Interlude: why games matter, and what Jane Austen has to do with it.

The purpose of this blog is to reflect on “Majora’s Mask” as an important work of art in the general realm of aesthetics; yet as the first month of analysis comes to a close and Cyber Monday looms, I am as aware as ever that many people view video games much more as toys than as serious works of art.  In light of this, without dwelling on it too long, I would like to dedicate one post to an attempt to convince the cynic that video games deserve to be taken seriously as aesthetic works.

Austen

When I was studying Jane Austen a few weeks ago, I came across a passage from Northanger Abbey, the first novel she wrote (written roughly 1798-99, and published in 1818).  Austen was a pioneer of the novel as a medium, coming out of a world where it was considered a lesser form of art, and it was this ignorant dismissal of novels that she treats in the passage in question.  I quote from Chapter 5:

Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.”  Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?”  “Oh!  It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

What Austen so eloquently illuminates is the unwillingness of a people to legitimize a new medium as aesthetically valuable — something that I believe is equally applicable to the reticence felt by some towards video games today.  I offer my own reworking of Austen’s language to emphasize this to the skeptical reader:

Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other aesthetic corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our gamers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the game designer, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  “I am no gamer–I seldom look into video games–Do not imagine that I often play video games–It is really very well for a video game.”  Such is the common cant.–“And what are you playing, Miss–?”  “Oh!  It is only a video game!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her controller with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only ‘Final Fantasy VII,’ or ‘Kingdom Hearts II,’ or ‘Majora’s Mask’;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen form.

With all the value I see in video games, I still experience something like “affected indifference, or momentary shame” the first time I explain my analytic pursuits of video games to someone, and this is why Austen’s narrative resonates with me.  A major part of the cultural zeitgeist surrounding video games is the sentiment that video games are designed for children and meant to be outgrown.  It’s built into our very language, referring to the medium as “video games”:  there exists within the concept an element of play and imagination which is considered to be “less-than-adult.”  Compound this with the fact that most people who have not played video games would probably only have two reference points available for understanding video games:  games designed for and played by young children, if they interact with children who game; and the archetypal first-person shooter, like “Halo” or “Call of Duty.”  So the available examples from the medium for the uninitiated reinforce the stereotype that video games are either for children, or “senselessly violent.”  They remain unaware of the capacity for games to weave a rich storyline through narrative and aesthetic elements unavailable to any other kind of media — the sort at play in a game like “Majora.”

Beyond the video game itself, there is the further question of what it means to be labeled a “gamer.”  Those who play video games are encouraged to assume that are part of their personal identity, and to tacitly endorse the minimalist conception of video games as a “mere pastime.”  Imagine, as a thought experiment, if we lived in a world in which people who read books called themselves “readers.”  This feels, I submit, strange, because it endorses the view of literature as something of an optional personal interest, as opposed to a cornerstone of aesthetics and human discourse.  If we moved away from a “reader” paradigm of personal hobby and towards a “literacy” paradigm of expected aesthetic engagement, I think it would be far more difficult to maintain the perception that video games are mere toys.

A few years ago, I wrote a more involved piece on why video games deserve academic treatment; within it, I considered how one might respond to the charge that video games, like children’s literature, are in some sense a prototypical medium, and ought not to be equated in complexity to the novel.  I recapitulate my response to that charge below.

“We might initially think it curious to value some media as more ‘valuable’ or ‘complex’ than others. Each medium offers unique characteristics by definition, making the validity of inter-medium comparisons extremely difficult to prove. Nonetheless, many would probably agree that it is inappropriate to teach a college level course on a children’s book, unless the course were specifically on early childhood development, or the writing of children’s books. Some media, then, may be said to lend themselves to a certain purpose or audience; thus, we may allow this argument provided we interpret it as an assertion of the following: ‘video games are an inappropriate medium to convey involved ideas and theory; even if they are conceived to be of substance, that substance is better presented and assessed in a different, more fitting medium, such as the novel.’

Yet the claim is equally fallible in this form. We need only consider the graphic novel – or, more appropriately, the comic book. The line between comic book and graphic novel is largely arbitrary, with the graphic novel only being truly distinguished by a sense of self-containment, whereas comic books series may be propagated ad infinitum. Yet even this is arbitrary, as certain story arcs of comic books are often compiled together and read in a manner closely akin to that of a graphic novel. It is plausible, then, that the term “graphic novel” is in some sense used to legitimize a medium with a long history of being judged juvenile and recreational. The comic book is gaining traction in this new incarnation as a medium that can be treated in a way similar yet separate to the traditional novel. More and more, teachers are acknowledging that the unique dynamics afforded by visuals and their juxtaposition against text provide insight into substantive concepts in a manner which cannot be achieved by text alone. A similar, longer-standing disposition has evolved towards film:  the study of it as a medium is now well established and accredited. Seeing as both of these are relatively new media, we see that there is no relationship between the length of time for which a medium has been established and its capacity for involved treatment of high-level concepts; we need only establish that the medium has a unique and compelling way to present such concepts.

…[‘Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time’] carries the same format as the most classic of myths, yet only in such a game can the classical format be presented in a participatory manner… this dynamic allows the player to enter the [content] of the game in an associative manner, thereby understanding it with inherently greater depth. There is, therefore, nothing ‘prototypical’ about video games as a medium; if anything, their dynamics suggest that the distanced nature of approach offered by a novel is prototypical by comparison.”

As the blog continues, I will aim to draw out more of the aspects of “Majora” that reflect the special capacities of video games as a meaning to convey aesthetic value and nuance.  Yet without having explicated it thus far, it should be apparent to the reader that such aspects as sidequests prompting players to counterfactually analyze the game’s universe are uniquely realizable by video games.  My hope here is to invite those who might not otherwise find themselves interested in video games to explore and engage in the discourse — we live in an age where a new and powerful form of art is taking shape, and it is a mistake to write it off as the domain of children.

“Even if I die… It won’t be in peace.” The dynamics of death in “Majora’s Mask.”

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.

MikausGrave

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.

ZoraTransformation

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.

“Legend of Whom?” What to do with a “Zelda” game without Zelda.

When I started my first “Legend of Zelda” title years ago, I remember my confusion when I learned that the character as whom I was playing was not named “Zelda,” but that I could actually name him whatever I wanted, and that his canonical name was “Link.”  The game purported not to be about any legend of Link; rather, it was centered upon a yet-unknown character known as Zelda.

zelda

In a game like “Ocarina of Time,” the player meets Zelda fairly quickly, and is primed by the title to recognize her significance in the game:  she is the major nexus of Link’s relationship to good and evil; she is the target of Ganondorf’s conquest; she is the holder of the Triforce of Wisdom.  Much can be said about the role of Zelda in the games’ canon and why the story arc is ultimately defined in terms of her legend; for our current purposes, however, this is only background.

This is “background” in the strictest sense of the term because what I wish to explore presently is this:  in the game entitled “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask,” Zelda does not exist.  Aside from a flashback sequence in which Link remembers the Song of Time, which Zelda ostensibly taught him before he left Hyrule, there is not even a mention of her within the world of Termina, let alone any encounters with her.  Even if one grants that the moniker of the game must include her name in order to identify it with the greater series, one must still account for the fact that the central figure of the greater series has been very apparently omitted from this specific title.  It is this anomaly and its effects that I chart in this post — first in its global implications, and then in how it locally manifests in the characters of Termina.

