So I was the writer on Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja, and purely for the sake of getting it on paper before old age makes me forget the whole thing, I’m going to write up some of the books and people who influenced the script. There are no real spoilers here, although most of this will make more sense after you play the game. (And you should! Everyone seems to love it.)
When I joined the project, most of the plot and all of the major characters were in place. Many of the story revisions came from some epic meetings that we had going over the outline and then the script, with me joining the Vancouver team via Skype. This meant that a team that included art, design, the producer, and the writer (me) was involved in developing and polishing up the plot, and that process helped the storytelling – especially when it came to setting the mood, changing the tone from world to world, and telling the story through gameplay, which especially paid off in the final scenes.
And there are words, too, natch. My role was to take the story outline and write the cutscenes, the audio logs, the interstitial dialogue, and the barks. (I got help on the barks, because Nels felt sorry for me.)
Let’s start with the bibliography. For the actual true history of ninja, I turned to Stephen Turnbull’s book, which stuck to the facts (and a few legends – but only the ones that have been circulating for centuries). In World 1, the audio logs that describe the Hisomu Clan’s first great mission all use real historical details or plausible tactics, mostly informed by Turnbull. The haiku about “nightingales” refers to the famous nightingale floors used in castles of this period:
The daimyo who gets out of bed “to find relief” is a really oblique reference to Uesugi Kenshin, who – as legend has it – was murdered by a ninja who hid in his latrine and murdered him when he sat down to use it.
Nels Anderson also turned me on to the “A Short History of Japan” podcast, and starting with Episode 15, I got a lot of background on the Sengoku Jidai period and the ninja’s role in it. It’s a great listen and I highly recommend it, for the broad context and for thejuicy, violent stories.
There are three audio logs in every level of the game, aside from the last one – and almost all of them are written as haiku. Klei wanted to do a series of audio logs that would tell the history of the clan, and help set up the legend of the tattoo and the choice that Ninja has to make. While I like the idea of using audio logs to deliver background information, I’ve seen plenty of games do it badly, by letting someone you don’t care about talk at you for a minute about old news while you’re busy playing the game. Great writing can save these – the BioShock franchise is an obvious example – but those longer logs also fit the pace of that game.
The haiku form was intended to solve that problem, because haiku are short, and they’re enigmatic. None of the haiku immediately make sense; you get the impression of what they’re about and hopefully, you’re intrigued to piece them together and learn more. The fact that there’s some question or some mystery to them gives you a reason to go back and figure them out. In World 1, we have nine haiku that piece together to retell the story of a ninja mission. World 2 explores two of the masters’ perspectives on the power of the tattoo ink, and in World 3, we get Azai’s side of the story – which is not a haiku: it’s actually a haibun, a form where a piece of prose ends with a haiku. I learned about that form in the book How to Haiku : A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and Related Forms by Bruce Ross, and it seemed like the best way to handle Azai’s confession, which had to be clearer to inform the events in World 4.
Ora also mentions a “death poem” – this is an amazing form that I read about somewhere along the way. You can read a few examples here.
The three audio logs in World 4 are not haiku. I won’t reveal what they are to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say I really regret this, because I feel like I farted out at the end. The text that I used seemed to fit better and communicate more clearly what we wanted to explain about Ninja’s situation and his relationship to the Clan, but I wish I had found a way to stick with the haiku form.
By the way: I wrote all but one of the haiku – the other one came from a contest that we ran at PAX East. Joel McCoy wrote the third poem in 1-1, which starts “Glint of shuriken … .” It’s incredibly bad ass and actually came out as the toughest-sounding log in the bunch.
Kudos too by the way to the actors who read the haiku, who were amazing. Michael Dobson reads most of them, and he absolutely kills them: dig the gravity and drama he brings to the sets in World 1 and 2. And Vincent Wong’s performance as Azai in World 3 is austere and sublime. Be warned, those scrolls are a little harder to find.
The hero of Mark of the Ninja is simply named “Ninja.” From the prologue games – part one and part two, in case you missed them – you can tell that he’s been with the clan for a while, and I imagined him as some kind of an orphan, possibly from a poor and isolated village. This train of thought led me to read the book Toshié: A Story of Village Life in Twentieth-Century Japan by Simon Partner, which is a terrific social history of the dramatic changes in 20th century Japan, told through the life of one very memorable woman.
Now, some tunes. Several names of musicians made it into the script. Count Karajan is named for the legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan.
I first heard of Karajan from a friend in college, and recently his recording of Mahler’s 9th was my way in to that composer’s amazing, amazing body of work. In fact, I kept trying to work a quote from Das Lied von der Erde into the script, but it never fit. (If that sounds pretentious, picture a game that makes you feel like this guy.)
The legendary founder of the Hisomu Clan, Tetsuji, gets his name loosely from the the guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama. You can hear him here with Toshimaru Nakamura, on a track from Nakamura’s album Egrets - and by the way, one of the guards who’s mentioned in passing in 1-1 is named Toshi.
One of Tetsuji’s successors, Otomo the Hungry – who is mentioned in the World 2 audio logs – is named after Otomo Yoshihide.
I’m probably most familiar with these improvisers from David Sylvian’s Manafon. You should buy that – it’s brilliant. I also recommend Nakamura’s Egrets, which is gorgeous and haunting, and a great entry-point to his work.
The Toronto-based “Noh-wave” band Yamantaka // Sonic Titan contributed the song that you can hear in the E3 trailer and, to stunning effect, in the finale of the game. Jamie Cheng had mentioned he wanted to get a song for the game, preferably from a band that could sing in Japanese. When I read this feature and then heard their album, I thought they would be perfect. They’re a fantastic band, they’re up for Canada’s Polaris award, and I hear they put on a hell of a show; check ‘em out.
They also released the song we commissioned, “Mark & Blade”, as a single, and you can grab that here.
I think that covers everything, but if I missed anything I’ll update this post.