blarg?

January 20, 2019

Super Mario Telemachy

Filed under: a/b,arcade,awesome,beauty,digital,documentation,future,interfaces — mhoye @ 10:29 pm
This way to art.

One thing I love about the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild is how totally unbothered it is by our hero’s presence in it. Cliffs you can’t climb, monsters you have no real shot at beating, characters wandering about who aren’t there as side-quest farmers or undifferentiated foils for your inevitable progress. Even the weather will inconvenience, injure or outright murder you if you walk out into it dressed wrong, and in large ways and small this mattered. I’d seen lighting strikes in the game before – and getting one-shotted by the rain after I missed the memo about not wearing metal out in a storm was startling enough, lemme tell you – but the first time I saw one hit water, saw a handful of stunned fish floating to the surface, that put my jaw on the floor. The rain that made this hill too slippery to climb gave that world the sense of a being a world, one that for all your power and fate and destiny just didn’t revolve around you.

Super Mario Odyssey is the precise, exact opposite of that, and at first I really didn’t get it. I couldn’t get into it.

It’s surprisingly hard to enjoy an entire world carefully and forgivingly tuned to precisely fit your exact capacities at all times, to the point that if you’ve done much platforming in your life there’s no real challenge to navigating Odyssey, much less risk. A “death” that costs you about six of the abundant, constantly replenished gold coins that litter the landscape hardly even counts as a setback – you’re likely to restart next to eight or ten of them! – so my first impressions were that it amounted to a hoarder’s brightly coloured to-do list. I decided to grind through it to see the New Donk City I’d been studiously avoiding spoilers for, hearing only that it was the best and weirdest part of the game, but it was definitely a grind.

But after watching my kids play it, and helping them through the parts they’ve been hung up on, I realized something: Odyssey is a bad single-player game because it’s not a single-player game, at least not a single adult player. It’s a children’s book, a children’s experience; it’s Mario Disneyland. And once I discovered the game I was actually supposed to be playing, the whole experience changed.

With fresh eyes and unskilled hands involved, this sprawling, tedious fan-service buffet becomes an entirely different thing, a chance to show my kids around a game world I grew up with. Even the 2D sidescroller diversions, eye-rollingly retro on their own, become a conversation. Most amazingly, to me at least, the two-player option – one player driving Mario, the other driving his ghost hat companion Cappy – stops looking like a silly gimmick and starts looking like a surprisingly good execution of a difficult idea I’ve wanted for a long time. Odyssey is the only game I’ve ever seen that has cooperative, same-couch multiplayer that’s accessible to people of wildly different skill levels. Another way to say that is, it’s a game I can play with my kids; not versus, not taking turns, but “with” for real, and it’s kind of great.

So, playing Odyssey alone by myself? Sure: unchallenging, rote and if we’re honest enough to admit it, a little sad. But with my kids’ playing it, playing along together? Definitely. Not only good but good fun, maybe even a meaningful experience. Sign me up.

June 8, 2017

I’m Walking, Yes Indeed

Filed under: arcade,awesome,digital,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:00 pm

They’re called “walking simulators”, which I guess is a pejorative in some circles, but that certain type of game that’s only a little bit about the conventions of some gaming subgenre – puzzles, platforming, whatever – and mostly about exploration, narrative and atmosphere is one of my favorite things.

Over the last year or two, I suspect mostly thanks to the recent proliferation of free-to-use, high-quality game engines, excellent tutorials and the generally awesome state of consumer hardware, we’re currently in a golden age of this type of game.

One of the underappreciated things that blogging did for writing as a craft was free it from the constraints of the industries around it; you don’t need to fit your article to a wordcount or column-inch slot; you write as much or as little as you think your subject required, and click publish, and that’s OK. It was, and I think still is, generally underappreciated how liberating that has been.

Today the combination of Steam distribution, arbitrary pricing and free-to-use engines has done much the same thing for gaming. Some of the games I’ve listed here are less than half an hour long, others much longer; either way, they’re as long as they need to be, but no more. A stroll through a beautifully-illustrated story doesn’t need to be drawn out, diluted or compressed to fit a market niche precisely anymore, and I thought all of these were a good way to spend however much time they took up.

Plenty of well-deserved superlatives have already been deployed for The Stanley Parable, and it is absolutely worth your time. But two short games by its creators – the free Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist and the much longer The Beginner’s Guide are radically different, but both excellent. Dr. Langeskov is brief and polished enough to feel like a good joke; The Beginner’s Guide feels more like exploring the inside of a confession than a game, a unique and interesting experience; I enjoyed them both quite a bit.

