How Ghost of Tsushima Solves the Open World Problem

How Ghost of Tsushima Solves the Open World Problem

How Ghost of Tsushima Solves the Open World Problem

Posted by CJ Wilson

7 Jan, 2022


Open world games are a huge part of modern gaming. But the genre has many persistent problems, mostly having to do with  bloat, i.e., unnecessary features and time-wasters that add nothing to the experience. But every so often, an open world game bucks the trend. In 2020, we saw a standout example in Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima.

Whereas so many other open world games are stuffed with time-wasters, you can finish Ghost of Tsushima while still wanting more. Let’s look at the design of this game and see how it stays fresh all the way through.

Open World Games

Wikipedia defines an open world game as one that provides a ”a virtual world [in which] the player can explore and approach objectives freely, as opposed to a world with more linear and structured gameplay.” In other worlds, open worlds are about freedom and exploration. You aren’t stuck on a predetermined path or map, and you can usually reach most parts of the landscape. There are no traditional game levels. Instead, the gamification of open world games is designed to enable missions.

The concept has been around for a long time. But it was Grand Theft Auto III that made it popular and set the standards that have been followed ever since. In fact, Grand Theft Auto V is the second-best-selling game of all time—right behind Minecraft, also an open world game. Over the years, the genre has gradually proliferated and diversified. Some games, like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, which predate Grand Theft Auto III, emphasize roleplay. Others, like Assassin’s Creed, emphasize action and missions. Still others, like Saints Row, follow Grand Theft Auto in emphasizing the player’s freedom.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Open world games have an intrinsic problem. Instead of following the predetermined rails of linear games, a player must expend a lot of time and effort exploring an open world. And it’s no fun to have a big open world to explore if there’s nothing to do in it (i.e., if it’s closed). So designers must spread tasks and activities throughout the world to keep us interested. Otherwise, we get bored—fast.

Nor can story missions be the only means of engagement. An open world is about freedom. If you give players a giant world but prevent them from doing anything but follow a scripted story, then all you’ve done is add wasted travel and downtime between stretches of actual gameplay.

Most open world games are strewn with collectibles, sidequests, and interactive events. At their best, these are at least as fun as the main story, and players are often encouraged to pursue them instead of the main plotline.

In the early days of the genre, the novelty of an immersive, well-crafted open world was enough to hold our interest.

As the genre grew, though, things changed. Players began to want more than just a big, pretty world to explore with a few collectibles and side missions. We wanted a world that felt alive, well-crafted, worth their time and money. Perhaps as we reached adulthood, the current generation of console gamers began to better appreciate the value of the money we were spending on $60 games.

Many developers responded to this desire in an oddly off-point way. Some did create living, breathing worlds. But the AAA titans seemed to interpret the requests primarily as a longing for longer games. These developers assumed that for players, a game worth their money was one more time-consuming than their workweek.

Now add the increasingly poor treatment of developers by AAA companies and the increasing focus of these companies on quantity over quality, and you have a recipe for disaster. After all, the executives didn’t care whether the extra hours resulted in more fun. Nor did they have any very clear idea of how much time and effort goes into game development, nor how the demand for extra content put unnecessary pressure on their employees, making it more likely that they’d have to put in many unpaid extra hours to finish a game by deadline. I can’t imagine that such exigencies ever enhanced the quality of the final product.

The bottom line is that many open world games became bloated. Exhausted and underpaid developers filled their open worlds with tasks designed only to eat up time. Tasks that were rarely fun.

Playing open world games no longer felt like an enjoyable exploration of their beautiful ability to foster the agency of players. More like a tedious grind full of busywork.

Four Solutions

Not every open world game fell into the bloat trap. Some avoided it by following one of four main routes.

The first is combining a quality world with creative density and flexibility. This is the approach of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Every corner of its world feels unique and fresh. No matter how many times you pass the same old road, you can always find something new and fun to do.

The second is emphasizing total freedom. Great examples are Crackdown and the Grand Theft Auto series. These games encourage you to immerse yourself in chaos, just wander around and cause trouble. Great stress relief. And you don’t have to do jail time later.

