Klei Entertainment’s side-scrolling stealth game, Mark of the Ninja, is available now on Xbox Live Arcade. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Nels Anderson, the game’s designer, about how the game was conceived, and how older stealth games like Thief and Tenchu played a role in its development. This and more in our interview with Anderson below.
You don’t really see side-scrolling stealth games, how did you come up with the concept of Mark of the Ninja?
Nels Anderson, Mark of the Ninja designer: I’ve liked stealth games for a really long time. Ever since Thief, basically. That was kind of the one that “turned the key” …or “picked the lock,” I guess. So I wanted this thing to unabashedly be a stealth game, but obviously we can’t just translate it from 3D to 2D, since it doesn’t really work. It was a matter of deconstructing things. “Why did they make the design decisions they make? What were the goals they were trying to achieve?”
Kinda taking that stuff apart, pulling it up a level, then translating it down into 2D instead. It mainly involved trying a lot of shit, playtesting it, and discovering that it really didn’t work. Then we kept iterating on that, doing that process over and over again until we got it right. I think we got it right anyway… we got it to where we wanted it to be.
Well, if you think stealth, ninjas come to mind. We wanted to do a game that was actually being about a goddamned ninja. All the ninja stuff in pop culture, and in games in particular, is all ultraviolent “murder all the men,” cut a helicopter in half with a giant ninja sword type-stuff.
But that’s a waste of a perfectly good archetype! If you want to make a stealth game, you just say “ninja” and people get it. It’s about agility, speed, quickness, and being clever and sneaky. You don’t need a complicated backstory about a psychic commando or whatever, it’s just “ninja.” Boom, you’re done. Then you can move into whatever interesting tonal things you actually want to perform with the game.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed in my hands-on with the game was the fact that you still felt like a ninja, even when you were seen. I was able to take one or two people out, but still felt fragile.
Initially in the game we had a lot more combat, so that’s all that people would do. Well… that’s not the point and that’s not very much fun. We wanted to balance it so that if you’re compromised and there’s one guy, you can probably take him out. If there’s two guys and you’re good, you can probably take ’em out if they’re close together. But if there’s more than two guys, or it’s two guys with crossing arcs of fire on you, you’re done.
And that actually produces very good dynamics. In a stealth game, you’re sneaky because you have to be sneaky. If you don’t, people aren’t going to be sneaky because people usually seek out the path of least resistance to success. We’re wired to do that, and that’s fine, but we wanted to ensure that you’re sneaky for a reason.
While the game features a ninja as its protagonist, it’s set in the modern era. Can you tell me a bit about the story?
We wanted to set it in the modern era, because if we set it in Japan, the game would really feel like Tenchu in 2D. But also, in the modern era, you can do a bit more with the environment and traps… But anyway, there’s this ninja clan that existed back when, y’know, ninjas were still a thing, and they’ve survived into the modern era because of their knowledge of this plant that can be ground up and turned into a tattoo ink that grants special abilities.
It’s not ninja magic or something, there’s nothing supernatural about this game…
I don’t get to turn into a giant dragon like Ninja Gaiden 3?
(laughs) No, no. It’s the height of human possibility, as if you were an Olympic athlete but in like fifteen different events. But, the ink in the tattoos slowly drives whoever has them insane. So they’ve sort of ritualized the use of these tattoos. When the clan’s survival is threatened, someone is selected to receive the tattoos, but when they ensure the clan’s survival, they are to ritually kill themselves.
Of course, the game begins with the player’s character being selected to be the one who receives the tattoos. (laughs) I think that what we came up with is very purposeful and deliberate and works well thematically.
It’s interesting to me how everything meshes. You’ve got the visuals and setting inspiring the mechanics. Or perhaps vice versa.
That’s exactly the point. The core power dynamic in stealth games is all about this interplay between strength and weakness. You’re powerful and potent when you’re sneaky, but in other circumstances you’re very vulnerable and weak. The fiction of these tattoos, that you have all of these abilities but at the great cost of your sanity and ultimately your life is again is the interplay between strength and weakness, power and vulnerability. We wanted to make sure all of that stuff was “meshed” indeed.
Speaking of power and vulnerability… would you be able to play through the game with a no-kill run?
Yeah, totally! There’s a couple of named NPCs that we chose who thematically have to die, but all of the guard enemies… you don’t have to kill any of them.
Are there incentives for doing so? What about playing like a maniac?
Both! The game is all about player choice. It’s like “here are the tools you have,” and those tools loosely include your understanding of the games core stealth systems. Here’s an encounter, here’s the environment, approach this in the way that you see fit. If you want to grease all the guys, you can grease all the guys. If you want to move through unseen and nonlethal, you can do that too. The game isn’t going to reward you less for one or the other.
It’s refreshing to hear you say that the game is about player choice and know that it’s not tied to a binary morality system.
Ugh. Sometimes you can do interesting stuff with that, but it’s really easy to make it really dumb and false and unsympathetic. I think that stuff is really uninteresting. Awful! (laughs)
I like that there’s a scoring system, can you tell me about that?
The score is mainly a feedback system for performing stealth-positive actions. But going back to the point of player choice, every enemy you stealth kill gives you a certain number of points, but at the end of a level, for every enemy you snuck past, you get a similar number of points as if you’d stealth killed them. So it’s not as if the game is saying “oh, you can choose to play however you want, but we give you points for killing guys and nothing for not killing guys.” Because then the game isn’t making good on its promises. I wanted to make sure that all that stuff was very consistent and didn’t unintentionally bias one gameplay style over another.
Every level has three different scoring tiers, depending on which ones you get, you get more upgrade points to invest in various abilities.
It seems that the game rewards precision, how did you guys design that?
We do have the notion of active stealth kills (in which you have to press the X button again with the right timing after initiating a stealth kill for an extra point bonus). The primary point of doing that was so that the stealth kills weren’t just “push a button, watch an animation.” Because when you do that, people kind of subconsciously disengage, and we wanted to keep players connected the whole time. It’s not a QTE, it’s more like the active reload thing in Gears of War or something.
Precision comes with your being able to understand the tools at your disposal and the behaviors of the game’s systems and then setting up a plan that exploits those things. It’s not about perfect button control or anything like that, it’s about using the knowledge and your expressivity with how you approach the game and using that to do things that are interesting and different.