Object Oriented #04: Masks
Object Oriented can only continue with your support. To help make this series and the other work I am doing at getObject viable, please consider making a one-off donation via Ko-fi, or signing up to support me on Patreon.
Games mentioned: Among Us (Innersloth, 2018), Apex Legends (Respawn Entertainment, 2019), Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000), Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012), Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games, 2012), Lord of the Rings Online (Turbine, 2007), Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998), Mortal Kombat series (1992 onwards), Payday 2 (Overkill Software, 2013), Persona 4 (Atlus, 2008), Persona 4 Golden (Atlus, 2012) Persona 5 (P-Studio, 2016), The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (Nintendo, 2000), World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
It's true that masks have played an unusually large part in our lives over the last couple of years, but that doesn't mean that they haven't always been important to our societies and cultures. As well as being used as a means for protection throughout human history for medical, military and environmental uses, they're used in religious rituals, in theatre, entertainment, folk customs, carnivals, and fittingly for this month, Halloween.
In tackling masks in videogames, we're going to leave their protective function to one side. We've already talked about clothing as a form of protection in the last Object Oriented and the only examples that pop into my head of masks as protection are walking through poison gas with a gas-mask in Deus Ex and...walking through poison gas with a gas-mask again as Caustic in Apex Legends. I don't think this is all that interesting.
Let us begin instead with the mask as a means of hiding identity. In a sense, this is also something that we talked about in the previous Object Oriented on clothes in the form of disguise. However, the way that masks hide your identity is completely different. To wear 'a disguise' is to be invisible. No one is supposed to know that you are wearing it -- that would quite obviously defeat the purpose. The mask disguises your identity, but it is not invisible. Everyone can see that you are concealing something. It draws your attention instead of averting it, but to what, exactly, we can't quite be sure.
The mask wearer acquires a special aura through this sense of mystery. Who is the enigmatic ninja that plays with Snake in Metal Gear Solid and somehow knows more about us than we do about him? We cannot help but want to know what that mask is concealing. Even games that are far more shallow in terms of their characters and story can mine the power of the mask to add, if not a mystery that you want to uncover, then an aura of cool that the element of the unknown seems to bestow. Sub-Zero and Scorpion quickly became some of Mortal Kombat's most iconic characters (which probably explains why so many characters from the series are fond of wearing masks), I would argue, partly for that reason.
Becoming The Mask
The mask is often emblematic of a person becoming more than themselves. In a recent interview, masked Lucha Libre wrestler Pentagon El Zero M talked precisely about this power when answering a question about whether he ever gets nervous performing dangerous moves. He said, "when I put on my mask, I become someone completely different. I become a superhero, I don't feel pain." Just as his mask allows a performer like him to take on a different persona, a ritual mask might allow a person to take on the aspect of a spirit, or a theatrical mask help you to become another person or being. The videogame mask often functions in similar ways, serving to symbolise a character embodying a principle, or becoming a force. When Corvo dons his assassin's mask in Dishonored, he becomes a killer, a notorious symbol of fear for the elite he hunts, an embodiment of vengeance and justice. Hotline Miami's Jacket loses his personhood whenever he pulls on one of his selection of animal masks to head out on brutal murder sprees. He is a hurricane of violence unleashed by powers he doesn't know, for reasons he doesn't understand. His masks strip him of human qualities and transform him into a dangerous and terrifying tool.
It is perhaps unsurprising, that in a medium where violence still remains so prevalent, masks are often a harbinger of violence. Our characters wear masks because, to return to the Dishonored example, they are going to kill someone, or in the case of Payday 2, undertake a robbery. They are something to fear. In the real world, masks are a prism of possibility, their ability to shroud us in mystery, or help us become something else, offer a potential for play that is underrepresented in games. Dishonored's masquerade party, where you attend a masked ball and must use clues gathered from snippets of conversation or pilfered documents to work out who is who gives us a little glimpse of this, but we're still ultimately trying to identify a target.
Having said that, if we broaden our conception of what we consider to be a mask in games (you've already cottoned on that I like to do this if you've read previous entries in the series), we can find lots of examples of more varied and playful uses of masks. Do online avatars not function as a kind of mask? They allow us to hide our identities and become something else. This might mean roleplaying as a musician in Lord of the Rings Online, or experimenting with gender expression in World of Warcraft. The idea of masking, of hiding who you are and what your intentions are for the purpose of play, is the essence of lockdown hit, Among Us.
