Revisiting the surgical design of Klei’s genre-capping stealth game
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
YOUR NINJA CAN PUNCH HIS WAY OUT OF A TIGHT SPOT, BUT ONLY EVER DRAWS HIS BLADE TO DELIVER A KILLING STROKE
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