To all my fellow North Americans I say at last: Happy Halloween! And to everybody else: hello. Yes, it’s a time of year for disguising yourself and living a new life from behind a mask. Of course, we don’t really need a special day for that, we do it all the time in the games we play. This month’s Blogs of the Round Table explores ‘Masks’ and what they mean in games:
Masks serve a wide assortments of functions in many cultures. They’re ceremonial, playful, religious, criminal, empowering, and so many of other traits. They protect heroes and villains alike, they keep identities secret and they give identities and opportunity to flourish.
Tell us how masks are reflected in games. Is there a game that uses masks in an interesting way or are they all just uninteresting stat modifiers? Is role-playing at a tabletop or online a mask of sorts or does it let you take a mask off? Have games ever provided you with a mask when you needed it or are masks just a chance to abuse anonymity? What does masquerading symbolize and how can these effects change the experience of a game? In short, tell us about how masks effect a game, a player, and the culture.
Luke Pullen kicks begins at his blog, The Conversation Tree, with a look at how power armour shapes identity in three of Bungie’s first-person shooters: Marathon, Halo and Destiny, among several other examples. Pullen discusses how exterior protection subsumes the wearer, dehumanizing them into a killing machine:
The mask is a weapon of mass destruction, a monstrous cybernetic zombie.
You kill because you have been programmed to. ‘Honour’ is a fantasy constructed as a hidden form of discipline. The armour has colonised your own body, and you never noticed.
This is the mirror of what is sometimes called ‘neoliberalism’ — the extension of market logic into all spheres of life by social engineering. Your power armour no longer has a blueprint: it is a form of individual expression which just happens to be an instrument of mass murder designed by someone else.
I’ve only taken a few snippet, but Pullen’s analysis is stellar and demonstrates how attitudes toward violence, artificial intelligence and militarism have changed in such a short time.
Elsewhere, at Logical Dash, Zachary Spector observes that Magical Diary treats the player like a mask, not a doll in the way that simulation games such as The Sims or Animal Crossing do. The article describes how this creates an important difference in power dynamics: where Animal Crossing allows the player to act on their own, with NPCs following certain schedules or decisions opening up new mechanics, Magical Diary forces the player to take on the role of a completely new character with each decision.
Meanwhile, The Rev of The Rev 3.0 looks into the relationship between personal and public masks in Persona 4, concluding that the game’s protagonist holds no identity beneath their masks:
Whether victim or villain, each person who enters the Midnight Channel has the worst aspect of their inner selves personified and displayed for the entire world to see. Even Adachi and Namatame, who supposedly received the same powers as Yu, both have their internal selves exposed and objectified for the audience.
Everyone except Yu Narukami.
I have my own thoughts on this, but first, let’s stop at The Ludi Bin, where Rachel Helps explains how playtesting her game has developed her ability to explore new roles in her games. By pushing up against the boundaries of what her game allows, she’s discovered new ways characters can emerge: “As a playtester, I want to try different play styles. Instead of choosing what I know will “win,” I start role-playing different kinds of players.”
Rather than putting herself in her comfortable play style, playtesting has urged Helps to don the masks of any would-be player that picks up her game. Looking forward to the finished result, by the way.
I took to my own blog do share my thoughts inspired by The Rev’s above. Though the identity-less Persona 4 might encourage players to manipulate others, the identity-less hero of Persona 3 is elevated above the dramas of those around them. Their lack of identity allows them to empathize with others rather than take advantage of them.
Over at Video Brains, Emma Sinclair takes a step away from game analysis and explores how gamers themselves use their protagonists as a mask:
You don’t have to stretch your imagination to see that gamers wear their characters themselves as masks. If you lack social skills or just want a bit of escapism, becoming a character in a game allows you to hide your true identity and be whoever you want to be. This applies to both online and offline gaming, although it’s by no means exclusive to gaming.
We tend to use our newfound anonymity to create a new identity that we feel is somehow bigger and better than who we really are. We can be the person we want to be and that usually means striving for fame or infamy; but perhaps it just means being anyone other than ourselves.
Sinclair unpacks a lot with only a few paragraphs, including the relatability of masked superheroes, the dehumanized empowerment of self-effacement and the, as she puts it, “somewhat unpleasant”-ness of online interaction with anonymous figures.
Zeitrad explores the different meanings of masks in Dishonored and I’ll share the conclusion but I highly encourage you to read the article that gets us there:
I’ve said the masks provide characterization, but for whom? The masks of the Overseers and Whalers deny their member individuality, and only characterize the faction itself. For the nobles, the masks bring out the inner truth about the owner, as well share new insights about the self-depreciating mood among their class.
But do the masks really reveal the truth? Are Overseers a cohesive force? Are Whalers always practical and loyal without fault? Are the Boyle sisters truly interchangeable?
Who is Corvo? Just a man playing pretend or has he fully embraced his role as Death, pulling the city into misery and chaos?
Wearing a mask is a choice. Believing it is another.
What struck me was how masks could only hold so many different meanings by being such a mundane, everyday object in Dishonored’s world.
The last word goes to Leigh Harrison at his blog, As Houses, where he relates his first experience with Metal Gear Solid and the mixed identities of baddy Decoy Octopus and human exposition dump, Donald Anderson. Harrison illustrates that, in his haste to beat MGS just so say he’s beaten MGS, he missed out on the longer, fuller experience of the game as a whole. Maybe he was the one wearing the mask all along.
For all those who participated in this month’s roundtable, I offer my sincerest thanks and encourage you all to add the Linkomatic 5000 to your blog by copy-pasting the following code to your blog:
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On a more personal note, I wanted to say that it’s been a pleasure managing this month’s Roundtable. I’ve always enjoyed the BoRT feature as a reader and as an occasional participant. BoRT was how I was first introduced to Critical Distance and it was how I got to know most of the games writing that was out there, so I can’t tell you what a joy and honour it is to be on the other side of the curtain now.
Now that I got the mushy stuff is out of the way, the inimitable Lindsey Joyce will be covering November with her very own topic that she’ll introduce shortly (spoiler: it’s a good one). Thanks again and happy blogging.