Critical Review is a series in which With a Terrible Fate’s video game analysts critically evaluate the work of themselves and other analysts, with the goal of advancing our collective understanding of video-game storytelling.
A while ago, I introduced a new feature to the site called “Critical Review”: articles where writers review their older articles and evaluate what they think of those older arguments now. Even though there’s only been one piece of Critical Review so far (discussing my work on Xenoblade and Leibniz’s metaphysics), I think that this series is some of the most important work we can do on With a Terrible Fate.
In the first place, it’s always a good practice to revisit your old views and see whether or not you still hold them. But secondly and crucially, the serious analysis of video-game storytelling is still such a young discipline: we can only hope to develop this methodology in a productive way if we are constantly seeking and responding to whatever criticism our work invites.
With that in mind, this article reexamines “Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, and This is Why,” a piece that started With a Terrible Fate in more ways than one. Not only was it literally the second article published on the site (back when it was just a blog in which I analyzed Majora’s Mask), but it also went viral on Zelda Dungeon and presented many of the major themes that occupied the rest of my work on Majora’s Mask.
Now, as we rapidly approach the site’s three-year anniversary, I invite readers to reread this work, and then to evaluate it with me using all the work we’ve developed since its publication. The full text of the original article follows; read on after that for my brand-new criticism of 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’s Mask 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’s Mask 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.
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 The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess; but it is Great King of Evil Ganondorf to whom Majora’s Mask responds.)
Where do we find the Great King of Evil in Majora’s Mask? 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’s Mask. 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.
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’s Mask 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.
One of the major elements of gameplay in Majora’s Mask 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.
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’s Mask 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 led to draw the conclusion that moralizing is a fundamentally artificial process.
The resulting metaphysical image that Majora’s Mask 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’s Mask 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 led 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 of Time, as I argued earlier, Link absolutely is engaged in a moral quest to stop the very incarnation of evil, Ganondorf. Because Majora’s Mask is the direct sequel of Ocarina of Time 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’s Mask is in some way continuous with Ocarina of Time. 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 of Time. 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 of Time 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 of Time; 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’s Mask than in Ocarina of Time, that certainly seems to be the inference to best explanation. The Link of Ocarina of Time 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’s Mask, 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 of Time feels disturbed while playing Majora’s Mask: they believe themselves to be playing the same character who occupied the world of Ocarina of Time, 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.
Before we dive in, it’s worth mentioning that I also wrote a much more recent piece on horror in Majora’s Mask based on my talk at PAX Australia 2016; if you’re interested in exploring the game’s special brand of horror even further, you may want to check that out. In the interest of space, I’ll also be assuming some familiarity with my overall body of work on Majora’s Mask, but I’ll link to articles from that work as they become relevant in our discussion here.
There are four aspects of this article that I want to interrogate in detail: the nature of Majora, the moon children, the moral nihilism of Termina, and the change in Link’s identity between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I consider each of these in turn, introducing them with a relevant quote from the original article and then presenting my new criticism of that content. Ultimately, I think that the central points of the original article stand as sound jumping-off points for the rest of my analysis of the game; however, the rest of my work on the game reveals (as you might have expected) that key parts of this article require further exploration and revision.
First Subject of Critique: Majora. From the original article: “Majora is just as much a lonely child as Skull Kid is. What we see manifested symbolically in the climax of Majora’s Mask 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.”
Readers familiar with my full body of work on Majora’s Mask won’t be surprised to hear me say that this analysis of Majora is far too quick. There’s an easy way to end up misinterpreting exactly what Majora is, and I fell prey to it in this original analysis: if you’re not careful, you can end up conflating Majora with his various objects and manifestations.
Although the influence of Majora appears to be omnipresent in Termina, the player never actually encounters Majora itself. Instead, we encounter various entities and objects allegedly influenced by Majora: Majora’s Mask; Skull Kid under the influence of Majora’s Mask; the moon under the influence of Majora’s Mask; a moon child wearing Majora’s Mask (more on that below); Majora’s Incarnation; and Majora’s Wrath.
In Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, I drew inferences from facts about Skull Kid and facts about the moon children to claims about Majora. For example, in the quoted section above, I infer from the fact that the fourth Giant Link frees in Termina tells Link to “forgive [his] friend” that the Giants sympathize with Majora—but it’s more plausible that the Giants are most directly telling Link to forgive Skull Kid, since their friendship is in fact affirmed at the end of the game by the etching that Skull Kid makes on a stump.
Similarly, I claimed in the quoted section that the scenario of the moon children—four children wearing the masks of the spirits that sealed away the Giants, playing around a single tree under which a child wearing Majora’s Mask sits—symbolically shows that Majora (which I called “Majora the Spirit”) trapped Termina’s Giants because he lonely and wanted friends (again, I’ll discuss the moon children in more depth below).
This strategy of analyzing an entity by looking at its influence—call this analysis-by-proxy—isn’t categorically mistaken: oftentimes, stories are explicitly structured to facilitate this kind of analysis. For example, Final Fantasy VII features a story where the player learns about Sephiroth by seeing his influence all over the world; that’s why, by the time Cloud and his friends confront him at the very end of the game, the player feels as if she knows Sephiroth intimately even though she’s rarely encountered Sephiroth himself over the course of the game.
Even though Sephiroth and Majora are similar in many ways, they’re importantly different in two ways that make analysis-by-proxy a very bad strategy for understanding Majora. First, the player ultimately encounters Sephiroth himself in Final Fantasy VII, which allows the player to analyze Sephiroth’s influence by relating it to the actual entity Sephiroth whom she encounters; in contrast, the player of Majora’s Mask never actually encounters Majora itself, and so Majora’s influence can’t be related to the entity of Majora in that same, direct way.
Second, focusing just on Majora’s influence within Termina ignores the crucial factor of the entity that defines Majora from outside of Termina: the Happy Mask Salesman. The Happy Mask Salesman took on central importance later on in my analysis of Majora’s Mask, but I hadn’t begun to think about him at all when I published Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You. With a proper understanding of the Salesman in hand, the analysis of Majora that I offered in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You becomes much less plausible.
Roughly, the central idea behind the Salesman’s importance to Termina is this: he, like the player, exists outside of the metaphysics of Termina’s three-day timelines. Before the game has anything to do with “saving the world of Termina,” it’s initially framed as a fetchquest for the Salesman: he tells Link that he lost a mask of his (Majora’s Mask), and that he’d like Link to return it in three days’ time because he’s leaving Termina in three days.
Crucially, it’s only after the Link fails once to return Majora’s Mask to the Salesman that the Salesman tells Link that the mask is an “accursed” source of “an evil and wicked power.”
When combined with the absence of an ethical foundation in Termina’s metaphysics—something that I did defend in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You—this suggests that the Salesman is imposing something that I called moral artifice on the world of Termina: an appearance of morality that doesn’t actually inhere to the world of Termina. In other words, he tells Link that the Mask is evil even though there is no basis for good or evil (a basis like the Triforce) in Termina. He does this in order to motivate Link—and a player who, primed by Ocarina of Time, wants to defeat evil—to complete the fetch quest and return his mask to him.
This is why, in later work, I argued that it makes sense to equate Majora with Termina’s concept of evil. The Salesman describes Majora’s Mask as a source of evil, and everything that Majora influences throughout the world is subsequently understood as being evil. The apparent evil in the world, put differently, finds its source in the Salesman, from whom it flows first to Majora and then out to everything that Majora possesses or influences in Termina.
At this point, you might rightly point out that this isn’t an explanation of what Majora the entity fundamentally is: it’s just an argument that Majora is the locus through which the Salesman imposes a seeming dimension of morality on the amoral world of Termina. I think that this point highlights an important insight that I completely missed in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: it’s impossible for us to know exactly what Majora is, and that’s centrally important to the overall story of the game.
If you were convinced by my arguments in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, you might object that we can clearly see that Majora what Majora is: it’s a lonely entity, looking for friends. But can we reallysee this so clearly? Putting aside the issue of the moon children for the moment, we can focus on two key data: the trapping of Termina’s four giants within “evil” masks, and the declaration of the moon (“possessed” by Majora) that it will “consume everything.” You might think, as I once said, that these data imply that Majora represents “the primal desire for unity and liberation from individuation.” But on reflection, this implication isn’t clear at all. To see this, consider two competing analyses of Majora that would account for our two data equally well.
