the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Life in Termina – Exploration and Interactivity in Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Life in Termina – Exploration and Interactivity in Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Introduction

“Are the fins damp lately? Oh. That’s the greeting used among us Zora.”

 -Toto

Initially published in 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is the 6th video game within the Zelda series, and the second Zelda game published on the Nintendo 64. Similar to titles such as Final Fantasy VIII, and Chrono Cross, Majora’s Mask is tasked with the troubling burden of being the following act to what many consider the greatest game of all time. This also proves true in terms of series chronology, in that the game takes place immediately after the previous N64 title The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, featuring the same incarnation of Link as he ventures off on an unrelated side story.

I should perhaps note that I say “side story” and not “sequel” as that term implies a continuation of the same story woven throughout the franchise. Prior to official release, the game was referred to as Zelda Gaiden, which I think would have remained an apt title. Within Majora’s Mask, Link doesn’t quest for the Triforce, awaken any sages, or rescue the princess of Hyrule, but is instead thrown into a world experiencing its final hours, with troubling situations to be found and addressed in every direction. Sure, Princess Zelda appears in a flashback sequence, the Sheikah are mentioned in passing, and hey, even fun little cameos occur throughout (listen to the songs the Indigo-Go members are playing in their rooms for example!), but as a whole, the game is very much disconnected from any “canon” events and settings that frequent the main series, and likewise, its finale and events within bear little to no consequence to the series after the fact.

During its fledgling years, Majora’s Mask had existed somewhat as an underrated and underplayed classic. Certainly, the Zelda name was able to ensure it never flew too far under the radar, but being that it was a late life-cycle release for the console, and also since it required the sold-separately Expansion Pak for extra power, the game was not initially allowed the widest available reach for success. It would seem however, that along with game re-releases on Gamecube and Virtual Console, and perhaps a few fan campaigns over the years to increase attention, there has been a recent resurgence in the amounts of both criticism and praise given towards Majora’s Mask, best exemplified, perhaps, by the game even claiming top honors during the 2010 “Game of the Decade” contest held on GameFAQs.com, as well as earning second place for the recent 2011 “Greatest Legend of Zelda Game Tournament” on IGN; a far cry from as late as 2009, where Nintendo Power must have felt the game was obscure/unpopular enough to rank in 11th out of the 13 available Zelda games at the time.

What I find interesting, however, is that regardless of the increase in discourse over the game, the arguments being given on both sides remain more or less the same, each seeming to avoid confrontation with the other. Critics are quick to point out their frustrations with the game clock, as well as the low number of dungeons. Supporters, however, only seem to focus on the game’s emotional leanings, talking about how “dark” and “depressing” the game can be, primarily citing the moon falling as a symbol of the gloom and doom within.

For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these thoughts; of course I would’ve liked more dungeons, and have every so often felt the pressure of the clock. I’ve also been caught up in the thoughts of despair throughout the game (some of this will be addressed a bit later). I do feel, however, that there is still much more that remains unsaid for exactly what goes into playing Majora’s Mask.

It is with that thought that I wanted to take some time to offer some additional viewpoints, addressing many of the game’s varying strengths that are often overlooked, as well as offer some additional insight into the game as a whole. There’s a lot of good to be found inside Majora’s Mask, people just need to know where to look.

  • A quick note on organization: I’ve broken up my thoughts into five categories. Some of these thoughts may extend to other areas of discussion as well as relate to topics under separate categories, but they were overall established to pinpoint the various underlying areas in which the game excels. There will be several references given to other Zelda games for comparative purposes; however I will generally refrain from any unnecessary spoilers.

Part 1. Items and Interactivity

“A puppet that can no longer be used is mere garbage.”

– Majora’s Mask (I think!?!)

One thought about Majora’s Mask that I feel is worth stating is in regards to the tools Link receives. I personally consider items to be the cornerstone of any decent Zelda experience, as they can more or less dictate the variation in puzzle design. With that note, it may come as a surprise to some considering the low level of dungeons, that in excluding repeat collection items like poe souls, treasure charts, kinstones, and magic rings, Majora’s Mask actually has the largest number of items from any Zelda game to date that can be obtained and used to interact with the world. The game ultimately holds Link’s largest moveset, with equipment, temporary items, bottle items, masks, transformation abilities, and songs, which allows for an unmatched level of interaction with his surroundings.

