Chris is a second-year Ph.D. student studying games at the University of Waterloo, and a copy editor for FPS. He’s interested in games digitization, DRM, the history of console design, and has a particular affinity for snarky and self-aware video games.
It’s lonely at the top of the mountain. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has reigned supreme more or less uninterruptedly as the Greatest Game of all Time in popular culture for nearly two decades. Other challengers have periodically risen from the masses (The Last of Us, Journey, whatever GTA game came out last, etc.), but the conversation always finds its way back to Ocarina. Conversely, Nintendo has been accused of sitting on its creative laurels with nearly every Zelda game they’ve put out since Ocarina. It’s an unenviable position: how do you navigate the already precarious balance between convention and innovation when the foundational title you put out ten sequels ago remains such an enduring sacred cow?
Except Nintendo actually did manage a pretty stunning solution to that problem in Ocarina’s newly-popular-again direct sequel: Majora’s Mask. A game that my friends and I have lovingly dubbed the “Hipster Zelda”, Majora’s Mask stands apart from the rest of the franchise for its brooding atmosphere, short length, and above all, its liberal recycling of most of Ocarina of Time’s assets. This close relationship with its predecessor, however, runs far deeper than texture packs and MIDI files. Majora’s Mask stands out as an example of uncommon artistic bravery at the House of Mario (the enormous capitalistic incentive to crank out a quickly-done sequel to OOT smugly notwithstanding) because it represents a moment in the franchise’s history where the developers took a step back from their so-called, Greatest Game of All Time and followed up with a fascinating postmodern critique not just of Ocarina, but of games as a whole in the late 90s.
THE POSTMODERN (WIN) CONDITION
Postmodernism is a murky term to define and a potentially hazardous one to toss around: Fredric Jameson begins one of his foundational essays on the subject with an acknowledgement of such. After citing seemingly disparate examples of postmodern movements in various media, Jameson offers two generalizations. First, he observes that most of his examples “emerge as specific reactions against the established forms of high modernism, against this or that dominant high modernism which conquered the university, the museum, the art gallery network, and the foundations” (13). Secondly, he identifies the other distinguishing feature as “the effacement in it of some key boundaries or separations” (14).
The archetypal example of a postmodern video game is the oft-cited Metal Gear Solid 2. As Chris Zimbaldi notes, “the post-modern collides with Raiden’s tragedy during the game’s final minutes. When it is revealed that Raiden’s military support he has been speaking to over the radio are not humans, but a system of computer programs, he begins to question his very existence.” MGS2’s design satisfies Jameson’s two criteria. Firstly, the game is a reactionary critique of the comparatively “mainstream” first game in the series, putting the player in the role of a character who Zimbaldi suggests “from a certain point of view can be seen as the antagonist.” Secondly, the boundaries between MGS2 and its forebears–indeed between itself and the player’s reality–are blurred by the game’s celebration of self-referential humor and the ironic and metatextual twist ending where a video game character is confronted with the notion that his entire existence is a computer-simulated illusion.
For the uninitiated, Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina and features the same ten-year-old incarnation of Link as the previous game. Instead of the traditional leisurely romp through Hyrule, Majora’s Mask transplants Link into an alternate-reality kingdom called Termina facing an impending apocalypse courtesy of a slowly-falling moon which descends in real-time. With a newfound emphasis on sidequests, Link must divide his time between pursuing the traditional world-saving main quest and helping alternate-reality incarnations of people he met in the previous game. Because there’s no way that even the main quest can be resolved in its entirety within the three-day limit, Link can use the Ocarina of Time to repeatedly travel back to the beginning of the three day cycle as the player inches forward in overall progress. Major treasures, like Link’s arsenal of weapons, the masks he obtains, and relics recovered from dungeons are retained from cycle-to-cycle, but everything else, from NPC-sidequest progress, consumable items, and even dungeon progress is lost.
So what makes Majora’s Mask, which predates MGS2 by roughly a year, a postmodern video game? Firstly, it articulates a critique of the dominant forms and conventions of the games which precede it: namely tutorials, repetition, and player-character agency. Secondly, it practices effacement, blurring the boundaries between itself and the games it critiques by incorporating and expanding upon the very tropes it scrutinizes.