- Majora is a lonely entity that first possessed Skull Kid, and then possessed the moon. This is the analysis that I used in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, and it explains the trapping of the Giants and the moon’s desire to consume everything just like I originally said: Majora, possessing the vessels of Skull Kid and the moon, is trying to cure his loneliness.
- Majora is a virus, with no sort of sentience or consciousness, that infects beings and causes them to behave unnaturally. This would explain the trapping of the Giants (and the disruption of the natural order in each of Termina’s five regions) by saying that Skull Kid was driven mad by the virus: perhaps his natural loneliness was augmented, and the virus caused him to express this loneliness by disrupting the world’s natural order. In the case of the moon, its natural status as a satellite of the earth is disrupted by Majora, causing it to instead desire to consume the very world it would ordinarily orbit (the moon’s face implies that it’s the kind of thing that can have desires).
These two interpretations of Majora are mutually incompatible and both plausible—and I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard to add more competing interpretations to the list. This underscores the point that we just can’t infer the nature of Majora from its influence throughout Termina.
Why should this ambiguity of Majora’s nature be “centrally important” to the story of Majora’s Mask? Step back from the technicalities of my analysis from a moment and recall how pre-theoretically weird the game of Majora’s Mask is: Link, a child, falls into a parallel world doomed to live out a countless number of three-day cycles leading up to the apocalypse, and every aspect of the world’s nature is out of whack (poisoned swamp, frozen mountain, etc.). Majora itself is this kind of weird: even though we can’t define it, its influence is everywhere, not unlike a Lovecraftian horror that walks the earth, utterly incomprehensible to humans.
The important thing about Majora, then, is that it contributes to the special kind of “terror the player feels mounting throughout playing Majora’s Mask,” which I discussed in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You. It causes the mounting fear that comes from calling something evil when you can’t possibly understand what that thing even is. This, I think, is one of the most foundational reasons why playing Majora’s Mask is such an unsettling experience: in a world with no basis for morality, the Happy Mask Salesman sends you on a quest against an incomprehensible entity, essentially asking you to take it on faith that the entity is really evil.
Second Subject of Critique: the moon children. From the original article: “In order to stop Majora once and for all, Link is teleported to the moon, where he encounters a surreal scene of five children [the moon 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. […] What we see manifested symbolically in the climax of Majora’s Mask under the tree is that Majora the Spirit subdued the four giants of Termina because he was lonely and desperately wanted friends.”
Even though I analyzed Majora’s Mask for three months, I rarely mentioned the five moon children and never analyzed them in depth. When I did mention them, it was typically in the same vein as the above quote: I claimed that they were symbolic of Majora and his loneliness. It should be clear from what I’ve said so far in this analysis that I no longer find this symbolic account of the moon children satisfying. In revising my analysis, I first want to comment on why it’s so hard to produce a satisfying analysis of the moon children; after that, I offer a new argument for how the moon children fit into the overall economy of Majora’s Mask‘s metaphysics and storytelling.
The surface of the moon in Majora’s Mask, along with the moon children, is an example of something that’s fairly common in video games generally, but fairly uncommon in Zelda games: a final confrontation that takes place in a fantastical, quasi-magical space that exists beyond the scope of the rest of the game’s world. Many JRPGs end in this way: think of the endings of games like Final Fantasy, Xenoblade Chronicles, Dishonored 2, Namco’s Tales series, and so on. Often as the final boss of a game evolves towards its final form, the physical space of the surrounding world falls away, and the avatar battles the boss in an explicable, alternate dimension of sorts.
The Zelda series doesn’t do this very often. In Ocarina of Time, for instance, as the final confrontation mounts, Ganondorf transforms into the pig-horror, Ganon, and Hyrule Castle collapses. Even then, however, the game’s story remains firmly situated in the setting of Hyrule: there’s nothing metaphysically outlandish about Hyrule Castle collapsing and Link battling Ganon in its ruins.
The moon and its moon children aren’t like the final confrontation against Ganon: after Link chases Majora’s Mask up into the moon, he inexplicably appears on a green field, with the lone tree and the moon children in the distance. There’s no account within the game of what relation this green field—the “surface of the moon”—bears to Termina or anywhere else.
