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The “Mask” in Mask of the Rose

By Stuart Young, July 9, 2021 ·

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 Creative Director, and design lead on Mask of the Rose, Emily Short.


“It was not that Holmes merely changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part he assumed.” — A Scandal in Bohemia

One of the core themes in Mask of the Rose is about cultivating a connection. You invite the characters to tell you their secrets, you build relationships with them, and you find your commonalities— despite any minor surface differences, like one of you having a beard made of tentacles.

Your personal background and outfit help make those connections. Sometimes, that involves literal disguise. We’ve drawn some inspiration from Sherlock Holmes’ legendary ability to disguise himself as anything his detection requires, from washerwomen to Nonconformist preachers.

Murder Crow

But when it comes to the most important and persistent characters in the game, adopting different modes of presentation is not necessarily about deception at all. It’s also about trying on identities, adapting to an unstable world, and choosing to align yourself with a particular group – socially, emotionally, even aesthetically.

Of course, that also means that characters need to be able to react with nuance to how you present yourself to them.

Willingness to Help

Asking whether a non-player character is willing to do something is the standard model for succeeding or failing at an interaction in Mask.

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In Fallen London, when the player attempts an action, their success depends on a random roll, affected by the player’s stats. As a visual novel, Mask accommodates much less repetition than Fallen London, and there’s less opportunity to return to a situation and retry it later. So randomness isn’t such a good fit.

Instead, all success and failure resolutions are deterministic, and they’re based on character choice-making. Someone either trusts you enough to sell you contraband street maps, or they don’t. They like you enough to kiss you, or not.

At the same time, we didn’t want this to feel like a puzzle, where the trick is to discover just the right sequence of dialogue moves to get someone to open up. Typically, there are many routes to negotiation: you might have built up a rapport with a character previously, by showing kindness or sharing the same social mores. Alternatively, you might present yourself as an authority figure that they don’t want to defy, or demonstrate a vulnerability that moves them to pity. Or you might happen to be wearing an especially winning mushroom hat.

So we needed a way of resolving these character requests that would offer the player lots of different angles of approach – and that would help us be clear to the player about why attempts succeeded or failed.

What’s At Stake?

Whenever you ask a character to take an action, the system makes two lists:

  • What would it mean to say yes to this? Would the character be confiding about something they generally like to keep to themselves? Would they be showing kindness, or obeying their personal values? Would they be incriminating themselves somehow?
  • What would it mean to say no? Would they be letting you down? Defying authority? Violating etiquette?

From a writing perspective, there are several helpful things about this design.
First, it makes it easy to add mechanically distinct ways of making the same request. Are you just asking someone to do something, or are you offering them a barter in exchange? Are you asking them this sticky question when you’re alone with them, or in front of another character?

Having lots of options here helps us tie meaningful gameplay to the protagonist’s character background and outfit choices.

Second, the majority of the scripting doesn’t involve writing numerical conditions like “if the character’s trust is greater than 70…”. Instead, the process of scripting these resolutions redirects us back to core writing questions: what is at stake for this character? Why might they care about the outcomes?

If it’s difficult to come up with interesting things to list for a given character, that’s a warning that maybe this interaction isn’t rich enough yet, and that we need to build more motivation around it.

Resolving a Request

To resolve the outcome of a request, we look at both of those lists and compare them to that character’s current lists of desired and forbidden activities.

Harjit

Sometimes, that comparison produces a simple result, where the character’s preferences unambiguously incline them to say yes or no. Some characters don’t want to confide in you; others might be worried about breaking social expectations; still others might be saying yes to anything they think might bring them closer to the Masters of the Bazaar. (We’ve written before about how having a specific, evolving list of character limits allows us to model relationships with some nuance.)

But sometimes, the character is genuinely conflicted: the “yes” list and the “no” list might both be appealing or both be unappealing. In those cases, we might generate a partial success, or show a character hesitating over a reaction.

In other words, the system is able to distinguish between

  • A character agreeing because they actively wish to
  • A character agreeing because they have no particular objection
  • A character agreeing despite themselves because saying no would be worse
  • A character agreeing to something they really want to do even though they’re a little bit tempted by the subversive appeal of saying no

And along with the other things it accomplishes, that mechanical framework provides us with a way of expressing procedurally the idea of enthusiastic consent: the player can never successfully initiate a romantic or sexual interlude unless the character unambiguously agrees.

Relationships In Transition

The moment when you ask a character to take action is also the moment when they can re-evaluate which actions they’re even willing to engage in.

Perhaps they’ve not wanted to confide in you before, but you ask the right thing at the right time, when you’ve built enough rapport previously, and they decide: yes, this time, I can extend that trust.

At that moment, your relationship is changed for the future – and perhaps new, more daring requests become available. But that, dear reader, is a subject for another post.

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