Ninjas are awesome. They are also, apparently, fascists.
Multimedia: Tenchu Z
Platforms: Xbox 360
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB rating: Mature
US release date: 2007-06-12
While I have known for quite some time that ninjas are awesome, I hadn't realized that they are also fascists.
Microsoft's latest stealth action offering Tenchu Z has both reminded me of the former and made me eerily uneasy about the second truth.
Tenchu Z's style of gameplay is a mixture of the need to master elegant acrobatics and zenlike patience, punctuated by thrilling moments of strangely satisfying bloodshed. As I said, ninjas are awesome and playing a ninja is as awesome as it sounds. Tenchu Z offers some nice features for getting sneaky, including a whole range of concerns as to how your ninja might get noticed through an easy to understand HUD that lets you know how when you may be most easily seen, heard, or even smelled by your opponents. Challenging yourself to pull off a mission completely unobserved despite the myriad ways that you may be perceived and a fairly solid enemy AI makes practicing ninjitsu all the more fantastic. I just never really thought about what a ninja's actual occupation entailed until I began exploring the world of feudal Japan in Tenchu Z.
Loading up the game, it is unlikely that the player is much concerned with the politics of this assassination simulator. Likely, the player's only concern is mastering the art of the ninja and the game's complex, though fluidly executed control system and gaining the approval of the clan's master as he puts you through your paces in the game's initial tutorial. Likewise, the rather flat presentation of the game's story is not immediately all that immersive given that mission goals are announced through paragraphs of static text and the rare (and rather undramatically executed) brief cut scene. Both are rather yawn-inducing and old school forms of plot advancement.
However, as your ninja begins a series of missions that involve assassinating threats to the nation or locating and diffusing explosives or running a message behind enemy lines, the situation that you are involved with begins to grow clearer. The game is set within a time of civil unrest. Indeed, civil war may be brewing and the ninja clan that your customized ninja belongs to is interested in making sure that the state remains intact during this chaotic time.
While I began thrilling over the brutal stealth kills that I was able to achieve so quickly and silently and began getting smart about the shadows that I could hide in and where to hide the bodies, it began occurring to me that the Goda clan that I represented was sending me on missions with targets both military as well as moral in nature.
Well. That's that, then.
While I was a military weapon, I was also the arbiter of morality. The libretarian in me bridled: I was working for The Man!
Earlier this year, another Microsoft release, Crackdown, had similarly dealt with authoritarianism and law enforcement. Placing the player in the role of a supercop, the game rather heavy-handedly and hammily offered the player a twist ending when your superior (the game's narratorial voice that instructs you in your training and mission goals) reveals that you have shut down a variety of unwelcome criminal elements in the name of establishing the iron fisted power of the state. "Cracking down" on crime becomes a way of showing the ability of the state to organize and order a future utopian state. The ending came out of nowhere given the dearth of plot in the game and came across, as I said, as somewhat hammy and, perhaps, just a means of setting up a sequel pitting your supercop against your former masters.
Tenchu Z's underlying authoritarianism is nowhere near as campy in feel, and the effectiveness of indoctrinating the player initially through goals seemingly noble and oriented towards the "greater good" lends it a much greater and more chilling effect as you realize that you are the secret police of ancient Japan and the instrument of executing the state's power.
The horror of so easily bending to the fascist mindset of the hand of the state is heightened as you improve at sneaking around amongst the citizenry and executing judgment on those that the Goda clan deem immoral. The systematic and elegant means at your disposal of lurking around rooftops and dropping in on unsuspecting prey is not simply a mechanistic process, it becomes a pleasurable exercise in being the invisible eyes and ears of the state. Being the secret police is really, really fun.
Making my socio-political awareness of the game even more cynically acute was the reward system at the close of the missions and the customization features offered between missions. Each completed mission is evaluated and your character is offered an overall performance ranking from Ninja 1 (the poorest) to Ninja 5 (the greatest). Additionally, the ranking is accompanied with a cash bonus for points scored. The more undesirables that die, the less that you are seen, and the more efficient you are with the use of your equipment all result in greater monetary rewards. Not only is being the invisible arbiter of the state pleasurable, but bloodshed, keeping bad public relations to a minimum, and utilizing state property is rewarded handsomely.
The cash is used, as is often the case in other games of this sort, to purchase skills and abilities to improve your state-supported assassin and to purchase new clothing and accessories to make your ninja even more awesome looking than before. Maybe it was due to the fact that I chose to play a female ninja and it evoked a stereotypical response in me especially because I grew more interested as time went on in suiting my character up in cool outfits than in improving her skills, but it felt like my services were being encouraged by a promise of a tremendously expansive wardrobe. My obedience and desire to fulfill more missions was being bought with superficial baubles. In Tenchu Z, I killed for the sake of style not substance.
Don't get me wrong, though, the game has style, elegance, and enjoyability in spades. In fact, I can't get enough of it. Even after completing the 50 story-based missions on the normal setting, I find myself loading up the missions again on a more difficult setting in order to gain some more money to tweak my superninja's appearance or abilities even more. For fans of the stealth genre, this game is doubtless a winner. But, it also brings up the underlying ethics of what stealth based tactics really simulate and does so in a less obvious way than other titles. Sure, games like Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series clearly recognize that authoritarianism will always underlie and be of thematic concern in any story about an operative working under the cover of shadows in the service of a government. But, Kojima blasts this message like a bullhorn throughout the proceedings. Admittedly, he does so well.
But, it is also nice to see the theme creep into gameplay unobtrusively and in such a sneaky manner. You know, like a ninja.