As the moon descends and “Majora’s Mask 3D” looms less than a day in the future, I take a moment on With a Terrible Fate to pay homage to “Majora’s Mask” by playing the Song of Time in my own way.

The following is a chapter from a research project I undertook a few years ago, which constituted by first analytic work on “Majora’s Mask.”  The introduction frames the entire project; in the relevant chapter, I undertake comparative analysis of role-playing dynamics in “Majora’s Mask” and Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”  Mind that the analysis is far rougher than my current work; I hope, however, that it may be useful and enjoyable both as an approach to the game that is largely divorced from my current theory, and also as part of the story of how With a Terrible Fate came to be.

Song of Time

Introduction: The Image-Evolution Paradox and its Potential Remedy

Reality is an interface and humans are its grappling participants. We face the multifarious conflict of presenting a self-image with which to interact in the context of the interface, while simultaneously undergoing developmental self-revision. This revision may at times be drastic, at times a matter of degrees; but, by virtue of Heraclitus’ notion that flux is absolute, this change, a product of our progressing experiences, is constant. This is the crux of the fundamental human paradox, which we shall term the image-evolution paradox: we seek to project the constancy of a singular self-image within the framework of reality, while also continuously seeking to reconcile that image with the nature of a fluid, evolving self. While this paradox is a necessary byproduct of human development within the rigid framework of reality,[1] there may be methods of alleviating that tension which is derivative of this very conflict.

The following work is a theoretical analysis and construction of the paradigm of role-playing, with a focus on its capacity to alleviate the tension of the image-evolution paradox. The theory meriting role-playing as a therapeutic mechanism in relation to this paradox rests on the assumption that the primary precipitant of the image-evolution paradox is essential to perceptual reality: this reality’s existentially-confining nature and limitations on communicative capacities between entities demand the projection of an identity which is seemingly rigid, or, as Mark Epstein would say, “an illusory image that is unconsciously mistaken for something real.”[2] When Frederick Buechner, in The Alphabet of Grace, discusses the way his self is largely limited to his facial muscles’ capacity to show various emotions, he is expressing the constrictive nature of physical reality.[3] Presumably, if we were to find a method of “circumventing reality,” then we could either resolve or assuage the image-evolution paradox.

Methods of escape from reality are, by reality’s comprehensive nature, intrinsically limited and contrived. The two methods that immediately come to mind are those of reality distortion and those of reality substitution. Reality distortion here refers to any actions that serve to disrupt one’s normal perception of reality such that one is freed from its confines – for example, the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Reality substitution refers to any methods through which one willfully assumes a role in a contrived reality distinctly separate from one’s own, maintaining normal perceptual faculties – namely, through role-playing, as in the acting of a theatrical role or the playing of a video game.

Upon examination, it is evident that reality substitution serves our purposes far better than reality distortion. This is because our aim is to augment the circumstances under which one’s identity may be understood independently of the projection of self into physical reality. Reality distortion, by definition, disrupts one’s capacity to perceive; thus, while the confines of reality – or one’s conception thereof – are largely dissolved, one’s notion of self is also largely distorted through one’s inability to perceive. While these properties of distortion undoubtedly have interesting ramifications and applications, they are ineffective in an endeavor to more fundamentally understand one’s identity. For understanding to be reached, one’s perceptive faculties must remain intact (if not heightened) while the constraints of reality are lessened. This is the hallmark of role-playing: the player is able to impose the full capacity of his senses in a context separate from the reality of his own existence.[4]

To examine the extent to which role-playing’s capacity to assuage the image-evolution paradox is substantive, we examine what might be termed role playing’s ‘extreme cases’: instances of what we will call the ‘meta-role’. The meta-role is defined as a role being played by a character whose role is also being played by someone – such that the player is effectively playing someone who is playing a role. The quintessential example of this is the actress who plays Viola in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” where Viola then adopts the persona of Cesario. In meta-role terminology, the role of Viola is referred to as the ‘primary role’, the role of Cesario as the ‘secondary role’, and the actor as ‘the player’.[5] The rationale behind focusing on the meta-role is that, due to the crux of the image-evolution paradox being physical reality, the maximum amount of resolution to be reached regarding the paradox will be found in the maximum number of levels removed from reality. This rationale itself is tested and analyzed throughout our treatments – in examining the dynamics of the meta-role, we must constantly question what influence the primary role exerts upon the secondary role, and vise-versa. Are there times when the roles may negate each other’s transformative effects? Are there combinations that lend themselves to a particular additive effect upon the player? In other words, each role may influence the player in a different way, and a player affected by a particular primary role may be affected in a different way by a secondary role than he would be were he to adopt that secondary role without the primary role as an intermediate step. Each study will serve as its own opportunity to examine a specific combination of primary and secondary roles, which may, when examined as a whole, reveal a more holistic view of the meta-role’s combinatory dynamic.

Examination of the meta-role is conducted here through studies concerning two major media: theater and video games. This is conducted through analysis of scripts and games which implement the meta-role, and is supplemented by a case study of the spring 2013 production of “Seeds, Dancing,” written by Aaron Suduiko for the purpose of this study. Plays and video games, as discussed below, each lend themselves to insight on the meta-role in related but distinct ways, which, when superimposed upon each other, allow for greater insight into the theoretical properties of the meta-role, irrespective of the particular medium in which it is implemented.

The Meta-Role in Theater

The theater, for our purposes, draws its appeal from its particular capacity to establish a distinct but not discrete reality. Actors in roles operate within an invented world, yet still function within their own physical forms, and often know their fellow actors outside the parameters of the play. The actor, then, establishes a new set of relationships, expectations, and traits within that same physical form which binds him to his own physical world. In a sense, there is an unspoken agreement between him and his fellow actors comparable to the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief: just as the audience consents to treat that which transpires on the stage as a distinct world which is inherently real, committed actors consent to suspend their relationships with fellow actors outside the context of the play, and establish distinct relationships based on the binding context of the play’s own reality.

