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The Masque of the Black Death

This text star­ted grow­ing a few years ago. It grew large and lay dormant for a time. When the masks began to assert them­selves, it woke, and stirred. And now that the mask of the Plague is in sight again, this text is mutat­ing, grow­ing new limbs, a time hybrid. In this form, this unex­pec­ted strain, it is finally ready to face the world.

A world that allows pro­found fears of the Plague to rule it, while turn­ing a blind eye to its own slow massive burn­ing and drown­ing. A world where inev­it­ably the priv­ileged will ensconce them­selves in pock­ets of make-believe safety, con­tent for a while in the delu­sion that the forces that sweep through the rabble will pass by their door, because they have painted it with the blood of their lessers.

It might, it might not. The poor, the dis­en­fran­chised, the Other, are always hit hard­est in a crisis, and it is by design. But no one is truly safe. Retri­bu­tion wears many masks, because any will do. And ulti­mately, it leaves no house unvisited.

Masks are about iden­tity: in cul­tural and ritual con­texts, they are a way of assum­ing a dif­fer­ent per­sona, in a play­ful man­ner. Espe­cially in group set­tings such as theatre or a masked ball, both those who wear masks and those who don’t take part in the illu­sion that the masks replace the ori­ginal iden­tit­ies of their wear­ers. Play scholar Roger Cail­lois expresses it as follows:

[The mask-bearer] for­gets, dis­guises, or tem­por­ar­ily sheds his per­son­al­ity in order to feign another. I prefer to des­ig­nate these phe­nom­ena by the term mim­icry, the Eng­lish word for mimet­ism, not­ably of insects, so that the fun­da­mental, ele­ment­ary, and quasi-organic nature of the impulse that stim­u­lates it can be stressed. 

[Roger Cail­lois (1961), Man, Play, and Games, p. 19–20]

This usage of masks can be des­ig­nated as play­ful, because it relies on that shared illu­sion of feigned iden­tity. An audi­ence must be will­ing to pre­tend that masked and cos­tumed act­ors rep­res­ent a char­ac­ter, and guests at a bal masqué must be will­ing to uphold the mys­tique. In some cases, the guests will guess the iden­tity of some other guests, and some­times they will not, and this uncer­tainty is part of the appeal.

How­ever, a mask can also serve to just hide your own iden­tity, mak­ing your per­son unre­cog­nis­able to others:

It is only the spy and the fugit­ive who dis­guise them­selves to really deceive because they are not playing. 

[Cail­lois, p. 21]

To this the super­hero must be added, of course. While super­her­oes do in some sense play a role, they are ser­i­ous in their pur­suits: help­ing people, usu­ally by beat­ing up bad guys. Their masks pro­tect their every­day iden­tit­ies, and thereby the safety of the people close to them, who might oth­er­wise become the tar­get of evildoers.

The wear­ing of a mask (or face-cov­er­ing in a more gen­eral sense) can make one anonym­ous, though of course not neces­sar­ily incon­spicu­ous. Cov­er­ing your face in a cul­tural space not des­ig­nated for it makes one stand out all the more. In such cases, the face-cov­er­ing chal­lenges the social rule that every indi­vidual must be recog­nis­able and iden­ti­fi­able to onlook­ers in pub­lic spaces. Of course, such a rule depends on a whole set of cul­tural prac­tices, and there are many excep­tions to it through­out the world.

Finally, a mask may simply serve as a phys­ical bar­rier between one­self and the Plague.

Dis­honored is in many ways a game about masks, and about one in par­tic­u­lar: the prot­ag­on­ist Cor­vo’s mask. This mask is a pecu­liar one, in the sense that in the game, it does­n’t really hide an iden­tity; instead, it is its wear­er’s most import­ant iden­tity marker. The ‘old’ Corvo Attano was in many ways a dif­fer­ent man than the new Corvo, who sets out to avenge his lover Empress Jes­sa­mine, res­cue his daugh­ter prin­cess Emily, and put her on the throne of the city of Dunwall.