The upshot of this is that it’s very hard to integrate the events on the moon into the overall story and world of Majora’s Mask. On the moon, Link and the player are the only characters who are directly continuous with the rest of the game’s story: even though Majora’s Mask and the four boss masks reappear, they’re worn by the mysterious moon children, who are entirely sui generis in the game’s world.
This discontinuity between the moon children and the rest of the game is also why “analyses” of the events on the moon read more like Rorschach tests than like comprehensive theories or analyses. Without much to tether the surface of the moon and its moon children to the rest of the game’s world, people fall into the trap of just imposing their overall feelings about the game onto the events of the moon, without much by way of external evidence or support for why their interpretation is the right way to think about the moon. This is how you end up with work that forces the moon children into frameworks like the psychology of Skull Kid or Buddhism. Maybe some of this work will intrinsically interest you, but it won’t give you further insight into the game as a whole. It’s like a “theory” that says the phases of Earth’s moon represent different stages of life: maybe it’s interesting, but it won’t give you much insight into the actual moon. If anything, you’ll learn more about stages of life than you will about the moon from such a theory; similarly, a Buddhist interpretation of the moon children will tell you more about Buddhism than it will about the moon children and the role they play in the overall story and world of Majora’s Mask.
So now we have a better picture of why it’s especially hard to integrate the moon children and their world with the rest of Majora’s Mask; all the same, I think it’s possible to say something useful about them. We just have to go into the analysis understanding that, because of the above considerations, the scope of this analysis will be more limited than we might like. I think the seeds of this new theory, too, were already present in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: my thesis here is that the surface of the moon and the moon children reveal the artificial nature of morality in Termina because they exist beyond the Happy Mask Salesman’s domain of influence.
As I just explained, the surface of the moon is metaphysically alien to the world of Termina: it’s not at all apparent how it’s supposed to correspond to the stony-faced sphere hovering in Termina’s sky, and, crucially, time doesn’t flow here as it does in Termina. Instead, just like the inside of the Clock Tower—where the Happy Mask Salesman resides—time on the moon isn’t recorded at all. The surface of the moon thus exists outside of both space and time, relative to Termina. In light of this, it stands to reason that the Happy Mask Salesman would not be able to impose moral artifice on the surface of the moon in the way that he can impose it on the world of Termina.
What would the player of Majora’s Mask see if my theory of moral artifice were correct, and the player was able to see through this imposed veil of morality to the metaphysically amoral universe underneath? We would expect to see the “struggle of good and evil” for what it is: a game with no fundamental moral valence, and no real heroes or villains. This is exactly what we see on the surface of the moon: as Link chases the incomprehensible entity of Majora onto the moon, he encounters a metaphysically distinct world that recapitulates the entire, basic plot of Majora’s Mask without any apparent moral valence. The four “evil spirits trapping the Giants” are present, but now they’re just innocent children, and instead of battling them with the fate of the world on the line, Link is just playing hide-and-seek with them. And most explicitly in support of this analysis (as I discussed in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You), the moon child wearing Majora’s Mask gives Link a mask with dark powers (the Fierce Deity’s Mask) and asks to play “good guys against bad guys” with him, with Link playing the bad guy. Morality is explicitly, literally construed as a game on the surface of the moon, and in order for Link to “truly” complete his quest, acquiring the final mask for his collection (again, the Fierce Deity’s Mask), he must surrender to the moon children all his other masks that he allegedly earned by doing good deeds in Termina: in other words, he must surrender all the tokens that implied his quest was morally good.
Thus, I think that the best understanding of the moon’s surface and the moon children is that they recapitulate Link’s quest through Termina without the Salesman’s moral artifice, revealing the quest for the amoral game that it is. This coheres with and underscores the rest of my analysis, and I think it’s the most insight into the overall economy of Majora’s Mask‘s storytelling that we can squeeze out of the moon children.
Third Subject of Critique: the amoral nature of Termina. From the original article: “The resulting metaphysical image that Majora’s Mask 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’s Mask 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.”
