It was December 31, 1958. In Rapture, the underwater city in BioShock (2007), the most affluent residents gathered at a masquerade ball in the Kashmir Restaurant for a night of dinner and dance. However, a sudden explosion marked the end of the celebration—and the beginning of a ceaseless civil war.
People started abusing a wonder drug known as ADAM out of fear and desperation which, in exchange for superhuman abilities, caused severe disfigurement. To hide their facial deformities, the denizens of Rapture decided that they would not be seen without the Venetian masks from the New Year’s Eve party.
The Venetian masks in BioShock are symbolic of Rapture’s descent into depravity. But they are also a throwback to the origin of the Venetian mask, which is steeped in excessiveness—caused and compounded by its promise of anonymity. A particularly notorious instance was when Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, dressed up as a bare-breasted Greek goddess, Iphigenia, in a 1749 masked ball. Even though other guests weren’t exactly modestly dressed, this still caused one guest to exclaim, “…ye high priest might easily inspect ye entrails of ye victim.” As if in defiance, Elizabeth also released an inordinate amount of gas, farting and belching while gorging on mountains of food.
These masks may be the most recognizable icons of masquerade balls today, but they didn’t always support this association, having only been introduced to Italy in the 16th century, while their usage can be traced a little further into the past. In the 15th century, masquerade balls were first held in Europe to celebrate the marriages and coronations of monarchs, as well as other royal processions. They were also characterized by exquisitely colorful masks and equally elaborate costumes, and were audacious and decadent affairs. Think less high society, more circus performance.
One notable ball is the tragic “Bal des Ardents” in 1393, organized by Isabeau of Bavaria, the Queen of France. To commemorate the marriage of her lady-in-waiting, Isabeau’s husband, King Charles VI, and five of his courtiers were dressed as wild men—shaggy mythical woodland beings with a humanoid shape—and wore masks, while linen costumes, soaked with resin and lined with flax, were sewn straight onto their bodies. They danced vulgarly to the discordant music of cymbals, rusty pots and pans, all in jolly good fun until Charles’s brother Louis, Duke of Orleans, drunkenly barged into the ball with a lit torch and accidentally set fire to a dancer’s leg. Like forest flames in summer, the fire ravaged the highly flammable dancers, causing the death of four courtiers.
William Hogarth [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
When the balls finally made their way to Venice, they started out as ballroom dances exclusive to the wealthy, but soon spread like wildfire (excuse the pun) among the bourgeois society. Their doors then swung open to anyone who could afford a ticket. They became almost synonymous with the Carnival of Venice—another festival which began in 1162 as a celebration of Venice’s victory against the Patriach of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven—and with that, masquerade balls in Venice were even more celebrated for their Venetian masks.
With the advent of masquerade balls and the Carnival of Venice’s growing popularity, Venetian masks were propelled even more into the mainstream, although they were already in use as far back as 1268. Thanks to the valiant efforts of mischief makers, the Great Council of Venice had to decree a ban on throwing scented eggs while masked (which implies tossing eggs with your face exposed might have been legal). Nonetheless, by the 18th century, the masks were part of the daily dresses of many Venetians, and were often used outside of festivities. Nobles welcomed their foreign emissaries with a mask on, while married couples met for meals at inns, cafes, and hostels while masked.
It’s easy to see why Venetian masks were so popular. They served a simple yet desirable purpose—anonymity—and like present-day internet trolls, this allowed mayhems to fester, from sexual promiscuity to spikes in crime. This led to a country-wide ban of the masks outside of carnivals was enacted in 1797, following the demise of the Republic of Venice due to Napoleon’s conquest, which caused the masks to fall out of popularity. Gradually, even the carnivals faded into obscurity, and were banned by Mussolini in the 1930s. Only in 1979 did the Carnival of Venice make a triumphant return, courtesy of the Italian government, who wanted to encourage tourism and boost the country’s economy by showcasing the country’s rich Venetian culture.
The panoramic history of the Venetian mask and its festivities should be fertile ground for videogame narratives. But the setting has been curiously underexplored so far, save for an appearance in a few games such as BioShock and Assassin’s Creed II (2009). Even then, their realization inside these games feels skin deep—they serve as little more than set dressing. This is especially obvious in the case of Assassin’s Creed II, which required the assassin Ezio to eliminate one of his targets, the Venetian Doge Marco Barbarigo, in the midst of the Carnival of Venice. To my astonishment, he simply donned a laughable disguise—a full-faced Venetian mask known as the Bauta—to get away with his murder, despite still being dressed in the distinctive garb of the Assassin Order.
That is why, during my conversation with Ian Gregory, creative director and co-founder of the Singapore-based Witching Hour Studios, my interest was piqued when he talked about how Venice had left a mark on him, and how it influenced the distinctly Venetian setting found in the studio’s latest title, Masquerada: Songs and Shadows.
“I went on a backpacking trip right after the mandatory two-year national service [in Singapore], and one of the places I remembered distinctly and thoroughly enjoyed myself at was Venice,” he recalled. “While the masquerade masks were definitely an inspiration for the game, the picturesque look of Masquerada stemmed from an experience I had with some friends; we bought a bunch of wooden toy swords on sale, and engaged in a mock, drunken sword fight along the canals.”
This experience set the stage for the war-stricken but scenic city of Ombre, where Masquerada is set. The protagonist Cicero Gavar, who returns from exile to investigate the kidnapping of a diplomat, is outfitted with a magical Venetian mask—an article that many prominent characters in the game own as well. Referred to as Mascherines in the game, these allow anyone to conjure magic.