Firewatch is, in narrative terms, kind of mechanical – despite its may accolades, you eventually get the sense that you’re turn the handle on the dialogue meat grinder and you know what’s coming out. But it’s still affecting, especially in its quieter moments, and the environment and ambience is unquestionably beautiful. it’s worth playing just to explore. I’d be happy to wander through Firewatch again just to see all the corners of the park I missed the first time around, and there’s a tourist mode in which you can find recordings that explore the production process that I enjoyed quite a bit more than I’d expected.

“Homesick” is very much the opposite of Firewatch, a solitary and mostly monochromatic struggle through environmental and psychological decay, set in a rotting institution in what we eventually learn is an abandoned industrial sacrifice zone. The story unfolds through unexpected puzzles and mechanisms, and ends up being as much a walkthrough of the experience of mental illness as of the environment. Homesick isn’t a difficult game to play, but it’s a difficult game to experience; I’m cautiously recommending it on those terms, and I don’t know of any game I can compare it to.

“Lifeless Planet” is a slow exploration of a marooned FTL expedition to an alien world discovering the abandoned ruins of a fifties-era Soviet settlement. It’s not graphically spectacular, but somehow there is something I found really great about the slow unfolding of it, the pacing and puzzles of this well, if obliquely, told story. I found myself enjoying it far more than I would have expected.

Another space-exploration type game, though (supposedly?) much more sophisticated, Event[0] was generally very well received – Procedurally generated dialog! An AI personality influenced by the player’s actions! – but I played through it and found it… strangely boring? I suspect my gameplay experience was sabotaged by my Canadianness here, because I went into it knowing that the AI would react to your tone and it turns out if you consistently remember your manners the machine does whatever you want. The prime antagonist of the game this ostensibly-secretive-and-maybe-malevolent AI, but if you say please and thank you it turns out to be about as menacing as a golden retriever. Maybe the only reason I found it boring is because I’m boring? Could be, I guess, but I bet there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The most striking of the bunch, though, the one that’s really stuck with me and that I absolutely recommend, is Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, essentially an exploration of a small, inexplicably abandoned English village near an observatory in the aftermath of something Iain Banks once referred to as an “Outside-Context Problem”. It is all of interesting, beautiful and relentlessly human, investing you in not just the huge what-just-happened question but the lives and relationships of the people confronting it and trying to live through it. If walking simulators appeal to you – if exploring a story the way you’d explore an open-world game appeals to you – then I don’t want to tell you anything more about it so that you can experience it for yourself.

I’ve played a few other games I’m looking forward to telling you about – some of the best 2D-platformer and Sierra-like games ever made are being made right now – but that’s for another day. In the meantime, if you’ve got some other games that fit in to this genre that you love, I’d love to hear about them.

November 20, 2016

Memories And Palaces

Filed under: arcade,awesome,beauty,digital,interfaces,life,toys — mhoye @ 4:08 pm

Exploring

This is an old memory, dredged out of the cellar by this Metafilter thread about a Sierra game: The Colonel’s Bequest.

Bequest was a charmingly understated member of the “[Subject] Quest” games lineage, largely forgotten I suspect for the sin of being a character-driven mystery with a female protagonist rather than a puzzles-and-princesses nature excursion. Teenage Me remembers enjoying it. Present-day Me does not remember Teenage Me as a paragon of good taste and sound judgement, true, but let’s put that aside for the moment.

When the Colonel’s Bequest came out, a friend and I in high school were very much into the Sierra games, but we got our selves thoroughly stuck on this one. To my memory this would have been during that magical late-in-the-school-year part of spring time when teachers have given up on the curriculum and would rather just show you old movies. My English teacher – a magnificent old crank, in that particular way that English teachers close to retirement can blossom into magnificent old cranks – decided he was going to show us old Vincent Price horror movies, because why not.

One of those he played for us was The House Of Usher, closely based on the similarly-named Poe story. It’s a classic-in-the-classic-sense horror film; an iconic product of it’s time, though that time hasn’t aged spectacularly well. Apparently the US National Film Registry regards it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, though, and if you get a chance to watch it, dated as it seems, you’ll probably agree.

Until then my only exposure to Price had been “The Hilarous House Of Dr. Frightenstein” on PBS, reruns of Price well into his self-parody phase. Despite the fact that even then I could tell there was a joke going on I wasn’t getting, I could talk about that show at great and unreasonably enthusiastic length – its very possible The Professor had a formative influence on my eight-year-old self – but that is not what I am here to talk about.