At the same time, it is ques­tion­able whether masked Corvo is adopt­ing a new iden­tity that is dif­fer­ent from his ‘true’ iden­tity. Rather, he trans­forms, from Lord Pro­tector to aven­ging spirit, the mask becom­ing his new face, one that hides the old one that was marked spir­itu­ally fol­low­ing Jes­sa­mine’s death.

The idea for what was to be Cor­vo’s mask came to inventor Piero Joplin in a dream, where he saw the loom­ing fig­ure of death star­ing at him. He cre­ated the skull-like mask, without yet know­ing who it would be for. Would its wearer become death itself? The implic­a­tions are inter­est­ing given the ways the game can play out. The bearer of the mask is cer­tainly given the power to be a bringer of death to many, but the game can also be com­pleted without killing any­one. The mask does not neces­sar­ily guide its bearer.

In series of tweets and fol­low-up art­icle in 2016, lit­er­ary scholar and games writer Hazel Mon­for­ton explains how Dis­honored, through the divine fig­ure of The Out­sider, provides Corvo with the powers to either heal the soci­ety of Dun­wall, or throw it deeper into chaos.

Build­ing on the the­or­ies of René Gir­ard, Mon­for­ton points out two import­ant prin­ciples that are at work in the story of the game. The first is the scape­goat prin­ciple; briefly sum­mar­ised, it holds that in a situ­ation of soci­etal crisis (e.g. dur­ing a plague), the scape­goat­ing and sac­ri­fice of a par­tic­u­lar fig­ure may trig­ger a move­ment towards the cure of soci­ety’s ills. While done partly (or mainly) for polit­ical reas­ons, both the assas­sin­a­tion of Empress Jes­sa­mine at the behest of Spy­mas­ter Hiram Bur­rows and the fram­ing of Corvo for this murder fall under this header, the pair together act­ing as a scape­goat for the plague of Dun­wall. To the people of the city, the murder of their beloved mon­arch may be seen as the cli­max of of their crisis, while the appre­hen­sion and exe­cu­tion of Corvo was sup­posed to be the first step towards cath­arsis and healing.

As Mon­for­ton explains, there is a more primal scape­goat­ing as well, namely that of The Out­sider him­self. He serves as an out­cast fig­ure, a focal point of magic’s power in the world, feared and opposed by organ­isa­tions such as the Abbey of the Every­man, who seek to expunge all traces of the occult, and blame everything that’s wrong in the empire on The Out­sider’s influ­ence. In his myth­ical ori­gins, The Out­sider was a boy infused with the powers of the Void in an abus­ive ritual. He was made into a power­ful being, but through no choice of his own. In the game’s present, The Out­sider offers some chosen oth­ers the choice he never had: power, the free­dom to use this power as they see fit, but also the free­dom to refuse it.

In short, The Out­sider gives Corvo the power to be cure, poison, or a mix of both to the afflic­ted city of Dun­wall and its people. Through his dia­logue, we get the sense that The Out­sider prefers people to use their powers for heal­ing and justice. How­ever, in my recent play­through I decided, from a par­tic­u­lar moment onward, to embrace the mask. I decided that Corvo was to become a bringer of ven­geance and death. And not just any death; it would have to be the Black one.

I don’t know whether I carry the Plague. I have exchanged flu­ids with people. Has it trav­elled to me? My blood is being pored over some­where, by someone. My doc­tor will inform me. In the mean time, the City is locked down, rel­at­ively speak­ing. All pub­lic evens are can­celled, the Cit­izens are dis­cour­aged from trav­el­ling. The grip of these changes on their minds seems pro­found. To those who were already con­fined to nurs­ing homes, psy­chi­at­ric wards, refugee camps, and pris­ons, the dif­fer­ence must be neg­li­gible. Except for the fact that the Plague is abroad, and they are forced to wait until it reaches them through whatever unfor­tu­nate vec­tor, or hope for evacuation.

