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.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 2.

“Hey, the City looks almost bearable from up here.”

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Somewhere to the north is your objective, Angelwatch.

Annotated Walkthrough, 1:

From the moment it starts Life Of The Party feels different from the rest of Thief II. Everything is brighter, the surrounding walls no longer tower above you, even the sky seems closer.

Some familiar elements remain, the constant industrial drone that pervades every level, the sounds of civilization layered over it. Somewhere to the right somebody is snoring heavily, while footsteps can be heard ahead of you though something is a little off, they sound close but there is nobody in sight. Those footsteps are indeed ahead of you, but also below you, several floors down, at street level.

For the first time you start a level with neither your objective in view nor the sound of Garrett musing over the task at hand. It isn’t until you’ve moved to the edge of the Bell Tower, upon who’s upper floor you start, that Garrett makes his opinions known and even then it’s more cynical commentary than meaningful advice. You will need to scale the pipework on the opposite roof before he will make any suggestions regarding the best way to proceed. The suggestion to “follow the road north” is an almost cryptic one as there is an inaccessible building to your north and the road in question is aligned east to west.

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Grandmauden Road, your circuitous guide to Angelwatch.

Though initially confusing, the advice is good. It will be difficult to keep Grandmauden Road in view at all times on your way to Angelwatch but it will serve as a landmark by which to orientate yourself as you make your way along the Thieves’ Highway.

Looking down to the street below highlights this level’s inversion of the traditional relationships of space and height; no longer are the buildings of the City towering over you. It is a liberating view of what has until now been portrayed as a uniformly oppressive and restrictive environment. The buildings that once stood as obstacles during your flight from the Crippled Burrick (in Ambush!) are now the very means by which you’ll traverse the city.

Even before reaching this point there have been opportunities to stray from the path. To the left of the Bell Tower a ledge leads to a secret room containing a handful of gold coins and some Water Arrows. While following the snoring takes you to a small room where a liveried guard appears to be sleeping off the effects of a bottle of wine, some more loot can be retrieved from his unsecured footlocker. Heading in either direction very quickly leads to a dead end, but it won’t take long before the routes available will begin to diverge much more significantly.

Having used the pipes to cross Grandmauden Road there is another brief diversion available to you. A ladder on the left descends to a rooftop occupied by a pair of generators, the noise from which it is difficult to ignore. There is an open window in the building to the north, the guard within alternating between facing the roof and the room itself. The window ledge is just high enough to be climbed onto, though if you fail the sounds of your clumsy footsteps are certain to alert the guard even though the ambient noise from the two generators should have been enough to mask any sounds you may make.

Unfortunately the implementation of audio within the Dark Engine is such that even when you think they should background sounds are often not loud enough to completely drown out the noise you make. Occasionally frustrating this also works in your favour at times, as Noisemaker Arrows and other forms of audible distraction can still be employed in noisy areas. Any sound effects associated with the player or other functional elements within the world are always higher in the mix than ambient sound effects. This ensures they are always readable, even in circumstances where environmental sounds could realistically be expected to drown out all other noise.

Climbing, or mantling, is one of a number of secondary techniques within Thief II that extend the standard inputs to increase the scope of Garrett’s movement options. By approaching a low wall, or window ledge, and holding down the jump button while moving forward you can mantle up onto the wall. It’s not always straightforward, you will need to ensure that your view is centred correctly or you will miss the mantle attempt and inevitable make noise as you jump ineffectually against the wall. Extending this technique is the ‘running jump-mantle’, by running towards a wall and holding down jump at the last moment it is possible to grab the edge of the wall and pull yourself up. As well as being useful for reaching areas too high for the standard mantle it can also be used to scale walls on the other side of the gaps. A very useful skill in Life Of The Party, where a number of ledges can only be reached by leaping between buildings. The third of these secondary movement techniques is the ‘crouch-drop’ which is as simple as it sounds. By crouching and walking off a wall it is possible to land without making a sound, though care needs to be taken as when landing from a ‘crouch-drop’ you will automatically stand up again.

Development of these movement skills greatly increases the playable space of the level. Though the majority of locations can be reached through reliance on the standard move set, the directed graph that defines the relationship between accessible and inaccessible, safe and hostile, spaces is altered as each of the secondary movement mechanic are learnt. Two locations that were once only accessible via a third location can now be moved between directly, while routes that once restricted backtracking now become bidirectional.