During most of my analysis of Majora’s Mask, I was emphatic that Termina was metaethically nihilistic, which is to say that morality is not a metaphysically real feature of the world (in contrast to a world like Hyrule, the morality of which is metaphysically based in the Triforce). I’ve already reiterated that thesis several times in this Critical Review. However, late in my work on the game, I came around to the idea that Termina’s ethics are better described by a version of something called divine command theory: the theory that things are right and wrong just based on what some kind of god decides are right and wrong. This difference is subtle, but it ends up mattering a lot: this one change ends up making Majora’s Mask optimistic where it would otherwise be pessimistic.
In my original work I focused on the idea that Termina had no inherent basis for morality, and then argued that the Happy Mask Salesman and the player could impose moral artifices on the world, where ‘moral artifice’ meant (roughly) the veneer or mere appearance of morality. This was key to why Majora’s Mask was to terrifying: players want to be doing good, but the universe provides them no possibility of doing so. If being a hero means being morally good, then, on this view, there’s no way for Link to be a hero in Majora’s Mask. That’s pretty pessimistic as far as stories go, and it’s especially pessimistic in the context of the Zelda series, in which Link is virtually synonymous with the notion of heroism.
Thankfully, I now think that this analysis is too quick. Even though the theory gets Termina’s basic metaphysics right, it fails to accurately describe the interaction between Termina and agents like the Happy Mask Salesman and the player who are metaphysically adjacent to it: outside of its spatiotemporal constraints yet able to influence its metaphysical structure.
The best way to understand this shortcoming of my original theory is to reconsider the concept of evil as it’s discussed within Termina. Even though the Salesman is the first to ascribe evil to Majora’s Mask and introduce the concept of evil into Termina (as I discussed above), he isn’t the only one to talk about evil throughout the course of the story. For example: after a giant turtle transports Link to the Great Bay temple and Link frees the Giant trapped within, the giant turtle warns him that “the evil that haunts this land has not completely vanished”; after Link defeats the ghost of the composer Sharp in Ikana Canyon, he tells Link that he wishes for him “to go to the temple in this land and sever the root of the evil curse that torments us.”
If the moral artifices that the Salesman and the player imposed on Termina were entirely superficial, not inhering to the world at all, then it would be hard to understand the apparent capacity of characters within the world to detect and recognize evil derived from the influence of Majora. But there’s an alternative explanation that squares this ability of citizens in Termina to detect evil with the capacity of metaphysically adjacent entities to impose moral artifice on Termina. This alternative is divine command theory: just as metaphysically adjacent entities can influence the spacetime of Termina (e.g., as the player make Termina a reality by encountering it), so too can they actually create the moral reality of Termina. Termina indeed lacks an inherent basis for morality, but metaphysically adjacent entities can actually provide it with that missing basis.
This means that technically speaking, when the Salesman ascribes evil to Majora, he actually makes it the case that Majora is the source of evil in Termina. The player’s initial horror as they engage with Termina therefore isn’t that there’s no basis at all for morality in Termina, as I originally argued: rather, the horror is the realization that good and evil only exist in the world because someone looking at the world (namely, the Salesman) said so.
Besides better accommodating and explaining the various data about the Termina and its people (e.g., people’s awareness of evil), this revision to the analysis crucially changes the tenor of the game’s story because it means that the player can actually determine what is good and evil in Termina. Late in my original work in the series, I argued (in details too long to reproduce here) that the player of Majora’s Mask is ultimately able to take control of Termina’s moral artifice away from the Salesman, imposing a moral artifice of their own by deciding what is morally good and imposing that standard of morality on Termina. This wouldn’t be a very empowering conclusion, however, if “moral artifice” was just a way for metaphysically adjacent entities to think about a world that fundamentally has no moral value. Our new model of divine command theory instead says that, once that player is able to recognize her own metaphysical authority and impose her own values upon the game, she really can establish her own moral order within Termina. In this way, the game’s story moves from despair to triumph: the player first despairs that only a Salesman running a fetchquest is able to determine the moral order of Termina; then, she triumphs as she realizes that she has the power to impose her own ideals of goodness on Termina. A small change in the metaphysical analysis, then, really can radically change the message of a video game’s story.
