Afterwords – Mark Of The Ninja
Mark of the Ninja snuck out of nowhere to emerge as one of the best downloadable games of 2012. We asked Klei Entertainment’s lead designer Nels Anderson about how the game came together.
Game Informer: Thanks for taking time to answer our questions. The studio’s previous work with Shank was rooted in the action vibe. What made you excited about making the switch to a stealth focus?
Well, not a lot of folks know this, but Klei's first game was a physics-based puzzle game called Eets. It's sort of like The Incredible Machine but with crazy cartoons instead. So going from that to Shank was already a bit of a change-up (and we're actually doing a new version of Eets that will include iPad, which is like the perfect platform for the game, so folks can look for that soon-ish).
Also, I didn't actually work on Shank or Shank 2, really. I did maybe a month of level concepts for Shank 2, but I basically came back to Klei for Mark of the Ninja. So it wasn't a big switch for me. I've always really enjoyed stealth games, so it was more or less the ideal game to design.
And the rest of the team was very excited to be doing something new as well. We didn't want to get pigeonholed as "the 2D brawler studio." There was a lot of things we learned from Shank that we could carry forward of course, but everyone was very excited about the change of pace.
Anderson: Are there any particular inspirations – in games or other mediums – that you looked to when crafting the game?
In terms of games, Thief was a big one for me, both as a designer in general and for Ninja in particular. The emphasis on systems, player choices and pacing was something we tried to evoke in Ninja. Other stealth games were of course influential.
In terms of the narrative/theme, that's a bit tricky since nearly everything that's about ninja in pop culture is either hyperviolent, totally cornball or both. More grounded spy films, like the Bourne movies, was closer to what we wanted tonally. We also drew on real Japanese history a lot, as well. I'm a giant history nerd, so Ninja's writer, Chris Dahlen, and I dug into moments from Japan's warring states period where actual ninja operated for some moments in the game. It's pretty subtle, but most the references to the past made in the game are references to things to actually happened. One mission starts with Ora, your companion, mentioning Sawayama Castle, which is a castle that was burned down after ninja infiltrated it and set it on fire.
How did Mark of the Ninja change over the course of development? Were there features or elements of the game that you dropped or added as you shaped the game?
The initial experience we wanted to provide was pretty much exactly what we ended up with, but the way we got there definitely had a lot of changes. The whole sound visualization stuff, for instance, wasn't something we imagine in the first design write-up I ever did or anything like that. It was something that evolved organically over the course of developing the game. But the reasons why it came out, the focus on player choice and multiple valid approaches, was there from the onset.
We experimented with a lot of different mechanics along the way. But it was all basically driven by getting closer to the experience we wanted to deliver. We experimented with probably like three different combat systems along the way, but all of them dragging us further away from the stealthy, considered, observational gameplay we wanted to provide. The focus was all about experimentation and iteration though, there wasn't anything sacred that we had to keep or simply couldn't be added.
Mark of the Ninja offers a cool twist in its conclusion that ties back to the earlier parts of the game. Was that element a part of the story from the beginning?
The initial structural notion of the game was actually about having a lot of much smaller levels, like 60 or 70 levels over the course of six worlds or so. We discovered that the levels we tried to build in that fashion weren't very enjoyable though. Eventually we ended up taking the very rough plot from one world (PMC CEO as antagonist) and expand it out. The worlds Ninja takes place is are roughly pulled from four of those original six potential worlds.
From there, I think it wasn't too long before we came up with the way the ending would shape up. We'd had themes we wanted to explore, tradition vs. modernity, trust and such, and so that felt like a good way to examine those themes.
[Next Up: What feature did Klei Entertainment take out of the game before launch?]
Mark of the Ninja employs an innovative mechanic for tracking sound and awareness. How did the idea emerge, and what challenges did you run into in trying to make it work?
Heh, it emerged out of people not being able to make sense of the game! Initially there was only the vaguest hint of the noise being made. After people had difficulty understand why the AI reacted the way it did, we added a simple effect whenever the player did anything that created noise. It was always the same effect though, it didn't have any correlation with how "loud" the noise was, even though under the hood, the game was totally modeling all these different sound ranges. Finally, we just made that effect match the noise radii exactly and ,bam, people were immediately able to understand what we wanted them to and use that in their playstyle.
Like Shank, Mark of the Ninja employs a unique artistic style that marries classic animation style with bloody violence. What do you like about that visual direction, and what are its advantages from a development perspective?
It's largely because all of our art team, at one point or another, worked in cartoon animation. Our creative director, Jeff Agala, used to direct a cartoon called Atomic Betty. So our folks are really knowledgeable when it comes to expressive, high-quality 2D artwork. Beyond that, there just aren't a lot of studios that do what we do. Most 2D games have a retro, pixel art aesthetic. And while that's great, I don't think 2D games have to fundamentally be married to nostalgia. They can absolutely be gorgeous, don't get me wrong, but I think there's plenty of room for exploring other aesthetics in 2D. What Ubisoft Montpellier did with Rayman: Origins was just amazing, ditto with Fuel Cell and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, and I'd love to see more 2D games do the same.
Are there features, story beats, or mechanics you’d like to have implemented into the game that didn’t make the final cut?
There were some things that didn't make the cut, but it almost always was because it wasn't fitting with the experience we wanted to provide. There wasn't anything we had that really worked with what we were doing, but we just didn't have the time to do it. One thing that got cut for the right reasons, but was still awesome and I wish it didn't have to go, was the initial implementation of the blink ability. Initially it was more of an air dash, almost a double jump, and it felt and looked *great.* It totally turned the game into a brawler though and completely upset the observational, stealth game flow. It's a shame that it had to go, because it was an awesome ability in isolation, but I didn't fit into the final game at all.
Mark of the Ninja met with high critical praise upon release. Were you surprised by the response?
Very much so! Pleasant surprised for sure. I mean, we of course were happy with what we had in the end, but we certainly didn't expect it would connect with as many folks as it did. We honestly couldn't be happier with the response. It's really fulfilling too hearing folks say "I normally don't like stealth games, but I really like this." I've loved stealth games for a long time, and getting able to share that with folks and help them maybe see what I do in the genre is just fantastic.
After the enthusiasm players and critics had for the game, do you have any desire to continue the franchise? Or do you envision the studio trying something else next?
It's hard to say. The PC release is about to come out, and we've basically been focused on that. Plus, we have more than one team working on a bunch of different projects as well. I mentioned Eets above and we're working on another game right now called Don't Starve, which is really weird and different, but in a good way. There's actually a beta demo folks can play right now if they want at http://www.dontstarvegame.com.
But as for Ninja specifically, we'll just have to see. Obviously we'd never just do a rote sequel, and I think Ninja is definitely a very self-contained, conclusive game, but if there were other ideas we wanted to explore in a similar context, such things wouldn't be impossible. We'd really want to have new ideas to explore though, not just make another dozen levels and call it a day.
When you play the game, do you prefer to kill everybody, or sneak through without anyone knowing you were there?
I go back and forth. The Path of Silence with the slowfall technique is pretty dang amazing. But I really like the Path of Nightmares too (it's the mask, I think) and that obviously involves a lot of carnage. But in games in general, I'm usually in ultra-stealth mode. I'm playing Dishonored right now, and I think I've only killed like 4-5 people and they all really had it coming.
Thanks again to Nels Anderson to filling us in on the game. Click here to read our review of Mark of the Ninja.