The following is an entry in “A Comprehensive Theory of Majora’s Mask,”  a series that analyzed the storytelling of Majora’s Mask from the time its 3D remake was announced to the time the remake was released. Find the full series here.

The Happy Mask Salesman describes the Song of Healing, which I have already mentioned as a central element of Termina’s musical metaphysics, as “a melody that heals evil magic and troubled spirits, turning them into masks.”  He teaches it to Link at the beginning of the game, when Skull Kid uses the power of Majora’s Mask to transform Link into a Deku Scrub.  Besides healing Link, the Song of Healing can heal four other characters in Termina:  the ghost of the Goron hero, Darmani; the dying Zora guitarist, Mikau; the transformed scientist, Pamela’s Father; and the regretful ghost of the dancer, Kamaro.

In many ways, the Song of Healing is a cornerstone of what makes “Majora’s Mask” a unique entry in the “Zelda” series:  it is what facilitates the creation of Transformation Masks, and the scenes of characters being healed are some of the most poignant that Termina has to offer.  In light of the song’s scope, I offer readers a survey of it over a series of three posts, each considering different, specific aspects of its functionality within the game.

Although one song heals all five of the characters mentioned above, the instances of healing can be broken into two groups based on how the song functions:  in the cases of Darmani, Mikau, and Kamaro, the song puts to rest a deceased or dying entity who is not at peace with their lives — what the Happy Mask Salesman refers to as healing “troubled spirits” — whereas in the case of Deku Link and Pamela’s Father, the song excises from them a parasitic entity that does not belong — what the Happy Mask Salesman refers to as “evil magic.”  It is the latter category that I set out to examine in this post; in particular, I wish to offer a way of viewing this dynamic of healing that is universalizable to a general meta-thesis about the nature of video games.

When Link arrives in Termina, the Skull Kid invokes the mystic energy of Majora to effectively curse Link:  in one of the most surrealist sequences in the game (4:55 in the video), Link is embraced by a ephemeral colony of Deku Scrubs, then flees in vain from an enormous Deku Scrub that fills the entire screen; when the sequence ends, Link has become a Deku Scrub.  He remains this way until he regains his Ocarina from Skull Kid, at which point the Happy Mask Salesman teaches him the Song of Healing:  in a complementary surrealist sequence (0:45 in the video), the giant Deku Scrub recedes from Link, as Link waves goodbye to it; when the sequence ends, Link is Hylian again, and the Deku Mask rests at his feet.  It is easy to accept the Happy Mask Salesman’s claim that this transformation is a form of evil magic, which Link dispels using the power of the song; yet there are several reasons why we should doubt that what he says is actually the case.  (When we turn to consider the Happy Mask Salesman directly at a later point in this blog, I will assess precisely why there might be this apparent dissonance in his description of the Song of Healing.)

Firstly, the game’s metaethical thesis, I have argued, is that morality does not fundamentally obtain in Termina.  We should therefore be reticent to take any claim about “evil magic” at face value, for it is not readily apparent what ‘evil’ could mean.  I will put aside the question of evil until the third post in this analysis, at which point I will consider what sort of ‘evil’, if any, fits within our model for these instances of healing.

Secondly — and this is how I wish to frame this post — even once we eschew the notion of ‘evilness’, I think the dichotomy between ‘troubled spirits’ and ‘evil magic’ is inherently problematic.  To stake the weakest version of the claim, there is a more parsimonious explanation of the Song of Healing available to us, which describes both classes of healing events as two sides of the same coin.  The explanation consists of the relationship between individual and community, and the difference in the two classes of healing consists in diametrically opposed directionality taken by each class with respect to individual and community.

Music Box House

To see what I mean, consider the case of Pamela’s Father, transformed through an accident in his paranormal research into a disfigured hybrid of himself and a Gibdo.  Link must sneak past Pamela into their home, where she has locked her father in a basement closet, and play the Song of Healing in order to convert the Gibdo part of Pamela’s Father into the form of the Gibdo Mask.  When Link first arrives at the house, Gibdos are marching around its perimeter, effectively trapping Pamela and her father inside their house.  Notably, if Link approaches the Gibdos while wearing the Gibdo Mask (which, of course, requires the use of at least two three-day cycles), he is able to understand what the Gibdos are saying:  “Those inssside…Our friendsss…Brrriiiiinnnng them!”  Pamela shouts from behind the door of their home:  “Keep away from our house!  My father is not one of you!”  What this implies is that the Gibdos perceive Pamela’s transformed father as one of their own:  a friend who belongs in their fold.

