Ninja Skills.

So many of the elements prone to cause frustration in a stealth game are not present in Mark Of The Ninja, the clarity and consistency of feedback is some of the best I’ve seen in the genre. The straightforward manner in which visibility, audibility and even memory (Both of the player character and non-player characters) is visually conveyed puts the stealth mechanics of games like Splinter Cell to shame. No meters or radar systems, all the information that’s relevant and useful is displayed exactly where it does the most good, in the world. The basis of visibility may be binary but that ensures your current visibility is always instant readable, as is the the safety of different parts of the level.

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Illumination, vision, footsteps. A single glance is enough to provide all the information needed to bypass this patrolling guard without being detected.

With a fluid move-set, building on Klei Entertainment’s previous Shank games and a variety of multi-function tools Mark Of The Ninja offers opportunities for experimental play both intentionally and improvisational. The former is supported by allowing you to observe the spaces you are about to enter without having to put yourself at risk. This can take the form of either peering through grates, looking down from hiding places on the roof or, during later stages using an augmented vision mode that brings to mind both Arkham Asylum‘s Detective Mode and the Crosslink Mode of Gunpoint. Able to parse the play space before you enter and with the initiation of encounters in your hands Mark Of The Ninja allows players to be pro-active, to plan out their route through a space before choosing to commit to action. Players can formulate a plan and then feel suitably smart and skilful when they successfully execute it.

Of course, that isn’t always how things work out, sometimes that guard turns around at precisely the wrong moment, or that jump doesn’t take you as far as you’d like and suddenly you’re standing in the light with a dog on one side and an armed guard on the other. At moments like this the move-set available and the tools you are carrying go from being means of executing your cunning plan to desperate escape measure, at least they would if the “Restart Checkpoint” option wasn’t often the most expedient way to resolve such problems.

The primary method by which different approaches are encouraged and rewarded throughout Mark of The Ninja is via points and leaderboards. Remain concealed while a guard passes by your location? “+200 Undetected”. Conceal the body of one of your unfortunate victims? “+250 Body Hidden”. Each level also has three bonus objectives, which can range from reaching a specific location undetected, to avoiding taking any damaged while traversing a trap filled room. Successfully achieving these bonus objectives grants seals that can be used to upgrade your abilities, as does finding the three scrolls hidden in each level. Being spotted by an enemy does not immediately cost points though it can make achieving some of the bonus objectives harder, however allowing an alarm to be triggered does immediately cost; a scarlet “-800” appearing  in the top left of the screen. As well as needing to deal with the consequences of the alarm itself players will have to deal with the instant loss of 800 points from their total. When most individual actions grant between 200 and 400 points this can be a difficult loss to compensate for. That’s why whenever I see that “-800” I instinctively stab at the Start button and Restart Checkpoint. Despite the tools available being ones that I feel would allow me to resolve the problem presented by alerted guards and the alarm, the presence of a clear decrease in my point total is one I have trouble accepting. It feels like a much more definitive failure that it truly is, or needs to be.

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This is not an unrecoverable situation, though the likely point punishment associated with reaching this stage makes “Restart Checkpoint” the easily achievable optimal solution.

The use of points to grade performance and to encourage certain play styles is not something I have a problem with in itself. Unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution where the clear benefit offered by stealth stood in contrasted to the supposed freedom of approach Mark Of The Ninja is upfront about its nature as a stealth game. There are parts where the grading is handled well, specifically the 5000 point bonus for completing a level without killing anybody is something that has certainly motivated me to try. The difference between this encouragement not to kill and the discouragement from setting off alarms stems from the manner in which they are presented. The former is only referenced at the end of each level when the total score is being calculated. There is no “-5000” that flashes on screen when you perform your first assassination in a level. I can’t help but imagine that if there had been many more people would attempt a ghost run and quickly become frustrated.

Confusingly what feels like a more fitting solution is already present. In the post-level scoring screen there is a 3000 point bonus for not sounding any alarms. So there is both a direct penalty for sounding an alarm and a  bonus that is only attainable if you managed to avoiding doing so. Does there really need to be the former? The encouragement to avoiding sounding alarms would still be present with only the post-level bonus. Recovery from failure can present some of the most memorable experiences in a game and moving the decision of whether to attempt to complete a section without setting off an alarm from the point at which it occurs to a point after recovery may have been achieved would grant the opportunity for these memorable moments to occur. Mark Of The Ninja has the  mechanics to allow for memorable improvisational play, but the manner in which it grades performance seems liable to discourage it.

Interface Context.

To those people who don’t play games on a PC, the PC is a device for spreadsheets, word processing and the internet. You use the mouse to select things, click on links and open files. Those functions are all related to work.

There’s some validity to the idea that PC gaming works because all the time you are using the mouse in a work context you are actually refining your gaming skills because you use the same interface devices for work and play.

When somebody sits down to play a game, there’s a context shift, often it’s quite subtle, but on the base level when people start playing a game there are actively not-working; often people play games to intentionally avoid working. A lot of PC games make use of the mouse and keyboard in a manner similar to that of a non-game application, they use the standard “drag and drop” mechanic and require selection and navigation of menus. Such mechanics are easy to learn because people using a PC will be familiar with a mouse heavy interface. For a lot of games such interface mechanics are ideal, real time strategy games being a prime example. Worth considering however, is that using such interfaces requires players to interact with the game in a fashion very closely related to working. By using such an interface you are effectively asking players to perform work tasks in a play environment.

This might go some way toward explain why first person shooters and real time strategy game are very popular on the PC. You are using the same basic mechanics, pointing and clicking the mouse and using the keyboard, but the context is very different. In an FPS your click doesn’t select or open a file, it is the “Click of Doom” (Pun intentional). If such basic mechanics are related to work then it’s an interesting relationship; instead of clicking to open a report, you are clicking to destroying something. Is it possible that on some sub-conscious level players are actually imagining their work in place of the multitude of enemies on screen. When they shoot a hostile creature, might some part of their mind be putting a shotgun to their annual report thereby blowing that, and all the other work related stress, “back to hell”?

When people play games on a console the interaction mechanics are a world apart from their usual work activities. No mouse, no keyboard, no drag and drop. Every action they take, right down to the most basic interface level is entirely within the context of a state of play.

This leads to an interesting question: Is PC gaming doomed because it’s too much like hard work, or are PC games going to remain popular because the core interface mechanics offer a degree of catharsis in themselves?

Worth the effort.

I was in the bar last night watching somebody playing on a fruit machine. There were the typical revolving reels with various images on them, though instead of just showing the three front symbols the machine displayed a grid of nine. From what I was able to ascertain you could win not only on rows, but also on the diagonals and through various other combinations I didn’t entirely understand.

In addition there were at least six separate buttons along the base of the machine, all with obscure names, and a second spinning reel mounted above the main three. What struck me most was the total lack of any rules of explanatory diagrams on the machine itself. Instead the entire surface was covered with flashing images and icons labeled with a variety of monetary puns. None of them served to explain the purpose of any of the buttons or the secondary reel.

This total lack of accessibility didn’t stop several people playing over the course of the evening, all of them seemed to either already understand what was required, or not have a problem learning the purpose of the multiple reels and buttons. Of course there is a benefit to learning how to successfully play the fruit machine, if you do so you could potentially win money.

It seems that complicated interfaces are not a problem for people if the rewards for mastery are valuable enough. Players will be willing to learn a complicated interface if they believe what they get out of the game is worth more than what they put in.