Ninjas. Action movie fans and people who dig throwing sharp metal objects love them. Corrupt merchants and power-mad ministers working against the Shogunate hate them.
Either way, there's no denying their presence in popular culture over the years—all you need to do is mention the word, and everyone instantly conjures a mental image of a shadowy figure dressed in black, performing amazing physical feats and moving as silently as a whisper.
… Unless you're a game developer, that is.
Looking back at the various ninjas that have populated the gamescape over the years, the vast majority of them have focused on combos and combat, rather than truly employing stealth to its greatest degree. Klei Entertainment wants to change all that. With its upcoming XBLA release, Mark of the Ninja, they aim to bring sneaky back, and they're doing it in a big way—2D.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Nels Anderson, lead designer on Mark of the Ninja while playing a chunk of the game that clearly demonstrated the ways it stands apart from the competition.
Here's what Nels had to say.
Thanks for speaking with me, Nels. Can you tell us a little about yourself, and with your relationship to Mark of the Ninja?
I'm Nels Anderson and I'm the lead designer for Mark of the Ninja. My background is actually rather technical—I have a BS and MS in Computer Science. Prior to working on Mark of the Ninja, I was at Hothead Games working on DeathSpank, where I did a lot of the gameplay programming on those couple of titles.
How does Mark of the Ninja differ from other ninja games, and why did you want to create it?
Heh, well the biggest difference is that Mark of the Ninja is a game actually about being sneaky! Aside from Tenchu, nearly all ninja games are ultraviolent, brutal, pure action games. And while that's fine, you can make solid games that way, that's certainly not the only (or the most interesting) thing you can do. Ninjas so clearly afford being agile, stealthy, clever, etc. So we wanted to make a game actually about those aspects of the ninja archetype. Plus, personally I love stealth games and as a designer, I think it's a very interesting "genre" (or whatever the appropriate term is) to work in.
How tough was it to nail the special visual cues that let the player know whether they are being stealthy enough or not?
Very, very difficult. We only arrived where we did with a ton of experimentation, playtesting, iteration and throwing away lots of work. We played Ninja far, far more than anything we've ever done in the past. The tricky bit is that just about every single aspect of the game has to all be working in concert to ensure the game's systems are clear. For example, with the level art, it wasn't just a matter of creating areas with visual appeal. They had to seem dark, but they couldn't just be black or black. And beyond that, as navigation surfaces, it had to be perfectly readable as to which areas were surfaces could be climbed upon, which could be jumped through, etc. Every aspect of the game had this usability challenge, from environment art, to animation to AI to controls. And the only way we were able to make it work was a ton of iteration and playtesting.
Were there elements to the game that you weren't able to get to work, or that had to be left out for any reason?
I don't think there's anything that we left out that we didn't want to. There were plenty of things we left out just because we didn't like how they were working. Originally we experimented with a more robust and complicated combat system, but it ended up making the game far more of a brawler. We absolutely wanted Ninja to be a stealth game, so we tweaked and adjusted that until it go to where we wanted it. There were a number of other things like that, including the ability to stop time in a localized area, that while they may sound cool, didn't produce good gameplay at all.
Is it possible to complete the game without killing anyone, as in, being completely stealthy?
It absolutely is! The whole game can be completed without killing anyone. I'm not going to say it's just as easy as a more … unmerciful route, but it's certainly possible. It definitely changes how you approach the game too. There are certain items and equipment that facilitate that total stealth playstyle if they player wants to pursue them. Because that was really the game's mantra—player choice. I explicitly did not want the game to be a series of challenges where you just have to find the right solution or right ability. It's a game about providing the player with a set a tool (and that includes their ability to understand the game's systems) and then to approach the game's challenges as they see fit.
What is the most difficult achievement in the game to earn?
Hmmm … probably the "Ghost" achievement, which is award for completing an entire level without killing a single enemy and without being detected once.
What is your favorite stealth game (other than this one) and why?
I'd probably say Thief. The setting is interesting and familiar, without being derivative. The systems are robust, and the level design is incredibly tight.
What is "the Mark" of the ninja?
Heh, this refers to the tattoos the player's character receives. These tattoos give whoever receive them great ability. Nothing supernatural, but height of human possibility. Like being an Olympic athlete in 15 different events. However, whoever receives these tattoos is also driven insane, so the clan has ritualized their use. They're only given when the clan's very survival is threatened and when the crisis is resolved, the tattooed ninja will kill him/herself before they become a danger to themselves and the clan.
Best ninja movie ever? Worst ninja movie ever?
Nearly all ninja media is really, really cornball. There are a few movies from Japan, mostly in the 60s-70s, about ninja that are pretty solid though. The Shinobi no Mono series (I think there are 8 films, I didn't watch them all) is a good example. While not exactly ninja, the films based on Lone Wolf & Cub manga were quite good too. As for the worst, well, anything of this ilk would do.
It's nighttime. There's a full moon overhead, and you're in a traditional Japanese Courtyard, on a sneaking mission for your clan. You can hear guards approaching. You've got seconds before you're discovered. What do you do?
Leave a jug of liquor sitting by a well, leap into the well and press against the walls inside. Once the guards find the booze, cheer their good fortune, they'll be even less useful than they already were. Plus, they'll take the blame for their lapse of duty when something is stolen. Blame is a powerful ally and a ninja needs any advantage they can get.
Infinite thanks to Nels Anderson and the entire Mark of the Ninja team. Also to Klei, for helping such a great project come to fruition. If you'd like to know more about the game, you can click on over to Klei's website, or just check into the XBLA Marketplace on September 7th, when the game is released!