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Six Years a Ninja: Memoirs of a Grad Student


(It's been over 3 years since my last CBlog, and the formatting has changed.  Bear with me if you notice mistakes and inconsistencies.  This is going to be a rather long personal story, though I promise there's a videogame-related reason that I think is worth sharing.  Additionally, I've changed the names of people referenced here for reasons that will be obvious.  The game in question is Klei's Mark of the Ninja, originally released in 2012, and I'm going to be spoiling the plot.)

About six years ago, I was halfway through a Master of Arts degree program at a small university in the American southeast, and midway through the Fall semester, Mark of the Ninja released on the XBL Arcade.  At the time, I had no notion that these two unrelated events would be linked for years, and that the end of 2012 would be something I would slowly crawl away from, like the survivor of some horrible wreckage.  I'm going to undercut my thesis by including a depression trigger warning.  This isn't a story I like to tell, but it's one that, at long last, finally has some closure.

Without going into the specifics of where or why, I had decided to pursue a Master's degree in Literature.  I cruised through my undergraduate years without major issue, and my assumption was that grad school would be more of the same.  I was a good day's travel from my hometown by car, I had very little money, and my new university was significantly smaller than my last—small enough that there were only about twelve people in my graduate cohort, and we were not friends.  The academic environment was competitive, and professors played favorites.  I was close enough with one of my classmates that we were roommates, but we seldom spent time together.  My hobbies were mostly left back home: I had nowhere to consistently practice martial arts, the town was too small to host anything regularly exciting, and whatever did interest me was either associated with the school or cost too much for me to be able to go.  The conclusion I was left with was to play videogames in my spare time.  I had no problem with this of course, except that the internet at the apartment was too slow to play online.  I could download stuff, but it was relegated to single-player games only.

A Master's in my field typically takes about two years.  Students are expected to complete approximately 36 hours of coursework (12 classes, spread across Fall-Spring-Summer-Fall-Spring), miscellaneous requirements like a foreign language component, and write a Master's Thesis of 40,000 words.  It's a lot to take in, but a diligent student would understand that these requirements are meant to be planned out and satisfied over a large stretch of time.  People do finish these programs, after all.  On top of this, I was a Teaching Assistant and a Research Assistant, which meant I was paid a meager sum (roughly $800/month before taxes and deductions), and my tuition was paid for.  In return, I had to spend an average of 20 hours a week split between research for one professor and working as a class aide for another.

When this was explained to me at the outset, I didn't bat an eye.  Of course there's going to be work.  Of course I'm going to be asked to balance an immense quantity of different and multifaceted responsibilities.  This is what I'm here to do! I told myself.  I performed so well during my undergraduate years that I couldn't imagine anything destabilizing that.  My entire first year of grad school went well.  Not amazing, but well.  I earned one B out of five classes, and kept ahead of my assistantship duties.  I had trouble getting my MA Thesis off the ground, and I needed to find a faculty director who would oversee/guide my research project.  This is a trickier process than simply asking a professor to grade your work; a thesis director will help push your project in directions that they deem useful to the field, and while they do not do any of the writing, they will suggest branches of research that will complement or strongly influence your topic.  I had some loose ideas of things I'd like to pursue, but after shopping them around to different faculty members I mostly found closed doors.  Then I approached a professor of mine whom I'll call Dick.

Dick was an instructor who had taught two of my five classes thus far.  He was an old hippie, often showing up to class with jeans and a t-shirt from some concert that predated me by ten or more years covered in stains from whatever he had for lunch a semester ago.  Sometimes he'd throw on a sport coat to offset this look and appear to be the person responsible for preconfiguring a unique branch of literary study.  He had shoulder-length gray hair and ended his sentences with "man."  I had a good working relationship with him, often taking up his office hours to chat about our weekly readings and listen to him rattle off ideas and concepts.  He was laid-back, likeable, and his area of expertise worked well for a project I proposed.

