If there's one thing I've learned to appreciate in all my time writing about video games, it's appreciating games that incorporate wordplay into their very systems. Anything as simple as puns or alliteration to something as elaborate as dealing with words directly in gameplay. So naturally during the 2020 USC Games Expo, I was drawn in by Grammar Ninja, a mobile game all about throwing ninja stars at words.
It didn't take it long for me to hit it off with the director of Grammar Ninja, Greg Lieberman. The simple idea behind the game was to build a persistent long-term game with hundreds of levels full of rudimentary puzzles, focusing on simple basics of the English language. In each level you are given a few sentences and you are tasked with tossing a ninja star with a tap of the touch screen at all of the nouns, verbs, or adjectives, you see. There is a scoring system for finding the words quickly, and each level can be completed within about 30 seconds at most then getting to two minutes tops at the higher difficulties.
The core areas that Lieberman wanted to focus on with Grammar Ninja was keeping players in that coveted flow state: Being able to go from level to level, enjoyably striking down verbs and the like while beating their personal high scores, and making it all feel effortless. There was also a focus on longevity, working to ensure that hundreds of levels could be made and keep everything consistent. Thankfully, companies like Google have been creating in-depth tools (Duolingo comes to mind) when it comes to recognizing words and phrases, which helped take a lot of the tedium out of Lieberman's project, hence the rather ambitious size in terms of levels.
But what really gave me a smile was the story of how Grammar Ninja came to be. After Lieberman gave me a pat “because they're cool” explanation as to why it was ninjas as opposed to robots or pirates, he also explained that the game was a dream project he had wanted to make for 12 years. It originally started as a simple flash game he made in his spare time, then life continued on. Lieberman even mentioned that he started out as a game artist but then moved into design, spending a solid decade on making smaller projects. What made him come back to the idea was a situation that happened a few years ago while he was on vacation and met a little girl who somehow played the original version of Grammar Ninja so long ago. Fast forward to now with the higher quality of tools now available, and Lieberman was able to improve on his project, giving it a better life on smart devices. Not only was it a fantastic look into just how connected we are as a society, but also just how commonplace the pastime of gaming had become.
Unfortunately, the future for Grammar Ninja is uncertain due to the COVID-19 outbreak. There is no concrete release date for the game at this point, but it is aiming to release on both iOS and Android at some point this summer. It's such a simple idea, but on a platform that blew up thanks to disgruntled avians and has blossomed into a mainstream gaming powerhouse, I think there's plenty of room for ninjas that pin down proper nouns while in the shadows.