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Now Playing: Mark of the Ninja


I picked this up as part of a Humble Bundle that contained two games I wanted to play; FTL and Fez. I’d never even heard of Mark of the Ninja, yet it’s become the most-played title in the little selection I secured.

It’s a stealth game and I’m not generally a fan of stealth games. My experience of them is creeping through dark corridors in first or third person, waiting an apparent age for a guard to wander over to an area where I think he can’t see or hear me, followed by a cautious move forward revealing he can, in fact see me and then my untimely demise. Repeating this semi-random process ad nauseum does not a fun game make.

But Mark of the Ninja is different. It’s simple shift of the action to a two dimensional platform perspective is a thing of genius, solving all these problems at a stroke. Now I can tell at a glance whether a guard can see me or not, or whether he’ll be able to hear an action I take. This is stealth by strategy and when I fail, I failed because I fucked up.

The result is a weird and compelling blend of puzzling, twitching and sandbox experimentation. Levels and your palette of actions are carefully designed so that there’s more than one solution to most problems. At the most basic level you can usually choose to either sneak past a guard or take him out.

In a more complex scenario you might blind a guard by blowing the light, throw down a trap for him to stumble into hoping his sudden and grisly death will panic his second comrade into accidentally shooting a third. There’s a lot of options in between these extremes too.

I ran through it in about seven hours total and mostly I thought it was novel and rather brilliant. But it started to pale just toward the end. Why?

A mediocre plot didn’t help. Ultimately I think the sandbox aspects of the game don’t work as well as they should because your goals are limited: it all still comes down to creeping past guards or killing them, no matter how many tools you have at your disposal for achieving those aims. But as a stealth game it’s an unparalleled experience.

Telling Tales on Telltale

Walking Dead from Telltale iTunes Page

A couple of weeks ago, after all the great reviews here on No High Scores and a heartfelt recommendation from Lucy James, I bit the bullet and bought Telltale Games’ Walking Dead: Episode 1 for my original iPad. I figured it might put a bit of a strain on the hardware so before buying I looked at the iTunes page, which you can see reproduced above. It said nothing about iPad 1 compatibility issues in the bottom left where the requirements are, or the description, so I went ahead and bought it.

It ran, but so slowly as to be unplayable. An installation problem, surely, since I’d carefully checked the requirements before buying! So I restarted the device and closed all the background processes. Still too slow. So I googled it. And then, only then, did I discover that it’s not compatible with the original iPad. And the description does in fact mention this fact: several paragraphs down in the description, only visible if you click the “more” tab.

So I felt justified in emailing customer support, pointing out how I’d checked carefully beforehand, politely asked for a refund, and mentioned that I’d go buy it on XBLA once I’d got one. They refused, saying it was stated clearly in the description. I sent the screenshot above, and my receipt so they would know I wasn’t freeloading. So they agreed, great! But then, a couple of days later, another email saying they’d examined the issue and the compatibility was clearly stated, so no refund. So I again pointed out that it wasn’t clearly stated when I looked. And they agreed again, great! But then same again, another support monkey replies to say it’s clearly stated so no refund.

And so here we are. Telltale have now updated the iTunes page to put the warning at the top of the description where it should be. But as my screenshot demonstrates that’s not what I saw when I bought the app. I won’t be buying any more Telltale product, so over £3 they’ve lost an XBLA sale for the whole series and a lot of potential future purchases. Madness.

I’d like to ask you all to look at that screenshot and tell me if you think it’s clearly stated that the app wouldn’t run on my device, and that I’m out of order asking for my money back. If you agree with me, I’m left with little recourse but to warn you all not to expect great service from Telltale games.

Mark of the Ninja in Review

I absolutely hated Klei’s 2011 digital release Shank. I think it is a disgrace, an embarrassment to the video games medium that wallows in joyless, cynical immaturity and dully moronic violence. Its humor and tone are straight out of one of those mid-1990s post-Pulp Fiction “indie” crime or action films and the look was a cheapjack imitation of pretty much any “edgy” adult cartoon you’ve ever seen. The gameplay was stultifyingly stupid, rife with button-mashing and little to offer but mindless and unappealing lowest common denominator bloodshed. I gave it the lowest score possible at Gameshark, and I stand by that. I ignore the fact that a sequel exists.