His moveset is also as varied as it is plentiful. While many Zelda games have offered several items that will perform the same task (for example, the slingshot and the bow in Ocarina of Time) as well as items that are used in the same way (many items in Twilight Princess that require targeting), Majora’s Mask gives Link a great level of abilities and a great host of control schemes to implement them. In addition to his standard inventory of bombs, arrows, the hookshot, etc., Link can float through the air with the Deku Mask, jump chasms with the Goron Mask, light torches with Deku Sticks and Fire Arrows, see the invisible with the Lens of Truth, turn invisible himself with the Stone Mask, speed through rooms with the Bunny Hood, grow platforms with Magic Beans, cure jinx status with the Song of Storms, get unlimited magic with Chateau Romani, and hey, even make the servants of Igos Du Ikana parade around like fools with the Bremen Mask, or sell some Zora Eggs to the Curiosity Shop (20 rupees, by the way) if you felt like it, and much much more. You’d be surprised with how many things you can do with your inventory in the game.

It’s not just a mask; it’s also a pair of boomerangs, iron boots, zora flippers, a Zoran script translator, and an electrical wave attack all in one. Plus, dogs like you.

As one would assume, considering the low level of dungeons, the bulk of these items are found outside through questing in the overworld. An interesting side effect of this is that the number of abilities called upon within the dungeons extends far beyond the use of the dungeon item alone. While there will of course be puzzles based around the item you receive there, developers did a great job ensuring that the mask abilities and items you picked up on the way there might also get their time to shine, allowing for a great number of puzzle variance appearing together in succession. Outside of dungeons, this same variety also extends out to the many sidequests and minigames to be found in the world. It should come as no surprise that this game houses the largest number of side-quests and mini-games out of any Zelda game, and they each have their own differing methods of play featuring Link’s abilities, and some are quite entertaining. Even in designing experiences for the bow alone showed a great deal of care; with two very different shooting galleries, as well as shooting on horseback, shooting to defend a barn, shooting from a rotating platform, and shooting from the back of a moving wagon.

A last note on the items you receive; I would argue that collecting all of these useable/wearable items and masks along with the largest number of heart pieces to date in any Zelda game (52) makes for a more reward/result driven incentive to continue collecting things, rather than collecting items for collection’s sake. The two collection quests that are within the game (spider houses and the stray fairies) are condensed into well crafted hide and seek experiences that also result in tangible rewards, not just monetary ones.

Part 2. Progression

“Until then, I will not let you pass by here. Yee-hee-hee!”

– That creepy guy in Ikana

I will admit that this may be more important to me than it is for others, however Majora’s Mask is the only 3D Zelda game to date in which Link’s progression around the overworld is solely achieved based on his available inventory. I am in preference of this item-based progression over the Zelda games that utilize progression based on achieving invisible objectives. In Ocarina of Time, you will need to beat the bosses of the Forest, Fire, and Water temples in order to trigger the cutscene that will lead you to the Shadow temple (without glitch tricks, mind you). In Wind Waker, your exploration of the great sea is denied until you defeat the second boss. Twilight Princess contains (among other examples) a bridge exiting Faron Woods into Hyrule Field that temporarily houses an invisible wall which you can not cross. If you walk on the bridge, you’re simply instructed to turn around for now, and can’t get past it until you complete the first dungeon.

Now, these instances would seem like a relatively small offense, and they all work to add further direction to the experience at hand. I would argue however, that these sorts of barriers can actually carry some dire repercussions if they continue to present themselves with an increased frequency. Adding invisible walls that turn you around also carry the added effect of never being able to judge when they might show up, and assuming that they’re out there can lessen the willingness to explore the world on part of the player. Also, placing any type of barrier that will eventually resolve itself outside of the player’s actions further takes away the amount of control Link has over his surroundings, adding a more forced adherence to linearity, even if it logically clashes with the atmosphere presented. Why should a dungeon boss prevent me from crossing an otherwise unobstructed bridge, or prevent me from sailing left? Such an atmosphere turns the concept of using your abilities to explore the world into “use your abilities to explore the world, unless we don’t feel like letting you,” which can take you out of the game world, making Link’s adversaries not just the enemies around him, but the developers themselves. Of course, this may be all well and good for players who just want to move through the game’s story, as they can continue to do so just as easily as before. However, for others who enjoy exploring every nook and cranny of the game worlds at their own pace, this type of progression can detract from the overall experience.

