Mark of the Ninja's Getting the Special Edition Treatment

This summer, Klei Entertainment's adding a new costume, some more items, huge commentary, and a brand-new level.

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Another Stab in the Dark With Mark of the Ninja: Special Edition

Lead designer Nels Anderson explains why the studio is giving the Criterion treatment to its celebrated stealth game. A new level, more items, and roughly 15,000 words of behind-the-scenes commentary.

It’s largely the nature of my job, but few games draw me into playing them a second time. I came very close with Klei Entertainment’s stellar stealth game Mark of the Ninja, and the studio’s giving me a convincing reason to jump back in with the game’s upcoming Mark of the Ninja: Special Edition.

It's easy for stealth in a video game to be a frustrating, tiresome affair, but Mark of the Ninja nailed the thrill of an assassin.

Mark of the Ninja: Special Edition is coming to Xbox Live Arcade and PC this summer. While it has a Dosun-centric level (he was the rad tattoo guy) set before the events in the main game and a new costume and items, it’s largely about a meaningful reason to play the game a second time. The new items encourage players to switch up tactics, and there’s the option to flip on a lengthy text commentary. Scattered throughout the whole game, including the new stage, are behind-the-scenes tidbits.

The added content will be delivered via DLC for a price yet unannounced.

“The mindset we had was...what would the Criterion collection version of the game look like?” said lead designer Nels Anderson in a conversation with me last week to talk about the game.

There was never a grand plan to expand upon Mark of the Ninja. Anderson and the rest of the team at Klei had a clear vision in mind, both mechanically and narratively, and planned to leave it there back in September. When the game generated such a huge response from players, the studio felt a tug.

“Maybe just before Christmas,” he said, “we were looking at what our timelines for future projects were, what everyone was working on, and after the game came out, people just sorta kept loving on it, which is still kind of mind boggling to me. It feels like we should do...something.”

That “something” became Mark of the Ninja: Special Edition, and work on it only began in earnest last month. The content is a labor of love from Anderson and environment artist Meghan Shaw. Anderson is working on the Special Edition content while also simultaneously contributing to a new, unannounced project within Klei. The summer release date gives Anderson and Shaw time to breathe.

If you read my feature on Mark of the Ninja’s development, you know tons of material was cut from the game. Items, weapons, levels, you name it, and Mark of the Ninja built it and ditched it. That said, Special Edition isn’t built on anything that’s been tossed to the side. It’s all-new stuff.

“I mean, very, very vaguely, the underpinning idea might have been something we talked about before,” said Anderson, “but this wasn’t stuff we wanted to have in the game but we had to cut, this was all stuff--new things. [...] And I was like ‘well, here’s some new ideas that deal with aspects of the game that we didn’t maybe fully explore.’ Truth be told, it’s been challenging to come up with new stuff. Everything that’s in Ninja was very, very specific and deliberate. Trying to figure out ways to have new stuff that isn’t just basically a palette swap of stuff we already got was not easy, but I think what we settled on was interesting and different.”

To that end, Special Edition’s new items--one focused on stealth, another focused on direct action--and costume are engineered to make a new style of play more enjoyable. Klei observed that players adopted a playstyle of killing everything in their path, which the game very much allows, or ignoring everything and anyone and stealthing all the way to the end. Anderson hopes these new additions will give players some options when it comes to straddling the middle, and mixing it up while learning about the game.

The new costume and items are in the new level and the main game. It’s not uncommon for developers to add new features or gameplay kinks through downloadable content, but it’s also not uncommon for those new features to be exclusively stuck in the content it was created for. Pumping that back into the main game is a whole different technical beast. It’s commendable.

“Just like when you buy the Criterion collection of a movie...well, it’s probably a movie you’ve seen and enjoy,” he said. “You’re probably not going to buy the fancy Criterion collection of a movie you’ve never seen because you think you might like it. If someone’s going to come to the game again, assuming they’ve already played it, we should offer them as many new things as possible.”