So it’s a big surprise that Mark of the Ninja, their latest now on XBLA, isn’t just good- it’s one of the best games of the year. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed stealth action game that makes the daring assumption that the genre doesn’t have to be relegated to a third- or first- person presentation. It’s a 2D platformer that feels like a classic of the form overlain with an index of the best sneaker mechanics. It’s not hard to go through and sort out the bits came from Metal Gear Solid and which from Thief or Splinter Cell. It also borrows liberally from Rocksteady’s masterful Batman titles- not the least of which is that incredible feeling of bad ass empowerment that comes from scaring your enemies, hiding in the rafters, and stringing them up. They even borrowed a couple of riffs from Elevator Action. Shoot out the lights so they can’t see you. Or just drop the lights on ‘em.

As much as has been appropriated from previous sources, Mark of the Ninja is one of those studied, academic games where it’s more innovative than imitative. Working out how to put stealth gameplay in a 2D platformer is a compelling design goal as it is and many indie developers would have called it a day there. But Klei brings in multiple gadgets including distraction devices, upgradeable techniques in both lethal and nonlethal varieties, and a plethora of visual cues and signifiers to enable players to play strategically. Light, sound, color, and iconography are surrogates for your own lacking ninja skills and intuition. As in the best stealth games, a little risk-taking is often necessary and that thrill of hiding behind a door while a patrolling guard walks by is a source of nail-biting tension. Foul up, set off the alarms, and either try to mitigate the breach of stealth or start again at one of the generous checkpoints.

There’s often more information than is actually necessary and it can be a little gamey. I’m not sure that even the best ninjas- even Sho Kusogi or Stephen Hayes- can see a dog’s sniffing radius. And the AI can be pretty easy to fool, but that’s not uncommon in the genre. Some of the puzzles, particularly deeper into the game can be tiresome. But these are small complaints in a game that is otherwise outstanding in every way.

Except for the story. It’s stupid, and to be honest I lost interest in it during the first cutscene. The animation style is back, but it looks more refined and confident. It’s typically lame Z-grade piffle about Ninjas, clans, honor, magic tattoos and whatnot punctuated by completely unnecessary violence that makes the game feel far more teenage Xtreme in your face than it needs to be. But you’re not going to play this game for a great story. You’re going to play it to find all of the hidden scrolls, secret puzzle levels, multiple pathways, and to complete objectives that essentially let you organically select how hard you want the game to be. And of course, you’re always going to want to replay a level you hacked and slashed your way through to get the no-kill bonus. High score leaderboards add to the fun, I’m not sure how in the world one guy on mine consistently scores so high on every level. Maybe he’s really a ninja, I don’t know.

Every year for the past several years there have been two or three XBLA games that have really exceeded expectations and blown past their AAA retail peers in terms of presenting us with interesting concepts and new ways of enjoying classic gameplay models. Last year it was Bastion and Outland. This year it’s Sine Mora and Mark of the Ninja. Another game this good and Klei will be well along the road to redeeming their earlier transgressions.

Braid: It’s Art, but is it a Game?

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - title screen

Since I cottoned on to the idea that game criticism could learn a thing or two from arts criticism, I’ve inevitably been sucked into the world of games as art. It’s an interesting space: before platforms like Steam and XBLA made it possible for indie developers to create and release something and make a profit there was simply a vast gulf between blockbuster, big-studio AAA titles and artists occasionally dipping their toes into computing. Now that space is gradually becoming filled with games like Journey, Limbo and, of course, Braid.

Having now finally had the chance to play Braid, I’m struck by the fact that it’s almost unquestionably art. There’s so much about it that fits that definition. The visual style is heavily reminiscent of post-impressionist painting, pretty much unique in the video gaming space, and distractingly beautiful as you play through. The snippets of narrative text that flash up as you wander through the gateway to each world are lovingly scripted and surprisingly profound. I have discovered that I end up wanting to re-read them every time I fire up the game and enter a world, and discover new elements of insight on most occasions that I so. The overarching story is clever, filled with metaphors that lend themselves to multiple interpretations, most of which can lead to further meditations on humanity and relationships. I even love the sound, although I understand that was recycled from elsewhere. Whatever definition of art you choose, Braid seems to fit.

