One of my favorite parts of Halloween are the masks. Fun superhero helmets and naughty-nurse medical masks. Creepy creatures and frightening villains. The alluringly mysterious and artistic - I love them all. I love them in games too. They might not instantly jump to mind, but masks can be some of the most versatile tools in a developers bag of tricks, letting a clever designer communicate all kinds of information at a single glance .
So seeing as its Halloween and all, I thought I would share some of my favorite masks from the gaming world and how they enhance the titles they appear in.
Vega's creepy blank face
Masks can be a cheap and easy way to instantly establish a character's personality. Take Vega for example, you can tell he's a creep from a mile away.
Just one look through the roster in Street Fighter and you know there is something wrong with Vega. The character select screen is full of tiny portraits - you've got karate guys, jaunty military caps, gravity defying hair styles, and a BLANK EVIL FACE OF DOOM. It practically screams serial killer. The only way it could be more clear is if there was a shifty windowless van in his stage's background.
The best part is that Vega doesn't strap on that unnerving piece of porcelain to conceal his identity or anything so practical of course, he does it out of sheer narcissism. He can't bear the idea that some dirty hobo in a gi might land a random kick and muss up his perfect looks. So hey, what better way to protect your face than a super-creepy mask that stands out like a bullseye and is made out of a material known for shattering into sharp pieces? Flawless, totally not insane logic there.
Vega's mask conveys a level of wrongness and decadence that makes him far more intimidating than his Mike Tyson-look-alike, seven foot tall cyclops colleagues. Who would have thought that a mincing pretty boy would be the most terrifying member of Shadoloo?
While talking about fighting game characters with masks, I would be ashamed of myself if I didn't mention Tekken's Kings.
- DO NOT FUCK WITH THIS MAN
Nothing like wearing the head of a tiger to let everyone know whats up.
Dark Souls twisted family
When it comes to creepy masks, Dark Souls knows no equal. While there is a wide selection to choose from, there isn't a Dark Souls player alive who isn't familiar with the infamous Family Masks. A trio of masks representing aspects of the family (mother, father, and child), most players first encounter them worn on Pinwheel, an inhuman necromancer you face at the bottom of the catacombs.
I love Pinwheel's introduction. The ruined study strewn with ritually hung corpses, illuminated by lanterns held in Pinwheel's bizarre skeletal "arms", the way the faces seem to briefly confer with each other before deciding to rip your spine out. Oooh, gives me chills.
I always wondered if there was supposed to be a deeper level of symbolism going on with Pinwheel's design. Dark Souls is a game that was meticulously designed to have layered hidden meanings in every nook and cranny after all. Pinwheel is one of the least human enemies you encounter in the game. While you fight scads of monsters, at least they are flesh and blood and usually vaguely humanoid, Pinwheel is something else. A ghoul, a shade. He fights by teleporting and creating copies of himself. What you can make out of his body makes no sense, stick-like bones poking out of a cloak. Yet he chooses to wear the faces of familial normalcy. Weird.
The masks themselves are interesting. The order they are placed on Pinwheel, child on top, mother second, father at the bottom – an inversion on typical patriarchal family power structures. The expressions too, the child vaguely half-smiling, the mother's disapproving frown, and the look of frighten shock etched into the father's face. Does it mean anything?
Probably not. It can be an easy trap to fall into, grasping for deep meaning in a game like Dark Souls. Besides, most players won't even care about any of that after facing off against invader after invader wearing them.
Alas for all the coolness of the Family Masks design, they'll best be remembered as typical min/maxing gear for try-hard PvPers because of their unique status buffs. Which would be more of a shame if Dark Souls didn't provide so many awesome ways for players to express themselves with their head gear.
Just like Capcom did for Vega, individual players do for themselves in Dark Souls. While optimal armor sets have been determined, and you do see a lot of players who will wear any mix of gear that buffs their stats to the max, you also see tons of people wearing masks and helmets and outfits to make a statement, often at the expense of utility. These players don't care about having the best defence, they want to establish a personality.
- The Helm of the Wise might not have great defence stats, but invading with it earns massive style points.
