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Bursting out onto the world stage: Masquerada and Singaporean design

For creative director Ian Gregory Tan, isometric RPG Masquerada is not just about high fantasy, but also about debuting Singapore's artistic side to the world. 

Witching Hour Studios' Masquerada: Songs and Shadows demos on three PCs, all sat unassumingly beneath Ysbryd Games' orbiting banner, one of four games being featured by the publisher at PAX East this year. But amidst the explosions of neon noise and color surrounding it all, only Masquerada has the fate of a nation riding on its success.

For creative director Ian Gregory Tan, the isometric RPG, which tells the story of a returned exile investigating a mysterious disappearance in a high fantasy nation, this game is about debuting Singapore's artistic side to the world. 

In a lengthy conversation with Gamasutra, Tan emphasized how he wants Singapore to "break out" onto a global stage with this game, making a point of hiring local talent for its visual art, soundtrack, and even the development of the game's trailer. It's part of a larger push on Tan's part to grow the game industry in Singapore, which has languished in the face of competition throughout the rest of Asia; he dreams of a native Singaporean industry, drawing on a wealth of local talent that can compete with South Korea in terms of business-friendliness to the world of game development.

Masqerada (which is seeking a final financial push via Kickstarter) is set in a world where special Venetian-style masks called Mascherines bestow magic powers upon their wearer, creating a stark divide between those with and those without masks in the city state of Citte della Ombre.

The filigreed masque is the seed of the game's aesthetics, which evoke Northern Italy in the late Renaissance as designed by the antiquity-loving Machiavelli. Romanesque buildings, arches, and cobblestone abound, and the lead character, Cicero, even evokes that imagery; an ancient Roman name in the finery of a true Renaissance man. Cicero, who had been exiled for a crime against Ombre years earlier, is summoned back under duress to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a diplomat--and thus the adventure begins.

The isometric turn-based gameplay, which makes a strategic chessboard of the battlefield, evokes everything from tactics games to Transistor and like the latter its distinctive artistic style makes a painting of every frame. Even in its unfinished state, the game's design managed to impress.

The linear story--rather than the branching, choice-driven narrative many RPG fans have come to expect--is a consequence of limited resources, said one of the developers, but this also gave them an impetus to make the unfolding story as deep as possible. This inability to hide or shy away from certain aspects of the story has also underlined another key aspect of Cicero's unfolding tale: one of his companions, the noble Kalden, is gay.

In a country where homosexuality remains a crime this is no small statement. But, contrary to reports of a censorship kerfluffle last year, Tan stressed to me that there was never any intimation from the Singaporean government of censoring this game and that there's "no chance" that it won't be publicly available in his home country. Tan's vision of the game is that it is an expression of the best of Singapore, taking its storied racial and religious integration "to another level" by including the experiences of a gay character.

One of the cultural translation issues that emerged was a misunderstanding about how portrayals of LGBT life are handled in the Singapore. As Tan would have it, one cannot show "celebration" of what the government terms "alternate lifestyles" but one is allowed to "portray" it, which creates, in his words, "an interesting line to walk." The ethos has been "mention, but don't push."

***

The game's Legacy system is a particularly innovative narrative development that, in a curious way, ties into all of this. In the heart of Ombre is a great tree festooned with teardrop shaped chimes, each containing a song that commemorates the life and eponymous legacy of a person.

"Humanizing has to happen through experience."

While this world lacks religion, it cunningly demonstrates a truth that many shy away from: faith is not the only source of entrenched traditionalism and prejudice. A Legacy is everything in Ombre and when someone comes out as gay here, their entire family's Legacy is wiped from the tree and its songs bestowed upon someone else. This is due in part to how deeply biological children are valued here and the fact that a committed gay or lesbian person is seen as unable to continue their family's line, which is the trunk of their legacy tree. 

All of this serves to weave gay people into the world of Ombre in a way that feels organic and convincing. Everyone I spoke with from the Witching Hour team was at pains to emphasize how much work they put in to avoid the appearance of tokenism.

