Review for Maskmaker
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In the Paris Carnival, there is a tradition called the “Walk of Masks.” It's a time for the people of the city to don colorful, decorative masks and shed their daily realities, immersing themselves in a whimsical world while showcasing their creativity. InnerSpace's new virtual reality title Maskmaker smartly uses this setting as its backdrop, similarly encouraging you to don your own VR headset and throw yourself into a bright and creative fantasy where masks function as gateways to their own magical realm. The result is a thoughtful if overly narrated adventure game of exploration, scavenger hunting, and puzzle solving that tells a story that's simultaneously sad and uplifting.
In the follow-up to their impressive 2018 game A Fisherman's Tale, InnerSpace takes another look at VR through a metatextual lens here. This time around, rather than looking down into a small world where every move you make is mimicked by an avatar of yourself, the game plays with the concept of throwing on different masks that transport you into faraway worlds. Much like the headset you’re wearing yourself, each mask you strap on pulls you into another reality that feels nearly as real as the one you just left.
You start in the dark alleys of what appears to be medieval Paris. The wind blows gently around you, accompanied by the tinkling of wind chimes and the occasional bit of piano. The control options allow for sitting or standing (though I played the whole game standing) and let you navigate by pointing to a spot and teleporting or using a joystick to move freely. Getting your bearings and wandering around, you soon stumble upon an argument and a ghastly scene in a maskmaker's shop. The door swings open to you, but when you walk in the shop appears deserted, having inexplicably fallen into disrepair in the mere moments it took for you to step inside. Dust and broken glass litter the floor. Colorful wooden masks sit shadowed on the walls. You soon begin to hear voices that cryptically tell you about the decline of the maskmaker's shop and lead you to a hidden workshop full of tools. These disembodied voices serve as your first tutorial on how to grab a block of wood, chisel a mask from it, mount it on a swivel, and coat it in paint before putting it on.
I'll digress here to say that the act of chiseling is a very fun thing to do in VR. Using my Oculus Quest controllers (via Link cable), I “held” the chisel in one hand and slammed it with a hammer in the other, watching the bits of wood fall away to reveal my burgeoning creation underneath. It's such a satisfying and smooth experience in virtual reality; surely much less harrowing and exacting than the same act in real life. While the shape of the mask is predetermined—you're merely repeating the chiseling action enough times for it be finished—it's still an early taste of virtual reality magic that instantly made me want to make more masks.
When you put on your completed mask, POOF! Suddenly the workshop disappears and you're somewhere else entirely, in a hut by the seaside. Catching a glimpse of yourself in a shard of mirror, you see that you're a sort of wooden dummy wearing the mask you just created. A new voice starts speaking in your head, calling himself a King and naming you his next apprentice maskmaker. Then your unseen companion begins to guide you around the island, introducing other important gameplay elements.
The first of these relates to obstacles you can't traverse by yourself, such as a collapsed bridge you need to cross. In order to overcome the challenge, you must make a new mask to switch into the body of another dummy that's already on the other side. Much of the game consists of thoroughly exploring diverse locations, spotting more dummies with unique masks and studying them with a spyglass, then removing your mask to find yourself back in the workshop to craft an identical mask to that of the dummy you saw in order to transport yourself into its body.
This body-swapping adventure turns mainly into a scavenger hunt, because while each mask in a given area is the same shape and color, they’re decorated differently with shells or bones or leaves, each of which you have to find around the environment. Once you find one you can use it endlessly, but they're often hidden in unlikely spots or gated behind some kind of environmental puzzle.
Pretty soon the voices back in the workshop will introduce you to new masks with different shapes and different colors. Each color corresponds to a new world for you to explore (red: sandy beaches, blue: cold mountains, etc.) and often you will have to jump back and forth between worlds to find all the ingredients you need. For example, you will be on the beach and spot a red mask out on an island with a large leaf on it. The large leaf will be found on the cold mountains, which you will need a blue mask to reach.
As the game goes on, the masks get more complex, adding multiple colors, patterns and decorations. Maskmaker does a good job of helping you keep this all straight, however, with diagrams painted on panels of wood back in the workshop, as well as a wall of maps that keeps track of what ingredients you've found or still need to find and which worlds they're on. Plus the voices provide almost constant exposition to guide you to your next task. Each mask you craft is stored permanently in the workshop, easily retrieved by pulling off your current mask to transport back to grab another one.
The more masks you make, the more complex the puzzles preventing you from advancing, and some of them are timed. You may have one body stuck in a maze of passages and another on top operating levers that grant you access to different parts of the labyrinth, requiring you to alternate back and forth. Or you may need to switch between three different masks to power a steam engine: one dummy to mine the coal, one to stoke the fire, and one to run the equipment and keep the pressure stable. The timed sequences can feel a bit harried and disorienting, though the game does its best to help you out, giving you a quick-change function after about the first third of the game, saving you from the headache of transporting back to the workshop every time you need to switch bodies.
Likewise, the story gets more complex as you go along. The King eventually reveals his true goal behind your journey: for you to enter a mystical tower on his behalf to collect the lost pieces of the “Master's mask" for him. Once you arrive at your destination, you encounter the fully embodied versions of the voices you've been hearing all along. A new one reveals itself to you each time you enter the tower, explaining their nature as guardians of the “Laws of Carnival” and sharing bits of insight into what happened to the previous maskmaker and his apprentice. They also enlist you as an agent in their own secret quest: to “liberate” the King from this magical realm. Your two goals slowly merge as you find out more about these characters and begin gathering the Master's mask fragments.
