Rejoice, delicious friend, for our descent into the Neath is at hand. It’s been four long years since the release of Sunless Skies, and while Failbetter Games’ speculative steampunk future of Fallen London left the station with a triumphant billow of steam, it’s been a long time since we’ve stumbled over the gaslit cobbles of the doomed city itself. Enter Mask of the Rose, a visual novel that promises to bring Fallen London into stark, often unnerving focus. To cut to the heart of the matter, we caught up with Failbetter Games senior producer Stuart Young at WASD 2023 to talk love, death, and bats. So many bats.
In the Fallen London universe, gothic horror tugs at the fastened buttons of Victorian principles, creating a delicious friction that lends itself well to a dating sim. It’s exacerbated further in Mask of the Rose by the immediacy of the Fall itself, which only occurred a few hundred days prior. “It’s certainly had an impact on society – a lot of conventional morality and rules of propriety have been suspended in this emergency situation,” Young says.
A portion of this cultural upheaval can also be attributed to the Masters of the Bazaar, the unsettling cloaked figures that have assumed control of the trade economy of Fallen London itself. Veterans of Fallen London will know the Masters well, but in Mask of the Rose they serve as an unlikely catalyst for social change. “They may not be entirely human, but they’re in charge of the new situation. They don’t see gender in the same way.”
In terms of its cast of characters, Mask of the Rose takes a micro approach in comparison to the likes of Sunless Sea or Sunless Skies, which are themselves tapestries of faces and locales across a wide open expanse. “It’s Fallen London in HD,” Young outlines. “It’s a smaller scope in terms of the amount of locations and characters, but we go into more depth in terms of art, characterisation; everything.”
It’s also a far more forgiving version of Fallen London than we’ve seen in previous games. Unlike the harsh and brutal reality of life at zee, Mask of the Rose contains only a single death – and it’s not even your own. A murder mystery lies at the heart of this gothic narrative, with one of your fellow lodgers as the prime (if wholly unlikely) suspect.
“The murder will go to trial,” Young states, though the outcome of that trial varies wildly depending on your actions. You can ignore romance to dedicate yourself fully to the investigation, but if you consider yourself more of a Casanova than a Sherlock Holmes, you don’t have to worry about a little murder mystery standing between you and true love.
When it comes to the art of seduction itself, Mask of the Rose opts for a naturalistic approach rather than flooding the player with stats. “You’re not trying to make people’s bars go up by giving them gifts over and over,” Young explains. “Your relationships with characters feel a bit more like interacting with a real person, rather than a mercenary system where you put in resources and you get love out.”
The throughline of this approach is your codex, which records all the characters you’ve encountered in Fallen London, as well as the choices you make that change the course of your own personal relationship with them. Romantic endeavours can consist of a bit of light flirting to dreams of marriage – but friendship is a viable endeavour as well. You might opt for casual camaraderie to entice aloof characters to reveal their sordid secrets, or build a found family in earnest.
As for your own preferences, Mask of the Rose’s character creation eschews gender by inviting you to furnish yourself with a title of address rather than assigning your gender, as well as the kind of love you’re seeking. The available options span all romantic and sexual orientations, including asexuality. That’s not to say that how you choose to present yourself isn’t important – in fact, your choice of dress can unlock dialogue options and shape conversations in myriad ways. A vibrant corsage may incline you towards flirtatious vulgarity, while a sailor’s top will invoke a general contempt for the higher echelons of society.
Young credits lead writer and designer Emily Short as the mastermind of these systems, which serve to balance character agency with player fantasy. “We do want to offer romance options with a very broad range of people so that everybody can choose their favourite thirst trap and go after them if they want,” Young grins.
The pursuit of love isn’t just for the player’s benefit, either. Certain characters will naturally be drawn to one another over time – a gravitational pull you can encourage by serving as a go-between, passing notes and manipulating the flow of conversation to nudge them towards one another. “You can choose to play the matchmaker or you can choose to befriend the characters, and these are treated as equally valid goals,” Young says.
This near-total freedom to explore Fallen London engenders Failbetter’s gothic visual novel with a degree of replayability beyond the usual scope of romantic pursuits. Of course, that’s one such reason to return to the streets of Fallen London – but so are the many secrets ensconced within the city itself.
As we wrap up, Young assures us that dedicated fans of Fallen London can expect to discover lore-filled easter eggs and references to established characters, some of which were specifically chosen by Kickstarter backers: “The Bishop of Southwark is like a churchman crossed with Oliver Reed and Brian Blessed – a very in-your-face, warrior for God. He’s in there as one of the fan favourites.” The Tentacled Entrepreneur is also set to make a return in the visual novel, which just proves that there’s something for everyone in The Neath.
Mask of the Rose is due to release on June 8, 2023 via Steam following a short delay. In the meantime, why not dip a toe back into the murky waters of Fallen London with our Sunless Skies review? We’ve also got a list of the best story games to sink your teeth into while you wait.