As I entered the Fall semester of my second year in 2012, I felt confident.  I had a freshly-approved thesis proposal from my new director, I was riding off the high of doing well my first year, and I was promoted from classroom aide to graduate teacher, meaning I had two classes of my own to manage.  This tripled my workload, but teaching was—and is—my absolute favorite thing in the world.  I was ecstatic, and completely ignorant of the mounting workload.  I was taking two high-level courses (one of which was taught by Dick), working on my thesis (which was scheduled to be mostly finished by the end of the calendar year for a Spring thesis defense), and teaching two freshman/sophomore literature classes.  Up to this point, I had no trouble keeping up with my gaming, and thus had no reason to change my habits.

It was in this semester that Klei released Mark of the Ninja.  (Oddly, our own review here on Destructoid seems to be missing, and it was largely the reason I bought the game—it scored a perfect 10.)  I'm a huge fan of stealth games and almost all ninja games, and between Metal Gear Solid, Ninja Gaiden, and Shank, I was interested in Mark of the Ninja.  However, money was tight.  I couldn't exactly splurge on even the smallest games.  My pay had gone from $800 to $900, but my rent at a new apartment jumped about $100 higher.  My monthly net revenue was a scant $200 after rent, utilities, and necessities like groceries and gas.  We did not live like kings.  My parents regularly sent me care packages filled with food and gift cards.  This didn't entirely stop me from buying the games I wanted, but limited my purchases to things I could plan for.  I hadn't planned on buying Mark of the Ninja.  Instead, games became retail therapy for me, especially if I was stressed.

Through the semester, I found that I was frequently cutting corners in one area to make up in another.  More specifically, I had difficulty being both a student and a teacher.  My thought process was that my students relied on me, and thus I had a responsibility to them to perform at my best.  Plus, I am in the field of higher education—if I'm not here to teach, then what am I doing at all?  A part of me came to resent the attitude that some professors had about teaching—namely, that they disliked it and preferred to do research—and I actively resisted this paradigm.  In the two classes I was taking as a grad student, I scaled back on my class participation, skipped readings I deemed too time-consuming or difficult, and paid little heed when my grades began slipping on smaller assignments.  I figured I could make them up with papers and semester's end projects.  My attention was arrested when I got back a low C on a quarterly short paper from my other professor (not Dick).  She had written a note across the top that read, "I expect more.  What's going on?"

I didn't really have an answer for her.  I was afraid of confrontation, and after doing well enough for so long, I didn't know how to react.  I pretended it didn't happen and tried to convince myself I'd do better next time.  Dick's class so far had no major issues, but I was certainly behind on reading.  It was around this same time that dtoid's review of Mark of the Ninja went up (or, if I'm misremembering dates, it was around this time when I saw it; I remember reading it a little ways into the semester, in either late September or early October).  I recall telling my friend (now a member of our community! :D) that I'd only consider buying the game if it really blew everyone away.  I had bought plenty of indie games, but hadn't loved and XBLA games since Super Meat Boy in 2010.  Sure enough, Mark of the Ninja was exactly what I wanted it to be.  And while I don't buy games based exclusively off of reviews, I had enough of a sense of the writers at the time that I knew what to look for in the review and how to parse it.  I had my downer week and needed to swipe my credit card to make it all better.

And it did.  Somewhat.

As anyone who is guilty of this can tell you, using a game to cope can be a dangerous thing.  I can say that my grades did not improve, even if I felt better.  And while the game doesn't have an amazing story, it was just detailed enough that I found myself in it.  Here's an unnamed ninja (me), tasked by his master (my professor) with taking down a crime syndicate (all of my work, assignments, and responsibilities).  Additionally, The ninja is endowed with a special tattoo that, at the start of the game, is incomplete.  It grants him special powers that will make him capable of incredible feats.  He is guided along on his journey by a female ninja, who also helps narrate the plot.  This being a stealth game, the ninja cannot fight his enemies directly—he needs to be smarter than that.  The player has to utilize their stealth skills and abilities to make progress, and cannot brute force their way through the game.  Whatever tactics the player brought into this game would garner no victory.  The game demands that the player learn its rules.  (Do you see where this is going?  I didn't.)