What I’m here to talk about it how clearly I can remember that moment when the lights came on and both of us knew that we knew how to win the game. Because the architecture of the mansion and surrounding grounds in Bequest, blowing our tiny teenage minds, was very strongly influenced – straight-up cribbed, in some places – from the architecture of the eponymous House and its grounds in that movie. next time we played the game together we quickly found the hidden doors and switches exactly where they were in the movie, opening the way to the same secret passages; we moved quickly through to the conclusion of the game, and that was it.

I haven’t thought about that moment or that game in 25 years; it surprises me that this newfound ability we have to revisit the specific stimulus of our youth can feel like being ambushed by a choice between nostalgia and introspection. I can remember a few pivotal moments in my life like that, where can remember learning something, making a choice, and knowing that I was different person on the far side of it. There must have been a lot of them. Maybe this is one of them? I’ve had an interest in secret passages and video game architecture for a really long time; I wonder if that’s where it started.

Seems plausible.

September 14, 2016

Historical Precedent

Filed under: arcade,beauty,books,digital,documentation,interfaces,travel — mhoye @ 10:21 am

Framed

A while back in Architecture For Loners I wrote a bit about a how in-game architecture can fail a video game’s narrative if you’ve got the right eyes, the right incentives and maybe the right jetpack:

The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise. […] whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

I’ve just come across two great posts about other games I wanted to share with you. The first is about Hidetaka Miyazaki’s “Bloodborne”, called “Understanding the sublime architecture of Bloodborne”:

Like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s previous titles, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Bloodborne involves the player in a sublime romance with pre-industrial European architecture. As broadly as mannerism can be described, then, it makes the most sense to place Bloodborne within this particular European lineage.

To get a grasp on what this means, we need to return to Michelangelo, who was as imaginative an architect as he was anything else, and there’s no better example of mannerist elements at play in his work than the Laurentian Library’s vestibule. At first glance, it may seem like an attractive but unremarkable room: essentially a cube with sparsely decorated walls and a staircase. A closer look reveals a number of oddities.

The second is a translated interview with Maria Elisa Navarro Morales, who was the architectural history consultant for the Ezio Auditore games in the Assassin’s Creed series, set between 1476 and 1503 in the Rome, Florence and Venice of Renaissance Italy:

I would have never imagined that the clothing could be so different between Florence and Venice. To document that I had to base a lot off of the paintings of that time period, studying them in great detail to detect the particular differences. For example, the cities had different laws about the kind of neckline women were allowed to wear. In Venice the laws were more lax, and that’s where the courtesan character shows up. None the less, the noblewomen weren’t allowed to go into the streets uncovered in Venice or in Florence. In Florence the men wore a unique hat, while in Venice they didn’t, etc.

Another thing was the hairstyles, that we studied through artists like Botticelli. For example, the ideal beauty in Venice was the blonde woman, so many women dyed their hair. Apart from those more general types of jobs, there was a questionnaire that the artists could fill out to ask me more specific things. All of that appeared in the game.

Both articles are wonderful and you should read them; if you enjoyed them, you’d probably also enjoy Darran Anderson’s “Imaginary Cities”, about which more later.

Let me take a moment to renew my call for a “tourist mode” in video games; I would pay good DLC money for an assisted-walkthrough mode in games like these, that took the time to talk in depth about the why, how, and historical background of their construction and design.

July 10, 2016

Witness Me

Filed under: arcade,beauty,digital,documentation,interfaces,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:21 pm

Seaside

Having recently forced myself to play through the ending-plus-the-real-ending of The Witness, I’m finding myself wondering if it was worth playing. I’m surprised to find myself thinking that it wasn’t.

As far as you can “spoil” something without a meaningful narrative (which is itself a spoiler, I suppose) then there are spoilers ahead, so make a decision here. I won’t be solving any of the puzzles for you, but that’s largely because at some point I lost interest in grinding them out myself.

Just to get this out of the way, The Witness is beautiful. It is very nice to look at.

Sadly, that’s almost all it is.

The creeping sense that you might be gazing into a beautiful, elaborate navel sets in early, and the thin edge of that wedge is the scattered voice-recorders. It doesn’t take long to notice their placement is very deliberate, and it’s not to tell you anything about this abandoned island, its strange statues and presumably-absent residents. Instead, their role is to constantly remind you that you have to look everywhere. At everything, from every angle, all the time, for reasons that never materialize.

Jonathan Blow – creator of The Witness – has said that he wants to make games for “people who read Gravity’s Rainbow“, and I think he’s succeeded at that provided we’re talking about people who read it, cranked out a disinterested B- essay for the compulsory 1st-year humanities credit that assigned it, and never looked back.