However, these masks require a level of proficiency to wield with deadly effect—a narrative flourish introduced by the studio’s lead writer, Nicholas Chan. “His writing added a layer of depth to Masquerada. For instance, mastering the magics and using the Mascherine with finesse required a keen understanding of media—fields that are related to the arts, such as drawing, singing, playing musical instruments, and dancing,” Gregory elaborated. This harkens back to masquerade balls and the Carnival of Venice, which have roots extending far into music and the arts; masquerade balls had long been renowned for their dances, while the modern Carnival of Venice is home to many baroque-styled masks and costumes. With a note of pride in his voice, Gregory remarked that Chan had masterfully brought these Venetian elements together, successfully weaving Masquerada’s narrative into a coherent whole.
Not everyone is privy to the use of the Mascherines though, as they are rare artefacts within the Masquerada universe; once their owners die, the masks will turn to dust—and there is no way to reverse this process. “Since no one in Masquerada knows how to craft a new mask, it becomes a constantly diminishing commodity that only the very rich can own,” Gregory said. He also pointed out that these masks are only offered to those in the highest echelon of society, because they hold the promise of an undying legacy—another scarce commodity in tremendous demand.
This idea of legacy, or the desire to be remembered even after death, is so sought after because of the city’s magical nature. Specifically, the society’s godlike ability to manipulate and bend the most rudimentary elements of nature—fire, water, earth, and air—to its liking has rendered any notion of religion or an afterlife unnecessary. “ When people pass away, there aren’t any records of their life and memories,” Gregory mused. However, when a mask owner dies, a song will be written for the deceased and kept in a room called the Hall of Songs. Those without a mask—well, they simply won’t have a legacy.”
The Venetian masks of centuries past possessed no such magical properties; they were simply mass-produced goods that were affordable and modestly decorated. Yet, they were significant because of their capacity to break down social classes. With their identities hidden, citizens from the various strata of society could mingle with one another freely without fear of prejudice. On the other hand, the Mascherines in Masquerada are a symbol of wealth and power. They might have been at the root of Ombre’s ongoing civil war, and are perhaps instrumental in widening the power gap between the rich and the subjugated.
These differences may seem antithetical, but one trait both masks share is their capacity to satisfy a deep need for control. The behavior of the Maskrunners in Masquerada exemplifies this: to fuel a rebel movement within the city, they take to stealing the Mascherines—relics they would never have the means to acquire otherwise—in order to wrestle back control and power to their faction. Likewise, the anonymity in wearing the Venetian masks during Venice’s earliest days emboldened its citizens, offering them the liberty to do as they please with little regards to the hierarchical structure of its society.
Unsurprisingly, the allure of anonymity that gave rise to the promiscuity and general state of debauchery in Venice soon spread to the rest of mainland Europe in the 18th century, as masquerade balls become more commonplace. It was during 1792 that Gustav III, the King of Sweden, was assassinated in one such masquerade ball. Much maligned for his enactment of the Union and Security Act in 1789, which allowed him to declare war and make peace without consulting his cabinet, he had many political enemies. One of them was nobleman Jacob Johan Anckarström, who shot him with a pistol while donned in a black mask. Gustav III soon died from his wounds.
Similarly, the prologue of Masquerada places the player in the shoes of Cyrus Gaver, who incidentally, is the younger brother of the protagonist Cicero and the leader of the Maskrunners. Like Anckarström, Cyrus is out for blood—specifically, the blood of Ombre’s ruler, Avestus Aliarme. He was heavily guarded, of course, and Cyrus and his crew had to fight past hordes of guards to get to him. These fights aren’t bloodbaths, however; on the contrary, they are flourished with splashes of color and the elegance of classical music, much like the courtly dances of masquerade balls.
Plus, a contentious issue that continues to plague both historians and the citizens of Ombre was the origin of their masks, and how they came to be of use. Aside from the eggs-tossing legislation in Venetian history, little was known of how Venetian masks came to be before this incident. Did the first Venetian to put on a mask become a subject of ridicule from the rest of the city? In the same vein, how were the Mascherines created in Masquerada? Eventually, both the Mascherines and real-life Venetian masks dwindled in numbers; the former due to the deaths of mask owners, and the latter due to a ban by the killjoy Mussolini.
The use of masks in videogames—not just Venetian—has seen widespread adoption, each carrying their own interpretation. “That’s the beauty of masks, because they are very symbolic items. There is no wrong way to wear a mask; it can either be used to hide one’s identity, or conversely, be used as an expression of identity,” said Gregory.
In the case of the Mascherines, we have a meticulously decorated facade that is unique to every character. Even when masked, telling them apart is a simple and obvious task. For instance, Cicero’s mask is an intricately designed blue and red one with gold trimmings, whereas a companion has one with a predominantly blue color palette. Conversely, the myriad animal masks in Dennaton Games’s Hotline Miami (2012) conceal protagonist and mass murderer Jacket’s identity—his true identity and name may never be known to anyone except the game’s creators.
As a game with a distinct Venetian backdrop, Masquerada—and its masks—have added a new chapter to the maturing field of modern videogames. Countless reinterpretations of medieval and World War II themes abound, but Masquerada offers a captivating and unique experience that is grounded in Venetian culture. Just like how Assassin’s Creed revived interest in European history, perhaps Masquerada can do the same.