When a player drops into your game wearing the reaper-like deathmask and hood of the Dark Wraiths, you'll know exactly what he has in mind. Prim and proper caps and laurels decorate the saintly and sophisticated of Dark Souls, those who want you to know how good they look while fighting evil. Some play it mysterious, cloaking their features behind shrouded hoods or vented helms. Others revel in the bizarre, wearing horned maks with goggles, neck stretching gold-Buddha helms, or the decapitated head of a raging armored bull.
In a game where communication is intentionally curtailed, the masks and helms of Dark Souls let you express an attitude, an idea, to other players with only a glance. They are the players tool for setting the tone and mood of their interactions with other players. I find that to be a elegant, beautiful thing.
Corvo's lovely night at the ball.
Just as masks can be used to convey a character's personality, they can also be used to set the tone of a scenario or express more complicated ideas. Dishonored's mission set in a masquerade ball is a fine example of how evocative masks can be.
Tasked with eliminating the Lady Boyle, you're sent to infiltrate a masquerade party. Hiding in plain sight, combined with a false invitation, Corvo's deathmask is seen as little more than a tasteless joke about the current affairs. The mission is complicated by the fact that there are three Lady Boyle's in attendance, two distractions, one actual target. Its up to you to mingle with the guests, deceive them of your intentions, keep your dagger eager and sharp, and find the opportune moment to strike the real target. Or all of them if your feeling less investigative and more bloodthirsty.
This is such a fantastic set-up it makes me giddy, its easy to see why they used this slice of gameplay so much in the pre-launch hype. It touches on so much cultural shorthand. Its a classic setting for a murder mystery filled with intrigue, only this time with a twist – you're the killer!
Masquerades are always a great setting to establish a group as decadent and corrupt. The shiftiness and double-faced nature of the aristocracy is on laid out in mocking open display – these are people used to hiding their real selves behind a false face, its natural, even fun, for them. The lavishness and opulence of the ball contrasting with the misery outside their walls, the rooftops, gutters, and crawlspaces you use to infiltrate the premises. The conversational warfare of guests exchanging pleasantries, lies, and rumours. It's fantastic.
The individual designs of the various guests masks are calculated to be unnerving. Insects, animals, baby dolls, and two-faced half-masks, they all have an unseemly edge to them. Something unwell. The setting and masks tap into our cultural lexicon and lets us know just be looking around the room that this is a dangerous place to be filled with deeply unpleasant people.
I wonder if the mission is maybe referencing a bit of Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. A short story about Death (literally) stalking a masquerade ball attended by wealthy fops hiding away from a plague, indifferent to the suffering of others.
Slipping a bit of Poe into your Deus Ex-esq magic assassination game? *swoon*
I love that you can sign the guest-book after you do the deed. It's morbid, but it makes me giggle.
Happy New Years in Rapture
If party masks are creepy when worn by guests at a party, they are downright terrifying in the ruins of a failed utopia worn by half-mad genetically altered freaks. Bioshock loves itself some good creepy masks.
The distressing bunny masks and singed feather head-pieces worn by the citizens of rapture serve a variety of purposes. Much like Dark Souls and Dishonored, they certainly establish a tone and mood. Nothing says "ruins of one man's dream" quite like fancy party dress juxtaposed against mutant scars and flooded lounges. But they do more in Bioshock, sliding into the narrative of the game, communicating a ton of information.
The masks in Bioshock tell a story. A time-line marking the beginning of the civil war and Rapture's descent into anarchy. Ringing in 1959, the political tensions of Rapture explode into full-blown civil war. Normal life in the city all but ceased as citizens took sides and splice-up to protect themselves. By the time the player character arrives a full year later, the one time art deco utopia is little more than a hellhole where the only people left are mutant psychopaths.
Not only to the masks mark the moment Rapture came crashing down, they also say something about the people. The self-hatred and shame felt by what remaining scraps of humanity and sanity these former artists, scientists, and great men of industry have left. Even characters not wearing the masquerade and party masks have their faces obscured – welder masks, doctor scrubs, bandages. Nobody can face up to their true selves in Rapture.
