Rebirth & Decline: A Thought About Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

I’ve been playing Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima and FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a lot lately. I can’t help but compare the two in my head. Comparing the gameplay is pretty pointless, as they’re different types of games, but the themes? The arc of the story, the way the settings help tell the story? All of that stuck with me, and after mulling it over a bit, I wanna share it with you.

FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima—created by a Japanese and American studio, respectively—are similar video games in the same way that Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre were the same kind of movie. They share a family tree, which means they have enough texture in common to make looking at them in juxtaposition with each other pretty interesting.

Ghost of Tsushima is set during the 13th century, and its protagonist Jin Sakai is the head of a samurai clan that’s fallen on hard times. The Mongol Empire invades his family’s lands, taking complete control of the island of Tsushima. Sakai, his uncle, and an unlikely gang of allies band together in order to take back their lands. Ghost of Tsushima depicts a samurai clan on the cusp of being reborn into a beautiful world full of untold potential.

Sekiro takes place much later, during the Sengoku period. Rather than a rebirth, Sekiro depicts a decline. The Ashina people lost control of their lands in the past, and have been subjugated for quite some time. Eventually, they clawed their way back and took control of their lands again. But by then, it was too late. The warring states period had turned the land of Ashina into a slaughterhouse, filled with nothing but death and those who would forsake their values in order to achieve victory.

Jin Sakai and Genichiro Ashina both stand in the gap, determined to preserve their lands at all costs. Sakai indulges in assassinations and befriends thieves to get his results, much to the disappointment of his samurai uncle. A similar disappointment to his grandfather, Genichiro pursues dark arts, allies with the corrupt, and seeks immortality in order to gain the power to restore his lands.

But Genichiro isn’t the main character of Sekiro. Wolf is. And Wolf is only loyal to the Iron Code, which demands that he protect his master, Lord Kuro, the Divine Heir. As it happens, Wolf’s goal is mutually exclusive with Genichiro’s, which leads to some of the game’s most bitter battles.

If Sekiro were Ghost of Tsushima, Wolf would be the villain, most likely, rather than a hero. In Sekiro, he makes for a grim protector.

These games depict two different fantasies about the samurai: rebirth and decline.

Ghost of Tsushima is big on exploration, achievement, and restoring a community. While Sekiro is focused mainly around melee combat, leading to several intensely memorable one-on-one encounters. As you progress in Tsushima, the lands around you become more beautiful as the people reclaim their land.

Pleasure is common in Ghost of Tsushima. Even though it’s a very dramatic game, the visuals and story both emphasize that Tsushima is a beautiful island populated by a beleaguered but industrious and kind people. You can take baths in hot springs and reflect on recent events, or feel so inspired that you pause to write a haiku.

Pleasure is much less common in Sekiro. Sharing sake with certain characters is one of the primary ways to gain info about the story, and those characters do tend to enjoy themselves as they reminisce about their lives. The different varieties of sake are described in glowing and unique terms as well, but Wolf himself doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in sharing a cup.

Almost everyone in Sekiro, Wolf included, is focused on their duty or their selfish desires at the expense of everything else. As Sekiro progresses, Wolf only ever becomes a more efficient killing machine.

There are two subtle touches in both games that perfectly encapsulate what they’re about to me.

I think of Ghost of Tsushima as a deeply romantic game, in a classic, adventure sense, It has an idealized depiction of the samurai—kinda like a samurai version of copaganda, I guess—and life in that time period in Japan.

The game is stunningly beautiful, like an enormous temple covered in red and gold. Jin Sakai knows and appreciates this throughout the game, such as when you’re traveling through a field of pampas grass and he reaches out one hand to let his fingers run through it, enjoying the sensation.

Sekiro, on the other hand, is a deeply passionate game to me. Wolf has spent his entire life ignoring pleasure for the sake of duty. But, late in the game, his lord gives him a sweet sticky rice ball. When Wolf bites into it, he’s surprised at how good it tastes. He describes it as delicious, one of the few times Wolf seems to be enjoying himself during the game.

Lord Kuro is pleased by his response, and shares a story about how he’d like to open a tea house some day. He’s prevented from fulfilling his dream because as the Divine Heir, he is responsible for more than just himself. Similarly, Wolf is his protector, and must remain focused on his lord. There is little space for pleasure in the midst of duty.

Ghost of Tsushima is a romance, and that’s reflected in the visuals, the gameplay, and even the way Jin Sakai lives and moves around the island of Tsushima. He’s very comfortable here. He’s at home, and the love he has is obvious and ever-present.

Sekiro is more of a passion play. You visit incredible locales, you fight a diverse group of enemies, and the game is truly beautiful, with exquisite animation and exciting combat. But the game is fundamentally about Wolf suffering while serving his lord. He’s here to kill, be killed, and to rise again to kill for his lord.

david brothers, 9/6/2020

This is the second one of these I’ve done, closing out what I’ve got to say about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The first was called SEKIRO: in the blood, charting my emotional arc with the game. I’ve also got an irregular newsletter on TinyLetter called (me+you). If you’d rather read some fiction, check out some criticism, or download these videos, visit my Gumroad. I’ve done a few limited-run podcasts too, under the Brothers Before Others umbrella.

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