HEY! LISTEN! OR WHATEVER
The critique starts with one of the player’s earliest, most formative engagements with any game: the tutorial. Ocarina‘s primary vector for instruction is Link’s fairy companion Navi, a character and mechanic now infamous for her incessant voice prompts: “Hey!” and “Listen!” Majora’s Mask replaces Navi with the equally-playfully-named Tatl, who initially appears to have been designed with far more consideration for the player’s patience threshold: rather than shouting at Link every time he encounters a new obstacle, she simply rings, not unlike the phone in your pocket.
At the same time though, Tatl is far more sarcastic and condescending than Navi ever was, especially in the early part of the game when her advice is more crucial to the player. After a brief introduction she says, “If I figure something out, press C-UP and I’ll tell it to you. Hopefully you’ll manage to get by without my help until then!” Right from the start then, she belittles the player for needing to be reminded of mechanics already learned in the previous game. The sarcastic edge to her advice endures even when the player is confronted with predicaments entirely new to Majora’s Mask, seemingly poking fun at a long tradition of tutorial dialogue in games. The result is a reflexive admission by the game that tutorial dialogue is an inherently clunky contrivance. That Majora’s Mask is itself guilty of this contrivance is demonstrated by Tatl’s own exasperation with the routine.
In her role as tutorial coach, then, Tatl is already in a spot where the fourth wall between the player and the game is cracking; on subsequent playthroughs of previously-visited content, she chips away at the drywall even further. When the player encounters dialogue and cutscenes for a second or third time in a playthrough by virtue of the game’s time-travel mechanics, Tatl’s dialogue occasionally changes. For example, when Link and Tatl first confront the antagonistic Skull Kid, accompanied by Tatl’s brother, Tael, the latter expresses out loud his hope that the four godlike giants who live at the four corners of the kingdom will arrive to put a stop to the Skull Kid’s world-threatening scheme to crash the moon into the kingdom. Skull Kid responds by dismissively striking his fairy companion, eliciting Tatl’s shock and indignation. When Link and Tatl return to the tower after travelling back in time, events play out identically, but Tatl unsuccessfully warns Tael that the Skull Kid is going to hit him, and swears that she will never forgive the Skull Kid for hitting her brother “over and over.”
Despite her privileged knowledge as a time traveller, however, Tatl remains curiously aloof about the mechanics of time travel from both a narrative and gameplay standpoint, reacting with confusion the first time Link travels back, and continuing to warn Link that he is running out of time until the moon’s fall (despite the fact that, from both Link’s and the player’s point of reference, the available time over multiple cycles is infinite). Despite her accompaniment of Link through his time-travelling exploits, Tatl appears to be vulnerable to the hypnotic force of repetition that the game engenders.
CLOCKWORK PEOPLE FOR A CLOCKWORK TOWN
Repetition is a longstanding tradition in games, originally born from both technological and creative necessity. Rally the ball with your paddle over and over. Shoot the invading aliens over and over. Save the princess from the castle over and over. Citing Flappy Bird as a negative example, Ian Bogost points out that when games fail to offer rewards that outweigh the repetitious nature of their mechanical operation, the result is “the misery of repetition.” Role-playing games (and their cousins, action-adventures) are vulnerable to this misery in a particular way because it produces situations which can break the player’s narrative suspension of disbelief. Non-player characters who repeat the same line of dialogue over and over are a particularly egregious example of this phenomenon; an example of which Ocarina is guilty.
Majora’s Mask interrogates this convention on multiple levels. Uncharacteristically unable to save the world on a single go-through, Link must repeatedly flee through time, presumably abandoning the world to a violent death an untold number of times from his temporal frame of reference. Rather than the typical 8-15 dungeons allotted by previous (and subsequent) games in the series, Majora’s Mask gives the player just four, and forces the player to enter them repeatedly by limiting the available time to navigate them on any one playthrough and providing secondary goals and sidequests that hinge upon dungeon (re)exploration.
At the heart of all this madness are the hapless citizens of Clock Town. True to their NPC predecessors from earlier games, the citizens have limited dialogue options and follow scripted and unchanging routes during the three day cycle of the game. On the surface this is no different from NPC behavior in any number of earlier games both within and without the franchise. Critique and blurring come to the forefront, however, when the game calls explicit attention to the clockwork determinism of its characters; it even gives the player a handy notebook to track where they all are at any given time to help in completing sidequests.
