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Zelda’s Twisted Tale: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
With the end of 2012 and the Mayan calender on people’s minds, I thought it would be topical to explore one of my favourite stories revolving around the end of the world: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Many consider it to be the most creative entry in the Zelda videogame franchise. Released after The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, one of the most critically acclaimed game of all time, Majora’s unique narrative and deeply human characters help to convey mature themes of grief, loss, and mortality with a sophistication not normally found within the medium. Drawing upon elements of the fantastic and the grim, the disturbing and the absurd, Majora’s Mask shares many similarities with traditional fairy tales and ancient myths, evoking a rich full range of emotional responses within the player.

Synopsis

Majora's Mask Official Artwork

Link, the protagonist of the game, finds himself thrown into Clock Town located in the center of Termina, an alternate world to his home of Hyrule. A trickster known as Skull Kid has stolen an artifact known as Majora’s Mask, an item which contains a deity capable of great evil.  With the help of Skull Kid, Majora proceeds to summon down the moon from the sky in an attempt to wipe out all life. Link has three days and three nights to stop the catastrophe, but that proves to be insufficient time. Fortunately, he is able to acquire the ability to time travel back to his initial arrival in Termina, and begins to seek allies and grow strong enough to defeat Majora.

“In the land of Hyrule, there echoes a legend. A legend held dearly by the Royal Family that tells of a boy… A boy who, after battling evil and saving Hyrule, crept away from the land that had made him a legend… Done with the battles he waged across time, he embarked on a journey. A secret and personal journey…”

– Majora’s Mask, introduction

Majora’s narrative treads on the familiar ground of “hero saving the world”. But instead of a conventional clash between good vs. evil, Majora’s Mask opts for a quieter and more intimate tale. The substance of the narrative does not revolve around the hero’s clash with the villain, but rather on an individual helping others in need, even in the face of impending doom.

A Predecessor’s Shadow

Majora's Mask Happy Salesman

“You were met with a terrible fate, weren’t you?” – Happy Mask Salesman

Majora’s Mask was released two years after Ocarina of Time; they utilized the same game engine and shared similar graphical assets. But they are very different in mood and atmosphere. If Ocarina is the bright heroic epic, Majora is the flip-side of that legendary tale, its dark and strange counterpart.  The initial sequence that shows Link’s arrival to Termina strongly parallels the fall down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Like Wonderland, everything in this new unfamiliar world feels slightly off. Majora excels in conveying this sense of unease.

Disturbing imagery, absurd characters, and ominous events all serve to flesh out the world of Termina. Like our world, Termina is filled with the inexplicable joys and pains that accompany love, random triumphs and tragedies resulting from deeds done and failed, senseless acts of suffering and salvation brought about by higher powers, and the intolerable certainty of death that looms over all life.

Majora's Mask Zora Transformation

Unsettling imagery to say the least…

Like many fairytales (at least the twisted, disturbing, non-sanitized versions) and myths, Majora reminds me that the world can be a strange place, full of both beauty and terror.  In a previous Ekostory, one commenter spoke about the significance of these types of stories throughout human history:

“All over the world great mythic stories were told to people of all ages, stories that had violence, humor, sex, slap-stick, philosophical questions, and ethical dilemmas built into them. As you grew older, you would realize new depths to the stories, picking up on themes and ideas within the tale as your own maturity grew and your mind asked new questions.”

Earthknight

Majora's Mask Link StatueWhat Majora does better than any other game I have come across is its natural acceptance of the shadow; its narrative neither seeks to suppress darkness, nor to exploit it for mere shock value; instead, it rather recognizes and integrates them as legitimate parts of the greater whole. It understands that the world is sometimes too absurd and bizarre for words and is the better for it. By embracing its strangeness seriously, Majora is able to convey to the player complex and conflicting ideas and emotions around loss, grief, and death in a mature and subtle manner, without regressing to simple didactic moralism.

Question

  • Are there any myths and fairy tales that have stayed with you?

Confronting Mortality

Majora’s Mask is a game about ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Impending death literally looms over Clock Town’s inhabitants in the form of a malevolent moon; a heavy sense of helplessness hangs over the entire game. In order to progress, Link and the player must scrutinize the lives of the inhabitants of Termina over the three-day period. Careful observations over many repeated cycles reveal a range of surprisingly realistic reactions in response to the calamity, reminding me of how people behave in real life when confronted with overwhelming news and insurmountable obstacles.

Some choose to hide behind a mask. Cremia, the manager of the local ranch, puts on a brave front for her younger sister Romani and shelters her from the knowledge of impending doom. Still others, like the swordsman, boast of their fearlessness of death while being secretly terrified on the inside:

Others are frightened and wish to act to save themselves, but are unable to break out of their routines:

“As you can see, all of our customers have taken refuge. It may be my undoing, but I’m the sort of fellow who’ll stay at his business through thick and thin. And I continue standing here at the counter hoping one of my favorite customers will appear… And I wasn’t wrong. See? You stopped in.”

