I wasn’t enjoying myself. I really wanted to like the game, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. It doesn’t help that I know the both the lead developer and writer of the game. I sort of felt obligated to like it. But it just wasn’t happening. I feared Mark of the Ninja would end up like Papo & Yo, a game I completely respect and understand, but just don’t connect to.
I don’t know what it was about it either. The game controls are smooth and just the right kind of moody. The environments are richly detailed, complemented by a very unique art style, and the game and runs like a clockwork machine, every piece working together in sync. I loved the visual representations of non-visual elements like sound and smell auras. The very concept opens a whole world of possibilities for games to explore. The story wasn’t intrusive, but at the same time, I wish I could follow the scant details. I was ready to sigh and put it aside. Then it clicked.
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “I experienced the gameplay equivalent of looking at a picture of two black silhouetted faces and suddenly saw it as a picture of a white candlestick.”
About halfway through the game, the world opened up and my own view expanded beyond my little avatar. I was stalking another guard in a tricky situation. Then I paused to just consider the situation trying to figure out where to throw my caltrops to stun the guard so that I could get behind him and keep the other guard in the dark. The plan failed in the end, but that isn’t what was important. What was important is that my thinking changed.
You have to be careful in Mark of the Ninja. While death is ultimately not so disastrous because of the game’s generous checkpoints, progress is carefully gated by a series of difficult situations. It’s the type of game where difficulty is premised on moving forward, not the threat of moving backwards. And it isn’t the individual elements that are challenging. It’s the clockwork, puzzle nature of the environments that produce the challenge.
To understand the nature of the beast, you have to expand your mind and thinking. It felt like I wasn’t centered on my character anymore. My view of my immediate surroundings had expanded to take in the whole area I was in. Even when I couldn’t see the whole environment, my mind’s eye was including them. The map in the pause menu stopped being a compass and became a blueprint. I had become the watchmaker and not the watch wearer. I stopped looking at the second hand and instead looked at the gears.
Back at Pax East, where Klei Entertainment demoed the game, I remember a discussion with other critics. One remarked that she didn’t know why we needed another ninja game. At that point, I didn’t understand how true my counterargument would be. I was basing my defense on what the developers had said in their explanations of their game and my trust in them to pull it off. More specifically, I countered that in fact we didn’t have really any ninja games currently. We had games about ubermensch, featuring characters dressed in black pajamas or skimpy skirts depending on their gender. Games where you play as a coded ninja became all about the mythologizing of this group. Developers had given them magic powers and physics defying acrobatics to make them more efficient at killing and always in head to head battles.
There is a line in the game at the end of the fifth level when you have to take out the head of security. He calls you out, and your infiltration partner remarks, “Kelly seems to think you’ll face him like a glorious samurai. Guess he doesn’t know much about ninja.” It’s that same thinking that keeps ninja as another action ready archetype. But Mark of the Ninja doesn’t work like that, and even if the player abandons the stealth route, they will not be able to fight head on. The systems just work differently, and you have to acclimate to its mindset.
Mark of the Ninja is the first game in a long while about being a ninja. About having the mythical powers that the stories granted ninja, but still having to hide and stick to the shadows. But knowing and understanding are two different things. I knew this was a stealth game, but I didn’t understand it until it clicked.
This isn’t to say that I got any better at being a stealthy, ghosting ninja. I still left a trail of bodies in my wake. However, every time that I entered a new section or saw a vent going off in a different direction, I understood what it was and that it wasn’t the right path. Some entrances were alternate routes, and I was now essentially backtracking. I began to read the level and the more of these little details that I began picking up on, the more my understanding of this complex system of rooms grew.
I admired Klei’s work when I didn’t connect with it, but after I did, I was astounded by it. It was the difference between knowing something and truly getting something. In the broader sense, I feel like there is something different in my approach to the medium. Having examined and reflected for as long as I have on the game, there’s been a slight change to my initial feelings about it. I rely on my subconscious more than I once did. Having played enough games and internalized so many different mechanics, systems, and, dynamics I’ve built a sort of sixth sense in handling broad general assessments. In getting a handle on things, you start to feel when something is right or when something is off even slightly. It becomes like a sort of radar for more conscious awareness to hone in on and examine.
Like the guards in the game, I get a hint of something in the dark, and so I get in closer. I open myself up to the situation and look around. Sometimes I find nothing. Other times I get burned. But every so often I will catch sight of my target and all the mysterious things playing in my brain will fall into place.
In the case of Mark of the Ninja, I knew it was a good game. Every individual part worked well, and in the haze of trying to figure out why, I could vaguely see that it remained good at the point where all the pieces interlocked. I could recommend it, but I couldn’t yet evangelize for it. Then in that one moment when I sat back and thought a single situation through and the world opened up and became and I realized what a larger world I was actually in. I stepped out of the shadows and lit a white candlestick.