The Not-So-Subtle Art of Masking in Games

Games Features masks
The Not-So-Subtle Art of Masking in Games

When my sister and I first played Code Vein the year it came out, one of the things we’d often observe is how it consistently shows its characters appropriately wearing masks when they traverse their miasma enshrouded world. The post-apocalyptic setting wasn’t necessarily anything new, but the manner in which the masks were a persistent detail struck us. While we engaged with the fairly robust character creation screen, which includes a specific section for choosing the style of mask for your protagonist, the description for this design element stuck with me: choosing a specific style of mask “does not affect stats.” By making this essential item purely cosmetic, it is simply there as a signifier of the pandemic that has gripped Code Vein’s world, in addition to making sure your Revenant (basically Code Vein’s take on a vampire) is suitably imposing and stylish.

Little did I know that only three months after the release of Code Vein that masks would become a part of our daily attire, or that masks would become the main signifier of our world’s pandemic. When we first donned our masks, we joked about how the game we were playing was now parallel to our lives, to some extent. In truth, our laughter masked our discomfort, while we learned over the next two years that physically masking was not just about protecting our family’s health, but protecting our extended community’s health as well.

I’m from Canada and currently my country’s masking regulations are, quite literally, all over the map. Most provinces focus on consistent masking in specific indoor/outdoor settings, or according to whether social distancing can be maintained, or if someone has pre-existing health conditions that make it difficult for them to wear a mask. Some provinces are looking to lift masking mandates and other restrictions as of this coming March. Then, of course, there’s our anti-mask and anti-vaccine crowd, which while fringe, is under the impression that COVID-19 mandates and restrictions have been a form of governmental oppression. This sort of rhetoric has formed part of the alibi for the radical far right’s so-called Freedom Convoy that’s been protesting throughout most of February. This group holds fast to the perception of face masks being tools of control, likening them symbolically to a sort of political muzzle. And therein lies the irony: masks are tools of control, but not in the way characterized by the conspiracies being spread about them.

Throughout the pandemic Canada has had tensions similar to those in the U.S.A. when it comes to friction between individualism and governmental policies. I’ve been very fascinated by how societies outside of North America with a more collectivist philosophy and a more normalized view towards masks have differed in terms of adaptation during these strange times. Both Japan and China, for instance, have a long history of wearing face masks not only for health-related reasons, but for fashion (think of Rindo’s face mask in Neo: The World Ends with You) and privacy as well. This normalization of masks may also stem from the fact that masks of various sorts have deep cultural roots in other ways as well, such as ritualistic masks used by shamans and priests, as well as theater masks.

As symbols of quotidian protection from the Miasma created by increasing hosts of The Lost, Revenants who’ve died too many times in battle and have become frenzied, mindless ghouls, Code Vein’s gas masks are similarly nuanced in their positioning. Yet Code Vein’s masks do share specific consistencies with other AAA game portrayals of masks, particularly in their ties to both conflict and death. Many of Code Vein’s Revenants are caught up in Silva’s war against the antagonistic Queen and turf wars amongst Revenants who want to hoard blood bead trees.

The more I’ve given some thought to masks as symbols in games, the more I’ve realized that AAA games have a preoccupation with masks that symbolize death, vigilantism, cults/mystery, and Otherhood. These categories are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive, they are merely the most prevalent ones I’ve noticed in games. Death masks are those masks that are donned by any assassin or ninja archetype in games, with notable examples including several Mortal Kombat icons, Death from the Darksiders series, or Corvo Attano from Dishonored. Vigilante masks are rather self-explanatory but are arguably the most prevalent in games, representing both robin hood like rebels and chaotic forces, from Persona 5’s Phantom Thieves, Handsome Jack and other factions from Borderlands, the ‘90s Twisted Metal games, and almost any games featuring superheroes. Cult or mystery masks are responsible for some of the most memorable villains in games, such as Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask’s Skull Kid, and Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis. Finally, there are Masks of Otherhood, a category that is perhaps most recognizable to players like me who are marginalized. These are the masks that are used to denote a character’s status as an outsider to the game world’s dominant culture, or are cartoonishly racist portrayals of cultures that use ritualistic masks. Notables here are Tali and the Volus from Mass Effect, the tribal and inhuman Hilichurls from Genshin Impact (who inspired the #BoycottGenshin movement last year), and Aku Aku from Crash Bandicoot (literally just a floating borderline blackface witch doctor mask).

This last category is the most troublesome in my opinion, as there is often little nuance and a heavy reliance on stereotyping. At best these masks are used to evoke a sense of characters being either exotic or comical because of their differences to the dominant culture, or simply to set up an insidious “Us and Them” dynamic. Even when there’s overlap between categories that is promising, such as Genshin Impact’s Xiao, who is a mysterious immortal Adeptus and ally, he is still mostly treated in the plot as a sort of tragic outsider. In the most extreme of overlaps between categories is the instance of Dead By Daylight’s canceled Leatherface mask, which was not only a blackface portrayal, but was used as a tool of hate against black players of the game.

Despite the above mentions of masks and what they often represent in AAA games, superficially or otherwise, not all instances of masks are so simply categorized. In fact, some of the prime examples mentioned above straddle multiple categories or complicate the category they sit in. Skull Kid is not just a villain, but a lost soul; Link’s transformations triggered by masks in Majora’s Mask are complex, and reference both Japanese traditions of donning a mask to scare away demons and losing oneself to become another entity (similar to rituals that also occur in African tribal societies as well). Samus Aran’s mask, although mysterious, has a long history of complex signification for her identity and gender (contrast this against Halo’s Master Chief). And Dragon Age’s ornate Orlesian masks prompt in-game discussions of how one has both a public and private face in the game of society.

What I would like to see in games moving forward are more instances of masks that celebrate difference and that can’t be easily categorized. Indeed as I composed this article I realized that the issue wasn’t just the simplistic portrayals of masks but the tendency in AAA games towards over-categorization in general. Just as medical face masks shouldn’t be a political divider in western society, so shouldn’t games constantly rely on masks as a marker of difference or intimidation. We need more masks like Journey’s, which unify players and can represent transcendence, and games like the indie fighter Guacamelee, which positions masks as a celebration of different cultures. Post-pandemic, I hope we move beyond the stage where all masks inspire in games criticism are listicles about iconic characters who wear them.

Phoenix Simms is an Atlantic Canadian writer and indie game narrative designer. You can find her work at Unwinnable, Videodame, and Third Person. Her stream-of-consciousness can be found at @phoenixsimms.

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