7 min read

Building Beyond: Mask On, Mask Off

“A mask tells us more than a face.” - Oscar Wilde

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

Over the course of every person's life, they grow a mask.

Greg Kasavin is writer and creative director at Supergiant Games, the small independent studio behind the smash-hit video game 'Hades', recipient of the Nebula Award for Game Writing and the BAFTA Games Award for Best Narrative, as well as more than 50 Game of the Year Awards. Kasavin also wrote Supergiant's three prior titles, Pyre, Transistor, and Bastion. He has a Bachelor's degree in English from U.C. Berkeley and lives in Marin County, CA. He's @kasavin on Twitter.

Think this is just a mask? I used to think so, too. Until I tried to take mine off. I had to know if I was any different underneath. Well, look at me now.

Look around. This is exactly who we are. We think we have something to hide, but we don’t. Our souls are already laid bare. Our masks are extensions of ourselves that tell everybody everything, loud and clear; to what degree we're successful, generous, attractive, all that. We lie when we say we don't judge on the basis of our masks. What else are they for?

They always told me I had an ugly mask as a kid. “The hell did you come from,” they asked. “Just south of here,” I said. Enough of a lie that my mask thickened, hardened, but remained pliable. I noticed, and I shaped it, little by little, to look more like theirs. At some point, I fit in. They stopped paying me any mind. That’s how it went on.

I grew comfortable. My mask's chin could have been more prominent. Its cheekbones higher. Its expression less severe. But it was close enough. I made fewer and fewer smaller and smaller adjustments. I couldn’t feel the thing firming up, but it was. By the time my mask had fully set, I'd stopped wanting to mould it further anyway. The lie was complete.

Others haven’t been so lucky. Maybe they believed the lie for too long. Didn’t pay close enough attention to what was going on. They let their masks grow in, all-natural. By the time they realized they’d been played, it was too late. It’s hard to blame them. Everyone told them they were perfect just the way they were. That it’s what’s inside that counts.

Our masks are there from birth. A membrane contoured to our faces. Invisible but there. It works out OK, because the wrinkled squashed-grape head of the newborn offers little evidence as to how we will be later in life. We all have such great potential, right? But so, too, begins the lie. What a precious child, everyone says! When we’re hideous. Our masks grow in probably just so we don’t scare each other to death, looking like that. Or maybe they’re for our own protection.

I think our masks are made of pure, calcified lies. The bigger, more ornate ones? Nothing to do with age. The most beautifully chiseled ones? Everything to do with money. I’m not saying we don’t need these things. They’re more than a tradition. They’re our lifeline. None of us would last long if we were true to each other all the time. I’m just saying that these things are now a part of us. It’s not a mask if you can’t take it off.

Our masks used to come off, once in a while. In an intimate moment between friends or lovers. In the comfort of close family. In an emotional outburst at work. In an enraged plea for change. I’ve read about those times. I believe they happened. Though, I’m not sure those were masks as we know them. A lot has changed since then, and we are not the same.

I always wore my mask like everyone else. “Should we maybe try taking them off,” my partner once asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m more comfortable this way”.

“Same,” my partner replied. And that was that. We think about removing them sometimes, but we wouldn't dare.

Years passed. Every day, I’d look in the mirror and see the same face. I was reliable. Just as I was meant to be.

I never did forget the ugly mask I had as a kid. It was me. I grew to miss it terribly. But when I tried to reshape my mask to be more like how I remembered, it wouldn’t budge. I'd changed. I could have been anything, but this was all I could come up with. When I had the chance to be whomever I wanted, I became the same as everybody else.

My work and relationships were stable. There was nothing explicitly wrong in my life. But it didn’t matter. There came a point where I could no longer accept myself, disgust filling me whenever I looked in the mirror. So one day I took hold of my mask, felt for the bindings, and pulled, and pulled, and pulled.

What do you suppose my partner did? My employer?

