When it comes to student games, there'ss a certain level of polish you can expect. It's usually obvious a game was created by a small team with a shoestring budget and the ambitions, while sometimes high, are usually reined in by the limited development teams and time. Nothing wrong with that, it's just the way things are, and that's fine. This is where The Death Mask separates itself from the rest of the games at this years USC Games Expo. From the first moment I booted up the Android game on my iMac, I noticed a level of polish and craftsmanship I wasn't expecting. From the first few minutes of this MFA Thesis Project's branching dialogue paths and the stylized cartoony art style, I knew The Death Mask is a mystery worth checking out.
Masks, Murder, and Motivation
We're finally in an age of exceptional mobile games, and when I saw that The Death Mask was a mobile title that featured a mask-changing mechanic, it seemed like this student project might be worth checking out. In The Death Mask, you're tasked with solving a murder during a royal renaissance era party. There are multiple dialogue options, a fail state, and a mechanic where you can wear different masks that represent different standings in society to help you gain clues and get the full story of what happened that night. This is an interesting premise, and in an interview with the game's creative director, Mariana Cacique explained that the premise came from past experiences at renaissance fairs and how fun it was wearing masks.
Gameplay In The Death Mask plays like a classic point-and-click (or tap if you're on a phone) adventure whodunnit. While exploring the party, you'll run into various characters from all walks of life, such as servants, noblemen, and royalty. Depending on what mask you wear and how you approach a conversation, the outcome and ultimately what clues you learn change while trying to figure out this murder mystery, which can be totally failed if you don't pay attention to context clues or wear the wrong mask around the wrong people. I won't get into too much detail on the plot here because due to the nature of the game, The Death Mask is more enjoyable going into the story blind.
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
Delivering a finished game, or any piece of art in the current climate is a difficult thing. Adding the term "MFA Thesis Project" to the front of your game makes it even harder. There's a level of polish here that really brings the game to life, and when talking to Cacique, she stated that "...due to the scope of the game and that everyone on the team had other things to do as well as this, communication and organization had to be clear."
While the game is still a student project, the fact that the team knew what they wanted and were focused on getting The Death Mask out on time definitely shows in the final product. "I wish we could have spent more time on the art and didn't need to cut some parts, but we're still happy with the game," Cacique said.
She mentioned that initially the team had plans to flesh out the story a bit more with some additional characters, but due to time constraints and the remote workflow they had to do because of COVID-19, they were forced to cut some elements of the game's story to make sure they could make The Death Mask ready in time. but if you ask me, what Cacique and her team were able to deliver is definitely worth checking out.