Friday, June 21, 2024

Mask of The Rose is About Love and Belonging in Fallen London

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Mask of the Rose – a visual novel set in the same universe as Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies – drops players into Failbetter’s unique universe of cosmic horror and dark humor. With one playthrough taking roughly seven hours to complete, the game is built for replayability with many different mysteries and relationships to pursue. Against the backdrop of a murder, it contemplates what it means to find belonging and community in a world that might just not want you to.

Mask of the Rose takes place in 1862 in a world where Victorian London was dragged under the earth by bats. With no sunlight, unhuman neighbors, parliament underwater, and the mysterious Masters of the Bazaar in charge, you’ve got a whole lot of changes to get used to.

Simultaneously a mystery and a romance, the game follows the player’s created character who can have one of six backgrounds (three are unlocked after finishing the first full playthrough) which influences their speech behaviors, actions, and understanding of Fallen London. Said character lives in a boarder house with a few others and has been hired to work for Mr. Pages to do a census of everyone in the area. What for? No one is entirely sure!

When the respectable David Landau is poisoned, your housemate Archie (and one of the many love interests) is the prime suspect. Okay so solve his murder and that’s it right?

If only, because in the Neath, death isn’t permanent! When David returns from the grave, the race is on to prove Archie’s innocence and identify the real murderer. Sighs, never an easy day in the Fallen London universe, that’s for sure.

As you investigate the first murder case where the victim is also a witness, you will invest time in getting closer to the game’s eccentric cast of characters. Some are innocent, some definitely aren’t, some might be of the devil, and some have tentacles! Well.

Creative Director and lead writer Emily Short told press that creating Mask of the Rose was inspired by the community familiar with Fallen London and their desire to explore more relationships in the world especially with those who aren’t quite human.

You can engage in brief liaisons, romantic love, asexual relationships or platonic connections with any genders and orientations. It’s a game about love – and we have a lot of kinds of love story to tell.

Emily Short

Gameplay is as expected in a visual novel where, after you’ve picked your characteristics, you’re dropped right into the drama for your first day of work, learning how to take the census for Mr. Pages, and meeting the first of many characters. As you meet and talk to people you can choose whether you want to be friendly, seductive, romantic, or all three. You can bypass all of that too and focus on matchmaking characters which, as an auntie? Heck yah.

However, Mask of the Rose is action based, so each “day” of the game only allows two actions. You can head to a location and take an action there, or stay at your home and take actions there. Fortunately remembering the night of the fall, checking your journal, or changing your clothes are not actions.

One of the things I learned while playing though is that if you talk to Harjit (a Sikh constable) and ask him to take you to a location, you can do another task there. This is really key when you only have two tasks a day and not endless days before Archie’s trial is to occur.

All the locations that you can visit in the game, but you might not get to all of them in each play-through!

Harjit and the characters are what really make Mask of the Rose stand out. It’s immediately apparent the team dedicated their time and effort to designing each character that we meet and London itself. Listen, I have no interest in the British or their history except in how it’s impacted my own (and many others) as a Bangladeshi woman. Seeing Harjit not only have a fully fledged out backstory, present (and future) is so frickin amazing. What would it have been like for Harjit to come to London in the 1850s? The game does not shy away from those realities.

He’s not the only one of course. What was it like for Horatia, a Black woman who takes in lodgers but hasn’t gone outside since the Fall? Or David and Rachel, Jewish siblings with all sorts of family issues? Failbetter Games has blog posts outlining how they went about talking to consultants to learn more about the history of the time period to keep it realistic while writing a fantastical world.

While I haven’t made it through every single ending or relationship possible in the game, it’s clear that getting to know each person and the larger world of Fallen London is going to be an incredible experience.

Of course, there’s the whole murder dealio. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you who committed the murder since even after multiple times, I either didn’t talk to the right people or didn’t put together what clues I did get to craft the story to get Archie free. And it’s a spoiler, so you know.

Another unique aspect of this game is storycrafting. As you meet people and learn new things, you’re given story fragments that you can put together to tell different stories. Multiple characters in the game will ask you for these. Rachel for example, a writer needs help finishing out her current plot while Harjit needs more to go on so that he can try to help save Archie too.

Storycrafting!

While storycrafting, certain elements might be locked so you have to work around that like in the screenshot above which has locked “poisoned David”. I found this game mechanic both really interesting and slightly frustrating. “Incorrect” elements usually lead to sentences that make zero sense on the right side where the full story is written which was helpful in hinting I needed to go into a different direction. (The actual coding to make this work must have been an absolute beast!) “Correct” or at least complete stories would get a story title, but as I mentioned earlier, I never did quite master it to figure out whomst killed David and why!

That doesn’t make the storycrafting mechanic bad, rather it just means I’m going to be sinking a whole lot of time into the game in the best way to figure out what I got wrong! (I also read incredibly fast so what will take most folks the seven hours took me three.)

A third mechanic, and actually my favorite was the importance of clothing. Each of the backstories provides one piece for the player, so as a dockworker you’d start with the shirt. If you’re a tailor you start with a tailor’s apron, so on and so forth.

Unlike many visual novels that promise elements early on and for (understandable) reasons have to pull back, Failbetter Games was able to keep the clothing as important as originally promised. If you wear the wrong thing, you’re going to make the worst impression on the other characters. On the flipside, the right hat, right shirt/top, and badge can get the most recalcitrant person to open up.

As you progress through the game you are provided more pieces or can purchase from Ivy in the market (another interest!) and you’re prompted each time by various strings of text when you pick a piece of clothing or a new badge about whether it’s the best choice to wear said item(s). I really liked this part of the game because I like collectibles and in this case they meant something and required some extra thinking as you progress throughout the game.

Maybe that’s what I was missing in trying to solve the murder? Fortunately, without spoiling it, there are in fact other ways to help Archie, but those too require repeated and successful interactions with the various characters. The limited number of actions makes Mask of the Rose replayable in a way that many narrative games aren’t, where if you just click every dialogue option then the rest of the story is available. Since there isn’t enough time to do everything in the game, you have to pick a strategy and stick to it. I know I’ll be working towards each character as a love interest to see where that lands me as the game wraps up.

All of this takes place to a beautifully composed soundtrack by Laurence Chapman, gorgeous character designs and backgrounds, and a few animated scenes throughout dropping the player right into Fallen London.

Strip back the (quite wonderful) mechanics and at its heart, this game is a love letter to the Failbetter Games community and successful entry point to new audiences focused on what makes connections possible between people from all backgrounds and in this case, worlds. I know that this is one of the few games that will keep me going back for more until I’ve solved every mystery and learned every secret.

Mask of the Rose is available on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam and GOG, and Nintendo Switch now!

Images and review copy courtesy of Failbetter Games

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