I’ve been thinking a lot about Majora’s Mask recently, and as usual the best way for me to get something out of my head is to blog about it. I suspect this is going to turn into one of those awkward, poorly-disguised confessionals that says more about inside of my head than to anything in the actual game, but at least I’ve warned you up-front about that, so let’s proceed.
I’m going to start into it with Maya, I think, once she I are done with Windwaker (HD remake coming soon!). But mostly I’ve been thinking about it in terms of its thematic structure, story arc and use of space in its various environments; it resonates with me as a sysadmin and a parent, so let me tell you about it.
For my money Majora’s Mask is one of the darkest and most fascinating video games ever made, rewarding a great deal of introspection and careful deconstruction. It’s far and away the darkest Zelda game, if it actually counts as one, and perhaps one of the most darkly introspective games ever made. Certainly one the most underrated; you get to be a epic hero in lots of games, sometimes you even play an antihero in games that are trying way too hard to be “dark” and “gritty”, but I can’t think of another game where your role is to be the hero of an anti-epic.
It’s hard to say exactly what I mean by that, but bear with me.
Uniquely of any quest-RPGs I know, the game runs on a pauseless three day cycle. The inexorable passage of time is a core element of the gameplay, and unless you can figure out what to do in 72 hours a demonically-possessed moon is going to crash into Clocktown, the doomed city at the center of Termina. And while you can reset the clock you also reset virtually all of your progress, restarting without much more than what you’ve learned from the last time.
As game mechanics go, it’s surprisingly intense.
But every facet of Majora’s Mask – gameplay, narrative arcs, hidden secrets and overarching themes, all of it – is The Ocarina Of Time seen through a dark mirror. The anchors of the traditional Legend Of Zelda narrative, the Princess, Ganon and the Triforce, don’t even put in an appearance; the primary antagonist of Majora’s Mask is an angry Skull Kid, a minor character you crossed briefly in Ocarina. Lashing out from a sense of abandonment, the Skull Kid is enabled by a powerful artefact he’s stolen but doesn’t understand; this isn’t a powerful arch-villain with designs for world domination, it’s a child who’s found a gun.
And you’re not the Hero Of Time, on a quest to rescue the princess and cast down the evil facing the land. In fact, you’re not a hero at all; you spend the entire game hidden behind the masks of the people you’re trying to help. Nobody knows who you are or why you’re important, and even when you’ve managed to help them, well, next time you reset that clock they won’t remember you at all.
And their problems you have to set out to solve aren’t huge, world-rescuing problems. They’re by and large just messed-up relationships; people with bad communication, bad timing or bad luck. The broken-down relationship between the Skull Kid and the Giants – pillars of the world in Termina, where Hyrule’s three Goddesses are notably absent – is the big one driving the game’s central crisis, but all the core quests follows the same broad motif. There’s some screwed up family situation, generally with a lost or absent mother-figure, that Link has to put right. And he has to do it not by being an epic hero himself, but by wearing the death-mask of the real hero who should be there, but for whatever reason is not.
Virtually all the side quests are like that too; very few monsters or fetchquests, almost all about you needing to show up in the right place at the right time and talk to somebody and be the person that small moment needed. Unlike Ocarina’s Hyrule where everything revolves around you, you quickly get the sense that nothing in Termina does. You just happen to the only person there with the power to set things right. In Hyrule, people will remember you as a legend; in Termina nobody will ever really even realize you were there.
Day to day events aren’t driven by your arrival either – very much like real life, you have to figure out where you need to be and show up on time or the day just moves on. And the ending reflects that – no music, no fanfare, you’re told you’re done and should go away now and you do, to no more reward than a single whispered “Thank you…” you don’t even hear. Everyone else in Clocktown goes on to see the fourth day, celebrating the town’s festival without you.
In fact, that’s Majora’s Mask in a nutshell. Why did you do any of that? There’s none of the epic heroism forced on you by the world in Ocarina here, only the obligations of a duty you’ve imposed on yourself. You spend a lot of time just wandering around, talking to people and trying to figure out how things work and where you need to be, just so you can show up on time and do what needs doing. Not for any fanfare or reward or even thanks, but because you can help, and you’re the only person who can.
And the fundamentally tragic nature of this isn’t really driven home until later in the series: in Ocarina we’re told that a creature called a Stalfos is the skeleton of a traveler who loses their way in the Kokiri’s Lost Woods, the same woods that Link returns to at the end of Majora’s Mask. The game opens with Link on a personal quest to find his friend Navi, lost at the end of Ocarina; it’s not immediately apparent until you’ve put those things together, but the Hero’s Spirit from Twilight Princess – the armored Stalfos who teaches the Hero of Twilight how to fight – is the remains of the now-lost Hero Of Time, who never finds his friend.
I can’t think of any other game like it. I can’t think of a game that’s even tried, really; you can make a decent argument that other games have been extremely Zelda-like vis-a-vis the more traditional Zelda structure – Arkham City comes to mind, though there are others – I can’t think of another pseudo-epic built around small, human misunderstandings. I’d love to see it redone here in our glorious high-definition modernity; this incredible fan-made footage (Made by Pablo Belmonte) gives you an idea of what it could look like:
I’ve always preferred my heroism untainted by the heroic, if that makes any sense. The next Zelda, on the WiiU, is reportedly going to be reconsidering many of the tropes of the Zelda series to build an entirely new kind of Zelda.