Fourth Subject of Critique: Link’s Identity. From the original article: “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 of Time 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 of Time; 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’s Mask than in Ocarina of Time, that certainly seems to be the inference to best explanation. The Link of Ocarina of Time 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’s Mask, 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 of Time feels disturbed while playing Majora’s Mask: they believe themselves to be playing the same character who occupied the world of Ocarina of Time, and slowly, by painful degrees, they realize that they are someone who barely resembles that former Link.”
I’ve come to think that this is a very bad argument for very good conclusion. First I’ll point out the weak points of the original argument, and then we’ll use our discussion of morality, together with some theory from my later work on Majora’s Mask, to see how to mount a better argument to the conclusion that the Link of Majora’s Mask isn’t the same Link that we play as in Ocarina of Time.
After I published Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, readers made the good point that the discrepancy between Link’s abilities in Majora’s Mask and Young Link’s physical abilities in Ocarina of Time needn’t count against the thesis that Link is the same person in both games. The “canonical” understanding of the link between the two games (more on that below) is that, after Link defeats Ganondorf at the end of Ocarina of Time, he’s sent back in time to his childhood; then, after a time, he sets off in pursuit of Navi, his fairy companion. So, as readers rightly point out, it could easily be the case that Young Link learned new abilities in the intervening time between the end of Ocarina of Time and the start of Majora’s Mask. That would explain why the Link of Majora’s Mask can do things that the Young Link of Ocarina of Time couldn’t, like use a bow and execute acrobatic flips through the air.
More important than this objection in my mind, though, is that much of what I cited as evidence that Link wasn’t the same person in the two games is better construed as evidence that Termina is a fundamentally different world than Hyrule. No doubt, the Song of Time functions very differently in Termina than in Hyrule, but it’s much more plausible, I now think, to attribute this to the difference in the games’ worlds, rather than a difference in the Links of each game. Time in Termina constantly winds down to the apocalypse, whereas the Temple of Time in Hyrule serves as a unique nexus that allows travel through time; it makes sense that the same tool—the Song of Time—would be receptive to these different time-based constraints, opening the Door of Time in Hyrule’s Temple of Time and also allowing passage back in time, away from the apocalypse, in Termina, a perpetually ending world.
Similarly, the capacity of Link to transform using masks in Majora’s Mask—even into the Fierce Deity, a dark god—shouldn’t have any bearing on whether or not Link is identical with his counterpart in Ocarina of Time. These transformations are pretty clearly facilitated by the masks themselves, not by any special, new feature of Link himself. The in-game descriptions of the transformation masks, for example (the masks that allow Link to transform into a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora), say that Link can wear them “to inhabit the body of” a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora. This language doesn’t suggest that there’s anything special about Link specifically that allows for these transformations. And even if you were to argue that only heroes could successfully use transformation masks like the Goron and Zora mask (perhaps because these masks contain the spirits of heroes and therefore require a wearer whose own spirit is correspondingly heroic), the Link of Ocarina of Time is unquestionably heroic, and so this be no way to argue that the Link of Ocarina of Time couldn’t possibly wear masks and transform in the way that the Link of Majora’s Mask does.
I think the point I was trying to make here in the original article was that the player doesn’t spend a lot of time in Majora’s Mask controlling the Hylian version of Link, since Link is often transforming into a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora, which gives the player a different perspective on who Link is. But again, that point doesn’t translate into a thesis about the fundamental identity of Link the Hylian in Majora’s Mask relative to Link the Hylian in Ocarina of Time.
So the argument of Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You that Link in Majora’s Mask isn’t the same as Young Link in Ocarina of Time has serious holes. Nonetheless, there are better arguments available to reach that same conclusion. First, I’ll distance the current analysis from concerns about satisfying the “canon” of the series; then, we’ll consider how Link’s amoral status in Majora’s Mask estrange his identity from the identity of Link in Ocarina of Time.
Here’s one objection to the view that Ocarina of Time’s Link isn’t Majora’s Mask’s Link that I don’t find compelling, one that’s come up a lot since the publication of Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: “Nintendo has said outright that Link is the same person in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, so this theory is wrong because it contradicts the Zelda canon.”
