At The Edge of the World
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

By Jamie Love - March 29th, 2009

Majora's Mask

As with all exemplary pieces of writing, Greg’s exploration of Majora’s Mask over at 4 Color Rebellion has rekindled some long-running questions about the N64 title and given rise to new ones. Across the wide expanse of the Internet, there is no shortage of brains in jars that can tell you why a grape is really an orange. But it takes a more thoughtful mind to realize that there are no definitive answers to be had. Yet there is much to be gained from having the discussion in the first place. While we can say that a game is simply a game, the rising influence of the gaming medium is challenging gamers as a community to create their own dialogue as consumers of other creative mediums of the past have done.

The release of a title like Resident Evil 5 has reminded us that as the industry continues to evolve, we will either nurture this dialogue together, or relinquish our right to the mass media through our silence and indifference. We can challenge the existence of maturity within games as long as we bring maturity to these titles as a community in return. This isn’t an attempt to drain the fun away, or change the experiences we’ve shared, but is instead a commitment to engage the medium we cherish with a level of engagement and respect we want those outside forces to view the industry with. And on another level, we must be willing to bring maturity to the medium if we indeed want to find it returned to us through future releases.

The framework Greg outlines about the fluke that is Majora’s Mask has broken a general lack of discussion about the game. For Nintendo, and the Zelda franchise, Majora’s Mask is every bit the anomaly that titles like The Black Hole, Black Cauldron, and Tron are to Disney. These titles seemingly break from a set tradition. And whether or not they forge new ground, they explore the possibilities open to the genres they stem from and the limitations of a more universal narrative.

Majora's Mask

As Greg describes, Link arrives upon the ground of Majora’s Mask, the victor of The Ocarina of Time, only to have everything that was gained in the previous title immediately taken away – leaving him powerless once again. This type of game-play is a legacy set down by Nintendo, and a template for the industry. With the exception of one beloved plumber, Nintendo’s other two most revisited franchises are built upon the concept of starting at ground zero, the player gaining more abilities and power as they progress throughout the game. And this concept did not emerge from a vacuum. What Miyamoto tapped into was the oldest narrative tradition of humanity, which he brought to the beginnings of the industry with skill and artistry, creating a series that is retold like the legends of old for each new generation of gamer.

It’s an idea already well explored by Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh in his dissection of Wind Waker:

“In this respect, he [Miyamoto] is essentially a bard. With a handful of details, a rough outline, and his whims, he spins tales for his audience. With every telling and every audience, his stories go down a slightly different path. No one performance is more accurate than any other; the truth is in the telling.

There is a reason why every Zelda game (save the odd direct sequel) is a new beginning, with a new (yet nearly identical) Link and a new Zelda. It’s the same reason why there are so many versions of Journey to the West or the legend of King Arthur, and even why there are such varied translations of an epic like Beowulf.

Our linear sense of time is only a recent innovation, as is our precise concept of history. Legends such as these are based in a world where existence is of a circular nature. The seasons come and go; like flourishes and wanes – and then it begins again, albeit in a slightly different form. For as long as this form persists, it is the only reality. Once it has been recycled, the same is true of its next incarnation.”

The specific concept of regaining what was taken away is seen again with the release of Metroid Prime, but the Zelda series largely retains a more entrenched tradition of repetition. Like the oldest tales, the young and inexperienced is engaged by a quest to gain the wisdom and strength of maturity, becoming the person that can overcome a great obstacle. The brilliance of the application is the way by which this replicated the experience of engaging the new medium of gaming as the young and experienced children we were, matured to the process by the quest Miyamoto set before us.

And yet, Majora’s Mask feels like a departure. Link arrives already a hero, a man in his own right who is suddenly stripped of all he has earned. We are left to question whether Nintendo exposes a Peter Pan complex here, and whether they know what to do with an already proven hero. Repeatedly, Link follows the path from boyhood to manhood: the endless cycle of traditionalist narrative Nintendo brings to each new generation. But the aftermath of that journey, and what becomes of the man, seems to be a wall Nintendo retreats from.

(Now if I wanted to wander off, I could suggest that there is a parallel to the way in which Nintendo takes all of us gaming men and makes us boys once again with the wondrous charms of their products. But I’ll spare us all the trouble.)

