Innerspace VR, the virtual reality game studio behind the award-winning A Fisherman’s Tale, presented an exclusive hands-off preview of its upcoming game, Maskmaker, earlier this week.
Two publishing execs, Innerspace’s managing director, and a handful of PR reps introduced the event with Innerspace’s backstory and what they hope to accomplish. But it was Balthazar Auxietre, Innerspace’s co-founder and creative director, who served the main course.
There wasn’t much of a story to pull from the 25-minutes of exclusive gameplay. According to the game’s description, players are transported to a magical workshop to become the apprentice of the powerful “leader” [sic] Prospero and prove they’re worth their salt — a back-of-box description that is sure to elicit groans from anyone capable of recounting VR sims of yore. But this isn’t all there is to Maskmaker’s story apparently. Ending on a cliffhanger, Auxietre peeked through the maw of a hulking, flat-faced tower. He hinted that something mysterious awaits inside. An airy, disembodied voice said, “It’s good to see you again.” Then it was over.
If you need a bigger story hook than that, I don’t have one. But I do have plenty to say about the design and mechanics that appear to have gone into this project. Besides sounding somewhat mundane (Remember that I didn’t engage directly with Maskmaker), the gameplay loop had enough of a hook to lure me in.
Here’s what I saw:
Auxietre chiseled at a block of wood, mimicking the blueprint of a monochromatic Aztec-y mask propped up at his carving station. There didn’t seem to be any nuance behind the action. It’s as if merely placing the blueprint rendered the mask’s shape perfectly inside the wood. It was just waiting for someone to crack its shell. Maybe this was just an indication of Auxietre’s expertise in the game whose development he’s led. But I think it’s literally the case that the blueprint dictates the mask’s shape. I don’t think Innerspace is making players work hard to earn the illusion, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m just saying it doesn’t seem like players will need a surgeon’s hand to play effectively.
Auxietre then walked over to a dye station and dipped the nascent mask in a bath of blue paint. As he pulled it out, its empty eye sockets began to glow a dull pink. He brought it to his face, and the frame shifted from the candle-lit workshop to a windowless hut atop a mountain peak whose only source of light was that reflecting off the snow. He made his way out into the cold but not before stopping to wave at his own reflection.
Once he’d finished his tomfoolery, a short trail through a dilapidated village led him to his first impasse — the lift between this peak and the next was out of order. Through his spyglass, Auxietre saw the frozen guardian in one of the gondolas was wearing a mask much like his own. Their masks were the same in every way but one: The guardian’s had three pink feathers on its crown.
From here you probably get the point. Auxietre must create another mask identical to the guardian’s, which requires a resource he doesn’t have. Once he gathers some feathers, he can return to his workshop and construct the new mask. This one, however, will transport him to the guardian’s location instead of the hut. Of course, there isn’t much to do in a broken-down lift dangling miles above the ground. But from this new perspective, Auxietre could spy another mask in the distance, perhaps even in one of the biomes below.
The only veritable puzzle I saw involved fixing the aforementioned broken lift. It was your typical “fix-the-machine” puzzle where players have to piece together interlocking cogs and gears. It was tangible and engaging, but it wasn’t unique. Afterward, when Auxietre showed how operating the lift would require swapping between his two masks, a new level of complexity emerged. With his former mask on, he’d have to hold the lever to move the gondolas. Only once the guardian had made it to the other side could he let go and access a new area.
Here’s the kicker: Operating the lift and swapping the masks could be performed simultaneously. If Auxietre swapped masks while holding the lever down — a maneuver that would require both hands — then the lift would be in a permanently operable state. For this particular puzzle, that level of ingenuity wasn’t necessary. We only had to see that the guardian could make it across the chasm. But I’ll give it brownie points for at least being able to demonstrate more advanced concepts. This was early in the game where it’s best to introduce simple ideas, but Auxietre mentioned that later puzzles would require deeper understanding.
Maskmaker has a minimal aesthetic that’s easy on the eyes and easily communicates what players must do to progress. Auxietre only showed off two biomes during the event, and one of them, the swamp, just for a minute. I also saw the workshop, but I’m not sure if there was anything more than what was on display.
The atmosphere I saw on those snowy peaks rested on a solid foundation. Ramshackle architecture told a story, in no words, of a deserted village. The statue further down the mountain path said, in equal words, the previous residents were reverent people. Some of the magic was lost on belabored explanations. But there’s little doubt that Maskmaker is capable of telling its lore through its atmosphere alone.
What I saw was very much a preview build. The event, hosted online via Discord, illustrated the work that’s gone into the game so far. Even taking this into account, Maskmaker, in its current state, is well polished. While there was only one glitch in the preview, it wasn’t game-breaking. Auxietre said the developers already fixed the minor error.
I’m eager to see how Maskmaker will be received. The loop of creating masks and using them to venture to parts unknown sparks enough intrigue to warrant attention. There’s also an obvious tangibility to the gameplay that makes it suitable for the VR space. Wrapped up in a shade of minimalism with a sense of atmosphere and placed in the hands of a studio that has demonstrated it can create meaningful VR experiences, Maskmaker is likely to be a success.
Maskmaker is set to release April 20 for the Oculus Rift S, Oculus Quest (via Link cable), Playstation VR, HTC Vive, and PC VR via SteamVR.