– The Bartender

“To Myself,
You have been doing a great job delivering the mail. I have a request for my hard-working self. All of the townsfolk have taken refuge. I want myself to flee, too. Even if it is not written on the schedule, I want myself to flee. Please… from Me.”

– The Postman

Some have come to accept the inevitable, choosing to spend their last remaining moments comforting and treasuring their loved ones. One of the most involved sidequests in the game revolves the reunion of Anju the innkeeper and Kafei, her fiancée who has been turned into a child by Majora. The quest can only be completed through one entire three-day cycle; its resolution takes place in the final minutes before the moon destroys Clock Town:

“We have exchanged our oaths and have become a couple. You are our witnesses. Please accept this mask. Please take refuge. We are fine here. We shall greet the morning… together.”

– Kafei and Anju

Still others transition through stages of grief and loss. On the first day, Mutoh, the head carpenter located in the middle of Clock Town, actively denies that the moon is falling, vehemently dismissing that there is even a problem:

“You cowards! Do you actually believe the moon will fall? The confused townsfolk simply caused a panic by believing this ridiculous, groundless theory. You want answers? The answer is that the carnival should not be canceled!”

By the third and final day, he graduates to impotent anger, raging in futility at others and the situation:

“If you’re gonna fall, then what’s stoppin’ ya, you monster?! Cowards! All of you! Not a one of you stayed! My apprentice will be disgusted with all of you! Hmph! I’ll have a fine carnival without you… If you’re gonna fall, then fall already!”

Anyone working in the fields of environmental education or communication will recognize similar reactions of denial, anger, despair, and acceptance when individuals are confronted with global environmental problems. One of the most difficult challenges is to help people to move on from hopelessness, apathy, and resignation and break through into sustained action for a better future.

 Personal Connections, Sustainable Action

Majora's Mask Clock Town

Link arrives as a stranger in Clock Town, a bizarro world that has no knowledge or expectations of him. The people of Termina are wrapped up in their own concerns and affairs big and small. It is in this world that Link becomes an agent of change. Alone in an unfamiliar world, he is forced to listen and observe. Alone, the relationships they come to forge with the people of Termina are not general; they are specific, unique, personal. By the end of the game, through countless trip back through time, Groundhog Day style, Link comes to know most of them on an intimate level. The forging of such relationships and connections are what gives the narrative of Majora its gravity. As an essay in Edge magazine notes:

“…Saving the world is the easy bit. You’ve done that in nearly every videogame you’ve ever played. In Majora’s Mask you save the world by saving the world’s people, one flawed, fragile and fascinating person at a time.”

What’s particularly bittersweet about Majora’s Mask is the realization that the game makes it impossible to save everyone within a single three-day frame. The player must plan ahead what they wish to accomplish in each cycle; trying to do too much could result in running out of time. But helping one person means that others are left to suffer, and no matter how hard you try or how fast you are, not everyone can be saved. So despite the successful resolution of the game, one sees that there are still  tragedies and casualties that cannot be reversed.

In light of these realizations, I am reminded of Flight of the Hummingbird, a previously discussed Ekostory in which the takeaway message is “doing what one can” along with my favourite quote from Lord of the Rings, that “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

These noble ideas are put to the test in Majora, where Link has unlimited time for action, but the people he helps will not remember his good deeds, for each success, reunion, and happy ending will be undone with each repeated cycle of time. What does he do? He does what he can and most remarkable of all, he is able to sustain his drive to help others with little expectation of outside reward or recognition. To help a person in need, to mend one relationship at a time, to slowly and surely set things right, are reasons enough for him to act. Taken within the context of the narrative, Link is indeed a true hero.

Questions:

  • What motivations do you have to fight for change?
  • Are they internally or externally driven?
  • Are they sustainable over the long run?

Conclusion

Instead of a conventional epic, Majora’s Mask is a game focused on connections and relationships that rewards keen observation and patience. It is a narrative composed of many small stories that convey the breadth of the human condition. Its mature portrayal and exploration of grief and loss in the face of mortality – elements not traditionally explored in the videogame medium – makes it a memorable game more than a decade after its release. Do these features make it a great game? That would depend on what one expects from a game. But there is no doubt in my mind that Majora’s Mask tells a fascinating and deeply human tale.

Next Up: Stories from Nepal.

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Edge Magazine. Time Extend: Zelda – Majora’s Mask. Retrieved at http://www.edge-online.com/features/time-extend-zelda-majoras-mask/2/

Hylian Dan. Immortal Childhood. Retrieved at  http://www.zeldauniverse.net/articles/immortal-childhood/

Featured Image by Twilight Termina. All other artwork and screenshots sourced from zeldawiki.orgThe Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask © 2000 Nintendo, Inc. All rights reserved.

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