Stealth games have a creepy cousin in the survival-horror genre. The relation manifests in an oppressive environment, which isn't clearly designed or signposted to let the player succeed as easily as he would in a spectacle-driven action game. But while horror is really about conserving quantifiable resources within the claustrophobic confines of an inhospitable world, stealth games expect you to wisely expend your movements and other reckless displays of presence. When it comes to guard patrols and impenetrable installations, as you'll see in XBLA's Mark of the Ninja, your currency is quieter and more abstract.
"In a stealth game you're fundamentally undetected. The world is just kind of running and it's on the player to poke and perturb it after observing it for a bit, and you can just do a lot more interesting things there," says Nels Anderson, Technical Designer at Klei Entertainment. To think of the world as an unpredictable beast, one that might bite off your finger if you prod it in the wrong place at the wrong time, might be a good way to understand the polarized, frustrated relationship some players have with the stealth genre.
According to Anderson, "the power dynamic that almost always falls out of that, to make that work, is that interplay between strength and weakness." Having the chance to study the environment and enemies is a huge advantage, but acting on that information can lead to failure. There's an expectation of perfection – I was spotted, so I have to revisit the last save and do it right! – yet a severe punishment of practice. Anderson thinks of it as a "gulf of execution," one that he thinks Mark of the Ninja can fill.%Gallery-157960%
"There's this challenge, this kind of a gap, between what people know they want to do, and reasonably the stuff their character can do, but they actually have to be fluent enough with the controls to be able to do that," he says. "[Players] can be a bit schizophrenic in that power dynamic. So, the game is almost saying, 'You have to be very careful, don't take a lot of risks.' But to become fluent in the game's systems and the controls and all that stuff, you kinda have to be pretty experimental and take a lot of risks." The result is a kind of pervasive tension, Anderson believes, that stealth detractors don't tolerate.
Mark of the Ninja is an explicit game, though not just in the sense of letting you shove a sword through an unsuspecting man's just-as-unsuspecting ribcage. Klei is taking the 3D model, exemplified by genre classics like Splinter Cell, and flattening it into a 2D game that's easy to decipher and predict. That isn't to say the entire world is laid bare; there's still a cautionary fog obscuring the places you haven't seen, and the rooms you haven't glimpsed through the crack of a door or vent. But there are ways to learn without committing to a dangerous space, and visual cues that reveal the consequences of your actions – before you've even done them.
Your footsteps emit a sonar-like circular pulse, showing you exactly where "earshot" begins and ends. Run faster and your 2D aura of projected audio grows larger, and more likely to absorb attentive enemies. The visualization of your movement is a tool in your arsenal, every bit as useful as your throwing knives or grappling hook. And before you let those weapons fly, you can literally see how loud and noticeable their impact will be. "Really precise aiming in 2D is actually very rare and not common," says Anderson. "In most 2D shooting games, you just use your previous shot as a tracer for your next shot. That totally works, but when one missed shot basically means, 'Oops, a guy detects me and then I'm dead,' we can't really do that."
What the game can do is let you put the whole world on pause and wait for you to line up a string of actions – shatter a lightbulb here and swing to a ledge over there – in a sort of pre-bullet time. (Of course, you're welcome to invite an additional layer of finger gymnastics and play in real time once you've gotten the hang of it.) Security guards, with their mundane jobs providing convenient video game patterns, still make ideal foils for such a nimble ninja, but even here there's a reduction in mystery. Much like Metal Gear Solid's top-down radar, Mark of the Ninja turns every enemy's field of vision into an on-screen spotlight. Being caught in that cone doesn't necessarily mark the end so much as a hasty escape or an ill-advised brawl.
I thought the abundance of outlines threatened to make this an easy game, but my early takeaway is that your actions are easier to read, predict and eventually master. Understanding how the game and its systems work shouldn't remove the danger, just the "gotcha" of trial-and-error learning. "Even though we try to make things very clear and very explicit," Anderson says, "we still want to facilitate people being able to be experimental and feel that they can safely take risks, without giant chunks of their progress being held hostage."
There's a simpler but more logical basis to the stealth, which I hope will draw more people into one of my favorite genres. I've always been happy to watch, wait, and ghost my way through stealth games, however, so I could be wrong in predicting Mark of the Ninja's reception amongst a less patient audience. I suppose I'll have to share my best guess in a review of the game alongside its launch on Friday, September 7.