"The game is a love letter to the samurai genre," says Nate Fox, creative director for Ghost of Tsushima, an open-world adventure set in feudal Japan that is poised to become the PS4's swan song.
The first glimmer of an idea for Ghost of Tsushima came to Fox many years ago and was helped along by a samurai rabbit. "While working on the Sly Cooper series, I was writing the dialogue for these anthropomorphized animals and, kind of as a point of inspiration, I was reading this comic called Usagi Yojimbo."
"It's this great comic where the samurai main character wanders the landscape and he's this very quiet, soft-spoken person who uses his sword in a snap to solve problems in any town he walks into. And I remember reading it and at the time thinking, man, this would be a great video game."
Cut to years later, as the team was finishing up Infamous: First Light, as Sucker Punch started to look towards its next project, Ghost of Tsushima. "When we started talking about making an open-world samurai game, I remembered reading those comics - and of course watching classic samurai movies - and thinking this is really a good marriage with the freedom of being in an open world. And when you think about an open world you'd want to explore, feudal Japan is like number one."
Another clear inspiration is classic Japanese samurai movies, with one in particular helping to inspire Ghost of Tsushima's creative direction. "Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa, where it's this perfect, almost like a western, where a samurai walks into town and uses the edge of his sword to solve a problem, guile. And that seemed like the kind of thing you could replicate inside a game world, very meaningful."
Of course, the game is dealing with a real period in human history, and as an American studio, Sucker Punch wanted to make sure it was paying respect to the culture and the people of Japan.
"We wanted to make the world feel authentic. And, because we're an American developer, we knew we wouldn't succeed at that just by ourselves," says Fox. "So we reached out to experts in different fields to help guide us in how to do things correctly from architectural standards to how people would move in the time or how clothes were created at the time."
Sucker Punch also made the most of its connections in the PlayStation family.
"Certainly we want to do the best job we can knowing that we are a bunch of Americans, but it's really handy being a member of Sony, where we have other studios we can ask for help from or guidance," he explains.
"And working with these other teams, people, and even Japan Studios who guided us on our first research trip to Tsushima Island and helped with field recordings of audio. It's come together to have that feeling that will transport you to feudal Japan."
The result is the rich, detailed world we've glimpsed in trailers and gameplay videos, one that is full of people, wildlife and danger. Ghost of Tsushima will see it's hero, Jin, constantly on guard as his enemies, the Mongols, can attack at any time.
"The world is a dynamic simulation. We don't know where models are all the time because they make choices and they roam about, as do wild animals. And the world has been authored so that if you see a funky looking rock and you're curious about it, we're going to reward you for that curiosity. So yes, the world's been created with a sense of intentionality, but at the same time, it's dynamic in a way that it is unpredictable."
Jin is radically outnumbered in the world. Fox explains that this means you'll need to be constantly on the lookout for ways to get an advantage, be it through finding resources to upgrade armor and weapons, or by interacting with the other people scattered across the island.
"This game is an anthology of stories. It's not just Jin's arc – as he transforms himself from samurai to the ghost. He gets to know a lot of people who are struggling to survive on Tsushima Island. And hear about how they're dealing with this invasion. And there are some rewards that come from that, that help you get stronger, but also help you customize the character to how you want to play or even how you want to look."
All that customization comes with a warning from Fox, though: no matter what you do to prepare, combat will always be dangerous.
"The lowest Mongol in our game can kill you very quickly, even when you're very advanced," he says. "This is so that the danger is always there. The reality of the world is always there. But in a world that is so dangerous, even small incremental growth, you feel it."
That was key to the team to make sure the player can't just become a superhero and wander the land completely unruffled by the Mongol threat. They needed to feel dangerous, needed to be a worthy enemy at every stage in the game.
"Samurai movies feature these really intense, deadly battles. And for us, the three words that guide our combat are mud, blood, and steel. We want to make it grounded. We want to make it visceral. And it is a challenging space. As soon as we decided that we wanted to honor the lethality of swords – one swipe, two swipes, you're dead. And that's you killing others, and that's others killing you. The game came alive as a samurai game. The challenge was there. The threat of death was there."
Skim a history book and you'll see that the Mongol army was a terrifying force, bringing new weaponry and gunpowder to Japan for the first time. "The Mongols were a much more technologically advanced enemy than the samurai of that era were ready for."
Amongst all that danger, there's still beauty. For many, a highlight of the 18-minute gameplay demo we saw last week was the way animals and birds interacted with Jin. Birds can lead you to interesting quests, foxes will lead you to special areas like shrines. Even more importantly, you can pet the fox. That wasn't always the case though, according to the – no relation – creative director, Fox.
"Actually that was not always on the plan. We put in this business where the fox would guide you to shrines and the fox is lively, the fox is cute and people in Sucker Punch are demanding that they should be able to pet the fox. So you can pet the fox."
Ghost of Tsushima will be released on PS4 on July 17. Here are the 16 biggest things we learned from the Ghost of Tsushima gameplay trailer.