As a way into Zelda’s relation to “Majora,” consider first the one instance where she does make an appearance:  when Link remembers the Song of Time (1:35 in the video).  Upon reacquiring the Ocarina of Time from Skull Kid, Link is overtaken by a vivid flashback of when he was leaving Hyrule, and a young Princess Zelda said goodbye to him, entrusting him with the Ocarina of Time and teaching him the Song of Time; thus, by experiencing the flashback, the Link who presently faces Skull Kid atop Clock Town’s clock tower remembers the song, and is able to use it to reset time for the first time in the course of the game.

SongofTime

The significance of this encounter hinges on what it means to “remember.”  Consider how Zelda, in the flashback, describes the Song of Time:  “This song,” she says to Link as she plays it, “reminds me of us.”  Just before playing the song for him, she remarks that “even though it was only a short time, I feel like I’ve known you forever.”  To the player who has the background of “Ocarina of Time,” this remark is especially important:  for though Zelda could not possibly remember the events of “Ocarina of Time,” the game is nonetheless evidence of a life that she and Link spent together.  The plot of “Ocarina” revolves around Link rewriting the game’s timeline in order to prevent the conquest of Hyrule by Ganondorf:  at the end of the game, Link seals Ganondorf outside of time with the help of the Seven Sages, establishing a new continuity in which Link and Zelda never embarked on a seven-year quest against the Great King of Evil.  The game closed with a look into where this new timeline might go, with a young Link encountering Zelda at Hyrule Castle.

The tension between the timeline-that-never-was, as it were, and the timeline which emerged out of Link’s quest, is compounded by the role played by the Song of Time.  In “Ocarina,” Link learns the Song of Time through a message sent to him by Zelda after Ganondorf has kidnapped her; it is this song that allows Link to unseal the Door of Time, triggering his seven-year stasis and leading to Ganondorf’s conquest of Hyrule.  Thus there exists no prima facie reason in the timeline as resolved post-“Ocarina” why Zelda would be reminded of Link and herself by the Song of Time.  This fact, combined with Zelda’s remark that she feels as though she has known Link forever, suggests to us that timelines within “Zelda” have something of a bleeding effect.

We must be precise with what we mean by this.  As I mentioned above, what my analysis hinges on here is the conception of “memory.”  Zelda in Link’s flashback appears to vaguely conceive of events outside of her own timeline, experiencing what we might call a “temporal afterimage.”  By “temporal afterimage,” I mean mental remnants or representations of alternate timelines that necessarily precede the timeline in which one actually exists.  So to precisely define the bleeding effect that I am describing, we may say that it refers to “the tendency of intersecting timelines to generate temporal afterimages.”  This definition is useful because, beyond the scope of Zelda, we see the bleeding effect running rampant in “Majora”:  in fact, it is a parsimonious metaphysical model for explaining why certain objects, like masks, remain with Link when he resets time.  By this model, each usage of the Song of Time in Termina instantiates a new timeline, and masks &co obtain in the new timeline as temporal afterimages, brought into the reality of the new timeline by Link’s mind, which serves as the node of intersection between old and new timeline.

When I treat time in more depth later in the blog, this will be examined more closely; at present I want to return to Zelda, the subject of this post.  What I have aimed to establish in the preceding argument is that memory within the “Zelda” universe is at least sometimes the result of the bleeding effect.  I have argued this in order to prove that Zelda does not exist in “Majora’s Mask,” or in Termina.  To see this, recall the argument that I made at the end of an earlier post, that the Link who exists within Termina is not the canonical Hero of Time; reading that argument, one might rightly wonder about what possible mechanism could be employed by the game to convince the player that Link is the Hero of Time, when, in fact, he is not.  The bleeding effect offers us just such a mechanism:  we think during Link’s flashback that he is recalling the aftermath of “Ocarina,” because those events took place outside of the scope of the game and we have no point of reference to verify or deny them; yet our examination suggests that, contrary to the intuition imposed upon us by the game, the Link of Termina is actually experiencing a temporal afterimage of the Hero of Time.  If we accept this argument, it follows that not only is Zelda not existent within the world of Termina; she has never truly existed for the Link of “Majora,” except as a temporal afterimage.

Another result of this theory is that it adds explanatory strength to the metaethical nihilism that I defended as a thesis of “Majora” in an earlier post.  I observed that the game mechanic of the Fierce Deity’s Mask implies that moral truths do not obtain in Termina.  We also see in other “Zelda” titles — particularly in “Ocarina” — that Zelda serves as a moral compass for Link.  It is she who initially sets Link on the path against Ganondorf, and who, in the guise of Sheik, directs Link to each of the Sages whose help he needs to defeat the Great King of Evil.  In the same vein, recall that in “Ocarina” (and generally within canon), Link is the bearer of the Triforce of Courage, whereas Zelda bears the Triforce of Wisdom.  Thus it makes theoretic sense that Zelda would be the one who tempers Link’s courage through the application of wisdom in the form of morality; and, in a world without Zelda, with Link never having met Zelda, it makes theoretic sense that morality does not fundamentally obtain.

Zelda Plays the Ocarina

Return, then, to Link’s flashback in which he “remembers” the Song of Time:  what significance does that particular temporal afterimage have in relation to the rest of the game’s universe?  There are many possible explanations; below, I assess what I take to be the three that are most compelling.

1.  Zelda is a deus ex machina.  On the most basic reading, Link needs to remember Zelda at that moment because otherwise the moon will oblierate Termina.  Thus he needs access to the Song of Time in order to negotiate the timeline of Termina and actually proceed on his quest to save it.

Of course, this account is not without wrinkles.  I have already pointed out that Link ultimately cannot save Termina, because Termina is defined by its apocalyptic fate.  So the use of a deus ex machina would not actually cohere as a device to save the world, but only as a device to grant Link limited agency.  A noteworthy facet of this account is that it creates a sense of narrative irony when the game is viewed in dialogue with “Ocarina”:  in “Ocarina,” Link can only traverse time from one fixed-point to one other fixed-point seven years apart; yet, given this limited metaphysical agency, he is able to succeed in his quest to negate the Great King of Evil; contrariwise in “Majora,” Link has much more liberty in the manipulation of time, yet he cannot ultimately succeed in freeing Termina from its fate.

2.  The Ocarina of Time transcends all time.  We usually describe the Ocarina of Time as an object that facilitates travel along a single timeline; yet given this ability, it is not altogether implausible that the Ocarina also resonates between timelines to some extent.  Under this interpretation, it would make sense that its bearers, Zelda and Link, would experience temporal afterimages.  The major complaint here is the lack of mechanics for explaining the Ocarina’s dual functionality.  How is it able to manifest in multiple distinct timelines, and what is happening at the intersection of metaphysics and epistemology that allows its bearer to actively travel a single timeline, but also to merely glimpse the remnants of other timelines?

And in the bizarre world of Termina, we would see the intersection of these capacities, because Link actually does travel through many distinct timelines of Termina by using the Song of Time.  This could easily be a unique function of Termina’s metaphysics — for example, the distinct timelines of Termina could all exist as members of one larger “set” of timelines, on which the Ocarina acts as though it were one single timeline — but such an account seems clunky without a much more involved account of what the Ocarina exactly is, independently of Termina or Hyrule.