Link becoming a Deku scrub

In the context of this example, we can better understand the surrealist episode of Link’s transformation into a Deku Scrub:  the symbolism reflects Link being assimilated by a Deku community, first as represented by a group of fellow Deku Scrubs, and then as a monolithic Deku representative of the greater culture, from which Link cannot escape.  The imagery is of Link being subsumed by a community that views him in its likeness, just as Pamela’s Father is surrounded by Gibdos who see him as their friend.  What we see in both these instances of healing, therefore, is a paradigm wherein transformation leads to being embraced within an otherwise inaccessible community, and that healing serves to once again differentiate the individual from the community.

Compare this model with the three instances of Darmani, Mikau, and Kamaro.  All three of these entities, when found, are isolated from their communities:  Darmani is a ghost and therefore cannot return to the village of his people; Mikau is alone on the beach of the Great Bay, knowing that he is close to death and will never again return to Zora Hall; Kamaro is also a ghost, unable to accomplish his goal of “[bringing] the world together and [stirring] it into a giant melting pot with [his] dance.”  When Link heals these three souls, the focus is on returning them to their community as a mode of gaining peace:  Darmani’s healing sequence depicts him being applauded by all of his fellow Gorons; Mikau’s healing sequence depicts him returning to Lulu and the other members of his band, the Indigo-Go’s; with Kamaro’s Mask, Link is able to teach his dance to the Rosa Sisters, symbolically returning Kamaro to the community of dancers (4:25 in the video).  It is apparent, therefore, that the directionality observed in the cases of Deku Link and Pamela’s Father has been reversed in these cases:  as opposed to the Song of Healing individuating members of communities, here it functions so as to return estranged individuals to the communities from which they are absent.

In light of this analysis, I propose that it is more useful to talk of the Song of Healing as an intermediary between states of solitude and community, rather than as a device for the transformation of “evil spirits” and “troubled spirits.”  This mode of thought is also more useful because it allows us to place the Song of Healing in the metaethically nihilistic world of Termina in such a way that it is not contingent upon any sort of moral valence; rather, just as I considered in my general metaethical analysis, the only moral component of the song is based on our presupposition that Termina is an inherently moral world (a presupposition that is reinforced by the phraseology of the Happy Mask Salesman).  Next time, I will be analyzing how this model of healing functions in the direction from individuation to community (i.e., the cases of Darmani, Mikau, and Kamaro); presently, I wish to make good on my promise to analyze the case of Deku Link, and propose the meta-thesis that I see it offering towards the medium of video games.

Deku Link

As soon as Link arrives in the universe of Termina, Skull Kid transforms him into a Deku Scrub with virtually no explanation, saying afterwards that he expects Link will stay “looking that way forever.”  Link’s entry into Termina is therefore inextricable from his transfiguration and assimilation into the community of Deku Scrubs; yet at by the same token, Link can only gain mobility within Termina by being healed, thereby achieving individuation from that same community.  We can take the analysis a step further by recalling our preliminary compatibilist thesis of inter-timeline determinism and intra-timeline free will:  we described Termina as a set of timelines, the order of which is softly determined, but wherein the Link of an particular timeline can express agency.  Yet that agency is virtually nonexistent until Link heals himself by learning the Song of Healing:  although he does learn the Song of Time prior to the Song of Healing and could therefore hypothetically exist in infinite permutations of Termina timelines without healing himself, he is barred by city guards from leaving Clock Town until he regains his Hylian form.  The agency articulated by our compatibilist thesis therefore bears a dependence relation to Link’s individuation from the Deku Scrub community imposed upon him by Skull Kid.

Put the analysis in general form, and it looks like this:  agent is instantiated, by virtue of relation to a particular community C, within the first member of set S of timelines t with a softly determined relative ordering.  Within any given t, the related agent can express agency if and only if or some instantiated within to a prior timeline p has achieved individuation from C.  While I am still not satisfied with this as a complete model of Termina’s compatibilist metaphysics, it is significantly more rigorous than our previous model.  Yet at first glance, it seems like all this reformulation manages is to account for Link’s initial transformation into a Deku Scrub; therefore, it makes sense to ask whether or not this new thesis bears any utility in a broader understanding of the game.