Majora's Mask

What’s important here is that within Majora’s Mask, Link’s task is less about growing into a hero than of reclaiming that identity he loses at the start of the adventure. In doing so, there is far less focus on the growth and evolution we are accustomed to, though the act is similar. Instead of handling the presence of a matured Link, he is regressed back into a boyish state to begin the process once again. But what does it mean to be suddenly robbed of manhood?

Does this feed the desolation that saturates the world of Majora’s Mask? And can we explain the time mechanics that continually reset the world as a direct response to this state? Even the functions of the masks seem to feed into this idea. Rather than gaining natural abilities through growth, Link obtains masks that transform him. His new abilities aid his quest, but through an unnatural design that sees him taking on personas in the absence of his own identity. It’s as if Nintendo has no identity for a matured link, and can offer only the abstractions of alternative realities based on established concepts.

But we shouldn’t fall prey to a blind faith in designer intention. In fact, no other creative medium places as much emphasis on the intention of a creator quite so much as the gaming industry. In the literary tradition, the author isn’t necessarily a divine being who communicates secret wisdom directly to the reader – but instead uses a collection of experiences communicated through the work, which is dissected differently in turn by each person who reads it, themselves a collection of various and unique experiences. The entirety of this experiment is what creates meaning. And perhaps because game design is seen as a more intricate skill and artistry, we naturally lend more power to the intention of the creators.

But this does not mean that games are any less subject to the same freedom of interpretation. Again, there is no definitive answer. If there was one, it would change with the perceptions of each new society. We see things as part of what we are and where we come from, and are largely chained to that fact – much in the same way Link is chained to his world.

Majora's Mask

The element that Greg brings our attention to that left the most questions was the impending and repeating function of the apocalypse Majora’s Mask hangs over the player’s head with a heavy moon. Because of the ways in which Majora’s Mask breaks not only from its own traditions, but from that legacy of narrative that birthed it, it really seems to bring us as gamers to the end of the world. And when we ask why Nintendo doesn’t seek to achieve this anomaly again, I question whether Majora’s Mask can represent Nintendo’s apocalypse, and if there is any place for Link beyond the tradition he emerges from. It’s a question that goes beyond the game to reach the core of a greater human condition engrained within us. It questions what we know, and asks if there is anything new to be said, or if we are merely doomed to retell the same stories until a more natural end of time relieves us all of the burden.

It’s quite possible that within Majora’s Mask we are seeing the end of the world, arriving at the edge of a flat earth that represents the boundaries of where Nintendo’s design philosophies meet our shared narrative history. This isn’t merely Nintendo’s problem, but one the entire industry struggles with. The problem is that we can never see beyond the horizon of that end, because we are confined to the world that is ending. Instead, our world is continually reset, and as with the retelling of a story, we encounter the world once again, in slightly different ways that are none the less familiar. And yet, even if it seems impossible to see beyond the edge of that destruction, the sense that there is a new world beyond it persists. There is every chance that this apocalypse can create a new world. We can question whether Nintendo can take us there, but the larger challenge for the industry and ourselves is in finding the means to glimpse that other world by any means possible.

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    10 responses so far:
  2. By H
    Posted on Mar 29, 2009

    There is an ongoing discussion about this particularly since the advent of postmodernism. Nintendo itself aside, I think there’s a lot that could be done with Link and his world, but maybe there’s more that could be done with different characters not of this archetypal mold. The genre of a LoZ game with a serious narrative break might further be easier with a genre shift, but would that cease to be a LoZ game? Likewise if Nintendo made a Mario FPS they would probably receive letterbombs. So how many stories are there in the world? In terms of basic elements very few, but in different tellings probably infinite. So a mature Zelda game in my opinion would perhaps require a complex narrative, and either a different premise to ‘save Zelda’ or the same premise with a complication; say something dark or difficult happens as a result. It would also need to be told well, but we know Nintendo can do that. The best fantasy and scifi deals with real issues through the fantasy- read Dianna Wynne-Jones if you don’t believe me. This nonsense about heroes and forces of evil is a sheer hallucination, the most fantastical element of all, and extremely boring when you’re force-fed it by maintstream games and hollywood all day long

  3. Posted on Mar 30, 2009

    @H – I absolutely believe you about a higher sci-fi objective, which is very evident in the broader success of a series like BSG. A line about Sci-fi that remained with me for a long time was that, “Great Science-Fiction challenges us to think harder about our own world.”

