“Die Totenmaske” Review
Verdict: 2/5 stars. An RPG with decent gameplay and a great look and yet with a story that just doesn’t make sense, causing me unecessary disappointment and an idea of what could have been.
A few days ago I reviewed a novel that was everything a young frog could ever ask for: flowery pastel storybook æsthetic, a bunch of furry fantasy creatures that were both coy and cool, magic that will never exist in our normie world, and an atmosphere that is cheery and bright and where everything is going to be alright. Then I got tired of that gay shit and moved on to a Real Man’s Game: Die Totenmaske, which is bloody and miserable with corpses every which way, with dark magic never explained, a story that is also never explained, and with a look – and – feel so gritty and gruesome the title even has “Die” in it. Of course it means “The”, but German is an evil language, so it still counts.
The title translates to “The Deathmask”. It is never explained how you got the mask, why it’s on you, why it wants to kill everybody, or why its ultimate destiny is to fight a fat man that just came off a Five Guys binge and wants to kill you with his bubbling cysts, or why everyone has to die, or why it’s the 13th century and yet we still have access to landships, automatic machine guns, flamethrowers, and grenades. What is explained is that you have a death mask, and that it has a helpful elemental damage skill that will eat up all your stamina points and make you wait several turns while your torso casts his regeneration spell, or have your legs throw it some booze to max it out.
It’s one of those games that abuse the poor RPG Maker engine, using deep wizardry to manipulate your five party slots into five different body parts, all with their own super – specialised skills, except for Legs, which is worthless and should have been replaced with a second Torso. Through clever artistic tricks, we’re given the poorly propped – up illusion of controlling a single character’s individual parts rather than five whole bodies, which might as well be called a “unique selling point” if this game wasn’t free and I was more sold on how grimdark the damn thing is. Oh, yes, “grimdark”. We’re going back into fanfiction now — how joyous.
In this game you play as… someone, on your ultimate quest to do… something, aided by a mystical mask that is parasiting your body for… some reason. Look, the story is dick. I’m just going to say it: the story is dick. It hooked me at the beginning with this steampunk super – far – future only – it – looks – more – like – the – past industrial – nu – society genre thing it has going on, with the story about how our boy August is the last survivor of an old – fashioned genocide and he has to genocide the other guys to get even and hope this makes him a more fulfilled human being somehow. This is told with a two – minute intro and is the best part of the narrative.
It reels you in with its scrubby, washed – out yet too – precise art style that makes the whole world deranged in a way you never get used to. It interests you with character designs that are simple, if reliant on old tropes, that are spooky even despite how you must focus on the gameplay proper. The art style make look amateur with the inconsistent technical quality and the obvious tiling and repeated assets on the overworld, but on the whole it’s something unlike anything I’ve seen before, and we can agree that creativity in indie games is something we need more of — rather than focusing on the flavour – of – the – year trends that is piledriving our medium into artistic irrelevancy.
But it’s the writing’s inability to give context to this world that is most damning, and which caused me by the end to feel more disappointed than glad I had played this title. In a video game’s story, motivation is the driver that causes the player to give a shit. If it’s not murdering someone who wronged you, it’s going on an epic quest of intrigue, creating the world you want to see, or finding out more about the fucked – up, if not beautiful, world you get to experience for just a little while. All great games give the player a reason to give a shit, even if that reason has nothing to do with story and just involves great gameplay. The very best games, like Bioshock and LISA, combine damn good gameplay with a damn good story, and makes you remember why the hell you even bother playing games at all.
Games that throw us into a world without context and expect us to care about some external motivation that doesn’t interest the player personally are games quickly forgotten and thrown into the bit buckets of our hard drive without a second thought. The reason New Vegas is a heck of a lot better of a game than Fallout 3 is because we had a reason to care about what happens. Benny fucked us over. He didn’t fuck over our vault, our dad, or anyone else the player character might or might not have known — he fucked over us, the player, and we’re so fucking pissed that we’re not stopping until we see his ass in the dirt. That’s also why New Vegas’s faction system felt so slipshod when it tried to integrate us into it. Who cares about whether Team Mayo gets control over the Sourbread Isles? Or whether Team Mustard is systemically oppressing the Pickle People of Sub Sandwich City? What’s in it for us personally? What do we get out of helping Team Tartar Sauce on their quest to colonise the Fishstick Atoll?