The Psychology Of The Persona
I'd like to zero in on one series that I feel uses masks in a particularly interesting way. Masks feature heavily, if not always literally, than figuratively, in the Persona series. The Persona series is a collection of JRPGs where the party of characters you control gain the special ability to summon the power of their "persona" to assist them in combat. In Persona 5, a mask appears on each character when they first unleash this latent potential. Though that mask doesn't appear literally in earlier games, personas are nonetheless described as a mask that gives the protagonists the power to face adversity.
The philosophical underpinning for this idea is explicitly taken from the work of Freud's one time protege, Carl Jung (Persona 4 Golden even features a mode where you can sit in a classroom and be treated to a series of lectures on Jung's thought). Jung's says that the persona is a "kind of mask" used to confront society and its expectations -- most of us will be conscious of presenting a version of ourselves that doesn't entirely reflect who we feel we actually are to others in certain contexts and to varying degrees.(i)
The way the games represent the persona and the way Jung describes it don't match up one to one. In the games, personas are a positive source of power to be embraced. While Jung sees the persona as having a protective function, he says that overidentification with the persona is dangerous: "a man cannot get rid of himself in favour of an artificial personality without punishment".(ii) I don't think the Persona series is so much an incorrect representation of this idea, as an inverted way of communicating the same principle. The appearance of a persona in the games is a symbolic moment where a character rejects the role they have been cast in and the image they present to the world to meet its expectations, embracing their true selves. In Persona 5, for example, Makoto suppresses her ethical and moral instincts to behave as she is expected by authority figures, partly in an attempt to fulfill the standards her older sister has set by becoming a success. When she makes the decision to live by her principles and stop blindly following authority, this is the moment her persona awakens. Both Jung and Persona use the idea of the mask to talk about a false image that we present to society and the process of reconciliation with the true personality hidden behind it.
Persona is intimately concerned with what happens with when we become too concerned with protecting the mask (this is going to get confusing now but I'm not talking about the literal mask, I'm talking about the mask that is the fake version of ourselves we project outwards). We see this in the form of "shadows", the enemies that you fight in the persona games, born of negative human emotions. The shadows that serve as bosses are a kind of evil doppelganger for characters we encounter in the world (sometimes including members of your own party) that embody a character's worst aspects, or aspects that they wish to hide from the world. They almost precisely follow Jung's formulation of the shadow, that is, "the 'negative' side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide".
Jung makes clear that refusing to acknowledge the shadow can be very dangerous for the psyche. He tells us that the less the shadow "is embodied in the individuals conscious life, the blacker and denser it is". We see this in Persona 4, where each of your allies comes into contact with a shadow version of themselves that they initially refuse to acknowledge. Kanji represses his interest in hobbies traditional considered to be feminine to protect his masculine self-image, finding himself confronting an effeminate shadow that questions his sexuality, while Chie represses her jealously of her popular friend Yukiko, creating a shadow that mocks her inferiority. Their denials to accept these aspects as part of themselves grant their shadows power, making them a threat that must be defeated, and ultimately, acknowledged as part of a process of personal growth, unlocking the power of the persona. This is precisely the process that Jung advocates, whereby "the shadow can to some extent be assimilated into the conscious personality" as part of a process of psychological development.
Persona's use of the mask to explore the ideas of a relatively obscure figure like Carl Jung in the context of coming-of-age teenage high-school drama and apocalyptic scenarios is fascinatingly unusual and the kind of thing I'd love to see more often in pop-culture. They way the mask is employed to delve into ideas around identity, societal expectations, cultural norms and so on can often be surprisingly sophisticated (it's worth saying the series can often be boneheadedly stupid too) for a piece of pop-culture psychology. These stories about school kids finding themselves, hiding behind masks and struggling with external exceptions, I suspect, tend to resonate well with young people dealing with precisely these issues. But I'm old, so what do I know.
I'm sorry for not mentioning Majora's Mask. I don't like Zelda games.
i: Jung, Carl, "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconcious", Two Essays, CW7, par 305
ii: Jung, Carl, "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconcious", Two Essays, CW7, par 307
iii. Jung, Carl, "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconcious", Two Essays, CW7, par 103n