The presence of these secondary movement mechanics highlights an often overlooked aspect of the Thief games. Despite their name the actual act of thievery is not where the focus of the game systems lie, what you do when you reach the loot is secondary to the means you employ to get there. Thief is a game about movement through space, and the manipulation of that space to increase its relative safety or hostility. As such in terms of its mechanical focus some of it’s closest modern contemporary are not the superficially similar Splinter Cell series which has a greater focus on the tools at your disposal, but rather Mirror’s Edge a game very explicitly about movement through, and therefore mastery of, space. The commonality of the mechanical and aesthetic experience between these two apparently disparate games will become clearer as your progress through Life Of The Party.

If you are unwilling or unable to climb onto the window ledge, there are other options. Positioned directly above the window is a wooden roof support, a good target for a Vine Arrow, and if you are willing to look for one there are plenty of crates and similar objects throughout the level. Whatever method your choose to gain access to the room, timing it to ensure the guard’s back is turned requires either judicious use of a scouting orb or a fair degree of luck. Whether the stack of coins within is worth the effort of attaining it depends on the difficulty setting and your own preferences regarding the acquisition of loot.

Watching over your actions, from a window in a building to the north is a hooded figure, a Keeper, who will have disappeared once more when your emerge from the room. This is not the only member of his Brotherhood to be found on this level though he does manage to be the more subtle of the two.

Moving west again you are soon presented with the first real opportunity to diverge from the straight ahead path. Climbing down a ladder onto a low roof two routes are now available, head inside the building directly east of you or jump across to a ledge on the wall of a building to the south and follow Grandmauden Road as it continues past the building and further east. It is worth noting at this point that the route of Grandmauden Road is not as straight forward as depicted on the map. Though the general direction is accurate the position of the buildings surrounding it often mean it has to go a short distance in a perpendicular direction before turning back on course. This can occasionally make it difficult to orientate yourself with relation to the map, however the road can be seen at enough points to allow you to ascertain which direction leads to Angelwatch.

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Continue along this ledge to eventually cross Grandmauden Road or head through the building to stay to its east side.

Accessed through an open window the building to the east is the first of the self-contained encounter spaces. A corridor, two small rooms and a staircase with a single guard on a patrol route passing through each area. In Thief terms this is a trivial encounter, the corners of the room at the bottom of the staircase offer enough shadow to hide while the guard moves past. A window half way up the staircase will allow you to leave the building and keep heading west, however there is an alternate way out of this building and one that will allow you to bypass a large section of the Dayport streets.

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Access to the Astronomer’s room can be found directly above this position.

Entering from the hallway, it’s possible to spot a hole in the wall directly ahead. Accessible from the roof-beams and partially blocked off by wooden boards this grants access to a secret area and eventually the Shemenov Estate. A Vine Arrow is the most efficient means of reaching the roof-beams as it is noiseless and the Arrow itself can be retrieved and reused.

The wooden boards covering the hole need to be broken, though they take no obvious damage when initial struck. Unless you have encountered the few similarly breakable surfaces in previous levels, this can be a little disconcerting as there is no feedback to indicate attacking is the correct approach. If you are trying to maintain a low profile, it will be necessary to ensure that the patrolling guard has closed the door and started up the stairs before you attack the boards as the noise will easily alert him. The sound of the guard’s footsteps as he scales the stairs to the room at the top and then returns, can feel like a ticking clock creating a moment of tension in what is a very simple situation. There is more than enough time to break through before the guard returns but it doesn’t necessarily feel as safe as it actually is.

On the other side of the wall is the attic room of an Astronomer who clearly has a rather dubious concept of both the scientific method and the value of human life; not to mention a single-minded fascination with the moon. It is possible to steal the Sunburst Device described in the Astronomer’s journal and doing so might actually be one of the noblest things Garrett will ever do. A final curious note about the Astronomer’s room is that though it’s possible to switch the electric lights on it’s impossible to turn them off again, they simply flicker a little and remain illuminated. It can evoke a brief moment of worry that lasts only as long as it takes to realise nobody can reach you here.

Thief is rife with moments like this, players, especially first time players, can not always be certain if an area is safe and this knowledge gap between perception and reality can be exploited to imply hostility where none exists.

Moving past some stacked crates, a window in an empty room below leads to the Shemenov Estate and a perfect example of the isolated problem encounter spaces upon which the Dayport sections of Life Of The Party are built.

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Shemenov Estate, a good case study for the different spatial layouts available for a stealth game.

