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Character Positioning in Mask of the Rose

You can learn more about Mask of the Rose and watch the video on Kickstarter. We'll be back with more staff updates like this one during the development process!

This blog is by our Art Director, Paul Arendt.

Staging scenes in a visual novel is a little like directing a play; you have a set, lighting, props and a cast of actors with lines to say and emotional attitudes to accompany them.

However, in Mask of the Rose, the player’s ability to choose means that we often don’t know which character will be appearing when, which makes arranging them artfully on the screen - blocking, in stage parlance - rather difficult.

To address this we’ve divided our scenes into five possible entrance points, represented by the vertical lines here:

Grid Lines

The writer can specify entrance and exit points for particular moments, but most of the time characters are positioned automatically, based on a set of rules we’re writing. So for instance, in a scene with a single character they will always appear on line 4, a second character always enters on line 2, and so on. These rules also govern character orientation - which way they face, in other words. So by default, characters on the left always face right and vice versa. Of course, we can always override this if Griz and Archie get really annoyed with each other:

Archie and Griz

Note that character heads tend to sit on the intersection between A and 2/4 - the rule of thirds in action. This is all fairly straightforward, but things get more complicated when you add a third character.

To illustrate, here’s an example scenario from an early part of the game. We’re in the basement of Horatia’s boarding house, during the Fall of London. This scene is a flashback; it has three characters and it’s possible for any of them to enter first, based on the player’s choices.

So let’s say Harjit, the police officer, is first to enter, so he gets position 4.


This is actually a nice position for him. His lamp balances the light source on the left, and his position/alignment suggests that he’s just come downstairs, which fits the story well.

There’s a storm outside. Buildings are falling. Harjit asks if everyone is alright. The player has to choose which character answers him. Let’s say they choose Griz.

Griz and Harjit

This feels good too, they’re sensibly separated and feel like they are talking to each other and the player.

Now, based on the player’s choices, Horatia the landlady may join the party as well. Wherever she enters, the other characters will have to budge up to make room. So which position is best?

Option 1:

Horatia 1

This isn’t great. A character arriving halfway through a scene is very likely to be speaking and changing the story up. It’s a weak position from which to do that, especially if she’s talking to Harjit over Griz, who is stuck in the middle with no lines.

Option 2:

Horatia 2

This isn’t ideal either. Horatia’s position implies she’s come in after Harjit, rather than being in the basement all along, and on top of that she’s talking to his back. We would have to flip him for the scene to make sense, and we’re trying to avoid doing that unnecessarily.

Option 3:

Horatia 3

OK, this is more like it. Horatia takes over the conversation, her physical orientation with Griz makes them allies, at odds with Harjit.

In fact, it’s almost always the case that the third character entrance works best from the middle, so that’s one of our default rules. The way they face depends on the demands of the scene, but they default to facing right, as Horatia does here.

I should stress that this ruleset doesn’t cover every dramatic eventuality, and there will be times when we want to do something more bespoke and flashy, but it does a good job of covering the basics, and gives us a solid foundation that we can tweak manually as the script develops.

And if we want four or five characters in a scene? Well, that’s easy: we don’t, usually. If we find that we need, say, a Usual Suspects style line-up sequence, those entrances will be arranged manually, no doubt with a good deal of swearing.