This pipsqueak is the first barrier you overcome. A worthy adversary for the Hero of Time.

In games containing large overworlds, freedom, or rather the illusion of freedom, should be preserved, to which I’d suggest that visible and (eventually) surmountable boundaries should be present in order to properly estimate what actions can be taken. Within most of the 2D Zelda games, along with Majora’s Mask, this is achieved by utilizing physical obstacles that can be overtaken by the items that Link receives. This form of progression not only encourages exploration of the game world within instantly recognizable limitations, but further encourages the player to test the boundaries given to them by experimenting with their available moveset. In order to reach Snowhead, Link will need to get past the ice wall with an overhanging icicle. A large boulder blocks the way to Romani Ranch, while Great Bay is cut off by a tall fence. In order to climb Stone Tower, Link will need to find a way to step on several switches at once. Each of the game barriers within this game are overtaken by a direct action from Link, not from some unrelated accomplishment he made halfway across the map, creating a more logical flow to what he can and can not do at any given moment.

Part 3. Action

“When you sharpen your sword skills, your mind is sharpened naturally.”

– The Swordsman

Now, this may come off as a slight criticism of the Zelda series as a whole, however I can’t help but touch on the difficulty level as of late. Simply put, enemies just don’t hit as hard as they used to, often being easily avoided, killed pretty quickly, and only taking maybe a quarter of a heart in damage. The first of these, I feel is a bi-product of the series moving into a 3D environment, as depth of field can tip off enemy positions from farther away and dodging/blocking attacks becomes much easier, however the latter issues are entirely within the control of the developers. Now, I fully understand the benefit of having the series being accessible for all ages, and there are far harder games to seek out than even the hardest of Zelda games (Adventure of Link) if difficulty is really what you’re after, however I do feel that a previous level of action held by the series has been lost in the process, ever since the jump to 3D with Ocarina of Time.

In the case of Majora’s Mask, however, I think the action and difficulty is more prevalent here than in all other 3D Zelda titles, and this is achieved in a variety of ways. The foremost is the one that everyone complains about: the timer. Now, I personally don’t have a problem with it (and I will get into its benefits later on as well), plus you can always half the speed of it ticking down with the inverted song of time, however at certain moments (say inside the Great Bay Temple on the third night with two stray fairies missing), things can get a bit tense, a bit too tense for some even. Still, I can appreciate the alternate approach to providing a challenge in a way that enemies can not.

The second way in which Majora’s Mask was able to up the ante over its predecessor at least came in the added power the Expansion Pak, which among other graphical benefits allowed for more enemies to appear on the field at once. There are certain areas that have enemies appearing in swarms that heighten the immediate threat level. Enemies can appear in groups and work together to attack, such as the real bombchus and bubbles in Ikana Canyon, the leevers at the beach, and the bad bats beneath the graveyard. This way, the enemies still don’t hit very hard, however the number of hits taken in rapid succession becomes more frequent.

Thanks to the Expansion Pak, Gomess can send out all the Bad Bats he wants. Lucky you…

I should also note that enemy movesets are quite varied this time around, with each of the best enemies from Ocarina of Time reappearing (anyone else happy to fight a white wolfos whenever they feel like it?), along with a host of new enemies that are visually impressive (eyegore!) and offer some interesting offensive and defensive maneuvers that usually require more than just sword slashes to defeat. This time around, enemies also attack more than Link’s health by stealing items, and jinxing. Depth of field issues were also countered, with many enemies able to spot and seek out Link from far away, such as the real bombchus, guays, and dragonflies.

  • A side note on enemies: excluding reskins and elemental differences (ie, different colored chu-chus and bubbles, fire/ice keese and wizzrobes, etc.) there are 75 unique instances of enemy AI within the game. 35 unique enemy movesets are held over from Ocarina of Time, while 40 were designed for Majora’s Mask.

