Deconstructing Stealth: Mark of the Ninja
I’d make a terribly clumsy Ninja. There’s rarely a day that goes by in which I don’t awkwardly clip the shoulder of someone passing me on the street, or dribble a drink into my lap having inexplicably missed my mouth. God knows what would happen if I attempted to silently dangle from a lamp post in the dark and slip someone’s keys from their pocket unnoticed.
It’s because of this personal clumsiness that I’ve always had a love of videogame stealth – the fulfilment of an unrealised power fantasy. I love meticulously planning sneaky attacks and executing with silent perfection, or slipping by unnoticed in the shadows. But there’s always been one thing I’ve struggled with in stealth games – they all seem to be clumsy affairs in themselves.
Take Metal Gear Solid 3 for instance. On a recent playthrough of the glorious PS3 HD re-make, I was in the swamps of Tselinoyarsk, prone in some conveniently Snake-width grass, carefully memorising the patrol path of a guard as he walked in circles outside the bombed-out red brick building that housed my evacuation target. As he passed me for a third time I rose from prone to crouched and gently stalked his path, moving ever so slightly faster than my prey. At a hair’s breadth away I R2’d a blade from Snake’s invisible backpack and slowly, silently proceeded to remove him. Flawless.
! – Alert 99.9.
It’s something I’ve found in pretty much every stealth game I’ve played. No matter how carefully or precisely I plan out my actions, when it comes to the execution, there’s almost always something I didn’t, and most likely couldn’t have accounted for that foils me: An out of view guard/CCTV camera, the sound that I make, or the general clumsiness of complex controls. It’s always seemed like stealth games kind of make it hard for me to be stealthy.
It was in the first chapter of Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja that I began to realise it might very well be the most empowering stealth gameplay I had ever come across, just as I hid in a vent peering out into a fully lit room with two armed guards patrolling back and forth. Even after 10 minutes of play I had become familiar with the mechanics of environmental interaction – I hook-shot onto the ceiling, slid by guard one unnoticed, burst the light illuminating guard two, slinked down behind his alarmed figure, and silently dispatched him before proceeding through the door he was blocking. Flawless.
Mark of the Ninja fixes almost everything about stealth games that had previously irritated me, allowing for a tremendous amount of precision in your actions and making it genuinely easy to outwit your opponents in a non-lethal fashion. But what is it about Klei Entertainment’s design that avoids the clumsy pitfalls plaguing other stealth titles?
More so than anything else, stealth is about control – control of your environment, of your own actions and of your oblivious opponent. It’s telling that a full tilt of the left analogue stick – a controller input commonly reserved for sprinting – only results in a sneaky tiptoe from Mark of the Ninja’s protagonist, with sprinting instead activated by the right trigger.
Throughout every element of control you have over movement, Klei have exerted some form of restraint: There’s no accidental running off of edges, slipping out of cover or falling from a ledge, instead you stick to any surface until you press the A button in conjunction with a directional input. Even aiming a weapon is an effortlessly precise action, initiated by holding down the left trigger which pauses time whilst you accurately line up the trajectory of a poison dart or smoke bomb.
Almost every element under your power has been reduced to a binary state, the simplicity of which allows you to express a much more considered control over your avatar, one more befitting of a highly trained ninja. No matter how far tilted your left stick is you are either sneaking or still, which removes the analogue scale of possible screw ups afforded by something like Metal Gear Solid’s pressure sensitive grab button. And it’s this restrained nature of your inputs that allows the player to act precisely, cleanly and most important, stealthily.
Mark of the Ninja’s visual style is exceptionally clean and crisp: Well-lit characters are coated in a thin black outline and those in the shadows a thin white one. And it carries the same kind of bold, clean, easily interpreted cartoon style that Klei had already perfected with Shank.
This graphical clarity is paired with a number of visualised cues to provide you with an absolute spatial awareness of your effect upon your surroundings. Guards have a shaded cone of vision that displays both where they are looking and the extent of their view. And any sound you make – be it from running or the operating of machinery – produces an expanding pale blue circle of noise, visually informing you of whether a guard has heard your actions, and allowing you to pre-emptively react.
Likewise your ninja always exists in either full darkness or shadow, which is another example of a simplified, easier-to-understand binary alternative to the typically analogue mechanic employed by other stealth based titles, such as an early Splinter Cell’s light meter.
Klei’s design leaves absolutely no room for confusion as far as the spatial awareness of your environment and the implications of your actions are concerned. The extent of your detection is clear at all times and each of Mark’s visual design elements collude effortlessly to convey the sharper senses of a highly trained ninja.
Subtlety isn’t something videogames have portrayed particularly well about ninjas; having tended more toward exaggerated depictions of the ninjato based combat associated with their culture through characters like Ryu Hayabusa and Joe Musashi than their clandestine nature. And even in non-ninja stealth games the all-too-often fumbled execution of a carefully planned sequence of events forces you to revert to the fluster of reactionary gameplay, as you sprint for cover and reach for the gun.
Reactionary gameplay is that in which you respond to events occurring around you – an enemy ninja attacks me with a sword, I block and strike back. Conversely gameplay that forces you to pre-plan a sequence of events is a much more proactive type of interaction, one common to all strategy games; and stealth games are essentially RTS games in action-adventure clothing.
Mark of the Ninja gives a far more realistic depiction of a ninja’s combative abilities, in that one or two gunshots will kill you, which, combined with the fact that Klei have severely limited the amount of reactionary options at your disposal, forces you into much more of a carefully planned predatory role.
It’s the toy box of dynamically interchangeable strategic options that Klei have given you to play in that make for some enticing surreptitious gameplay. Hidden vents, climbable ceilings, convenient ledges and sticky walls all support you, whilst smoke bombs, poison darts, crackling dynamite and a familiar cardboard box all distract from you. Theatricality and deception are powerful agents of the videogame ninja indeed.
Each of these elements has been perfectly tuned for precision sneaky stealth. But the glue with which Klei have combined each design choice is the relative simplicity afforded by two dimensions. To feel like you truly are being stealthy, one requires a sense that you have a greater awareness, understanding and ability to interact with your surroundings than your enemy, and that’s something that’s inherently easier to obtain by removing an extra dimension of complexity.
Imagine if the graphically represented cone of vision Mark of the Ninja displays from every one of its guards was applied to an enemy in three dimensions. Now the player has to consider not only the height and length of his opponent’s vision, but also the width.
It seems only logical then that 3D stealth games have to employ more elaborate techniques in order to make sure their player is spatially aware of their surroundings, and this can often break immersion: Take Rocksteady’s Batman titles for example. The fact that you can bat claw to the safety of a gargoyle perch at almost any time is a mechanic designed to preserve the players feeling of power over his enemies when things go tits up – one necessitated by the inherent clumsiness of the medium’s current fidelity of control over 3D protagonists: More than once did I accidently drop out of the shadows, or punch someone to an alarmed state that I had intended to silently chokehold. I’m not sure that ever happened in Mark of the Ninja.
I’m not positing that stealth gameplay cannot work in three dimensions, but I am arguing that the greater level of spatial awareness and character control within 2D games makes a more natural fit for sneakiness. And that Mark of the Ninja’s sleek, responsive, cleverly designed strategic gameplay would not have been as engaging or empowering in 3D, which makes the fact that so very few 2D stealth games have been made a little baffling.