Playing Like a Designer – Stealth in Mark of the Ninja

Image captured by Rob

As I delve further in to game design, I find that they way I approach a game is beginning to shift. The common idea that I’ve heard bandied about is that ‘the magic disappears’ once you know how to make games. This statement is true, but also barely scratches the surface. Yes, that starry-eyed wonder and easy engrossment may fade somewhat, but it doesn’t simply leave a hole in your experience. Instead, it is replaced by a deeper understanding and appreciation for well crafted mechanics, narratives and experiences. It becomes less of “Look how awesome this game is!” and more of “Look how well the designer pulled this off!” This is what can be referred to as Playing Like a Designer – the act of seeing how the disparate game elements function and work together – to see the Man Behind the Curtain. With this column, I hope to take you for a bit of a trip behind that curtain, and talk in detail about the nuts and bolts behind some of my favorite games.

So with that, let’s get started! Let’s take a look at how Klei Entertainment crafted a top-notch stealth system for Mark of the Ninja.

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Before we dive in, there’s something I need to admit to you guys: I am awful at stealth games. I mean awful. I go out of my way to avoid playing them, and I am rarely successful when I do. I attempted to sneak through a dungeon exactly twice in Skyrim, and both times saw me end up having to murder everyone inside because I was simply that inept. I most often find stealth mechanics to be slow, painful, and utterly frustrating when I inevitably mess them up. So you’d be right in assuming it was with a great deal of trepidation that I first picked up Mark of the Ninja.

So imagine my surprise when instead of a frustrating mess of failures and bungled attempts at sneaking, I found a thoroughly engaging and understandable stealth system, one that I could engage myself in without losing my cool. So how exactly did Klei Entertainment manage to solve most of my gripes with standard stealth games? Well, they crafted their mechanics with a few simple concepts in mind.


When a user becomes frustrated with your mechanics – when they feel that the game isn’t fair – it can usually be traced back to one basic concept: understanding. Simply put, the set of rules that the game operates by aren’t understandable. Unless the underlying mechanics are visible in some way to the user, then they will have a much harder time gaining a deep understanding.

Have you ever been playing a stealth game and found yourself unsure exactly how a guard saw you? Or questioning which actions will attract attention and which ones won’t? This is an example of a game’s mechanics not being visible enough to the user.

Mark of the Ninja screen

Mark of the Ninja overcomes this stumbling block by displaying their underlying stealth mechanics with simple visual cues. When your character is bathed in shadows, he cannot be seen, when he is colored, he can. The amount of noise you generate is shown with visible waves that demonstrate exactly how far your sound is traveling. The sight-lines of guards are shown with clear arcs. Altogether, these equip the player with the tools to make informed decisions about their situation. When things go wrong, you will know exactly what happened and why.

Low Cost of Failure

One of the single most frustrating elements of most stealth-based games is the idea of losing an hour of progress thanks to one wrong step or one guard that you didn’t see in time. One mistake and all that hard-won progress disappears, and slogging back through that level again has to be one of the most unsatisfying feelings in gaming.

Mark of the Ninja does away with this completely. Though it may not appeal to the hardest of hardcore, the punishment for death is not all that punishing. Checkpoints are frequent, and they allow the user to tweak and alter their plan in short, easily digestible iterations.

By not punishing the user for making mistakes, it affords the player the freedom to experiment and to take risks that they might otherwise avoid. They may try a new strategy, or a new piece of equipment, or simply explore possibilities that might have been ignored in favor of the ‘safer path’. By not flogging the player for a mistake, an environment is created  in which the user can learn. This is elementary school stuff, folks.

Respect the Player’s Style

Better than any other stealth game I’ve seen, Mark of the Ninja respects the way that you want to play it. There are a variety of different ways to tackle a stealth game, and Mark of the Ninja is welcoming to them all. Want to meticulously move through a level, taking out guard after guard until your path is clear? Go for it! Want to zip through the level in pure stealth, never letting the guards hear your footsteps? Great! How about causing distractions – taking out lights and dropping noisemakers – laughing as the guards dimly saunter to investigate? The game is your oyster.