The quality of the game’s enemies is also carried over to each of the game’s bosses, however I don’t mean this to say that this game claims top honors for the series in this regard. I would say, however, that the visual appeal of these bosses and their arenas is stunning (look at Odolwa charging you while surrounded by a circle of fire with moths and spiders hitting you at once and tell me that’s not awesome!), and their fights can be very exciting. Goht, in particular, is an entertaining boss that remains unique in its style of play, never appearing again within the Zelda series. Also, while there are only four temple bosses along with the final boss at the end, there are also a number of great miniboss fights to be had throughout the game (two in each temple and more in the overworld). Some of these mini-boss fights, such as Wart, Gekko, Igos Du Ikana, Gomess, and the Big Poes are so well constructed in action and item use (again, not just sword slashes, providing a level of tactical strategy), that they are arguably a better opponent than many full-fledged bosses found in other Zelda games. It should also be stated that all of these fights can also be repeated without resetting the game, which is a big plus, as most bosses can also be defeated in a variety of ways, and not just the Fierce Deity Mask. Need something to use bombchus on? Try Odolwa! Ever notice that the two Twinmold worms were red and blue? Try fighting them with fire and ice arrows to exploit each of their programmed elemental weaknesses! Using your inventory to explore and experiment with the game world isn’t just limited to your surrounding environment, after all.

Part 4. Un-required Content

“The Week’s Motto: Don’t slack off –the heavens and the wife are watching.”

-Mayor Dotour (as seen in the Post Office)

Exact worth of this section will vary from gamer to gamer, and in many ways does contrast with many perceptions of how one “completes” a game or receives its “rewards,” so again, this is not an area in which everybody would value. With that said, I would estimate that the main quest of Majora’s Mask is roughly 40-45% of the total game experience, and a “100% item completion” is in actuality only about 80-85%, leaving an incredible amount of un-required content that exists to be discovered. This content comes in the form of hidden scenes and conversations that take place, environmental puzzles that reward rupees, readable scenery, mask interactions, and miscellaneous item uses programmed in, really for no tangible benefit other than it being observed and enjoyed by the player. The concept of this, as well as the quality in which it presents itself within the game, makes for some of the best and most rewarding exploration experiences the Zelda series has to offer.

For a quick example, we can look at Termina Field. Flying around the Clock Town walls is a single guay (crow). This enemy won’t attack you, but will simply keep circling the field throughout the three days. In your travels, you may eventually stumble across a gossip stone that will suggest that the bird is a fan of music. As it turns out, if you wait for the bird to fly in range, and play it a song, it will give you rupees as a reward. There is absolutely no reason for this for progression or for completion purposes, yet it was programmed in anyway, in order to provide a momentary break from the game and to offer a small piece of entertainment. This is just one of the many un-required interactions that exist to be found and enjoyed solely for the experience they provide.

Clockwise: 1. Link finds the music-loving bird. 2. Anju visits the Laundry Pool on the Second Day. 3. Link tries to trick Igos with the Captain’s Hat. 4. The monkey gets his punishment.

Now, the argument has also been made that this game is in fact the weakest Zelda game to explore in, or to kick back and smell the roses due to the presence of the 3-Day timer. On the contrary, I would suggest that not only does the time mechanic not hinder one’s exploration in any lasting way (you can always reset the cycle after all), but it actually enhances the exploration to be had. Termina is a world that does not exist in static, but is a world in constant motion. Over the course of the 3-day cycle, characters will move around and interact with each other, regardless of Link being present, and he can observe and even alter those interactions as they come up. Much of this will come into play while the player completes the main and side quests required, however many more exist that the player can discover in their exploration of the world, and through using Link’s masks and items. In truth, some of these scenes are some of the most rewarding events to stumble across in the game, such as the talk between Romani and Cremia in the barn on the final night, seeing Anju try to feed lunch to her granny, finding a redeemed Gorman cheerfully playing cards with the Twins instead of heading back to the bar (only happens if you “help” him on the first night), and greeting Igos du Ikana while wearing the Captain’s Hat.

  • A quick side note on scenes: while many scenes do carry a bit of sadness to them, I should also mention that some occurrences are also quite comical and provide some of the funniest notions in the Zelda series. Where else would you find a shop owner planning to launch a rocket to the moon, a swordsman who brashly exclaims he’ll cut the moon to ribbons only to be found later hiding in a corner, or a postman who during the course of the three days writes, mails, and delivers a letter to himself, then ignores his own advice anyway. It’s not all gloom and doom, after all.

