On class conflict and queerness in Masquerada: Songs and Shadows

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a timely reminder of the power that fantasy stories can have to explore real-world issues. Fantasy and science-fiction have a long history of taking on things like class conflict and racism through metaphor, but it seems to often fall short, especially in video games. I know I’m sick to death of “racism against elves” themes (or, sigh, “mechanical apartheid”) that seem to create a caricature of the struggles they’re supposedly trying to touch on.

There’s a similar gambit in Masquerada, and on the surface it may look like yet another computer role-playing game that uses fantasy oppression as a way to avoid discussion rather than start it. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that this game is quite the opposite: it puts enough care into actually addressing the nuances of the issues it raises that the metaphor becomes a powerful statement.

Masquerada review

Class conflict: Masquerada and Contadini

Masquerada takes place in the Citte della Ombre, an island-bound city state that’s beautiful, but plagued with inequalities. In the Citte, all the power is held by the Masquerada, who wield rare magical artifacts called mascherines. Though much more plentiful, the mascherine-less Contadini are confined to a life of poverty at worst, and modesty at best, while the Masquerada live opulent lives at the top of society’s pecking order. It’s possible for Contadini to become Masquerada, but it’s incredibly rare.

It’s a clear analogue to wealth-based class divides that are so prevalent in the real world. The Masquerada are the wealthy elites, and the Contadini are the poor and the middle class. Social mobility is possible in theory, but in practice it’s a rarity, with a myriad of systematic obstacles holding would-be Masquerada back. There are only so many mascherines to go around.

What’s important is that in Masquerada, this class divide isn’t just set dressing; it underpins almost every facet of the game. At the centre of the story is Cicero Gavar, one of the rare few Contadini to become Masquerada. Having seen both sides gives him a unique perspective, but he’s also one who tries to stay out of the politics of Ombre – a futile effort, because, as he slowly learns over the course of the game, the personal is the political.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review

In fact, Cicero is fascinating character precisely because of his failed attempts to remain apolitical. He speaks broadly of wanting a more equitable Ombre, but he’s still very much a man of privilege, and that’s something that he gets challenged on often. What starts as a simple search and rescue mission sees him drawn into a conflict between the Masquerada and the rebellious, freedom-fighting Maskrunners, and he finds himself having to confront his own biases.

The journey takes Cicero and his companions through the expanse of the city, from the slums to the lavish White Spire. This wide cross section of society doesn’t just look at the city’s inequality, but also offers a glimpse at the mechanics of how it works – how the disparity is upheld despite only benefiting the few, and the different ways Contadini respond to their oppression. These are further explored with some quite insightful journal entries that draw heavily on real-world political theory, albeit in a simplified, more accessible form.

Towards the end, the game does fall into the common video game trap of a simple good and evil struggle. There’s nothing wrong with that, but with all the effort put into creating a believable analogy to for real-world class conflict, it would have been nice to see a conclusion that deals that directly. That said, it doesn’t go as far just hand-waving the problems away. The epilogue stresses the point that Ombre’s are deep-seated and systemic, and that stopping one evil – who is another product of a broken system – won’t magically fix everything.

Masquerada Steam review

Beyond good and evil

Through Cicero and his companions, Masquerada manages to create a complex vision of an issue that’s often reduced to a simplistic “oppressed poor people vs. moustache-twirling aristocrats”. The Masquerada are the beneficiaries of a broken system system, but they aren’t some sort of monolithic evil. There are plenty who are dangerously ambitious, but there are also altruistic Masquerada who use their power to help others. There are those who stoically uphold the letter of the law, and others who are more interested in the spirit of it. There are artists, historians, entertainers, philanthropists, assholes, and people just living their lives, blind to the privilege that they’ve been born into.

Likewise, the Contadini aren’t thieves and beggars – a common fantasy shorthand for poverty. They come from all walks of live, so there certainly are thieves and beggars among their numbers, but they’re mostly just people going through life more-or-less happily with the cards they’ve been dealt. Is their situation unfair? It sure is, but they’re not defined by their social standing, and for the most part they live decent lives, even if they are under the thumb of the Masquerada.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review

This is most apparent in the wonderful liveliness of Ombre itself. RPG cities are typically lightly populated, and only with characters who are there for you to interact with in some fashion. In Masquerada, the metropolitan areas are bustling with activity; any given zone will have dozens of characters. Rather than being NPCs in that very game-like sense, they’re just people – mostly Contadini – going about their lives, having conversations that you can overhear snippets of but that have nothing to do with you. The sheer number of people milling about the Citte shows a rich, diverse community that feels alive and, more importantly feels real.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review

Being gay in the Citte della Ombre

Spoiler warning: the next section deals with some plot specifics that aren’t revealed until late in the game

Masquerada has class conflict as its central theme, and the subplots for each of Cicero’s companions generally relate to different aspects of that. There is one in particular that I want to talk about, and that’s Kalden, a burly but soft-spoken man who runs an orphanage.