I’ve spoken a lot about why “canon”—a creator’s “official” interpretation of his or her story—doesn’t get the last word in the analysis of stories. (This is, in fact, exactly what I’ll be discussing in With a Terrible Fate‘s presentation at PAX West this September). This past June, I discussed the limitation of canon interpretation specifically in the Zelda series, as part of my work on Breath of the Wild. Since I still stand by that discussion, I quote it here:
“Zelda games, more than most games, are often heavily analyzed through the lens of “canon”: the official, Nintendo-licensed interpretation of how the series’ titles fit together into a coherent set of timelines. This canon mentality, I think, makes some people reticent to doubt any of the explicit information about the Zelda universe provided by the games. Nintendo’s words, and the words they encode in their games, are often taken as law in one way or another.
There’s of course value in theorizing about the Zelda canon—for example, hypothesizing about how Breath of the Wild fits into the Zelda timelines—but it’s dangerous to focus on canon to the exclusion of all other analytical methods. A common, established storytelling device is unreliable narration: stories in which a narrator or various aspects of the story’s representation are dubious within the overall ecosystem of the story and its world. This is how The Sound and the Fury works; this is how Fight Club works; this, I’ve argued, is how Majora’s Mask works. To focus only on the letter of canon and on the information a game literally endorses is to ignore the nuances of a story’s overall world: oftentimes, making sense of a game’s universe requires reinterpreting various data from the game’s story in order to gain a maximally coherent understanding of the overall work of art.”
So if the non-canonical nature of my analysis is your issue with it, take this as an invitation to consider my analysis afresh. With that in mind, consider a positive reason for endorsing the view that Ocarina of Time’s Link isn’t the same person as Majora’s Mask’s Link: the moral essence of Link’s identity.
There are two parts of my original argument about Link’s identity that I think hold up and are worth emphasizing: in Majora’s Mask, “there is no reason to believe that Link possesses the Triforce of Courage [and] morality does not inhere to Link.” I discussed at length in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You that the Triforce is not a part of Termina (whence its lack of intrinsic moral grounding). Link is part of the resulting picture of moral nihilism within Termina: he’s not presented as any kind of destined hero; in fact, Kaepora Gaebora, the owl that repeatedly reinforces Link’s heroic destiny in Ocarina of Time, emphasizes in Majora’s Mask that Link is in no way destined to save Termina from its fated destruction.
When you’re considering the question of whether Ocarina of Time Link is the same as Majora’s Mask Link or not, it’s easy to hear the question as one of physical correspondence—that is, the question of whether it’s the same physical body called “Link” that the player has as an avatar in both games. But we can also think about the question in terms of spirit, where “spirit” is something along the lines of an immortal soul that can take various physical forms over time and space. Throughout the Zelda series, the various incarnations of Link in different times and timelines are all united by carrying the spirit of “the chosen hero”: just as the Triforce is a constant in the world of Hyrule, so too do their three bearers reincarnate constantly. There’s Zelda, the paragon of wisdom; Ganon, the corrupt incarnation of Demise; and Link, the courageous hero. Their physical bodies might change—for example, the Link of The Wind Waker is unequivocally a different literal person than the Link of Ocarina of Time—but the spirit that they represent stays the same.
I think that this analysis by way of spirit is a far better approach to the question of Link’s identity than mere correspondence of physical body, especially when, as I said there are so many physically different Links across the series. And the spirit analysis makes the importance of Termina’s amoral metaphysics clear: the lack of any Triforce-grounded virtue or destined heroism inherent in the Link of Majora’s Mask is a very good argument, I think, that he doesn’t possess the soul of the hero that is such a central feature of Ocarina of Time Link’s identity. As I see it, this is a strong case for the two Links being fundamentally, radically different beings, even if they do use the same physical body.
I’m glad I was able to kick off my work on Majora’s Mask with Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, because I think the piece succeeded in capturing what I still see as the key themes of the game: the horror of being thrust into an incomprehensible world and realizing that there’s no Triforce to cement the moral status of Link’s quest. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the intricacy of the game’s universe that months of intensive analysis can end up illuminating its story in ways we’d never before imagined. It’s with those months of analysis at our back that we’ve been able to revise Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: appreciating the unknowable Majora, the symbolic moon children, the ultimate optimism of Termina’s metaethics, and the estranged identity of Link in a robust new light.