I am not into stealth games. In fact, before its recent resurrection, the only Vintage Game Club game that I didn’t finish was Thief. I was excited to play that game, but when it actually came down to it, the experience was just too much for me. Some of that has to do with personal issues that have nothing to do with the genre (let alone that specific game); but I also have personal issues that do hit at the genre. I don’t, in general, like waiting around in games (at least when I have a plan in mind); and I’m also extremely loathe to use limited resources. That latter meant that, rather than being creative about using water arrows (for example), I’d hope that a more straightforward plan involving sneaking and knocking out guards would work, and I’d spend a lot of time boring myself either waiting for guards to be in the right place or retrying.

So: my dislike is totally self-inflicted, my default assumption is still that Thief is a great game, and maybe I’ll even come back to it at some point in the future. But it wasn’t a great game for me then. And, in general, I’ve been staying away from the genre. Nonetheless, when Mark of the Ninja came out, I figured I had to play it given Nels Anderson‘s and Chris Dahlen‘s involvement.

And, actually, I was somewhat glad to have the excuse. For one thing, I don’t like writing off entire genres. For another thing, the game was quite well-received, including some amount of comments from people who enjoyed it even though they think of themselves as not liking stealth games. And, for a third thing, some of Nels’s comments in podcast interviews made me take notice (and my apologies for not including links to those podcasts: he was on a bunch, and I didn’t keep track of where he said what on them): I remember some interesting comments about 2D environments being more readable than 3D environments in a way that helped stealth gameplay (particularly relevant since the specific thing that pushed me over the edge on Thief was my failure to notice an aspect of an environment for something ridiculous like two hours), the explicitness of the information the game gives you seems like it would help in terms of making it more a game about playing around with systems than a game of trial-and-error retries, and it didn’t sound like it leaned too heavily on resource limitation. Plus, it’s an XBLA game, with the brevity that generally comes with that: it’s not like I gave up on Thief immediately, I went through several levels, and if that game had been more of an XBLA length, I probably would have finished it.

So I gave Mark of the Ninja a try. And I’m glad I did! Not only did I finish the game, but I was curious enough about the systems to want to dip into it again, so I started a New Game Plus, and ended up going through it a second time. I doubt I would have finished my second playthrough if it hadn’t been for some achievements that seemed in reach; but I’m happy enough to have finished the second playthrough, and as it turns out the game became the only Xbox 360 game that I’ve actually gotten all the achievements on. (Admittedly, that’s not much of an accomplishment: XBLA games have fewer achievements, and none of this game’s achievements are all that hard.)

I’m still not at all converted into a stealth game fan, but I think I have more of an appreciation for the genre now, and I certainly appreciate Mark of the Ninja for not getting into my way. Being in 2D doubtless helps read what’s going on, as does the clarity of detection radii and darkness and what-not; and checkpoints are frequent and restarts are fast. And many of your abilities are unlimited use; some aren’t, but the ammo limits for those are generous enough not to be too much of a problem, even for people with my psychological quirks. There were bits of the game that I liked that didn’t have much to do with the stealth gameplay, too, e.g. the puzzle rooms or the existence of the haiku.

And there is one aspect of stealth gameplay that I actively like, namely the concept of ghosting. I’m more and more tired of killing in games these days; so it’s nice to have games that are explicitly designed to allow you (or even reward you, assuming you care about points and the like) for not doing that. In fact, in a funny way, my only complaint is that they almost made that too easy: you get a teleport ability towards the end of the game that becomes available throughout the game on a replay, and doing that allows you to bypass a fair number of problems. (Not enough to make the game boring, though, don’t get me wrong.)

I tried to be good about exploring the systems in the game, since my understanding is that that’s a big part of what stealth game is about. Having said that, I didn’t go into the systems as deeply as I could have: on my replay, I generally played through each level twice, once in a straightforward way and once in a teleport-heavy ghost way. Maybe I should have experimented with more options; I’m actually not sure I did a full level in most of the “paths” that the game gives you. (I particularly wonder if I should go back and experiment more with the terror path, having frightened guards seems like it opened up interesting interactions.)

So, really, a somewhat tentative approach. And I’m not yet sold on stealth: I like the idea of exploring interactive systems in theory, but in practice there remain aspects of the genre that aren’t a good fit for me, so I’d rather spend my systems exploration time on, say, Android: Netrunner right now. (I’ll bring my decks to GDC if anybody is up for a game!) As to the aspects of the game other than its stealth nature: the game turned out to be a surprising outlier in that regard. In past years, I wouldn’t have thought twice about a game that’s full of violence and adolescent rebellion / daddy issues—that’s what video games are like, right?—but looking at the games I’ve played over the last year, I’ve been dialing down on that a lot recently, so seeing that in Mark of the Ninja was a little more jarring than I expected. But not in an actively unpleasant way; certainly I’m glad that I played Mark of the Ninja, for multiple reasons.

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