Spoilers for The Legend of Zelda (game series) and Game Theory (Web-based series).
After the epic, bittersweet conclusion of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Nintendo decided it was time to branch out into this cosmic horror all the cool kids are rapping about these days and, after a weekend of getting absolutely wasted on dairy products and ecstatic bongos, came up with the mother of all creepypasta: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. (Henceforth TLoZ and MM).
MM is a great, albeit sometimes underrated, game: some people do not feel that it fits into the TLoZ tradition, for various reasons. The first of these, is that the logic of some of the actions required to advance the plot is somewhat counter-intuitive unless seen as a way of encouraging the player to investigate and observe the lives of all the inhabitants of Termina. The second is that its weird world-building leaves tragedies unresolved at the end (the Deku Butler’s son remains in his cursed form, for example). The third takes many forms but generally rests on the idea that playing a game which is an extended metaphor for Link coming to terms with his own death in some sort of purgatorial gaol is a bit of a downer as far as themes go.
This third point should be taken as a cautionary tale: never assume the author is dead when he is merely resting.
Friendship and Phantasmagoria
The world of Termina is surreal. The game makes this abundantly clear: from the moment Link’s adventure starts to the moment arrives in Clock Town, everything is, at best, just a little bit off: the environments, the music, the dialogue, and the characters are all strange. Let us jog our memories.
The game opens with Link wandering through the mist-shrouded Lost Woods, an area which most players knew from Ocarina of Time (OoC) but which a) was never portrayed this way, and b) even then was creepy in a way that only up-beat music accompanying death threats delivered by immortal children can be.
The juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar (seen also in how Link, as a child, is riding Epona; something not possible in OoT) is key to what follows: the Skull Kid (familiar character with unfamiliar facial accessories) and Tatl and Tael (familiar fairy archetypes behaving atypically) abscond with Epona. Link gives chase – badgered, rather than encouraged, by his Navi-replacement – has an Alice-falling-down-the-rabbit-hole sequence all his own, and is turned into a sapient walnut-boy, whose powers he learns to harness over the course of several rooms which serve no clear purpose, at the far end of which is a terrifying tree with a face somewhat euphemistically described as ‘sad’.
Then Link passes through an impossible corridor (a space which not only allows him passage from place to another, but which also completely turns everything on its head in the process) and meets the Happy Mask Salesman, who is basically a whole blog post in himself. When Link finally does emerge, blinking, into the sunlight of Clock Town, he has about five seconds of observing harmless urban life before he notices that the Moon is clearly planning to crash into the planet. Or, in the case of the DS remake, to beat the residents to death with his enormous schnozz.
And on it goes. The aggregate effect is that the player is always aware of how uncanny and unsettling everything is, even in the more pleasant moments. The bizarre behaviour of the other characters is therefore also thrown into stark relief on those rare occasions when anyone else comments on the strangeness of things going on in Termina.
‘But,’ I hear you cry, ‘Surely this is all tone? What does this have to do with world-building?’. Well, it is actually the reason why the world-building in Majora’s Mask works so well. As my last two posts in the series discussed, TLoZ is more about building a mythos than a world.
That is just as well. The Hyrule of OoT is actually quite pokey and inhabited by only a few dozen people. Breath of the Wild (BotW) has a greater scope, but still suffers from under-population and, to the north and west, feels as though it is part of something still larger and more enigmatic than Hyrule itself due to the way in which the game prohibits venturing beyond the ravine. The limitations in the game’s scope spark awkward questions like, ‘What is beyond Hyrule? What adventures await in the rest of the world?’ and the answer is, inevitably, ‘None, due to technical limitations’, an answer which is so unsatisfying that there are whole YouTube channels devoted to “theorizing” about what is “really” there.
Yet, despite having similar technical constraints to OoT, MM is able to overcome the issue through the surreality of the world: the player is encouraged, even trained, to accept arbitrary gameplay and technical issues with the same insane logic of the dream-world they mimic. I can play five horns at once now? Well, I suppose that is possible. I was hiding them in my mask, you say? Ah, that makes sense. The mighty Kingdom of Ikhana is smaller than a racecourse these talking beavers cobbled together? Yup. All the guards take possession of a lethal weapon as a sign of maturity rather than parental negligence? Absolutely. We even have that thing when we go round and round the same sequence of events varying it slightly each time.
Despite the technical limitations and dodgy dungeons, MM is a strong supporter, of its era, for the ‘games are art’ argument (although that is a topic for another day), and it does this by wedding two elements together in a very clever way, one which is best experienced rather than described. This is the secret to the world-building in MM: the tone makes the world-building work.
Without the surreal tone, MM is a rather pokey little adventure whose limited scale and unimpressive dungeons do not match up to OoT‘s legacy. However, with the tone comes a change in experience: the focus on the lives of Termina’s residents causes the player to become invested in them and their well-being, even as the three-day loop plays out again and again, always dooming them to a fiery, terrifying death. It is hard, even on the nth run, not to feel a little sad for the guards as they keep vigil under the plummeting moon, even though the player knows that they will be “saved” by restarting the cycle as soon as Link has finished a little errand in town.
This is not the first time that TLoZ has used surreality to support world-building, either: the top-down games in the series are quite weird when compared with OoT (which is often, somewhat strangely, taken to be the gold standard from which other games in the series deviate at their peril, rather than being the first of its kind). The Oracle games and A Link Between Worlds were also prone to this and, following on from Link’s Awakening, all found ways to make the world seem at least a little bit dynamic. Majora’s Mask actually has a surprising amount in common with Link’s Awakening, although whereas Link’s Awakening only seems light-hearted until it becomes apparent that victory in the game means the annihilation of the characters Link has come to know, MM is the opposite: a dark and sinister game with a surprisingly happy and healthy message at the end.
In many ways, the world which MM builds is an interior one: the interior life of the characters against which Link, as silent observer, can only sometimes brush; but also, the interior life of the player, who experiences the routines of the characters and develops sympathy for them. It is not a story so much about Link coming to terms with his death (although death and fate are certainly themes): it is a story about friendship, that most important of human relationships.
It is friendship which starts the plot: Link’s friendship with Navi and the Skull Kid’s friendship with the giants set them on course to collide; the fairies’ dissolving friendship with the Skull Kid and Tatl’s reluctant partnership with Link remains as a foil to that basis throughout the game. It is friendship which forms the stuff of the game: Link must meet and befriend people all around Termina to complete all the quests and complete all the dungeons, and likewise the player makes a friendship, of sorts, with the characters in the world. It is friendship which resolves the game: the lonely Skull Kid and the solipsistic Majora’s Mask must be separated from one another so that the former can reconcile with his old friends and make new ones, whilst the latter is given to an enthusiastic custodian.
Despite its dark and surreal tone, MM is, at its core, a game about friendship. It is not about sweeping epics or building a realistic fantasy world, but a story about the importance of building character and friendships which can endure in times of loss or separation, and a cautionary tale about what happens to those who reject or are deprived of those same friendships. There are better discourses on all these topics, but literature and drama and even film have all had much longer to spread their wings and grow into mature media. MM tells its story through its world in a way that no other medium possibly could, with all its narrative and conceptual chops on display. The world-building of MM – like BotW – remains effective and touching because what it is really trying to build is not Termina, but a stage for the kinds of friendships we want and ought to have.