During the semester, I had met with Dick once or twice to talk about my thesis, on which I had accomplished virtually nothing since the proposal.  He was laid back enough that he didn't want to put harsh limits on me, but he did remind me that I needed to make progress.  Fast forward a few more weeks and I'm doing mediocre at best in both classes, most of my time is going into my own teaching, and Dick called me for a meeting.  He asked, in short, what I had been spending my time doing.  He noted I hadn't been participating, he grilled me on the reading, and further questioned whether I had done any research since we last spoke.  What could I say but shamefully admit that I hadn't been keeping up?  He folded his hands and looked across his messy, book-infested desk at me, and said,


"You need to spend less time teaching your fucking undergrads and get your ass to work."


I nodded.  Or I think I did.  Whatever I did seemed to give him the idea that I understood, and he dismissed me.  I was shaken, and walked slowly back to my apartment.  The force and attitude he had about teaching—my teaching—offended me, but he was also my boss.  I was angry and weak.  I tried to get my bearings:  my director is pissed at me, I'm not only behind but in danger of failing, I haven't made sufficient progress and at this point I didn't even know what that would even look like, and I was too scared to ask for help.  I guess I really should get to work.

And yet, reader, you know that didn't happen.

I had just reached the point about 2/3rds of the way through the game when the ninja kills the syndicate leader, Karajan (named for composer Herbert von Karajan).  And upon completing this mission, the ninja returns to his clan to find that his master had been using him to clear out the syndicate so that the ninja clan could take over.  The ninja, having outlived his usefulness and on his way to being consumed by the very thing that gave him his abilities, was asked to commit honorable suicide for the good of the clan.  Of course he doesn't.  Aided by his companion, he makes his escape.

What did 24-year-old Shibboletho see in this?  Clearly, I'm the ninja.  My professor has just betrayed me, and I needed to prove myself not by doing what he asked, but by fighting against what I saw as an anti-education viewpoint and dedicating myself to my students.  My ninja companion was urging me toward the classroom, not the research desk.  I was a teacher, not a library rat!

The thing about stories like this is that when you're telling them in hindsight, the right answers seem so obvious.  When you're living them out, you often see yourself as the protagonist regardless of context.

I doubled-down on my teaching, and as a result my students were engaged, enthusiastic, and left me glowing reviews.  I had a 98% passing rate for my students, and it was not an easy class for them.  My own work was not nearly so bright a story.  My grades slipped.  My papers were trash.  I didn't meet with Dick to discuss my thesis for the rest of the semester.  In one of my classes, I scraped by with a C.  Dick's class is the reason I have this story at all.  He sent me an email after grading my final paper.  I was not handling grad school well, and had been visiting a friend in a nearby city to escape for a weekend.  I was driving back when I got the email.  I pulled over into a Krystal parking lot and read it.

Somewhere, deep in my inbox, I still have that email.  I've never looked for it, and I'll never read it again.  Even now, I don't think I could handle it.  Years later, long after it is even remotely capable of actually doing any harm, long after every issue it pointed to has been resolved, I don't think I could read that email again.

I pulled over into a Krystal parking lot and I wept.  I failed the term paper.  I failed the class.  I lost my thesis director.  And the larger implications stood before me: I might not find another director.  I hadn't made any progress.  My grades were low enough that my funding might be in jeopardy.  I couldn't afford to pay for school.  I had fucked up so bad because I clung to some misplaced ideal about what I thought my role was and who I thought I was supposed to be: I saw my actions as the result of choosing between being a student and being a teacher.  And this certainly isn't the game's fault; I had projected onto the narrative because I was compelled—by my own blindness more than anything else—to see myself in the protagonist, to see what Dick had said and done as the betrayal that matched the story.  The semester was over, and so was I.  I dried my eyes and finished the drive back to my apartment.

And I spent the rest of that evening finishing the game.