Even further interactions can be observed through the overworld changes that occur upon completing each of the temples in the regions. To this end, being allowed to reset the timer (thereby resetting the areas) enables the game world to offer experiences in both conditions without the fear of anything becoming unobtainable after a certain point. Everything remains in the game world to be found, and experiences can be repeated again and again sometimes even yielding new results (try defending Cremia’s wagon a second time; she’ll give you a hug!).

Now, there is one small drawback to resetting time cycles with regards to exploration, and that is in regards to the strong number of puzzles and chests within the game that reward rupees. Point being, there are some very efficient ways to earn rupees in this game (the quickest to 500, by the way, I’d suggest is by repeatedly shooting blue bubbles with light arrows), and high-yield easily-accessable rupee chests get refilled each time the cycle is reset. This often reduces many players into rupee earning routines (usually those 100 rupee chests found around Clock Town), to which they don’t feel the need to fully explore the game world to try and find more. Rest assured, however, that just because these other rupee puzzles aren’t required doesn’t mean that they’re not out there; some are even quite inventive, such as the musical notes on Termina Field walls, the town lottery, and the Zora who wants a picture of Lulu.

While the timer may be a contributing factor to the inattention given to these extra puzzles, there is still something greater that works against not just rupee gathering, but this entire category, and that is the player tendency to utilize guides and walkthroughs. To prove my point, I bet if I polled gamers on how many magic bean holes there were in Ocarina of Time, I would get a fair number of correct answers (10). There are plenty of guides out there that list them, and it’s an easy target to remember, as you can only receive a limited number of magic beans and end up planting each one in a “100% run”. The same is not true for Majora’s Mask, as many magic bean holes, along with most un-required content, remains uncovered in guides, walkthroughs, and the gaming population at large since they only lead to more rupees, and in the case of extra hidden scenes, lead to nothing physical at all. Similar to the magic bean holes, the same can also be said for secret grottos littered throughout the game both visible and hidden (Virtual Console players may be unaware that the stone of agony is at play in this game as well which reveals secrets with a controller rumble), as well as places to play the scarecrow’s song, to which I’m not even sure if I’ve found them all after all these years. When I implied earlier that there is much that goes unsaid about Majora’s Mask, I meant that in the most literal sense possible.

With so much extra content to be found that is strongly tied to the processes of exploration and item interaction with the game world, this category is one that I feel remains somewhat underappreciated by the gaming community at large, as it has no strong impact on the game’s citeable statistics. I would, however argue that locating and executing many of these actions can offer its own intangible rewards that can greatly add to the value and appreciation of the overall game experience.

Part 5. Thematic Interpretation

“Aw, no…. You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t tell me you’re going up there…”

– Tatl

So far, each of the above categories have been based on concrete actions and confirmed events occurring within the game itself. My fifth point, however (likely the most dangerous, although admittedly a fun one to talk about), is primarily based around the presence of evidentiary claims, and is in regards to interpreting the game’s story. I will get to a few personal thoughts momentarily, however my ultimate point here is that storywise, Majora’s Mask is the only Zelda game that I can perceive as being open to theoretical discussion and interpretation to both within the context of the game’s setting, and outside of it.

It can’t be ignored that much of what has fueled these types of discussions surrounding the game may be attributed to the game’s rushed production schedule. With the success of Ocarina of Time in 1998, there was a great amount of pressure to release a follow-up within the console’s lifecycle, in which several corners had to be cut in order to release on time. A good example of this was the re-use of character models from the previous game, ultimately adding confusion when interpretting the true relationship between Hyrule and Termina. As a biproduct of the tight development time, the player is introduced to a series of communities, locations, and items new to Zelda mythology, that each strongly hint towards possessing a historical significance that, to be honest, may have never been conceived by developers while making the game.

  • One more quick note: While there were many characters that held over from the previous game, many of them got textural updates and added features and accessories. For example, Great Fairies now have differing eyebrow patterns, Gorons got 3D goatees and more defined facial features, Grog got a mohawk, and all shop owners got their very own set of legs! This was in addition to about 40 new unique character models with speaking roles designed for Majora’s Mask alone.

