Mark of the Ninja: An Interview with Nels Anderson
It’s a commonly cited gripe amongst gamers that stealth gameplay has been blighted in recent years by the blending of genres, and a relentless industry wide pursuit for the next big action blockbuster. It would seem that Vancouver based development studio, Klei Entertainment, have been listening closely, because their recently released XBLA title, Mark of the Ninja, is a stealth genre purists dream. After receiving an extremely positive critical response, I caught up with the games’ lead designer Nels Anderson to find out about the design choices that defined it, and just how it feels to make a damn fine videogame.
What’s your favourite thing about stealth games in general?
The diversity in approach the type of game affords. The best stealth games are about providing the player with a suite of information and abilities and then letting them approach the game’s encounters as they see fit. That agency, and the pacing that falls out of it, is really interesting to me. It’s very player-centric is a way most action-adventure games aren’t.
Two dimensional stealth games are something of a rarity, why do you think that is? And what was your inspiration to explore the stealth genre in 2D?
I’m not sure why it’s a rarity, but 2D just isn’t very prevalent in general. There have been a few, notably Stealth Bastard and Gunpoint, but they definitely aren’t numerous. Part of the reason might be because the leap from 3D to 2D wasn’t easy at all, so maybe folks tried and bailed? I’m not really sure.
As for the inspiration, it was largely driven by being just what we’re good at here at Klei. All of our artists have worked in cartoon animation in the past, so it’s something we’re definitely very experience with. And I think 2D still has a lot of richness, both in terms of aesthetic and design. Don’t get me wrong, I love 2D games that try to be evocative of the 8/16-bit era, but I don’t think that 2D necessarily has to mean nostalgia, you know? So I think we wanted to do something in 2D that’s still striking and modern.
What were the biggest challenges of designing 2D stealth gameplay mechanics? Did you use any specific 3D stealth games as a reference point?
Heh, there were a lot of things. Obviously the biggest thing is in 3D, your primary means of avoiding detection from enemies is to break line of sight with them using cover, i.e. you hide around a corner. Of course, in 2D, there are no corners! If you’re on the same ground plane as the AI, you’re in front of them, period. So we had to work out exactly how we can provide opportunities for players to avoid enemies when you’re always on the same plane. So we ended up using locomotion a lot — the ninja has many more traversal opportunities than the enemies do.
We definitely were inspired by 3D stealth games for sure. Thief was the biggest one for me — there’s a lot of Thief in Ninja — but also things like Splinter Cell, Tenchu, even Rocksteady’s recent Arkham games to an extent. But it wasn’t about lifting mechanics, it was about looking at how those games were satisfying as an experiencing and figuring out how to create that same feeling in 2D. And that actually often involved doing things that were seemingly completely counter to what’s done in other stealth games, just to ultimately arrive at the same point.
I liken the Ninja’s movement in Mark to that of a jumping spider – he can silently stick to walls, climb along ceilings and hook shot across rooms – Did you design the levels around the platforming abilities you wanted the Ninja to have, or vice versa? Or was it a mixture of both?
That stuff was mainly defined by the need to provide ways to remain undetected in 2D. Because unlike 3D stealth games where you can just hide behind a corner or whatever, in 2D, you’re always on the same plane as your opponents. So we needed ways that you could move through the space of the level without being seen. So once we discovered that was going to be something we needed to provide, the movement abilities fell out of them. Then the levels were informed by that, and in building them we thought of other interesting movement abilities. There was a lot of iteration and refinement at that point.
Much of Mark of the Ninja’s player empowerment is based around visual feedback from your environment – the orbs of sound, the trajectory of projectiles, etc. – How did you go about balancing this to ensure that players had just enough awareness to feel powerful, but not overpowered?
It feeling overpowered wasn’t ever actually a concern for us. Rather, we assumed that level of information as we were designing the encounters in the game. So by making the encounters more or less necessitate that level of awareness, it can still feeling challenging without seeming too powerful or degenerate.
Mark of the Ninja doesn’t give the player many reactive tools with which to fight when spotted by a guard; it’s more about pre-emptive planning and execution. Was this a deliberate choice to force the player to think stealthily? And was there ever a time when the game gave you more combat options?
That was definitely a deliberate decision. There are options when you’re spotted, like using the smoke bomb to escape and such, but it’s about disengagement, not slaying. Initially we definitely did have more combat options, but they just ended up with people barrelling through the levels, trying to cut everyone down. It often didn’t work, because we didn’t want that to be a way to approach the game, but by having more options in there, it “felt” like that was the way to play. The more the pared those systems down, the more fun the game became!
Ninja’s have a pretty varied videogame history, but no other game (except perhaps Tenchu) has represented the sneaking aspect of their culture so well as Mark of the Ninja. How authentic is Mark’s representation of their history and culture? And is this something that the team spent a lot of time researching?
Indeed we did. I mean, ninja’s are always a bit unusual to portray, since the pop culture representation of them is so fantastical. And we aren’t trying to be representative, obviously, what with our ninja operating in the modern era and such. Plus, real ninja were supposed to be doing stuff that nobody wanted to talk about, so it’s not like a lot of folks were writing down their exploits.
But that being said, we did do as much reading as we could. Chris Dahlen, the game’s writer and I, tried to tie real history in the game’s backstory. We wanted the game to *feel* like the archetype should, even if we have only the vaguest notions of what that might actually be like.
From Eets to Shank and now Mark of the Ninja Klei Entertainment is becoming known for their clean, crisp, cartoon-like visual style. Where does that come from? And how do you think it aided the design of Mark of the Ninja?
As mentioned above, it mostly falls out of our artists all having cartoon backgrounds. Our creative director, Jeff Agala, actually used to direct the cartoon Atomic Betty. It is advantageous to the design of the game, even just in a production sense, because it’s really easy for us to iterate on design. Our animators are fast, freakishly fast really. I don’t think there was ever a time when we were building Ninja where I felt blocked, waiting on some animation to be done. Hell, it was the usually the opposite where they were waiting on me to hook something up!
Mark of the Ninja’s received an extremely positive critical reception. How does that feel?
Shocking! But wonderfully shocking. We were obviously pretty happy with what we had in the end, but it never feels like you can know for sure, right? I figured we’d have some people that really connected with it and other folks wouldn’t. But yeah, it seems basically everyone just loved it. It’s actually really rewarding, in that I absolutely love stealth games. Ninja is basically a love letter to the genre, at least for me. So seeing so many folks connect with that, even if they’re not normally into stealth games, is fantastic. Helping them seeing what I see in this style that’s so interesting? Couldn’t ask for more.
Other than Mark of the Ninja, what has been your favourite game of 2012 so far and why?
Not sure if it’s cheating since this didn’t technically come out in 2012 (well, it did on PC, I guess), but I didn’t play Dark Souls until this year, and holy god, I love that game to death. Like, it’s probably one of my favourite games of all time now. It’s so restrained and brave and committed. I’ve put in like 55+ hours, still haven’t finished it, and every minute is still an absolute joy. The atmosphere, the mechanics, the breadth of choice- it’s an amazing game.
For games that actually came out in 2012, I’m really enjoying Telltale’s Walking Dead and Dishonored is supremely great too. I haven’t had a chance to fire up X-Com yet, but I suspect that’s very much my cup of tea as well.