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.
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.
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.
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.