The Ninja, The Miko, and White Ninja

Ninja Eric Van Lustbader

We were obsessed with ninjas in the '80s: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninja Gaiden, and hundreds of campy ninja films. In 1985, we were also introduced to The Ninja, a crime thriller novel by Eric Van Lustbader, and what I believe to be the single best ninja fiction available. Lustbader wrote five more novels in the series, all centered on Nicholas Linnear, a half-Western, half-Chinese, raised in Japan ninja. I just finished the third novel, White Ninja, and couldn't help but think about the video game possibilities for the series while reading.

I originally found The Ninja while my wife and I were traveling in Ireland. It was by a fireplace in a small Bed and Breakfast in a "take a book, leave a book" box. I didn't have any books to leave, so I guess I broke the rule by taking one. Either way, it was the most interesting book in the box, and I figured I needed to do something with my East Asian Studies major. I had the 500+ page novel finished by the time we landed back in the States.

What makes Lustbader's Ninja series so great is its well written action scenes and devotion to building a believable Eastern mysticism. Unlike what Brandon Sanderson did with the Mistborn trilogy, The Ninja's world ninjutsu feels like it could be real (not ripping on Mistborn, but I suspend my belief at swallowing metals). The lines are often completely blurred between what's actually possible with martial arts, and what's simply just Japanese ninja legend or Lustbader making up (and honestly, even now, I really have no idea where the line would be drawn if you forced me to). It's believable because there is a believable world constructed around our heroes and villains.

Japanese culture fills every page and makes every character encounter a battle of wits and will, viewpoints switch every few pages giving you insights on what may be going on (but you never get the complete picture until near the end), and there is a heavy dose of intriguing and believable emotions injected into this series. If you're interested in East Asian culture, not J-Pop or anime, but deeply ingrained beliefs about social status and how it affects everyday communication, then the Ninja is a must-read series. Lustbader has incredible knowledge on the intricacies of concepts such as giri (social obligation, sense of duty) and shinki kiitsu (the essence of martial arts: unity of soul, body, and mind), and doesn't hold anything back when using them as storytelling devices. You will learn while you are reading these books, and you will have fun.

If you haven't figured it out by now, Lustbader is very serious about his martial arts, it is nothing like a Ninja Gaiden fanfiction. Anyways, I won't go into the plot too deeply but cover some highlights and then why it may or may not make for a decent game.

Miko Eric Van Lustbader

The Books

Eric Van Lustbader introduces us to his hero, Nicholas Linnear, in The Ninja. Set in the mid '80s, Nicholas is already a highly skilled ninja with years of experience, but then his past begins catching up with him. His friends are killed and subtle hints are left at the crime scenes that only Nicholas could know who committed them. We are then sent back into the past, when Nicholas was a child and just beginning to learn martial arts with his cousin Saigo. We as the reader begin to draw lines between his past and the present, and things start to come together. The conclusion is incredible and mind blowing, and really sets the high water mark for the series.

The Miko dives into Nicholas' past once again, this time exploiting a teenage romance and lost love. A miko is a female sorceress... ninja. Not to mention a successful seductress, which brings up one of the series' bullet points: it's rather sexually explicit. Lustbader explores as many realms of sexuality as he does martial arts. This series isn't for everyone, I won't be recommending it to my mother any time soon. But anyways, The Miko features some rather un-ninja-like antagonists beyond the miko, it's a bit different of a story than The Ninja, featuring quite a bit of corporate intrigue. If you're interested in the hierarchy and structure of Japanese corporations, this is definitely an interesting book to read.

In White Ninja, Nicholas Linnear has recently undergone brain surgery in order to remove a tumor, and he has suddenly lost his ability to use his martial arts. His wife recently lost the baby she was carrying and is quickly drifting away, and the corporation he helps run is being targeted by a mysterious Japanese shadow government known as Nami. Nicholas has become Shiro Ninja (white ninja) and is helpless at the events around him spinning out of his control. In the previous novels, Nicholas was so powerful, so in command of not only himself but of those around him, that it's an incredible journey watching everything self-destruct.

