Monday, November 26, 2012

The Analysis of the Ending of the Videogame called Mark of the Ninja

I finished the aforesaid game recently. It is a 2D stealth platformer puzzle...thing. Very enjoyable. I particularly liked the ending and I have been thinking about why I liked that ending sequence so much, when the third act is usually when I stop playing a game.

I think the answer is something to do with thematic integrity. Spoilers ahoy, by the way. And they are important spoilers which will damage your enjoyment of the game.

The theme of a work of art (and, just to be clear, I do think at least some games are works of art) is the intellectual space where you find its conceptualised meaning. When you think about what a work said, or what it meant to you, that meaning will be about a subject. The work is saying something about love, or hatred, or finance. That subject is the theme.

Mark of the Ninja's themes are power and illusions (or at least, they were for me). Throughout the game you are accompanied by a fellow ninja named Oza who tells you what you need to do in each level, provides running commentary, and slopes off at the start of each level to avoid getting her hands dirty. She's not the most vibrant of characters, more a sort of sketch of a personality, but I found her quite engaging.

You-the-character have a magical tattoo which gives you special powers and will eventually drive you mad - at which point you are expected to kill yourself. As this is a stealth-platform-puzzle game, you spend most of your time darting around sprawling levels and using various tricks to make patrolling guards look like idiots. You can lure them away from their posts, drop dead bodies on them to terrify them - essentially, you are in control of how the level plays out. You have the power.

At first you are working for Azai, the head of your ninja clan. Then Oza works out that Azai is using you to cover up his mistakes and steal new weapons for the clan (thus selling out their ancient values). Nothing for it but to infiltrate your own home and kill Azai.

As you work through the last level things get a little odd. Some guards, once killed, are revealed to be hallucinations. But even after you know they're not real you have to treat them as if they were solid - Oza says that if your mind thinks you've been shot your body will believe it too.

You reach Azai. Oza harangues him, you nod, and Azai asks you who you're listening to. Have the voices started already? Azai walks away into the shrine and tells you to make a choice. You follow and are treated to a wonderful cinematic/short level in black and white. It reminded me of Noh theatre, and also of the James Bond titles. The cinematic recaps what you have done and seen in an abstract way and then you are given a choice: kill Azai, followed by a cleansing of the clan; or kill Oza, who Azai claims is a product of your tattoo-induced madness.

I stared at the screen for a good three or four minutes. What did I want to do? Was Azai right? Did I care if Oza wasn't real? How could I tell?

Now, it's real easy for a work of art which controls your access to information about a world to create illusions. But this was a question which had been coming from the start of the game. Oza never spoke to or touched anyone besides my character. The ending of the game had been in view right from the start.

The question was whether Oza was a real person, a friend, or whether she was just a product of madness. My own dark impulses given form and voice. Was it those impulses which had driven me to steal and murder? Had those clear, neat objectives just been my way of rationalising my lack of self-control? Oza, for me, touched on the theme of control of violence, and how ephemeral it can be. We pretend to be good people but can we be honest with ourselves - even after we give in to darkness?

Azai was also important. If Oza was real, he had exploited me for his own good. I was willing to sacrifice for the clan but not for Azai. How could I distinguish between what was good for Azai and what was good for the clan? Leadership is tricky. To exercise power without giving in to fear requires confidence, but to avoid arrogance requires humility.

This might sound like an odd ending for a stealth-puzzle game but in fact the whole game touched on these themes, not just the ending. I got to see non-ninja exercising power. I got to create and break illusions of safety and danger for guards. My feelings of control and power were whipped back and forth - sometimes the hunter, sometimes the hunted.

After you choose who to kill - and I won't tell you what I did or why - the game ends. You get to construct your own meaning, as I clearly have. Or to throw up your hands and declare the experience senseless. And that would be, I think, something the creators had in mind: sometimes no intellectual framework can make sense of violence. 

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