Checking the Score: Tsushima’s Japanese Folk-Fusion Score Mythologizes The Ghost

While many point to how lifelike the next blockbuster action title is or how gorgeous an artistic indie darling is when it comes to evaluating a game, these visuals would lose their impact without a stirring soundtrack to score them. From the chip-tunes of Super Mario Bros to the Gregorian chants of Halo, video game music brings players closer to immersion and fantasy. Much like how a movie’s soundtrack sets the tone for dramatic scenes, game music also helps players connect emotionally with the story.

Checking the Score is a monthly feature devoted to these crucial compositions which are literally the soundtrack to our gaming lives. Delving into what makes them impactful, the process of composing them and the intricacies of each score, our aim is to put a spotlight on the aural backbone of gaming.

Last month, Ghost of Tsushima released to much critical acclaim. Its balanced combat gameplay and beautiful storytelling has led it to be a contemporary classic. Ghost has impressive qualities, but we all know why we’re here, Dear Reader. Ghost of Tsushima is so detail oriented, even down to its music. It’s a beautiful soundtrack that honors the title’s Japanese roots with heavy folk influences. From sweeping melodies to soulful vocals, both composers Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri weave history and culture into a dynamic score fitting of the dramatic title. With both composers having major motion pictures under their belts, we can hear the blend of traditional Japanese elements with dynamic orchestral components for more cinematic effect. The choice in genre of music intentionally sets the tone for the setting while helping to build the myth of the Ghost of Tsushima.

Set on Tsushima Island in late 13th century Japan, our protagonist Jin Sakai quests to repel the Mongol occupancy. As Jin continues to disrupt enemy activity on Tsushima and liberate towns across the island, the locals begin to revere him as “The Ghost.” Thanks to Jin’s unique rōnin fighting style, he utilizes many stealth tactics that players control in gameplay. Jin’s ghostly tactics set him up as the folk hero the people deserve. To help reinforce this theme, Ghost of Tsushima’s music works to build the setting and Jin’s importance of a mythical figure. Through the use of traditional instruments like the shamisen lute, taiko drums and the shakuhachi flute. These instruments connect us to history and time period while helping to bolster the folk style.

Even Ghost of Tsushima’s folk style of music is intentional, as melodies and themes come directly from the Bushi genre to represent the myth of the warrior. In Japanese folk music, there are different styles of melodies and composition used to tell stories of encouragement across all facets of life: work songs were used to motivate, while other kinds of songs were used for festivals and weddings. Across many cultures, folk music is the remnant of the past that keeps us connected with our culture. The Bushi genre of folk pays homage to the Bushido code of conduct (think a Knight’s Code of Chivalry) with serious melodies and emotional composition. Evidence of the Bushido code has even dated as far back as 10th Century Japan — making it a beautiful accompaniment to Ghost of Tsushima’s setting. A track that helps to set conceptualize these pieces is the main theme “The Way of the Ghost.” Beautifully sweeping composition helps open up the score for a grand, emotional adventure. Heart-achingly soulful vocals encapsulate traditional folk sounds with dramatic vibrato and ululation — the way of the Ghost is not a pleasant one. This first track helps to set the tone for the rest of the score and the build-up for myth-making.

A track where we hear the obvious Bushi influence is in the aptly named “Tsushima Suite III: Bushido.”. Unlike “The Way of the Ghost,” this prominently features the shakuhachi flute that was a commonly used instrument in the Bushi style. Yet, this track also gorgeously marries the East and West through a blend of traditional folk instruments with hints of European orchestra. It sounds like a beautifully collaborative effort between both composers to combine the stoic, warrior nature of Bushi with the emotional complexity of an orchestra. We hear both these styles support each other further in the track (at 4:37) as taiko drums, shakuhachi flutes, the shamisen lute and European string instruments shift together for a legendary cinematic experience. Yet, what’s most striking about this track is its warrior nature–especially adhering to Bushido code of conduct. The genius of this composition is that we can even feel the values of Bushido’s righteousness, heroic courage, respect and self-control. Jin’s quest is a battle for honor and redemption.

Where we get the best sense of who Jin is as a protagonist is in his own theme “Jin Sakai.” Again, we hear a glorious harmonization of traditional Japanese folk instruments with orchestral components. What’s most important in this track is its tempo progression. Mournful flutes signal Ghost’s emotional story as stronger percussion indicates purpose and energy. The beating of the taiko drums crescendos midway through and elevates the melody in a sweeping emotion. When we think of Jin as a character, his path is one of honor and sacrifice. He’s a one-man army looking to take down the Mongols. The progression of this composition tells Jin’s story just as much as the actual narrative. The drums signify the beat of war; the strings sweep frantically to spur our hero forward in the face of most certain death. This score upholds the major turning point in Jin’s life. He’s thoroughly defeated by the Mongol leader, his brothers in arms have been obliterated and his family lies captured by the enemy. We can hear every step from determination to desperation in this track that sets us up for a masterful story.

Ghost of Tsushima’s epic score combines culturally significant Japanese folk styles with dynamic contemporary orchestra to create a fusion of sound for emotional story-telling. The folk themes we hear help with world building in addition to myth making. We follow our protagonist Jin in his quest for revenge and the path that leads him to becoming “The Ghost.” To give more legitimacy to the commitment to realism, both Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri created a sound that would honor history with its touch of video game fantasy. By honoring the Bushi style of folk music, Ghost of Tsushima creates an epic immersive experience that comes full circle. The collaboration between these two has created a perfect soundtrack that deserves a listen — whether you’ve played the game or not.