We put masks on the Plague and pre­tend it’s a con­scious entity. We say it dis­crim­in­ates, or it does­n’t dis­crim­in­ate, depend­ing on the situ­ation. In the past, it appears as if it did, some­times. The Plague was some­thing that hit the sexual devi­ants, the gays, the people with unwanted col­ours. The chosen people were safe, for they did not traffic with the unclean. Except when they did, and thus became unclean. This is the law of the Plague. To teach when it is clean and when it is unclean.

This time around, it does­n’t appear to bother sep­ar­at­ing people into arbit­rary cat­egor­ies. The flu­ids the Plague inhab­its are cast copi­ously, by every­one, every­where. It strikes with less deadly force, as far as we can cur­rently tell, but its reach is far wider. The law breaks down, no mat­ter how hard the chosen people try to uphold it.

In the sixth mis­sion of Dis­honored, the masked ball at the Boyle estate is a place for­cibly sep­ar­ated from the rest of the city. Just over the walls of the estate, there are houses where plague vic­tims live out their last moments as aggress­ive Weep­ers, and all around are the signs of a city in decay. The bound­ary between the dis­ease-torn city and the estate is enforced by walls and guards. But also by the masks. The care­free aspect of hold­ing a party while sur­roun­ded by people in unspeak­able agony lends a sym­bolic layer to the sep­ar­a­tion. The party guests believe they truly are a dif­fer­ent class of people. 

Later in the game we are able to learn of that the spread of the plague itself was engin­eered by the Lord Regent (then Spy­mas­ter) Hiram Bur­rows to rid the city of the poor. Oh how they laugh.

The mask was the best sym­bol of superi­or­ity. In masked soci­et­ies, the key ques­tion is whether one is masked and inspires fear or is not masked and is there­fore afraid.

[Cail­lois, p. 105]

But the bar­rier is not impen­et­rable. It takes someone with the skills to pen­et­rate the guard bar­rier to force access to the estate. Someone with a mask of his own.

I hate how ugly and chimæric this text is becom­ing. I am ashamed of it. I am writ­ing through a mind fog, a con­sequence of drugs I forced myself to take after another trip to the edge of the Abyss and back. In the mean time, the world is in subtle early stages of mass hys­teria. At first I balked at the word, hys­teria, used so freely in memes and posts that try to inter­act with what is going on cur­rently. I have my own his­tory with the word, a reli­gious, philo­soph­ical, and emo­tional invest­ment in it. But it is partly right. It describes people act­ing out in unpre­dict­able and irra­tional ways in response to some kind of deep-seated fear or ker­nel of trauma that is hard to express dir­ectly. It forces itself out in ran­dom ‘sur­vival strategies’, heightened ten­sions, xeno­pho­bia, obsess­ive engage­ment with inform­a­tion and news, etc.

In myself too, things have been stir­ring. The fear of the Plague brings out my mor­bid­ity and Todestrieb, my rebel­lion in the face of calls for safety and respons­ib­il­ity, my desire to (cry-)laugh in the face of impend­ing doom, and my tend­en­cies to aes­thet­i­cise everything. I do not act upon it, because this side of me is tempered by oth­ers. But if there would be any indic­a­tion that the time for safety and pre­cau­tion is past, and that there is noth­ing more an indi­vidual can do to save lives, I’ll be on the front lines. I’ll put the fest in ad mortem fest­i­n­amus.

The con­ceit of Corvo show­ing up at the party wear­ing his own mask is a power­ful one. No one sus­pects that the ‘real’ Corvo—known to the aris­to­cracy as the Masked Felon—would be so dar­ing as to show up as him­self, ergo, it must be someone else with a wry sense of humour. Sure, let’s dress up as the infam­ous masked assas­sin that the nobil­ity is start­ing to fear. Or it may also be that the party­go­ers simply can’t con­ceive of any unwanted guest being able to break through the layered bar­rier they’ve set up that night.