In the blissful ignorance of any other game world, this would be all well and good. But the harmless repetition common to so many other games becomes a self-reflexive purgatory for the characters of Majora’s Mask, who, despite their inability to alter their destinies or change their routines, are fully aware of the scripted determinism that rules their lives. Everyone in Clock Town seems to be aware on some level that doom hangs quite literally above their heads. Some laugh it off, some express their disbelief, others busy themselves with their clockwork routines. Regardless of their coping strategies, however, everybody seems to perceive the hopelessness of their situation. For example, Grog, a youth living on the outskirts of the game world on a ranch, notes the distance between himself and the moon’s projected point of impact, and gloomily concludes that the destructive radius of the impact will reach him anyway: “With somethin’ that big, it’s sure to take this ranch down with it. . . Hahhh. . . Oh, well.” He accepts this with a resignation that alludes not only to his pessimism but also to his self-awareness: the game developers haven’t programmed any environments further out, so where exactly could Grog run, anyway?
There is perhaps no character in the game more tragic than the Clock Town Postman, whose very life and livelihood is structured around the clockwork routine to which all the NPCs are beholden. From a gameplay perspective the Postman’s schedule is no more or less strictly regimented than the other NPCs, but from a narrative perspective he stands apart as a metatextual nervous wreck. He responds with distress when the player tries to talk to him during his deliveries, and lives in sheer terror of breaking his routine: “If my schedule is disrupted by even a few seconds,” he pleads, “letter delivery will be delayed. . . Public service is very hard.” His fear is on some level understandable; after all, who can predict what chaos might result when a program encounters parameters not anticipated by the programmer?
A curious player can find two idiosyncratic letters written (and mailed!) by the Postman to himself. The first is congratulatory, offering himself encouragement for his incredibly hard work in maintaining his own schedule. The second, written on the eve of the impending apocalypse, is heart-wrenching. He begs himself to flee the town before the moon falls, but ultimately cannot, as the player can find him cowering on the floor of his office right up until the end. The only way the player can save the Postman is by forcibly breaking his routine, giving him a priority letter to be delivered outside his operating parameters–his delivery schedule. The Postman, then, is freed only after abandoning his constructed identity of repetition. It is perhaps only appropriate, then, that in a self-reflexively deterministic video game like Majora’s Mask, the Postman disappears altogether.
The Postman’s predicament is indicative of a recurring tension in the game: without the player’s direct intervention in their lives, most of the NPCs in Clock Town are condemned to some lesser or greater tragedy. The game’s time-travel mechanic problematizes this situation further by constraining the number of people Link can help in a single cycle: either an elderly shopkeep is going to be mugged, a star-crossed couple will see their love go unfulfilled, a little girl will be abducted by aliens and traumatized, or all of the above. The result is that there is no single timeline where everybody has a happy ending. In this clockwork kingdom, then, the clockwork people are entirely at the mercy of intervening player agency.
YOU’VE MET WITH A TERRIBLE FACE
Video games typically afford the player character a great deal of agency. In many a digital kingdom the hero seems to get an awful lot done in his or her day compared to the monotonous NPC denizens who can often do nothing more than pace back and forth–if they are even given the affordance of changing direction by the programmers (how awful to be a koopa!). Link (and players of previous Zelda games) have a long and colorful history of pronounced agency. Link cavorts about Hyrule with reckless abandon, barging into people’s homes, smashing their pots, pillaging their chests, and tormenting their poultry.
Link and player alike are in for a rude awakening in Majora’s Mask, which opens with Link being ambushed, robbed, transfigured, humiliated, and stranded in a world where for the first time in the series time absolutely will not wait for him. The player spends the greater part of the first hour of the game not as the familiar green elf boy, but as Groot’s stubby little cousin–a lowly Deku Scrub. Eventually the curse is lifted to create a transformation mask, but shortly thereafter the player must spend most of the next several hours in Deku form in order to infiltrate a Deku Kingdom and clear out their now-cursed temple. Eventually the player will recover several other masks, allowing Link to transform into a Goron, a Zora, and a simultaneously familiar and menacing demigod. Different masks grant different abilities while restricting others (most of Link’s items are off-limits while transformed, for example), and the game’s puzzles often require switching back and forth between different transformations. All in all, the player is liable to clock just many hours transformed as not.
