I first saw Masquerada in 2015 at PAX while roaming around the 6th floor of the Washington State Convention Center. The game has an art style that just kind of jumps off of the screen. It reminds me of a random European comic from the 1980s, like something straight out of the Moebius archives. So I was intrigued. I met with Ian Gregory the Creative Director at Witching Hour Studios based in Singapore to find out more.
Masquerada, he told me, is a completely original Baldur's Gate-inspired RPG about masks, songs, and a unique setting. After playing the demo, I was impressed, but also tempered my expectations because of how long and challenging the development of RPGs can be. Needless to say, the game has been stuck in my mind for the past year. I wondered what the full game would be like and if it could live up to the demo that so impressed me. I was very happy to catch up with Ian once again at PAX Prime 2016, and asked for a refresher of what Masquerada was all about:
Masquerada is a game inspired very much by Dragon Age Origins, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights. The whole idea that you would run a party and its technical so you can pause and give instructions to all your members. If anything else, its also a fully voiced experience and everything is hand drawn. Everything is crafted with the intention of providing you a wonderful experience of gameplay and story-telling.
Later on, in the interview, when asked about the world and story setup, Ian expounded:
Magic is only possible if you own a mask in this world. So the problem with the masks is that no one knows how to make them anymore. And when someone dies that mask turns to dust. so it is a constantly diminishing commodity in the world, so therefore only the very rich can have them. So that creates a great, you know, difference between the rich and the poor. And its very much saying that I am better than you for the mask that I wear on my face. But it also creates something else because in this world of magic, religion doesn't exist. So without religion there is no god, no gods, no afterlife. And we need to figure mortality. So what they do in this world is that if you are a mask owner, a Masquerada, so to speak, - right - when you die a song is composed for you. And your hopes, your dreams, your accomplishments are all housed in a song that the people that come after you can listen to the song to find out who you were - in life. But the only way you get a song is if you own a mask.
After playing a couple of hours of a review copy, I found Masquerada's setting really fascinating. Instead of delegating elves or orcs as stand-ins for uncomfortable social commentary, this game uses a "diminishing commodity" that grounds the story with a sense a realism amidst all the magic and Venetian Renaissance costumes.
The new demo at PAX West 2016 was a tighter and more focused experience that managed to end on quite an emotional note, which is surprising for a 10 minute snippet of the larger game. Ian elucidated on what his team has been working on for the past year:
Lots of testing - if anything else, its actually creating the assets...because, if you know, all the backgrounds are all hand drawn. So its literally hours spent on that. Right now since we are getting closer to the launch - its kinda gets - testing and testing again and making everything look pretty, uh, tighter as you say. So the ability that we are creating right now, its all about, you know, flash.
I wanted to know more about the origins of the masks and the world of Masquerada, and Ian was all to eager to oblige. The answer spoke to directly to my pen and paper RPG nerd heart:
This game was based on a DnD campaign that I used to run for my friends.
As a GM that runs a few games and has played every edition of Dungeons and Dragons since the 2nd Edition, I could see the pride in Ian's face when he told me about this. I have a sneaking suspicion that almost every GM at some point in their lives has imagined their hand crafted world would either become a movie/TV Show or a video game. Masquerada was an old idea that finally came to fruition:
This [game] is rather personal. But all said and done, it is something that is bigger and better than anything that I could have done alone. My team has put in their heart and soul into creating something that I can very safely say would not exist without they're involvement in it. So credit goes to the writer, the artists, the designers, the programmers to make something that is, I think, pure magic as far as I am concerned. I really sit on the shoulders of giants.
On the question of how hard it was collaborating on something close to his heart:
Its between ego and trust - I think I'll take trust.
Anything that I want to talk about that is cool about the game definitely stems from the team.
Though it takes inspiration from Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age, Masquerada's main character isn't player-created. I commented on it and Ian explained that while a limitation, it allows them to focus on crafting a focused and sharp narrative:
We are a small studio out in Singapore, and we wanted to make sure that everything had the same kind of depth across the board. So we decided with going with a character that had a history. So when he went into the story, he had relationships built with the other people he is going to talk to. Rather than a tabula rasa where its a blank slate. So that gave us a lot of girth. We could do a lot of things because he [the main character] knew the world and yet he has been away for five years. So he has a very unique perspective of whats going on in the world.
Only a few hours into Masquerada, I am still wowed by the art and the character designs. The hand drawn backgrounds are some of the best that I've seen in recent memory. Now, the story is starting to really reel me in, so I'm looking forward to truly exploring the game over the weekend. Next week, I'll have some deeper thoughts on the game itself once I rack up a few more hours.