Cor­vo’s, as said, does­n’t really func­tion as a mask in the tra­di­tional sense. How­ever, in the con­text of the Boyle estate, it does, since the people there can’t ima­gine it being any­thing else. It is this—and the pil­fer­ing of an invit­a­tion or other means of entry, of course—that allows him to attend the party without sus­pi­cion. He is hid­den in plain sight.

Cor­vo’s mask isn’t the only import­ant one at the party: the host­esses them­selves, Lady Boyle and her two sis­ters, have a little trick of their own. They all wear identical masks, but simply in dif­fer­ent col­ours (red, white, and black). They’ve made it into a game to have the guests guess­ing as to which sis­ter is which, and at least one of them plans to use this tem­por­ary blur­ring of iden­tit­ies for sexual license, accord­ing to her journal.

I’m sick to death. Not of the people who are doing what they can to pro­tect them­selves and their kin. Not even, really, of those who are indif­fer­ent to the threat of dis­ease and put them­selves and oth­ers at risk by going out. They are wrong, and irre­spons­ible, act­ing like swarm­ing rats. But I’m not that sick of them. I see in them part of me. I’m espe­cially not sick of those who risk their own health and safety to help oth­ers. Blessed be our masked healers.

I’m sick to death of the ones in power who tarry to take neces­sary meas­ures, who refuse to see that human lives are more than per­cent­ages of mor­tal­ity and stat­ist­ics, who put their pre­cious eph­em­eral ‘eco­nomy’ above those lives. Sick to death of those who herd the unwanted into camps and take no heed for their safety when the Plague rears its head. Sick to death of the ones who argue that a cull­ing of ‘the weak and the eld­erly’ would be good for us. I’m sick to death of you, and the Plague will come for you too. Soon. It only needs to find the right vector.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death”, the thou­sand-strong nobil­ity at a secluded masked ball are dis­turbed by an unex­pec­ted guest. The stranger, dressed and masked as a vic­tim of the Red Death, pen­et­rates the sev­enth of the ball’s mys­ter­i­ous cham­bers, finally bring­ing the plague raging in the land out­side into the heart of a cor­rupt rul­ing class that had sought to shield itself from it, to feast in dec­ad­ence while the people per­ished. The par­al­lels to this par­tic­u­lar epis­ode in Dis­honored are unmistakable.

In that spirit, dur­ing my play­through, I decided to bring the plague within the Boyle Estate’s guarded walls. Corvo is him­self of for­eign and lower class ori­gin. Who bet­ter to act as the vec­tor that would make the plague a true equaliser?

To Corvo the mask game of the Boyle sis­ters is of little con­sequence. While the goals of the mis­sion state that you should elim­in­ate Lady Boyle in par­tic­u­lar, it has no qualms at all about you killing all of them. In choos­ing to embody the rat plague, I never had to go to the trouble of find­ing out which sis­ter was which. Once I unleashed chaos on the party, and the sis­ters had locked them­selves in their rooms, I simply had Corvo visit each of them in turn, unleash­ing a devour­ing swarm of rats on them as they begged for a mercy they did­n’t deserve.

Hav­ing every­body devoured by rats is what the game con­siders “High Chaos”. The Out­sider isn’t par­tic­u­larly thrilled if you use his powers to push the city deeper into its own death, as is evid­enced by his tone when you fin­ish the game in High Chaos mode. All the same, it is a choice he allowed you to make, to be the cure for an ail­ing city, or the poison that puts it out of its misery.

Isn’t it a bit messed up that it does­n’t seem to mat­ter that many cit­izens of Dun­wall are already dead or dying, but Corvo unleash­ing the rats on a few nobles causes High Chaos? Here’s where the game’s rhet­oric breaks down, in my opinion.

High Chaos is already there, the whole time, because people are dying to the Plague. To have it reach those who think them­selves bet­ter would be mere justice.

There may not be enough masks to pro­tect our heal­ers, because those with the means and the auda­city to have been hoard­ing them.

The Plague laughs behind its mask, because it can wear any.