With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX Australia 2016 entitled “Press X to Scream: Horror Storytelling in Video Games.” In the months since our presentation, we’ve been publishing our work from the panel in argument form, for the benefit of those viewers who were unable to attend. Now that all of the PAX Aus content has been published, we’ve aggregated it all in once place so that you can experience our entire presentation in written form.
With a Terrible Fate is in the process of releasing articles detailing the arguments of our presentation at PAX Australia 2016 on horror storytelling in video games. I’ve already released an article on the horror of Bloodborne, which I discussed at PAX; now, I’m returning to Majora’s Mask to discuss the metaphysical and metaethical details of the game that make it more horrifying than you might first think.
A word of background before we get started: before With a Terrible Fate became a central hub for rigorous video game analysis and theory, I began the site as a project in which I analyzed Majora’s Mask for three months leading up to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in an effort to defend my claim that Majora’s Mask is one of the most significant pieces of art in modern times. So, what I say here condenses various theses that I defend at length in that much larger body of work. If you’re interested in reading my comprehensive work on Majora’s Mask, you can find the entire library here. I’ll also link to articles from the library as they become relevant in this article.
With that in mind, let’s return to Termina and talk about what makes it far scarier than Creepypasta, fan videos, Gibdos, or nearly anything else. In keeping with the format of my PAX Aus presentation, I’ll first argue that there is no metaethical grounding for a hero’s quest in Termina. I’ll then turn to the iterative-timeline structure of Link’s journey through Termina, and argue that Termina cannot every truly be saved in the way the game suggests.
“Not In Hyrule Anymore”: The Lack of Ethical Grounding in Termina
It might not seem that there should be any question about whether Link is a hero in Majora’s Mask: after all, Legend of Zelda games are quintessential journeys of heroism, defeating evil against great odds. But I contend that special features of Termina deny that Link’s journey is truly good in the way that the journeys of other Links in other Zelda games are. To show this, I’ll first contrast the metaphysical foundation for morality in Hyrule with the lack of such foundation in Termina. I’ll then discuss the purpose of Link’s quest, and the degree to which morality within Termina is treated as a game. By the end of this section, we’ll see that players should be seriously doubtful that they can do anything good or heroic in Termina–and that should scare them. (You can read more about this in my early article on why Majora’s Mask should terrify you.)
Perhaps the most recognizable image from the Legend of Zelda series is the Triforce: a sacred object derived from the three Goddesses who created the world of Hyrule. Each of the three triangles represents a different virtue: Power, Wisdom, and Courage. These are the virtues that created the world and that ground its goodness, metaphysically. They are also traditionally represented by the individuals in whom one of the three virtues is manifested: typically Ganondorf (Power), Zelda (Wisdom), and Link (Courage). The harmony of these virtues grounds order in the world and safeguards against chaos.
The heroism of Zelda quests is almost categorically grounded in restoring order to the world by restoring balance to the Triforce. Consider, for instance, the story of Ocarina of Time: Link must take up his fated role as the Hero of Time and bearer of the Triforce of Courage by uniting with Zelda, bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom, in order to defeat Ganondorf, the “Great King of Evil,” thereby preventing him from taking over the world and throwing it into chaos. This is fairly typical of Zelda games: Link’s quest against evil is grounded in restoring order to the Triforce.
The first thing to notice about Majora’s Mask, then, is that there is no mention of the Triforce at all in the game. There is no mention of Link as bearer of the Triforce of Courage, nor is there any “Great King of Evil,” nor–despite this being a “Legend of Zelda” game–is Zelda present at all, except for one flashback of dubious ontological status (you can read more about that problem here). Given that Majora’s Mask is supposed to be the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, it’s pretty remarkable that the entire metaphysical basis for moral facts in the universe is glaringly absent from Termina.
But of course, you might think that I’m being unfair: after all, the Triforce is the metaethical structure of Hyrule, but we’re in Termina now, not Hyrule. Thus, it’s plausible, you might object, that Termina still has a foundation for moral facts–it’s just not the same foundation as we see in Hyrule-centric Zelda games. Yet I think there are independent reasons to think that this hypothesis doesn’t hold up. To see why, we’ll turn to the purpose of Link’s quest, and the surprising way in which the enigmatic Happy Mask Salesman frames and motivates Link’s time in Termina. (You can read more about the Happy Mask Salesman’s ontology and narrative significance here; you can read about the significance of his two most famous lines in the game here and here.)
It’s easy to forget that Link’s adventure in Termina is initially framed as a fetch quest: when he arrives inside the Clock Tower, the Happy Mask Salesman simply asks Link to retrieve Majora’s Mask for him within three days’ time, since he is only in town for three days. This is the context with which Link ventures out into Clock Town and Termina for the first time. His adventure only becomes a story of fighting evil once he confronts Skull Kid atop the Clock Tower for the first time, “remembers” the Song of Time, and travels back in time, meeting the Happy Mask Salesman inside the Clock Tower for a second time. When Link fails to produce Majora’s Mask, as the Happy Mask Salesman asked, the Salesman flies into a rage, warning Link of what will happen if he fails to recover the Mask. I quote at length:
“What have you done to me!!! If you leave my mask out there, something terrible will happen! The mask that was stolen from me… It is called Majora’s Mask. It is an accursed item from legend that is said to have been used by an ancient tribe in its hexing rituals. It is said that an evil and wicked power is bestowed upon the one who wears that mask. According to legend… the troubles caused by Majora’s Mask were so great… the ancient ones, fearing such catastrophe, sealed the mask in shadow forever, preventing its misuse. But now, that tribe from the legend has vanished, so no one really knows the true nature of the mask’s power… …But I feel it. I went to great lengths to get that legendary mask. When I finally had it… I could sense the doom of a dark omen brewing. It was that unwelcome feeling that makes your hair stand on end. And now… that imp has it… I am begging you! You must get that mask back quickly or something horrible will happen!”
