Interview

Nels Anderson

Nels Anderson, Mark Of The Ninja designer

Sometimes being a ninja is more than sneaking into a room and stabbing everyone. Anderson talks about achieving a dark-but-not-too-dark aesthetic, preserving player choice, and avoiding “cornball” ninja tropes.

By Drew Toal • September 6, 2012

Nels Anderson is the lead designer for Mark Of The Ninja, a 2D stealth game that pits a lone ninja against an army of highly-trained mercenaries. The game’s environment, dark and malleable, is as much a crucial character as your silent assassin. Anderson spoke to The Gameological Society about the challenges in creating such an immersive, versatile setting, and also about how you can’t always stab your way out of every problem. [Note: Drew’s review of Mark Of The Ninja will be posted tomorrow. —Ed.]

The Gameological Society: This game is almost entirely pitched in darkness, to the point where your own character is sometimes barely discernible. How challenging was that to design?

Nels Anderson: It was really, really hard. And for what it’s worth, there is a gamma setting in the options. If it seems especially dark, you can tweak it in there. Even when it’s kind of the level of darkness we intended, getting there was certainly a non-trivial undertaking. It should feel dark, but it shouldn’t just be like black, black-on-black, forever black.

Gameological: So who turned out all the lights?

Anderson: We wanted to make sure it felt like darkness and nighttime, right? Our environment artists, specifically our lead Meghan Shaw, they had to do a ton—a ton—of work. Of course it should look nice, but it also needs to be perfectly readable, to where I know where all the platforms are. “OK, I know that’s a solid platform, that’s a platform I can jump through, [and] that’s just decor.” Getting that visual language down was very much non-trivial. I think we finally got it to the point we all wanted it to be at, but it required a lot of experimentation and a lot of throwing things away.

Gameological: It looks great.

If you provide people the means to do something and it’s successful, even if it’s boring, they will do that.

Anderson: Well, I had no hand in how it actually looks. So I also agree that it looks good, and don’t feel like a douche saying that.

Gameological: These ninjas are some stealthy hombres.

Anderson: The ninja is the perfect stealth game protagonist. They’re sneaky, and agile, and clever, and fast. Of course, most pop-culture anything involving a ninja is about cutting every dude in the world in half with a sword that is eight-feet long. The only exception is games like Tenchu [Tenchu: Stealth Assassins], but of course that came out like 14 years ago, so we wanted something that hearkens back to that. But even more than Tenchu, the one stealth game that I connected with where I thought this is a meaningful, distinct type of gameplay was Thief. And one of the big things in Thief was that you can kill guards, but if you’re ever in a two-on-one situation, you’re basically done. And to make people really want to engage with the stealth systems, it kind of has to be that way.

Mark Of The Ninja

Gameological: So Ninja was always supposed to be that way?

Anderson: Certainly at some points in Ninja, there was a more robust straight-up combat system, and it sucked. If you provide people the means to do something and it’s successful, even if it’s boring or lame or whatever, they will do that, because games are kind of predicated on this notion of success. So when we witnessed that stuff happening, we had to pull back on the ability to be successful without having to focus on the sneaking, until we got to the point where you can kill people if you want, or you can go through the entire game without killing anybody. But both of those things have to be expressed through being stealthy to begin with, rather than sprinting into a room and just stabbing some guys. When the primary interaction you have with the guards has a very binary outcome—not even binary, when you get the drop on the guard, they’re dying one way or the other.

Gameological: The only difference is whether they cry out, or die silently and get thrown in a dumpster somewhere.

Anderson: Exactly. But that means that having diversity in the types of enemies was not easy to set up from the outset. Most of the time, you only see the enemies’ pre-engagement behavior. We had to figure out ways to make that stuff diverse, so that they feel different and are interesting, even before you get to the point of stealth killing them, or totally avoiding them or whatever.

Gameological: Taunting and baiting the Hessians with the corpses of their colleagues is great.

Anderson: And that’s kind of another way to change up those pre-engagement behaviors, where it’s like, I obviously don’t want to show myself directly to these guys, but can I do other things that will change their behaviors without necessarily making me be unsneaky. One is setting up those terror points. Once the guys are terrified, the way you interact with them is also distinct. That was sort of a high-level design objective for me. It’s not like there’s a single right way to do anything. Here’s your set of tools—this can more generally mean your understanding of the game systems, and the enemy’s behavior and all that—but here’s your tools, here’s the encounter, just approach this how you see fit.

I think a lot of character-based action adventure games that are more about reaction and survival, you still have that choice, but that choice is just way, way more on a micro level. “Oh, which way should I dodge out of this attack to set up my own attack?” And that’s fun, but you can’t get into that intentionally cause-and-effect-based gameplay. In Ninja, you have a little bit more freedom for deliberate, planning, agency-driven stuff. There’s a lot of rich opportunities there that haven’t been well explored yet.

