Why Majora’s Mask is Still Brilliant (but Don’t Tell it I Said So)
Prophesied heroes aren’t interesting. The inescapable flaw dangling out of their self-righteous nose is that they have no motivation beyond the prophecy. Motivation is their motivation, suspended and without context or internal goals, written by a game dev god as a shortcut to player investment. You can bypass character traits, flaws, relationships, emotion, and narrative context so long as you preordain importance and rightness as an assurance that you’ll never have to work for them. George Lucas figured this out after finishing the original trilogy, but he took it as a challenge rather than an advisory and made the prequels about the prophecy junket of a snot-nosed waif drawn into adventure by his wisers without ever having goals of his own.
Lots of people still get misty-eyed at the thought of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but does Link himself factor into those feelings? If you took him out for a butterbeer, what would he say, if it was evidence of his identity in his own games? Would he tell you about his goals and feelings, his insecurities and hopes and flaws? Or would he stare blankly at you for an hour before convulsively making a sound like someone was trying to re-ascend his Adam’s apple with forceps? Personality is such a footnote on his resume beneath box-pushing and yelping that typing skills and crochet have about as much to do with his adventure and its appeal. I wonder how the verdant snot ever got so famous until I realize that a target age comes with the advantage of insertion. The guise of the player itself having the adventure took over the Zelda formula post-Ocarina. His prophecy became ours, and so we pardoned it.
But prophecies are the Xanax of story writing: they can treat your anxiety that no one will get your narrative but at the risk that it will be uncoordinated, blurry, and prone to accidents. Ocarina of Time stays on its drug high ostensibly for the player’s benefit, but it holds your hand so obsessively to the end of your inescapable heroic destiny that nothing personal could possibly be taken from it. This has been mistaken by gaming history as a hero’s journey. But since it has no internal goals or motivations, the narrative rings hollower than a Deku’s fist.
With Majora’s Mask as the sequel to such a success, Nintendo could have inflated the donut of their quarterly income with as much sweet nostalgia jelly as fans could take after only twenty-four months of knowing what an ocarina was. Or, along the Skyward Sword route, Nintendo could have tried in earnest to give Link a personality, which likely would have resulted in a boy with an expression as willful as a rattling tailpipe turning up his lips into the kind of self-assured snivel that makes me wish I wore gloves just so I could smack him with one.
But that’s not what they did with Majora’s Mask. They kept the same dull character layered a saltine’s width with emotion but became suddenly and inexplicably aware of him. Nintendo placed the prophecy character into a world that did not acknowledge him, one in which the player’s goals would have to mature and become self-actualizing in the absence of external motivation or the praise of dollish NPCs, pushed from their mouths like ground sausage every time you chop grass, kill a guy, pick up a rupee or think about doing so.
In fact, Majora’s Mask is so bleak that it reminds me less of Zelda games than of the modern Indie game’s “lost child” narrative the likes of Limbo and Inside. Majora’s Mask is a harsh mistress, offering the player routes to progress but at the expense of feeling any kind of credit or congratulations. It’s just like any of the Zelda Skinner boxes, that make you do tricks and push buttons for little biscuits of achievements, but it’s cynically aware of that fact. There’s a dreary existentialism hanging like Eeyore’s pall over Majora’s Mask, which refuses to take notice of the player’s right to succeed. No matter what you do, the world continues ineffably to its doom. And when you finally solve it, no one knows or cares what you’ve done. The world reabsorbs you not into its storied history but into the anonymity of the common lifetime, passed over without a glance by the cruel forces of eternity.
The gameplay in Majora’s Mask is standard 3D Zelda, which makes its innovations all the more staggering: its changes are less mechanical than they are rhetorical. How the world reacts to you is more essential than how you react to it. The powerful tininess of a conversation with someone you saved once but who now doesn’t recognize you is more potent in the player’s narrative than all the time travel mechanics combined, more significant than all the calls to adventure a wizened old tree could gasp from its bark-holes in seventeen tutorials’ time.
The player’s passing into the implied lore of the world rather than activating all the levers of its historic occasions to thunderous fireworks and kissies on the cheek reminds me of Dark Souls II of all things, in which you are destined to fail your task as the hero of prophecy in a world that barely notices you. Majora’s Mask negotiates the identity of its players on a level deeper than most games are willing to even acknowledge, a level Nintendo wouldn’t touch now if doing so would end world suffering. For many of us, Majora’s Mask was its own kind of suffering, the realization of personal insignificance. But out of this, the will to act becomes a natural necessity, the will to adventure becomes independent of quest arrows or digital pats on the back or Christmas bonuses. Despite its entrancing perspectives and subtle horrors, its importance in the history of gaming is minuscule, since so few have ever copied or acknowledged its tremendous innovations.
What could be more appropriate than that?