This is a good year for stealth games with Dishonored, Hitman: Silent Assassin, and kinda-sorta-maybe Assassin’s Creed III, if you still consider that a stealth game. But the best stealth game of the year just might be an XBLA game that flew under the radar for a lot of people. Mark of the Ninja is both complex and reductionist, trimming out all the complications of a 3D world for a 2D world filled with more visual cues than any stealth game before it, and in stripping away that extra dimension the game makes it easier to embrace its many complex systems.
The 2D perspective gives us an immediate overview of the environment. When we encounter an obstacle we can usually see all possible paths around it on the same screen: Go forwards through a door, or go down through a grate, or go up and over the building itself. We don’t have to spend time scouting out the location because our choices are obvious. This means we’re always moving ahead, we’re always pushing and prodding the obstacle before us. We spend more time “doing” and less time “thinking about doing.”
This seems to be the core design philosophy behind the game. The environments are often tight and narrow (and the 2D perspective makes everything feel even more confined) so when a guard is walking in our direction we have precious little time to get out of his way. We can’t stop and think about all our possible escape routes, we just act, but we don’t act blindly. The game gives us so much visual information that we’re able to make fully informed split-second decisions.
We see sound as thin circles that ripple out from the source. Everything within the circle can hear the sound and everything outside cannot hear the sound, so we see the precise distance the sound will travel and who can hear it. Light beams have a hard edge, so we again know the precise limits of its reach. Guards have flashlights that extend in front of them that act as a cone of vision, yet again showing us the exact limits of their vision.
There’s a risk that all this information could make killing too easy and thus negate the need for stealth, but developer Klei applies some smart limitations. Even though the 2D view lets us technically see behind walls, we can’t actually see behind walls. Any area that’s not within our line of sight is blurred and darkened. It’s a smart system: We get an overview of the environment that allows us to move about efficiently, but we still need to inch forwards because we don’t know what dangers lay ahead. It’s a wonderful contrast that evokes constant tension: We’re propelled ahead by the level design even as we try to take things slow to ensure we’re not ambushed.
This type of action-y gameplay feels weird at first because normally stealth games have a puzzle quality to them: We watch the movement of guards, we analyze the environment, we look and listen, but we don’t act until the path ahead becomes clear. However, in Mark of the Ninja stealth is more of a means to an end rather than the end itself; we don’t sneak so we can survive, we sneak so we can kill. Stealth is a weapon used to get rid of an obstacle, not to get around an obstacle, and all the visual information we get helps us focus on the kill. As a point of contrast: When I play Splinter Cell I try to kill as few guards as possible, when I play Mark of the Ninja I try to kill as many guards as possible. It’s an action-oriented pacing that can trace its roots to the 2D perspective.
This action gameplay is especially important given the complexity of the point system that rewards us for various actions. These points encourage us to min/max each kill. Normally min/maxing is a considered a bad thing (or neutral at best) since it results in us playing efficiently rather than creatively, but in Mark of the Ninja the highest scoring kills are the most creative kills, so we’re encouraged to learn every trick and tactic as a matter of practicality.
Use sound as a distraction, use our knowledge of the environment to stay hidden, use our tools to kill silently, hang the body to terrorize other guards, scare them into killing each other, hide all the bodies, then repeat this pattern of silent terrorization.
In these moments I cease to be a mere ninja and I become death incarnate: An invisible force killing stalking every living thing I can see. In this way Mark of the Ninja succeeds in turning a genuinely weak avatar into a badass character. I can’t soak up bullets, I can’t even take a punch, and yet this is by far the most empowering game I played all year. As with everything else, that sense of empowerment stems from the 2D perspective and the game’s ability to relate a lot of information in an instant: I feel empowered because I’m smarter than everyone else, I’m cleverer, I know more than they do and I can use that knowledge to destroy an entire army. Knowledge really is power.
Stealth games aren’t about big budget spectacle, so in retrospect it makes perfect sense to strip out all the fluff that comes from a 3D environment. The simpler world of Mark of the Ninja allows more information to be presented at any given time, and all that information allows me to focus on being a silent and unstoppable force. All because I’m flat.