On Death, Identity, Humanity In Video Games, And Why Majora’s Mask Is So Important
If you’re into pop culture blogs, but not so into Nintendo, you might have noticed that a lot of people are REALLY REALLY EXCITED about the release of the Legend of Zelda franchise title Majora’s Mask for Nintendo 3DS. Nintendo announced the release for early 2015 just yesterday, and now us Zelda nerds are getting a chance to talk about, basically, how weird the game is. Forgive us.
It’s worth knowing about Majora’s Mask, in my opinion, first of all because the game’s resourcefulness and ingenuity is remarkable. (Bear with me, non-gamers, because I promise you’ll be impressed by the end of this.) Majora’s Mask followed on the heels of one of the greatest video game titles ever created, Ocarina of Time. It took four years to develop Ocarina of Time, Nintendo’s largest game to that point (in terms of amount of information on the cartridge as well as depth of storyline and breadth of field for the gameplay map). Majora’s Mask was developed in a year, recycling the character models, weapons, and artwork from Ocarina of Time and adding some new textures.
The two games are aesthetically similar, but the narratives are different. Ocarina of Time functions without a time limit of any kind. You end up playing as a child version of Link (the hero of the series) who is transformed into an adult version, and the story is roughly the same as every other title in the Zelda franchise: You fight evil with a magic sword and save a princess. The story in Majora’s Mask picks up right after Ocarina of Time leaves off: Link is restored to his childhood, wanders into a different land in search of his friend Navi (who was his companion for the entirety of Ocarina of Time), and ends up having to fight evil, yes — but it’s more complicated: A demon spirit has possessed a child via a mask and is threatening to smash the moon into the earth. You have three days to thwart it, and you can travel backward and forward in time throughout those three days; meanwhile, you also help villagers who are facing their imminent deaths to tie up loose ends. You gain a series of masks to help you, three of which literally transform Link into the body of a deceased person whose spirit is trapped in a mask.
It is a profoundly sad game. I’m going to indulge in a theory that’s been circulated throughout the Zelda community, which is that Majora’s Mask is basically the story of Link in purgatory, trying to accept his death. In the beginning of the game, Link takes an impossibly long fall, after which all the drama of the game begins. The entire story is about time running out. You gain the transformation masks only after a character has died. There’s a song that allows you to leave statues in only the forms of those dead characters — and in the form of Link, implying that he is also dead. And if you put Majora’s Mask into the context of the entire Zelda series, it gets even more tragic: Link has just gone through what could only be a traumatizing experience, in which he acts as a child in an adult’s body in Ocarina of Time; by the time Majora’s Mask occurs, he’s the opposite: he’s had the experience of an adult, but is trapped in a child’s body. If he dies at the beginning of the game, he’s a prodigy who has died before his time – or, possibly, if he’s accomplished his purpose as the Hero of Time, what purpose does his life have anymore?
And that is why Majora’s Mask is so good. It is, at heart, a game about identity (therefore the masks), and about loss. Link’s identity throughout the Zelda series is the Hero of Time, but the assumption in most other games is that he gets to live happily ever after. At the end of Ocarina of Time, he’s forced to go back to being a child; and theoretically, because of the time shifts and the fact that he defeated the villain in the adult timeline in Ocarina of Time, no one would even know what he did. No wonder he would leave home: He had no identity there. The Majora’s Mask narrative serves as an opportunity for him to regain and come to terms with his identity as hero before passing on.
And that, to me, is why Majora’s Mask is such a vital part of gaming history — because it showed that even franchises with rote storylines can be adapted to new narratives and new ideas, and imbued with an incredible amount of humanity. Knowing that is important in a cultural moment in which there’s a loud faction of people who believe that video games are best left without that humanity and compassion, and best left without innovation.
Death and temporality are the forces in this universe that make us ask the hardest questions, like why are we here? Why bother? The answer Majora’s Mask offers is, to be the very best of ourselves.
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