minimalistic brilliance of Bashō, it will also likely be the only time a video game of this size and budget lets players create something other than more digital dead bodies.

Video games often focus on destruction. Learning more efficient ways to carve through a swath of enemies has been a staple of the medium since Space Invaders. Power fantasies are something that video games are especially suited to creating. There are anomalies like Minecraft, where unique creation is at the forefront. But it’s heartening to see a game like Ghost of Tsushima, one of the most successful releases of the year, make an effort to provide players an experience they may have never had outside of a 9th grade English class. While not as visually striking as demolishing a Mongol camp with a flaming katana sword, creating haiku is empowering and even memorable in a different way. There isn’t really anything comparable to this in other open-world games.

Finding haiku locations and taking the time to compose the poems is not really incentivized from a gameplay perspective, despite the insistence of the game that “It is the solemn duty of every samurai to study the arts, cultivating both observation and imagination.” Players can race through the whole plot without ever sitting down to reflect. Gameplay will not be affected, since the only reward for finding and composing at a haiku location is a colorful headband that doesn’t affect Jin’s stats one way or another. The Mongol horde doesn’t care how many syllables you’ve counted or how many beautiful vistas you’ve observed. But what players learn when creating in the middle of a game so focused on death is something special: self-reflection. For the briefest of moments, the player becomes a philosopher. These moments of respite, optional though they may be, help cement Ghost of Tsushima’s legacy.

A hidden respite,
Gently cleansing, stand refreshed,
A new beginning

Cameron Daxon is a video game evangelist and enthusiastic reader. He lives in Los Angeles, California and once nearly collided with Shigeru Miyamoto during E3. His favorite game is Bloodborne, but only when he’s not revisiting Super Mario World. He’s also in the writer’s room for YouTube personality The Completionist and other places on the internet.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Japonographie

    August 16, 2020 at 12:14 am

    The problem with this game’s presentation of Japanese poetry is that it conflates waka with haiku with senryu. Haiku didn’t exist in the 13th century (and I’m not being pedantic about terminology here — standalone hokku, which is what “haiku” were called in the early modern period, also didn’t exist), and the only reason the developers could believe otherwise is if they saw a mistranslated period drama in which the characters compose waka but someone assumed that what they were talking about was haiku. (This misconception is VERY common among English-speaking expatriates in Japan.)

    So they pretend that the characters in the game can compose “haiku” accordingly. But there’s another problem, which is that their definition of “haiku” is based solely on syllable-count (really a misconception about Japanese phonetics and poetics, since “syllable” is wrong to begin with, and even if the correct term “mora(e)” was used it would still just be a guideline) and they neglect the fact that haiku need to include a seasonal word. A standalone 5-7-5 poem that includes no seasonal word is not a haiku but a senryu, and the poems quoted in this article all seem to fail this test.

    This is a real shame, since waka — Japan’s national poetry form, still today composed at gatherings at the Imperial Palace every new year, and recited in the uta-garuta game in households all over Japan — would have added a new layer of depth and meaning to this game, improving the immersion and feeling of authenticity. The developers, if they engaged in the level of research they claim to, MUST have been aware of this, so I have no earthly idea why they chose to miss this opportunity.

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