Kalden is “talios”, which is Ombre’s word for gay, in a city that isn’t exactly welcoming towards queer people. Family legacies are deemed hugely important, especially among Masquerada, and being talios is seen as an insult to that heritage, at least as far as society is concerned. As someone from a family of high esteem, Kalden is – understandably – closeted. He doesn’t want to bring his family’s name into disrepute, but that’s at odds with his need to be himself, openly and freely.

We’re seeing queer characters more often in games. In a lot of cases, they’re out and proud because they live in a world where that isn’t an issue, or they’ll cautiously come out to a person who welcomes them with open arms. These characters are wonderful and important, showing examples of societies where queer people are accepted, and offering some respite from the real world, that can be so hostile.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review

It’s also rare to see stories that engage with queer themes as earnestly as Masquerada does. The story that unfolds around Kalden is a heartbreaking one that, sadly, a lot of people will be able to relate to. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and holds up a harrowing mirror to the ways queer people are treated in the real world. At the same time, it’s delivered with care and nuance. It’s not exploitative, or a ham-fisted attempt at shock activism; it’s just a tragic and deeply human story about something that so many people experience in some form or another.

One of the best things about it is the way Cicero reacts when he finds out: he’s shocked, and a little bit uncomfortable. He’s not a Westboro Baptist Church-type raging homophobe, but he certainly comes across as being someone who’d say “I have no problem with gay people, I just wish they weren’t so in-your-face about it!”. He’s sheltered, and the privilege of being straight means he’s never really had to think about what life is like for talios in Ombre.

It’s also something that he’s challenged on, frequently and forcefully. Other characters chastise his behaviour, and given his friendship with Kalden and desire to help, he has to put things into perspective. It’s a powerful statement when they character you’re playing – someone who thinks himself quite liberal and open-minded – as has to come to terms with his own biases, which he’d been blissfully ignorant of.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review

A ray of light in a sea of shadows

The main reason for Masquerada’s success in its exploration of these themes is, of course, its willingness to address them head-on. However, almost as important is the other side of that coin – the joy, humour, beauty that serve to both distract from and underscore those darker moments.

“Dark fantasy” games tend to overplay the bleakness of their worlds, to the point that it becomes hard to care or get invested. Citte della Ombre, on the other hand, is bright and vibrant. Every area, even the dungeons and ruins, is awash with colour, and the comic-like finish makes those colours pop.

Despite their dire circumstances, the characters are warm and jovial. This is particularly true of Cicero, the archetypal charming rogue. He’s quick with his wit, occasionally sarcastic, and always has a joke to hand. Though his efforts are misguided at times, he genuinely cares about the people around him, and this comes through in slower every piece of dialogue. A special mention needs to be made of Matt Mercer, who played Cicero and did a stellar job.

In fact, the acting throughout the whole game is of the highest quality. The cast includes the likes of Ashly Burch, Felicia Day, Dave Fennoy, and Jennifer Hale, to name but a few, and they all give some of the best performances of their careers. They inject a deep, natural humanity into each character, taking an already excellent script even further. The end result is a cast of endearing and relatable characters living in a beautiful, mysterious, intriguing world. It’s hard not to care and get invested, and that makes the drama and tragedy inherent in the game’s narrative all the more powerful.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows review

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is a fantastic game in almost every regard, but what really made it stand out to me is how cleverly it engages with themes of social unrest. Too many games use  the fantasy element to hide the fact that they don’t really have anything to say, but this is no such game. It does what good fantasy does best: it uses that mythical lens for an insightful exploration of class struggle and queer identities in the real world, and that’s something to be commended.

Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is developed by Witching Hour Studios and published by Ysbryd Games. It’s available now for PC.

A press copy was supplied by Witching Hour Studios for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.