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Wednesday 12 June 2013

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #1: Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja is a 2012 stealth action game developed by Klei Entertainment. It's a first rate example of the stealth genre, forcing the player to stick to the (plentiful) shadows, glide through vents and take advantage of distractions in order to get the jump on an enemy. The protagonist is a nameless ninja charged with mounting a solo assault on a private military company in revenge for an attack on his clan, although a broader and more sinister picture reveals itself to him as he advances through the various missions.

The game's writer, Chris Dahlen, blogs here about the research he undertook in order to create a realistic history for the fictional Hisomu clan and the decision to employ poetry – specifically haiku – in the telling. Conscious of the fact that using audio logs to relate a non-interactive potted history is difficult to do well inside a fundamentally interactive medium, and concerned that these audio logs should fit the pace of the game, Dahlen opted for haiku "because haiku are short, and they're enigmatic".

The resulting poems can be accessed by finding hidden scrolls, three per level, scattered throughout Mark of the Ninja. After touching each scroll, a poem is recited by 'the voice of the Hisomu'. Taken together, they fall under the title of 'A History of the Hisomu Clan as Written by its Masters'.

From the first recital, however, it's apparent that these are not really haiku in the strict sense:

Five hundred men lie
vanquished before Tetsuji.
Takes off his blindfold.

Dahlen uses the 5-7-5 syllabic form that is commonly taught as a rough approximation of the rules governing haiku in Japanese, but in most of these poems, he misses the most fundamental element of the form: the kigo, or seasonal reference. Without this, the form is much closer to senryƫ, a similarly structured poem whose subject is usually people, rather than nature.

More arguable is the presence of a caesura or kireji (cutting word), which is used in haiku to implicitly compare two images. This is not necessarily easy to recognise, but Dahlen achieves, at the very least, a similar effect here by ending the second line with a full stop, which suggests we reflect on the relationship between the removal of the blindfold and the dead five hundred.

The second poem is more troublesome:

We snap off a branch
to make a weapon; but the
tree must bear the wound.

Here, the syllabic structure is rather more forced, conflicting with the natural intonation. In the game, the voice actor audibly pauses after 'the' to denote the line break, but it sounds odd and adds nothing to the meaning of the poem – the natural pause is after 'weapon'. Also, 'but' makes the intended contrast explicit where it should be implicit. It would be a stronger poem, and more 'haiku-ish', if it went something like: "We snap off a branch / to make a weapon / The tree bears the wound."

This poem is, however, a clever allusion to the role of the player in the story, and Dahlen's aim here, and with many of the poems that follow, is to provoke the imagination, to get the player guessing at what various strange and slippery images refer to. While some of the poems are blunt and direct in moving the storyline along, others apparently relay no information at all. These, however, are all the more interesting for that, and closest to the effect one might expect from poetry:

On a starless night
an unkindness of ravens
lands along the wall.

A raven, or something similar, signifies a checkpoint in the game. When you pass these points, the raven appears to fly away. Does this poem allude to them being set up beforehand, and consequently the fact that the protagonist's path through the game – and through his life – is the result of his being manipulated?

The poems in Mark of the Ninja ultimately achieve two things: they are a foreshadowing device within the plot, causing the player to anticipate various revelations and the protagonist's ultimate fate. They're also a flavouring device, grounding the story more thoroughly in elements of Japanese culture and creating the illusion of a succession of writers contributing to a generation-spanning narrative.

You can listen to the compiled audiologs here.


  1. I'd love an analysis of why poetry and prose in videogames is usually so bad.

    He's chosen entirely the wrong form, in this case, because I don't think haiku as a form has evolved to be enigmatic -- in fact quite the opposite. For me, a well-written haiku should be immediate and transparent: it should summon a part of the world in a direct and physical way. It is an evocation. Looks like another case of misfired cultural appropriation to me! But the more interesting question might be: Why does this keep happening?

  2. Jon, thanks so much for giving these such a close listen, and for your notes. I'm still a beginner with haiku, and I appreciate your feedback; I'm glad too to hear that the logs added to the game experience.

    1. Hi Chris,

      I just finished playing through Mark of The Ninja and very much enjoyed the storytelling. I'm very curious about your research on creating the Hisomo Clan and would love to look over your notes, but Jon's link says I need a password.
      Would you be willing to share it?

      Thanks very much,

  3. Hi Harry -

    "I'd love an analysis of why poetry and prose in videogames is usually so bad."

    I've had at the back of my mind such an article for a while, but I think it's probably a good idea to counterbalance it with an analysis of those occasions on which the writing is very good, or at least interesting, to counterbalance the general prejudice. In short, I think game writing is usually bad because there's a large element of writing-by-committee involved, of writers having to produce scripts and segments around a developer's vision. In one of the worst case scenarios - the genre of arena beat 'em ups - this means, say, having to provide a plot and dialogue that string together repetitive one-on-one fight sequences.

    I'm not sure the form Dahlen has chosen is necessarily wrong - don't haiku usually aim to use words as a 'bowl' so that the reader is prompted to think of what is inside the bowl? I'm sure one of the famous haiku poets put it like that. This does seem to gel with the aim of providing a 'slideshow' history in the form of particular moments that hint at a narrative, but I think the poems are best regarded as senryu, or perhaps a renga chain, since the idea is that different masters have added to the narrative through the years.

  4. Hi Chris - thanks for commenting! For the record, I thought the general plot and structure of the MotN story was very well executed. I'm hoping to write a piece at some point that talks about the game in relation to Dishonored and Thief, and examines that aspect and more, but I've got to stick with poetry for the time being while we're promoting out gaming poetry book.


What say you?