3.  The entropy of the universe is ultimately pernicious.  First, I must take a moment to parse what I mean.  “Entropy,” in particular, need not be interpreted as a physicist’s strict account of the concept; I am happy to gloss it as “the increasing disorder of the universe as time progresses.”  What I have in mind as this increasing disorder is the proliferation of timelines:  as “Ocarina” and “Majora” progress, timelines manifest, are played out, and fall away, effectively abandoned for the sake of new ones.  Time branches as Ganondorf is sealed away; time dies and is reborn every time Link resets Termina; and all along the way, all that remains as evidence of the journey is the formation of the relics which we have been calling temporal afterimages, which amount to little more than distant memory — or, indeed, than legend.  So we are left with half-recollected stories which never truly happened, but which present themselves to us as artifacts of truth.  It is this connection of increasingly myriad timelines through temporal afterimages that grounds the increasing chaos of “Zelda” as the story progresses, and the particular instance of Link “remembering” the Song of Time demonstrates the pernicious nature of this chaos.

In the moment when Time itself is at its end, Link experiences an epistemic shift which connects him through a temporal afterimage to the Hero of Time, and the Song of Time instantiates itself in the alien world of Termina.  In so doing, it allows Link to traverse Termina with the hope that, under the guidance of Zelda, he can save it from the threat of annihilation by Skull Kid.  Yet Termina is an irreducibly doomed world, and that hope is ultimately parasitic on Termina’s pessimistic fate.  All that Link effects is the proliferation of more timelines, all of which are ultimately doomed to termination, just as the world’s name suggests.  So the false memory of Zelda ultimately promotes the chaos of a fatalistic universe, disguised, by the protagonist’s hope, as something that can be saved.

I think that all three of these theories have advantages and drawbacks; strict canonists will probably be most satisfied by Explanation 2, whereas I am most tempted by Explanation 3.  I do not believe that this account is as speculative as it may seem as first glance:  “Zelda” as a series is unabashed in its usage of multiple timelines and nonlinearity; I think that embedded as a natural extension of the account which I have offered thus far is the fact that Termina can be viewed as the ultimate corruption and decay of that multi-universal structure.


In the post so far, I have discussed the consequences of the princess who is not present in “Majora”; yet this analysis would be incomplete without service to the “princesses” who are present in the game.  Before concluding, I want to briefly consider whom I see as a Zelda-analogue in each sector of Termina, and how they collectively tell a story of the Zelda-concept relative to the world of Termina.

Deku_PrincessDekuPrincess

In the first section of the game — the swamp — Link must undertake a quest to rid the swamp of poison and rescue the Deku Princess, who is imprisoned within the temple where the first Giant is sealed.  This quest in many ways resembles the classic “rescue the princess” quest, but is heavily parodied:  the princess’s rescue is advocated for by a monkey, and Link must transport the uppity princess back to her father by literally stuffing her into an empty bottle.  In the very first stages of the game, then, we see a Zelda analogue that has been satirized into the realm of the absurd.

GoronEldersSon

When Link moves on to the mountains, he encounters the son of the Goron Tribe’s Elder — a prince, as it were — who is little more than an infant, crying for his father who has yet to return from a quest outside of the village.  Link must soothe him by finding his father, and playing him a lullaby which the Elder half-remembers, and which the child completes.  This quest-driving Zelda analogue is even less mature than the young Zelda whom we encounter in “Ocarina,” and exacerbates the image of a royal heir as one whose problems demand solving purely by virtue of their inheritance.

LuluNewWaveBossaNova

Link then arrives at the Great Bay to find Lulu, a girl who is the lead singer of the Zora’s band, The Indigo-Go‘s.  Before the events of “Majora,” she lost her voice and laid seven eggs, which Link eventually reclaims from pirates — only to find that the eggs hatch into Zora children who form the notes of a melody, which Link must play to Lulu to restore her voice.  In singing the song, she summons the enormous turtle who is the guardian of the temple to which Link must travel in order to liberate the third Giant, purifying the Great Bay’s tumultuous, clouded waters.  Though Lulu does have a tragic backstory with the fallen hero Mikau, it is difficult to see her as more than a plot device:  she is rendered speechless, and her children are literally designed to grant Link passage to the Great Bay Temple, restoring their mother’s voice in the process.  So while she is certainly a character with pathos, Lulu is also emblematic of the princess who is reduced to at most a plot device and at least a deus ex machina, existing only to effect progress in the hero’s journey.

PamelaPamela's_Father

One could plausibly argue that no princess analogue exists in the stark Ikana Canyon, just as Link does not acquire a new transformation mask in the canyon; yet I believe that the little girl named Pamela who lives in a music box house with her cursed father is in fact another analogue.  Pamela is a little girl whose father moved them to Ikana to research ghosts and spirits, but who accidentally transforms himself into a Gibdo — a type of mummy-like spirit — in the course of his research.  This forces Pamela to lock him in a closet in their basement, as Gibdos circle their home in a desire to claim her father as one of their own.  In my eyes, Pamela is the exemplar of a princess trope that is desperate to assert a measure of control and agency that ultimately does not belong to her.  She is powerless to stop the Gibdos, and Link, the only one who can heal her father, must actually sneak past Pamela in order to enter their home — by being so paranoid and fearful for the sake of her father, she would keep out the one person who could save him.  Thus Pamela is the tragic princess who wrongly believes she can save herself, and who, by virtue of that very fact, is most in need of saving.

anjukafei

I have already mentioned Clock Town’s princess analogue, Anju, once before in my discussion of the value of sidequests in “Majora”; I am loath to mention her in passing again because the story of Anju and Kafei demands treatment in a post all its own, and yet Anju is irrefutably the fifth princess analogue.  Anju is the innkeeper in Clock Town, engaged to Kafei; but Skull Kid transformed Kafei into a child a month prior to the wedding, and a thief (Sakon) stole the mask that Kafei was to exchange with Anju at their wedding ceremony.  This caused Kafei to go into hiding in an attempt to reclaim his mask; yet Anju was left knowing only that Kafei ran away, and fears that he might have done so because of her, or (as her mother suggests to her) to seek a better partner in the owner of Romani Ranch.  Anju is trapped in the most tragic, yet most existentially significant situation of all:  hers is the only fate of the five mentioned characters in which Link does not have to intercede in some way.  If Link does not intercede, then Anju will be left waiting at the altar when the moon falls; yet if he does intercede, then she and Kafei will be married under the falling moon, only with the goal of perishing together (for, as previously mentioned, Link barely has time to stop the moon’s descent if he sees his sidequest through to the end, and it seems that Anju and Kafei would prefer to perish than be saved).  Anju, then, is the princess as the tragic lover:  the only difference in her fate is whether or not she will know in the end the fact that Kafei loves her and wants, literally and figuratively, to die with her.


What emerges from this world without Zelda is a fivefold princess cycle:  the comically absurd, the childishly immature, the silenced plot device, the self-defeating victim, and the doomed lover.  I believe that it is the absence of moral valence — which, as I have defended above, is due in large part to the absence of Zelda — that allows us to perceive these five different forms of the princess.  The reason is because the absence of a moral imperative transforms the concept of the princess from that of “the one who must be saved” to that of “one who could be saved.”  In the review, though some of these characters must be “saved” by Link in one three-day cycle, none must be saved in order to complete his quest in the way that saving Zelda is inextricably bound up with defeating Ganondorf.  This allows each character to be uniquely flawed in the ways described above, because the paradigm of goodness in the game does not depend on them.  Could we conceive of Zelda as flawed?  Maybe, but my intuition is that such a critique would reduce to a critique of morality, because she, as the manifestation of Wisdom, exists differently than any of these existentially doomed princesses.

