Time Ex­tend

Re­vis­it­ing the sur­gi­cal de­sign of Klei’s genre-cap­ping stealth game

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY EDWIN EVANS-THIRLWELL De­vel­oper Klei En­ter­tain­ment Pub­lisher Mi­crosoft Stu­dios For­mat 360, PC Re­lease 2012

Once more into the shad­ows with the sur­gi­cal de­sign of Klei’s gen­re­cap­ping Mark Of The Ninja

Klei En­ter­tain­ment’s break­through project is a work of both am­bi­gu­ity and trans­parency, a game that lays the foun­da­tions of its genre bare in or­der to swad­dle them in its own, exquisitely con­sid­ered brand of murk. Set against the brash grind­house stylings of the stu­dio’s

Shank brawlers, Mark Of The Ninja’s en­vi­ron­ments can seem rather opaque and blood­less, its tem­ples, of­fice blocks and metro tun­nels leeched of colour save for the odd taste­fully tinted desk or­na­ment and the glare of a dis­tant Tokyo. On play­ing for the first time, there’s the mild shock of dis­cov­er­ing that your vi­sion is lim­ited by that of your pro­tag­o­nist – par for the course in a stealth game, but an un­usual move for a scrolling 2D plat­former.

If this is a realm of un­remit­ting gloom, how­ever, it’s also one that is for­ever giv­ing it­self away via an in­tri­cate set of vis­ual metaphors and ex­tra-diegetic feed­back. Sounds are rep­re­sented as ex­pand­ing rings with a max­i­mum di­am­e­ter, let­ting you know im­me­di­ately whether the shriek of a slop­pily ex­e­cuted goon has reached the ears of his com­rades. En­e­mies stand­ing in dark­ness don’t dis­ap­pear en­tirely but fade to spec­tral out­lines; those you can hear but not see are re­duced to foggy sil­hou­ettes with no view cone, trail­ing rip­ples of foot­step noise. Aware­ness states are del­i­cately yet un­mis­tak­ably sketched – idling op­po­nents let their flash­lights hang low, while sus­pi­cious souls stick their necks out invit­ingly as they peer into the black. Should you be rum­bled, there are last­known-po­si­tion in­di­ca­tors and Metal Gear

style emotes to help you slip through the op­po­si­tion’s clutches.

Each chap­ter’s op­por­tu­ni­ties and haz­ards are care­fully com­part­men­talised, their knock-on ef­fects sel­dom spilling much far­ther than the room you’re in. Dis­cussing an ear­lier, un­suc­cess­ful flir­ta­tion with fully open en­vi­ron­ments, lead de­signer Nels An­der­son sug­gested in 2012 that the ideal size of an en­counter in a scrolling 2D game is the space of the screen plus be­tween half to three-quar­ters of a screen in any di­rec­tion. Any larger, he claimed, and play­ers will feel lost or over­whelmed. The sprawl­ing yet in­tel­li­gi­ble ar­chi­tec­tures of

Metroid and Castl­e­va­nia are an ob­vi­ous in­flu­ence; a more re­cent par­al­lel is Bat­man:

Arkham Asy­lum, with its pro­ces­sion of sin­gle-cham­ber sand­boxes prowled by in­creas­ingly rat­tled goons. As in Rock­steady’s game, most of Mark Of The

Ninja’s grander in­te­ri­ors are hung with grap­pling points where you can perch in rel­a­tive safety, mon­i­tor­ing pa­trol pat­terns and weigh­ing up an­gles of at­tack.

Mak­ing a stealth-game pro­tag­o­nist ca­pa­ble enough to thrill, but not so pow­er­ful as to ren­der stealth op­tional, is one of game de­sign’s harder balanc­ing acts. Some teams have given up on the idea com­pletely, pre­fer­ring to treat sub­terfuge as just one tool in the ar­se­nal: the lat­est in­car­na­tion of

Splin­ter Cell’s Sam Fisher is as much a bull in a china shop as a snake in the grass. Mark

Of The Ninja’s an­swer to the prob­lem is to draw a clear line be­tween con­ceal­ment and ex­po­sure. To stand in the shade is to be al­most un­de­tectable, save for when fac­ing guards equipped with in­frared gog­gles or guard dogs (the lat­ter ap­par­ently a nod to Klei’s neigh­bour at the time of de­vel­op­ment, the now-de­funct Sleep­ing

Dogs stu­dio United Front Games). To stray into the light is to be spot­ted and, typ­i­cally, gunned down from across the map. This straight­for­ward di­vide al­lows for more con­fi­dent, slip­shod im­pro­vi­sa­tion than in a stealth sim­u­la­tion such as Thief: The Dark

Project, with its tricksy ana­logue light­ing, with­out rob­bing care­less­ness of its risks.