It’s easy to take the Salesman at face value here, but I think another analysis better explains the data of the overall game and world of Termina: namely, the Salesman is imposing an artifice of morality upon Termina and Majora’s Mask in order to motivate Link and the player to get his mask back for him. For at this point in the game, Link has already failed once to complete the Salesman’s fetch quest; thus it seems reasonable that the Salesman would seek to further motivate Link to complete the task. An easy way to do this is to suggest that the mask is endowed with evil power and thus must be recovered in order to prevent something terrible from happening. Combined with the observation that there is no obvious Triforce-analogue grounding morality within Termina, it seems plausible that the appearance of evil in Majora’s Mask is just that: mere appearance, rather than something evil in a metaphysically deep sense.
Moreover, the Happy Mask Salesman as an entity seems to be in just the right position to impose an “apparent morality” on Termina–this is what I call ‘moral artifice’, or moral dimension that lacks metaphysical grounding in a world, imposed by an external source. For the Happy Mask Salesman himself doesn’t really exist within Termina; rather, I think it makes sense to consider him as metaphysically adjacent to Termina: he exists externally to Termina but is poised to influenced and interface with the world in a variety of ways. Inside the Clock Tower, where the Salesman resides, time does not flow, as it does in the rest of Termina. Moreover, it is implied that the Salesman effectively has comprehensive knowledge of Termina–without ever leaving the innards of the Clock Tower, he knows the origin and ontology of every mask Link acquires throughout the game, including masks that Link creates by healing fallen heroes (he describes the origins of these masks in vivid detail if Link speaks to him while wearing the masks). Moreover, he is the one who imparts to Link the Song of Healing, which allows Link to drastically change the structure of Termina by converting spirits into masks. This is the song that is described as healing “evil and troubled spirits”–again, the concept of evil is fundamentally introduced into the game by the Happy Mask Salesman. So it seems that even when we see evil at work in Termina, this is only the case because the Salesman is coloring the world this way for us. Again, there is no Triforce or heroic destiny guiding us here–we are left with only the guidance of a disarmingly smiling Salesman in pursuit of a fetch quest.
It’s worth noting, too, that when morality is introduced to Termina via moral artifice, it seems to center on the entity of ‘Majora’: the Salesman refers to an evil possessing Majora’s Mask, and the various putatively evil forms in the game–Majora’s Mask, Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath, and the masks sealing away Termina’s four giant–all derive their apparent relation to Majora. When Link obtains the Fierce Deity’s Mask, too (discussed further below), the game asks whether “this mask’s dark powers could be as bad as Majora” (emphasis mine), again deriving moral valence from the mask’s relation to Majora. But notice that it’s not at all clear in the game exactly who or what Majora is: Link only ever confronts various forms derived from from Majora (Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath), and the Salesman never says outright what Majora is. One virtue of the theory outlined above is that it gives us the resources to explain what Majora is: on my view, Majora is just identical with the concept of evil that the Salesman has imposed upon Termina. This makes sense when we consider other references to evil and to the impact of Majora on the world of Termina: in every corner of the world, we see that Majora has effected “evil” by distorting the natural order of things–a swamp is poisoned; a mountain in trapped in endless winter; an ocean is clouded and storm-ridden; and a desert is corrupted by lingering spirits and death. We can analyze these effects by saying that Majora, as the concept of evil, is distorting the universe of Termina, because Termina is a world that does not support moral facts or reality: by trying to impose morality upon Termina, the Salesman is distorting the very foundations of the world. (You can read more about Majora as Termina’s concept of evil here.)
If the above metaphysical considerations haven’t convinced you that there’s no basis for morality within Termina, then I invite you, lastly, to consider how the game treats morality in its ultimate confrontation: Majora’s Forms versus the Fierce Deity. Though the player needn’t acquire and use the Fierce Deity’s Mask to defeat Majora’s Forms, the game implies that this is the “proper” way to complete the narrative: the Mask is only available once the player has acquired all other masks in the game, at which point they must give those masks away to the various Moon Children with whom Link can play hide-and-seek before facing Majora’s Forms. At that point, Link can speak to the Moon Child wearing Majora’s Mask, who, noting that Link doesn’t have any masks left, says that they can instead play “good guys against bad guys,” and tells Link that Link is the bad guy in the game. He gives Link the Fierce Deity’s Mask, which, again, is described as a mask with dark powers that could be as bad as Majora.
In the final confrontation of the game, Link isn’t framed as a destined hero battling the Great King of Evil: he’s framed as a child playing the role of a villain in a game of good-and-evil. Moreover, the Fierce Deity’s Mask effectively turns the game’s final boss fight into “child’s play”: Majora’s Forms as frankly pathetic when faced with the Fierce Deity’s Mask, and it is trivial for the player to massacre a final boss that is quite challenging when faced without the Fierce Deity’s Mask. So the final battle isn’t a moment of heroism; rather, it’s a game in which Link takes on a mercilessly evil role. If we think that good and evil really have a metaphysical basis in Termina, it’s not clear how to make sense of this confrontation, nor is it clear how to make sense of Link’s relationship to the Fierce Deity’s Mask more generally; on the other hand, armed with our thesis that Termina lacks real moral grounding, this final battle is a poignant accent on the fact that the universe refuses to acknowledge Link and the player’s quest as morally significant.
If we accept the above arguments, then I think we already have ample reason to see Majora’s Mask as deeply horrifying, especially when we consider the game’s status as the sequel to Ocarina of Time. The player, having defeated the evil Ganondorf on Link the Hero’s destined quest in Ocarina, expects the same sort of heroism and triumph of goodness over evil in Majora’s Mask. The Happy Mask Salesman even assures them that they are right to expect this sort of heroism and goodness in their quest–he does this by imposing a moral artifice upon the world of Termina for the player and Link. Yet, over the course of the game, the player slowly discovers that there is no moral foundation for Link’s quest: there is no Triforce, no heroism, and no reason to believe that Link is doing something inherently good in his quest. And so the player is forced to confront the question: just what is the purpose of Link’s quest, as he goes to such lengths to fetch a mask for a Mask Salesman? The more the player looks for an ethical justification in Termina, the more it eludes her–and the loss of this basis for Link’s quest is a fearsome thing indeed.
In fact–despite this view being “against Zelda canon”–I think the scariest thing to emerge from this metaethical analysis is the implication that the Link of Majora’s Mask isn’t the same Hero of Time whom we encountered in Ocarina of Time. This strikes me as the best explanation of Majora-Link’s not possessing the Triforce of Courage, of ultimately donning the form of a dark god (the Fierce Deity), and generally bearing no relation to destiny in the way that Ocarina-Link did (you can read more about this here, and about how Majora Mask’s flashback to Zelda fits into this analysis here). So on my view, the deepest horror to be found here is just this: the player steps into Majora’s Mask expecting a classic tale of Zelda heroism, and slowly discovers that they literally aren’t controlling the hero that they thought they were. It is this profound alienation that makes the playing of Majora’s Mask a terrifying experience.
The Terminal Metaphysics of Termina: Majora’s Mask and the World that Can’t be Saved
Even if we agree that there’s no foundation for morality within Termina, we might still think that the player and Link can achieve something meaningful by “saving” Termina from the moon falling on Clock Town and the rest of the world. However, I think that trying to make sense of the game in this way just invites further horror, as we discover that Termina isn’t the kind of world that can be saved: rather, it is a world that is fundamentally doomed, and Link cannot change this fact. I’ll defend this claim in three parts: first, I’ll argue that Termina depends on Link for its existence; then, I’ll argue that Termina is constrained to three-day timelines; lastly, I’ll argue that the timelines of Termina are endlessly iterative. From these arguments, a picture emerges of Termina as a world that truly is Termina: though Link can participate in the world, he cannot save it from its doomed state.
Termina is a strikingly unusual video game world, and only because time in the world constantly counts down towards the apocalypse: events in Termina also happen in an unusual way. The best way to see this is to consider the puzzle of the Zora hero Mikau, who tragically dies during the course of the game (I case that I explore in detail here). When Link arrives at the Great Bay, he sees Mikau dying in the water: the player must bring him to shore and use the Song of Healing to convert his spirit into a mask as he dies–and then Link buries him, in one of the most poignant and jarring moments of the series. There are many things to say about this moment, and I’ve written much about it in the past; for our purposes, however, we just need to think about one surprising puzzle that emerges from this event: what was the status of Mikau in timelines before Link arrived at the Great Bay? By the time Link arrives at Great Bay, he has already traveled through multiple three-day cycles of Termina; presumably, we would want to say that Mikau still existed in those timelines prior to Link discovering him in the water. Yet the state in which Mikau existed in these prior timelines is not at all clear. Certainly he is not dead: he only dies once Link encounters him. Yet it also doesn’t seem quite right to say Mikau is alive and well in previous timelines, for he dies as soon as Link encounters him: we know he is dying and can’t survive the three days. So it seems as if we have to say that he is in an indeterminate state of being neither dead nor alive, but rather in a state of dying, suspended there until Link encounters him and he truly dies.
I think the conclusion to which considerations such as the above lead us is that the world of Termina actually depends on Link encountering it in order to exist. Beyond Mikau, we can also see (for example) that time doesn’t actually pass in Termina except when Link is there: when he enters the inside of the Clock Tower, time in Termina freezes until he exits into Clock Town. Generally speaking, the progression and instantiation of events in Termina do not proceed without Link. If you like, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that Termina is “solipsistic” with regards to Link.
The existential dependence of Termina on Link doesn’t alone simply anything obvious about whether or not Termina can be saved; however, a clearer and scarier picture of these implications emerges when we consider this dependence relation together with the iterative-timeline metaphysics of Majora’s Mask.
It seems clear to me that Link and the player progress through the game’s storyline by instantiating new timelines each time he plays the Song of Time. I detail this argument here, but the general thought is just this: Link clearly doesn’t reset the universe of Termina each time he plays the Song of Time, as various states of affairs throughout the world can change each time. Mikau, again, is an example: once Link sees Mikau die, he does not appear again even after Link plays the Song of Time. Link also retains the masks he acquires even when he plays the Song of Time. Thus I think that the best explanation of the Song of Time is that it allows Link to effectively abandon the timeline of Termina in which he’s currently situated, and travel to a new timeline that is linked to the most recently abandoned timeline by what I call ‘temporal afterimages’–metaphysical remnants of earlier, alternate timelines. As an aside: this notion of temporal afterimagery, I think, has broader applicability in the series: even when Link alters time, the inhabitants of whatever new timeline he brings about seem to have “remnant” memories of previous timelines; again, the Zelda flashback in Majora’s Mask is a prime example of this.