This dynamic in itself – and, presumably, more so in the case of meta-roles – has strong potential for links to identity formation, which is best elucidated through the Buddhist principle of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of presence dependent upon the body and mind working as one, existing in the context of what is presently occurring, and observing discrete actions and reactions in accordance with bare attention methodology. In order to understand the self, Buddha taught, it is paramount that we exercise mindfulness and bare attention, understanding the specific operations of the self through acute observation. Actors exist in the same physical manifestation as the one with which they traverse the rest of reality, yet they will their minds to exist within the context of an entirely distinct reality. Following the principles of mindfulness, this necessitates that the actor effectively synthesizes a different mental paradigm with the same body. If the player is able to practice mindfulness in both his own reality and the reality of the play, he has the potential to synthesize a broader appreciation of himself, because he has essentially achieved oneness from two distinct self-conceptions. When a third layer for mindfulness is presented through introduction of the secondary role, the effect could be additive – achieving oneness in three distinct states – or the secondary state could perhaps serve to alter the state of mindful association with the primary role. As discussed above, this will vary on a case-by-case basis.

The Meta-Role in Video Games

Whereas the theater establishes realities that are distinct but not discreet, video games conceive of realities that are both distinct and discreet. The player here is far more removed from his own reality than the actor, because his physical form is not directly present in the game – rather, his choices and actions are conveyed through an avatar within the game. Thus, while mindfulness is no longer possible in the same manner as with plays, a further level of liberation is achieved from the player’s physical reality, because he is operating as an avatar entirely free of the player’s reality’s constraints, and does not need to rely upon the company’s willful suspension of external reality.[6] In video games, the other entities populating the reality construct, called NPC’s (“non-player characters”), are programs, literally only capable of existing within the game’s reality. The player is invited to willingly participate in this reality in a twofold manner: a) he controls the choices and actions of his avatar, making the avatar an extension of himself; and b) the advancing of the story – and, consequently, the advancement of the reality itself – is contingent upon the actions of the avatar, whose actions are contingent upon the choices of the player.

This is a powerful model for the implementation of a self that has been liberated from the external reality of Buechner’s “facial limitations,” particularly considering the advent of games which are less and less linear in storyline and which allow the player more degrees of choice in how to advance the story. The potential for near total meta-role immersion, then, is greater in video games than in theater, because it allows the player to largely extend his mind into a reality free from the physical determinants of his being.

 

Synthesis

            The intersection of these two media is where the most meta-role potential may be found. Alleviation of the image-evolution paradox is contingent upon liberation from the binding of one’s perspective to singular physical reality, but the construct of physical reality is never entirely escapable in life, and may only be temporarily and incompletely substituted. Here we see a strikingly modern spin on the Buddha’s Middle Path: one’s identity can be separated from its bonds to external reality through the dynamics of video games, but whatever greater conception of self is gleaned through this process must then be integrated through the explorative process of layered mindfulness that comes through the dynamics of acting. It is this relationship that allows video games and theater to harmonically inform the theoretical dynamics and capacity of the meta-role, both in general and in relation to the image-evolution paradox.

In this spirit, plays and video games that utilize a meta-role are treated here in detail. Where parallels are drawn between games and plays, we will be able to elucidate the finer points of how the meta-role functions, and theorize the effects it may elicit. Supplementing with research texts and case studies from “Seeds, Dancing,” we will seek to establish a working definition for the meta-role’s place in a greater existential context.

Treatment I

The Platonic Meta-Role: A Puppet that Can No Longer Be Used

Can I ask a question? Your true face… What kind of face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that your true face? -Moon Child, “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask”

 

Synopses

  1. “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” Nintendo

            “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” is a direct sequel to “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.” Link, the hero of both games, begins “Majora’s Mask” in a search for his companion, from whom he was separated at the end of Ocarina. He wanders into Termina, a parallel world beset by gathering maleficence. Skull Kid, a lonely forest child from Link’s native world, has stolen a cursed mask – Majora’s Mask – from a mask salesman, and is invoking its power to send Termina spiraling into chaos, culminating in his bringing the moon crashing down into the earth. Link arrives three days before the advent of the falling moon, and learns he must rescue four guardian giants whom Skull Kid has imprisoned within evil masks, so that he might enlist their help in preventing the moon from falling on Termina. Link accomplishes this using a combination of time-distortion and role-assumption. He completes objectives within the confines of the three-day span, and then returns to the first of the three days by playing the Song of Time on his Ocarina of Time. While time and events reset, certain key events, such as the liberation of the four spirits, are preserved, thereby advancing the quest within a nihilistic continuum.

Masks are a critical component to Link’s quest; in particular, ‘character masks’ define a large segment of the story. Over the course of the story, Link encounters fallen heroes, and is charged with healing their spirit, which permits them to rest in peace and condenses their soul into a mask, which Link can then wear to assume their form. In total, there are three transformative character masks (Deku, Goron, and Zora Masks) required for Link to complete his quest. Masks also carry over iterations of time cycles, making their accumulation much akin to Link’s own development over time.

  1. “6 Characters in Search of an Author,” Luigi Pirandello

Pirandello’s classic work of meta-theater chronicles a group of thespians rehearsing “Mixing It Up,” another Pirandello play, when six characters appear, seeking an author to bring the story imbedded within them to life on the stage (because, it is suggested, Pirandello was disillusioned either by the “ordinary theater” or the characters themselves). The characters tell their story by literally living it on the stage, as the actors attempt to imitate it in accordance with their craft.

Inherent in the mechanics of the play is the question of reality’s dynamics. What is truer: the characters living their story on the stage, or the actors imitating the very same story on the stage? This theme is epitomized in the final scene, where the characters live the drowning of the Child, and the Boy’s suicide. The closing lines of the play are confused exchanges between actors and characters about the reality of whether the Child and Boy are truly dead, or if it is pretense. The director closes the show by famously complaining about having “lost a whole day over these people.”

  • Thoughts Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein

In this text, Epstein goes to great lengths to theoretically integrate the disciplines of Buddhism and psychoanalysis in an effort to provide a picture of a future with more holistic, successful therapy and self-image. He argues that Buddhist meditative practices can be used to quickly elucidate material requiring analysis, which, once resolved in a psychoanalytic setting, can clear the way for a deeper understanding of self – and, eventually, the Buddhist concept of “selflessness,” or “emptiness” – through further adherence to the Buddhist practices of meditation, mindfulness, bare attention, and the like.

Perhaps more relevant to our purposes, another of Epstein’s goals is to reintroduce Buddhism to the western world using language westerners understand – namely, the language of psychoanalysis. This results in a volume that enables a channel of relating western psychological constructs to the eastern Buddhist tradition.

Introduction: “An Immutable Reality Which Should Make You Shudder”

            Over two millennia ago, an Athenian explained reality in what would become arguably the most famous and influential cave of all time. The Cave, Plato’s allegory for the nature of reality, persists to this day in the western tradition – and, we shall see, it is a useful analogy for meta-role dynamics.

The traditional allegory describes reality in three components. Within the cave, prisoners are chained such that they can only see the back of the cave, where shadows are projected from puppets, which are manipulated behind a screen and illuminated by a fire; outside the cave is the reality of objects which are imitated by the puppets within the cave, the objects illuminated by the sun as opposed to a fire. Plato uses this paradigm to describe the nature of reality and varying levels of certainty, where Forms are the highest form of reality, and all other objects and images are derivative thereof. We will here argue that an analogous model, formulated in accordance with the tenets of the cave, is applicable to a specific face of the meta-role – what we shall call, as a nod to Plato, the platonic meta-role paradigm.

            At the climax of “Majora’s Mask,” the four giants stop the moon’s descent, and Skull Kid collapses in the process. As Link’s companions rejoice, a new voice is heard in the background: the voice of the dark entity Majora itself. Link turns to see the mask floating in midair, Skull Kid’s body dangling limp from the fulcrum of his neck. “A puppet that can no longer be used,” Majora says, “is mere garbage. This puppet’s role is just ended.” With that, he shrugs off Skull Kid’s body, which drops to the ground like the bag of bones – like the empty vessel – it is.

This treatment of the meta-role is a story of empty vessels and the ideal “Forms” which they assume. It is an examination of how masks, pretense, time, and perception coalesce into a dynamic interplay between player, primary role, and secondary role. In Act III of “Six Characters,” The Father asserts before The Stage Manager that he and his fellow characters are more real than the Stage Manager and his company. “If your reality can change from one day to another…” the Father says, “Look here! That is the very difference! Our reality doesn’t change: it can’t change! It can’t be other than what it is, because it is already fixed for ever. It’s terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder.”[7] The crux of the platonic meta-role paradigm rests on the dynamic between absolute personas and temporally-bound reality – a dynamic which, as we will see, bears uncanny resemblance to the very image-evolution paradox which pressures we are seeking to assuage.

In the final encounter between Link and Majora, Majora confronts Link in three forms of increasing complexity. We shall examine the platonic meta-role paradigm through the developmental metaphor of Majora itself, for it is both the center of the conflict in Termina and the most fitting allegory for the role playing mechanic inherent to both Nintendo’s and Pirandello’s work.

  1. “Majora’s Mask”: The Intermediary Role

Majora first presents itself to Link as the mask that Skull Kid has worn through the entire game. The mask, along with the four evil masks that had trapped the giants Link rescued, detach themselves from the walls of the ethereal room in which the final confrontation occurs. They float before Link, suspended by a haunting unseen force. It is as though the mask itself were alive.

 

Upon beginning a new game in “Majora’s Mask,” you are prompted to enter your name, which is used as Link’s name throughout the course of the game. The classic “Legend of Zelda” experience is that the interface seeks to minimize separation between you, the player, and Link, the primary role. Link is a silent protagonist, endowed with your name, whose actions and advancement are directly dependent upon player input.

The most comfortable role is a well-fitting mask, one that fits well enough so as to make you forget you wear it. The transitory role is naturally the most effective at this: a role which serves as an intermediary can lend a sense of implicitness to the role playing because it is simply a stepping stone between one persona and another. Such is the case in “Majora” and “Six Characters”: Link collects a total of 24 masks on his journey, placing the emphasis of his existence on the roles he inhabits, rather than his own isolated persona. The same concept holds for the “meta-actors” in “Six Characters” – they are, effectually, the role of one who plays roles.

Buddhism in Meta-Acting

Let us pause for a time and consider the ramifications of an actor who plays an actor. The craft of the actor, to abuse a cliché, is “not to act, but to be.” As we discussed in regards to theater’s creation of distinct but not discrete reality, the actor must harness mindfulness within the confines of the play’s reality in order to establish a self which operates within the context of the character one is meant to play. To play an actor is to add another level to this practice of mindfulness. One can intuit that the additional layer makes this process more difficult; but what are the psychodynamic implications of such a task?

The crux of Buddhism, at the moment of Enlightenment, is what may best be termed “selflessness”: an acknowledgement that the individuated self, as defined by ego boundaries, is a false construct.[8] Buddha asserted that this false sense of attachment – the fluctuation between the ego-poles of existence and non-existence – was the root of all suffering.[9] The practices of meditation, mindfulness, and bare attention are thus methods of separating oneself from the ego construct. This end goal will be important to bear in mind as our study progresses; for now, it will suffice to address the intermediary steps of bare attention and mindfulness.

‘Bare attention’ describes the impartial observation of the present in terms of cause and effect, particularly inasmuch as one’s own mental state is brought about by particular stimuli – this being comparable to the observation of ripples on a pond’s surface caused by the dropping of a pebble. In the greater scheme of Buddhism, this is a powerful tool for deconstruction of the self, because it compels an understanding of the self as a reactionary construct; in its immediate implications, it invokes a sense of self-understanding through heightened apperception.[10] This is also the most direct approach to an understanding of how “acting an actor” may influence the development of the player’s identity.

There is a dynamic of meta-acting which may, at face value, appear to be a contradiction: if mindfulness is defined as a presence of self in the context of the moment, one should not be able to act as anyone different from one’s own identity. How, then, could one be mindful in three different ways (i.e. as the player, primary role, and secondary role)? The key is in what we will call ‘variant emotive response’. This is the capacity to translate a single reaction into a variety of reactions via a mechanism which translates the reaction into derivative variants through a mental process similar to rationalization – a process which, we will see, is also integral to role-playing.

Consider the scenario in “Six Characters” wherein the Leading Lady plays the role of The Step-Daughter in a scene between The Step-Daughter and The Father. We observe from The Leading Lady’s interactions with The Leading Man and The Characters that she is aloof, self-centered, and haughty in personality. The Step-Daughter’s character is that of the victim, ashamed and indignant at once at the tormented relationships of her family, particularly between her and The Father.[11] These are obviously two distinct personalities – personalities that, we must remember, are composed of traits perceived as by a third party (i.e. the aloof Step-Daughter would probably not believe herself aloof). The actor, then, must generate such a personality such that these traits are resultant of the character’s demeanor. How might this be achieved, and, moreover, how might one achieve it on the multiple levels demanded by meta-acting?

Let us invent arguendo the personality of the player, whom we shall call Player X. Player X is a short-tempered, explosive person, often prone to bouts of anger, resentment, and the like. X must first superimpose her personality upon the role of the Leading Lady in order to assume her role in a manner of being, not acting. This process is often initiated through implementation of ‘as-if’s’ – that is, actively recollecting an experience in X’s life which elicited an emotional response similar to the emotion called for in the role of the Leading Lady. In the scene, for example, where the Leading Man is appraising The Step-Daughter and the Leading Lady watches jealously, Player X would actively recall the most vivid, jealousy-invoking memory from her own life – a process which, given X’s personality, would probably be easy for her, making it a relatively easy role to assume.

This, however, is not the end goal of acting. As-if’s are seen as merely a way into a role, analogous to the way in which Buddhism sees meditation as merely a “raft across the river,” and not the Way in and of itself.[12] To emotionally relate to the character through as-if’s does not equate to the level of role assumption whereby X can achieve mindfulness in the Leading Lady’s persona; to stop the process there would amount to X merely acting in emotionally appropriate ways at specific instances onstage, such that she is behaving similarly to the Leading Lady – she would not be behaving as the Leading Lady. As-if’s are most effective when treated as entry points to the psyche of the character: the more associative points X can make to the Leading Lady through as-if’s, the more X can understand the mindset of the Leading Lady, and appreciate how the Leading Lady would behave in any situation, as opposed to only those presented in the script. This process is contingent upon bare attention: the objective observation of the circumstantial situations in the reality of the play, and the resultant emotions – visceral emotions, by virtue of the as-if’s – allows X to begin to understand the composition of herself as the Leading Lady, thereby achieving mindfulness within the role of the Leading Lady.[13]

X has now established herself wholly in the persona of the Leading Lady, achieving the degree of mindfulness described earlier which essentially amounts to self-understanding through two different avenues (i.e. mindfulness in the persona of X and mindfulness in the persona of the Leading Lady). For typical roles, this is sufficient; but, by virtue of meta-acting, this is only half the process for X. Of course, the remainder of the process – assuming the role of The Step-Daughter through the persona of the Leading Lady – is strikingly similar to the first half of the process, because the end goal of acting is the same: being without acting. If X has properly assumed the psyche and mindfulness of the Leading Lady through the above method, this second process need not be exceptionally challenging; she must simply employ the emotional content of the Leading Lady’s experiences to establish as-if’s as entry points into The Step-Daughter’s psyche.[14]

 

The Intermediary Role

We see, then, that the assumption of The Step Daughter’s role has no direct relationship to X – rather, it is the derivative of the self which X has established in the role of the Leading Lady. The Leading Lady role, in light of this, shall be termed an “intermediary role.” Link, in “Majora,” is another example of the intermediary role.[15]

There are several effects implicit in the intermediary role’s nature.   In the case of acting, the intermediary role promotes a depth of mindfulness in the role that is typically not otherwise achieved. This is due to the expectation of employing the intermediary role’s own history in the as-if paradigm. Though inapplicable to the meta-actors in “Six Characters,” it is worth noting that this effect is amplified in cases where meta-actors play multiple parts – for example, the character Joey in “Friends,” who plays many roles over the course of his acting career in the series. Just as actors are prompted to understand their own experiences and selves at a deeper level by employing their personal content via bare attention and as-if’s in their craft, the player will understand the primary role at a far more personal and inherent level when it is required as a basic part of that role’s nature to employ bare attention and as if’s.

The intermediary role also serves to differentiate its associated secondary roles. When a secondary role naturally evolves out of a primary role, as is the case in such a relationship as the primary role of Lady Macbeth to the secondary role of insane Lady Macbeth, the roles are inherently and inextricably intertwined. This is not the case with intermediary roles: rather, the fact that intermediary roles act to assume secondary roles separate from themselves implies a degree of separateness to the secondary role. This is demonstrated in both “Majora” and “Six Characters”: in “Majora,” Link is tasked with the assumption of the personas of fallen heroes Darmani and Mikau, both of whom were, in life, distinct entities; in “Six Characters,” the distinction is made comical, as the actors seek to embody the Characters even as the true Characters stand beside them on the stage and observe. This dynamic effectively splits the two roles of primary and secondary role into three roles: the intermediary role, the entity upon which the assumed secondary role is based, and the assumed secondary role itself.

  1. Majora’s Incarnation: The Platonic Role and the Hybrid Role

 

            After Link slays Majora’s Mask, what were formerly tentacles emanating from the back of the mask aggregate into two legs and two arms. A single eye upon a stalk-like head sprouts from the top of the mask, piercing Link with its unblinking gaze. The other four masks return in kind. Majora is now grounded.

 

“Something that is theirs and No Longer Ours”

            As the Leading Man and Leading Lady act the scene of The Father seducing The Step-Daughter, they are repeatedly interrupted by The Step-Daughter bursting into fits of unbridled laughter. Eventually, The Manager is forced to stop the scene and demand silence from her. The Father then seeks to account for her reaction by providing The Manager an explanation of the Characters’ perspective on the theater.

The Manager [shouting to STEP-DAUGHTER]. Silence! for once and all, I tell you!

The Step-Daughter. Forgive me! forgive me!

The Manager. You haven’t any manners: that’s what it is! You go too far.

The Father [endeavouring to intervene]. Yes, it’s true, but excuse her…

The Manager. Excuse what? It’s absolutely disgusting.

The Father. Yes, sir, but believe me, it has such a strange effect when..

The Manager. Strange? Why strange? Where is it strange?

The Father. No sir; I admire your actors – this gentleman here, this lady; but they are certainly not us!

The Manager. I should hope not. Evidently they cannot be you, if they are actors.

The Father. Just so: actors! Both of them act our parts exceedingly well. But, believe me, it produces quite a different effect on us. They want to be us, but they aren’t, all the same.

The Manager. What is it then anyway?

The Father. Something that is… that is theirs – and no longer ours…[16]

Let us return to the allegory of the cave. Placing Forms outside of the cave, we see the puppets before the fire as abstract representations of these Forms; the shadows, projected by fire, are physical derivatives of these abstractions. The Father, in speaking to The Manager, articulates the analogous model of the platonic meta-role paradigm.

In our proposed model, the Characters are analogous to Forms, meta-actors to puppets, and the shadows to the meta-actors’ rendition of the Characters. The paradigm of the platonic meta-role and its logic proceeds as follows: the assumption of a role is contingent upon implementation of the psyche of he who assumes the role, as described in the process of role assumption through acting, with as-if’s and the like. Where the role is a discrete entity, as in the case of the fallen heroes of “Majora” or Pirandello’s Characters, it follows that the role-player’s rendition of the role will be qualitatively different from the “pure role” – it will, in effect, be a derivative image of the actual role, distorted by the player’s own psyche.

This analogy may be graphically depicted as shown above. The player enters the meta-role construct via the primary role – in this case, an intermediary role (2). The intermediary role has certain qualities (trilateralism, triangularity, etc.), which are assumed by the player. The intermediary role encounters the object of its purpose: a discrete secondary role, which we shall term the platonic role (1). This role, like the intermediary role, has certain unique qualities (quadrilateralism, three-dimensionality, etc.), distinct from those of the intermediary role. When the player, embodying the intermediary role, observes and then acts so as to assume the character of the platonic role, he creates a role (3) that is, as described in our analysis of acting methodology, markedly influenced by the quality of the intermediary role. Thus, this secondary role, which we will call the hybrid role, is a secondary role characterized by a synthesis of qualities of both the intermediary and platonic roles (triangular/trilateral faces from the intermediary role, and three-dimensionality of the platonic role). To return to our cave analogy, the platonic role is the most real (i.e. the Form) because it is its character is solid independently of any player; the intermediary role (the puppet) is less real because its existence implies the platonic role for it to assume, and a degree of incompleteness is present without a platonic role; and the hybrid role (the shadow) is the most derivative because it is existentially dependent upon both the intermediate and platonic roles. The arrows proceed in from the direction of most real to most derivative of reality.

The platonic role construct is exemplified exceptionally well in “Majora.” Link, the intermediary role, heals the restless spirits of fallen heroes, then assumes the masks they become to don their roles. Yet, just as The Father said, Link becomes something that is his, and no longer theirs: when Link dons the hero Mikau’s mask, he does not appear to be identical to Mikau. He adopts Mikau’s race – that of the amphibious Zora people – but has coloring reminiscent of Link’s clothes, such as a green fin on the back of his head, analogous to Link’s green hat. In adopting the attributes of the platonic role, Link has created a hybrid role.

“Majora” presents several unique dynamics that shed light on this relationship between platonic and hybrid roles. Firstly, though Link’s hybrid roles are not identical to their related platonic roles, those people who knew the fallen heroes when they lived implicitly recognize Link as those heroes. “Oh! You’re Darmani!!!” one Goron exclaims, after Link emerges from the cave containing Darmani’s grave, wearing the Darmani hybrid role. “But you’re supposed to be dead! Am I hallucinating?”[17] This is analogous to the plight of the Characters in “Six Characters”: they will always recognize the difference between themselves and the hybrid roles assumed by the actors, but the audience will believe that the actors, for all intents and purposes, have directly assumed the roles of the Characters.

 

The Elegy of Emptiness

Yet “Majora” goes still further in its assessment of this relationship. The game provides a mechanism in its fourth segment which speaks profoundly to the platonic role / hybrid role relationship described above: upon storming the gates of the stronghold of the Ikana, a fallen warrior race, Link slays their king, Igos du Ikana, liberating his soul. The king’s spirit then teaches him an ancient song to help him advance and free the last of the four giants: the “Elegy of Emptiness.” “I grant you,” Igos tells Link, “a soldier who has no heart. One who will not falter in the darkness.” This is achieved by playing the Elegy, “a mystical song that allows you to shed a shell shaped in your current image” – a shell said by the king to be “your twin image.”

The shell, however, is only a twin image of Link when Link uses it in his own, green-capped, native form, as opposed to the form of a hybrid role. If Link plays the Elegy when playing a hybrid role, the “empty shell” generated by the song is cast in the image of the appropriate platonic role. If Zora Link stands beside the shell he generates with the song, the differences between him and Mikau come are startlingly clear. The only substantive difference between the shell’s visage and Mikau’s own is that the shell’s eyes are blank.

What light does a blank, heartless shell of a platonic role shed on the greater dynamics of the functional construct at work? We may see this as an elegant way of reiterating our already established theory. The fundamental distinction between the hybrid role and the platonic role is the distortion caused by the intermediary role impressing its own psyche upon the platonic role. To remove the animation from the hybrid role – to remove its “heart,” as it were – is to remove the very psychical essence that differentiates it from its platonic role counterpart. Yet the shell is not demonstrative of an exact return to the platonic role; rather, it is a disturbingly empty representation of what was once a living entity serving as a platonic role.

The haunting implication here is one that hearkens back to the image-evolution paradox: by impressing upon an entity the label of the platonic role, the entity loses its vitality by virtue of its being reduced to a single, changeless idea – in effect, it is changed, as is literally the case in “Majora,” from a life form into a mask. In the image-evolution paradox, we contradict our life’s fluidity by imposing the solidity of a singular persona to project outward to reality; in the platonic role, we contradict the fluidity of others’ lives by pigeonholing them into constructs and ideas, rather than fluid, evolving forms. The imposition of platonic roles and the image-evolution paradox may thereby be seen as two instances of the same fundamental principle, where the former is an external process and the latter is its conjugate internal process.

We must return to the stated purpose of our inquiries: “to examine to what extent role playing’s capacity to assuage the image-evolution paradox is substantive.” We have, thus far, articulated the theoretical structure of the platonic meta-role paradigm, and have determined the impact each of its component roles has upon the rest of the construct. What impact, then, does this system have upon a player, constantly bearing the burden of the image-evolution paradox in his own life? We must superimpose the image-evolution paradox upon the platonic role concept, and seek to apperceive the net effect of the two upon the player.

  1. Majora’s Wrath: Aggregate Imagery

 

Upon the slaying of the Incarnation, Majora again transforms, tendrils wrapping around its arms and legs to increase their mass. Two long tendrils snake outward from its hands to form remorseless whips. Finally, a full head with two eyes emerges beneath the stalky head of the Incarnation. The single eye of Majora’s Incarnation has become the final form’s third eye.

 

In discussing the methodology of meditation as liberation from layer upon layer of the self’s attachments, Mark Epstein warns the reader about the trial of being ‘purely without’: “it is exceedingly difficult,” he admonishes, “to maintain a sense of absence without turning that absence into some kind of presence.”[18] Absence, after all, implies a “something” to be lacking. It is understandably trying, even on a theoretical leve, to divorce the sense of emptiness from the sense of what is not there.l

We must, as footnoted earlier, reclaim the word “emptiness” from the negative western connotation. The western world tends to perceive the notion of emptiness as the exact concept against which Epstein admonishes: the lacking of something substantive. This lack of substance is therefore threatening because it is built upon the idea that something must be there.   We ought not to be surprised by this: after all, the core of the image-evolution paradox is the constraint of a physical reality. Because of this physical reality, we like to exist in solids: operable constructs that allow us to perceive each other as easily as we might perceive a tree, or wall.

Buddhism argues that this mantra of “something must be there” is neither necessary nor particularly helpful – indeed, Buddha saw it as the root of all suffering. When the Buddhist speaks of “emptiness,” he refers to the state of realizing that the self is a false construct; we build a façade out of attachments to emotions and relationships and say it is our “self,” but this self only serves to artificially separate us from the rest of existence. We may therefore consider the image-evolution paradox as a version of the Buddhist root of suffering: the artificial construction of a separate self, or what Buddhism terms the ‘false self’.

It may seem counterintuitive to assert that the assumption of roles – identities that are indisputably artificial constructs – could serve to assuage a conflict caused by the false self. Nonetheless, by extrapolating our current theory and examining a few examples, we shall aim to show that a broader-understood system of platonic role constructs can serve to alleviate, or at least work in opposition to, the image-evolution paradox.

The player enters the platonic meta-role paradigm through the link of the intermediary role. From the intermediary’s perspective, we can now perceive that not only is the existence of a platonic role implicit, but that any separate entity has the potential to fill that role. The meta-actor may be charged with playing the part of anyone at all, and must therefore do so indiscriminately; anyone in the world of Termina may yield a mask to Link – and, in fact, most people do. Thus, in defining boundaries of reality wherein the platonic meta-role paradigm is operative, we may encompass everyone by defining them as both intermediary roles and potential platonic roles. The intermediary role then redefines itself by means of forming a hybrid role; and, whether or not we are aware of it, the potential exists for the intermediary role to do this multiple times, using any number of potential platonic roles as actuated platonic roles.

The therapeutic value of this construct can be condensed into a simple principle: the player, operating in his own reality, assumes a primary role which has a fluid identity by virtue of its ability to form a theoretically boundless number of hybrid roles. This fluidity is contingent upon the solidification of separate entities into ideas, analogous to Plato’s Forms or Ideas. The player is therefore able to experience fluidity of identity as a result of the image-evolution paradox, as opposed to in opposition to it.

If the player is able to take the subconscious process of falsely defining his fellow entities as solid selves and render it conscious through the repetition of the process in the synthesis of hybrid roles, the player will be able to escape the burden of the false self through redefinition, as opposed to the Buddhist approach of dissolution. He may perceive his own identity, as represented by the intermediary role, as an aggregate of images formed by falsely solidified, “empty” versions of his fellow entities. Thus he perceives the fluidity of identity as a summation of various static, platonic roles, rather than something that acts in opposition to this solidity. We will examine two aspects of “Majora” – the dynamics of time, and the theme of good and evil – and The Father’s declamation of The Manager’s insecure reality in “Six Characters” in order to defend this conclusion.

 

Time in Termina

            We recall the mechanics of Termina’s three-day “time loop,” wherein Link repeatedly resets time, advancing certain story events while all else returns to as it was on the Dawn of the First Day. A consequence of this is that Link may travel through an entire chain of events, help some characters, acquire a mask from them, and then return time to as things were before the person he helped ever met him. For example: the longest and most trying side-quest (i.e. a task not mandatory for completion of the story) is that of Link reuniting the star-crossed lovers Anju and Kafei, so that they might be married on the night of the carnival as they had planned (the same night on which the moon falls, unbeknownst to them). Following this quest to its conclusion, Link is rewarded with the ceremonial wedding mask, given to him to commemorate his role as their witness. This mask solidifies the marriage of Anju and Kafei and is an affirmation of their love – yet, when Link plays the Song of Time and returns to the Dawn of the First Day, Anju and Kafei are again separated, with Kafei M.I.A. and little hope of their ever being reunited, even though the mask remains in Link’s possession.

This temporal framework viscerally demonstrates to the player through the intermediary of Link that his solidification of people into platonic roles is a construct, and not representative of the people’s reality. This is the irony of “Majora’s Mask”: Link watches the same people develop through the same plotlines over the same three days ad infinitum, yet he can only develop himself through the accruement of platonic roles representing frozen moments in the development of those people – moments which need not even occur, were Link not there to help them. Thus, the player is able to understand platonic roles as a developmental component, rather than a developmental obstacle.

 

Majora vs. the Fierce Deity

            There are 24 masks available for Link to collect in his journey. The 24th mask is only made available to him after collecting all 23 other masks, and is acquired through a hauntingly ceremonial process, more resembling a rite than gameplay.

After Majora’s Mask shrugs off Skull Kid’s limp body, it enters the moon itself in a final effort to crash it into Termina. Link ascends to the moon through an ethereal beam linking it to the clock tower, and finds himself suddenly in a lush field of green. At the center of the field is the only noticeable object: a tall, vast tree, reminiscent of the tree under which Buddha became Enlightened. Under the tree sits a child wearing Majora’s Mask, and around the tree run four children at play (the “Moon Children”), each wearing one of the evil masks Skull Kid had used to imprison the four respective giants. Approaching one of the four running children, Link finds the child commenting on the “nice weather,” and then on the number of masks Link has. The child asks if he may have some masks. Link must surrender a certain number of his masks to the child, who then asks Link to play hide-and-seek with him. Link must find the child, who then asks for more masks. Upon receiving them, he deems Link a “nice person,” and asks him a question about the nature of friendship, happiness, and truth, one of which serves as this treatment’s epigraph. Link must repeat this process four times, using each of his different forms (regular Link, Goron Link, Zora Link, and Deku Scrub Link) to find one child. At the end of this process, all the children but the one wearing Majora’s Mask have left the area beneath the tree, and Link has surrendered all his masks but the three form-changing character masks.[19] Link then approaches the child sitting, wearing the heart-shaped mask of Majora, who looks around, then speaks to him.

“Everyone has gone away, haven’t they? Will you play with me? You don’t have any masks left, do you? Well, let’s play something else. Let’s play good guys against bad guys. Yes. Let’s play that.”

Majora then gives Link the “Fierce Deity’s Mask.” “You got the Fierce Deity’s Mask!” the game tells you. “Could this mask’s dark powers be as bad as Majora?”

“Are you ready?” the child continues, standing now beneath the tree. “You’re the bad guy. And when you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right? Well, shall we play?” At this, the world dissolves into the ethereal room where Majora presents his three forms, and the final battle commences.

It is worth noting that the sequence of Majora’s three forms, constituting an intensely difficult battle comparable to David against Goliath when Link goes forth unmasked, becomes child’s play when the Fierce Deity’s Mask is donned. The Fierce Deity, also seemingly human, is an adult, unlike the child who is Link, and projects devastating bolts of blue energy from an enormous broadsword with intricate blade resembling a Mobius strip. A once-fierce battle quickly becomes almost unfair to Majora – Link and the child are playing a game.

Over and over, “Majora’s Mask” poses the same question: where do the boundaries of good and evil lie? The entire conflict of the game is based on the premise that a lonely reject found a mask with the dark power to do what he wanted. He trapped the four giants, perhaps to stop them from interfering with his plan – or perhaps because he and Majora were both lonely. When Link is asking the spirits to help, Link’s companion (Tatl), serving as interpreter, remarks, “Their voices sound sad. You [giants] don’t want to help us? [They respond.] …‘Forgive your friend.’ What friend?” The giants were bound by evil masks, perhaps because Majora wanted friends the same way Skull Kid did. Yet the giants stayed friends with Skull Kid all the same, recognizing a lack of true malice on his part. They reaffirm this, once Majora is slain and the timeline is resolved, by standing before Skull Kid and offering their friendship. When Skull Kid is lying limp in the game’s climax, Link’s companion blames his succumbing to Majora’s power to his having “no strength of heart.” When you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right?

The game appears to offer a jarring perspective on morality: it is, in effect, child’s play. We adopt masks of good and evil, yet our humanity is distinct from these constructs. In the end, the conflict of the game is not malice – it is loneliness. All Skull Kid and Majora want is someone to play with. Link, in effect, sates Majora’s loneliness by adopting the persona of the Fierce Deity and playing with him. This provides depth to the platonic meta-role paradigm not seen elsewhere in research: the notion that good and evil are as much potential platonic roles as any other separate entity. This means that Link cannot be good any more than he can be Darmani: he may be perceived as good, but what is truly good is as fluid as anything else, and to perceive goodness is, as the analogy Nintendo presents suggests, as much a solidification of a single moment as assuming the role of a person is. Morality, then, might be equally perceived as the aggregate of many platonic perceptions thereof – a realization which would likely, in the long run, liberate and relieve those who feel overtly burdened by rigid conceptions of right and wrong.

 

“All the Illusions that were yours”

            Following the conflict between the actors seeking to play the Characters and the Characters’ refusal to accept the actors as representations of themselves, The Father offers one of his more memorable philosophical arguments to The Manager.

The Manager [astonished and irritated, turning to his ACTORS]. If this fellow here hasn’t got a nerve! A man who calls himself a character comes and asks me who I am!

The Father [with dignity, but not offended]. A character, sir, may always ask a man, who he is. Because a character has really a life of his own, marked with his especial characteristic; for which reason he is always “somebody.” But a man – I’m not speaking of you now – may very well be “nobody.”

The Manager. Yes, but you are asking these questions of me, the boss, the manager! Do you understand?

The Father. But only to know if you, as you really are now, see yourself as you once were with all the illusions that were yours then, with all the things both inside and outside of you as they seemed to you – as they were then indeed for you. Well, sir, if you think of all those illusions that mean nothing to you now, of all those things which don’t even seem to you to exist any more, while once they were for you, don’t you feel that – I won’t say these boards – but the very earth under your feet is sinking away from you when you reflect that in the same way this you as you feel it today – all this present reality of yours – is fated to seem a mere illusion to you tomorrow?[20]

The Father’s is perhaps the best synthesis of our theory of the platonic meta-role paradigm. To accept that development is the composite of platonic roles – constructs which are effectively illusory – we come to the conclusion that, inasmuch as solidity is concerned, we are “nobody.” Our existence is dependent upon an intricate web of assuming roles based on false selves, and our development is based upon the same. Yet we need not take this conclusion and cast out all notions of self to achieve our goal of assuaging the image-evolution paradox; the mere recognition of those platonic roles as illusory through their temporal confines and distortion as hybrid roles allows the player to perceive his own development as something which may be a progression of many constructed roles, rather than the struggle to maintain and modify the edifice of a single role over time. This shift in mindset will, of itself, release some of the constraints seemingly inherent in the paradox of development within the confines of reality.

 

Synthesis: Your True Face

Upon slaying Majora’s Wrath, Majora cries out in agony, then faces upward toward the camera in a manner reminiscent to the camera sequence when Link dons a mask to change form, and disintegrates into light. The timeline is resolved, and Termina is restored to its natural state.

 

            Majora asserted upon Skull Kid’s demise that “[a] puppet that can no longer be used is mere garbage.” We have seen that the inverse is also true: a puppet whose usefulness is perceived is of immense value. By engaging in the exercise of seeing everyone an a potential platonic role and oneself as an aggregate of hybrid roles, one perceives not only the developmental and fluid nature of accrued solid forms, but also the interconnectedness of all entities. To fully perceive the dynamics of the platonic meta-role paradigm is to understand the following: if one’s self is based upon an assumption of the roles of those around oneself, then the same must hold true for everyone else. We are, in effect, influencing each other’s development in a highly interdependent way.

Not only, then, does practice of the platonic meta-role paradigm relieve some of the tension of the image-evolution paradox, but it also instills within the player a sense of purpose and responsibility in his own life. Through these dynamics of the meta-role, he learns on a deeply personal level that people model their own transitory selves off of his image as much as he does off of theirs. Thus, he shares responsibility for the development of all those around them, and, in acting positively, may lead them to construct a more positive self, leading to a domino effect through everyone with whom they interact. Our lesson from the platonic conception of the meta-role, then, is simple, yet profound: the entirety of your development is contingent upon the whole of humanity, and the whole of humanity’s development is entirely contingent upon you.

[1] We acknowledge that the social framework of reality can be quite fluid – a fact which greatly contributes to the self-revisionary process. When we speak here of “the rigid framework of reality,” we refer to the literal spatiotemporal construct of reality – a framework which, at least in our earthly context, is unchanging by virtually all accounts.

[2] Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, p. 152.

[3] The Alphabet of Grace, p. 26-27.

[4] We must also note that psychological disorders and dissociative states also provide a distortion of perceptual reality, yet these are even further removed from the solutions we are seeking because they lack the quality of choice. The role player and drug user both willfully choose to alter their functional reality, and are thus aware of its transformation; the psychologically-afflicted typically have no such choice in perceptual alteration, often not even knowing that such distortion is occurring until after the episode has already passed. Such disorders therefore are more likely to complicate the image-evolution paradox than to resolve it.

[5] It is here worth noting that the secondary “role” in a meta-role is taken to be understood in a broad sense, perhaps best defined as a situation in which the verity of the primary role is questioned. While this includes such traditional scenarios of an actor playing an actor in a play, it also includes cases in which the character the actor is playing loses basic integrity – e.g. the mental deterioration and insanity of Lady Macbeth. In this scenario, ‘sane Lady Macbeth’ would be defined as the primary role, while ‘insane Lady Macbeth’ would be defined as the secondary role. Interestingly, as we will later see, the intensive acting methodology behind playing an actor who must “dissolve oneself” in his part and that behind playing a queen who “dissolves herself” in a loss of all rationality are, on a fundamental level, largely the same process.

[6] The player, of course, is still tied to his reality via his hands, which must manipulate the controller, and his mind, controlling his hands. It is nonetheless true that his representative in the game’s reality is unencumbered by the player’s own pretext in a way fundamentally different from an actor’s role playing in a play.

[7] “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” Act III.

[8] Another common term for this concept is “emptiness,” but this word would muddle our argument due to the inapplicable negative connotation placed on the word in the western tradition.

[9] Thoughts without a Thinker, p. 59-60.

[10] Ibid., p. 110 & 122-123.

[11] “Six Characters,” Act II.

[12] Thoughts without a Thinker, p. 105-106.

[13] It is worth noting that this entire process is virtually impossible without X first having practiced mindfulness and bare attention in her own life. If this were not the case, then the emotional content of her own experiences would probably be too muddled to effectively employ as as-if’s.

[14] The Leading Lady’s experiences and their related emotional content will, of course, be richer than that presented literally in Pirandello’s script, because part of the process of X’s assumption of the Leading Lady’s role is the establishment of a personal history for the Leading Lady outside of the script’s bounded events. This creates a wealth of experience and emotion upon which to draw in the subsequent assumption of The Step-Daughter’s role.

[15] It is tempting to equate the term ‘primary role’, as we have previously defined it in meta-role terminology, with the newly dubbed ‘intermediary role’, but this is erroneous. As is often the case with categories and their contents, all intermediary roles are primary roles, but not all primary roles are intermediary roles. The nuance of the intermediary role is in its purpose: it is intended for the purpose of assuming other roles. The primary role that is itself an actor, as we have been discussing, is a prime example of this; so, too, is Link in “Majora,” because his operative nature in Termina is contingent upon his assumption of roles. The contrast between the overarching category of the primary role and the specific nature of intermediary roles will be thrown into greater relief as we examine qualitatively different primary roles in later treatments.

[16] “Six Characters,” Act II.

[17] We will not dwell here on the fact that Darmani’s grave is literally within a cave, but it is rather fitting, all things considered.

[18] Thoughts without a Thinker, p. 70.

[19] It is interesting to note that this ending sequence perfectly recapitulates the entire journey of the game in a symbolic, metaphysical interpretation: the four giants, represented as children, are liberated from their evil masks as Link finds and befriends them, until only Majora itself is left to confront.

[20] “Six Characters,” Act III.


Aaron Suduiko

Aaron Suduiko - Founder and Chief Video Game Analyst

Aaron Suduiko is the founder of With a Terrible Fate and studies the philosophy of video game storytelling. He specializes in the impact of player-avatar relations on game stories.  Learn more here.

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