The other way Mark Of The Ninja em­pow­ers you is by mak­ing you feel like a ninja – a con­sum­mate in­fil­tra­tor, rather than the py­jama-clad cir­cus tum­blers we en­counter in games like Ninja Gaiden. Cre­ated us­ing mod­i­fi­able char­ac­ter pieces that ap­prox­i­mate the feel of tra­di­tional hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion, the game’s glow­er­ing lead is a mas­ter of tra­ver­sal, able to wrig­gle up a wall, slither around an over­hang and butcher sen­tries from be­low with a grace the likes of Over­watch’s Genji could only dream of. The con­trols are id­iot­proof, helped along by un­ob­tru­sive con­textsen­si­tive prompts and the sen­si­ble de­ci­sion to freeze time while aim­ing throw­able items – a mys­tic perk that al­lows you to queue

up vol­leys of bam­boo darts in mid-air, dis­abling laser grids as you plunge to­wards them. This is a game that knows that tasks are more en­tic­ing when you’re de­cid­ing what to do, rather than work­ing out how to do it. The only time you’ll re­ally have to think about the con­trols is while per­form­ing as­sas­si­na­tions, a sim­ple QTE that stops you tear­ing through guard pop­u­la­tions with­out thought. Fudge the in­puts and your vic­tim will cry out as they ex­pire. With these foun­da­tions in place, Mark

Of The Ninja re­veals it­self to be a se­ries of sin­u­ous sys­tem-driven puz­zles, each solv­able a num­ber of ways (in­clud­ing a few not an­tic­i­pated by the de­sign­ers) and sup­ported by a scor­ing sys­tem that goads you into med­dling with the props and vari­ables at length. Es­cap­ing a room with a laser trip­wire might see you scur­ry­ing across the ceil­ing, toss­ing a smoke bomb or drop­ping a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer’s body into the beam’s path to de­ac­ti­vate it. Un­pick­ing a well-de­fended po­si­tion might in­volve flick­ing a light switch to lure one goon away from the pack, then lob­bing a mine be­hind him so that he ex­pires mess­ily as he re­turns, star­tling the oth­ers into shoot­ing each other. The check­point­ing is gen­er­ous, so ev­ery sticky demise is less a set­back than an op­por­tu­nity to ex­per­i­ment afresh. The game rarely im­poses any spe­cific win cri­te­ria, but there are a few more struc­tured tasks and se­quences to vary the pace – tail­ing a thug through the level with­out break­ing cover, for ex­am­ple – to­gether with some op­tional treasure rooms that fea­ture tra­di­tional, switch- and trap-based puz­zles. There are bosses, too, but any­body hop­ing for a spell of cathar­tic health bar at­tri­tion will leave dis­ap­pointed – your ninja can punch his way out of a tight spot, but only ever draws his blade to de­liver a killing stroke.

Per­haps in­evitably, the game’s nar­ra­tive wrap­per can’t hold a can­dle to what hap­pens when NPC be­hav­iours, lay­outs and your abil­i­ties rub to­gether. The tale of a ven­er­a­ble ninja clan’s strug­gle against a mil­i­tary cor­po­ra­tion, it tees up fa­mil­iar themes of re­venge, self-sac­ri­fice and be­com­ing what you de­spise. The cutscenes, re­call­ing the slash­ing brush­strokes and moody pal­ette of Gen­ndy Tar­takovsky’s hit an­i­mated se­ries Samu­rai Jack, are wor­thy of at­ten­tion, how­ever, and if the script is oc­ca­sion­ally terse to the point of be­com­ing flavour­less, it can be amus­ingly malev­o­lent. “The be­gin­ning of a kill is like em­brac­ing a lover,” re­marks your ally Ora dur­ing the tu­to­rial level. “The end, of course, is not.” Klei’s cat-footed ap­proach to backstory also de­serves ap­plause: in place of the flabby au­dio diaries and tomes of other games, this one de­liv­ers its lore in the form of blood­thirsty haiku.