The ending of Mark of the Ninja presents the player with a choice.  The premise of the game centers around the ninja's tattoo, which is made from ink that comes from a special flower that grants immense and terrible power, but comes at the cost of the bearer's sanity (the titular "mark" of the ninja).  It is written in the game's lore that the bearer will grow mad if he does not take his own life.  The game repeatedly poses the question of whether you have been going mad or if the world has gone mad around you.  I certainly didn't feel like I had gone mad.  Your companion through the game, the female ninja, had helped your (voiceless) character rationalize his decisions.  She helped him escape when the clan betrayed him, she helped him find the old tattoo artist, Dosan, and she had guided him to this final confrontation.

The choice is this: you stand before your master, the same one who betrayed you, and he entreats that you kill either your companion or him.  The irony wasn't lost on me.  I wanted nothing more than to take him down.  He betrayed me.  He ruined the ways of the clan.  He didn't approve of my methods.  He thought my teaching was a waste, and his research was the only right way.  He wanted me to do his work and not focus on my own.  He represented what I had come to hate about higher education.

The list of projections goes on.  The question nagged at me though: why would the game give me this choice?  If I was right, then why present to me something that was clearly wrong as an option?  Why would I kill my companion, who helped me get this far, instead of the man who ruined what was to be?  My master couldn't possibly be right.  And even if he were right, there’d be no cure.  There’s no way that this could lead to a happy ending, but I had to know for sure.


So I approached my companion and I killed her.


The game switches from its in-game engine to its animated cutscenes for the endings.  In the cutscene, your ninja and your companion are shown from the shoulders up.  She gasps.  Her whole body turns as black as ink.  She explodes into ravens that fly away.  The camera zooms out.  In stabbing her, you have stabbed through your own abdomen.  Killing your companion, who was never anything more than an externalization of your madness, means killing yourself.  You had gone mad after all.  I had gone mad.

I remember putting the controller down and going outside and sitting on the balcony for an hour.  It was mid-December, cold, somewhat wet.  School was out and since most of the complex's resident were students, there was the noise of nearby parties and celebration.  But I sat alone on the third floor balcony looking out into a pitch-black tree line, then down at the ground below.  (No, I did not consider jumping.)  I thought about what it would be like to be able to take away the part of me I didn't like, the part of me that drove me to make bad decisions and kept good judgment in abeyance, and let it fly away, a cloud of ravens into the night.  That ending told me that Dick was right.  I had fucked up.  And that was too much for one day without any validation or positivity.  I needed something, anything, that might make me feel better.  I went back to my room, reloaded the save, and walked the other direction.

When you kill your master, the game again switches to an animated cutscene.  It's clear from every frame that your sword has killed your master, leaving you standing over his dead body.  The color palette fades to resemble the inky shades of an ukiyo-e painting, with your ninja and your master both being rendered entirely in black ink.  Your ninja's shape morphs and distorts itself, and he vanishes into the wind.  Even in this ending, your master was right.  Getting what I wanted and proving myself justified were mutually-exclusive.

I had let the narrative of this game shape my thoughts and actions.  Again, it's unfair to blame the game.  I had to address what was undeniably my fault.  On Monday, I went to campus to speak with my graduate director, a man I'll call Ben.  Ben was the department chair, and his goal was to oversee all the graduate students and ensure adequate progress was being made on their requirements.  I had spoken with him many times and always found him polite, inviting, and honest.  I hadn't planned on meeting with him as an act of expiation, but I didn't know what else to do, nor to whom else I might turn.  I was too frightened to face Dick or any other professor.  I couldn’t even call my parents.

Ben listened to my story.  In short form, I even told him about the game.  I told him that I understood that what had happened was my fault.  I had ruined my semester, and I was sure there were going to be massive consequences, but I needed to know for certain what was going to happen next.  He let me talk for an hour.  I recall tearing up as I went through some events.

