In our current gaming discussion, questions about the value of “interactivity” seem to have taken a backseat. With Virtual Reality becoming an affordable and – mostly – reliable technology, the “headset and controllers” combination seem to be the end-all for interactive experiences. Not unlike the future imagined by writers and directors in the 80s and 90s, celebrated in movies like The Lawnmower Man, along with several games of the time that featured at least a hint of VR.
Still, even back in the 90s during the VR craze, few titles dared to go beyond the tried and tested “screen and controllers” combination. Very few designers realized how a computer software could be combined with real life interactivity, beyond providing the player with a Nintendo hotline phone number. The Iron Mask was among these few multimedia products that dared to imagine something beyond our computers: a point’n’click adventure where the player could call numbers to talk to real people to get hints, check out some specially developed websites, along with TV and radio ads to better understand what was going on in the plot.
Perhaps, an experienced game designer wasn’t the right person to imagine a different way to interact with a videogame?
I’ve reached out to the people who worked on The Iron Mask to find out how the idea came about and what happened.
The man behind the idea: Ottavio di Chio
When I get on the phone with writer Ottavio di Chio and mention his work on The Iron Mask, he sounds honestly surprised. Apparently, no one has asked him about the game in several years. Right away, he clarifies he’s never really been interested in videogames. Ottavio was, instead, always fascinated by what he defines as “deconstruction of a novel”: writing something that breaches the boundaries of the medium upon which the story is written.
In the mid 90s, Ottavio works with director Maurizio Nichetti (a man that seems to pop up a lot on this blog!) on the interactive CD-Rom made for Stefano Quante Storie, a movie where the main character lived through several different stories. The multimedia product showed several alternative narratives seen from the eyes of the different characters in the movie. An interactive idea not unlike that of a visual novel or, perhaps more appropriately, an adventure game. It is then that Ottavio begins toying with the idea of creating what he refers to as “the first omnichannel videogame”.
Omnichannel is a portmanteau to describe the juxtaposition of offline and online channels to offer a unified customer experience. The idea of combining the two channels can be traced back to the first mail order catalogs, but the first use of the word is when Best Buy used “assembled commerce” to assist the customer online, in real life and also post-sale.
Ottavio mentions the idea of combining real and digital interactivity to Guido Bovolenta, at the time CEO of Medialab, a company specialized in multimedia products aimed at young teenagers. Scrapping the idea of using 3D graphics, deemed too expensive, they settle on developing a 2D adventure. “This was back in 1997, the videogame market was already extremely competitive, we couldn’t directly challenge the big players.” recalls Bovolenta.
While working on the first draft of the screenplay, Ottavio and Guido looked up several point’n’click adventures, ending up particularly fascinated by Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, the main inspiration for how The Iron Mask should have looked and played. Ottavio recalls his impressions after playing: “I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing. I wasn’t fond of the idea of interacting strictly in a passive manner, I felt there was something more we could offer the player than just staring at the screen all the time.”
Thus, the idea to bring to teenagers – the intended target audience for The Iron Mask – a narrative experience that would carry the feeling of playing a videogame in real life, in order to provide something more than just clicking away the hours. “The spark” continues Guido “actually came from watching the movie The Game (directed by David Fincher -ed’s note) where Micheal Douglas goes through all sorts of ordeals and surprises. We wanted the same kind of experience for the player.”
Guido and Ottavio decided to recruit several artists, while the rest of the Medialab team would hande the programming and soundtrack. Mauro Perini was the one in charge of character animation and overall artistic direction of the game, with Maurizio Galia designing the backgrounds.
Perini had never tackled such a huge project, let alone in a position of art director. He had graduated only three years prior and recalls moving to Novara, near Medialab’s offices, in order to closely follow the project. “These were exciting times. I basically did little else than work all day since I was new in the city, but the atmosphere was pleasant and everyone at Medialab did their best to make me feel at home. So I doubled down on the work, sometimes I was the one that actually closed the offices in the evening!”.
But – I ask Mauro – was he a gamer?
“No, I had never owned a console and also never worked on digital graphics before!”
He recalls going about the project by mixing traditional drawing techniques with digital composition: “I scanned in all my handmade drawings, after coloring them and animated them using Free Hand, which I learned how to use from scratch. With the program I would animate and color in each character, along with making the transitions between each scene. As for inspiration from actual videogames, well, I did try to make the character art a bit like The Secret of Monkey Island… not sure I succeded though!”
Maurizio Galia, who designed the backgrounds, is, instead, a traditional visual artist that Ottavio got in touch with through the Turin art scene. He recalls: “Work started in spring of 1997, I remember falling in love immediately with the idea of drawing real places in Paris“. Maurizio naturally drew inspiration from real life, but also from art noveau and Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi for some of the prison scenes in the game.