Very few of Mark Of The Ninja’s tricks are of its own in­ven­tion, but they’re wielded with a crisp­ness and pre­ci­sion that owes no small debt to the use of a 2D plane – an


os­ten­si­ble re­duc­tion of com­plex­ity which, on the con­trary, en­cour­ages elab­o­rate play be­cause each de­ci­sion’s im­pact is so eas­ily traced. In boil­ing off the third di­men­sion, Klei has crafted not just an ac­com­plished genre piece but a de­con­struc­tion of games such as Metal Gear or the Arkham se­ries, one that sets out to un­der­stand their ap­peal with­out sim­ply repli­cat­ing their feats.

This is a pleas­ing twist be­cause stealth games are al­ready ex­er­cises in de­con­struc­tion – in ask­ing you to hide within a world they also place you a lit­tle out­side it, en­cour­ag­ing you to de­velop a de­signer’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its in­ner work­ings to pre­vail. Klei would con­tinue the process with 2014’s In­vis­i­ble Inc, a mar­riage of Mark

Of The Ninja and XCOM, which breaks the me­chan­ics of in­fil­tra­tion down turn by turn, and piles dy­namic map dif­fi­culty on top. There are glim­mers of the same an­a­lyt­i­cal mind­set be­hind Don’t Starve, its most re­cent game – a play­fully macabre in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the open-world sur­vival genre.

One of Mark Of The Ninja’s darker se­crets is that it al­most wasn’t a pure stealth ex­pe­ri­ence at all. The deft pre­sen­ta­tion and bal­letic han­dling came to fruition late in the day, as Klei strug­gled to bal­ance the AI and trans­late con­cepts from 3D games with­out ru­in­ing them. At one point, the project’s leads were con­vinced Mi­crosoft would can­cel the game, and toyed with ex­panded com­bat me­chan­ics as a last­ditch rem­edy – this soon proved coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, as playtesters would sim­ply gal­lop through lev­els beat­ing up any op­po­nents they came across.

These dif­fi­cul­ties may ex­plain the slight sense of di­min­ish­ing re­turns that sets in to­wards the end of the game – Klei had in­tended to add a num­ber of game-chang­ing su­per­hu­man abil­i­ties, but was even­tu­ally obliged to set­tle for just one of them, a tele­port spell. But if the fi­nal stretch un­der­whelms, that’s largely be­cause the game makes such a mes­meris­ing first im­pres­sion. Mark Of The Ninja is that rare stealth game that never loses sight of it­self, the im­pec­ca­ble pre­sen­ta­tion, well-judged in­ter­ac­tion be­tween sys­tems and an­i­ma­tion suite in­vest­ing the of­ten dry art of eva­sion with un­usual en­ergy. Its plea­sures aren’t a de­par­ture for the genre but a con­sol­i­da­tion and in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of it – a preda­tory ex­plo­ration of ideas that are in dan­ger of be­ing lost in the light.

Klei hoped to use tra­di­tional frame-by-frame an­i­ma­tion for the ninja, but the ap­proach fell foul of prob­lems link­ing the char­ac­ter to ef­fects, plus Xbox 360 mem­ory lim­i­ta­tions

The grap­pling line is your most de­pend­able tool, and the most overt nod to Bat­man:ArkhamA­sy­lum: you can string peo­ple up with it to ter­rorise their al­lies

Ex­ploit ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity while keep­ing a low pro­file and you’ll earn more Honor points to spend on and un­lock new con­text-spe­cific ex­e­cu­tions, dis­trac­tions and of­fen­sive items be­tween mis­sions

Un­lock­able out­fits ap­ply pas­sive ben­e­fits such as muf­fled foot­steps, greater re­silience and more in­ven­tory room, en­cour­ag­ing re­play

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