He told me that Dick had spoken with him, telling him that I hadn't been keeping up with the work. However, because my GPA was still above a certain threshold I would not be losing my funding, nor (equally important) would I be prevented from teaching.  I would be able to repair my GPA in the Spring, and it would be up to me to resolve the issues with my thesis.  He advised I take the Winter break to go home, recuperate, and come back ready to work.  He told me that no matter what happened, the sun would still rise the next day, whether I wanted it to or not.  Our conversation ended something like this:

I said, "I felt I had to make a choice this semester between being a good student and being a good teacher.  My decision nearly cost me everything."

Ben replied, "I wish you hadn't made such a decision, but that's life.  I'm content with knowing that you learned from it, and as a result will grow as a person."


He gave me a hug.  I left town that night and spent the next month at home.


I repaired my GPA in the Spring, and began seeing a counselor weekly.  The counselor helped me come to terms with the previous semester, and being a gamer himself, understood my projection and habits.  While my classes went well, I was unable to find a new director.  That should have been the semester I graduated.  I told Ben that I'd be taking time off, and I didn't know when I'd return.  He was sad to hear that, but understood, and told me to come back when I was ready.

It would be a year and a half before I'd speak to him again, and I resumed my studies with Ben as my director.  I finished my MA in 2015.  After I successfully defended my thesis, we went for a walk around campus.  I told him, "what I didn't realize when starting this program was that I was incapable of finishing it."  It took me a long time to grow into the student I needed to be.  My Fall 2012 semester haunted me for years afterward, and it cast a long shadow over my academic endeavors ever since.  It was the part of my transcript I always had to explain to my employers and superiors.  It was always the nagging feeling that I stubbornly rejected my orders in favor of fantasy, entirely to my detriment.

I'm telling this story now for a couple reasons.  Despite my personal hardship, I didn't stop playing Mark of the Ninja, even after the traumatic semester I had gone through.  I love the game.  I consider it mechanically perfect, though that's a discussion for another day.  I did skip the cutscenes for a while, but eventually watched them again, knowing what the story was really about, and finding my place in it.  I needed to fail to grow.  I needed to realize that I lived with my own demons.

And in the past several years, my perspective and understanding of education has shifted.  Students are important, yes, but so are teachers, and teachers don't become good without bettering themselves in all capacities.  It's not enough to just be passionate or likeable.  I must be well-rounded and knowledgeable.  I have also taken care to address my stress levels and balance my mental health.  It nearly consumed me.

Often, when I read through the QPosts I find myself looking for posts by people talking about stress or school (or both) and I try to offer encouragement.  I've been on both sides of the academic fence.  It's harsh.  But somehow I made it through, and I'm pretty shitty at some things.  Like English.

The main reason I'm writing this is because here, now, six years on, Mark of the Ninja is coming back, and I'm in school again.  I'm at a larger university working on a PhD because that's what I've decided is the best use of myself.  I'm taking three classes.  Two of them are overloaded with work.  One of them is especially challenging in terms of reading, to boot.  I'm currently teaching one class of my own.  I'm also a tutor in our writing studio.  I'm being paid about the same amount.  Unlike my last program, this one lasts five years, and my doctoral dissertation is estimated to be closer to 80,000+ words.

But I've got time.  I'm focused.  I'm handling my workload, my classes, my students (who are still wonderful), my sleep schedule, my diet, my commute, and even my gaming.  I last spoke with Ben a few weeks ago.  He's getting ready to retire, and wanted to know how my semester was going.  Earlier this week, I pre-loaded Mark of the Ninja on my Switch.  For so long, I looked at the game as a mark of my own, a reminder of my failure, even as I loved playing the game itself.  Now, it's a reminder of a time when I learned a very hard lesson about who I was, who I thought I was, and who I would eventually need to be.  There is no happy, third ending where the ninja is able to cleanse himself of the tattoo, bring back the dead, and live in harmony with the world around him.


Fortunately, I'm no longer that ninja.


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About Shibbolethoone of us since 1:04 AM on 03.14.2013

English Teacher.
Karate Nerd.
Super Ninja.
Maverick Hunter.
FBC Director.

Every once in a while I've got some proper shit to say about videogames.