However, should all of that necessarily matter? A painter does not stand inside a museum to guide the focus of the viewer, nor does an author actively inform the reader of a text’s symbolism behind their words. New Criticism would argue that authorial intent is irrelevant in analyzing a work of art, and that an analytical deconstruction should be established solely from the work itself, meanwhile Post-Structuralism would consider the author’s meaning as secondary to that which the reader perceives. Similarly, schools of Reader-Response Criticism will argue the reader’s impression of authorial intent as a means of interpretation, however not the author intent itself, although it should be stated that this would not be the encouragement of a subjective anarchy devoid of textual material.

Regardless, there exists a large web of theoretical debate surrounding the game, due to the mysterious nature of its subject matter and disconnect to the established themes within the core Zelda series. Many gamers have tried to fill in the development holes giving further background to the game, rooted in answering the many questions that have come up over the years. What happened to the Deku Butler’s son? Why was Stone Tower built? How did the Happy Mask Salesman acquire Majora’s Mask? Who is Don Gero? Many answers have been given to each of these and more, many often divulging into elaborate fan fictions and misquotations as a result. It would seem that by comparison very few seem to move beyond the events and settings of the game to talk about the metaphor or the message behind it all.

The application of literary criticism should not be lost on the Zelda series; after all, their games are not without their own ties to literature as well. In Majora’s Mask alone, we see the Bremen Mask, with its name and given story derived from The Town Musicians of Bremen by the Brothers Grimm, as well as the game opening which draws many parallels to the actions of falling down the rabbit hole within Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You also have held over from Ocarina of Time the “Poe Sisters”, who take their names from the characters of Little Women, and of course you have the “Poe” itself, in honor of the eponymous author. It is not hard to believe that with this same understanding and appreciation of literary sources, that in creating a unique artistic experience, we may find that many of the same symbolic themes found in literature also have the potential to present themselves.

It is with these notions that I now relay my own theory for the game, not on an explanation of the game world within, but of the game itself. This is not to say that my thoughts here are of the one true meaning of the game (if there is any to be had, after all), however it is simply what I’ve come to perceive the game as over the years which has simply added to my overall appreciation of it. It is perhaps not without a hint of irony that while the bulk of all theoretical discussion surrounding the game has been primarily rooted in the concept of death, my own interpretation is in fact quite the opposite.

Most everyone should be well aware of the ancient Greek poet Homer and his epic tale The Odyssey, which chronicles the journey of Odysseus as he journeys from Troy to his home in Ithaca, however many may not be aware of the translation made by Robert Fagles (1996, Penguin Books), which offers, I think, a slight twist on the overall perception of the story’s events. The Odyssey, as you may recall, begins in medias res, with many past events referred to later on. The story opens with a child, Telemachus, son of Odysseus, as he attempts to assert control of his homeland over the many suitors that have arrived (known as the Telemachy), meanwhile Odysseus himself begins his tale on the island of Ogygia. In leaving the island, he is then washed up on Phaeacia, where he then tells of his many tales (the Apologoi), such as defeating the giant cyclops (Cyclopeia) and his journey to the underworld (Nekuia). With the aid of the Phaeacians he is finally able to return home to Ithica, wherein he is disguised as an old man in order to lure the suitors into a trap to finally slaughter them all and reclaim his throne (now referred to as the Mnesterophonia).

The reason I bring up the Fagles translation, however, is that in this retelling of the tale, the text is written in such a way that (I would argue, anyways) better allows for an overarching theme to progress through the journeys of Odysseus, one that is symbolically reflective of life itself. Odysseus is “born” into the island of Ogygia, considered the central point or naval of his journey (being halfway between Troy and Ithaca) and is watched over in safety by the nymph Calypso as a protective mother watches over a child. He then grows in his journey enough to leave this haven, eventually recalling the many stories of his adulthood on the island of Phaeacia. Lastly, he undergoes a physical transformation into an old man upon his return to Ithaca, once again indicative of the aging process that binds every human. Now, the exact events are certainly different from source to source (I won’t be linking Biggoron with Polyphemus, or saying that the moon represents Poseidon’s rage, or anything like that), but it is this same type of symbolic progression that I find can be woven throughout each of the events inside Majora’s Mask.