In most cases, not a damn thing. Games don’t give us a reason to care about what their virtual villagers are doing on a day – to – day basis. They create the village, throw us in there without context, and expect us to care. For what reason, besides Stockholm Syndrome? Not a damn reason, not at all. Perhaps developers have deluded themselves into thinking their world, by virtue of being so important to them, will also be so important to their audience that they’ll fall in love with it just the same. But most of the time, the player is at an arm’s distance from whatever happens in the game, looking to make their own fun and cause their own trouble rather than fit within the linear, often poorly – crafted story that the developer expects them to. And if a game is all – linear, if there’s no way for the player to express themselves in their own way, and the game’s story isn’t that good, then the player isn’t sticking around.
That’s how I feel with Die Totenmaske. The intro was effective, but it drops that plot, throws in a few cryptic phrases about race and religion, has us fight people we’ve never met and have no reason to care about, and railroads us through the similar – looking environments without explaining what the heck we’re even doing, and unceremoniously ends with a final boss that has apparently been sitting there for the past ninety minutes waiting for us to show up, and once he is dead, ends the game twenty seconds later with some dialogue that doesn’t even have the courtesy to recap what the heck we just witnessed. I believe the developers of this game thought it was more important to be “cool” than it was to, you know, have a damn story, and to their credit the game is pretty cool, but that’s all it has going for it, and is a Faustian bargain at best.
The G of the RP
It’s always a good sign for a game when I complete it through to the end, even if they pull the old Lost Woods bullshit five minutes beforehand, where you have to go through specific rooms or else you get sent back to the beginning. If that wasn’t insulting enough, there’s also a regular maze you have to get through. Yes, that’s what we play games for: the sheer thrill of navigating topography that can be generated in one line of BASIC. The rest of the level design falls back on bullshit, such as backtracking to collect keys and having random encounters, but the levels are short enough and the encounters are skippable, and are also fortunately fun to play.
The wizardry I discussed before makes for a fascinating battle system, if you’re the type of game – design nerd who can read the words “fascinating” and “battle system” in the same sentence and not go ResidentSleeper on me. All your body parts make up your party slots, if your head dies then you die, and they all have their own little attacks and spells and whatnot. It’s one of those modern RPGs that let you wield guns without needing any ammo, makes you take big damage at all stages of the game, and basically makes the RPG genre fun instead of a grindfest like the mistakes of the past.
Like most RPGs, it’s too easy to break apart, and by the end I had stockpiled up on so many items and coins that they were both useless to me. The final boss did not even hit me once. For all the game tries to be tactical and make use of your entire body, such as making your right hand support your left when shooting, having your torso control your circulatory functions, and having your legs do the sprinting move that makes it so you can’t hit anything, it all breaks apart when all you need is two guns in each hand and shoot everything to death. In any game, the moment you think that it’s gotten too easy, you are guaranteed to feel unchallenged for the rest of it. Developers tend to treat their players like babies. If you rough them up too much, they die.
All of these flaws are forgivable, I suppose, for a ninety – minute game. But it tempers what would be a novel experience into something that I can only recommend tentatively, such as for inspiration for another game that pillages its æsthetics and attaches much better story and design to it. I could go on, but game mechanics are the ugly babies of game design — of interest only to their creators, and though most people cannot explain the particular details of why the baby is ugly, they intuitively know it to be so.
If you are a prospecting designer reading me for your inspiration, I will tell you, simply, to play the worst games you can, figure out why they’re bad, and don’t make those same mistakes. Do the same for the best games, figure out what makes them good, and then copy them — and don’t feel obliged to stick to my extremely lofty standards. Just know that if you do, then you will be one of the few great designers alive, and everything you make will be as good as gold. A life of high standards is nothing to be ashamed of, especially for someone who wishes to meet those standards. Good art makes good people, and good living makes for a great life.
Die Totenmaske is not, entirely, a wash, and it is not dead in my eyes. But it is flawed, and the flaws in its story and design compound to make the somewhat short experience a one – and – done deal — something you never look at again, and only think about when prompted. There are many short games that you can play again and still feel the same as you did playing them the first time. But if I think about hopping back into this title, all I can think about is nice it looks, how nice it could have turned out, and yet how unsatisfying as a whole the experience is.
In fact, I found the most interesting part of the game to be the very end, with the credits. It is an indie game, and all the developers go by their usernames with positions that aren’t very serious. I appreciate the efforts of “Ballers Gait” for contributing so many gainz to the work, even if Idiot Wizard only offered insomnia. But what I found most interesting was the list of programs at the end, also reproduced in the game directory’s credits file, saying that this game required fourteen different programs to create: RPG Maker MV, Blender, FL Studio 12, GIMP, Krita, MediBang Paint, FireAlpaca, Audacity, LMMS, ffmpeg, Git, gvim, Windows, and Ubuntu 17.10.