With a metaphysical picture in view of Link’s journey through Termina as bringing about increasingly more timelines as the game progresses, we can better understand the implications of Termina’s existential dependence on Link: Link only ever encounters Termina as three-day timelines, bounded by his arrival on one hand and the apocalypse on the other hand; thus, if Termina’s existence really does depend on Link, then Termina itself seems metaphysically constrained to Link’s arrival and its apocalypse. There seems to be no broader existence of the world that Link can fight to preserve.
But, you might now object, this is clearly false: if you beat the game, then we very clearly see that Link has saved Termina, once and for all; thus, there is a greater existence to the world that Link can fight to preserve. Yet I think we have every reason to doubt this, and to take this ending to the game instead as a case of unreliable narration (about which you can read in more detail here). For one thing, the ending doesn’t make much sense with regard to the overall narrative. We know that Link cannot save everyone in Termina over the course of a single timeline, yet the ending “victory” scene of the game implies this sort of success, with everyone in the world happy. And, even more pressingly, the game itself implies that the perpetuation of doomed Termina timelines persists after the end of the game. We can see this because there are certain events that the player can only bring about after she instantiates a new timeline in Termina after beating the game. For example, one of the functions of the Fierce Deity’s Mask is to allow Link to transform into the Fierce Deity during the four Giant boss battles in the game; and, since Link only gets the Fierce Deity’s Mask during the final battle of the game, he must go back and bring about another doomed timeline to use the mask in this way. Notice how starkly the above vision of Termina contrasts with the world of Ocarina of Time: it is not possible to “continue” in Hyrule after defeating Ganon; the game simply proclaims that the game has ended, and, if the player reloads her save file, she returns to wherever her last save was before defeating Ganon. Termina could just as easily “conclude” if Link were able to really save it; yet the very fact that the player can return to Termina and bring about further doomed timelines even after beating Majora’s Forms suggests that there is no way to truly overcome Termina’s doomed fate.
Though we might initially trust the game in telling us that Link can save Termina, the metaphysics of the world tell us otherwise: beyond the metaethical nihilism of the world, it is not even possible for Link to end the apocalyptic timeline cycle of the world. Termina, as the name suggests, is inherently terminal: it should fill the player with horror to realize that they are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to save a world that literally cannot be saved.
As we reflect on the overall horror of Majora’s Mask, it’s useful to contrast Kaepora Gaebora, the owl and sage whom Link encounter in Ocarina of Time, with Kaepora Gaebora, the owl whom Link encounters in Majora’s Mask (I study the owl in more detail here). In Ocarina, Kaepora Gaebora is a manifestation of the sage Rauru, who guides Link on his quest to defeat Ganondorf. Kaepora Gaebora inundates Link with the message that he is the Hero of Time, and that it is his destiny to travel through time to defeat Ganondorf. He repeatedly emphasizes what I said above: the Link of Ocarina is an agent of goodness and courage who will ultimately save Hyrule.
The Kaepora Gaebora of Majora’s Mask is virtually antithetical to his Ocarina of Time counterpart. He constantly treats Link as an intruder in a world that he describes as “destined to fade,” and offers to help Link only if he has “the courage and determination to proceed in the face of destiny.” Rather than Link being destined to save the world, Link is fighting to save a world that is designed to be destroyed. This in essence, captures the horror of Majora’s Mask: at every turn, the player expects to be able to do the right thing, and to save the world; yet, at every turn, the game denies the player the ability to find any moral justification for her actions, along with any possibility of truly saving the world. Without this foundation for making meaning out of Link’s journey, the player is left to make up some form of alternative meaning for the journey through Majora’s Mask. If you read my full analysis, you’ll see that I actually do think this is possible, and that the player can ultimately be a positive and meaningful force in the world of the game–but this is only possible once she overcomes the initial horror of the game, a horror which you’d be hard-pressed to overstate.
I’m thrilled to publicly announce on the site that With a Terrible Fate will be presenting a panel at Pax Australia this weekend. We’ll be talking about video game horror in the Dropbear Theatre to 7:30PM-8:30PM, and we hope to see you there. Right now, without giving too much away, I want to give you a taste of what you can expect if and when you meet With a Terrible Fate this weekend.
I, With a Terrible Fate Founder Aaron Suduiko, will team up with Featured Authors Nathan Randall and Laila Carter to discuss what makes horror storytelling special in the medium of video games. We’re each going to take a distinct methodological approach to analyzing video game horror based on our academic backgrounds; my hope is that the combination of our very different analytical perspectives will demonstrate how much people can learn about games by considering them through a variety of theoretical lenses.
Nathan will be applying the studies and theories of neuroscience to explore what makes for a really effective jump scare in video games. He’ll discuss various learning and fear mechanisms in our brains, and how games are especially well-positioned as a medium to capitalize on these mechanisms. Along the way, he’ll analyze 5 Nights at Freddy’s, Undertale, and even Jazzpunk. Ever thought about the science behind a really good game? There’s a lot to it, and Nate will show you just what makes it all so cool.
Laila will be exploring how horror storytelling in video games fits into broader, long-standing traditions of horror in folklore, mythology, and literature. What does BioShock have to do with the Odyssey? How does Lovecraftian horror come about in S.O.M.A.? What insight can a Minotaur give us into Amnesia? Laila has answers to all of these questions–oh, and she’ll be talking about “daemonic warped spaces” and P.T., too.
Lastly, I’ll be applying the tools of analytic philosophy, together with my body of work on video game theory, to explore the ways in which games can use the metaphysics of their worlds to generate especially deep-seated and cerebral horror for the player. I’ll argue that the horror of Bloodborne is actually much more realistic than you thought (and you’ll wish I hadn’t shown you why that’s the case). I’ll argue that the metaphysics of Termina imply an interpretation of Majora’s Mask that strays outside the realm of Legend of Zelda canon and instead finds its home in nihilistic terror. I’ll argue that the horror of Silent Hill 2 isn’t fundamentally about James’ relationship with any of the other characters in the town–rather, it’s about his relationship with the player. If you want to get primed for this section (or spoil it for yourself), you can check out my earlier work on Bloodborne and my comprehensive analysis of Majora’s Mask.
We’ll all be hanging around after the panel to answer any questions you may have, and we’ll be around throughout the rest of PAX if you want to keep the conversation going. We’ll also hopefully be able to get the presentation documented in some capacity, so look for that online in the coming week if you can’t make it to PAX Aus.
To all you PAX-goers: see you Saturday.
It was roughly one year ago that Nintendo announced the development of Majora’s Mask 3D, and I began writing a series of analyses studying the game and its dynamics as a work of art. This was how With a Terrible Fate was born, and, thanks in large part to all of you, the site has now developed from a study of Majora’s Mask into a full-fledged home of analytic video game theory and philosophy. I want to take this moment to thank you readers — both those who have followed the site from its beginning and those who have only just discover it — and give you a sneak peek into content you can expect in the coming month as a celebration of With a Terrible Fate‘s birthday.
Final Fantasy VII
Following the announcement of an imminent Final Fantasy VII remake, I wrote an article analyzing the architecture of Cloud’s subconscious and its importance for informing our understanding of Majora’s Mask. At that time, I promised more articles analyzing the game in anticipation of this remake. Now, with Cloud announced as the latest competitor in Super Smash Brothers 4, there is more reason than ever for such analyses. Additional articles are on their way, and you can expect more work on Final Fantasy VII before the end of the year. If you’re interested in the game and haven’t read it yet, then you should check out Featured Author Nathan Randall’s article on the ways in which the player construct’s Cloud’s identity.
When Nier: Automata was announced at E3, I explained to you both the personal value the game holds for me, as well as why I believe it has tremendous aesthetic value more generally. At that time, I offered a comprehensive analysis of the identity dynamics in the game, which was one of the first pieces of game analysis I ever wrote. I promised plenty more analyses of Nier leading up to its sequel in 2016, and you can expect the arrival of the first of these articles before the end of the year. I hope to draw readers deeper into the intricate inner-workings of this under-appreciated game, and show them the ins-and-outs of why I believe it is so important to the medium as a whole.
Given the philosophical nature of With a Terrible Fate, readers may rightly be curious as to why I have never touched the BioShock series, touted by many as some of the most overtly “philosophical” games. The reason why this is the case is embarrassingly simple: for a long time, although I adored the series, I did not feel that I had anything original and interesting to contribute to an analysis of the series. However, this has recently changed: readers can expect BioShock Infinite to meet With a Terrible Fate by the end of the year.
As part of the celebration of With a Terrible Fate’s one-year anniversary, I will be re-releasing a few of my most popular articles, with a twist: they will feature new commentary reflecting on the articles’ arguments, their strengths and weaknesses, and discussing what viewers have said about them over time. Some of these works of theory are now a year old; it’s time to discuss what works and what doesn’t in each of them.
And if you don’t want to wait for new content,
I just released an article analyzing the narrative mechanics of what makes Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide special — do check that out, if you haven’t yet.
New Featured Authors
It’s dangerous to go alone, and that’s why I think one of With a Terrible Fate‘s greatest assets is its Featured Authors: they provide unique insight and diverse approaches to the study and analysis of video games. Soon, With a Terrible Fate will be releasing a new roster of promising Featured Authors, all of whom are excited to share their views on video games with you. I cannot confirm the content of any articles at this time, but here are some hints as to their interests: games they value range from Metroid, to SOMA, to Pokémon, to Metal Gear Solid, to Fallout.
(And, by the way, if you want to be a part of this group of writers, it’s not too late. Email interest to email@example.com, and you may be able to see your very own articles published on With a Terrible Fate.)
Dialogue with Readership
I get some of my best ideas from reader suggestions. As always, I hope to include you, dear readers, in the development of the site, and to use your input to continue producing content that you find valuable and interesting. Have a thought about one of my articles? Comment on it, or even email me to get in touch directly. Is there a game I haven’t yet analyzed that you think deserves to meet With a Terrible Fate? Share your suggestions with me on Facebook — or, better yet, just tweet them at me. Much of this site would not be here without feedback from my readers; for example, my work on Dark Souls, The Stanley Parable, and The Beginner’s Guide was all the result of recommendations by readers of With a Terrible Fate.
Thank you, readers,
for your continued interest and engagement in the work of With a Terrible Fate. I hope that you are excited about everything that the site’s one-year anniversary has in store. Stay tuned: we’ve only just begun to undertake all the work that rigorous game analysis demands of us.
The August 17, 2015 issue of TIME featured a cover story detailing the current state of virtual reality, along with its projected future trajectories. Author Joel Stein throws the term “storytelling” around a decent amount in the article, tracking the current efforts of virtual reality (hereafter ‘VR’) pioneers to develop a methodology for conveying narrative through the medium of VR. Stein’s own prose reflects the seeming contradiction in how VR best ought to go about telling stories: at one moment he observes that, “unlike movies, virtual reality can make you feel dumb or successful by reacting to you”; a moment later, he points out that, despite VR sharing this interactive element with video games, “the storytelling rules of video games don’t work” when it comes to VR on account of danger feeling much more emotionally “real” in VR than in modern video games.
