'Ghost Of Tsushima' Has The Wrong Hero, And Boring Jin Knows It
Words: Stacey Henley
This article contains story spoilers for Ghost Of Tsushima
I will not remember Jin Sakai for a particularly long time. Ghost Of Tsushima is an open-world game that does what open-world games do, and Jin Sakai is a video game protagonist who does what video game protagonists do. He kills people, he helps people, he spends an extortionate amount of time chasing foxes, bathing and gathering wood - all despite the obvious urgency of his quest. It's difficult to identify any of Jin's strengths as a protagonist, but I think I've found his best one: he's boring.
Usually, a character being boring would be a huge weakness. It takes anywhere between 20 and 50 hours to complete Ghost Of Tsushima, and to do it with a dullard shouldn't be much fun. Jin isn't actively boring, though - he's just passively boring. His presence adds nothing to the game besides giving you a body through which to wield your katana, and his personality seems to be on holiday on the mainland. But because of the way Ghost Of Tsushima is constructed, the whole story feels much more like a team effort - and so the flatness of Jin's character is actually key in letting other characters shine through.
One such character is Yuna. She saves Jin right at the beginning of the game and teaches him how to be a thief, ultimately leading to him becoming the Ghost. She's with Jin every step of the way, and the story feels like it belongs to her as much as it does to him. While she doesn't have any real stake in the Khan's invasion and wants to escape to the mainland, the majority of the game is driven by her. Jin might be the one to carry everything out, but Yuna supplies him with allies, equipment, and spreads his word to the people. And in turning him into the Ghost, so she turns the tide of the invasion.
Her story is told through several optional side quests on top of the role she plays in the central narrative, and if you complete each of her tales you'll see that her journey has just as many parts to it as Jin's does. There's a hard left turn at one point when she talks about her past, but there's several moments to her arc which move you. With a few tweaks, you could easily see Yuna as the central character, and Jin a mythic figure who features only briefly to drive the big, world shaping events. There is a version of Ghost Of Tsushima which belongs to her: a more charismatic and character-driven version, which tells its story within a rebellion rather than being the story of one.
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For Jin, while the ending tries to deliver an emotional punch, most of his story is shaped by objectives and missions. Free your uncle. Take this keep. Jin's story is written very much for a video game, with neatly parcelled-out tasks which can always be completed via stealth assassinations or boss battles. Ghost Of Tsushima follows the rules of open-world gameplay religiously, and this safe approach makes it difficult to ever connect with Jin or relate to him. Jin is not only the ghost of a samurai, he's a ghost of a character too. Barely there, never leaving a trace, but guiding us effortlessly around Tsushima, a helpful spirit who wanders in and out of lives far more interesting than his own.
This all makes Jin the lowest card in Tsushima's deck of characters. Yuna is the standout, but the other characters with tales - Kenji, Ishikawa, Yuriko, Masako and Norio - each feel like they add far more depth to the world than Jin. It's doubtful any of them could carry a game on their own - bisexual murder grandma Masako has the strongest shout - but they offer much more subtle, more layered and far less-cliched stories than Jin's own.
Yuriko's dementia causes her to confuse Jin for his father, and her reminiscing on the affair they had together offers substantial weight. Elsewhere, we feel Norio struggling under the weight of his brother's shadow much more than we feel Jin struggling with his father's and uncle's, despite the game consistently reminding us of how sad Jin feels when he uses smoke bombs.
These compelling, shorter narratives are often used as window dressing for Jin to complete some by-the-numbers gameplay, which is disappointing, but it doesn't change the fact that Jin being so bland allows the flavour of the other characters to reach the surface. Because these side characters join Jin on the big story missions, they're folded into the texture of the wider game perfectly, too: several times you'll run through a hoard of enemies only to see Masako and Norio already making short work of them.
It's also fair to say that Jin is only boring by the standards of other video game heroes. He lacks the wit of Nathan Drake, the bombast of John Marston, the cool of Solid Snake. As a rebellious samurai who kills in silence and unites an island behind his myth, he's certainly not the kind of bloke you meet every day down the shops. But by gaming standards, his story is very middle of the road, the twists are predictable, and neither he nor his game brings anything new to the table.
Jin, to his credit, never tries to compete with gaming's most legendary heroes. He's never annoying, never comes off like he's trying too hard, never delivers mean-spirited quips for the benefit of the player. He's a kind man, underneath it all, who respects those around him, always tries to help, and treats animals with a sweet reverence. He isn't destined to be remembered long in the video game canon - but thanks to him yielding the spotlight, Tsushima's supporting stars have a fighting chance.
Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment