The following is an entry in “A Comprehensive Theory of Majora’s Mask,” a series that analyzed the storytelling of Majora’s Mask from the time its 3D remake was announced to the time the remake was released. Find the full series here.
Death is not unknown in the “Zelda” series: in “A Link to the Past,” for example, Link’s uncle dies; and in “Wind Waker,” the King of Hyrule dies, buried with Hyrule beneath the Great Sea. Yet in no other title thus far does Link witness death as directly as he does in “Majora’s Mask”: he watches the Zora guitarist Mikau die at his feet, and actually buries him; and at the end of the game, when the spirit of Majora awakens within Majora’s Mask, Majora ostensibly snaps Skull Kid’s neck, leaving his body dangling, limp, from the mask (6:00 in the video). Even in the case of Darmani, who is already a ghost when Link encounters him, we see the impact of his death on his village, creating a gravitas absent from deaths in other “Zelda” titles.
In this post, I explore what about “Majora” and the world of Termina makes death more imminent and haunting than any other “Zelda” title could. To do so, I focus on the mechanics of Link’s encounter with Mikau, and argue that this case shows the unique capacity of “Majora” to simultaneously depict the concepts of the horror of dying, and the liberation of death.
When Link arrives at the Great Bay, he encounters a dying Mikau limp in the shallow waters of the bay, calling out for help. Link helps Mikau to shore, where Mikau manages to take a few meager steps before collapsing. He plays Link his final song, explaining that a band of Gerudo Pirates stole the eggs of Zora singer Lulu, which prompted Mikau to pursue them, during which time he was mortally wounded. He exclaims to Link: “Even if I die… It won’t be in peace.” Link then must invoke the Song of Healing to transform Mikau’s spirit into the Zora mask, after which he constructs a grave for Mikau.
In no other Zelda titles are the aesthetics of death so raw as Link burying someone. The intimacy of Link the Child acting as the witness to someone’s death leaves the player as a loss: because Link is conceptualized as a silent protagonist, acting only as the conduit through which the player interfaces with the game’s universe, we experience minimal separation and distortion of the essential act of dying. This “in-your-face-ness,” like Skull Kid dangling like a rag doll from Majora’s Mask, is characteristic of how the game presents suffering; perhaps most significantly, this draws the player’s attention to the limitations of Link as an entity: just as childhood connotes innocence, so too does Link’s status as a nonjudgmental third party mitigate a priori moral attributions to the events within Termina. So we see this as a particularly efficacious mechanism for the game’s thesis of metaethical nihilism, in that we are prompted to approach death unflinchingly with childlike innocence.
Yet what I find more interesting particularly in Mikau’s case is the light it sheds upon what it means to exist in Termina. To see what I mean, consider this question: what happens to Mikau in the three-day cycles of Termina prior to Link finding him? Our first and final interaction with Mikau is watching him die and healing his pain. Thereafter, he does not exist within the game — he is one of the beings who is not reconstituted each time the Song of Time is played. So within the world of Termina, Mikau is one who is dying; yet he cannot die until Link is there to bear witness, and to usher him to peace with the Song of Healing. How, then, can Mikau either survive or die in three-day cycle prior to Link encountering him?
I think it is useful to frame this question in terms of truth-functional logic. In the same way that we can determine statements to be true or false, so too can we determine that beings are alive or dead. Yet some statements are indeterminate — that is to say, they are neither true nor false. Similarly, we can we view Mikau prior to Link’s encounter with him as “neither alive nor dead.” But this is existentially problematic. We encounter Darmani first as a ghost, who is neither fully alive nor fully dead, but that is by virtue of what it means to be a ghost; we have no problem understanding his existence as a restless spirit prior to Link encountering him. With Mikau, who only seems to exist in his dying moments, we do not have the luxury of explaining away his state by calling him a ghost. Put another way: as long as we can frame beings in terms of solid states — ghost, alive, dead, etc. — determining them is a feasible process. Yet when beings are framed instead in terms of actions or transitional states — for example, Mikau being framed by the transitional state of dying — determinism eludes us.
How can we approach a solution to this issue? The move I see as best is to actually step outside of the game, and place the problem in relation to the gamer. Consider that the gamer has no way of knowing about Mikau when first playing the game (assuming no prior knowledge of the game) until actually encountering Mikau: in this light, it is apparent that the existence of Mikau does not actually become problematic until we know Mikau to definitely exist. If we frame the game in terms of player experience, we assign values of existence — ‘dead’, ‘alive’, &co — to beings once we encounter them in the game. It follows that we cannot assign existence values to anything within the game prior to encountering that thing. Thus, we (i.e. the gamer) cannot determine if Mikau is dead or alive prior to encountering him because Mikau does not exist relative to us, prior to our encountering him.