However, the more I’ve played it, the more I’ve become unsure as to whether or not it’s actually a game.

Braid very much belongs to the puzzle genre. No problem there, of course, there’s a long and proud history of puzzle games dating back to Q*bert in 1982 and arguably further, most of which were, in my opinion, unspeakably awful. It’s rather more unusual that in Braid the puzzle elements are combined with platform ones but there are still some well-known antecedents such as Lemmings and Wario Land. What’s unique about Braid is its supreme, clinical coldness. The way the story is presented as a series of philosophical observations with no attempt to engage the player emotionally. But most of all the manner in which it presents the player with a series of discrete puzzles that are almost entirely intellectual in nature. Experimenting and working things out are the order of the day here, and in spite of the occasional pixel-perfect jump you’re required to make, physical dexterity, reaction time and manual skill very much take a back seat.

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - everything needs more dinosaurs
What it reminds me of most are the apparently endless series of small puzzle applications and flash games that people use to while away their office lunch hours, rather than anything you’d be likely to find on the console of a dedicated hobby gamer. More than that, playing Braid feels almost like solving Sudoku, or some other popular pen and paper puzzle format. The exercise is so focused on the brain that you almost start to wonder why you’re bothering to play this sort of thing on a computer when a crossword or nonogram would offer a similar kind of pleasure in a cheaper and rather more convenient format. I get the same feeling playing some European-style board games, where the strategy is often more about making best use of the rules than actually engaging with your fellow gamers, but at least in a board game you’re playing face to face in a social situation. Braid is like a European board game but with even less warmth.

Of course, Braid has this funky time-rewind thing going on that it uses as the basis for most of its puzzles and there’s no way you could do that with pen and paper. And you have to stand back and admire the cleverness of that mechanic, which is not only unusual but leveraged to make you ask yet more questions about the game itself and the wider world which you inhabit. But really that’s pretty flimsy reasoning because while that particular approach to puzzle construction might only be doable in a video game, the basic prerequisite, which is that you think your way through every stage of the game instead of running, jumping and gunning through large parts of it as is the norm, didn’t require the time-rewind. A good puzzle designer could have built Braid as a standard platformer and still made it interesting, still made it deeply philosophical and still filled it with fiendishly intractable puzzles. No matter that it happens to have a clever gimmick, we’re still back to pen and paper logic puzzles.

Braid - indie puzzle platform game by Jon Blow - donkey kong homage

So how about that allusion and metaphor rich story that overarches the whole thing then? The ability to participate directly as the central protagonist in a thrilling tale is one of the central lures of video gaming, and has be used to create unique circumstances and surprises in games like Silent Hill 2 and Knight of the Old Republic. Could Braid perhaps earn its video gaming credentials there? Well, no. The narrative is immensely clever, but it’s mainly text-based and offers little you couldn’t get from a novel or a film. Indeed I was reminded a little of Time’s Arrow on more than one occasion whilst playing.

There are antecedents in terms of games that engage the player primarily intellectually rather than physically though. Computer wargames are the poster child here, although the wider world of strategy games offers other candidates, and no-one would suggest those weren’t video games. But again, Braid is different. All the computer strategy games that I can think of either utilised the computer to do something you couldn’t do in a physical format, or had heavy elements of hidden information and randomness that forced the player to make moves based on intuition as well as intellect. Often these were one and the same thing, such as a fog of war effect, or complex calculation for hit and damage. By contrast in Braid everything is open for the player to see, and almost all the puzzles are trials of pure logic and deduction.