The stakes here are non-trivial in terms of where digital narrative goes next. The title of Stein’s article from which I quote is “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World”; last spring at PAX East, a panel of user interface designers from various game development studios expressed the standard thought that user interface development is progressing with the goal of ultimately achieving the “total immersion” of virtual reality. What, then, are we to make of the tension that Stein highlights between VR and video games? Is it simply that the technology is new and we do not yet know how to use it effectively – that, as Gil Baron of Visionary VR told Stein, “[it’s] like you went back in time and gave a caveman a video camera?” Or could the tension perhaps be something deeper – that there is a difference in kind that precludes VR from serving as the “next evolution” of modern video game narrative?
My own view is that, not only there is certainly a tension in VR between being interactive and having different “rules” than video games, but it is also a tension far more fundamental than purported by articles such as Stein’s. Namely, the project of VR seems essentially at odds with our ordinary conception of narrative, whereas video games refine and enhance that same conception. I will offer a defense of this claim by showing that our agency in the actual world, which is what VR aims to emulate, determines a course of events that we experience prior to making any meaning out of that course of events, whereas narrative consists of chains of events composed in order to effect some didactic end – where ‘didactic end’ roughly means ‘a particular meaning or message’. I will then review motivations independent of this for the user interface dynamics of video games being valued on their own terms, rather than being seen as imperfect precursors to “total VR immersion.” Lastly, I will review some of the ways in which I believe VR will be useful, barring the misconception of it serving as an evolution in video game narrative.
I. VR, qua evolved video games, requires full-immersion agency.
I take it to be the case that one of the primary goals of virtual reality – not one that has been realized yet, but which VR developers aim to ultimately realize – is to emulate, within a virtual world, one’s experience in real life of ‘full-immersion agency’. Roughly, this refers simply to the feeling we have of really being able to make choices and affect the real world in which we exist; I will articulate the finer points of the term shortly. First, for the sake of clarity, I should point out that I certainly do not take this to be the only goal of VR: as I will consider in the final part of this paper, there are many other promising ends for which it can be used. Yet it seems that this goal is necessary if we wish to assume the intuitive and popular view that VR is the next evolution of video games. I will not pursue an extended proof here as to why this is the case; suffice it to say that the primary motivation behind this view of things (I take it) is the idea that video games are handicapped by the artificial distance separating player from avatar – the medium would be in some sense more consistent with its goal of dynamically engaging a virtual world if the player were fully subsumed by that virtual world.
‘Full immersion’ in ‘full-immersion agency’ refers to a phenomenology sufficiently similar to that of the player’s real-life phenomenology that the player feels as if she really is an entity within that world. I will not attempt to map necessary and sufficient conditions for this being the case, but we can point to a number of defining characteristics of the concept. For example, the player would have to experience the world from a first-personal perspective, such that it really seems as if they were seeing the world from a perspective internal to that world; this would most likely need to involve all five of the player’s senses. On the other hand, we would presumably want it to not be the case that full-immersion is so immersive that the virtual world is impossible to qualitatively distinguish from reality – such a situation would open the analysis to a whole host of complications that are beyond the scope of the goal currently in consideration.
‘Agency’ in ‘full-immersion agency’ refers to the capacity for the player to act upon the virtual world in such a way as to influence the causal chain of events in the virtual world. This is in many ways an extension of the sort of agency that players have in video games through the proxy of their avatar – the difference being that in this case, there is no proxy. Rather, the player perceives herself as directly being able to exert causal influence on the world. This factor, when conjoined with full immersion, makes the requirements for agency in VR somewhat more robust than the concept of agency in video games: whereas the controls through which a player controls an avatar are indirect and unintuitive (there is no intuitive reason why pressing a button labeled ‘A’ would result in a character jumping, for example), control in VR must be absolutely intuitive: the actions we take in a virtual world, in order to meet the full immersion requirement, must be effected by the same means as those same actions in real life. If we say that all we need to do in real life to jump is to tense our leg muscles, crouch, and propel our legs off the ground, then that mechanism must track with the experience of how the player makes herself jump in a VR world.
A succinct way of capturing the essence of full-immersion agency is to say that virtual reality, fully realized, ought to allow the player to experience her actions upon the virtual world in a way that tracks with her capacity to act upon the real world. If she sees an unlocked virtual door, then she ought to be able to open that door in a way that experientially resembles her opening a door in real life; if she chooses to sit down and do nothing, then any NPCs in the area ought to react to her as analogous people would in a real-life situation of her sitting down and doing nothing; if there is a virtual wall, then she should be able, mutatis mutandis, to at least in principle discover what is on the other side. It is from this requirement of realistic action that problems for VR narrative arise.
II. Total freedom of choice is at odds with didactic chains of events.
A different way to describe the above thesis is that VR, like real life, contains functional representational content. When we perceive objects in real life, there is a tacit assumption that we could, at least in principle, interact with that object: we can approach things, touch things, use them for particular ends, and so forth. Even when considering space, far away from our usual locale of earth, we know it is at least possible for us to be there (say, as an astronaut) and interact in some way with what we find there (I bracket fringe cases here, such as the capacity to interact with dark matter, because nothing crucial in my argument depends on how such cases turn out). Based on our capacity to interact with the various elements of our environment, we are able to bring about a variety of disparate events that are contingent on how we choose to interact with our environment – an ability which allows us in principle to freely choose events to an enormously – indeed, perhaps incalculably – high degree.
