A lot of big-budget games view a plot like a grim obligation, something to be processed and ejected without hassle. Betrayers betray us, perils are appropriately perilous, loved ones are lost in the first few minutes, inspiring a wave of vengeance that carries players through to the end credits. Speaking personally, I've never been able to stay at that level of anger for more than an hour, tops. Sooner or later you just end up eating dry cereal and wishing that somebody would give you a hug.
Spoiler Warning: This section contains some major spoilers for events in the second half of Ghost of Tsushima.
Ghost of Tsushima also has this problem and can often feel more like a checklist than a structured story. The backstab plot twist? Check. The amoral rogue has a change of heart and finally joins the fight? Check. The brief moment of doubt? Done and doubted. These beats skip by and barely leave a mark on the player, hurriedly going about the business of contextualizing so you can get back to hitting Mongols with swords.
Except every now and then those moments hit like a truck, in a way that's so startling as to feel almost a little suspect. Emotional impact in a Triple-A sandbox game? What the hell is going on here? Taka's death is one such moment. Watching Lord Shimura break down at the end is certainly another. And then there's that scene: the death of the horse.
I'm surprised this had the punch for me that it did, as I was ready to be a bit snobby about the whole thing. Dead pets in fiction are an easy kind of just-add-water sadness, but it's not deep or clever to throw a cute puppy under a truck. It's just a lazy way to press all the buttons that make human beings upset. The dead pet is to tragedy what the fart noise is to comedy, and a cynic like myself is always ready to scoff when a writer tries to rub a dead dog in my face.
So why am I less snarky about the death of my beloved horse Kage? Well, I think Ghost of Tsushima handles this animal death very differently than most, with respect, restraint and a canny understanding that many storytellers would do well to learn from.
First of all, it uses the gameplay to its advantage and makes sure you understand that this horse is yours without belaboring the point. During the tutorial you pick it out and even name it, and that action has more power than I think many people realise. It's the moment it goes from being "a horse" to "my horse." It's a small thing, but it makes us responsible for it in some way and invests a little of us within it.
After that the horse takes a strange, quiet role in the story that I can only compare to being the killer in a murder mystery story. They just kind of... hang around—in the background constantly, but never drawing too much attention to themselves except for little character moments. I think most of us began to suspect that Taka was going to die a couple of hours before it happened, because the game suddenly began to emphasize his sudden courage, his investment in the cause, the increased danger, and that Yuna—a far more important character—was determined to leave the island to keep him safe. It's the samurai equivalent of "just three days until retirement." And while Taka's death is certainly sad, it's not shocking in any way. I'd been waiting for it since lunch.
The little instances at the end of missions were always the moments that drove home the connection between rider and steed, but they’re consistent enough that you don’t get suspicious. Watching Jin sleep against the horse's belly, scratch it behind the ears, or even one sad moment where it gently nudges him while he's in mourning, as though trying to make sure he's OK… These pauses are a welcome change of pace and really set you two up as partners journeying across the world. Besides, we all know you can't sit on something for a while without getting at least a little attached.
I also think that the horse's mechanical function made me suspect it was implicitly immortal. Or, to put it more bluntly, Kage seemed too important to gameplay to be taken away. I felt the same way when Mia lopped off my hand at the beginning of Resident Evil 7: a combination of horror, confusion, and affronted indignation. "Hold on, I need that!" When Kage dropped halfway to Kin Village and wouldn't get up, it just felt… wrong, a violation of the gameplay I'd taken as a given.
Which brings us to the moment itself. Jin is forced to escape a prison sentence given by his own uncle, breaking out and creeping across the camp to his horse before being spotted at the last moment. Two arrows hit the horse in the side as they flee, but it powers on regardless and carries Jin off to safety, even as he whispers for it to forgive him. We see a short montage of the horse carrying him across the country, trying to get Jin to safety, ending as its legs finally give out and it collapses to the floor, mournful singing echoing behind the scene. Jin sits beside it and gives the last duty any owner can give to a pet—comforting it in a moment of pain. The shots are all pleasantly ungratuitous and respectful—we don't see the wound in detail or the moment where the horse actually dies, we hardly even see Jin's face. There's no moment where he begs the horse not to die, no shot of the animal thrashing madly, it's all just sad and peaceful, a quiet end to a long friendship.
Not to sound like a cold bastard, but animals and pets dying in any kind of fiction will always be a thing that makes me a little irritated. Partly because it's a lazy way to elicit emotion, but also because of the strange double-standard when we cheerily disregard human beings being splattered in the same way.
But years ago I had to put down my own childhood pet, and to be blunt, it sucked. Those feelings are complicated and painful, a mix of parenthood, friendship and ownership. It's still something I think back to even today. But when writers capitalize on that feeling and try to twist a reaction out of it (looking at you, Marley and Me), the work becomes little more than the most cynical kind of misery porn. Ghost of Tsushima did something different, and appropriately for a samurai game, treated my dear Kage like a respected, fallen friend. In doing so, they proved they respect the audience too.