Mark of the Ninja is, in my opinion, the ultimate stealth game. By this I don’t mean it’s the best stealth game I’ve ever played (though it’s certainly a contender). I mean no other game I’ve played has displayed such a competant understanding of the mechanics that inform a stealth game.
Stealth is, when you think about it, a strange concept for a acion-orientated game to explore. Video games are, by their nature, role-playing emulators that allow their users to immerse themselves in a dramatised task they have no ability to undertake in real life. It is quite a large ask, therefore, to demand that players actively try to avoid such tasks. Basically put, a stealth game present its player with the typical action game power-fantasy that it in turn commands the player to ignore.
The paradox of stealth games can be seen in titles that contain brief stealth levels without wholey focused on stealth as a central draw for the player. Far Cry 3, Uncharted 2 and The Witcher 2 are by most measures great video-games (Uncharted 2 especially), but they each contain brief sections that demand players evade enemies and aviod using combat mechanics that are standard elsewhere. Rather than engaging the player, the stealth sections of these games drag the action to a halt and serve only to bore players (in Uncharted 2 especially).
The reason for this is that a good action game is largely a proactive experience. Once they understand the limits of the game, the player completes the relevant quest on terms they dictate. Stealth game, conversely, are reactive. The core engagement for the player is to navigate conditions imposed on them. In the best stealth games, the player completes an objective with as little impact on the game environment as possible. For this reason, a good stealth game has to find a way to make avioding action thrilling for the player.
To this end, good stealth games are not truly action games at all, but rather puzzle games. In much the same way it’s theoretically possible to complete a crossword puzzle by ignoring the clues and writing in your own choice of words, you can try to fight and dominate your way through a stealth-orientated game, but neither would be a satisfying or rewarding experience. A good stealth games presents its enemies not merely as obstacles, but also as clues. They present the player with not just a challenge, but intimation at a possible solution. In short, whereas the challenges in action game are to be overpowered, in stealth games they are to be outsmarted.
Mark of the Ninja understands this better, in my opinion, better than any other stealth game. The abilities and weapons the game offers the player may be used offensively, but their primary use is to solve logic puzzles that require the player to reach the end of a level while causing as little to the game environment as possible. Throwing darts may be used to poison guards, but they can be used to take out light-sources or create distracting noises. You can use your grappling hook to strangle and hang enemies (or even dangle dead bodies from platform and terrify other enemies), but it’s put to better use by traversing above the enemies’ eye-line and avoiding them altogether.
This range of options for the player is achieved through a fantastically designed system that is adaptable enough to accommodate any player’s style of play. For comparison, take a look at the Hitman series. Now, I’m for the most part a great fan of this series. Its ‘hiding in plain sight’ mechanic is a refreshing variation of the more traditional ‘stick to the shadows’ adopted by Mark of the Ninja. However, it does make a mistake throughout the series, in that alerting guards is all but a fail-state for the player. Of course you can try to shoot your way to level’s objective in this instance, but the combat mechanics are so clumsy that it’s a pain to do so. In contrast, alerting enemies is a manageable failure in Mark of the Ninja. The player has the tools at their disposal to correct their error without greatly interrupting the flow of the gameplay. In short, Mark of the Ninja doesn’t punish the player if they don’t understand its puzzles, but it’s greatly rewarding when they do.
Overwhelmingly Justified: An expertly delivered shot in the dark