The problem with this exceedingly high degree of freedom to, in principle, choose to experience various events, is that it is directly at odds with a traditional goal of narrative: didacticism. When we consider what it means for something to be a ‘narrative’ in the literary sense, a full account usually involves some didactic element; that is to say, we assume that the author of a narrative designed it in such a way as to convey a certain message or elicit a certain response from its appreciator. This didactic element of narrative can be conveyed through a variety of literary elements: word choice, subject matter, and, particularly relevant for the argument at hand, the chain of events constituting the narrative. Which events in the world of a story the author chooses for his particular narrative, the order in which he arranges these events, and so on, are all in part constitutive of the overall meaning of the story. When we think of examples, this is almost trivial: the Odyssey, for instance, would not be the same sort of triumphant revenge story without the chain of events culminating in Odysseus killing his wife’s suitors. A chain of events, in short, is one of the basic building blocks with which an author conveys a narrative’s meaning to the reader.
I have spoken at length in my various analyses of story-based video games about the ways in which they uniquely allow a player to influence chains of events, leading to different narrative outcomes; while this is certainly a crucial feature of video games that goes beyond the fixed chain of events featured in a film or novel, note that even choice-based games are typically fairly linear – that is to say that, while the story may “branch” in different places based on the choices of a player (e.g., Dishonored), this typically just means that a video game features a few possible chains of events based on player choice. A writer can just as easily be didactic with a branching series of events as with a single series of events, providing she knows her craft well – there will certainly be novel considerations such as what didactic content manifests from the interrelations between the various branches of the storyline, but this added nuance does not in any way make the didactic narrative process impossible (again, games such as Dishonored are testament to this). However, games with fairly linear storylines are only one type of game: many others privilege player choice over a traditional storyline, up to the point where some games offer huge, interactive worlds, with numerous choices for the player to make but without any overarching narrative (e.g., a traditional game of Minecraft, in comparison to a story-based mod thereof). At the extreme, these “sandbox games,” in which a player can do virtually anything but has no strict overarching narrative to follow, are an extremely scaled-down example of the problem faced by VR: more choice means more potential chains of events, which makes it more difficult, up to the point of impossibility, to design a didactic narrative.
We can draw a comparison here between the high degree of freedom in VR and the difficulty to model complex physical systems. For example, in her book The Dappled World, philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright discusses a case first made popular by Otto Neurath: the question of where a thousand dollar bill, swept up by the wind, will land. “Mechanics,” Cartwright says, “provides no model for this situation. We have only a partial model, which describes the thousand dollar bill as an unsupported object in the vicinity of the earth, and thereby introduces the force exerted on it due to gravity […] [There is also] in principle (in God’s complicated theory?) a model for mechanics for the action of the wind, albeit probably a very complicated one that we may never succeed in constructing.” Cartwright’s point here is that the number of variables required to accurately construct a mechanical model of a flimsy dollar carried by the wind is so large as to appear virtually incalculable – the complexity of the situation cannot be effectively described by classical mechanics. The point in the case of VR is that a similar breadth of complexity arises if we introduce the number of variable branching events necessary to model a world where a player can act as freely as they act in real life. An author of video may be able to craft a didactic, branching narrative with three or four player-choice-contingent outcomes, but crafting a coherent and didactic set of chains of events for some large number n required by full-immersion agency seems, for the purposes of aesthetic narrative, practicably impossible.
Now, it would be unfair to say that the events of real life cannot in some sense be didactic. People construct narratives out of their real-life experiences all the time; the crucial distinction is that this type of didacticism is only possible after one has already experienced the events in question. Most of us, I take it, do not suppose that all the events we experience in life were pre-designed in order to articulate some particular meaning – rather, we retroactively make meaning out of whatever events we have experienced in life. Such a dynamic as this may well be theoretically possible in VR: imagine something like a complex world with a particular physics, designed to respond to a player in patterned ways. The problem of not being able to design events didactically would remain, yet one could still ascribe meaning to the overall chain of events after the fact – imagine, by way of analogy, something like a tabletop game of Dungeons and Dragons with a very flexible, lenient, versatile dungeon master; or, if you prefer, imagine playing some sandbox game like Minecraft for several hours, and thereafter trying to construct an overall narrative of the events that took place. You might look back on these series of events and formulate some kind of meaning based on them, yet there seems to be no sense in which the series of events were designed for that meaning, prior to you engaging with the game. To reiterate, this is a process and type of engagement fundamentally distinct from the didactically architected narrative we expect from novels, films, and story-based video games.
This is the fundamental friction between VR and traditional narrative that I doubt can be even theoretically surmounted: a realistic degree of agency on the part of the player is directly at odds with a chain(s) of events designed for some didactic ends. Any attempt to use VR to improve upon video games’ model of narrative will have to find some way to solve this problem.
III. Video games can do things that VR cannot.
Beyond the problem of didacticism, another motivation for not conceiving of VR as a step “beyond” video games is that video games, in their current forms, can achieve unique aesthetic effects that do not seem possible in VR. I have examined such effects before, and in this section I will therefore largely recapitulate my earlier work on this topic.