As in The Odyssey, we once again see the hero “born” into the center of the world, this time emerging from underneath the central Clock Tower. As Link’s journey unfolds, we see an interesting chain of progression with regards to the roles he takes on through the masks he acquires. Once Link leaves clock town, he at first remains a child as he moves through the swamp with the Deku Mask. Link then journeys to the mountains and takes on the role of an adult with the Goron Mask, although he is still not without the guidance of the regional patriarch. He then continues his adulthood at the ocean by taking the next logical step; parenthood. Here, he brings new life into the world by fostering the zora eggs, the children of Lulu and (assumedly… I’m not really aware of how zoras reproduce) Mikau, the very spirit that inhabits the Zora Mask Link wears. Lastly, Link’s journey takes him to death itself in the canyon, where he dons the Garo Mask, Captain’s Hat, and Gibdo Mask to assume the roles of the wandering spirits within. Death is also a part of life, after all. Collectively, these roles and actions manage to outline the living process in which all mortal beings commonly progress through.

This progress through life is also encountered throughout the game in interacting with the many denizens of Termina as they reveal their interconnectedness through family members, both encountered and inferred. Many characters will tell you of their own family relationships and how they have affected their own lives, with them either progressing on without them (Cremia, Anju, Dampe, Gormon, Deku Butler), being ashamed by them (Deku Princess, Lulu, Tingle’s Father at the Swamp Tourist Center), or working their hardest to maintain them against all odds (Pamela, Kafei, the Goron Elder). Many of these story arcs, encountered at varying points along the way are able to showcase the living process as an ever flowing chain of birth, death, and the rebirth of new life associated with our own mortality. (Of course there’s also perhaps much that could also be said here in terms of psychoanalytical interpretation, however we’ll continue to leave the developers out of this).

This theme of life and mortality is brought home and recapped during the game’s ending, where instead of finding the anticipated death and destruction of all things by way of the falling moon, we are instead greeted with a living field, with a tall tree surrounded by young children. These children, whom you are only able to reach through the deaths of each of the bosses whose masks they wear, assert that death and life retains its ongoing process even in the most dire of circumstances, and the seemingly innocent words imparted by each of these children are in reality some of life’s biggest questions.

“Do those people… think of you…as a friend?”

“What makes you happy… Does it make…others happy, too?”

“If you do the right thing… Does it really make… everybody…happy?”

“The face under the mask… Is that…your true face?”

– Moon Children

Each of these questions can be tied to events that have taken place during the game in which Link has interacted with others, as well as act as a direct question to not just Link, but the player as well on their own journey through life. The third question especially, I feel carries a special priority with relation to the game world, as again, with the added timer, you simply will not be able to save everyone at once; causing you to choose what you judge yourself to be the right thing, an area more commonly associated with morality systems within video games, and less prominent in typical action adventures. The ultimate joke here, is that even in the speediest of speed runs in Majora’s Mask where time is not an issue, you still are unable to make absolutely everyone happy due to branching storylines. If you want to let a Deku Salesman move to a better location, you’ll have to leave “???” without his important papers. If you choose to help Anju and Kafei, you will sadly need to allow the Old Lady from the Bombshop to get robbed. You simply can’t save everyone. Such is life.

Smart girl. But that doesn’t mean we’re giving up just yet.

Yet, it should be noted that the story does not end here. Much as we continue on with our lives not knowing the full effects of our interactivity with the world around us, Link is able to continue on past these rhetorical conundrums, and proceed to the game’s natural end, ideally bringing happiness to everyone he possibly can in the process. The boss itself acknowledges that the final battle is not necessarily a conflict, but merely a game, again returning to a level of childish innocence (if you want to dig a bit deeper, is Majora’s Wrath doing anything more than playing with tops and jump-ropes?). This reversion to childlike behavior amidst the attempts at death and destruction once again brings new life into the equation, and in the eventual completion, we see during the credits that the cycle of life ultimately continues to flourish across the land, with rejuvenated spirits, new beginnings, final partings, and remembrances all at once.

Such has become my understanding of the game, however I use the above as a mere example of how the game may be understood. Others can just as easily remain rooted in the discussion of factual events, theoretically factual events, or spin their own looms (running with The Odyssey theme) to try and create a link between the game and Rocky IV for all I care. It’s the game’s openness to contextual and symbolic interpretation that I feel is able to allow for an artistically inclined experience that few Zelda games (being rooted within the series proper, enforcing an adherence to narrative and continuation) can hope to match.