Nicholas learns even more about his past in White Ninja, Lustbader masterfully laid down his ancestral history in the previous novels, and is slowing pulling back the layers as the series moves forward. It almost reminds me of the Harry Potter series, where seemingly innocent items introduced early on are revealed to be incredibly important to the story arc.

The Game?

White Ninja Eric Van Lustbader

As I did earlier for the Mistborn trilogy, I'll discuss the possibilities for The Ninja to move from paper to our game consoles. This really isn't as easy as it may seem, the game would play nothing like Ninja Gaiden: there simply aren't hundreds of ninjas running around in different colored outfits indicating how they're going to attack you. It's usually just Nicholas versus the Big Bad, and for 90% of the book, it'll be a psychological battle of wits as the evil ninja picks off friends one by one and forces Nicholas to face his past. It's the kind of tale one can really only tell in a book.

The one game I really have in mind to model The Ninja after is Indigo Prophecy. Indigo Prophecy (also known as Fahrenheit) is a Shenmue-esque psychological, crime, and investigation thriller. Sounds a bit like The Ninja if you ask me. In the game, you play as a variety of characters, all who have their own background and story but are all involved with the main plot one way or another. The world is very interactive, there's a memorable scene in the main character's apartment where you wake up, start performing your daily activities, and then a cop shows up at the door. What do you do? Do you freak out? Hide? Answer the door? It's an excellent mechanism to actually put you in your character's shoes very quickly.

This kind of open environment would be perfect for translating The Ninja into a game, but it also means it may have to be a bit looser with the story than a straight linear telling. Indigo Prophecy had its own story to tell though, and while your choices did affect some of the final sequences, the game did have momentum towards a particular direction. The core plot of The Ninja could be preserved while allowing the player to deviate for a time being from the original, canon decisions.

Indigo Prophecy received a lot of complaints for its excessive use of quick-time events, the gameplay mechanic where a button will flash on the screen and you have to hit the correct button on your own controller within a period of time. The complaints were honestly deserved though, as the final battle consisted of about 15 minutes of QTE button pressing events. Intense, but for entirely the wrong reasons. It should be noted that the Indigo Prophecy developers are now hard at work finishing up Heavy Rain, a game similar to Fahrenheit but with an improved quick-time event experience.

So does video game reviewers' general hatred towards QTE mean it's a bad idea? Not necessarily, in my opinion. Indigo Prophecy's use of it was excessive, but used correctly and within limits, I think it would serve as an excellent fighting engine for The Ninja. Lustbader's ninjas are very spiritual and mystical, their fighting techniques are as much mental as they are physical. Using a fighting engine pulled from a game like Shenmue or any other beat 'em up would simplify things far too much. I would enjoy seeing things slowed down as I pinpoint every single pressure point on my enemy's body. The action could be very fluid and cinematic, similar to V.A.T.S. fighting in Fallout 3.

While Nicholas Linnear would kick butt during his sections, the other characters could be more investigatory based. Similar to Shenmue or Indigo Prophecy, conversations with suspects and witnesses would be important, but simply interacting with the world may be the most profitable way to discover information. There are some excellent locations in very suspenseful situations that would lend to some very memorable gameplay.

What's a bit eerie between this Indigo Prophecy and The Ninja connection that I'm proposing is that much of Nicholas Linnear's secrets and answers lie in his past (with hundreds of pages of each book devoted to long flashbacks), similar to the Lucas of Indigo Prophecy where we spend some time playing in his past too to reveal some dark secrets.

So would The Ninja work if it played like Indigo Prophecy or Heavy Rain? I believe so. The multi-character story would allow for the story to be told in a unique way and give the player some options to make the plot their own. The QTE based combat would hopefully be fun and cinematic, while not being too excessive (wishful thinking maybe). If these two came together along with the strong license from Lustbader, I think we would have an absolutely stunning game. Not for everyone, but in my opinion, the best way to make The Ninja, The Miko, and White Ninja into video games.

I plan to continue on with the series, the final three books in the Nicholas Linnear sextilogy are The Kaisho, Floating City, and Second Skin. I'm not sure if I'll return here with more theories after each and every one, but I'll most definitely revisit this subject when I complete them.