I tend to ditch the main story in open world games as soon as I can in favour of exploring, so I’ve barely made a dent in Ghost of Tsushima’s plot. I’ve parkoured my way to a lot of shrines and chased a lot of foxes. Mostly, though, I’ve been looking for more hot springs, so I can make protagonist Jin take more baths.
I’m fascinated by male characters bathing in video games. Despite how often players control male bodies, they’re rarely shown as more than vehicles for violence: arms to swing swords or aim guns, legs that carry players from one battlefield to the next. Bathing scenes show parts of these bodies that usually don’t factor in during gameplay — feet, stomachs, shoulders — and can give characters a chance to slow down. Someone like Arthur Morgan or Geralt of Rivia taking a break to have a soak brings some vulnerability to these characters and shows them as people with needs for rest and reflection. Baths help me see them as more relatable and human.
In Ghost of Tsushima, Jin can find hot springs scattered around the game’s world. Some of these springs have characters and quests, while others are unpopulated oases you can discover while exploring. Jin can soak in the waters and choose between two different topics to reflect on. Whatever you choose, Jin gets a minor health increase for his efforts.
These topics can be serious thoughts or something more frivolous. Jin can consider his samurai code, his friends and family, or the events of the game, but he can think about foods he likes or how tired he is. I always choose the less serious topic when it’s offered. I haven’t found Jin to be the deepest character, and the game’s plot hasn’t quite gripped me. But watching Jin dream about lovers or mundane comforts sheds some light on what his daily life might be like in the time Ghost of Tsushima depicts. His hot springs reflections give him interests outside of the game’s themes and mechanics.
Most of the hot springs are small, with simple layouts, but they always feel welcoming. They’re steamy and inviting, and the colour of the water reminds me of real-life equivalents I’ve been to. A lovely animation plays when a naked Jin steps into the water. He moves a little gingerly, but with a confidence that shows he’s used to public bathing like this. He hunches his shoulders a bit, the way people do when they’re stepping into water that’s a vastly different temperature than the air. It takes his body a moment to relax once he’s sitting down, and I like watching this little process repeat itself in every new hot spring. While some players have complained that we don’t get to see his entire naked body, I like that the hot springs scenes aren’t sexualized or jokey. The way the scene zooms out on his backside puts the focus on his whole body entering the water for a purpose, rather than drawing attention to his nudity.
Public bathing culture isn’t very popular in America, but it’s something I’ve experienced when I’ve travelled out of the country, even though I tend to be far too high-strung to want to do activities that involve relaxing. When I was in Norway a few winters ago, I went to a sauna on an island outside of Oslo with some people I met. I was anxious about being naked with a bunch of strangers at first, especially as a trans person, but everyone was relaxed about it, and it quickly felt normal. We all crowded together in a ridiculously hot little cabin late at night, passing around bottles of water and groaning dramatically when someone stoked the sauna’s heat. I soon learned that the core loop of this sauna experience involved becoming so overwhelmingly hot that the next logical step was to rush out of the sauna and leap into the freezing waters of the inlet, then to get so cold that you went back in the sauna. I swore I wouldn’t do this, but the idea became more compelling as the sauna’s impossible heat overwhelmed me. (Seriously: it’s not like the steam room at the gym.) It felt terrifying to launch myself off the dock into the dark, frigid water, and weird to do the next step, which my hosts insisted was mandatory: climb out of the water and lie naked on the ground, even though there was snow everywhere. But after a few rounds of getting too hot, then too cold, then lying on my back while my body tried to figure out what temperature it should be, I felt amazing. The experience was intense and surreal, and the effects of the heat and cold made me aware of my body’s place in the physical world.
Jin’s hot springs scenes remind me of that adventure, and they help me imagine his body feeling the way mine felt that night. I can see him as someone with needs, with a body that can be affected by more than just enemies’ arrows and swords. The hot springs give him a physical presence that help me see him as a richer character. The hot springs might not be the deepest side activities in the game, but they’re my favourite, and I’m excited that I have so many more still to discover.