Mask of the Rose, a queer, murder-mystery dating sim, is Failbetter Games’ first dip into using a visual novel format, but it is far from being the studio’s first game to take place in the Fallen London setting.
However, as we learned during our talk with James Chew, a senior writer at the studio, as well as Communications Director Hannah Flynn, that doesn’t mean Mask of the Rose will be retreading the same ground. Players will be brought to the very beginning of the Fallen London universe, a world and setting where Victorian London has been dragged underground by giant, massive space bats and all of the emotions that particular event brings.
With emotions so high, it’s no shock that people are turning to one another to look for that all-important human connection. But what makes Mask of the Rose so special is that this human connection isn’t just in the shape of romance, but the close friendships you can make throughout your first few steps into this mysterious, dystopian world. More importantly though, both Failbetter Games and Mask of the Rose doesn’t shy away from allowing players who are asexual or aromantic to perceive themselves.
“At the outset of the game, you’re sort of asked what it is you’re here for,” Chew tells us, referring to the start of Mask of the Rose and its character customization menu. “Romance or flirtation, or just friendship or companionship. So it allows for a kind of a spectrum of a romantic, aromantic, or asexual experience of the game.”
What’s vital to note here is that no matter what you’re looking for, you aren’t excluded from knowing everything about a character you want to get close to – it’s just that your experience will be different. And truly, isn’t that what we’re all looking for when inserting ourselves (or our original characters) into an experience like Mask of the Rose – a unique experience?
With asexuality and aromantic being an option alongside friendship, one thing the team had to look at was how they’d approach a broad spectrum of experiences. While Chew told us that the team at Failbetter hadn’t had an explicit consultation session with aromantic and asexual individuals, they would be using what they’d learned from their previous game, Sunless Skies, to see how to best approach player desires.
For example, in Fallen London there were four core stats – one being persuasion. The typical assumption for persuasion is that a character would be flirty and seductive, which meant that if you had a higher persuasion score the game assumed you would use that to flirt your way to success. However, that only shows a limited view of what being highly persuasive is, pushing the narrative to be overly sexual. Failbetter Games wants to change this in order to be inclusive of aromantic/asexual players.
Another way to support this playstyle is through matchmaking – something which all fanfiction writers should be able to relate to. With matchmaking, players are able to remove themselves from the romantic and sexual aspect if they so choose, but can still encourage the other characters they meet to pursue certain relationships. “Certain characters will be in the right circumstances where they might be open to another character, or another couple of characters in the game,” Chew tells Gayming Magazine. “[These inter-party relationships] are very much in the early stages of romance, there might be an attraction that’s not been acted on, or even considered. So there’s moments where the player is able to, hopefully kind of seamlessly, make dramatic and narrative choices that strikes that balance of the player getting to express their own agency, and reflect what they think is best for the character.”
Personal identity, whether queer or not, is also key in Mask of the Rose. This is seen through the game’s character creation right at the start of the game. As shown in the demo, you’re able to not just pick your name and silhouette portrait, but who you originally were before London came crashing down. “You are able to pick who you identify as to friends, and who you identify to strangers. Considering that London has been kidnapped by Space Bats and forced underground, it allows players to choose who they want to be now that society has collapsed. It gives them a second chance to be who they are,” Hannah Flynn, Communication Director explains.
To further reiterate their motivation to allow players their own freedom of expression, Mask of the Rose developers moved away from using gendered language for players and used item design to give players the tools of identification through clothing. However, this clothing isn’t exactly ‘gendered’, men are not expected to wear shirts, women blouses, etc, and is said distilled down to reflect the job of a player. For example, do you look like a banker, or perhaps a baker, with the clothes that you wear? That will get commented on, depending on who you’re speaking to. Outside of that, Chew reassures us that there are “no value judgments” towards the player’s identity outside of their job.
Before we wrapped our interview up, however, we did pose a question that we felt would really capture the spirit of February and the romantic holidays and acts the month inspires: can you romance a space bat in Mask of the Rose?
“I can tell you that you can definitely romance a bat in Sunless Skies!” Chew told us. “But I don’t want to spoil anything for Mask of the Rose.”
Well, drat. We’ll get him next time, gamers.
In the meantime, you’re able to play the Mask of the Rose demo right now on Steam. The game will also be available to play on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Xbox One and Series X/S in the future.