So what comes from a “Legend of Zelda” without Zelda?  We see the picture of a universe that, on the most essential spatiotemporal level, is in a state of decay; yet at the same time, we see a universe that uniquely affords a depiction of humanity that would otherwise be eclipsed by morality inhering to the one who must be saved.  The courageous hero is left without direction, yet it is by virtue of lacking direction that he is able to see the plights of those around him as human conditions, rather than as canonically good, evil, or neutral.

“My sorrows are melting away into the song”: how to build a universe out of music.

If you’re at all familiar with “The Legend of Zelda,” chances are that you’d recognize a song or two from the series if you heard one.  The series is renowned for the quality of its soundtrack, so much so that its songs are performed by symphonies.  There are multiple reasons why the usage of music in the series is noteworthy, some of which include:  the high symphonic quality of composition; the usage of the same themes across multiple entries in the series in order to facilitate continuity and points of contrast; and, perhaps most notably, music functions both as ambiance and as a plot device.  “Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time” is named after the musical instrument which drives much of the plot; over the course of the game, Link must learn a variety of songs from different characters in order to progress.  The effects brought about by such songs vary from facilitating communication with your best friend to unsealing the Temple of Time, thereby accessing the temporal architecture of the game and allowing Link to travel from the past to the future and back again.

ocarina_of_time

I’ve already mentioned that part of the manifest strangeness in “Majora’s Mask” is because of how very different it is from other “Zelda” titles.  In this post, I argue that music is a prime example of how “Majora” is simultaneously familiar and terrifyingly different from the rest of the canon:  it takes the significance of sound to a whole new level in game design.

The center of Termina’s universe is the seemingly quaint Clock Town.  When Link arrives in the center of town on the First Day, a whimsical melody picks up as ambient music.  The player is eased into a sense of every day life, exploring the town’s four quadrants as time passes unassumingly.  Move to the Second Day in Clock Town, and something happens that is characteristically “a little off”:  the townsfolk are still going about their business, but the music is somewhat less relaxed than before.  Perhaps, on first hearing it, we might think that it is more boisterous than its first iteration, as the tempo is far more upbeat.  But this changes drastically on the Final Day, when the music runs out of control with the rest of Termina:  not only is the pace of the music alarmingly manic, but deeply dissonant bass now plays underneath the melody, unequivocally signaling to the player — along with the earthquakes and enormous moon uncomfortably close to the earth — that Termina has derailed and is set to crash.

The impact on the player, as described above, is pretty transparent.  What I want to ask instead as a way into the matter of music is this:  can the citizens of Clock Town hear this ambient music?  Ordinarily, we interpret the soundtrack element of media like movies and games as a component of the aesthetic experience for the player, which the medium has overlaid with the events of the story; so it is natural to assume, in other words, that the characters of a story usually do not hear the soundtrack.  Yet I do not believe that this is a clear-cut matter in the world of Termina.  At the heart of this question is a thesis that music actually constitutes the world of Termina in a substantial way, and we can turn to Friedrich Nietzsche to see why.

In The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, a young Nietzsche claims that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified (Section 5, trans. Walter Kaufmann).  What Nietzsche precisely means by this is difficult to parse, and I will not attempt to do so presently.  How I gloss Nietzsche’s claim is this:  a world without meaning can only be conceived of through that which eschews individuated paradigms of meaning and instead embraces primordial sentiments — and only art can do this.  This is the interpretation of his thesis that I will be using for the remainder of this post.

What’s particularly salient about Nietzsche in relation to “Majora” is the he holds up music as the paragon of what I call primordial, non-schematized sentiment (what he calls “the Dionysian”).  To Nietzsche, music was different from all other art, “because, unlike [other art], it is not a copy of the the phenomenon, but an immediate copy of the will itself, and therefore complements everything physical in the world and every phenomenon by representing what is metaphysical, the thing in itself” (Section 16, trans. Kaufmann — and here Nietzsche is explcitly recapitulating the philosophy of Schopenhauer).  This is part-and-parcel for his idea of the world only being justifiable as an aesthetic phenomenon:  the argument is that the primal force of existence is described by music because it exists prior to our imposition of meaning or artificial representation.  But Nietzsche also knew that music and other, image-based art (what he calls “the Apollinian”) oftentimes coexist, and that “image and concept, under the influence of a truly corresponding music, acquire a higher significance… music incites to the symbolic intuition of Dionysian universality [through images], and music allows the symbolic image to emerge in its highest significance” (Section 16, trans. Kaufmann).

Clocktower

“Majora’s Mask” closely adheres to Nietzsche’s ideal relation between music and imagery.  We already have considered Clock Town’s music as a model of the universe’s apocalyptic decay, but the relationship between Termina and music goes far deeper than that:  Termina’s metaphysics are directly related to music.  We only need to consider the Song of Time to confirm this:  the melody essentially allows Link to access Termina’s source code, changing his relative position along its timeline.  Not only can Link use the Song of Time to return to the Dawn of the First Day:  he can also use variations of the song to slow down the flow of time (the “Inverted Song of Time”) or to move forward in time in discontinuous bursts (the “Song of Double Time”).  What’s more, the only way in which the player can genuinely save progress in the game is by playing the Song of Time.  This means that even the player’s metaphysical relation to the game in terms of recording their in-game actions in the game’s history is governed by music.  (I use the term “genuinely save” because players can also save their game at Owl Statues throughout Termina; but these saves are described as temporary in that the game is exited upon saving, and the save marker is deleted when the save file is reopened.  Thus, the very design of the Owl Statue suggests that it only provides the player with an artificial and indirect relation to the game’s universe, as compared with the Song of Time.)

Termina is a world defined by time, and time in “Majora” is metricized through music.  We can even frame the basic tension of the game through music:  the story of “Majora” is the push-and-pull of the Song of Time against the Clock Town Theme.  The accelerating, manic juggernaut of the Clock Town Theme is the underlying tendency of the game’s universe toward extinction, and the Song of Time is manifest will, the agency of humanity staring into inevitable demise and asserting themselves in the face of extinction.  On a Nietzschean reading, every other component of the game is derivative of the counterpoint between these two musical themes.

Additionally, the only resolution of the game comes from playing a song — the Oath to Order — which you learn from the first Giant at the beginning of the game, and do not use until the climax against Skull Kid in order to call all four liberated Giants to hold back the falling moon.  So on yet another musical level, the entire game is a quest to play one song:  the Oath to Order.  And of course, we see that Majora then possesses the moon and threatens to crash it into Termina in spite of the Giants, thereby suggesting that Order cannot ultimately be achieved (this conclusion, I believe, collapses into the primordial conflict between the Song of Time and the Clock Town Theme, but I will not pursue a proof of the reduction at present).

When we conceive of the game as metaphysically musical, the difficulty of the question posed at the start of this discourse (“can the citizens of Clock Town hear this ambient music?”) becomes clear.  It is no longer even clear what the question means, or if we can even coherently pose it.  The music is only ambient inasmuch as the entire universe is ambient.  And this is key:  the model of a musical universe breaks down our traditional understanding of background music as any sort of “background,” because the music reveals itself as fundamentally inseparable from existence.