Despite there being at least three ways to reach the Shemenov Estate each require exploration to find and as such this section of Life Of The Party can feel much more isolated than some of the locations to the west of Grandmauden Road. This isolation, along with the limited number of AI agents (Two patrolling guards, one static guard and a civilian) make it a good case study for the various ways in which the Thief series uses spatial layout to promote stealth gameplay.

Stripped of any interaction verbs beyond those concerned directly with movement there are three ways of moving unobserved through a space patrolled by a hostile AI.

  1. Watch and Wait: Find a location along the path of the AI from which you can remain unobserved and wait for the AI to pass you heading in the opposite direction, then proceed across the space.
  2. Bypass: Locate an alternate route through the space that avoids contact with the hostile AI completely.
  3. Follow: Trace the same path as the AI until you find a point that allows you to break contact.

Since method 3 is a variation and combination of the first two methods, there are essentially only two approaches to stealth movement. The tools available to the player can be used to change the environment to facilitate either of these approaches but within most Thief levels it is possible maintain unobserved movement without a reliance upon tools. In general there is a path that offers a near zero change of detection, of stealth failure.

The first and second (external and internal) sections of the Shemenov Estate are good examples of these two methods of stealth movement, and the level design needed to support them.

The external section of the Shemenov Estate, which you enter from the Astronomer’s room, consists of a lower and upper roof space, linked by steps, with two rooms off the lower roof, one accessible from a closed door on the lower roof itself and the other by a second set of steps rising to the same level as the upper roof. This upper room is lit by a torch and has an attached balcony upon which is a guard. The other guard patrols between this room and the upper roof, though he has a tendency to embellish his route with occasionally and apparently random loops that making following him a risky proposition. Arriving on the lower roof, it is initially impossible to see the static guard, while the patrolling guard could also be hidden from view in the upper room on on the upper roof, though as he never actually stops moving his footsteps will quickly give his position away.

The erratic behaviour of the patrolling guard combined with an unawareness of the layout of the upper roof make any attempt to follow him a risky option, with no apparent means of gaining access to the upper roof without taking the steps the only viable option is either to deal with the guard directly or adopt the Watch and Wait approach.

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An example of a room that serves a logical and functional purpose.

The level design in the Thief series makes a lot of use of what appears on first glance to be purely logical territory. Each level is full of small rooms and little nooks that seem to exist simply because such locations would exist in a bank or a warehouse. However an understanding of the dynamics of Thief shows that these locations are in fact just as much functional territory as logical territory. They may contain little, or even nothing, in the way of loot, and are likely undisturbed by guards or other NPCs, but their very emptiness makes them prime locations from which to observe the behaviour of the NPCs and plan your next move.

The room behind the door on the lower roof is a prime example of such a space. Ostensibly it is a guard barracks, with a double bunk and a small foot locker, however its position makes it an ideal place from which to observe the movements of the patrolling guard. It is away from his standard route and though illuminated by an electric light there are enough dark corners to allow you to wait undetected.

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An alternate view of the Shemenov Estate showing the upper roof, and chimney to the Kitchen.

Despite the multiple ways you can leave the Shemenov Estate the route that will keep you heading in the direction of Angelwatch requires heading inside the estate itself and finding another way out to the north. The only way to gain entry to the interior is via the chimney on the upper roof where a Water Arrow is needed to dowse the flames in the fireplace before you can descend.

Even with the fire out the kitchen still presents a hostile environment, a torch illuminates the floor ahead of you which is made up of hard stone that is difficult to cross inaudibly, while a servant performs her duties in the corner. Once alerted she will scream and run for help from the guard on patrol inside the Shemenov Estate. If you move slowly you can leave the kitchen without being seen, however opening the door to the hallway without first taking the time to listen for what is on the other side is a risky proposition.

On the counter opposite the fireplace and behind the servant is a scroll that contains the latest in a series of missives concerning an Alchemist’s and the arrangements of two people to meet therein. This minor subplot is detailed in various scrolls found within several of the previous levels, even as far back as the third level Framed.

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Not only a good hiding place, this storage area contains what feels like an intentional trick.

The second patrolling guard can be found in the interior of the Shemenov Estate, his route taking him from a small storage area opposite the door to the kitchen up two flights of stairs and out onto another roof.