The other thing it doesn’t take long to notice is that the reveal of the central conceit and pivotal epiphany of The Witness is also the precise moment the joy of playing the game starts wobbling on the rails. First of all, however you come to that revelation – that the world is itself full of these circle-and-line puzzles – you have almost no say in the fact of coming to it; I hope you had that magic moment before you’d made it to the top of the mountain, because that’s where you get clubbed over the head with it. And second, that’s also the moment the game stops being an exploration and starts being a grind.

You’re not farming gold or breaking jars here, and that’s not nothing, but after you’ve seen a few of those world-puzzles every archway or semicircle you wander past or glance by the edge of the screen stops looking like a beautiful detail in a beautiful world and starts looking like a job.

And they are, of course, everywhere. The dirt path that ends in a curve, the cloud with the semicircular edge, the half-submerged pipe and its reflection, the whole island turns into one long brightly-colored to-do list. Climb something else to look at it or wander around it until the circle shows up, activate or trace whatever it is, and then… move on to the next one, because there’s definitely a next one. But there’s no story to advance, nothing gained beyond the sense that you’ve been spoon-fed a sense of cleverness. The minor epiphanies that pleasantly surprise you at the beginning of the game are silently haunting every twisted set of branches or curving shadow now, waiting for you to wander around this Ouija board of a world and invoke them for no particular reason.

The boss battles of this perspective-grinding exercise are sometimes clever, always pretty and invariably hollow. The perfect narrative void of this game screams at you in those moments; you’re standing where you can see the reflected fish or the harpy’s flowing hair or the two statues linking hands. “This moment would tell you so much”, the void says, “if there was anything to tell you at all. Go find more puzzles.”

Res ipsa loquitor, sed per se” is a line that came to mind, here – the thing speaks for itself, but only about itself. It’s a game that wants you to really understand the vital importance of paying careful attention to detail and perspective, and sets out to do that by giving you hundreds of nearly-identical problems and devoutly refusing to give you a reason to solve any of them.

It’s really hard to care how many levels a joke works on when you’re hearing it for the two hundredth time.

Anyway: the exact moment I tuned all the way out was partway down the inside of the mountain, when the Aperture Science aesthetic kicks in and of the randomly scattered recordings – hidden wherever they are without any reason or pattern beyond being hidden, obvs – plays you a long B.F. Skinner quote that cut more than a little too close to the bone. At that point I’d had just about enough of this B- essay that I could make a pretty good guess how it would end and didn’t care much if I was right or wrong. I pushed on, but the eye-rolling Witness-To-The-Hotel-California sequence didn’t change my opinion for the better.

I really wanted to love this game. I can kind of see the rough outlines of a lot of other games I’ve loved in it, but I suppose I never figured out where to stand to make it work.

September 2, 2014

Architecture For Loners

Filed under: arcade,beauty,doom,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,toys — mhoye @ 9:36 am

This has been sitting around in the drafts folder for a while. I’m not sure why I wanted to finish it off tonight, but I want to get all these half-finished posts done. This seemed like a good way to knock off some of the rust.

Rust Never Sleeps

Occasionally when I’m in one of my darker moods I’ll fire up a game that’s meant to be multiplayer and walk through it alone, crawling around the fringes and corners to see how the game reacts to unexpected stimuli, looking for soft spots and exposed nerves.

I’ve always been a lurker in open worlds games, real life being no exception; I don’t remember when I started looking for the seams, the little gaps where the walls don’t quite line up or the high ledge that offers a long view, but it’s not a thing I can turn off. And when I’m in that sullen loner’s mood, sitting in the dark soloing multiplayer spaces is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two on just that sort of wallhack tourism.

Halo’s Spartan Ops, is kind of fun though not particularly replayable distraction. It’s a neat idea, and I sort of wish they’d done more with the idea of serving up Halo in smaller episodic doses. The environments, though… if you have the right eyes you can’t help but notice that built-for-a-shooter feeling that pervades the designed landscapes of that franchise.

Its not just the trademark gun-litter; whether it’s a forcefield deployed pointlessly in a cave, an otherwise-empty room with one door and twenty or so alien warriors milling around inside waiting to no discernable purpose or an massive structure of dubious architectural merit built by an advanced alien species whose accomplishments include intergalactic teleporters but not doors, you never have a moment to shake off the sense that the world is built entirely around sight lines.

Specifically, as they emerge from you.

This is a pretty niche failure mode, I’ll admit. It’s possible I’m the only person who will ever notice or care about it. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a space designed for a shooter that didn’t undercut any grandeur and greater aspirations the game might have. It maybe unavoidable; as lush as some of these environments seem at first, how do you evoke that sense of being part of something much bigger than yourself when everything is designed around you?