Here is one way to prove that the citizens of Clock Town must “hear the music,” as it were:  the next time you are alone in a sufficiently quiet environment, close your eyes and just listen.  You will not find that the world is silent.  In fact, composer John Cage was famously inspired to write 4’33 in 1952 after visiting a sound- and echo-proofed room:  in the room, he found that he could hear his blood flow and heart beat, and concluded that silence cannot truly be experienced.  So it is not reasonable to conceive of a world as silent, unless the world otherwise somehw directly stipulates that this is the case.  Now, given that the citizens must be hearing something, what is it that they could be hearing?  We just examined how the most fundamental nature of Termina is musical; everything physical within Termina is, as Nietzsche would put it, symbolic of that primordial content.  Similarly, I pointed out in my previous post that the lives of characters within Termina serve as a microcosm of the macrocosmic apocalypse that is Termina.  So on every level, the lives of these people are ending; and therefore, even if they do not literally hear the music which constitutes the Clock Tower Theme, they must symbolically hear it because Clock Town itself, like Termina, is a performance of the Clock Town Theme.

We see that the universe of “Majora’s Mask” is constituted as a musical discourse, and this in my mind already sets it apart from the design of most other games vis-a-vis musical composition; but “Majora” does even more than this.  It is not enough to say that the physical universe is a symbolic image of music; “Majora” also explores the nature of just what that symbolic relation entails.  Consider that in each of Link’s four “main forms” — when he is a Hylian child, and when he is transformed through a mask into a Deku Scrub, Zora, or Goron — Link possesses a different instrument.  The ocarina only exists while Link is a child; otherwise, he wields brass pipes, a guitar, or a set of drums, respectively.

instrumenta instrumentb instrumentc instrumentd

These instruments all have unique sounds and unique names:  they are the Ocarina of Time, the Pipes of Awakening, the Guitar of Waves, and the Drums of Sleep.  Aside from adding wonderful texture to the gaming experience, the difference in instruments are significant on a few levels, two of which I enumerate below.

1.  The difference in musical instruments imparts substance to otherwise flat identities.  Link assumes the form of the Deku Scrub, Zora, and Goron through masks, effectively adopting them as personas.  Yet in the case of the Zora and Goron, these masks are derived from healing the pain of a dying Zora hero (Mikau) and the ghost of a Goron hero (Darmani; these are stories which I will closely examine later on); the characters who knew these heroes in life mistake Link for them when he wears the appropriate mask.  Thus, there must exist some relation between the flat persona and the entity from which it emerged.  The instruments give us a link between the two (no pun intended):  just as they are unique, Link learns different songs in each of his forms, which are appropriate to the context of the lives of the progenitors of his masks.  To take one example, a main quest when Link is in the land of Gorons requires learning a lullaby that Darmani used to play for his son.  The result of this is that each of Link’s forms bares an ontologically unique relationship to the universe:   because existence is constituted by music, their knowledge of different songs justifies their individual identities in a world which would otherwise render them superficial.

2.  The ability of each instrument to play Link’s entire library of songs creates a deep tension between individuality and homogeneity.  Despite this first level of significance, each of the four instruments can play all of the songs that Link knows, regardless of the context in which he learned them.  This returns to the Nietzschean idea of music as a language that transcends the barriers of language itself, in that all can immediately apprehend it.  So, by engaging in this common language that precedes individuation, the musician is able to commune with the essential form of the universe irrespective of identity.  This not only makes Link’s masks feel artificial, but makes Link and entities in general feel artificial.  When Link plays hide-and-seek with the children under the tree at the very end of the game, as I described a few posts ago, each child poses hauntingly enigmatic questions to Link when Link finds them.  One child asks Link:  “Your true face… What kind of face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that your true face?”  There questions drive to the heart of “Majora,” and, though I will consider several ways to formulate answers to them as the blog continues, one way to both motivate the questions and respond to them is this:  as long as we have a face, we are false because we are differentiated from the universe.  Our true face is that of music.  If you find yourself doubting that so strong a claim follows, consider this as well:  the mechanism for healing the spirits of Mikau and Darmani (and many others in the game) is a song:  the Song of Healing.  Link heals the pain of people by recalling them to the universe of music, reminding them of their loved ones and dissolving their acute individuation and loneliness.  To paraphrase Darmani, the sorrows of those who suffer melt away into the song.

You can stumble upon any Zelda song and be swept away in the feeling of the epic, and the imminent sense of heroism; yet I cannot think of another game within the canon that so inherently musical as to articulate that our true face is musical, at once formulating music as the nature of existence and as the ultimate technology of the self.  We ought to seriously study the musical form of “Majora,” if for no other reason, then because it shows the extent to which it recapitulates the content of the game.  Clock Town’s Theme is not an ambient loop — rather, it convinces the player that it is timeless, until its degradation through time demands the player’s attention and asserts a simple truth which games too often ignore:  all songs must end.

(For reference purposes, please note my version of the relevant Nietzsche:  Nietzsche, Friedrich.  The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner.  Trans. Walter Kaufmann.  New York:  Vintage-Random House, 1967.  Print.)

Want to learn how to design sidequests? Play “Majora’s Mask.”

In video games (specifically, in role-playing games), we can draw a distinction between two major classes of “things to do”:  main quests and sidequests.  Main quests are objectives that advance the overarching story of the game, progressing the gamer towards the game’s conclusion, when the final boss is slain and the credits role.  What sort of thing constitutes a sidequest is far less clear-cut, and in this blogpost, I argue that “Majora’s Mask” is exceptional because it offers the most meaningful and ontologically logical sidequests possible of a game.  (Note that in this post, I am concerned with the overall design of sidequests more so than with any particular sidequest; I will return to treat specific sidequests in more depth in later posts.)

Here’s one thing that a sidequest can be:  strewn across colonial America are the feathers of eagles, in the least convenient and most obscure locations.  Collect all fifty to get a new outfit.  This is not a thought experiment — it is an actual sidequest directly out of “Assassin’s Creed III.”

ac3

This kind of collection sidequest is far from uncommon in modern gaming.  Often very loosely tied to the main storyline (if at all), these quests more than anything else serve to artificially inflate total time spent playing the game by requiring tedious busywork to collect a vast number of items, usually for a single bonus item or achievement.  So when a game like “Assassin’s Creed” boasts about huge game length, this is part of how they get there.  (This is, I should say, not the only sort of sidequest in “Assassin’s Creed,” and if I were to lambast the series in full, the sidequests would be only a minor part of my argument — but collection sidequests as a whole, as I said, are pandemic these days.)

You might say comparing collection sidequests to “Majora’s Mask” is lopsided in the first place, so here is what many would consider a better type of sidequest:  that is, the sidequest design of “Legend of Zelda:  The Wind Waker.”  The events of “Wind Waker” take place on the Great Sea, an expansive ocean upon which areas of interest manifest as islands.  While some of these islands house towns and main quests, it is nonetheless possible to complete the entire game without having charted a substantial amount of the Sea.  Charting the entire sea can be seen as one grand discovery sidequest, with constituent quests on each island discovered in the process.

windwaker

On uncharted islands of the sea exist substantive, various adventures and secrets that round out the game both by adding more length, but also by giving the player a richer understanding of the game’s world.  The endeavor to chart the entire Great Sea, while certainly time-intensive, does not feel like monotonous busywork precisely because the designers have made every part of the ocean unique, packed with novel challenges and exciting auxiliary quests.  Discovery sidequests like charting the Great Sea differ from collection sidequests in two major ways:  firstly, where collection sidequests typically focus on acquiring a massive amount of one item with minimal meaning, each coordinate of the Great Sea map contains a different sort of island, making the sidequest experience diverse and more representative of an odyssey than running errands; secondly, the objectives of collective sidequests do not inhere to the structure of the game’s world, whereas discovery sidequests like sailing the entire Sea directly concern deepening one’s knowledge of the game’s immediate universe.