Mark Of The Ninja

Gameological: I noticed the huge point bonus for getting through a level without killing anyone. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s nice that it’s equally appealing, point-wise.

Anderson: That was definitely the idea. Even with something like the scoring system, if you got points for stabbing guys, but you didn’t get points for sneaking past them, then the game would be saying you can technically do whatever you want, but the best thing to do is stab all of your enemies. And I wanted to make sure that was not the case. You get an equitable number of points for killing and sneaking past. The only real penalization is when a guy sees you. Regardless of play style, that’s not a thing you want to do.

Gameological: I get so annoyed with myself when I’m detected that I usually just let them kill me, even though I could probably fight my way out.

If you put together an interesting thing and trust people to engage with it, they will on a level that’s appropriate to them.

Anderson: Some people kind of approach it that way. That’s fine. As long as the game reloads instantly with appropriately spaced checkpoints. That’s another thing I felt had to occur. The loop of going through the levels should be really tight. I think it’s kind of bullshit when games hold some great degree of your progress hostage, in the guise of difficulty. If you design a thing very deliberately, with a great deal of care, that can work. But I would say the vast majority of time it doesn’t work. You can get at that feeling much better in other ways. It’s like, who the fuck are you, designer, to rub somebody’s nose in this thing and be like, “Well, until you pass my artificially marked checkpoint in the sand, you have to keep doing this over and over again.” It’s not something I’m particularly fond of.

Gameological: Dark Souls does it right.

Anderson: Yes. In my head, that’s sort of the exception that proves the rule—when something is designed that well, with that much purpose and intent and thought. Unless you have designed this to Dark Souls level of quality, it’s not going to work. Another thing that was dangerous for Ninja was that if people feel a great deal of their progress was on the line, we discovered that folks are pretty reticent to take a lot of risks. They’ll stick to the one kind of gameplay that they know is successful, because they don’t want to lose that degree of progress. But that isn’t best for our game, which is about affording all kinds of different player choice. When they don’t feel that there is a lot of progress on the line, they’re a little more willing to try something weird and different that they might not have done before. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t, but ideally it will teach them a little something about the game dynamics that will feed back into whatever play style going forward.

Mark Of The Ninja

Gameological: Was this influenced at all by Hollywood ninja flicks?

Anderson: Not really, because most of them tend not to be very good. The ninja ones, specifically, tend to be really cornball and terrible. There are a couple from Japanese directors in the ’60s and ’70s that are pretty good, but beyond that, thematically and tonally, it was looking at actual Japanese history. I like history a lot, so Chris [Mark Of The Ninja writer and former A.V. Club contributor Chris Dahlen] and I dug into real period history, the warring feudal states period when ninjas were actually real and actually did things.

Gameological: The motivations of your character in Mark Of The Ninja, are shrouded in mystery, apart from responding to the Hessian attack.

Anderson: That’s kind of thematic as well. We didn’t want to have this giant barf of exposition at the beginning. In general, kind of the whole production of the game, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we have to trust the audience on a number of fronts. Gameplay-wise, we’re not going to grab you by the wrist and lead you through the game going, “This is interesting. Do this here. This is interesting. Do this here.”

Obviously, we have to get people up to speed through tutorials, but beyond that, we have to just trust that people will engage with the thing in the way that they find interesting. It’s a game that’s more player driven, which takes trust on our part. That’s there, but it’s always a little scary. Even with the story and everything else, you can engage with it on whatever level you want. It’s fine either way, but we just have to trust that folks who are interested in that will want to engage with it that way, versus some long monologue from an NPC explaining in just gross detail exactly what’s going on.

Gameological: There’s still a lot of expositional vomit going on out there in the gaming world. Some game publishers don’t trust the player enough to stay engaged without being led around by the nose.

Anderson: As a practitioner of the craft, I find that a little bit worrying. So some people think that the only way people will engage with this thing is to have the whole thing spoon-fed to them and battered over the head as much as possible. I think that’s kind of bunk. In general, if you put together an interesting thing and trust people to engage with it, they will on a level that’s appropriate to them.

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  • PontificateForb
    • Effigy_Power

       You are not a great person, you.

      • Enkidum

        Weird, this book was being spammed on AV Club as well – but it strikes me that this can’t be a spambot, as the authors of this kind of bullshit usually don’t have the money to afford them (nor is it the kind of book that has a wide appeal).

        • HobbesMkii

          The comments are enlightening. There are a few that point out its a repackage of the first volume of a different series. But my favorite was that this was a featured quote:

          “Moses was emphatic that we were not to enquire into how the pagans worshiped “their gods” and not to apply their principles to our faith (Deut 12:29-32).” – A. J. Montgomery

          It seems odd that you’d feature something antithetical to the book itself.

