Could you introduce yourself and talk about your role on the project?
I’m Nels Anderson and I am the lead designer for Mark of the Ninja. I built about half the levels, did a lot of the systems design, some writing, a lot of gameplay implementation, and more things that I could probably never enumerate.
What is the backstory of Mark of the Ninja? Could you talk about the character we’ll be playing in the game and what he is trying to do?
The game’s backstory is focused on the player character’s clan, the Hisomu. They’re the only ninja clan to survive into the modern era. They did so because they developed a system of ritual tattoos that grant whoever receives the tattoos enhanced agility, reflexes, that sort of thing. Nothing supernatural, just the height of human capability. However, anyone who receives the tattoos will eventually be driven mad by toxins in the ink, so they’re only used in times of crisis. And of course, the game begins at one of these times of crisis with the player’s character being the one selected to receive the tattoos.
The Shank games were all action and while Mark of the Ninja seems more about stealth and planning. Why the change in direction? Is Mark or the Ninja all about stealth or will there be more action oriented sections?
Mark of the Ninja is unabashedly a stealth game. We did very intentionally design a lot of flexibility in the game, but they’re all different expressions of stealth. So one could try to be a total ghost, being completely undetected and never killing anyone. Or they could move quickly and deliberately, setting up stealth kills and utilizing deadly ninja tools. So there’s a lot of freedom with how the game is approached, but the unifying thing is being quiet and quick when doing so.
What are the inspirations behind Mark of the Ninja? How long has the idea for the game been rumbling around in your head?
I believe the idea came about between Shank and Shank 2. I think the observation was simply that there hadn’t been many ninja games made in a long time, certainly none in 2D. Certainly there’s a lot of richness for animation and gameplay opportunities, plus it’s an easily recognizable archetype. You say “ninja” and people get it. You don’t need all kinds of exposition explaining the character’s history, his role, or anything like that. Personally, as someone that loves stealth games and has always wanted to design one, it’s a perfect idea.
We’ve seen lots of ninja games before so what makes Mark of the Ninja special?
A big part of the game’s genesis was that while there are some ninja games, they’re all really, really intentionally action games. Since Tenchu, which came out something like 14 years ago, there haven’t been any ninja games actually about being stealthy. And that’s such a missed opportunity! It’s the ideal fictional construct for making a stealth game. Plus, there hasn’t been a substantive 2D ninja like since, what, SNES Strider?
Could you compare the difficulty in crafting a game like Shank to crafting something like Mark of the Ninja?
Oh yes, there were a lot of challenges. Foremost, 2D stealth games don’t really exist. There are about four of any quality that I’m aware of and three of them weren’t announced when we started Ninja. So we had to really do a lot of experimentation and iteration just figuring out how stealth gameplay can work in 2D. Beyond that, Shank is really a game about its moment-to-moment combat. The levels are really just arenas for the combat. Ninja, on the other hand, lives or dies by the level design. Move a light a couple tiles to a left and an encounter goes from impossible to interesting. And there’s really only one way to evaluate how well that’s working and that’s by doing a ton of playtesting.
What’s been the hardest part of the game to design? Have there been things that you thought would be hard that weren’t?
Again, I’d probably go back to the level design. Even just the composition of the spaces, so that they didn’t seem totally game-y, but actually felt like a tangible space without compromising good gameplay was challenging. Everything else kind of flows from the levels, that was really the largest challenge. Heh, I’m not sure if anyone ever overestimates the difficulty in building anything in games, but we did have an advantage of building upon pretty solid tech. We just modified and improved the Shank engine, which made things a ton easier.
How does the stealth mechanic work? Is it strictly a line of sight thing or do you have to worry about noise or other factors? What visual/audio cues are you giving the player to help them navigate the world?
This is an area of the game I’m especially proud of. So the enemy’s sensor perception is both vision and noise. For vision, we change the character’s entire appearance if they’re in light vs. dark. In light, you can see all their colors, while in darkness they’re mostly black with white lines and a few highlights. Basically your character becomes the “light gem” in the game. As for noise, every noise made in the game that enemies can hear is visualized with a sound radius effect on screen. It’s a ring that spreads outward and if that ring overlaps an enemy, they hear it. If it doesn’t, they don’t. We wanted to keep this aspect of the game very clear and readable, so stealth and perception becomes another tool in the player’s arsenal, not an opaque system they have to muddle with to decipher.
One of the frustrating things in some stealth games is that once you are detected you instantly fail/die, is that something you’re implementing or not? What can players do to recover from detection?
Absolutely not. If detected, of course enemies will try to attack, pursue or relocate you, but you won’t instantly fail. And if players are detected, they have a number of advantages over the enemies. The ninja is much more maneuverable, so he can climb on walls, ceilings, use a grappling hook, etc. to get to places enemies can’t reach easily (or at all) and recover stealth. Beyond that there are various items, such a smoke bombs, that allow you to recover concealment.
From the footage I’ve seen it looks like traps will play a major part of getting through the game. How many different types of traps are there? Is the game structured so that you have to solve certain situations in a certain way or are you allowing for more emergent gameplay?
Heh, a lot? I’m not really sure how many different types there are exactly. But that’s a big part of the reason we set the game in the modern era, as compared to some historical Japan. Unless you have supernatural elements, which we very deliberately wanted to avoid, you’re a bit constrained by simply what’s available in the era. In a modern setting, you can have things like laser tripwires, power grids and the like and it doesn’t seem that discordant. But no, it’s not that there’s a certainly specific solution for any particular encounter and the player just has to find it. There are a lot of different solutions based on an individual’s particular playstyle. There have been some playtests where someone solved an encounter in a way I never, ever imagined. And that’s tremendously satisfying as a designer!
Shank and Mark of the Ninja have that same awesome hand drawn style. Was there ever any thought of doing a different art style? Would you consider that style to be a Klei signature?
It’s mostly a virtue of our art team. Nearly all of our artists come from traditional cartoon and feature animation, so it’s just something we’re good at. Plus, most 2D games these days go for a retro esthetics. And while that’s totally fine and certainly something I dig, it’s not the only esthetic available for 2D games. Ubisoft Montpellier’s Rayman: Origins is 2D and absolutely stunning. Really, that game is gorgeous. So while retro 2D is great, I’m excited we’re leveraging modern tech and practices to do something that’s 2D but still stylized and unique.
Any idea of when we’ll be able to play the game?
We’re still sorting out a final date, heh, and fixing the last handful of bugs in the game, so we can’t say exactly when yet. But it will be later this summer.