Mask of the Rose is a visual novel with a murder mystery plot, and some pretty sophisticated modeling of conversations going on under the hood. Here's Failbetter Creative Director Emily Short, discussing some of the choices you can make, and the dynamic ways the game responds.
A romance visual novel that can be played platonically
In Mask of the Rose, achieving a trustworthy, enduring friendship can be a final gameplay goal – which gives us more room to illustrate the complexities of relationships. Not everyone experiences attraction, or experiences it in the same way; not everyone is looking for a romantic connection. And some players simply prefer not to play romantic storylines.
If Mask of the Rose were simply a romance simulator, it might not be possible to build it in a way that would speak to those players. But it is a game about love, which is a different beast – and we have a lot of kinds of love story to tell.
Mask of the Rose is a visual novel set in Fallen London, which is already a richly developed setting; we have been running a browser game in this universe for 12 years, and it also was the birthplace of our premium games Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies. In Mask of the Rose, Victorian London was recently stolen by bats and dragged to a cavern underground. We've never seen Fallen London quite like this.
The characters are figuring out what they want from life after a seismic change. The fabric of strait-laced Victorian society has started to fray, and we’re able to show how different characters respond. Like your roommate Griz, who is finding a lot more opportunities open to her than when she was pigeonholed as ‘Miss Grizelda'.
Since Kickstarting the game a year ago, we've expanded the expressive capacity of some of the game's systems based on prototyping work.
We always knew that characters would have poses and expressions to communicate their moods, but have moved from having a relatively small set of options for each character to one where head and body poses are separate, and there's now procedural work going on to place the characters in the scenes. These things let us communicate NPC emotional state with more fidelity, show more of the state of your relationship with that character outside of the immediate conversation, and add some visual liveliness to the longer conversations.
Character facial expressions and body poses can be hand-scripted to respond to particular moments in the story, but if the author hasn't specified, there's a whole set of default rules at play. Characters have emotions depending on what social interactions you've just had with them, or (failing that) will fall back to looking happy if you have a history being especially kind to them, or grumpy if you have a history of being especially unkind.
Body poses similarly can respond to the moment in various ways, but default back to having arms crossed if you have a history of being especially bossy and dominant towards them, or having a more spread/open pose if they themselves overall feel like they're in command of a situation.
In two-person scenes, there are a lot of rules controlling where characters stand, and again sometimes that's sort of hand-authored, but the fall-backs there can express whether the characters get along or not -- positioning them closer together if they're in love, for example, which is something that can change from playthrough to playthrough…
Lastly, we initially imagined the effects of protagonist customisation being a bit lighter or more cosmetic, but we found some interesting potential there, and that's resulted in the ability to make player characters who have significantly different styles of social behaviour, whether joky or moody or something else.
These are all choices that have brought us to a sweet spot for the game’s design that will maximise a) how much you can express your character through storycrafting and roleplay and b) how clearly the other characters' feelings and states "read" to you, so that you can see the ways you're affecting someone and have a real sense of their responses to you.