I believe that discovery sidequests are of particular value in the design of a masterful role-playing game because they establish a resolvable tension between the limited scope of the universe necessary to solve the main problem of the game (i.e. main quests), and the comprehensive scope of the universe, as discoverable through sidequests.  Yet in truth, I bring up discovery sidequests, and the premium which I place upon them, only to stipulate that the sidequests in “Majora’s Mask” go far beyond the merits of such quests.  I have already begun to discuss the nihilistic metaphysics and ethical thesis of “Majora”; here, I wish to briefly survey why these two facts put the game in a unique position to have sidequests that are qualitatively more substantial than any other sidequests which I have seen thus far.

When Satoru Iwata (Global President of Nintendo Company Ltd.) announced the coming release of “Majora’s Mask 3D,” he referred to the citizens of Termina as “a cast of endearing characters trapped in the final hours of their lives.”  I alluded a similar notion when I discussed the nature of Termina as a world that is eternally ending:  its existence is described by a three-day time loop leading to the apocalypse.  In one way, Termina is actually analogous to the Great Sea of “Wind Waker”:  players of “Majora” have a framework for mapping the universe of Termina just as one can chart the Great Sea; the difference is that instead of sailing to different islands, players of “Majora” chart a course by easing the pain of virtually everyone in the world through a variety of entirely unique sidequests.  The paths of the lives threatened by the moon essentially define the world of Termina, and it is this relation which allows us to derive special value from the sidequests of “Majora,” namely in the following three ways.

1.  Each sidequest is a microcosm of the game’s macrocosmic framework of saving the world from annihilation.  In the 23 quests leading to the acquisition of masks by Link, we see people who from the Dawn of the First Day are in exquisite pain that will not be resolved without Link’s help.  The underlying theme of most of these quests is that the very foundation of peoples’ happiness is threatened, so that they will be spiritually destroyed if Link does not intervene.  So in each of these sidequests, Link encounters a miniature model of his overarching quest:  he must save the universe of a particular person or group of people from destruction before it is too late.

2.  The game’s temporal loop prompts the player to directly engage in counterfactual analysis.  Pick a sidequest to undertake, a specific person to save, and you can easily see the mission through to its completion.  When the quest ends, you are typically presented with a mask, the symbol of your success in healing the concerned party.  Yet when the player then plays the song of time and returns to the Dawn of the First Day to engage in other tasks, they quickly find that whatever person they just healed is now just as distraught as they were before the quest was undertaken — because, with the reversal of time, the course of the quest was undone too (the exception to this is in the case of characters who offer you masks by which you can transform into them, a matter which I will take up in a later post).  This game mechanic alone is worth marveling at for a moment:  thanks to the dynamics of time, the player is able to observe the citizens of Termina and see the courses that their lives take with and without Link’s intervention.  This is a huge departure from traditional game dynamics, where non-player-characters (NPCs) with sidequests will typically exist as static entities, waiting for the player to approach them and undertake a linear sidequest; if the player fails, then the quest will probably either reset from the beginning because only success is “counted” in the game’s metaphysics, or else the quest will remain unavailable for the remainder of the current playthrough.

The result of this dynamic in “Majora” is that the player is able to observe multiple potential outcomes of causal chains.  Link can watch events fall apart as he does nothing; then, he can reverse time and see the joy caused by his intervention in those same events.  In philosophy, one way of evaluating the causal structure of events is by imagining and comparing different possible worlds in which causal chains transpire with slight alterations; “Majora’s Mask” gives the player an opportunity to step into the thick of an active experiment in possible worlds.

3.  The player is ultimately made to confront a choiceless choice.  What is the result of this experiment in possible worlds?  There exists no possible world such that everyone can be saved.  By engaging the game’s sidequests, the player quickly discovers that different sidequests conflict by requiring you to undertake different courses of action at a single time in the three-day cycle, which means that it is not possible to complete every sidequest in a one three-day cycle.  This means that no matter how hard Link tries, he cannot save everyone from defeat of spirit.

Most poignant in this regard is the sidequest of reuniting star-crossed lovers Anju and Kafei:  the length of the sidequest, which requires Link to takes actions over the course of all three days, consumes much of his time when it is undertaken, meaning he gives up many opportunities to help others in order to help a single couple.  At the end of the quest, when Anju and Kafei marry, only minutes remain to potentially confront Skull Kid and stop the moon.  Moreover, to make an argument from game mechanics similar to the one we made with the Fierce Deity’s Mask, the function of the Couple’s Mask received from Anju and Kafei’s wedding is to cause Clock Town’s mayor to break up a meeting about the town’s Carnival; this cannot be done in the time remaining after the ceremony, implying that the player should reverse time at least once after reuniting the lovers.   So, we might say that saving their love indirectly dooms Termina to oblivion in at least one three-day cycle.

anjukafei

Of course, reversing time does not reverse everything about completing a sidequest:  Link retains all the masks in his possession whenever he travels back to the Dawn of the First Day.  Surely (and here I nod to “Ocarina of Time”), this must be significant as an emblem of having made someone happy, even if only in an alternate timeline?  Yet as much as we want this to be the case, the endgame of collecting every mask, as I discussed in my last post, is the act of giving up all of those masks in exchange for the Fierce Deity’s Mask, the emblem of an evil god.  I cannot conceive of a more eloquent way to eschew meaning from the universe than to force one to surrender all articles of the good-once-done, in order to save existence by playing the role of an evil god.

We can note that one does not need to give away the masks one has accrued and acquire the Fierce Deity’s Mask in order to defeat Majora, yet the game’s design devalues this choice:  the player’s collection of masks is glaringly incomplete without its final member.  With the existence of a mask that denies morality any sense of objective truth, for one to deny the mask makes it seem as though one is hiding from the stark truth which the metaphysics of the game are thrusting upon one.  Similarly, Link does regain all the other masks in addition to the Fierce Deity’s Mask if the player acquires the latter, defeats Majora, and then reopens the same save file; but of what value are these masks as articles of goodness when it was an article of evil that saved the world?

The final result of the game’s counterfactual analysis is that not everyone can be saved; and indeed, insofar as Termina continues to exist as an apocalyptic world even after Majora is defeated, any instance of even one person being saved is entirely fleeting.  Yet though the game may tell you at every turn that your actions are meaningless, it demands to be played.  Like the structure of Hades’ punishment for Sisyphus, every new decaying causal chain Link learns about through sidequests and main quests cries out for him to save humanity, if only for one single moment.  It is this picture of Link saving no one but making everyone happy that emanates from the universe of the sidequests of “Majora”; if any other game can effect such meaning through the framework of auxiliary stories, I have yet to find it.

Majora’s Mask should terrify you, and this is why.

It doesn’t take much effort to find horror stories inspired by Majora’s Mask online.  The reason, we might imagine, is obvious:  “Majora’s Mask” is the darkest title in the Zelda canon thus far.  It takes place in an inexplicable parallel world; the apocalypse is constantly occurring; and the moon has an enormous, menacing face.  We can easily write off the disturbing undercurrent of “Majora” as a result of aesthetics such as these, but in this post, I want to offer an argument that the horror which pervades the game is much more subtle and existential than that interpretation.  I submit that the ultimate reason “Majora’s Mask” continues to terrify us is that, as much as we want there to exist an evil for us to conquer, there ultimately exists no evil in the game.

