I’ve been taking my time with Ghost of Tsushima. A highlight of my completionist playthrough has been the “Bamboo Strike” mini-game, which asks you to slice through multiple bamboo shafts with your sword. There are 16 Bamboo Strike locations scattered throughout Tsushima Island, which is the perfect amount—rare enough that finding a location is a surprise, but common enough that I look forward to finding the next one.
It’s taken me almost 90 hours to suss out every secret in the game. Although the main campaign, “Jin’s Journey,” comprises the core storyline, sticking to it feels counterintuitive to the larger narrative. Jin Sakai is engaged in psychological warfare with the Mongols. He crafts the “Ghost” persona to be larger than life, as if a supernatural presence is haunting every nook of the island. And thus, it feels narratively consistent to build that legend by being pervasive and making my presence known in every village and Mongol encampment.
In the “Tales of Tsushima” side quests, you help your allies in multi-part missions or help random strangers with their personal struggles. There are also Mythic Tales, where you investigate oral myths that have been passed down for generations and receive legendary armors and martial arts for completing them.
In the process of riding horseback during these missions, you run across a variety of mini-games that offer rewards for their completion. Write a haiku, earn a headband. Bathe in a hot spring, increase your health bar. Pray at a shrine, earn a charm.
But the best commodity you can earn in the game is Resolve, represented by the glowing yellow circles in the lower-left-hand corner of the screen. They’re the in-battle currency you use to heal and execute your best offensive moves—the more Resolve you have, the stronger a warrior you are. One way to earn Resolve is to play the campaign; as you level your reputation by liberating the island, it’ll naturally increase. The other is by completing Bamboo Strikes.
The Bamboo Strike is based on the real-life practice of tameshigiri, which was onced used to test the quality of the sword. But in more recent times, it’s become a test of the user’s skill with the blade rather than a test of craftsmanship.
Jin must perform three cuts for each Bamboo Strike station. The first cut is through three bamboo shafts, the second cut is through five shafts, and the third cut is through seven. For a successful cut, a player must press a button combination—one button for each shaft—during Jin’s downward stroke. If you make a mistake, Jin will only cut through the shafts preceding the error. If you don’t press the combination quickly enough, Jin’s cut will also stop short at the corresponding bamboo shaft.
The first and second challenges are easy enough, but the seven-button challenge can be a struggle. Some of this comes down to the limits of human working memory. The average person can remember seven items at a time; this is typically used to explain why phone numbers are seven digits long. But recent studies suggest that our capacity for working memory might actually be three or four items at a time. This could explain why when we recite our phone numbers (or any other seven-item list), we tend to group the digits in threes and fours.
But even if you remember the combination, inputting it is a different ballgame. You have to be both fast and accurate. Despite this, the Bamboo Strike challenges always feel fair. A bad video game is one where losing causes you to question your controller or the game itself. A good video game experience forces a player to shoulder the blame by being specific about the “why” and “how.” Ghost of Tsushima is very clear in this regard. It tells you, via text at the bottom of the screen, whether you mis-pressed the buttons or didn’t press them quickly enough. The visual of the bamboo stand reinforces this; you can see exactly where your cut failed.
I spoke to my brother-in-law, who practices a Japanese sword martial art called iaido, for some insight into the real-life mechanics of the game’s Bamboo Strikes. (Correction, 9/11/20, 11:56am—This article initially misstated the sword art my brother-in-law practices. Never argue with a sword wielder.) He explained to me that proper technique necessitates a dynamic grip. At first, you’re supposed to grip the sword lightly and keep your arm relaxed, which allows for faster acceleration on the downward stroke. Without enough momentum, the blade won’t cut through completely. Conversely, at the moment the sword makes contact with the bamboo, the wielder must have a firm, rigid grip; otherwise, the sword will bounce right off its target. It’s a balancing act that requires practice and discipline.
In many ways, the game’s Bamboo Strike challenge is art imitating life. When I miss the cut two or three times in a row, my arms and hands tighten, which leads to a slower input response and another failed attempt. I need to keep myself loose—relax, take a breath, and just let it flow, relying more on my muscle memory than button-by button input. I have to trust my instinct and not let thinking too hard get in the way.
You can see my frustration in the clip above. I failed the seven-button challenge five times. But then I took a few seconds to refocus and stay relaxed, and I sliced right through. It was a miniature life lesson in a video game—one that also mirrored Jin’s struggle to maintain emotional control in the face of adversity.