    • Captain Internet

      “Devils and Demons and the Return of the Nephilim”
      All I really know about the Nephilim is that they keep cropping up in games where the designers want to reference the Judeo-Christian faiths and also have big, stompy monsters. I know they’re in Diablo, Darksiders, and Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and I’m sure there are more. They’re definitely alluded to in Assassin’s Creed- I’m willing to bet £5 that they’re mentioned by name in Assassin’s Creed 3.

      They’re an ancient, thought-to-be-extinct super-race descended from God / Demons / Angels / God + Demons + Angels + Humans in combination that are like, officially in the Bible, man. There’s no real information about them, so you can make them as stompy or angelic as you want, and you get to justify putting pentagrams and crucifixes all over the place.

      You can achieve a similar result with magic Nazis. Look up “Raven Software” for examples of this.

      Still, one thing you can say about the Gameological Society: there’s a better class of spam here.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Before the AV Club really got serious about their comments section, I remember there used to be a spammer that would post large chunks of public-domain novels.  And, of course, AVC still has the oddest gimmick posters like Tartakovsky’s AD. 

        • Electric Dragon

          That’s Tarkovsky (Solaris, Mirror, Stalker), not Tartakovsky (Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack). Although it kind of makes me want to register a Tartakovsky’s Former AD gimmick account.

        • George_Liquor

           Please don’t. One of him is already intolerable.

  • bunnyvision

    Oh I played this as part of a focus group! I was really incredibly bad at it. Fun though!

  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    here’s the thing about dark games: they usually get annoying.  I always start off thinking “I’m gonna play this one right and really keep the atmosphere!”   But after a couple of hours, I always end up saying “screw it, this is getting old — time to max out the video settings.”  It really depends on whether the game is successful at giving me other forms of input. 

    If I’m really walking around in the dark, I can use touch and other subtle sensory inputs (like the way you can tell even with your eyes closed if you are outside, in a big room, or in a stuffy closet) to help me keep my bearings.  In a game, “touch” sensation is still only binary (controller either vibrates or it doesn’t) and there is no way to sense the light movement of a breeze or the dryness of the air or the way the ground feels or the smell of a nearby person/animal or a million other things that humans (especially ninjas) would use to give them information that we usually don’t even realize.  So just making a game dark can actually decrease my immersion.

    But none of that is specific or possibly even applicable to this game, which seems more along the lines of the old “Rescue: The Embassy Mission.”  So I’m still intrigued.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

       The Ludum Dare game Solitary Sand had an interesting take on this. It’s essentially a text-based FPS – you see nothing, and control your character with WASD+mouse, but there is constant real-time text feedback on the screen describing your kinesthetic and sensory experiences (like the direction of the wind, the feel of the ground/sand/water/etc. under your feet, and so on), that help you orient yourself in the space. It’s a kind of flawed game, but it’s central conceit is really clever, and realized in an ingenious way.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        Aw, man, that’s the sort of thing that ought to be a prototype for something greater.

    • The_Misanthrope

       There are some parts of Dark Souls that are really hard to get a proper balance between light and dark.  Turn it up too high and everything looks unnaturally shiny; Turn it too low and you can only see right in front of your character.

      Is there a reason why black need to be the only way to represent darkness/night?  I’m not nearly artsy-fartsy enough to know much about this, but, unless you are trying to limit the player’s vision for a horror-type game, it seems you just need to suggest that things are dark.  Good art design finds other ways to represent the mundane.

  • HobbesMkii

    Whenever’s there’s an “adjust the slider until the text is barely visible” gamma calibration screen in a game, I adjust the the slider until the text is clearly visible. Am I a bad person?

    • http://twitter.com/Nelsormensch Nels Anderson

      Totally legit as far as I’m concerned. FWIW, our gamma screen doesn’t have it text it has … well, you’ll see =)

    • The Guilty Party

      The other problem is that some of us have computers located in a room where there is, occasionally, a visible sun outside. That text that is barely visible at night becomes utterly unreadable during the day, and when it’s barely visible during the day it’s like a neon sign at night.

  • Raging Bear

    Does the mark of the ninja turn out to be “忍”? It usually does.

    Also, I am in love with this man’s design philosophy, and will completely buy this game if it ever ends up being ported to a console I own.

  • The_Misanthrope

    Ah, Tenchu!  Who knew the Japanese of the feudal era were so trusting of rice balls that they mysteriously found on the ground?

    He is right on about needing a diverse toolkit.  The biggest problem with stealth game-mechanic, especially when it’s not the sole one, is the interminable waiting in shadows for you dim-witted opponents to pass by.  If you feel have options and alternate routes, it allows your to vary your stealth shenanigans.

