August 3, 2012 8:00 PM | Staff
Although there are plenty of ninja games, quite few depict the ninja as the master of stealth and trickery he ought to be. And stealth games are precious rare in the platformer genre. But with its upcoming Mark of the Ninja, Klei Entertainment wanted to try a couple new things.
Nels Anderson is leading the game's design, and even tackled the early legs of the project all on his own. It's the first time Vancouver-based Klei has done multiple projects at once; work on Mark of the Ninja became possible once Shank 2 was underway. Anderson says his studio would rather encourage cool ideas when they're possible rather than wait for some unspecified "right time."
With Klei's well-received Shank games, "we had figured out all this stuff about creating a 2D game that has really good feel, tight responsive controls, and stylized, super-fluid 60-frames animation," he says. "So let's take those core fundamentals, and use them to do something completely different."
As a fan of stealth games, Anderson saw an opportunity to mix up the melee combat generally native to 2D platformers. "At a high level, part of the reason I like stealth games so much is... the flow of the game is all about the game pushing onto you. Some dudes show up, and you react," he explains.
But in stealth games the player is fundamentally undetected from the beginning: "It's the player that pokes and perturbs the world," Anderson says. "The flow of these games tends to be more about pull. You utilize your understanding of how the systems work, and you prod and disturb the game world in kind of an intersting way. That's why I like stealth games so much -- because it's not about reaction, it's about anticipation and planning."
But Anderson says stealth games have a limited accessibility: Successful stealth requires deep understanding of the core systems, and most of those systems are "pretty invisible," he says. What's your margin of error for going undetected? How loud a sound can you make before someone hears you, how close to an enemy can you get? Most of the time, these are questions players can only learn the answers to through failure and risk-taking.
"The dynamics of these games are saying, 'be careful' -- but then, to understand all the systems, you need to take risks," Anderson notes.
Clarity was the point
With Mark of the Ninja, the 2D environment and the concurrent distance that players get on the protagonist leaves room to offer more information through abstraction. "We thought, maybe we could have more feedback that provides that systemic information," Anderson suggests, as a means toward making a stealth game feel less intimidating to audiences that normally don't prefer the genre.
"Whenever a noise an enemy will hear is made, there's a visualization, a spreading blue ring that says exactly how far that noise will reach, literally in the playfield," Anderson explains. "It's not obtrusive, but it's certainly clear -- clarity was the point. Let's make these systems understandable so people can get to that level of proactive play right away. Let's get people there sooner."
Making a more accessible stealth game "wasn't an explicit goal from the outset, but a number of people have checked out the game who say, 'I don't normally like stealth games, but I really like this,'" Anderson says.
Genre evolution is its own challenging undertaking; Anderson sees three ways a genre's progress can go. "To appeal to more people, it has to become more broad, but in doing so it often loses some of the things people liked about it in the first place," he suggests. "Or it becomes increasingly niche, so you're just making the same thing over and over again for an ever-vanishing number of people. And you rely on embodied knowledge and become super inaccessible, because you're only making games for the same group."
"You have to thread the needle between these two things," he continues. "You have to find what about this style or genre of game is so interesting, but without just turning the crank on it, or losing what about it was so special. Amnesia totally did this for horror games -- it has all the things that make horror games exciting, but in a way that hasn't really ossified, isn't reliant on ancient things that maybe aren't even valid anymore."
Experimenting on a genre is heavily reliant on knowing what made the genre special to begin with, and let that core idea drive everything else, rather than imitate tropes that might not be necessary any more. Anderson's team also did more playtesting with Ninja than with any of its previous games, to see how the ideas were working.
"A 2D sidescrolling stealth game is a thing that barely exists," Anderson says, citing Yahtzee's years-old Trilby: The Art of Theft as one of the few examples he could think of. "We don't have templates or schema to draw upon, so we thought, let's look at the core dynamics of a 3D stealth game, deconstruct and translate them back into 2D. The only way to know if it's working or not is to playtest the hell out of it."
Initially, the Ninja team collected playtesters that said they liked stealth games, and that group "seemed to really like it," according to Anderson. Then, the team sought out playtesters that might not ordinarily be drawn to this kind of game, and saw positive results, too.
Still, "it's not going to be a game for everybody; that's kind of the advantage of making games at the scope that we do," he notes. "We don't need to move 2.5 million units to be in the black; we can make a thing that's a little bit unfamiliar, and if a few hundred thousand people like it, that's awesome."
As for the decision to go with a ninja setting, Anderson says those themes haven't been overexposed to the degree zombie themes might have been, and are still catchy to audiences -- and plus there's much more to explore, given that most ninja video games follow the Ninja Gaiden sort of model of a masked combat hero that prefers an exaggerated approach.
"I respect what those folks are able to accomplish, but as an archetype the ninja is all about sneakiness, agility, cleverness and speed -- all the things the mechanics of stealth games are about," says Anderson. And the ninja archetype is well enough understood that the character's role and skillset is communicated without the need for an overly-complicated backstory. "You can just say 'ninja,' it kind of sets the expectations appropriately, and then we can do the cool stuff."
Anderson also professes to being a "giant history nerd," and says that one factor in working with ninjas is that there's so much opportunity to do something considered, as lots of ninja media ends up stumbling into the trap of being either incredibly corny, incredibly violent, or both, aside from some beloved 1970s Shinobi-style movies from Japanese directors.
Writer Chris Dahlen has provided all the writing for the game, collaborating with the Klei team on story but providing the script itself, trying to provide a fresh approach to ninja games by drawing on actual Japanese history rather than on pop culture phenomena.
"We wanted to make sure the themes, mechanics and dynamics all fit well together, and I hope that's what happens in the end," Anderson reflects.
"I'm not sure Chris realized when he signed on that we'd be asking him to write a shitload of Japanese poetry," he laughs.
Mark of the Ninja is scheduled to hit Xbox Live Arcade first, with the potential for other platforms in the future. Release timing is still being determined based on the best opportunity for the game.
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article, which originally appeared on Gamasutra.]