For a story set in a bustling Japanese suburb, Ghostwire: Tokyo is surprisingly devoid of life. Part of this is deliberate, of course; the key premise here is that the entire population of Shibuya has been suddenly and mysteriously spirited away, leaving just spooky spectral Visitors – think every Japanese horror you’ve ever seen, with some Slender Man thrown in – and an obnoxious leading man with a psychic sidekick. I doubt much else that drains this game of life is intentional, though.
You see, if you ran through Ghostwire: Tokyo by sticking steadfastly to its main missions – something many of us, myself included, are wont to do sometimes, particularly if there are loads of games out and/or your time to play them is truncated – you’d get to experience all of Tango Gameworks‘ wacky supernaturalism, sure, but by missing out its side missions, you’d miss the game’s heart.
The individual stories of these strangers – their lives, their loves, their losses – not only add an important layer of context to the story but also anchor us to a game that we may otherwise have given up on.
The main issue is Akito, our leading character, is so utterly devoid of charm, it’s hard to give much of a shit about what happens to him. The same can be said for the spirit, KK, that’s hitching a psychic ride within him. I’ll acknowledge that again, this is likely intentional – we get glimpses of Akito’s early life via good old flashbacks, few of which paint him in a favourable light – but little else happens to redeem him to me, even as the game hits its climax. It all becomes very formulaic, very quickly; kill these enemies. Cleanse this Torii gate. Get this award. Rinse. Repeat. Ad nauseum infinitum. Little is explained. Little makes sense. So there’s little motivation to get to the end, quite honestly. If you don’t care about its main character, why the hell would you care about finishing Ghostwire? What’s the point of even getting there?
It’s lucky, then, that while they may lack sophistication – most of Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s side quests are little more than fetch-quests or scripted (albeit usually excellent) spook simulators – the action horror’s optional missions inject much-needed colour into an otherwise monotone story. By spending time with the spirits that populate the city – some hover in the air, still coming to terms with how their lives were ripped so unexpectedly away; others stand on the otherwise empty street corners, confused and disorientated – you’ll learn more about the people who once lived here. More importantly, you’ll learn to care about them, too.
Though the mission’s mechanics rarely deviate, the stories of the people you meet are deliciously diverse, with haunted dolls, mysterious piano tunes, a hungry black hole that devours everything, spiritual or otherwise, in its path, and – a personal favourite – the tanuki, raccoon-type spirits that can disguise themselves as everyday objects, albeit everyday objects with gloriously bushy tails. You learn of the complex relationships the cityfolk had with their partners, friends, and families – the disagreements and the misunderstandings that severed familial ties that still haunt them in their afterlives – and how a modern-day city with every contemporary convenience co-exists alongside ancient traditions, customs, and beliefs.
It would be so easy to skip over these secondary quests. Too easy, really. Akito’s main mission is to find and destroy head bad guy Hannya for spoilery reasons I won’t get into here, but with a razor-fine focus, you can skip through the empty streets of Shibuya and take on Hannya without ever stopping to speak to the ghosts of those who were suddenly spirited away. Yes, the ghosts you help liberate via paper katashiro occasionally reveal something interesting just before you save them, but the keyword here is “occasionally”. Most of the time, they offer only incoherent mutterings that add little to flesh out Ghostwire‘s world.
Not all side missions are built the same, no, and neither do all games utilise them in the same way, either – you can get a good sense of Aloy’s world in Horizon Forbidden West without touching a single side quest, although your playthrough will be sorrier for it – but Ghostwire is unusual in that it would not just be a less engaging experience without them but demonstrably worse, at least to me.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that so much of Tango’s excellent world-building – the things the team did to bring Shibuya’s empty streets so unexpectedly to life – has been shoved into skippable quests you may never know exist. Not only may you miss some terrifyingly effective scripted scares – usually connected to an equally terrifying spectre that refuses to depart – but you may miss some truly human, heartfelt tales, too.
No, not all side quests in all games matter: but in games like Ghostwire: Tokyo, they very much do.