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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 senryū, 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.


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