“I tried to be as faithful to the real beauty of Paris as I could be” continues Maurizio, who also mentions his work on the backgrounds of The Iron Mask as one of the happiest memories of his work experience. “It was a well paid job, that went on for quite a long time too. At the end I also had to help Mauro because he had too much work and there was no way he could manage to finish everything by himself. I also tried to re-imagine the St.Paul/Saint Louis cemetery, for the introduction video, which has been destroyed a long time ago.”
The story in The Iron Mask sees young pickpocketer Efrem, just out of prison, being immediately hunted down by gangsters who seem determined on gunning him down at all costs. Apparently, the young man knows more than he seems to remember; while in prison, he has happened upon the face of “The Iron Mask” himself. Indeed, the story recounted by Alexandre Dumas is repeating itself three hundred years later: Efrem needs all the help he can get – from his former love interest Anne Marie and the old and wise professor Durer – to solve the mystery and escape the clutches of the “evil satanic DJ” Madaski.
His first task? Well, actually getting out of prison: using his release order, he’ll have to call up a phone number and get the code to – finally – taste freedom again. This is where the first bit of real life interactivity comes in: the player is supposed to take the paper out of the game box and actually call up a number to start playing! Basically, a copy protection scheme 2.0.
Cellphones, radio and TV: marketing for The Iron Mask
In 1997 work began, slowly but steadily, with weekly meetings held at Medialab’s offices with Maurizio, Ottavio and Guido. The writer would read the script, while Perini drew storyboards for each scene, that, in turn, Galia would use as inspiration for the backgrounds. Mauro and Maurizio tell me they were never really involved with the marketing ideas behind the title itself, with that whole side of the project being handled by Guido Bovolenta and Ottavio Di Chio.
Back then, a software house would first get in touch with some gaming magazine, like The Games Machine or Consolemania, in order to promote the title or get an interview. That is, if their publisher hadn’t already done so. Medialab did nothing of the sort, instead Ottavio and Guido Bovolenta went through television first.
First, they went to talk with people at Mediaset, Silvio Berlusconi’s television network. “The original idea thrown around in these meetings – recalls Ottavio – was to shoot a live program, featuring actors playing different characters from the game. But that was quickly deemed too expensive and difficult to do.” It is through Mediaset that they get in contact with mobile networking company TIM with the marketing department agreeing to support the player by delivering clues via SMS. After Ottavio recruited Madaski, DJ and electronic artist (also of Africa Unite), to be featured in the game, MTV Italy also immediately got interested in the project.
Madaski was Ottavio’s idea – recalls Guido Bovolenta – he liked electronica and made contacts with the artist. He recalls that the problem in featuring an actual person that would star as the “evil guy”, meant that it wasn’t possible to imagine the story concluding with DJ Madaski’s utter defeat, or worse, death.
Getting in touch with Madaski, he recalls his initial involvement was only about featuring a couple of his songs but, while talking with Ottavio, it became something more. “The project also ended up involving my image as an artist. I always did take great care in my looks: dreadlocks, fur (syntethic!), leather and boots. At the time I defined myself as a technocowboy and yes, I definitely looked the part of an evil guy. But, really, I am not, it’s just that I like to see and say things as they are which, as one might guess, is not something that everyone agrees with.”
Hence, the evil guy role made sense for him but, I have to ask, was he a gamer? “Oh not at all, I wasn’t and, truthfully, I still am not interested in gaming. I also never got involved in a multimedia project again, actually. After my short stint as a solo artist, I got back together with Bunna and we continued with our Africa Unite project which was taking off.”
This is the video that was shot and made for Madaski’ single “Share all my Pride”, featured in The Iron Mask.
Madaski - Share All My Pride ft. Raiss and Stena
With TIM handling production of the ADs and MTV broadcasting them, Medialab and the sponsors finally come to an agreement: they would shoot a series of short (8 seconds) ADs that would contain hints for the players, to be broadcasted every day at 7 in the evening, for a few months. Unfortunately, none of these ADs seem to be – at the moment – easy to track down, since MTV Italy has lost the entire archive from that era.
Along with TV, Medialab worked to blur the lines between videogame and reality by making sponsorship agreements with Radio Italia Network: they would broadcast short radio segements involving the story, along with casting an actress that would play the role of Anne Marie in real life. She would answer the real telephone number, provided at the start of the game, and, then, go through a script with the players. Anne Marie also gave Efrem a mail address that, also, the players could use to ask for clues and directions.
The sponsorship with Tim and Radio Italia Network – despite being a big selling point – feels tacked-on in the gameplay experience. Both brands pop-up as interactive icons in certain parts of the game: two DJs from Radio Italia Network appeared in short video sequences that interrupt the gameplay, giving cryptic hints and directions. Expecting Efrem to be wearing a portable radio of some kind would have – perhaps – made more sense, while still making the player feel part of the world. Also, while Madaski appears as the evil guy but he doesn’t seem to have any dialogue, along with not even meeting up with the main character.
