Purpose and Futility in Majora’s Mask

If you know 2000’s The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, you probably know most about how it stands apart from other Zelda games. You play as the green-clothed Hero of Time, Link, as usual, but you also transform into other races in the game. There are dungeons, but significantly fewer than usual. You continuously build a more powerful arsenal, but you regularly lose most of your items and progress. There are mountains of side quests, but you can never do them all in one cycle.

This game is rarely patient. In nearly every moment a clock at the bottom of your screen is ticking down the three in-game days you have left to accomplish your goals before the giant moon in the sky crashes into the world. Before disaster, thankfully, you can play the Song of Time to start the three days over again, but you only get to keep a small subset of the items, power-ups, and progress you’ve collected.

Most unsettling to me about this mechanic is how everyone you’ve helped, everything you’ve worked for, continually resets itself. Link, as well as the player, accumulate experience and knowledge, but no one else remembers you, and regions once saved are again cursed. This perseverance in the face of futility, and the meaningfulness of choices in a short, finite time, are the enduring legacies of Majora’s Mask to me.

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The Outlier

Majora’s Mask exists and thrives in contrast to many tropes we expect from Zelda games, video games, or stories in general. When you play an adventure or role-playing game, you expect to retain what you spend hours working for. When you save a town or return to someone you helped, they remember and thank you. Their life is better from your action. This is not always or even rarely true in Majora’s Mask, and if it is, it’s often temporary.

The game surpasses other Zelda titles in richness and detail. Ocarina of Time, its 1998 predecessor, amazed me with the simple idea of changing day and night cycles. Visiting Kakariko Village or the main town during the day and during the night revealed a kind of living quality to the place: stores would close, candlelight would shine through the windows, and night-owl villagers would emerge. Majora’s Mask, however, takes this to an entirely new level with individual schedules for characters and subplots for all of them that the player can explore.

The owner of a performance troupe gets “drunk” on milk at night and sleeps in during the morning because his show is cancelled. A Goron with his hotel room stolen sleeps outside. A witch realizes her sister is missing and goes looking for her. The postman makes his rounds into the last moments before destruction.

Even the name of the game, “The Legend of Zelda”, is barely more than a distraction. The titular princess shows up for but a few flashbacks and has minimal involvement with the rest of the game. The framework around the story is that Link is searching for his lost fairy friend from Ocarina of Time. He gets no closer to finding her in this game while that motivation falls into the background to the point of being completely ignored. Connections to its predecessor plot-wise are few and far between.(1)Setting aside design decisions, Link even seems to forget important songs and regain items he already had from Ocarina of Time.

No other Zelda game tackles doom, dying, and pain in quite the same way, either. For example, the transformation masks Link obtains during the game come from dead or dying characters who are healed of their pain. Every transformation done in-game shows a cutscene of Link, half-changed, screaming in agony. What’s more remarkable is how trivial and skippable this seems when you must do it frequently. I found it curiously easy to brush over that ugly twinge of suffering every few minutes.

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The Futility

In Majora’s Mask, the player replays the same three-day cycle for the entirety of the game. This means that as they continue, they must make increasingly knowledgeable choices about who to save or what to help in each sequential “parallel universe”.

If the player spends the entire cycle in one of the four sections of the world, they are damning each other to eternal turmoil. The swamp stays poisoned and a monkey is tortured; the Gorons freeze and their home is buried in snow; the Zora face an El Niño-like event and their star band crumbles; a family is trapped by mummies and the dead remain restless.

Further, the only benefits received for doing these good deeds are for yourself: items, weapons, health, or money. Your deed’s memory lives only with you, your journal, and your trinkets. The person is delighted, soothed, or relieved that you’ve helped them, but by necessity that sentiment is erased on the next playing of the Song of Time.

More than other games I feel the weight of the world weighing down on my shoulders. I question the point of proceeding at all and feel sorrow near the end of the three days when I have to undo the good I have worked so hard to achieve. The satisfaction of a “completed” stamp in my journal satiates my completionist side, but not my emotional one.

When I play that song, what happens to these people I’ve left behind? Do they persist until moments later when they are crushed by the moon? Do they vanish into the aether? Am I abandoning them?

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Meaningful Choices

In an era of games that strive to create moral quandaries (Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade options, Bioshock’s Little Sisters, Dishonored’s assassinations), a 15-year-old game remade has more meaningful choices than any of them. Maybe not everyone sees the game in the way I do, but I have personally felt more motivated and conflicted in Majora’s Mask than in any of my previous examples, all of which are games I loved.

Those above games have had their share of criticism for rewarding the player in different ways that supersede the impact of actually making a hard decision. Choosing whether to pull the trigger on someone is less of a personal expression of self when the game incentivizes the player with different rewards (which is the case for all of them above).

Majora’s Mask doesn’t do that. The player is encouraged with rewards to help people, sure, but these choices aren’t a series of binary options. Every area has a dozen tasks Link could complete, but the benefits are unknown and everything eventually obtainable. What the player does is constantly a reflection of what their priorities, passions, and abilities are.

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The constantly-ticking clock (in Clock Town, no less) is the strongest presence in the game. It rings throughout the land each twelve hours, creating an ephemeral nature to the world. Every action counts, and each character is more real and meaningful precisely because it will all eventually perish. That countdown gives a sense of urgency to the problems of Termina and the player’s goals.

