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What is an Honorable Life? Grappling with Ghost of Tsushima’s Samurai Code

The following article contains some spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima. You have been warned.

As we hurt others,

So do we injure ourselves;

We harm our honor.

-Haiku accredited to: Zezan Tam

It seems straightforward enough at the beginning. Khotun Khan and his horde of Mongol invaders have come to the Isle of Tsushima to claim it as their own. As we step into the role of Jin Sakai, we dawn our armor and charge the beaches of Komoda with our fellow Samurai to drive the barbarians back into the sea and make safe our homeland. In typical video game fashion, the opening ends horribly. Our adversary in this tale is well prepared—he knows his enemy and exploits the weakness he finds. The Khan decimates the Samurai of Tsushima by employing unconventional, disreputable, battle tactics. Tactics the Samurai’s strict code will not allow them to work around. Having cheated the cusp of death we emerge into a feudal world, broken but not beaten, unwilling to bow in defeat. Our uncle, Lord Shimura, has been taken captive by the Mongols; refusing to leave our family and our leader to ruin, we set out to muster what force we can to save him and avenge our clan. 

The stage is set for the stereotypical—save someone of significance, exact our vengeance on those who wronged us. It’s cliche and in good fun, but thankfully depth shows itself in due time. Before the story takes hold, a pretty enthralling combat system and an achingly beautiful open world to explore draws you into the fantasy. I’d be remiss to not take a brief aside to mention the music; the score is truly one of the best I have heard in any game to date. The artistry and gameplay numb the initial narrative drab, but it doesn’t take long to get a sense of what is boiling underneath the surface. This is not a story about what is going on around you—it is a story about what is going on within you.

Victory at all costs leaves us oft with the ashes of our own wrath—yielding honor unto what?

Jin knows what he is up against. From his perspective he cannot win by adhering to the Samurai code imbued in him by his Uncle. He must defy his nature to save his people. This manifests in the game as Jin learning and employing the stealthy tactics of a thief to sneak past and assassinate the Mongol occupants. Planting a knife in the back is initially so jarring for our protagonist, it brings about a flashback brought on by the trauma; it is here we see why the Samurai despise these types of actions: their warrior ethos values life—of other and of self. 

In harnessing the power of guile and shadow, Jin slowly becomes what his lineage detests. This alternative persona becomes known as the Ghost. The Ghost poisons his enemies in the night, confuses them with smoke and fire, shows no mercy to opponents even to the point of taking their lives while their guard is down. He strikes however is most advantageous, rendering the strength and numbers of the Mongols useless. His legend grows among his foes as something to fear, but in the eyes of the Samurai, the Ghost has no honor. Victory at all costs leaves us oft with the ashes of our own wrath—yielding honor unto what?

Jin struggles greatly with this duality over the course of the game. He justifies rebuking his creed by the countless lives he believes can be saved by the Ghost. An assuredly noble cause, right? Well, maybe. The foil between Jin Sakai and his Uncle, Lord Shimura, (who’s rescue is the middle mark for the game’s story) highlights this complex and nuanced clash of ideologies. In the eyes of the elder, saving lives at the cost of our own humanity and the risk of instilling fear in those we are responsible to lead is too great a price. Furthermore, denying others their right to what the Samurai revere as a “good death”, a warrior’s death, is egregiously selfish within the cultural framework of the era. We have lessons to glean from both as participants in playing. 

A life well lived should give us the comfort and peace to meet death with bravery—it is not a moment to fear but to embrace. Defeating our foes rightly, directly, allows us to rebuild and fortify in the confidence of knowing our cause was just. But a war fought disgracefully, or even unnecessarily, ends with what Nietzsche encapsulated so succinctly when he said: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” For Jin Sakai, this means losing almost everything in the process of saving his home and his people; even having to fight and kill some of his former allies and ultimately his mentor and father figure, Lord Shimura. 

… the point of an open mind isn’t to leave it open but to eventually bite down on something solid and nourishing.

The finale of Ghost of Tsushima is an homage to everything I love about Japanese culture and artistry. From the colors, the setting, to the themes – it’s beautiful in its simplicity and shows a restraint on the surface with a well of emotion underneath. All of Jin’s journey, made poignant by the flashbacks to his childhood we get to experience, coalesces like a blade to the tip of a sword. The showdown with his Uncle was inevitable. It’s in some ways the old way dying to make way for a new, but more importantly it’s the death of Jin’s honor. There is no choice or say in the matter and the game lets us know this by the fact his actions have been condemned as traitorous by the Shogun.

The battle begins with the two meditating together one last time. “I will miss this”, Jin says. “So will I,” a somber Lord replies. They both know the point of no return has been reached. In the end, Jin is left with the heaviest of choices: sparing his Uncle, or killing him. It’s not a black and white choice given that Lord Shimura requests his nephew’s aid in giving him an honorable death. Killing him, honors him; letting him live, means potentially facing him again as he hunts not his nephew, his proclaimed son, but the Ghost. In killing our Uncle, we get to do one last honorable thing in the eyes of the Samurai. In sparing his life, we act out of love, but defy and disgrace our loved one. 

The final choice brings up the question of the code or the road; the how and why we arrived at this moment. If our beliefs hamstring our ability to protect and defend, if our actions in spite of our beliefs prevent us from forgiveness of self and of other, we must question the philosophy of it all. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the point of an open mind isn’t to leave it open but to eventually bite down on something solid and nourishing. One could argue that Jin places too high a value on defeating the Mongols and in the process loses the respect of those he is responsible for leading and securing. Similarly of Lord Shimura and the Samurai, too high a sense of worth is placed on preserving their creed, which leads to unnecessary suffering and casualties.

What guides our choices in life, our founding principles, should very much not lead us down the path of a Ghost, but nor should they disallow us from sparing a life well lived, so that it may keep living. Honor must be coupled with grace, and ultimately signify the level of worth we place upon something. There is something to be said of meeting death with peace because of having lived an honorable life—it’s a concept our current culture could use a bit more of in my opinion. But what is an honorable life? It’s how we value the lives of others and our own, as we are all on borrowed time, and every moment is a gift. 

A born and raised Appalachian, Elliott is a software engineer by day and wannabe game designer by night. A WVU alumni, he co-founded Parable Game Studios in 2016 with a mission to create small and meaningful digital experiences and to use game design as a teaching mechanism for youth in his area. When not working or playing video games, he enjoys running, strumming the guitar, and reading. Elliott is also a big fan of Star Wars puns.

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