These baroque marketing ploys did nothing to speed up a development that was going pretty slowly, ending up taking a whole two years. Perini had also left by 1998, having found a better work offer in Ubisoft, where he still works. He recalls “It was exciting to see my drawings come to life in the game, with voice acting and music, so I decided to pursue a job in the videogame industry. The experience with The Iron Mask gave me an edge over other applicants. I was already accustomed at working in digital art which, by 1998, wasn’t really a given. Ottavio was also kind enough to support my decision to pursue work in the industry.”
Despite all of these forward thinking features, Medialab managed to successfully ship The Iron Mask on a small budget that, in today’s money, would be around 200k euros. Bovolenta recalls that – thankfully – they made use of the EU MEDIA fund, which amounted roughly for half the budget: that was essential in seeing the title through to the end. Still, with such a limited budget, maintaining the real-life interactivity beyond a few months wasn’t going to be sustainable.
This – recalls Ottavio – was a big problem when The Iron Mask started hitting the stores in September of 1999. “It was almost Christmas” – recalls Ottavio – “by the 31st of March all the interactive services would be discontinued. The retailers argued that it took at least two months to sell a new product, hence only three months left to actually complete the game with the online services”. But that wasn’t all.
The two years in development seem to have also taken their toll on the overall pacing: the narrative mostly evolves through long conversations between the main characters, only to suddenly come to a grinding halt with a rushed ending that serves to set up a sequel in Prague that, naturally, never came to fruition. Ottavio mentions that “the ending was written while we were programming the actual scene, we ran long with the development and had to finish quickly in order to ship it before the end of the year“. Technically The Iron Mask also failed to stand out: by 1999 Lucasarts’ 3D adventure Grim Fandango was already old news, 2D hand drawn graphics which relied on Macromedia Director 7 had fallen out of the public’s favour.
Its weird gameplay hybrid between point’n’click and edutainment, playing like a visual novel with some limited arcade sequences, also didn’t do it any favours. In 1999 market for PC games in Italy still didn’t include these “alternative” multimedia products, Bovolenta recalls they all ended up in a melting pot generally defined as “reference”. Gaming magazines of the time also seemed to ignore it, while some national newspapers did pick up on the potential of the marketing and strength of the idea, but it was a short lived interest.
With a retail price of 48€ in today’s currency, slightly less than an average PC game of the time, the original box for the game also included a medallion that the players were supposed to be wearing in order to recognize each other, while walking around. In the end, The Iron Mask sold probably less than 5000 copies, it is nowadays little more than a curiosity for collectors.
While interviewing all the people involved in the development of The Iron Mask, something quickly became apparent: none of the producers or artists had ever worked on a videogame before, nor were even gamers to begin with. Granted, it is not required to have experience in the field to develop an engaging interactive experience, but in the late 90s and, especially, in Italy getting into videogame development was definitely not as easily accessible as it might be nowadays.
This peculiar coincidence might be the key in explaining why The Iron Mask, as an experience, feels disconnected from the rest of the graphical adventure market, while at the same time, feeling inherently 90s. Playing it today is akin to opening a time capsule: old Nokia-like cellphones to receive messages on, sudden appeareances of DJs that were supposed to be familiar to teenagers at the time, references to MTV Italy as a kind of “underground cult”. While it may be a hard sell for the general public – along with being dubbed in Italian with no subtitles – it is still one of the most unique experiences to come out of Italy’s multimedia products in the late 90s. The “omnichannel” experience was also rarely repeated in the years to come, with Missing/In Memoriam (2002) being one of the few examples of an adventure which made use of specially made websites and e-mail.
The Iron Mask seems to be the product of a special time in the Belpaese, during the 90s, when the country briefly fell in love with hacker culture and cyberpunk. The movie Nirvana by Gabriele Salvatores, among others like Viol@ that explored sexual relations in chat rooms, represented a turning point in the overall narrative of the late 90s Italian internet culture. Despite all that public interest about alternative interactive experiences, The Iron Mask barely made a dent in the public imagination and remains all but forgotten nowadays.
“It was probably developed too early, maybe, even five years later, the public would have received it quite differently.” comments Ottavio. “Nowadays I work in designing narratives for chains of hotels and stores.”, in a way, it feels that the Iron Mask’s experience is as relevant to his work as it was back in 1999. “Everything in our life is omnichannel now, there is definitely a lot more narrative than action involved.” the writer concludes.
Concluding my phone call with Mauro Perini, it is interesting to see how such a small forgotten adventure game managed to kickstart the career of an experienced artist like him, who in Ubisoft went on to work for titles like Beyond Good and Evil and the Splinter Cell series, among others, When I ask Mauro if we can, in a way, owe Mario + Rabbids’ (where he was Art director) success to his first experience with The Iron Mask, he smiles and says “I think we can!”.