How Stealth Found Its Footing in Mark of the Ninja

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Stealth occupies a weird space in videogames. It’s just popular enough to keep showing up in our games, but reviled enough to keep getting relegated, for the most part, to awkward action game subsegments and “optional” objectives. While nearly ubiquitous, stealth also seems to be hugely misunderstood.

Our propensity has always been to view stealth as a negative space; an absence of action. The thing that fills the space in between the times we’re fighting and killing things. Our relationship with stealth is tenuous and reluctant, as it often finds itself shoehorned into individual levels or parts of levels, players sighing in frustration as they are forced to walk on eggshells until, finally, they’ve cleared the courtyard or cracked the safe and can move and kill freely again.

Stealth in games is largely regarded as an impediment, a weight tied around players’ necks. In Mark of the Ninja, however, stealth is not simply tolerated, it is celebrated. Rather than a handicap, it is regarded as the player’s primary source of power. While most games treat stealth as subtractive, restricting players’ options, Mark of the Ninja uses stealth to empower players. You are at your best when you remain unseen, not hiding, but hunting. Its levels are a playground for the invisible, offering a menu of choices depending on what kind of stealthy you want to be.

You can be a ghost, passing through levels unseen with nobody ever knowing you were there; a shadow, striking with precision and eliminating unwary enemies one by one; a demon, inspiring terror by attacking enemies with poisons and traps. Stealthy players are free to interact with as much or as little of the levels as they wish, transforming stealth from an obstacle to an efficient mode of play beholden only to the whims of player creativity. If it simply tried to mirror common stealth executions this would be a miserable game to play. But through its hyperattention to detail both in control and in feedback, it’s able to break free of the janky stealth paradigm and do its own thing.

Stealth games often cast players in the role of a specialist; ninja or secret agent or supersoldier, player characters are regarded as being more skilled than the enemies they avoid. Yet these games so often undermine themselves as floaty, glidy controls and imprecise feedback constantly keep players on the defensive, worrying too much about an accidentally blunt-ended maneuver ruining a perfectly planned action. Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher, for example, is the most highly regarded operative in his field, yet controlling him feels like he’s constantly floating inches off the ground. This strips players of the confidence the game tells them they are supposed to feel.

Contrast this with Mark of the Ninja. With its plodding, deliberate movements and grid-like precision, you always know where your feet are going to land before you take the step, removing the uncertainty and tentativeness, restoring that feeling of power to the player. Mark of the Ninja puts you back in control.

And once you move, Mark of the Ninja provides excellent feedback. Feedback isn’t a new concept to stealth games; sight cones exploded into ubiquity back in the early days of the Metal Gear Solid games, but just like imprecise movement, stealth games seem intent on providing imprecise feedback as well. Again, if you don’t know precisely how your actions are affecting your environment, it’s impossible to be anything but reactionary. Combined with muddy, slippery controls so common to the genre (not to mention the handful of games that have made the grievous error of trying to implement first person stealth), it’s no wonder stealth has had such a hard time finding its footing.

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Mark of the Ninja goes so far beyond sight cones and shadows, recognizing that knowing what characters hear, even what they smell is just as important as knowing what they see. If stealth is a grand strategy, then having as much environmental information as possible is crucial to planning and executing your masterstroke. Mark of the Ninja embraces this, offering detailed visual information on sound ranges, smell radii, even allowing players to trace electrical components like alarms back to their sources. It isn’t afraid to compromise the fabled but misguided “realism” in favor of recognizing that, as a true master ninja, you’re going to have advantages. It puts the player back in control, free to act rather than just react.

Instead of treating stealth like a type of clunky action, Mark of the Ninja treats it like a puzzle. The challenge comes not from wrestling with unpredictable or unresponsive controls or from trying to guess whether you’re standing on the correct pixel, but from planning your movements ahead of time, before you act. Once you’ve done the work, the actual execution puts the power back into your hands, stripping away the frustration so common to stealth and replacing it with the feeling of omnipotence so many games try (and fail) to create.

It’s been years since Solid Snake, Sam Fisher, and Garrett slunk onto the scene, and yet Mark of the Ninja is the first stealth game I can remember playing that seems to really understand the appeal (and the limitations) of the genre. While the notion of super precise control and feedback is a simple one, it does seem to rub up against the notion of stealth as having to fall squarely within the “action” genre. While I’d love to see more games take leads from Mark of the Ninja  and revitalize the genre into a new golden age of puzzle-like precision, it remains to be seen if this will happen, or if the stealth genre will simply retreat back into the shadows.