Empathy and Intrigue in Masquerada
Magic, tragedy, and friendship
Like the best-crafted stories, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows sets the tone for what it would be from the very beginning. It’s a game where you have to play the tutorial, just to get the full impact of it, the story so perfectly structured that the very finale mirrors the prologue with beautiful narrative precision. This is a story of intrigue, of difficult and complicated people, and a story threaded together from tragedies.
Thematically and gameplay-wise, I would say the closest cousin to this game is Transistor, with a touch of visual novels. If you go in expecting something like Dragon Age or Pillars of Eternity you won’t get that, but what you do get is one of the most well-written, well-acted games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing — not just in terms of the story at large, but in the attention the writers pay to the language, to how it all sounds, to the poetry of it. The author knows style. It’s extraordinary how genuine the characters sound, how well they play off each other, and I think it speaks for the strength of the script that the voice actors sound even more brilliant than in their other works. It’s a superb performance all around, I can’t emphasize that enough, I’d even say Jennifer Hale and Matt Mercer in Masquerada sound better and more in-sync with their characters than I’ve ever heard them elsewhere.
Plenty has already been said about the gameplay. I want to talk about what makes this game so special.
Song, Magic, Empathy
When we begin, we follow Cyrus Gavar, a revolutionary leading an armed insurrection against the Citte’s ruling elite — the Masquerada, those with access to the Mascherines that give their wielders the power to channel elemental magic. In short order, Cyrus fails, executed at the hand of his former friend and one of the Citte’s Inspettore, Lucia Shuria.
A few years later, his brother Cicero Gavar — exiled on association with Cyrus — is recalled to the Citte to investigate a disappearance. We are introduced to the setting through lore entries in Cicero’s voice, meeting his old friends and colleagues as he’s reinstated to his former position. So far, standard enough, but what soon jumps out at me (more than just the exceptional quality of the writing) is the developing assembly cast. Each person who joins Cicero has their own motivations, and that’s not just code for ‘eventually they come around to give up all their secrets, life story, and more in unpaid therapy sessions with Cicero’. Yes, they reveal vulnerabilities about themselves slowly, but it’s done on their terms and — importantly — they aren’t here to be romance options.
It might seem a strange aspect to single out, but as fun as they can be, a lot of RPGs are hyper-focused on giving you an extravagant power fantasy: you aren’t just the most powerful warrior-mage-chosen-of-gods or the most powerful space fascism enforcer who’s above all law, you also gather a party of powerful followers who are fanatically devoted to you the the point of sycophancy. They are ready to open up at the drop of a hat, and even readier to get into bed with you. You travel not with compatriots and equals, or even loyal subordinates: you travel with a sycophantic harem.
In the Citte of Masquerada, homosexuality is shunned, queer people ostracized; most of Cicero’s companions are straight (at least, as far as we know), and none of the women is interested in him. I feel it’s especially important that the one gay man in his group doesn’t crush on Cicero. Like the others, he respects, likes, and would follow Cicero to the death. But there is no romantic spark or interest. These people grow to work together well, coordinate and help each other, through forging strong friendship and bonds of empathy. While they all agree to Cicero’s leadership, everyone is an equal. Kalden’s emotional arc (and what a wonderful arc it is) is advanced as much by Cicero as other people in his past, the orphan Vint, the sister of the man he loved. Tiziana resolves her difficulties with the leader of her guild and her mother nearly off-screen. You have a strong sense that each character truly has their own story and their own life, and if Cicero’s presence (and mission) happens to catalyze changes in their lives for the better, they are not codependent on him. There is none of the incredibly uncomfortable power dynamic I so often see in party-based RPGs. It’s a fine difference, but a crucial one that I’m glad to see.
Without giving away too much, there’s an exquisite symmetry to how the story plays out — the climax echoes so much of the prologue, and the antagonist is as compelling as they are tragic. The characters’ love for the Citte — for all its flaws — comes through so well that you grow to love it too, a setting colorful and vivid in every sense of the word: the Venetian city is full of people of color, from the Tvothe twins to Kalden to Tiziana (who I read as Polynesian), to the East Asian secondary characters. It’s almost beside the point to say that female characters are fantastic. In the Citte there is considerable gender equality, with many women in positions of authority political or military. I do wish there was some queer female representation, my reading of Tiziana’s and Amadea’s banter as lesbian flirting aside.
I logged about 14 hours for the game, though I didn’t read every single lore entry, and I counted it time very well spent. It’s dense, rich, visually attractive, and has much more in 14 hours than most games pack in at 60.