Maskmaker preview: putting on a mask to put on a mask

Putting on a mask and taking on a whole new personality has been done – but it’s proving hard to think of a time it’s been done in the always-that-bit-more-immersive world of virtual reality.

Maskmaker, from Innerspace VR, marks the studio’s next attempt at bringing something creative and unique to the VR realm: an adventure game based around exploration of a magical world known as the ‘mask realm’.

Said exploration is handled by crafting and wearing magical masks – it’s Mask-’maker’, not Mask-’buyer’ – with each face covering having the ability to transport you to a different place, another biome of the mask realm, each time in a different character.

On these mask-tical journeys, you solve puzzles and pick up on more of the mystery behind the game’s narrative – who was the mask-maker that owned the workshop you now craft the masks in before you got there? Why did they disappear? And who’s this Prospero chap, king of the strange universe you inhabit? All will, hopefully, become clear.

“My father has collected masks from all around the world throughout all his life,” explains Balthazar Auxietre, co-founder and creative director at Innerspace VR. “As a young boy, I used to spend a lot of time in his workshop where he stored them, dreaming of what was ‘behind the masks’. It was, for me, like exploring a parallel world!”

From those formative explosions of childhood imagination, it wasn’t until adulthood – and a development studio focused on the medium – that VR brought those memories together with the potential of an interactive project.

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There’s a clean simplicity to the visuals that, at a guess, helps to stop a player getting overwhelmed. VR sickness is real, kids.

It isn’t Innerspace VR’s first game, however. It’s actually the studio’s fourth, though it travels more in lockstep with previous release A Fisherman’s Tale in approaching things from a more fantastical, atmospheric position. But beyond the more limited scope of Fisherman’s, Maskmaker brings with it a more open-ended world, one that the team hadn’t actually planned for from the outset.

The design of the core game, however, didn’t change much from that initial idea: “The concept of using masks as a gateway to another imaginary place was there from the start,” Auxietre says. “As we started prototyping in VR, the ability for the player to craft masks themselves felt like an essential piece of the puzzle and was really rewarding. So it grew until it became the other half of the game. The players are now part crafter, part explorer.”

The studio is still learning all the time – it’s still relatively new as a game development team, and VR tech is itself still relatively early along, at least in this latest iteration. There’s been a lot of hard work put in to make sure Maskmaker features puzzles that ‘feel’ right – that object manipulation looks the part and doesn’t make your brain reject what’s happening, and there’s a focus on cohesion between the worlds and what’s happening in them. Everything to put your mind at ease, to make the game able to draw you in deeper, and to have more fun with it.

“For example, we worked a lot on wood mechanisms, levers, and winches and tried to give the feeling of friction and heaviness so that you really feel like you’re moving heavy objects without going too much into the it’s-so-realistic-it’s not-fun-anymore route,” Auxietre says. “We also designed puzzles based on reproducing some of the characters’ postures and actions. These are very specific VR puzzles where players are fully engaged with their whole bodies.”

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No, it’s not a feature from HackSpace magazine – crafting masks makes up a big part of Maskmaker.

VR itself is sort of there in modern gaming – it didn’t take over as some hoped, but it didn’t disappear again as others expected. It’s a niche. But it’s an important niche to Innerspace VR, and not just because it has the letters in its name. “Immersive is not a buzzword for us,” Auxietre says.

“We didn’t name the studio Innerspace VR just because it sounds cool, but because we feel there is a world of artistic possibilities to discover. We identify VR more as a medium in its own right, even if it can still be argued that it’s either a technology or a genre in games. So we feel we are bound to prove that it has indeed some potential beyond these, because it’s true that the little we have seen – and made ourselves – is not enough. We will continue our explorations of this medium, especially as the technology moves forward and becomes more prominent in our lives, because great things, art, poetry, needs to happen on these platforms, not only social networks and commercials for eyeballs.”

And when it comes to Auxietre’s hopes for Maskmaker, the irony isn’t lost on him. You are, after all, attempting to achieve some level of escapism from the modern world by putting on a different sort of face mask, to play a game centred entirely around the concept of putting on masks.

“We hope players will enjoy the magical atmosphere of the world and find a feeling of freedom and discovery in wearing masks and travelling through them,” he says. “We also hope the world of Maskmaker can bring a little bit of fresh air and wonder in these depressing times, even if that means wearing another mask!”

Genre: Adventure
Format: PC (VR) / PSVR
Developer: Innerspace VR
Publisher: MWM Interactive
Release: Early 2021

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