What I finally propose is that this particular iteration of Termina’s metaphysics is useful because it uniquely serves as meta-commentary on the aesthetic nature of what it means to play a video game.  To explain what I mean, I take the formalization executed above and make the following substitutions.  Let agent L be any given avatar within a particular video game, S.  For simplicity’s sake, bound possible video games within the genre of role-playing games (‘RPG’s’, specifically third-person RPG’s; I am of the mind that this model can be extended beyond RPG’s, but will not take up that line of discourse presently).  Let be the in-game community of non-player characters (‘NPC’s’), and let t be the universe of possible courses of action to be taken from the beginning of the same to its ‘credits-roll’ conclusion.  I submit that this general form functions in a way that closely mirrors the model we have just tracked in “Majora,” and, moreover, that this framework in particular picks out a significant aspect of what sets video games as a medium apart from other forms of art.

The player can only enter the universe of a game through the intermediary of an avatar — the character whom the player controls.  The avatar, by virtue of existing within the universe of the game, necessarily exists in relation to NPC’s — and, in point of fact, is an NPC until the player picks up the controller.  The universe of the game, by definition, exists in its entirety on a literal level with or without the player, which is to say that the whole program that constitutes the game is present prior to the player’s engagement with the game; yet on an aesthetic level, the avatar cannot assert any sort of agency without the input of the player, who, by definition, individuates the avatar from the community of NPC’s.  Endowed with such agency, the avatar is able to move through the video game on unique, softly determined paths, which are unique to the given playthrough, but which simultaneously trend by design towards completion of the story.

This account of video games is important because it reflects why the player is important not only as the observer of the video game medium, but as an actual component of the medium — an accurate description of the aesthetics of a video games is fundamentally impossible without description of the player’s role in establishing the universe of the game.  What’s more, this account inherits the language of ‘healing’ from our analysis of Deku Link:  it is the action of the player upon the avatar that takes the place of the Song of Healing in our model, prompting the avatar’s individuation from the NPC community.  The medium of video games, on this analysis, depends upon the player to be completed, to be restored to its proper aesthetic form.  We can certainly intuit that video games need a player to be valuable, yet I think we would be hard-pressed without the model of Deku Link to fully appreciate the player’s aesthetic necessity within the medium of gaming.  The game demands a player, for the story it means to tell cannot be coherently understood in the player’s absence.

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Aaron Suduiko

Aaron Suduiko - Founder and Chief Video Game Analyst

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

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Samuel Dresser · June 10, 2016 at 8:35 pm

Incredible analysis man, I’ve been reading through these articles lately and theyre blowing my mind. I’m studying game design right now and I think these articles have had a definite impact on the way I view games.
Anyways, enough jibber jabber; I just wanted to point out an interesting observation that I noticed that sort of ties into your ideas of community vs the individual (forgive me if you’ve covered this detail in a different post, I’m only like 60% of my way through your majora series) but in the cut scene immediately after link transformed into a deku by majora for the first time, there is a symbol in the shadow beneath the skull kid of the triforce but with one of the pieces alone and separated from the other two. This triforce shard no doubt represents link, as he is separated from the other two shards, but I was wondering what you thought of it? I feel like it could tie into a bunch of different parts of your thesis here

    Aaron Suduiko

    suduiko · June 14, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    Thank you for your kind words, Samuel–I’m so glad to hear that you’re enjoying my work!
    You raise a good question, and I’ll admit I never explicitly covered that symbol because I never quite knew what to make of it (interesting note: they actually removed it, if memory serves, in the 3DS remake of the game). If you have any ideas, I’d be eager to hear them. As you know if you’ve been reading my series, on my view the Triforce doesn’t exist in Termina. So I suppose the best sense I can make of it is that Majora (or perhaps Termina itself) is mocking the player and Link who wrongly presuppose that the same metaphysical/metaethical system from Hyrule applies in this new world. The distortion of the familiar Triforce symbol could well attest to that. Hope you continue to read and enjoy my work!

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