    It would likely help a bit if the people you were trying to evade weren’t such dullards.  You often feel like you are outwaiting, not outwitting, the guards.  Would it be too hard to incorporate some a few limited AI leaders in the mix–let’s call them “detectives”–that maybe take note of patterns and clues to try and actively thwart your character.  Or perhaps even structured as a PvP battle of the wits. 

    • manobon

      Maybe (for online multiplayer), you can’t see the opponent unless they are right in front of you/in light?

    • caspiancomic

      Back in the day I used to really love the Tenchu games. I had Wrath of Heaven for the PS2, and although I loved it, it had serious problems. Mr. Anderson [/Agent Smith voice] alludes to having a large “toolkit,” and while I know he doesn’t mean a literal toolkit, Tenchu did have a large literal toolkit. The problem was that 90% of your ninja toys were either redundant, pointless, or only useful in one or two situations. I eventually discovered the perfect loadout: 1 poison rice ball, 3-5 poison blowgun darts, maybe a health potion just in case.

      As @The_Misanthrope:disqus alluded to, guards will happily eat a rice ball right off the ground. Best part though? Once a guard started his picking up/eating a rice ball animation, he became completely blind and locked into his animation, so once he stooped down you could run right in front of his face and stealth kill him. Best part? If you did it fast enough, he dropped the rice ball, and you could use it again on the next guy. Also, the dartgun was an instant kill if you hit an unsuspecting enemy.

      Anyway, this game looks pretty rad, I’m pretty bummed I haven’t got a 360 for this. Maybe it’ll go the Bastion route and eventually turn up in an Indie Bundle or something.

  • Chris Hansen

    Flicks?  Hombres?  Why does the interviewer talk like this?  Was this all done over email or something, because no one speaks out loud like that, do they?

    • HobbesMkii

      Having seen Drew Toal on the Digest, I can honestly say that I believe him to be capable of not only using diction such as “flicks” and “hombres” in everyday speech, but also capable of getting away with it.

      In short, you’re sniffing up the wrong Internet predator tree, Chris Hansen.

    • http://twitter.com/Nelsormensch Nels Anderson

      Yeah, it was over the phone. I dunno, I dug it!

    • Effigy_Power

      You should probably take a seat. Right over here.

  • manobon

    Really wished this game was coming out for PS3 (and/or Vita). Oh well. Enjoy, everyone else!

  • doyourealize

    I have the same tendency to let the bad guys kill me if I ever get caught, especially true in Metal Gear and Splinter Cell games. For some reason, if there is that option, it tends to humanize the mercenaries a little more. I’m sure a huge majority of them don’t really give a shit about guarding the TV station (or whatever it happens to be), and they probably don’t care about who Sam Fischer is. They’re just in it for the money, man, and I just think it’s more consistent with both my and the protagonists’ characters to let all those guys live and go home to their families. They might get fired, but they can get another job.

    Games without that choice, though, fuck those guys. Every Imperial Soldier in FFVI is a huge ass hole that deserves death.

    I could see myself getting into this game, though, and getting into the same groove. I’d try as hard as I could to get through every level without a killing those poor, highly trained mercenaries.

  • duwease

    I was nodding my head along with the whole “don’t hold progress hostage” discussion, except I was thinking *of* Dark Souls instead of *excluding* Dark Souls.  Damn those methodical 10-minute treks to get one-shotted by a boss for the 15th time!

    That said, I’ve dumped about 100 hours into Binding of Isaac and am only about 7 achievements away from 100% Platinum, so I guess that sweet spot is in the eye of the beholder..

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    This looks like a lot of fun!  I loved the stealth gameplay in Thief 1 & 2, Deus Ex and in a lesser extent Tenchu, so I’ll have to check this out.

  • djsubversive

    This sounds like a pretty cool game, and Nels Anderson has neat ideas. 

    As usual, the Engineer symbol means there’s mod talk a-comin’. Since Fyodor was kind enough to set up a discussion group for the mod on the Steam group, I’m going to be doing updates there. So everyone here just sees a link from now on, like so:
    http://steamcommunity.com/groups/gameological/discussions/1/864945179803283014/

    Speaking of the Steam group, Hobbes and I are getting pretty good at Payday: the Heist. We managed to do Slaughterhouse on Hard, just the 2 of us (well, with 2 bots), in under 15 minutes, AND got all 4 bags of gold.
    http://cloud.steampowered.com/ugc/920114224607178710/5D6A914FC2661FE669B164C974BCF9EEA77DF08A/

    We need more heisters!

    • HobbesMkii

      I want us to try doing the Diamond Heist challenge where we make the helicopter come back to us 7 times on Hard difficulty.

      Also, I managed to get inside the Vault Hallway on the Bank doing Overkill solo. We’re also gonna work on getting that done properly.

  • Brainstrain

    I hope this does well. Hope only, because I don’t own an Xbox.

  • zaoshang756

     http://al.ly/OwB