There are a ton of unused sprites that look like they belong as part of entirely different games, likely as part of asset packs used for testing or prototyping in lieu of original art. There’s an icon set with over 250 icons when less than 20 are used in – game. There’s a spritesheet for number damage when it could have been replaced with the already – existing font asset. There is also, I kid you not, an entire folder of tilesets with 31 different sets when only one is used in – game, and even that has an unused full – colour tile in it. Hanlon’s Razor says they appropriated a tileset for their own evil purposes. Nothing wrong with working smarter, but don’t make it so obvious next time! That’s how you get armchair critics like me being nitpicking sons – of – bitches.
I love looking through indie projects like this because you find some of the coolest and simultaneously stupidest shit in here. The soundtrack to this game is fucked in the best possible way, and I’m glad to see it in its entirety packaged here (a quirk shared by many engines, such as Game Maker and Build). I don’t often talk about game soundtracks because they’re so easy to overlook, but the data here points us to some topics of interest. The tag data for “James Matland” has its real name as “Swing Metal (Name possibly going to be changed)”. You have unused music called “V – tanOld” with the tagged name “/v/'s Theme (From the first failed attempt at Teagan's Quest)” — an allusion to a project we shall never see?
You got a song called “The”. Just “The”, though it was supposed to be called “Bottom of the Heart”. You got the blatant mixing between sound effects, music, and background loops, with so many duplicates of sounds between their four different folders, and even duplicate sounds (with the same names!) within folders. Why is there a “me” folder? Why is the Game Over theme repeated three times? Why is there a sound effect called “Computer.ogg”? There isn’t a computer in this entire game’s universe! Like, I just love this amateur – hour shit. You never see this type of authentic humanity in the mainstream.
I find that, more than anything, you can see more insights into a game’s development process and philosophy just by looking at the files on your machine than you can analysing a game for ten thousand words. How many unused files are there? How well are the sound and image files compressed? Can you understand what every file does just by glancing at its name? Does the game need to be installed, or does it run portably? Does the game use a well – established engine, or does it roll its own? Is it proprietary shitware, or does it respect your fundamental right to freedom? How much cruft does the engine itself produce, and how much of it is packed away in binary blobs? Is the software itself sanely named and version – controlled? How many easter eggs and snarky comments can you find? And, most of all, does this shit make sense?
Does the game reward you, even outside of its virtual environment, by making it worth you while to take the extra time and effort to look at the fundamental way that its code and assets — its fundamental tenets of its existence — is structured, and does the developer care enough about the player to make the exploration of the game’s skeleton just as entertaining as the game itself? The ability of the developer to make their work understandable to anyone with even a cursory understanding of programming and game design is a reflection of not only who they are as a programmer, but who they are as a person. To be able to make someone look at not just their game, but the way their game exists, and to have them think, “Damn. I wish I could make work like that”, is a sign of a truly great person indeed.
I have derived special insights from Die Totenmaske from the leftovers of its development. According to a title screen drafted in GIMP, the game was originally called “Spirit Blues”. Cool, in that Cowboy Bebop sort of way, but I think Die Totenmaske is more accurate to its cryptic (read: nonsensical) nature. According to the “sv_enemies” folder, I believe there’s at least eight enemies I didn’t even see, including what looks to be two unused bosses — and did I mention how horrifying the Harlequin Baby enemy is? Also, don’t search up “Harlequin Baby” unless you wish to be disturbed and have it greet you in your sleepy thoughts forever. The Wikipedia article has one of the tamest pictures out there, and it’s still a disgusting son – of – a – bitch. It’s like an earth golem covered in blood and begging to die with its inside – out face.
But the most special insight of them all is, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the “icons” folder. Specifically, the single, unchanged default icon from the default RPG Maker template. Through all my exploration, I have found that this game had gone through many revisions, its assets were prototyped from many different packs, its developers were ragged and inexperienced with working together on a single project, there was nobody around to fix the glaring organisational issues, and that even after the game jam this title was developed for, nobody bothered to clean the crap along the way.
To see that the developers, even after the jam was over, failed to fix something as obvious as having the default, pretty – painterly high fantasy engine icon for a game that lives and dies on how it looks? There’s much that goes wrong in game development. There’s engine fuckery, there’s bad teammates, and then there’s just plain badness. And for not one of this team’s six members, including three artists, to have noticed this error and to fix it for the 1.1 post – release update as I’ve played today? I can forgive amateur, unskilled work, but there’s just no excuse for ignorance and incompetence.
To conclude this conclusion, I wanted to like Die Totenmaske a lot more than I did. But I cannot lie to myself and say that I did when I didn’t. It’s not awful, it’s not irredeemable, and it’s not something I regret having spent my time on. But there is much wrong with it, despite all its charms, and as a result of which, I see it as I see so many other games: potential, little more, and with so much that could have gone so very right indeed.