Although I am often tempted to view “Majora” in a vacuum precisely because it is so wildly different from other Zelda titles, it is important to remember that it is the direct sequel to “Ocarina of Time,” and therefore in many ways engages with its predecessor in an artistic and philosophical dialogue.  To that end, consider the premise of “Ocarina of Time”:  though the game is undeniably complex and rich, the ultimate struggle is Link’s quest to save the kingdom of Hyrule from the barbaric usurper, Ganondorf.

Ganon Castle08--article_image

Ganondorf is represented unequivocally as the paragon of power, unparalleled in his desire to subdue the entire world with his will.  When Link awakens after a seven-year stasis to find that the Ganondorf has transformed the castle of Hyrule into a proverbial citadel of darkness, it is unequivocal that we are meant to view Ganondorf as the archetype of evil, who essentially exists only that Link must stop him at all costs.  (Ganondorf as a character, I should add, has become far more nuanced with the addition of games such as Wind Waker and Twilight Princess; but it is Great King of Evil Ganondorf to whom “Majora” responds.)

Where do we find the Great King of Evil in “Majora”?  The Zelda veteran and video game initiate alike continually pose this question as they play through the game, and it is the inability to answer it which instills them with mounting fear throughout the course of the game.  In the Zelda canon, the game’s ethos is divided into three cardinal virtues, collectively known as The Triforce.  Link, Ganondorf, and Princess Zelda are each endowed with one piece of the Triforce — Courage, Power, and Wisdom, respectively.  We can understand evil as a result of pure, unchecked, imbalanced power; but we do not even have grounds for believing that the Triforce obtains in the world of “Majora.”  There is no mention of the Triforce throughout the entire course of the game, and although Link traditionally holds the Triforce of Courage, we do not have reason to think that the Triforce, a gift of three goddesses to the world of Hyrule, holds any sway in the parallel world of Termina.

The “villain” of this game is Skull Kid, a forest-dwelling child who is lonely and stole Majora’s Mask from the Happy Mask Salesman.  The mask, possessed by the spirit of Majora, possessed him and compelled him to attempt to destroy Termina by crashing the moon into it.

skullkid

We don’t want to ascribe evil to a disturbed child whose only problem seems to be deep-seated loneliness; in point of fact, various entities throughout the game, including the giants who serve as the arbiters of Termina itself, directly advise us to forgive Skull Kid.  So we try to nail the label of evilness to Majora, the dark entity manifest — yet if we play through the entirety of the game, we find that Majora too is not truly evil.

The progression of “Majora” to its conclusion goes roughly like this:  in order to save Termina from the wrath of Skull Kid and Majora, Link must travel to four unique domains and liberate the four giants, which Skull Kid sealed away with masks that transfigured them into monsters.  After all four have been liberated, Link is able to confront Skull Kid atop a clock tower on the night of the Final Day, and the four giants catch the moon as it falls, preventing catastrophe.  Once the moon has stopped and Skull Kid has subsequently crumpled in a heap on the ground, Majora the Spirit takes over, snapping Skull Kid’s neck and possessing the moon itself, declaring that it will “consume everything.”  In order to stop Majora once and for all, Link is teleported to the moon, where he encounters a surreal scene of five children under a single tree on a lush, green landscape.  Four of the children are running around the tree in play, each wearing one of the evil masks that had been used to seal the giants away.  The fifth child sits alone under the tree, wearing Majora’s Mask itself.

Zelda-Majoras-Mask-89-moon

One of the major elements of gameplay in “Majora” is the acquisition of masks:  as Link progresses through the game and helps to heal people from their various difficulties and pains, he acquires masks representative of those people, each mask containing its own unique powers (the most important allow Link to transform into other heroes from the world of Termina).  In total, there are 24 such masks for Link to collect throughout the game, though only a handful of these are required to complete the storyline.  Based on whether or not Link collects all 23 masks available to him prior to the final confrontation on the moon, the game can end through two different means.  If Link has not collected all the masks, he approaches the child wearing Majora’s Mask under the tree; the child notes that Link only has “weak masks,” and asks if Link wants to play.  When Link says “yes,” a series of three heated battles against Majora ensues in a surreal environment, after which the spirit is ostensibly defeated.

However, if Link has collected all 23 masks, he has the opportunity to acquire the 24th mask.  He does this by playing hide-and-seek with the four children wearing the masks that bound the giants, after which they ask Link to give him the masks that he has.  After giving away all his masks in this way, these four children leave; Link approaches the child wearing Majora’s mask, who observes the following:  “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.”  He then gives Link the 24th mask:  the Fierce Deity’s Mask.  The description of this mask, as provided by the game, is offered as a question:  “could this mask’s dark powers be as bad as Majora?”  After Link acquires the mask, the child says to him:  “Are you ready?  You’re the bad guy. And when you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right? Well, shall we play?”  Thereafter, the battle against Majora begins.

518px-Fierce_Deity_Link_3D

Donning the Fierce Deity’s Mask transforms Link from a child into a ferocious adult with blank eyes and an enormous broadsword with a blade that resembles a Möbius strip.  As the player launches bolts of blue energy out of this sword at Majora, the battle that once was epic and trying becomes almost unfair to Majora:  it becomes, in an ontological sense, child’s play.  It is in relation to the Fierce Deity that we see Majora cannot be appropriately described as “evil.”  There are two lines of reasoning which support this, and together they form the basis for the game’s thesis that morality has no deeper grounding than what is arbitrary.

1.  Majora is just as much a lonely child as Skull Kid is.  What we see manifested symbolically in the climax of “Majora” under the tree is that Majora the Spirit subdued the four giants of Termina because he was lonely and desperately wanted friends.  This is corroborated in the story when Link liberates the final giant, who tells him to “forgive [his] friend.”  Though the giants were sealed away by Majora, they sympathize with him because he and Skull Kid are ultimately characters with pathos:  whereas Ganondorf represents the desire to subjugate the universe, both Skull Kid and Majora represent the primal desire for unity and liberation from individuation.  Majora’s endgame is a testament to this:  he inhabits the moon and seeks to unite the moon itself with the earth, destroying the distance that separates them.

2.  The battle between good and evil is ultimately characterized as a game.  When Majora the Kid engages Link underneath the tree (assuming Link has acquired the Fierce Deity’s Mask), he invites Link to play a game called “good guys against bad guys,” and gives Link the role of the “bad guy.”  The Fierce Deity himself is described as a dark god; yet, the entire game was predicated on Link saving the world from evil.  As we noted, the final boss fight actually plays like a trivial game when Link is in the form of the Fierce Deity, almost as though he is victimizing Majora.  What we see here is that, in keeping with the game’s motif of masks, morality itself has been framed as something that we can wear like masks — a fact from which we are lead to draw the conclusion that moralizing is a fundamentally artificial process.

The resulting metaphysical image that “Majora” paints is one where humanity fundamentally suffers from separateness, and seeks, like Skull Kid, to find existential comfort through grasping for something meaningful.  Morality ultimately reveals itself as something that we postulate in order to comfort ourselves in just this way, although we believe it is something that inheres to the fabric of the world.  So the terror the player feels mounting throughout playing “Majora” is the result of a nagging doubt, slowly growing in the back of their mind, that the moral quest on which Link initially embarked is not fundamentally moral at all — good and evil, rather, are a single artificial concept, like a Möbius strip trying to convince us that its one side is in fact two different sides.

