Interview with 'Ghost of Tsushima' Video Game Writer Ian Ryan
By Sonya Alexander • June 16, 2021
Just like in film, the writing of a game is the skeleton of it. In the case of 'Ghost of Tsushima', Ian Ryan, lead writer for the game, is responsible for the compelling narrative of the award-winning game.
The samurai had a code of ethics called Bushido. It contained seven principles that formed the basis of their warrior philosophy. These fundamental truths forged a formula for victory.
Samurai tales are perfect for the big screen because they incorporate riveting action, ancient history and a cinematic landscape. Akira Kurosawa was a master filmmaker whose breathtaking work showcased the glorious and brutal world of the samurai. Rashomon and Seven Samurai are blueprints for films about courage, warrior spirit and revenge.
The foundational nectar of the samurai – honor, heroism, wisdom – are frequently displayed in one of today’s most popular art forms, video games. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Total War: Shogun 2 are gorgeous games that bring the samurai realm to life in all of its visceral glory. However, for gamers and true fans of samurai stories, Ghost of Tsushima is the penultimate samurai game. It’s as visually stunning as a movie, with brilliant writing to match.
Just like in film, the writing of a game is the skeleton of it. In the case of Ghost of Tsushima, Ian Ryan, lead writer for the game, is responsible for the compelling narrative of the award-winning game. He recently spoke to us about his contribution to the game and his journey as a game writer.
When did you first develop an interest in writing?
It all started with reading. When I was young, I read every book I could get my hands on, which mostly consisted of pulling dusty paperbacks from my parents' library. Bradbury and Stephen King were early favorites, especially their short stories. The more I read, the more I found myself narrating my own stories in my head. Eventually, I started writing them down.
What were some of your favorite games growing up?
Games weren't in my house growing up, so I first discovered them at school. Think Quick! was the first, played with a classroom full of kids huddled around a single computer. After that, I obsessed over Myst and the haunted house of The 7th Guest. Other early favorites were the King's Quest series, The Secret of Mana, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
I'd often play these games with a friend, one of us taking the controls while the other watched. In a way, it felt like we were striking out on adventures together. Transported to these mysterious worlds that were ours to explore.
How is Ghost of Tsushima different from other games you’ve written?
First, there's the setting. Writing a story in feudal Japan comes with challenges you don't face when writing for something fictional, like Star Wars or Far Cry. In Ghost of Tsushima, we're telling a story rooted in a rich, historic culture, inspired by a real event: the Mongol Empire's first invasion of Japan in 1274. There's a respect and responsibility you have to bring to this work. At the same time, chasing perfect authenticity can be a trap that makes you lose sight of the story. We had to make these characters from 13th century Japan relatable to a modern, global audience. All while respecting who they are, and the culture that defines them.
On top of this, Ghost of Tsushima was also a new IP. Previous projects I wrote were in established franchises, where things like tone and audience expectations were mostly baked in. But with Ghost, we were creating something new. That came with a certain amount of freedom you don't find writing for established properties, along with plenty of challenges as you work to unearth the right tone and player experience. It's an act of creative discovery that every member of our team takes part in.
Through it all, the films of Akira Kurosawa were a constant inspiration. As were the samurai films of Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, Takashi Miike, and many other incredible Japanese directors.
Have you written screenplays before?
I wrote a few shorts and a feature screenplay. One of my short scripts won a screenwriting competition at my college, and another was bought for slightly more than bus fare while I was in high school. Film and screenwriting are a love of mine, but I've kept them as a hobby while writing for games.
How did you first get into game writing?
It started with a decision to pack up my life in Virginia and move to Austin, Texas. There were enough game studios in Austin for an optimistic kid to think he'd have a shot at getting a foot in at least one of their doors. Shortly after getting settled, I landed a job testing a Sims game, which was game work--but not the work I wanted. I kept writing, eating tacos, and applying for narrative jobs until I landed my dream gig at BioWare Austin. I ended up working there for six years on Star Wars: The Old Republic.
What’s your writing process?
It begins with coffee. Hot, black, and in large quantities. Once I have that fuel, I block out time on my calendar, find the right music, then get lost in the work. Starting with character first--getting to know them, getting inside their head. Then moving onto outlining. I don't like to box myself in with too many details but knowing the structure of an act or mission gives me enough room to experiment and discover while keeping focus on the themes and forward momentum of the story.
That's the ideal--but not the norm. The reality of game writing is fast-paced and collaborative, with most of my days spent working with a team of writers, designers, and artists to build the game as the story is being written. My process is more flexible those days. But coffee is the one constant.
How are game scripts and screenplays similar?
For Ghost of Tsushima, many of our scripts live in spreadsheets that track technical data tied to each line of dialogue. But when writing dramatic scenes, we write in standard screenplay format to focus on the dialogue, conflict, and pacing. Many of these scripts look identical to a screenplay, with one exception.
At certain moments in our story, we let the player choose the hero's dialogue or actions, creating branches in the script where characters react differently depending on the player's choice. Write enough of these branches, and scripts can be difficult to read on the page, but it's a small price to pay to let the player shape the story.
Are you open to writing for other mediums?
I push myself to do this whenever possible. I've written plays and poetry, films and fiction. Much of it safely locked away on old hard drives. But I've grown as a writer from every one of them, because each medium calls for a different approach to storytelling and language. Staying in one lane is comfortable, but nothing stretches forgotten writing muscles better than stepping away from a game script to work on a screenplay or short story.
What kind of stories inspire you, in general?
More than anything else, I'm drawn to human intimacy in storytelling. I love spectacle and showy style as much as anyone, but the stories that inspire and stick with me focus on smaller-scale human dramas. Akira Kurosawa was an important inspiration on Ghost of Tsushima, and his films are timeless because of the attention he gives to the people at the heart of his stories. Seven Samurai has incredible battle sequences, but they would have been forgotten if we didn't deeply care about the samurai and the farmers they were hired to protect.
Is there a particular formula to getting into game writing?
There's no one path in, but there are a few things aspiring game writers can do. Make your own games, either by yourself or better yet--with a small team. Build your experience and portfolio. Develop a thick skin. Reach out (politely) to other game writers and designers in the industry. And most importantly: write.
What’s the key to completing a project when collaborating to finish a game script?
Listening to feedback, from other devs on the team and especially from players focus testing the game, is critical to finishing a project and locking the game script. Those fresh eyes are invaluable after you've spent 4+ years writing for a single project and seeing the story through countless iterations. The game is constantly evolving as you write, and the best intentions on the script page may not translate to the player experience. Feedback helps focus script changes and cuts in those final weeks on a game.
What’s more challenging, writing sci-fi, historical or action?
I've always found historical writing uniquely challenging, purely because of the amount of research it takes to immerse yourself in the world, culture, and time period. Without the research, you won't have the specific details and anecdotes to inspire your storytelling and make the characters and world believable. But once you have that foundation, writing historical stories becomes just as challenging as working on a science fiction or action project. In the end, it's all about telling a relatable, human story that touches the audience. Whatever the genre.