Perhaps most interesting for players interested in better understanding game development will be the commentary. Anderson described it as closer to what 30 Flights of Loving developer Brendon Chung implements--in other words, text-based--rather than the ambitious and audio-focused material Valve has in its games. There was consideration made about an audio commentary, but the small team at Klei, not the mention the cost of recording that much audio, made it unwieldy. Instead, Anderson put out a call to the entire Mark of the Ninja development team, and asked them to contribute tidbits into a spreadsheet.

The result is something like 15,000 words about Mark of the Ninja’s development, which includes the new stage. Anderson actually wrote up his commentary on the new stage as he was building it, which allowed him to acutely illustrate the process of making the game’s stages.

The amount of text was so overwhelming that Klei wasn’t sure how it would be able to translate it into the other languages Mark of the Ninja was released in. Klei asked its fans to pitch in, and people reached out it Anderson’s reasonably confident the commentary will be available in language others than English.

When he initially looked back at Mark of the Ninja, the process of level development didn’t seem that clear, but working on the commentary helped crystallize how the game came together.

“The actual step-by-step process of it in my head was hazy,” he said. "Going back to it now and the only thing I have really to do [with the Special Edition] is make this level, so mainlining that was horrifying and fascinating in equal measure. Prior to this process, someone asked ‘how do you build the levels?’ I don’t know. We figure out what they are and what they’re supposed to be and make some encounters and try some stuff. And while that’s still true to a smaller degree, when you sit down and think through it, it’s basically ‘this stuff needs to be done, this stuff needs to be done.’ A ton of it is small housekeeping things that don’t seem like a big deal, but in terms of the final look and feel polish stuff, this is the shit that makes a difference. It was interesting and harrowing at the same time. How did we ever do this to begin with?”

If someone’s going to come to the game again, assuming they’ve already played it, we should offer them as many new things as possible.

Perhaps besides the ending, Mark of the Ninja’s story was effective by virtue of its efficiency. There was enough to provide intrigue and motivation, but if you had no interest in engaging with it, you didn’t have to. If, like me, you enjoyed the world it painted, there’s a bit more to fill in the gaps here. But Anderson was quick to say the new content is not necessary to understand what happened in Mark of the Ninja. It’s not cashing in on a cliffhanger, and Anderson’s proud of how the game ended.

Dosun's popularity, however, was unexpected. Players responded in a big way to Dosun, so it was the first character Anderson and the team thought of when it came to expanding upons the story.

“Even though he only has maybe a dozen lines in the entire game, Mike Dobson, the guy who did the voice acting for it, he just injected a ton of personality into that character that wasn’t necessarily there,” he said. “Mike is really, really good at giving things a little bit more verve that could be flat if just performed rote by another actor.”

Given that we’re some months out from the Special Edition’s launch, a price hasn’t been decided yet, but Klei told me it doesn’t intend to break the bank, given this content is aimed at the stealthy faithful.

I’ll let you know what I think of it after checking out at PAX.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
58 Comments
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Posted by probablytuna

I don't remember the reason I stopped playing this game after finishing the first three levels.

Posted by Xpgamer7

Chains, takedowns and a Sandcostume? Awesome.

Posted by InfamousBIG

@stinky51012 said:

GB got pretty butt hurt over this game. It was ok. Not great, but just ok.

I don't think you know what "butthurt" means.

Edited by Razputin

Reminds me of how The Binding of Isaac got a nice, huge expansion. Nice!

Edited by SpaceInsomniac

"Anderson’s reasonably confident the commentary will be available in language others than English."

"language others"

Just pointing out a typo.

Edited by masterfaculty
Edited by masterfaculty

You know, good on Klei. After the lackluster Shank series, I'm glad that cool, stylistic art direction found a home in a game with fun mechanics. Who knows if they'll ever catch lightning in a bottle again, so I'm glad to see them at least giving the fans something special.

Posted by SparkleMotion

There was consideration made about an audio commentary, but the small team at Klei, not the mention the cost of recording that much audio, made it unwieldy.

The BlackWell adventure games were made by like five people, and those all had full audio commentary.