    The idea of retelling is a continually exciting one as well. On one hand it is comparable to the DJ’s ability to remix new from old, and also it’s important to consider the ways of seeing we bring to each different telling as well. In fact just the various and different comments that have spawned in response to Greg’s piece really make me appreciate how many different ways there are to see a particular story.

  4. By Willozap
    Posted on Mar 31, 2009

    The thing that struck me about this article is that comment of a few years ago of Roger Ebert (I think) that there is no true video game criticism on a par with that afforded literature and film.

    This essay is exactly the kind of essay writing that video game journalism needs – a New York Review of Books equivalent for video games.

    So well done Jamie, you’ve just proved to me that truly thoughtful criticism of game material exists.

  5. Posted on Mar 31, 2009

    @Willozap – Thank-you, very much. If we can accomplish even half of that, then it was all worth the effort.

  6. By AntonVonUber
    Posted on Mar 31, 2009

    Hmmm… if only to change the premise of saving Zelda, maybe there could be a multiple-ending approach to a Zelda series where the player has to make the choice of saving Zelda or saving a larger community? That may be interesting, though would lead to the all-pure Link having moral baggage. He’s intended to be the perfect image of all that is ‘good’ versus Ganon’s ‘evil’. I don’t think a LoZ game has room for moral ambiguity (ala KoTOR, Fable, or Fallout 3) and developing your character for good or evil, though it could be interesting. Or, then again maybe it’ll turn out like Fable — wouldn’t it be interesting to play as Dark Link though and pillage a village? Maybe aid Ganondorf in defeating Zelda and Link and then finally defeat Ganondorf and assume your Dark Throne? Hmmm… indie developers?

  7. By Maniac
    Posted on Apr 1, 2009

    @AntonVonUber

    I don’t think that Link is necessarily “all-pure”. Heroic certainly, but for the most part his private thoughts are largely removed from the narrative. Like Mario, he’s more of a place-holder than a person. If a gamer projects particular values onto the character, then they become true for that gamer. In my case, I play Link like a lunatic and a thief. I barge into people’s homes, smash their pots and take the money I find inside.

    They bring this problem up in OOT and WW. OOT has a scene where a resident questions why you just stormed into their house uninvited (Kakariko village) and WW has a delightful segment in the rich man’s home where he demands you return the money you stole from breaking his pots.

    Do these acts make him a villain? No. But they certainly don’t make Link out to be a perfect white knight either. I’d call petty theft and breaking and entering to be a moral shade of grey.

  8. By Maniac
    Posted on Apr 1, 2009

    @Jamie

    I’ve actually been spending a lot of time thinking about achademia and how it has formed as a culture within a sphere of essays, responses and so forth.

    It really happens in that sort of organic space for each industry, art, science or what have you, and video games should be no exception. After spending so many hours in class, doing readings and writing essays for my BA, I’ve been tempted to write short essays myself but I may have to wait until after graduation.

    I guess what I’d like to see until then is a sort of reservoir or database where various essay-like articles about the industry could be found. I mean, its nice to have links between sites, but these articles tend to be lost when they are forced off of the main page of their respective sites. Any chance we could get some sort of site together to that effect?

  9. Posted on Apr 1, 2009

    @Maniac – You’re absolutely right about the organic nature of the process, including links and more importantly comments from readers – which deserve far more attention and respect than they’ve previously gotten.

    I’ve thought quite a bit about the type of depository you’ve mentioned. On one hand I fear any of these articles being lost not only to time, but to the collapse of sites overtime. But it’s also very hard to remove something from its organic evolution and place it in a more sterile environment, even with the best intentions – doubly hard to decide which writers have their work placed in such a database and which ones don’t.

    However, the more net savvy we become, the more we might appreciate the way a piece of writing at one site might lead to a dozen others in a natural state. I don’t have anything close to a definitive answer on it all, and it merits much more thought and discussion.

  10. By Hylian Dan
    Posted on Apr 9, 2009

    “But it takes a more thoughtful mind to realize that there are no definitive answers to be had. Yet there is much to be gained from having the discussion in the first place.”

    Thank you for that quote. I’ve spent a few years trying to raise the level of discourse surrounding Majora’s Mask. For too long all it seemed people would talk about were the Fierce Deity and whether Termina is an alternate universe.

    A lot of the time people say I’m looking too deeply, that the designers never intended the stuff I see in the game. I hate when people try to put an end to the discussion that way. The point isn’t whether or not we’re right so much as it is what we can learn by studying the game and its incredible themes and messages.

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