Contrary to the nomenclature of every walkthrough ever published on the game, however, these various embodiments aren’t merely “Deku Link”, “Zora Link,” or likewise. They are all deceased inhabitants of this peculiar kingdom; Link even witnesses one of these deaths firsthand in a moment of black comedy as the mortally wounded Zora, Mikau belts out his last words on a fishbone guitar and promptly collapses on the beach. Whenever Link puts on one of the transformation masks, the memories of the dead overwhelm him and he lets out an anguished cry. The process is immediately reminiscent of the ages-old practice of casting plaster masks from the faces from the deceased. The actual transformation is, to borrow from Roland Barthes, an “intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death” (49). Barthes is in this case describing not death masks but photography (in a curious coincidence, the macabre Majora’s Mask is the first game in the series to grant the player a camera as an in-game item), but the description remains eerily appropriate. As the game’s director, Eiji Aonuma explains in a recent interview, “We’re talking about masks that were created to contain the memories of people who have died. Often there are things they really wanted to do before they left this world, so becoming them is actually really painful because it’s like hosting a really powerful spirit that’s coming into you.” (qtd. in Lloyd). In order to augment his abilities, then, Link must make this abrupt dive into a literal death (of the subject of the mask, if not his own), outside of religion or ritual. In other words, Link must enter a space where death and meaning don’t necessarily share a one-to-one correlation, where people can (and have) died in vain, or before their time, or for no reason at all. Notably, of the three dead characters Link can transform into, one never has his cause of death revealed, two die alone, two are recognized as heroes but perish before fulfilling their respective quests, and all three leave people behind who care about them.
Link travels the kingdom wearing dead faces, but their memories live on. This is reinforced by Link’s interactions with the people these deceased characters knew in life. So long as he wears the appropriate mask, they recognize him not as Link, but as their son, or their chieftain, or their lover. This puts the player at an uncomfortable (and I suspect deliberate) impasse between opposing ideas. On one hand, Link finds himself in a world with just an ounce more realism than before, where he isn’t the only hero, and where, in a way, he can’t save the world all on his own. At the same time, Link’s (and the player’s) agency can only be maintained by depriving others of that same agency, whether it be by choosing (or refusing) to help the various NPCs or the more extreme cases where Link captures the spirits of the dead and weaponizes their abilities and identities. And yet, this is how it has always been: in Zelda games and in all games, the hero only has so much to do because nobody else can be arsed. The boundaries are blurred once again. Majora’s Mask merely gestures more explicitly to the writing on the wall.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released in North America on October 26th, 2000–coincidentally the same day as the PlayStation 2, which brought the next generation of console gaming into full swing. It is perhaps fitting that Majora’s Mask, a story about death and a video game about video games, serves as an endnote of sorts for its generation of gaming. By engaging in its playful, postmodern critique of both itself and its many predecessors, Majora’s Mask looks back with both nostalgia and scrutiny. During the succeeding generation, games would further problematize many of the tropes Majora’s Mask draws attention to, and other fully postmodern titles like MGS2 would see release. Eiji Aonuma has remained at the helm of the Zelda franchise since his 2000 directorial debut, and the ensuing sequels (and prequels) have continued to enjoy critical and commercial success. Majora’s Mask remains, however, the only time in the series’ history where the developers have put down their rose colored glasses in favour of the Mask of Truth. That mask, as it so happens, has not recurred in the franchise to date.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Print.
Bogost, Ian: “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Monthly Group, 3 Feb. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Postmodernism and its Discontents: Theories, Practices. Ed. Ann E. Kaplan. New York: Verso, 1988. Print.
Konami Computer Entertainment Japan. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Konami, 2001. PlayStation 2.
Lloyd, Rod. “Aonuma Answers More Majora’s Mask Questions, Explains Whose Soul is Inside the Fierce Deity Mask.” Zelda Informer. Gamenesia, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
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—. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Nintendo, 1998. Nintendo 64.
Zimbaldi, Chris. “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty as a Post-modern Tragedy.” Metal Gear Solid: The Unofficial Site. n.p., 2 Jan 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.