Even with the voices telling you where to go and giving you hints, there is still plenty of challenge in Maskmaker. Besides the timed segments, there were puzzles that really made me think or forced me to go back and comb over sections of the map for paths or items I missed – some of which are well hidden, though none too difficult to find if you’re paying close attention. While the body-swapping and world-hopping made the experience feel out-of-the-box genre-wise, the puzzles and item hunts are familiar territory and a reminder that this is an adventure game at heart, albeit one with so much style that you barely notice the classic formula behind it.
Making the masks themselves was an unexpected joy. You only get to chisel them out a few times, but the painting and decorating was an experience I've never had in a video game before, made all the more tactile with the VR controls. You’ll begin by simply dunking the entire mask in one solid color before graduating to using paintbrushes to copy patterns. Like a virtual paint-by-numbers, the crafting process breaks the wood surface into dozens of tiny sections, and simply pressing the tip of your paintbrush to that section fills it in with color. It gave me a similar thrill to the first time I drew a shape and filled it in using Microsoft Paint when I was seven. It felt like I was genuinely creating something, even if that thing was simple and predefined. And the colors are so vivid that each mask is pleasant to look at when it's done.
There are other aspects to the gameplay as well, such as mimicking the poses of statues or playing a simple rhythm game in a bizarre and unexpected dance sequence, but they are few and far between. The dance sequence threw me a bit, but they’re generally blended so well into the narrative that they work fine in context. One that doesn’t work nearly as well, however, is the spyglass mechanic, which I found to be one of the most frustrating parts of the experience.
Early on, the King gives you instructions on how to conjure a telescope from thin air by making a circle with your hand and holding it up to your eye. Unfortunately, this trigger is very sensitive and throughout the game I found myself accidentally conjuring spyglasses and having to toss them aside far more times than I could count. It seemed that whenever I tried to pick up an object or pull a lever or just needed to scratch my head, inevitably I’d look down to see a spyglass in my hand and had to chuck it over my shoulder to get rid of it.
When you correctly summon the telescope for its intended purpose, you can use it to record new masks you see on dummies throughout the various worlds. This is done by zooming in until the mask is fully visible and centered, then holding your lens still for several seconds until the image is captured. This relies on the stillness of your own head and hand, and, like a camera with digital zoom, the more zoomed in you are, the twitchier it gets. I'm not a shaky person, but I found myself having to use my free hand to grab the actual headset or contort myself into weird poses to stabilize my head in order to keep still enough to record some of these masks.
My other main complaint with Maskmaker is that the narration is nonstop. Throughout my 5-6 hours of play time, there were hardly any moments when there wasn't a disembodied voice talking to me to tell me about the world and its history, instructing or reminding me what to do next, or just talking about nothing. You may find yourself often cutting the voices off removing or putting on a mask because it's just not practical to wait for all the narration to finish before you take the next action.
With that much exposition, you'd expect the story to be crystal clear, but that's another unfortunate part of the game. First, all the voices are done by the same actor, so the guardian characters can be hard to tell apart. Second, the tale deals with heady concepts like recognizing beauty in a world about which you've become jaded, and valuing the contributions you make as a creative person. These are expressed largely through metaphor and subtext or subtle character moments. With nearly identical voices for 4-5 separate characters that are either symbolic or having emotional epiphanies, it can be really hard to keep track of who is speaking or what the game is actually trying to say. This is not to criticize the voice acting itself, which is superb, but the way it's delivered really dulls the impact of that talent. That said, while the story loses a bit of steam, the King does undergo a slow journey of growth that is actually very compelling, even if it could have stuck the landing a little better. The game culminates in a somewhat confusing ending with a twist that you'd be forgiven for misunderstanding or missing completely.
If the game can be a little aurally overwhelming, visually it is truly immersive, enveloping you in its world of fantasy with a variety of locations and inventive design. The art itself isn't very extravagant or realistic; in fact, it's almost cartoony with its bright colors and large angular polygons. Still, when you're exploring a dark mineshaft lit by the fires of the steam-work machinery, or navigating a maze of wooden walkways and huts that compose a treetop village, you’ll feel yourself truly transported there. Sandy beaches glitter under your feet in the sunlight, and mountains stretch out in all directions, with villages and trees dotting their rocky faces. And with murky green waters slowly lapping against the muddy shores of a swamp, or a flag whipping harshly on a windy snow-capped mountaintop, these worlds feel alive. There are times you almost forget about the VR mask strapped to your own face.
While artfully obscured in its VR technology and philosophical ideas, the basic building block from which Maskmaker is chiseled is that of a classic adventure game. The added meta-textual layers and the sim-style process of crafting masks are like fancy adornments on an already solid foundation. While the story comes up a bit short and the narration wears out its welcome pretty thoroughly, any VR or classic adventure game fan will find plenty to enjoy in this game. If you need to take a break from your own reality for a bit, there are few better places to be than the bright and creative carnival waiting for you on the other side of your VR mask.