Within the storage area beneath the stairs there are two chests,of the kind within which loot or other useful items are usually found, however in this case one of them contains a bucket that you will automatically pick up. Putting this bucket down creates a lot of noise which may alert either the guard himself of the servant in the kitchen; assuming you haven’t closed the door behind you. Though it’s a simple task to wait until the guard has moved away before dropping the bucket, it is equally simply (and more likely) to discard the bucket as worthless, allowing it to clank nastily on the stone floor. The placement of his chest was not unintentional and it feels like a slight admonishment against not thinking things through, against acting too quickly. After all which is more likely to be found under the stairs, gold or cleaning supplies?

Though the storage area provides a good hiding place from which to avoid the AI, as it marks one of the end points of his patrol it will not be possible to wait here and then proceed past him. Because his entire route cannot be observed from any one location exit from the Shemenov Estate will require you to take a risk and follow him up the stairs.

Each of the two landings is lit by a single torch and once plunged into darkness either makes a good point at which to wait for the patrolling guard to move past. Continuing up brings you out onto an unguarded rooftop with a high wall to the north. Mantling this wall and moving across another roof leads to the intersection of Grandmauden Road and The Baron’s Way, a well guarded intersection and the point at which all paths through Dayport converge.

From out of the shadows.

It’s not uncommon for games with a well defined core mechanic, specifically action games, to include sections with different mechanics to break up the pacing and provide variety. When it comes to these “palette cleanser” sections it seems the stealth section is on a par with the turret section as the favourite choice of developers. If a new action game doesn’t feature one it will almost certainly feature the other, if not both. Given my feelings towards Thief II: The Metal Age and similar titles it should come as little surprise that I am fascinated and frustrated in equal measure by stealth sections in games. With very few exceptions stealth sections in games that haven’t been designed specifically around stealth mechanics are poorly executed. Think of any recent game with a stealth section; it was likely passable at best, if not outright unpleasant.

The obvious argument is that simple resource management means any mechanic used only for a single section of a game is going to receive less attention than a mechanic around which the game is focused.  I’m sure this is true and has an affect on the implementation of stealth sections, however I believe there is a specific problem with the mechanics of such sections; they are based not simply on poorly implemented stealth mechanics, but on bad stealth mechanics.

Stealth games are about power and the relationship of power to physical location. Good stealth games make the player a powerful agent in a world designed for them to exercise that power, bad stealth games make the player a weak agent in a world designed to reinforce that weakness. Bad stealth games, and by extension bad stealth sections, confuse being stealthy with hiding. It’s a fine distinction but an important one.

Consider Garrett, protagonist of the Thief series. Outside his cynicism his defining attribute is that he becomes invisible when in a dark area. It might never be explicitly stated but when the Light Gem is completely black Garrett is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Darkness is a safe zone for Garrett and he has a variety of tools at his disposal with which he can alter the environment to increase the size of that safe zone.

This basic concept, the manipulation of the environment in your favour, is also present in the Splinter Cell series. Sam Fisher shares Garrett’s curious ability to become invisible in the dark, but the nature of the darkness as safe zone is taken further by the inclusion of alternative vision modes that allow him to see as well in darkness as light.

Both Garrett and Sam Fisher operate in environments which are, the majority of the time, in darkness. Environments where they are the ones in positions of power. The various guards and other non-player characters in the world might be better armed and more numerous than either protagonist but they lack a lot of their abilities. To them the darkness is a hindrance, to Garrett and Sam Fisher it is home. With access to an enhanced move set and the ability to modify the world around you, playing as either protagonist you have the upper hand. You have the ability to plan your approach and the moment at which you act. Things don’t always go as planned and you often have to improvise to survive but the choice of where and when to initiate action is yours.

Compare this mentality to that manner in which stealth sections in action games are presented. The core mechanics of such games provide the player with the most power when they are heavily armed and operating in open well lit environments. The available verbs are those that make the most of that environment.  When such games enter a stealth section the rules are changed, the previously available verbs, are either entirely removed or drastically curtailed. Non-player characters are now the ones operating from the position of power. Darkness for Garrett provides the ability for concealed movement and safety, for the standard action game protagonist it represents a diminished vocabulary and restricted move set.

This use of a diminished vocabulary in order to encourage stealth play can be seen clearly in the two stealth sections of Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy). Both sections are a variation on the same theme, with the teenage Lucas trying to gain access to a restricted hanger on the airbase on which he lives. Stripped of the ability to interact with anything beyond that which is required for forward progression there is no choice of where and when to initiate action, the player must react to the game world and respond correctly or fail and be forced to restart the section.

Good stealth mechanics revolve around making the player powerful and giving them the means by which to exercise that power; bad stealth mechanics revolve around making the player weak and requiring them to work to mitigate that weakness.