It’s easy to blow off the woman whose dog is missing in Ocarina of Time; you know she’ll be there later if you want her prize, even if the town is supposedly in danger. Once you know someone won’t be there forever, or that characters in the game are on their own time, it feels so much more like a real interaction, rather than a transaction.

The townspeople have diverse ways of coping with the end that foster that realism and create empathy in the player. Some people abandon town; some stay for different reasons. It’s the finality that makes me care about these characters’ fates. They become real people, not Piece of Heart dispensers.

One example that always stuns me is the reuniting of the couple to be wed. Kafei, the groom, has gone missing days before his marriage to Anju. As you progress through the most complicated side quest in the game, you convince Anju to wait for her fiancé while the moon drops on her. Meanwhile, Link teams up with Kafei to steal back something he promised for Anju. This quest takes the entire three-day cycle and ends seconds before the end of the world in a sequence that moves me every time I see it for its depiction of love in the face of oblivion.

The Perfect Run

This time pressure made me incredibly anxious when I played the original Majora’s Mask in 2000. I wanted to help everyone, or at least figure out a way to make as many people’s lives better as possible. I would dart around, correcting wrongs, using shortcuts, and guiding characters using my previous knowledge of their problems and the solutions.

So sincere was my devotion that I repeated this effort before completing the re-release. I went to great lengths to plan out the most optimal 3-day cycle to right as many wrongs as possible, bringing the world to its most peaceful and happy, before saving it from the moon.(2)The ending of Majora’s Mask implies that all the good you do even in previous cycles somehow stays permanent once you’ve beaten the game, but that’s never been explained in a satisfying way, so I continue to strive.

Some parts of this effort were obvious, but still hard work, like defeating the dungeon bosses of the areas to release the curses. Others were difficult choices and a revealing self-examination of priorities:

  • Do I save an old woman from being robbed, or let it happen to tail the thief later in order to reunite two lovers to be married?
  • Do I spend two nights protecting the ranch and milk deliveries when I could be saving a Zora’s stolen eggs?
  • Do I take time that could be used for others to traverse dungeons to reunite a frog choir?
  • Do I put the Ikana skeletons to rest by defeating them in combat? Do I know this is a better state for them?
  • Do I set the schedule-bound postman free or take the credit for a last-minute delivery?

Few games cause me to construct such personally important goals that are outside of given objectives. Even while knowing it changes nothing in the game, it satisfies me and the narrative I bring to my play to know that as the new day dawned, Link went to the utmost extremes to help people.

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Reality

Majora’s Mask references dreams several times. The song practiced and performed by the Zora band is the “Ballad of the Wind Fish”, which is the primary song in another Zelda game: Link’s Awakening (my first). The two games are similar in that the ending to Link’s Awakening is the title literally happening and the dream world of the game dissolving into nothing. Majora’s Mask is also something of a lark, accomplishing nothing towards Link’s original goal and not furthering the story of the Triforce, Zelda, Ganon, or any major players. Termina, the game world, has yet to be returned to in the series, and the characters themselves are nothing more than copies from Ocarina of Time. Yet the game simultaneously arouses in me more compassion for its characters than any other game experience I can think of.

What does it mean that these games, these experiences, can be bottled up and forgotten? They live on in Link, and the player, but heroes of Hyrule and legends that shook that land are the stories that are carved into temple marble. Ocarina of Time is remembered, but not Majora’s Mask.

Link will be remembered by the people of Termina as the green-clothed boy who played games in the town, who fixed people’s problems, and, for a few, who saved their lives. Most of his work is lost in previous loops that no one but him will know. Eventually these people will fade, just like Link, as well. It could be that no one writes down this mysterious journey in the history of the world of Zelda. Among the many incarnations of Link and the endless battle for the Triforce and against Ganon, this quirky Groundhog’s Day journey is almost tossed to the side.

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What this means to me is that this game feels much more like my own life. Nonreligious people like myself don’t have a god(3)Or goddesses Din, Nayru, and Farore to give higher calling or universal relevance, so it’s an atheist’s ongoing effort to define one’s meaning and goals. Mortality and purpose are tough concepts to conquer, and I’m far from feeling on the winning side of that lifelong battle. Majora’s Mask dwells in that space, allowing me to explore the concepts, live them, and fight against them.

When I die, my memory will live on in my loved ones, for a time. I know I have an impact on many people in positive ways. But time is vast, with millennia stretching in all directions so far that it even makes my unit choice seem pitiful. My entire life is a blip in the grandest scale, so what’s the point?

It’s moving to see Link persevering through endlessly looming tragedy and pain to complete his quest. I want to be able to capture that drive and use it in my own life, though to combat insignificance instead of Like Likes.

We have a limited time to exist in reality. It’s longer than three days, but not by much. Our actions and choices do matter, whether they influence one or many. Even if it’s temporary. Even if it will be washed away with the millennia-long notes from the Song of Time. Making people’s lives better, right now and into the future, is all we’ve got.

Being the player controlling Link through his journey was equal parts fun action, engaging puzzle-solving, and existential crisis. This is why Majora’s Mask, in its pointlessness, with its dream-like qualities, with its endless ticking at the player, is the most poignant, realistic Zelda game I have ever played.

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Notes   [ + ]

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