One of the first things we did during narrative pre-production was invent the ensemble cast for Mask of the Rose.
We knew we wanted a range of character types, with varied ethnicity, age, gender, body type, and social class. Along with demographic variety, we wanted a variety of perspectives: characters who would respond to the setting in different ways, and who’d offer distinct takes on our themes of love, community formation, and apocalyptic change.
To arrive at those different types, we asked ourselves questions like these:
Whose hopes, goals, and ambitions would be advanced by a fall to the Neath? Whose would be thwarted?
For Griz, losing traditional gender roles opens the possibility of a whole new civil service or political career for her.
For Rachel, the Fall is just as important to her career, but more emotionally complicated. After years of writing as an outsider, a Jewish author in a predominantly Christian society, she finds that the social boundaries have been redrawn, and she’s on the inside of the line between human Londoners and everyone else. So she has to decide: whose stories does she tell now, and how?
How would people understand and interpret the catastrophic thing that happened to them?
Will their interpretive frame of reference be science (like Archie), history and philosophy (like Harjit), or religion (like David, Horatia, or the local Anglican vicar)? Will they get wrapped up in the big questions, or will they focus on pragmatic issues, local (like Horatia) or city-wide (like Griz and Harjit)?
Whose emotional equilibrium would be improved or undermined?
Archie has always struggled with the cold, dark parts of the year, even when he lived on the Surface – and finding himself in a world without sunlight has made those issues even more acute for him.
Defining Conflicts and Character Arcs
Using these questions as prompts, we defined one internal conflict and one external conflict for each character. The external conflict connects the character to the broader setting and generates plot. The internal conflict supplies that character’s inner life and potential for change.
For each conflict, we asked what could the player character do to affect the outcome? Because this is an interactive story, not a novel, we wanted every arc to be meaningfully influenced by the player, even if the problem still fundamentally belongs to someone else.
Finally, we considered relationships between characters: Which characters are potential partners? Which characters will spend the most time together? Which dislike each other? Our goal here was interconnection, with lots of reasons for different characters to meet and interact.
From Arcs to Plot Beats
Once we had our character arcs, we needed to come up with plot beats. For inspiration, we drew on both the setting bible of Fallen London and a lot of real-world history.
Our research took us to novels by Grace Aguilar, ME Braddon, George Eliot, and Israel Zangwill; vignettes from W. O’Daniel’s Ins and Outs of London; the Hansard Parliamentary records from 1862; scanned newspapers, maps, and census data; histories of the Anglo-Sikh wars; Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management…
We’ve had – and will continue to have – assistance with these topics. Our consultant on Jewish communities helped us refine our initial vague outline of David and Rachel’s family one that’s more specific and grounded: a comfortably well-off Sephardic household whose ancestors have lived in England for generations, but whose charitable work brings them in contact with more recent Ashkenazic immigrants in the Tentergrounds area. He also answered many, many hypothetical questions about how the conditions of the Neath might intersect with Jewish belief, identity, and practice.
Drawing from the lore, we asked ourselves, What lore mysteries might this character help us illuminate? What common Neath activities would have been different just after the fall? Would this character still be in Fallen London three decades from now, and what would they be doing there? Are they anyone we already know?
From the research: What really happened in circumstances like these? What recognisable history can we turn in a Neathy direction? What real-life Victorian practices and events feel surprising and intriguing enough to belong in the Neath?
Making Personalities Playable
Once we’d worked out all those plot beats, we had enough information to build a manifest of the scenes we needed to write and the artwork we’d need for those scenes. But there’s one more step to building our Mask of the Rose characters, and that’s making their personalities evident in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
Mask has more gameplay mechanics than some visual novels, since the player’s outfits and resources help determine what can happen in a scene. We’ve also got relationships that can develop along multiple dimensions, since emotional intimacy might or might not progress alongside a romantic or sexual relationship.
Without an organising system to represent all these possibilities, our dialogue trees would quickly become an unmanageable collection of conditional statements.
To avoid that, our code tracks which social interactions a character is open to currently, which they might take up eventually, and which they’re never going to do.
When the player tries a particular interaction with the character, at any time or place in the game, the system checks the character model – along with the effects of the player’s outfit modifiers, if any – to find out whether it’s going to succeed or be turned down.
Thanks to this model, we can express character etiquette and personality traits with rules like “Rachel won’t talk to you in any detail about anything until you and she have been introduced” or “Archie seldom laughs at things unless he’s in one of his rare good moods”.
All together now
The goal of this process is to ground every aspect of the story in the bigger themes of Mask of the Rose and in its setting – while making every character sharply distinct, and worth the player’s time to get to know.