"The 'Legacy' I hope to leave behind," said Tan, "is that we'll sit on the right side of history." Writer Nicholas Chan spoke at length about how that the game's linear story also makes it impossible for players to shy away from Kalden's sexuality and its significant role in the story of Ombre's Legacies, which Tan echoed in our conversation.

"Humanizing has to happen through experience," Tan told me, "In Dragon Age: Inquisition you can choose to skip over meaningful interaction with Dorian's sexuality," he said a bit ruefully, and talked about how he appreciated the opportunity to make a game where this matter would be out in the open.

"We want to get Singaporean society to grapple with this as a human issue," Chan told me enthusiastically on the expo hall floor.

For a game to be this unflinching, in this environment, walking the "mention but don't push" tightrope is already a noteworthy artistic achievement in its own right.

As to the government's role in this, Tan said again and again in our interview that there was never any talk of censoring his and Chan's vision of the unfolding story and that it will appear unexpurgated on the open market in Singapore. The government, he said, simply prefers not to talk about homosexuality in the game and would rather focus on the work as a business venture. The government doesn't want to be asked, but Witching Hour Studios will tell, it appears.

It's a sensitive issue that puts me an interesting place as a writer. Previous press coverage that painted Singapore's government as censorious and dictatorial regarding Masqerada actually got Tan in a spot of trouble, even though no one from Singapore's Media Development Authority--the ministry that oversees censorship--had actually visited him or applied any kind of pressure. One does not wish to provide cover for a government that still functionally criminalizes homosexuality, yet the facts of this particular case seem to bear out a congenial relationship between Witching Hour and Singapore's government.

Sitting on two different government labor boards, and on the IGDA Singapore chapter's board, Tan has plenty of opportunities to advocate for the wider game industry in Singapore, and direct experience with the government that, he says, demonstrates their commitment to pragmatism rather than ideology.

"If it works, if it sells, the government will support it," says Tan. He also keeps himself busy with teaching game design, "emphasizing experience over mechanics," in his words, and advocating for a greater role for art appreciation classes in Singapore's schools.

"It portends a future for Singapore's game industry that highlights the country as one to watch in the years to come."

As he sees it, Singapore has a very rich cultural and artistic output driven by local talent in want of a global stage, and the city state's government is slowly warming up to seeing video games as a worthwhile conduit for promoting the nation's art. That aim--to showcase the talent of a nation--was no small part of why Witching Hour came to PAX East in the first place, part of the select group of game devs whose flights to Boston lasted more than 24 hours. It says a lot about how far this convention has come that developers are willing to travel this far to speak to their far flung colleagues, regional games press, and of course the legions of fans that teem throughout the con, which seems to meet Sim City's definition of a metropolis at this point. 

Yet amidst those multitudes, Masqerada was more than a worthwhile offering, standing proudly with competitors from around the globe. Its gorgeous artwork and style alone made it pop from the convention floor, but if I had to place my bets I'd say the story is what will generate more than a little conversation--among fans and critics alike. It portends a future for Singapore's game industry that highlights the country as one to watch in the years to come. My personal hope is that Masqerada will be the game that Singapore arrives on the global stage with. Its aesthetics are very Western, but it presents a uniquely Singaporean melange--mixing the colonnades of the colony years with an integrationist ethic that evokes the independent nation's values.

It was this, Tan said, that inspired both Kaldan's character and guided the story as a whole. As gaming critic Cara Ellison put it in her interview with Tan in Embed With Games, "our global culture has helped to give him an outlook that is not only Singaporean, but has all the touchstones of participation in a bigger cultural conversation. Masqerada is a game that evokes Singapore's status as a crossroad of culures and values. 

"I am proud of my country and I don't need them to be proud of me to do what I do," he concluded with a broad smile. I suspect, however, that Masqerada's release will indeed cause many of Tan's countrymen to be very proud indeed.

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