Majora’s Mask (A Long Time From Now, In a Country Far Far Away)
Ocarina of Time, the landmark prequel to Majora’s Mask, holds the seeds from the which its future sibling springs. Some of these seeds are quite obvious: the masks, for instance. But, in my imagination, the most important seeds can be found in two seemingly unimportant moments. The first involves Zora’s Domain. As many dejected fellow gamers might recall, the enchanted winter that shrouds the Domain cannot be dispelled, even after destroying the appropriate evil spirit. The ice will supposedly melt at a future date beyond the game’s conclusion. A glimpse of the thaw is hinted at during the end credits, but we cannot actually visit the post-thaw Domain, which is what we wanted: a way to physically confirm our success. Here is a suggestion of the disappointment that will color Majora’s Mask. The second moment is both more trivial and more significant. I am referring to the windmill. We walk inside, greeted by a question mark in place of the customary area name, overwhelmed by the psychotic music emerging from a lunatic’s instrument, from a lunatic’s obsessive search for an elusive tune, the same crazed notes forever resounding while the windmill’s inner cogs turn and creak round and round unceasingly. The question mark is answered later on, but the initial impression never left me. That music, that endless repetition, that perverted fun-house atmosphere of a carnival filtered through a nightmare, that insane musician who cannot be helped, who can only be further tormented, and my perplexed encounter with a twisted little area, ensconced inside a windmill in a deceptively idyllic town that is actually the most foreboding corner of Hyrule, and the first evidence of its foreboding aura is this windmill, and that music, and that dizzy circling that never stops. Majora’s Mask not only recasts the mad musician, but expands on the dizzy circling, makes it its center and essence.
Most games encourage our success. We save a town, help a kid, or destroy an evil scourge and are rewarded in two ways: the story moves forward and we gain access to the next episode or section; and the thankful non-playable characters whose lives we changed lavish us with praise and digitized human warmth. We are immediately attracted to the practical reward. We yearn for discovery, for new ways to interact and new surfaces to handle. If helping a community improve itself will open shut doors, we’ll call it enlightened self-interest. But once all the doors have been opened, once our hunger for progress has been satiated, the only residual emotion left over during the credit-roll is the digitized human warmth that we once undervalued. Whatever enthusiasm the opened doors generated, it has been depleted. As the end approaches, we realize that the true reward for helping others was listening to all those congratulatory mini-speeches about our virtual wonderfulness.
Majora’s Mask taps into this video-game truth. It knows how important those congratulatory mini-speeches are, and it provides them, but it also takes them away. The game infamously traps us inside a repeating three-day cycle. At the end of the cycle, a falling moon incinerates the land of Termina. We have seventy-two hours to earn an item, learn a song, or achieve some other small victory: baby steps to the finish line. Once the small victory is completed, we play a song on our ocarina and return to the first day of the cycle, now with whatever item or song we found during the previous countdown. Eventually, we will have done enough to halt the moon’s pace. The practical rewards of our success suffer no setback. The emotional rewards are shattered in a process that accrues melancholy resonance throughout our playing time.
We enter a temple, fight its guarding spirit, and give back Spring to the seasonally-challenged and perennially snowed-in mountainside full of orange and hard-skinned Gorons. Everyone’s delighted. Greenery sprouts all over the landscape. We sigh, smile to ourselves, take out our ocarina, play those time-warping notes, and suddenly every trace of our accomplishment — every glad word from a roll-happy Goron, every last inch of recovered flora — is catapulted straight into oblivion, to exist as a shadow-image in our memory, the only place where our deeds remain. Nobody recalls our heroism, because we undo our heroism by reverting the countdown time and time again.
We can always re-encounter that guarding spirit and re-invoke springtime. But that’s impractical. The snowed-in mountainside is not the only ill we can briefly correct. There’s a multitude of smaller tragedies happening across Termina, from farm-sacking aliens to midnight muggings. We can deal with each of them once, but dealing with all of them during every cycle is impossible. Our only recourse is to simply accept the fact of these tragedies and let them happen after we have already reaped the practical rewards of solving them. Other games of this sort satisfy our desire to fix things and to reshape the world for the better. Majora’s Mask would have us understand that our quest needs be flawed and incomplete. We learn to live with tragedy because the only real change we can introduce upon Termina is targeting that moon’s advance. All those little quotidian problems are put aside in favor of the “big picture.”
The game’s cruelest idea is to use its repeating cycle theme to build precise schedules for every non-playable character. With every cycle, these characters endear themselves to us more deeply as we familiarize ourselves with their every move. The same process that forces us to accept tragedy increases our attachment to those who are doomed to suffer isolated misfortunes. The more we learn, the more useless we feel. We can only persist in our approach to the finish line, in spite of it all.
All these conflicting emotions and reverberations await quietly throughout Termina. Majora’s Mask could only be a video-game. It borrows from Alice in Wonderland and Groundhog Day, but what it provides to players is wholly interactive. The plot itself is typical “save the world from bad guy” fodder combined with “cursed item” clichés. Those players who focused solely on the step-by-step dungeon crawling and on the linear storytelling of the well-done if unremarkable cinematics missed the essence of the game. Majora’s Mask bids us live and move freely inside its universe. The repeating cycles allow an intimate relationship with Termina, a relationship that’s sadly empowering. We feel masters of Termina because we know everything that occurs at every hour of all three days, down to the weather: there’s a calming, reassuring aroma to that rain-shower that falls mid-cycle. We know it’s coming and, at last, the storm breaks, as it has broken before and again before that. But we’re impotent masters. Majora’s Mask grows in us the more we play, the more we absorb Termina, the more we interact with our useless knowledge that can only bare ephemeral fruits, the more we learn about the land’s people and how they cope or don’t cope with certain death, the more we try to piece together the game’s discordant mixture of childlike surface and sinister undercurrent, in short, the more we come into contact with the fragile and transient nature of Termina. Majora’s Mask doesn’t tell a story or explain a theme. It coils its ideas around the mechanism of its world-building, compelling us to discover what we may. It’s videogamey in a way few other titles can claim to be.