After all that good world building it almost seems silly to bring it up, but Bioshock's fixation with masks also served a very practical purpose. While its a very pretty game, one thing the Bioshock engine or artists or whatever couldn't seem to do well were faces. Check it out some time. For all the beautifully rendered ruins, amazing water effects, and ornate details on a Big Daddy's suit, the facial models in the game are kinda sub-par. But it isn't a big deal since most of the time they are obscured with much more memorable and iconic masks.
It is a fantastic meeting of the artistic and the practical. Turning a weakness into a strength, how very Andrew Ryan!
The many faces of Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami came out mere weeks ago, and it couldn't have come at a better time. This game was made for the Halloween season. Masks are central to both the gameplay and story telling of Hotline Miami.
As a gameplay mechanic, masks are basically perks in Hotline Miami. Aside from the default, each mask carries with it a special ability. The rabbit Graham makes you move faster, Dennis the wolf lets you begin your rampage with a knife, and the greatest mask of all, Don Juan the horse, gives you the almighty power of "lethal doors." Much like many other games, masks are earned through mission performance and found as bonus collectables. They are also a very practical way of making the player character interesting to look at and standout from the rest of the enemies in the games faux 16-bit art style.
- The only perk you need.
But that is hardly what is interesting about the masks in Hotline Miami – it's what they communicate about the game's underlying themes of identity, disassociation, and guilt.
Just like Bioshock, the masks give the game a distinct style. A homicidal rampage committed by a man wearing a rubber chicken mask speaks to its own beautiful type of weirdness, instantly steeping the player in a bizarre surreal mindset. Giving the murders a kind of dream-like fantasy quality that is deconstructed by the rest of the story.
You strap on a mask before each mission, and while this could be seen as a pragmatic step to get away with murder, it quickly becomes apparent that it means more than that. Your nameless protagonist isn't a totally mindless psychopath. You know this as early as the end result of the first mission. Your reward for completing your first task is a scene of the protagonist throwing up in an alleyway over the corpse of a hobo. Not exactly the act of a callous assassin. The game provides a variety of subtle clues that the murders are taking a mental toll on him. Slipping on the mask isn't just a disguise, it's like taking on a different identity, a way of distancing himself from his actions. It wasn't him that knifed up all those Russians, it was Dennis.
But as murders continue, the barrier between his two lives begins to dissolve.
Each rampage is punctuated with a mundane slice of life as the character stops to rent a video or pick up a soda and return to his apartment. As the missions progress, those boring little shopping trips take on a stranger and more hostile edge. Everyone seems to be talking about the murders, reminding him of his actions. His apartment becomes cluttered with empty pizza boxes, trash, piles of laundry. He starts experiencing hallucinations of his victims. You can watch his life is spiralling out of control as the guilt eats away at him.
The opening dream (?) sequence asks "who are you?" It is a valid question. Is the main character the psycho terrorizing Miami's underworld that you control? Or is he the man behind the mask? The man who can't rent a VHS without being traumatized by spectres of his guilt? Is he a decent man forced into a horrible situation, or is he culpable for his actions no matter the complications surrounding them? These are some pretty heady questions for a game about killing people in a pigmask.
In those surreal dream sequences that break up the acts of the game, different masks seem to represent different aspects of the protagonists personality. You are called to the carpet by a jerk in an owl mask. He's hostile, furious at your actions, he condemns you as a monster. The voice of reason comes from a girl wearing a horse mask, focusing on the positive, suggesting there might be a way to escape the nightmare of violence. While a man wearing a chicken mask like you wore when committing the first of your crimes asks you cryptic questions.
I don't know if it all adds up to something with a deep concrete meaning, and it might not be something that is meant to be fully deciphered. But I do find it interesting. Hotline Miami is a very ambitious game, concealing some real thought and artistry under a mask of juvenile death-worship.
OOHH! SEE WHAT I DID!?
- Also, those masks make great material for awesome promo shots/
About Nic Rowen One of us since 7:50 PM on 05.05.2010
Nic (formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since 2010. After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for years, he made the jump and became a staff member in 2014. He likes robots, coffee, and pictures of robots enjoying coffee.