How Ghost of Tsushima Uses Visual Cues To Guide Players
Sucker Punch guides players through a massive open-world, without the need for either a mini-map or a compass
There’s no doubt in my mind that my face featured a look of determination as I ventured into a small patch of grass with my charming pal Charmander by my side. I’m somewhere around eight years old, and I’m exploring my first video game world without the slightest idea of the journey ahead of me. The world of Pokémon feels vast, yet Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field, which I would get to experience shortly thereafter, would be even grander.
Alas, the worlds that felt massive to me as a child are now standard procedures. Video game worlds have grown massive in the last decade of gaming, which has come with a plethora of pros and cons. Today, I would like to zero in on one particular piece of game design: navigation. In big game worlds, players need help to find their way around.
Video games with massive open worlds typically feature a mini-map that helps players find their way around. A mini-map is a small version of the world map that is shown on the player’s screen near-constantly, usually in a corner. It serves several purposes. Most importantly, it shows the player how to get to their next objective, but it will also often shown nearby objects of interest. So useful is it, in fact, that players might find themselves spending an awful lot of time looking at a corner of their screen rather than the center, where the action happens.
For that reason, I think mini-map’s often shatter immersion, but unfortunately, they are just as often a necessity. As video game worlds have gotten larger and larger, so too have the number of significant landmarks been substantially reduced, as game developers simply don’t have the resources to fill out the entire game world. This has resulted in large worlds where players struggle to establish a sense of familiarity. Without a mini-map, players would have no idea where to go.
“[…] players might find themselves spending an awful lot of time looking at a corner of their screen rather than the center, where the action happens.”
Some developers opt to favor a compass instead. A compass isn’t as detailed as a mini-map, but it also isn’t quite as distracting. In video games, compasses point players in the direction of their next objective and usually host pointers to other interest objects as well. Unlike real-world compasses, which are typically circular, game compasses are often represented by a singular horizontal line, typically located at the top of the screen.
Enter Sucker Punch’s 2020 title Ghost of Tsushima. A wonderful game in many regards, Ghost of Tsushima has a beautiful art style, a challenging but fair combat system, and a rewarding gameplay curve. But it also innovated on the dilemma I have just introduced. The game hosts a large open-world but features neither a mini-map nor a compass.
Sucker Punch chose a completely different method. One that I have never seen before, despite my unquestionably nerdy self having played far too many games. The developers built an entire system around visual cues.
Indeed, in Ghost of Tsushima, players are guided by a large number of optical hints. The primary source of guidance is wind. Gusts of wind will periodically appear to indicate the player’s direction to reach their next primary objective. Players can summon a strong gust of wind whenever they like, which promptly points the player in the direction they need to traverse. It’s elegant, and it keeps the player focused on the center of their screen.
“Gusts of wind will periodically appear to indicate the player’s direction to reach their next primary objective.”
There’s more. A lone bird will periodically appear to guide the player to a nearby point of interest — a detour that is sure to be worth their while. After going on the said detour, gusts of wind will once again remind the player of the direction towards their primary objective.
Foxes lead the way to imperative fox dens that provide gameplay benefits. Flocks of birds circle spots where the player can write inspiring haiku. Thick, gray columns of smoke indicate a bandit outpost, while slim, white smoke streams indicate offerings.
The player is always giving their full attention to the world around them — not the user interface on their screen. This, I think, is beautiful game design in motion. There is no distracting user interface, no mini-map or compass to telegraph direction, yet the player never feels lost.
Much like minimalism has been a clear trend in website design, so too have minimalism slowly started to become a trend in western video games, and Ghost of Tsushima has embraced it. Minimalism isn’t too hard to pull off in linear games, especially if they are two-dimensional. However, pulling off minimalist user interfaces in open-world three-dimensional video games is no easy task. There is usually a lot of information that the player must be aware of; hence games might often favor cluttering the user’s screen with maps and other information. Yet Sucker Punch pulled minimalism off.
“The player is always giving their full attention to the world around them — not the user interface on their screen.”
Immersion is an underrated quality in video games, perhaps because it is difficult to define and even more difficult to rate. Yet, it is a trait that I value highly. I appreciate games that think outside of the box and innovate on pieces of game design that have been standardized for years.
Sucker Punch’s solution to help players navigate in a large open-world is as innovative as it is successful. I hope other game designers look at Ghost of Tsushima for inspiration on substituting mini-map’s and compasses for more immersive alternatives.