You’re doing the right thing. I have no objections. But let’s not kid ourselves. These aren’t masks. We don’t pass them to our children when we die. They die with us. Even if they’re harder to burn, like teeth.

Imagine, having a face full of teeth.

We lie to ourselves all the time through our masks. Yet the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we can take these things off whenever we really want. That we’re something else underneath, something more, something begging to be loved or understood. We're more vulnerable beneath our masks, sure. But that's like saying the heart is more vulnerable without the ribcage.

The truth is, in this world, we don’t love anyone for who they are on the inside. We’ll never know them, because they don’t exist.

Nome is a queer redneck currently residing in Denver, Colorado, who was never taught the skill of writing a bio. He has acquired a frankly frighteningly large platform on Twitter by yelling incoherently about animals, which he maintains by livetweeting his diagnosis of and daily issues with mental illness. He drinks more coffee than must strictly be healthy, and loves his feral rescue cat far more than she strictly deserves.

“I don’t even know why I’m here.”

The young man fidgeted in the chair, comfortable though it was. He didn’t make eye contact with the doctor, but she didn’t seem perturbed by that. She simply waited.

“I saw some things online. I… they resonated with me. But what if I’m just making this up - what if I’m just looking for an excuse to…” he trailed off.

“What was it that resonated with you,” she asked, her tone soft.

He steeled himself, looking at a point on the wall over her shoulder - a picture of her, younger, in medical school, with a trio of classmates studying.

“My mask fell off in gym class. In the locker room, sophomore year of high school. I didn’t even know it was possible, but everyone was just pointing at it on the floor, and-” a sudden sob cut him off.

“Listen, Eric - in my profession, disclosure is frowned upon, but may I show you something?”

He nodded, unsure, and watched as she raised her fingers to the sides of her face, and slid her nails below her cheekbones. With a squelching sound, like a boot being pulled from mud, the edges began to peel away, until she held her face in her hands, its perfect makeup slightly smeared by the removal.

She turned it over so he could see - strips of papier-mache, Mod Podge, thin wire reinforcements.

“They tell you, in school, that everyone will grow their mask. That it’s perfectly natural, it’s just part of growing up.” She snorted. “Eric, I’ve been in medicine for twenty-seven years. There’s not a single medical fact that’s true of ‘everyone.’”

Eric looked from the face in her hands to the uncovered face beneath it - the dark circles under her eyes a mirror of his own. As he watched, her face flashed through emotions - derision, sadness, embarrassment - that he could read. That she was clearly showing. That he didn’t have to guess at.

“Eric, not everyone grows a mask. Some of us have to make them. I bet you didn’t even realize you were making yours. I didn’t realize I had until my second year of residency when I suddenly wasn’t able to work on it anymore. I burned out, nearly dropped out of school.”

She ran her fingers around the edge of the face in her hands, feeling the smooth gradient where flesh transitioned to plaster. She’d almost lapsed into memory when his words drew her out.

“So you can fix me?”

“Eric…” she said, a sad smile on her face. “No. I can’t fix you. There’s nothing to fix. The way you are is just a way some people are. It’s not bad, or wrong. It just is.”

She gestured to the mask with one hand. “What I can do, though, is help you. Because the world wasn’t built for people like us. The people who made the systems we use never imagined someone like us existing. They certainly didn’t imagine valuing us.”

She raised the mask back up, feeling the edges seek out her skin. She pressed it down, sliding the air bubbles out from under it, in a motion he realized he recognized from the mirror each morning.

“It’ll be a whole thing, Eric. But it’s not one you have to do alone. We’ll get you started today if you’d like. Or, we can just talk. Whatever works for you.”

“... I think I’d like that, Doctor.”

Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Greg's masks are the foundation of a tale of people who become trapped by the identities they feel forced to pursue. Nome's Doctor and Patient are characters who can open a door into a gorgeous story about accommodation and care.

What are the masks in your world like? When do they come off?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.