So much video game architecture fails that test of basic significance, worlds of outsized and beautiful physics-defying structures that don’t speak to any motive beyond themselves. Halo 4 is hardly the worst example, but the scale it aspires to makes this kind of anarrative laziness hard to overlook. This incredibly ambitious backstory, these huge structures and it’s all facade; there’s no “why”, because you’re there with the controller in your lap and you’re the “why” and there is no larger story than that.

“This place once belonged to an ancient and noble civilization, whose might and wisdom spanned the galaxy”, these structures say, “and as a monument to our glories we have built this: a monochromatic rhombus.”

Also I’m not sure how that Spartan Miller guy got his job, but he’s kind of excitable for an ostensibly hardened space marine.

But if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a jetpack – and if you’re not I don’t really see how we can keep being friends – then a lot of these arbitrary obstructions and forced perspectives are suddenly, inexplicably tractable. That extra degree of freedom is enough; in some places – Science Mountain is a good choice here – suddenly you can fly over a gate you were meant to fight past. And the game, of course, doesn’t appreciate being spoken to like that: Halo is on rails, and always will be thus! And you’re frightening the AI and this is just the way things are and I don’t care for your tone, young man. You can’t just leave the rails, that’s why it’s called “going off the rails”, and… hey, get back here!

And in this transgression, of course, Halo reveals itself for what it is.

You clear that gate, mop up a few stragglers and hop back to flip the switch to proceed. Enemies appear, less and listless. Defeat them, and now you’re alone. The next part of the sequence simply doesn’t happen. No-one else appears, no more doors open. Your team never contacts you and you, stoic and silent, never reach out to them.

There’s no meaning, there’s no more, there’s no distraction; there’s just reflection and just you, silently exploring a small corner of a deserted island intended only for you, forever. And there’s nothing to do but look for another seam, another glitch, to allow you maybe possibly move on.

It’s a weird, lonely feeling; kind of what you’d expect from soloing a multiplayer game alone in the dark.

June 23, 2014

Vocoder Duet

Filed under: a/b,arcade,digital,doom,toys — mhoye @ 1:01 pm

You can think of them as the Fry and Laurie of malevolent synthetic intelligences that are going to murder you.

In a fortuitous coincidence, this video – a collection of communications from SHODAN, antagonist of the classic System Shock 2,

and this video, of GlaDOS‘ spoken dialogue from the first Portal,

… are both about 14 and a half minutes long.

You should listen to them both at the same time.

April 28, 2013

All Scrollbars Are Fleeting

Filed under: arcade,digital,hate,interfaces,losers,vendetta — mhoye @ 12:47 pm

“For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: That all glory is fleeting.” – Patton (film)

I wish, just at this second, that the executives at Sony and Microsoft (though not exclusively them, to be sure) each had an employee, assigned personally to them, with a single task.

Their job is this: at any moment, day or night, at the instant that executive is about to begin something, they will decide arbitrarily, according to their whims and utterly without regard for the importance of the situation, to say the words “software update”.

At that point, the executive in question is obligated to simply stop. To be still, and do nothing. Perhaps they can decline – they can simply choose not to do whatever they were about to, knowing they’ll have to pay for this time later regardless – and after a period of time, perhaps five minutes, perhaps an hour, their employee will then simply say “restart”, and they can go on their way.

Over and over again, until they learn.

April 25, 2013

Raising A Revolution

Filed under: arcade,digital,future,interfaces,life,parenting,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 9:39 am

I had a long conversation with the very excellent people of Samantha Blackmon’s “Not Your Mama’s Gamer” podcast the other day; I get rolling at around the half-hour mark. They’re quite flattering about the whole thing; we talk a lot about video games and parenting, and I had a great time doing it.

One of the points I got to make there was about the reaction I get when I tell people that I received death threats for making the Windwaker mod. They fall into basically two camps; I tell that story to men, and they’re invariably surprised, or at least feigning surprise. “Really? Death threats? No way. Really? For that?”

When I mention it to women, on the other hand, the reaction is invariably just a slow breath and long stare into the middle distance. “Yeah, that’s how it is. Did any one threaten to rape you to death? No? Well, you’re only halfway to your Being A Woman On The Internet Merit Badge, then. Oh, you though it would be any other way? That’s adorable.”

So much work to do.

January 24, 2013

Majora’s Mask

Filed under: arcade,awesome,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 10:35 pm

Bricks

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.

Here’s hoping.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress