Better Left Unsaid: On Lore, Masquerada, and the Tension of Subtext
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When people talk about lore heavy worlds they’ve fallen in love with, it’s not hard to see the appeal. More than one friend has been utterly consumed by one of these worlds, and I’ve fallen into the rabbit hole myself a couple of times. Writing fanfics, drawing fanart, making YouTube videos or arguing endlessly on social media about minutia, it’s easy to get invested in good characters and beautiful deep lore that can sometimes pay off that investment in droves. The amount of Tumblr accounts dedicated to C characters of lore heavy speculative fiction that someone, somewhere deeply identified with is staggering and wonderful.
Games can communicate that lore in different ways, through visuals, text and audio, even gameplay if you are a decent dev, and there are ways to keep it engaging and accessible that are a bit unique. Fantasy novels often get muddled in their own terms and cast, but it’s nice to be able to give a face to each name and reach a reminder with a button, instead of browsing the thesaurus at the end of the book.
I’ve seen Lore or Codex entries become one of the most used tools for storytelling and worldbuilding in these games, as they offer the densest delivery of narrative and backstory in manageable chunks that don’t cost extra voice actor time, but I feel games are not using them to best potential. Not only do they often fail to use them as a true storytelling tool, thoughtless implementation of them can ruin the immersion and investment when they clash with your expectations.
I recently played a game named Masquerada: Songs & Shadows, one of those great indie crowfunded success stories. It makes no secret of its Bioware and Supergiant influences, though I sense a little bit of that underrated Avatar: The Last Airbender 2006 game in it, and not just in the Elements as weapons part. It’s kind of like an inversion of The Last Airbender, but instead of western creators making a South-East Asia inspired world, it’s a Singapore team making a loving rendition of Fantasy Multicultural Venice. I didn’t play it on release, but I saw it on a thread about Non-Western games and some allusions to LGBT content. When I saw basically everyone I respected in games had done some positive coverage on it, I bought it without spoiling myself any more. Non-western games inspired by Bioware with gay shit is a market I wish would grow, and Masquerada is a worthy addition.
I see its approach to lore as a mix of Dragon Age and Transistor because while it often serves big ol’ lore dumps, it brilliantly used them to add more personality to Cicero Gavar, the already charming as hell main character.
Its codex is divided in Lore, where most of the usual stuff lies and Characters, where the current events are summarized and expanded on in the voice of the main character as you move through the story. They also do a pretty smart thing giving a little extra characterization for the protagonist by making the Characters section of the codex be written as diary entries by Cicero.
It helps you keep track of the game and, hey, Lore that my mind reads with Matthew Mercer’s voice should be encouraged. But it comes at a cost.
Where subtext meets text
Masquerada’s tutorial starts with taking control of Cicero’s brother, Cyrus Gavar, as he starts and dies for the revolution that will propel the rest of the game.
I fell in love with the world and visual right there, but the game truly starts after the tutorial, where you meet the main character returning to the city where his brother died trying to start a rebellion. It is mostly a story of class struggle and the trouble that arises in factions trying to maintain, improve or destroy the status quo in different ways. Cicero’s role in this is being called to search for a kidnapped academic named Razitof Azrus. When this task is given to Cicero by the benevolent-but-not-really leader of city, the tone is intriguing, implying that the two know each other, that something sketchy is going on.
Cicero meets with Razitof’s estranged brother, Kalden. After asking Kalden why his brother never mentioned him and meeting a non-answer, they go together to Razitof’s office to search for clues. While interacting with his bed, Kalden mentions he “never seemed to have any desire to start a family”. Cicero answers, with a smile “Despite my efforts”.
The next eight hours or so continue as you would expect a more linear version of the RPG genre would develop. I met and recruited teammates, talked about their problems and continue with the main quest. Some of the companion side quests start to reach their own conclusions, Amadea Invidius dealing with an organization she used to be part of, Tiziana De Felici conflict between allegiance to her guild and to Cicero and the whole city and Kalden Azrus’s tragic past and his guilt regarding the death of someone close to him; the whole team growing as people and as friends.
Kalden’s story is one of the most talked about online. It’s a nice story. You’ve seen this before. Gay guy has to come out to protagonist. Protagonist is surprised but accepts and supports gay guy. They both agree they should keep it a secret, not everyone is as progressive as our protagonist after all. The punishment for homosexual behavior is being stricken from the Hall of Songs, essentially erasing you family’s legacy. And it turns out Kalden is still grief stricken about being partially responsible for his lover Jaxus’s death, as he died in a drunk fight in an alley after Kalden insisted they stay closeted out of fear and shame.
It goes a bit beyond Queer 101 “LOVE IS LOVE” stuff. Eventually, Cicero realizes an ally in name only is worthless and stands up for his friend instead of gently forcing him back in the closet. They both confront the authorities and Jaxus’s grief stricken vengeful sister, and we get a bittersweet ending to this side plot. You talk to Jaxus’s sister, fight a boss fight with a big monster, Cicero and Kalden both grow, Kalden confronting the guilt of Jaxus’s death. It’s a great story and adds a lot to Cicero’s character while fulfilling Kalden’s ark.
But there’s a problem with this story and it’s a problem that exemplifies the problems with lore heavy media and how we consume it.
For me, the problem started the second I read the codex entry that basically was “Here is how homophobia works in our world”.
See, I thought the main character was gay, thanks to not reading spoilers. Cicero talks about Razitof with longing and sadness, at abandoning him when he was exiled and at his current situation. In a codex, he talks tenderly about how they met, when he was a jockish young man struggling with math and a dorky boy named Razitof helped him prepare for an examination to join the public service. He describes him as having “a heart amongst the most sincere I would come to know” and says he “saved his life” after being assigned his mission. I had an eyebrow raised at this point.
“OH,” I thought while Kalden and Cicero talked about Cicero and Razitof’s relationship. “So it’s one of those. One of these universes where people don’t care about sexuality as much, because why the fuck should they. HELL YEAH”.
When they check Razitof’s documents, the first thing Kalden reads is Cicero’s name. Cicero angrily sets the pages down and says it’s not relevant to the investigation when Kalden ask how did the two know each other.
It turns out Razitof wasn’t gay, Kalden was. And it wasn’t “not even a big deal”, it was THE BIGGEST of deals. When you learn this after a conversation with Kalden you unlock a lore entry that pops up, reading “Talios”. A small lore entry about how homosexuality is illegal because reproduction is a duty. Fantasy Utopia became Fantasy Heteronormativity in one paragraphs.
It felt so dry. My dashing gay rogue and his geeky kidnapped crush abruptly transformed into a “good ally” and his mission objective. I felt wronged by the game and that’s… unfair. The game as a whole is about so much more than that side plot and Kalden’s story itself is a good LGBT story, written by people who clearly cared, in a country where homosexuality occupies murky legal ground. It’s about as admirable as any ally can get for LGBT representation. I kinda cringe at the dev stating “I didn’t want him be defined by his sex life” but it’s not like the rest of the cast goes around talking about how much they get laid. It’s all about emotions and society’s expectations, which is probably the best outcome of the good ally goal of “I didn’t want him be defined by his sex life”.
Errors in judgment, both mine and Masquerada’s
One mistake that baited me here was that Kalden being gay was treated as a mystery to be solved and that faced interference from Cicero’s dodgy attitude with regards to Razitof. They never fully explain their relationship or take it anywhere entirely satisfying. Why have these tender moments in the codex from character with no lines, who we only see as an anticlimactic corpse at the end of the penultimate chapter? Cicero and Kalden get a couple of lines, then set out to avenge him. We don’t get that much time to think about Razitof’s death before we return to the main conflict. Yes, by the end I cared about the wider politics and story of the game, but my initial investment doesn’t pay off.
Thinking about it, an important part of this problem was that initial investment. I clearly put too much into the small (but annoyingly tantalizing) bits of information on the Cicero-Razitof relationship. But it clearly affected me more than, say, Tiziana and Amadea’s (the two female party members) ship born out of their great banter, or thousand other little clashes of expectation other games.
Closing doors, opening worlds
It comes back to how lore is not just a matter of delivery. However well-crafted and cleverly delivered, every bit necessarily restricts the player. Every elephant in the room addressed, every hint at a dark backstory and every worldbuilding flavor text should serve to guide the player through your narrative. I know it’s hard, especially with players like me who wander off outside the grounds only to crash through a wall right back in, but I think it can be done.
This is not to say that closing doors is always a bad thing. But, especially with topics like these that help to tie yourself to a text in a personal level, a closed door in your face can leave you dazed and with a sore nose.
My best guess for this instance of me slamming against a door was not seeing signs that I’ve been trained to see as doors closing. Everyone has fun, interesting relationships with one another. Kalden/Cicero has a decent amount of incredibly cute fanart and I doubt half as much would exists if he spent half the game “no homo”-ing like the average straight-gay friendship in videogames. It also was supposed to be a surprise, but not that surprise.
There’s a lot of cultural detritus we pick up and plain bad writing we tend recognize instinctively. Lore heavy worlds are born from people battling this detritus too. Even media that rids itself of some of this baggage can’t afford to forget it, because this is where expectation and projection are born from too. The kind of details people grab on to say “This character is ___” can also be the negative space and we can take advantage of this. Let players build from the blocks you leave and fill in the space you leave. I think we should aim at making those as conscious decisions, both in tight and polished experiences like Masquerada and “Player’s personal adventure” AAA games.
As for players searching for this type of connection, even beyond topics like representation, devs should be careful in how much they say and how much they leave to our interpretation but we should also be aware of how much of ourselves we wager on a story being the one story.
I realize now, I was searching for this in the wrong place and definitely in the wrong way. We should try our best to keep in mind that an ally can only do so much and that queer voices are multitudes, available for their very variety and both will never compare with our own minds and experiences There was no way a B plot by an ally could compare with my projected A Plot that could only exist in my head. Headcanon queer characters are a familiar escape but I don’t think I realized how quickly I slipped into it. There’s nothing inherent that makes either text or headcanon more valuable than the other, but still, be careful out there and learn to distinguish between the two of them, for your sake and the creator’s sake.