Conclusion

“Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever…”

– Happy Mask Salesman

With this article, it was my hope to acknowledge several areas in which the game’s strengths remain more or less away from average conversation. In doing so, I should note that several other perceived strengths within the game had also remained untouched; such as the somewhat abstract architectural design and natural formations that are not instantly identifiable upon traversal, or the game’s clever use of minor and diminished chords, syncopated rhythms, and use of leitmotif in the game’s music, for example. However, I feel that the five categories identified above offer the most to bring to the table when discussing Majora’s Mask in comparison to other Zelda games, as well as to the industry as a whole.

For those of you who have made it, I thank you for your maintained curiosity and commend you for reaching the end. It should perhaps be obvious at this point that Majora’s Mask is my favorite among the Zelda games, and remains one of my personal favorites overall for its unique mechanics and structure. I don’t ask that it be yours as well, however if any of the above may have offered the smallest increase in respect towards all that the title has accomplished regardless of its newfound popularity, I’ll feel I’ve done my job.

Thanks for reading!

10 Comments

  1. Man, that was a truly great read. I love how you highlight many of the game’s overlooked strengths and the way you always have plenty of in-game examples to back up your claims. Majora’s Mask is one of my all-time favorites and has so much more to offer than just being “dark”, so it’s great to see someone actually doing the game justice.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I’m about to start a new file soon, and it reminded me of how deep this game is.

    I found this via a GameFAQs topic. Someone mentioned that the humorous scenes you mentioned in the “quick side note on scenes” are actually rather dark as well, and upon reading them, I felt the same; however, I can see the humor as well. Having not played the game in a long time, I can’t make an argument myself, but would you say that dark humor is used by the developers throughout the game, rather than light comedic relief sprinkled over the dark story as a whole?

    • That’s a fair point. Of the examples I mention, the swordsman and the postman are both gravely concerned about their impending doom. Judging by subject matter alone, these interactions can be seen as dark (and there are of course exceptions with darker presentations out there… for example, walk back into the ocean spider house after you complete it, and you’ll find the man in there praying to the Goddess of Time for safety), however many of these grim scenes also present themselves in such a comical manner that you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. It allows for extra ‘mature’ content to exist without the game as a whole ever really getting too serious.

      More to the point of your question though, there’s both instances of dark humor (blowing up sakon, watching the deku monkey get tortured, etc.), and light comedic relief (show the swordsman the mask of scents, parading Igos’ servants with the bremen mask, etc.) woven throughout the game. I think it strikes a nice balance of emotions rather than focus solely on the dark and depressing.

  3. What an excellent read! Majora’s Mask has always been something special to me, as a game, a journey and a powerful work of interpretative art and it is a real joy to see such an earnest, deep and dedicated analysis like this. For a veteran of the Zelda series who finds himself all too frustrated with the shallowness of the franchise’s more recent titles, I really appreciate any effort to shed light on this most dark of games’ and why it has such mature appeal. Were you to touch upon the elements to mentioned in the closing paragraph, the music and the architecture – area of intense interest to myself and countless others – a great good for gaming as a whole would be done indeed.

  4. Hi David,

    With the ambition of one day becoming a Games Designer, I’ve been reading around the topic a lot recently, and was absorbed by this take on Majora’s Mask (particularily your part 2 – something I entirely agree with and would carefully consider in my own game design).

    I was a bit too young to fully appreciate a lot of the over-arching observations and themes that you suggest here, although to this day it is the Zelda title that resonants the most with me. Does that make it my favourite? I’m not sure, but it is a stunning title regardless. Roll on a 3DS release!

    Daz.

  5. Majora’s Mask is my all-time favourite video game in the world and I’m just glad that someone is doing it justice by this and seeing the deeper messages woven into the storyline of the game.
    A lot of people don’t like it ’cause it’s “timed” and it’s “as if someone was high/on an acid trip” when making it. :|

  6. Thanks for the comments, people! Glad this was enjoyable. Yeah, I hate hearing people write this game off because of the timer when it ultimately adds so much more to the experience than it takes away. Also glad to hear Part 2 is resonating with some folks; it’s a design choice that still has yet to return for the series, with so many objective-based boundaries placed around Skyward Sword.

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