In one sense, this conclusion seems trivial — of course things do not exist to us prior to our encountering them. Yet I submit that when we examine this conclusion, we glean compelling, nontrivial results for what existence means in the universe of Termina. Return to the concept of Link as an avatar: we have discussed how he, as a silent child, presents an unbiased, minimally substantive interface between the player and the universe of the game. He is much less a character than he is a conduit — as his name suggests, he is fundamentally a link between the experiencer of the medium and the content of the medium. So Link encountering something is, for all intents and purposes, the same as us encountering something. What this aspect of Link suggests in relation to the conclusion we just drew about existence is that the world of Termina does not exist prior to Link’s encountering it.
Importantly, this does not generalize to gaming as a medium, but is the result of the innovative and unique game design behind “Majora’s Mask.” Virtually all other Zelda games begin with introductory sequences, framing the history of the world in which Link exists. Yet Link is thrown into Termina with the player being offered no prior explanation of the world. On top of this, the game’s framework of a three-day temporal cycle with Link as a fixed-point means that he is really all that connects any three-day cycles with each other. The problem of Mikau’s existence in three-day cycles prior to encountering Mikau is only a problem because we assume that the entirety of Termina exists throughout all three-day cycles; yet our analysis shows that we do not really have grounds for believing this. Link is actually creating the world as he experiences it — and reflection shows that this must be the case, because Termina, defined by its apocalyptic trajectory, only continues to exist as long as Link continues to play the Song of Time in order to continue experiencing it. In this way, we see that the design of Termina is uniquely positioned to imitate the basic nature of the medium of gaming: for indeed, the world of the game only exists when the player turns on the console and actively engages it.
If we accept the conclusion that Termina only logically exists relative to Link, then what can we say about the nature of death in Termina? We have described the transition from life to death as a state change, but have yet to examine the mechanism by which this state change comes about. When we turn to the mechanism, it becomes clear that death in Termina is closely related to the notion of healing: Mikau cannot die until Link heals him, even though Mikau is dying when we first encounter him; Darunia, likewise, cannot truly die until his ghost is healed by Link. In a broader sense, the world of Termina cannot be conclusively terminated until Link completes all sidequests, which are designed around healing the sorrows of everyone in Termina. Yet at the very same time that Mikau is healed and allowed to die — because as the gamer, we do make the choice to play the Song of Healing and allow him to die — his sorrows are condensed into the Zora Mask, which remain as an artifact of his existence (an artifact to which I previously referred as a “temporal afterimage“). That the transformation masks, like the Zora Masks, are the condensed suffering of the spirits from which they were derived is evidenced by the sheer agony exhibited by Link when he dons them and transforms.
This framework promotes our conception of death as the act of leaving suffering behind. It is only those who truly die, such as Mikau, who are exempt from returning in the next three-day cycle when Link plays the Song of Time. Up until now, I have mainly been describing the spatiotemporal framework of Termina at a phenomenological level; but what we have just discovered gives us ontological insight into why the three-day cycle of Termina may repeat: the driving force, on our interpretation, is that everyone is dying but few people actually die, because they are bound by the forces of suffering. This is why Mikau’s statement “if I die… it won’t be in peace” is directly on-point: death in the hypothetical, always coming yet never arriving, is what precludes peace. For death to exist as a possibility, one must suffer. For death to exist as a state, one must be at peace.
Combine this latter thesis with our earlier conclusion that Termina exists by virtue of Link encountering it, and what follows is this: Link’s perception of the world instantiates suffering. This is a powerful concept: what it suggests is that suffering is fundamentally dependent upon a witness. Yet at the same time that Link’s perception of the world instantiates suffering, it is also only through his perception of suffering that he can annihilate suffering through the act of healing. This is the ultimate reason why death is so poignant in Termina: at the same moment that Link instantiates suffering, he alone has the opportunity to end it. The lack of Link’s capacity to emotionally distort death allows us to see in one moment the agony of dying, and the liberation of transcending the existential vortex of Termina. Mikau hears the unassuming melody of Song of Healing, and walks beyond Link’s perception into the realm of finality.