A few weeks ago, I was asked how exactly this generation pushed games to evolve. The previous generation introduced high-definition graphics and downloadable games; the generation before that offered both a measurable graphics bump and online play. What about the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era, though? What is there to commend this generation?
The question left me fumbling for an answer, because it's hard to put this generation into concrete terms. I guess it's... bigger? More refined? Destiny exists? Truthfully, I think games as a whole are better than they were in the previous generation. At the very least, they're more colorful. But when I actually think back on it, it's hard not to see an endless series of open-world games.
Assassin's Creed Origins. Horizon Zero Dawn. Days Gone. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Heck, even Nintendo has jumped on the train with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And now we have Ghost of Tsushima, which pretty much sums up a generation in which big-budget games were frequently about size, but not necessarily about substance.
Ghost of Tsushima encompasses many of the elements that have come to define blockbuster games on this generation of consoles. It has a huge open-world to explore, a horse to ride, and a checklist of items to complete. It borrows heavily from last generation's Assassin's Creed games, but it also layers in an RPG skill tree like that of Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War. Even its extended multi-part side quests have a whiff of The Witcher 3 to them, though Ghost of Tsushima doesn't come close to matching them for sheer quality.
It's one big cliche—serviceable but deeply boring. It's the reason that I wound up labeling Ghost of Tsushima a junk food game on Twitter, calling it an experience that's tasty but not all that nourishing. There were points where I asked myself "Am I really going to finish this game?" as I carefully tailed an enemy through a Mongol camp, as I have through a hundred other games. What kept me going, ultimately, were the graphics—shallow, I know, but it really was an experience galloping across Tsushima on my horse, Kage.
It's not hard to understand why Sucker Punch followed in the footsteps of Rockstar, Bend Studio, and Ubisoft in building a game like this: they sell. The surest way to get eyeballs these days is to craft an attractive open-world with enough content to provide some nebulous sense of value. Even if it's not all that good, there's a decent chance that it'll move units given enough of a marketing campaign.
With development budgets higher than ever, it's tempting for developers to stick with what can reasonably be considered a "sure thing." Yeah, Ghost of Tsushima is derivative, and it's not going to win any awards. But one thing it won't do is fail. People will buy Sucker Punch's multi-million dollar tribute to the samurai film genre, and they will probably even like it.
There are positives, of course. Ghost of Tsushima is among the games following the recent trend of removing as many on-screen elements as possible, replacing the ubiquitous waypoint marker with a gust of wind. It also features an incredible photo mode—one of the very best of the generation.
Nevertheless, it feels somehow dated, like it should have been released in 2014 instead of 2020. Maybe it's the naked power fantasy at the center of mechanics like "Ghost Stance," where the screen grows black and white as you slice through cowering enemies. Maybe it's the sheer weirdness of a western studio making a game about Japanese culture in an era where representation has progressively grown in importance.
Either way, Ghost of Tsushima feels like an anachronism, both embodying what this generation is all about and feeling like a throwback to another era. You could almost call it a time capsule in the way that it gathers together elements from both the beginning of the generation and the end, providing clues for future generations about what it meant to be a triple-A PlayStation 4 game.
That brings me back to the question that opened this piece: What was this generation really all about? Was it really just service games and open-world games? Just a pure, cynical attempt to make game development a sure thing?
Ultimately, I think this generation's defining characteristic is gaming's new ubiquity. From Twitch to Steam; Switch to mobile, games are everywhere. Everyone plays them. Everyone watches them. An estimated 8,000 games were released on Steam alone in 2019, representing a more than 1,300% increase from the generation's beginning in 2013.
In such an environment, it's incumbent upon games to find a way to sell themselves to a saturated public. For games like Undertale and Untitled Goose Game, it's novelty. For The Last of Part 2, prestige. For Destiny, the promise of a never-ending stream of content. And for Ghost of Tsushima, it's reliably enjoyable game design backed by really nice graphics and Sony's pure marketing muscle.
But in leaning so heavily on What Works, Ghost of Tsushima betrays the lack of confidence at the center of so many triple-A games these days. And it's a trend that I fully expect to continue into the next generation.