And yet, for all the criticisms I’m here levelling at the game, for all that it remains remote and unengaging, I’m very impressed by it, perhaps more as a concept than as a game. It’s eaten many hours of my time none of which, and this is an astonishing rarity for a video game, feel like they’ve been wasted, although some of them don’t feel like they were actually very much fun. And ultimately the argument I’m pushing here, which is that it isn’t really a video game at all, leads to an even more interesting question and conclusion. Namely, that if it isn’t a video game, what is it? And I have no idea what you’d name it, but it is all of the things I’ve compared it to, rolled into one. A pen and paper puzzle, a (short) novel, a philosophical exercise and a piece of visual art. And in that amalgamation, finally, is our vindication and our answer: nothing other than a video game could successfully unite such disparate elements. And in doing so, Braid, like many of the other indie-art games that came after it have finally started the long-overdue process of pushing the envelope of what a game can be. Whatever you think of Braid, and it’s creator Jon Blow, it deserves acclaim for that feat alone.

Pinball FX2 Assembles the Avengers- also, Thanos!

HOT DAMN! Here I was thinking I was tired of ZEN Studios cranking out licensed Marvel pinball tables for the Pinball FX2 platform and then they go and put out a new four table suite that includes a freaking Infinity Gauntlet table. Hear that nerds? AN INFINITY GAUNTLET TABLE. Complete with a boasting Thanos, an Adam Warlock figure, and a gigantic rendition of the titular handwear right there on the table. Of course you have to light up the Infinity Gems!

It’s a bright, colorful table that really captures the gaudy, early 1990s style of one of Marvel’s best crossover stories as well as the colorfulness of the company’s “cosmic” storylines and characters. It’s also a really fun table with lots of cool surprises that I don’t dare spoil. Apart from the one where the table is literally flipped upside down, and the one where you go to a sub-table to prove Adam Warlock’s innocence in Soulworld with magnetic flippers. If you don’t know the story, essentially it’s a sweet love story about a mad titan that is trying to impress his mistress, Death, by wiping out most of the life in the universe. And only Marvel’s heroes can stop him.

It’s a playful table definitely not bound to the limits of physical possibility. It’s the kind of playfulness which ZEN has always trucked in, and it is particularly on display in the centerpiece Avengers table. The package is, after all, called “Avengers Chronicles” in a tie-in with the bazillion dollar smash hit motion picture. The Avengers table, which is set inside a miniature version of the SHIELD Helicarrier, is a ramp-heavy affair with a central target array that reminds me somewhat of the old Doctor Who table. But this table’s secret weapon is that you get to choose an Avenger every ball. Not only does this mean that your ball will be decked out in the colors and costuming of your favorite character, it also imparts special scoring for certain targets and even modes exclusive to that ball. This is an awesome, well-implemented idea that actually adds a layer of strategy. If you want the ball save, you pick Cap. If you want to boost the multiplier, go with Iron Man.

One thing I love about the Avengers table- and this is likely totally a Michael Barnes thing- is that even though it’s based on the film they apparently didn’t have the license to use the actors’ likenesses or voices. So there’s some dude trying to sound like Sam Jackson and illustrations that look “kind of” like ScarJo. It gives the table a sense of authenticity, like when you’d play a pin back in the 1980s with artists’ approximation of subject matter rather than actual images.

The other two tables, unfortunately, aren’t as remarkable. One is World War Hulk, which tells the story of Hulk returning to Earth for revenge after being exiled to a gladiator planet by Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and a conclave of concerned heroes. I haven’t read the books. But apparently, one of the things the Hulk does is build an arena. I know this because the table tells you so over and over again in what I assume is supposed to be Ben Grimm’s voice. It’s a shockingly yellow table for being about the Hulk. For those that have read the books, this one may have some good fan service.

Rounding it out is Fear Itself, based on the Matt Fraction crossover from last year that I also haven’t read. There’s a really awesome, dramatic circular loop that crosses behind the flippers and over the dropout hole, but other than the table is strangely boring. The storyline has something to do with an Asgardian serpent showing up and menacing Midgard, and apparently Cap’s shield gets broken at some point. I get a sense that the table may be hiding some sterner challenges than the other three, which all skew to the easy side as has been common with all of the Marvel tables. I just haven’t really cared enough about it to dig deeper.

What I like about all of these tables is that they’re very storyline-driven rather than character driven. I’d like to see more like this. Who wouldn’t want to see a Secret Wars, Mutant Massacre, or Civil War table? Hell, I’m surprised there’s not already a Marvel Zombies one. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.