Miraculously, no particular style feels more powerful or more optimal than any other, and all are satisfying. The selection of equipment allows you to tailor your build to the way you want to play the game. There is no min/maxing of equipment or optimal builds, just a system that allows you to have exactly the experience you want.

Mark of the Ninja Skills

There is a common trap that designers fall in to. They visualize a way that they see the game being played, and then they design the game around that. The Elder Scrolls series, for all that I love it, is a prime example of this. The game is so utterly stacked towards armored hack-and-slash gameplay it’s almost laughable. It’s clear that the designers had this style in mind when they started development.

However, by respecting the fact that different players may have different styles and using this as a core principle of game design, Mark of the Ninja focuses on delivering the best experience for the player, not just what the designer believes will be the best. I think more games need to keep this in mind.

Mark of the Ninja accomplished something I thought almost impossible – delivering a stealth game that I enjoyed utterly, and which kept me going back for more. Failure felt like a challenge to overcome rather than a frustration to deal with, and as a player I felt in control of the situation instead of a victim of bad luck or an unfair game. Leaving your player frustrated and confused is a hallmark of poor game design; give your players the information and the tools they need to tackle the situation intelligently, and they will never stop coming back for more.

To see more from Rob, check out his blog at Zero to Indie. There you’ll find more of his insight into the development process as well as other musings about games and their design!


  1. renxkyoko says:

    That’s true. Metal Gear immediately comes to mind.


    1. duckofindeed says:

      The game that comes to mind after reading this post for me is Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. Stealth is not really a part of these games, but having minimal punishments for failure is. There are no lives, and you don’t have to start over from the beginning of a level when you die, so you are encouraged to better yourself. I would actually kill my character off on purpose just to try and do a better job collecting Lums and the like.

      What about Metal Gear did this post make you think of?


  2. Dean says:

    Interesting take here. I’m not sure I’d put Skyrim up against Mark of the Ninja, though. I don’t think Bethesda aimed for Skyrim to be stealth but rather stealth-able.

    Though Mark of the Ninja is stealth, it’s also hard to call (and compare to modern FPS games) any side-scroller a “stealth” game, at least by modern day gaming standards. I have to say though, one of my favorite side-scrollers (and one of my favorite games) was heavy on stealth- Bonanza Brothers.


    1. You make some good points. I’ll agree that Skyrim wasn’t the best example to stack against Mark of the Ninja – truth be told I wasn’t attempting to make a direct comparison between the two. It was just a time that I can starkly remember being frustrated with stealth mechanics, and the lack of feedback or reasoning I was getting from them.

      I disagree though that a side-scroller, or any 2D game can’t be considered a “stealth” game, per se. I believe that designation is more tied to the mechanics and approach to a game, rather than it’s exact implementation.

      Above all else, Mark of the Ninja just gave me an excellent way to demonstrate some key tenants of stealth gameplay, of how a good feedback system is the difference between challenge and frustration. Because it’s a 2D sidescroller, it offers a simplicity that makes these mechanics extremely easy to see and outline.

      Though I haven’t played them yet, I gather that the Thief series does an excellent job of implementing these mechanics as well. Would be worth a look if you want a well crafted stealth experience in that open world environment!


      1. Dean says:

        I hear you on Skyrim. It has stealth elements because some people would like to play that way and Skyrim’s… schtick…?… or at least one of its schticks is that you can do/play anything/any way you want. When you take the game’s elements by themselves- stealth, FPS action etc. -it doesn’t do most of them great.

        Take GTAV for example, it has a lot of driving and it’s good but compared to Forza or the Project Gotham games it’s not great. This makes sense for a lot of reasons but from a technical/developer standpoint- it’s not a driving sim so to devote so much time/effort into making the driving mechanics as pristine as those sims just doesn’t make sense. They have to work and be fun- that’s it.

        I didn’t mean to imply that side scrollers can’t be stealth games. Mark of the Ninja is definitely specifically a stealth game (it seems- I haven’t played it so can’t say for sure).

        RE: Thief- I was interested a long time ago in that series though I just don’t enjoy the settings of them so I didn’t play them beyond their PC demos. I like games that take place in the future or modern day where tech and gadgets are present (Deus Ex!). A modern day Thief would be awesome though. I’m thinking Watch Dogs but Thief-ified. I’d buy the shit out of that game!


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