The third is enabling craft. This means letting you shape the world in meaningful ways, as in Minecraft.

The fourth? Well, that brings us back to Ghost of Tsushima.

In Life, Variety. In All Things, Excellence.

On paper, Ghost of Tsushima has more in common with open worlds done badly than with any of the stellar exceptions listed above.

But what Ghost of Tsushima does differently has a huge impact on quality.

This game gives players many things to do in its open world. You can travel dangerous or confusing landscapes to reach ancient shrines, track a playful fox through brush and rocks, liberate settlements from Mongol invaders, compose haiku while admiring nature. Whereas games like Assassin’s Creed fill the corners of their worlds with stale collectibles and tasks that feel like lazy reskins, the sidequests and collectibles of Ghost of Tsushima are unique. Each feels like a different kind of diversion from the main gameplay loop, striking different notes for different folks and providing a varied experience that is more life real life.

Within each kind of sidequest, even the individual entries feel unique. One haiku is never like another, and each fox you chase follows a different path. Some settlements give you a chance to play with explosives, others to strike from above. Then there are the big shrines. From swamps to forests to coastal mountains, an enormous breadth of experiences is available.

This is especially evident in the Tales of Tsushima, the game’s more traditionally styled sidequests. Each tells a unique and affecting story. They may leave you inspired, laughing, or uncomfortable. But you will never tune out because you’ve “seen it before.”

The world of the game has the same abundant variety. Each segment of the island is vividly different. And in each of the main game’s three areas, individual prefectures are unique and intriguing—different from anything we tend to see in video games, let alone in open world games. You can find bamboo forests near dank swamps while also encountering stunning rice paddies. The game also integrates this variety into the gameplay. The continuous sensory novelty reduces the possibility that the game will feel repetitive. Sometimes all you need is new background.

In part, then, Ghost of Tsushima partly breaks the mold by giving players genuine variety in their open world instead of stuffing it with time-wasters that feel functionally identical.

But the quality of this game is also responsible for its success.

In crafting it, the folks at Sucker Punch were apparently exhaustive in their creative fidelity. It seems that they treated every single design, kind of sidequest, and individual sidequest with the same attention and respect as they lavished on the main story. The developers made sure the core design is good and fun to play, then that each iteration is unique and conforms to the same high standards.

Although quality and variety are the most important reasons that this game so good, two others are also worth mentioning. The first is the consideration given to how much time must be invested in each sidequest and collectible. The time you spend in each case feels proportionate and appropriate given where you find an element and how many instances of it there are in the world. For example, bamboo cuttings are extremely quick, but populous. So they break up monotony without feeling like a distraction. Same with fox shrines. But longer sidequests often come with a warning or are found at the edges of the map, where you clearly had to seek them out.

Then there’s distribution of elements. The designers have a good sense of where to place things in such a way as to break up the experience without making them feel tedious or distracting. No part of the map is barren. At the same time, you don’t feel as if you’re going to be stuck on one mountain for three hours trying to complete every task. You’re always changing location before anything can get dull.

Finally, the game’s stellar story, characters, and writing also play a big part in fostering your emotional investment in this world. But that’s a big enough topic to require its own article.


Ghost of Tsushima lacks the mechanical flexibility of Breath of the Wild, the chaotic freedom of Grand Theft Auto, the craft of Minecraft.

What Ghost of Tsushima does have is a wide variety of well-crafted activities that are fun to do but brief enough to preserve your sense of freedom if you decide to do them. The world of this game doesn’t come with an endless to-do list, just lots of with fun things to do.

Here is a model for more traditional action-oriented open world games. No, Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t quite break the mold. It simply does what many other games have been trying to do—and does it exceptionally well. Well, that’s plenty.


About Author

CJ Wilson

CJ Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist specializing in game writing, journalism, and non-profit work. His writing expertise includes gaming, law, nature/environmental writing, literature, and travel. As a novelist, he specializes in character-focused fantasy and sci-fi.

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