It is also worth considering that the information we use to draw this conclusion depends upon acquiring the Fierce Deity’s Mask, which is an optional feature of the game, requiring completion of every optional quest within the game.  This design feature of the game actually enhances its ultimate message:  for the designers have made it possible for the gamer to progress from start to finish believing that their quest was one objectively motivated by reality, while the underlying substance of Termina simultaneously refutes that belief.  This means that only those who actually go to the trouble of helping every person in the game’s universe, thereby acquiring every mask, are ultimately lead to the realization that morality is a construct — a narrative dimension which makes the ultimate realization of Termina’s nihilism that much more poignant.

This mental friction is even greater when the player has “Ocarina of Time” as background:  for in “Ocarina,” as I argued earlier, Link absolutely is engaged in a moral quest to stop the very incarnation of evil, Ganondorf.  Because “Majora” is the direct sequel of “Ocarina” and starts with Link chasing Skull Kid through the woods in Hyrule (Skull Kid had stolen Link’s Ocarina), we are encouraged to believe that the entirety of “Majora” is in some way continuous with “Ocarina.”  Even when Link falls down a proverbial rabbit hole in the woods and follows Skull Kid to the parallel world of Termina, we want to believe that the Link as whom we are playing is that same Link who traveled time to confront the Great King of Evil in “Ocarina.”  Yet I believe that, in review, we have far greater reason to believe that it is a parallel Link whom the player inhabits upon entering Termina, if it can be said to be Link at all.

Put aside the fact Termina’s Link can use a bow when Young Link from “Ocarina” could not; put aside the fact that the Song of Time, the tool for resetting Termina’s 3-day cycle, had a completely different metaphysical mode of operation in “Ocarina”; consider, instead, the conjunction of these three facts:  first, we have seen there is no reason to believe that Link possesses the Triforce of Courage; second, we have seen that morality does not inhere to Link, and that the “ultimate form” offered to him by the game is actually that of an evil god; third, the narrative of the game is completely dependent upon Link donning masks to assume alternate forms, so that Link for most of the game is physically not even Link.  While these facts do not entail that Link is a different entity in “Majora” than in “Ocarina,” that certainly seems to be the inference to best explanation.  The Link of “Ocarina” is directed towards the goal of conquering evil without faltering, and the game is heavily focused on his own coming-of-age, featuring a seven-year time jump explicitly contrived to turn him into an adult capable of defeating Ganondorf.  The Link of “Majora,” in contrast, appears as the classic existential Stranger, an unknown who exhibits unaffected agency in a world where meaning does not fundamentally obtain.  This, I think, is another major source of why the gamer who specifically has already played “Ocarina” feels disturbed while playing “Majora”:  they believe themselves to be playing the same character who occupied the world of “Ocarina,” and slowly, by painful degrees, they realize that they are someone who barely resembles that former Link.

This still barely scratches the surface of a game that evades comprehension at every turn (and there is more to examine about everything that I have discussed within this post), but I hope it has provided at least the beginning of a framework for understanding the visceral reaction so many gamers have to this game.  Staring into the eyes of Majora, we want to see evil staring back at us, yet find instead a lonely child; staring into the eyes of Link, we want to see someone familiar, yet in its place we see only the strange.  I have found no better formula for instilling pure, existential discomfort in a gamer.

MM2Máscara_Fiera_Deidad_MM

Dawn of the First Day: Why “Majora’s Mask” is unique

Moon-fall

Last Wednesday, Nintendo announced in a Nintendo Direct that, over three years after the release of “Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time 3D,” “Majora’s Mask” is officially slated for a 3D release at some point next spring.  The aim of my project here is to reflect on a game which, far beyond being merely the sequel to “Ocarina of Time,” is, in my view, one of the most significant pieces of art in modern times.  While the release date for “Majora’s Mask 3D” has not been publicized at this point, my goal is to write weekly reflections on different facets of the game, in the hopes that, by the time it is released, I will have articulated just what about this game strikes me as irrevocably moving.

For want of a better place to start, I wish to reflect this week on the aspect of form which simultaneously makes “Majora’s Mask” a peerless experiential story, and makes “Final Fantasy:  Lightning Returns” generally appalling:  in particular, the aspect is one of how narratives operate within an apocalyptic framework.  Both of the games in question are framed within the context of the world ending:  in “Majora,” the world is set to end in three days, and in “Lightning,” it is set to end in thirteen days.  Yet in spite of this apparent similarity between the games, the dynamics of how the inevitable decay of the world is evinced in each game drastically impacts how and what we draw from the games as players.

The apocalypse of “Lightning” is completely without import to medium of the game.  What I mean is this:  the game is set up in thirteen sequential chapters, each of which occupies a day leading up to the moment when the universe’s god of light will instigate the apocalypse.  The result of the parsing of the apocalypse — and, consequently, the game — into discrete chapters is that the gamer does not have a qualitatively different experience than playing any role-playing game which progresses chronologically, the only difference being that each chapter has a time limit.  So there exists no actual sense of the world ending because the apocalyptic design is the same as the design of any similar game with a beginning, middle, and end:  the player’s experience of the game will eventually come to a close, but this is not sufficient to impart upon the player a feeling of the game’s metaphysics actually collapsing (if anything, the player is just left feeling aggravated at how choppy the time constraints make the narrative feel).

Nothing could more starkly contrast with the apocalypse of “Majora,” which is effectively suspended in a constant state of arrival for the vast majority of the game.  Irrespective of what Link (the gamer’s character) may do in the game’s world (Termina), the clock continually runs down the 72 hours to Termina’s demise.  The moon, which the game’s antagonist (Skull Kid) aims to launch directly at the world, draws closer to earth with each passing hour.  The only way to postpone the inevitable is by playing the mystical Song of Time, which transports Link back to the start of the three day countdown.  This universal decay is only eventually stopped at the game’s end when the spirit possessing Skull Kid (Majora) is banished, and Skull Kid is effectively “talked down” from destroying the world.  I firmly believe that it is this grounding on which much of the game’s poignancy ultimately rests, but at present I wish to draw out only two implications from it.

1.  The game’s metaphysics mirror the reality of Link as perceived by the gamer.  It has been noted in the literature (for example, Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives:  Why Video Games Matter) that a key feature of the gaming experience is that the player is able to die as a character and differently experience existence within the world through the mechanic of multiple lives.  “Majora’s Mask” extends this framework to the entire world, which is constantly in a state of death and rebirth as the player struggles to repair the decay that inheres within the most basic structure of Termina.

2.  In comparison to other games, the structure of “Majora” provides a deep exposition of nihilism.  Another feature of the medium of games is that the narrative literally will not advance without the player’s input, making games inherently participatory in their storytelling.  What is unique about “Majora” is that it effectively turns this premise on its head:  the storyline is a juggernaut of fate that depends upon the player, but that advances with or without the player’s input.  If the gamer sets Link in the middle of Termina and does nothing but wait, 72 hours pass and the world is obliterated by the moon.  What “Majora” has done is establish a nihilistic reality in which the narrative’s entropy is independent of the hero; yet it is by virtue of this heedless entropy that the hero has the opportunity to assert himself and forge a more satisfying end for all the world’s inhabitants, even if the fact that all will end is itself unavoidable.

These are all themes to which I will return in greater depth as time unblinkingly passes and I add more posts.  But I cannot imagine a better way to stand in contemplation and awe of this game than that of a gaping moon, staunchly descending with the vow to “consume everything” in its path.