At a panel I attended on user interface/experience (‘UI’/’UX’) design at PAX East last spring, the panelists remarked that “the sign of an effective, sleek UI is that no player actually comments on or notices the UI. When the future of UI was discussed, motions were made toward the promises of virtual reality to eventually develop games in which UI is ultimately seamless.” I questioned whether it ought to be the case that UI/UX categorically aim towards seamless immersion of the player in the world of the game:
“With so many options available [for UI design], it seems naive to claim that the ultimate goal of UI is to be as unnoticeable as possible. In my own work, I have aimed at articulating how the different relationships between player, avatar, and game world can establish unique aesthetic effects (e.g., the embedded narratology of “Assassin’s Creed,” or the player-dependent metaphysics of “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask”); the most immediate facilitator of these interactions, by virtue of being the conduit between player and avatar, is the UI. So I think it follows that UI ought to explore as many permutations of aesthetic principles as possible, rather than mere design permutations, such that we can explore the broadest boundaries of what sort of stories video games as a medium are capable of telling. Perhaps a counterpoint to immersive UI could be intentionally alienating UI that make the player feel like an utter stranger in spite of controlling the avatar within the game; such a model could be the foundation for an aesthetic of estrangement that, by virtue of being interactive, could be much more successful as a video game than as art in another medium.
“What’s more, my intuition is that it’s an artifact of the current state of UI design that we see a conceptual difference between physical space and narrative space in a video game, as the Fagerholt/Lorentzon model [of UI design] suggests. As we develop a more comprehensive theory of video game aesthetics, I think it will become increasingly clear that physical game space and what’s called “narrative” are two different ways of seeing the same aesthetics. Already, the lines between [various types of UI] are blurry at best: we may say that directional markers pointing the player towards a goal are “merely spatial”; yet if we extend the concept of game narrative to include the player as a fundamental, as I have argued that we must, then is this not also a narrative element? And this is the crucial point: for once we accept the player as a part of the game’s narrative, and the totality of the game as its world, then it seems as though all UI, while still aesthetically differentiable, is intrinsically diegetic.”
A few months after I theoretically rejected the dogma that UI ought to trend toward full player immersion, Batman: Arkham Knight was released, providing a vivid example of the precise point I was trying to make. I quote the case at length from my review of the game (this, of course, constitutes a spoiler for those who have yet to play through the game):
“At one point in the game, Alfred tells Batman that Lucius Fox has not been responding to communications for a while. The player can then choose to go to Wayne Tower, where Lucius has been stationed during the events of the game, to check on his status. Batman enters the elevator up to the top of the Tower, where Lucius presumably is, and is seen in the elevator dressed as Bruce Wayne – ostensibly because Lucius’ staff, who does not know Batman’s secret identity, are still in the building, the player directs Wayne into Lucius office, only to find it empty. Searching the office, there is once prompt available to the player: to use the retinal scanner on Lucius’ computer. Wayne sits down in the chair, does this, only to have the computer reject his retinal scan. At this point, Lucius enters the room, approaches the desk, and asks Wayne is anything is wrong and whether there is anything Lucius can do for him. The UI prompt for the player is to press a button to again “Use Retinal Scanner.” However, when the player pressed the button, rather than merely looking into the computer’s scanner again, Wayne grabs Lucius, slams his head against the table, presses his eye up to the scanner, and then begins transferring funds out of Wayne Enterprise’s bank accounts. At this point, the screen is revealed to be security camera footage that the real Batman is watching in the elevator up to Lucius’ office: although the player presumably did not realize it at the time, he was previously playing as Hush, who had surgically engineered his face to look like Bruce Wayne’s in order to break into the Tower.
“The “what-have-I-done” horror of the player upon “using the retinal scanner” is a direct result of UI not being transparent: although the player expects his agency to be extended through the avatar in one way (that is, merely putting one’s eye up to the retinal scanner), his agency ends up effecting something vastly different than what was expected (that is, brutalizing Lucius). This also makes vivid the completeness of Hush’s transfiguration into Wayne: in the game, the source of Batman’s agency is the player, who directs how he ought to act; the player also knows that Batman and Bruce Wayne are identical. Hush was so successful that he tricked the actual source of Batman’s agency into mistaking him for Bruce Wayne, indirectly making Batman responsible for Hush’s attack on Lucius. This makes the standard guilt of Batman for the actions of evildoers grounded in a very strong theoretical way with respect to game mechanics: in this case, Batman’s dual identity, an explicit theme throughout the game, ends up hurting those around him because an enemy is able to convince the player, the agent who most wants and is able to make Batman a hero within the universe of the game, to unwittingly help Hush in his wicked machinations. This grounds the guilt of Batman for the evil that happens in Gotham in a way that only video games could ground it: not only does that evil happen in spite of him, but, in cases like this, it actually comes about because of him.”
The point here is that many of the special aesthetic features of video games come about from the very fact that the player controls an entity in the game’s universe that is not identical to herself – something that cuts against the grain of full immersion. Some video game narratives actually only make sense because the player is able to act upon the game’s universe while remaining separable from it: for example, in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, I have argued that the only way to make sense of the protagonist (Shulk) overcoming a god (Zanza) that has knowledge of the universe’s total causal structure is to attribute Shulk’s agency to the player, who is not bound within the programmed universe of the game, and can thereby perturb the evolution of its causal chains in ways that the god cannot anticipate:
“Xenoblade does something remarkable on the level of second-order narrative: it shows how video games can be used in aesthetically powerful ways to create a universe with a complete metaphysics, and then perturb those metaphysics with an external agent. A universe of Leibniz’s metaphysics [such as Xenoblade’s] leaves all being subordinate to god [Zanza], which reflects the structure of games as a program, the path of which is determined prior to the player ever finding it; yet the design of the universe as something that can be externally observed allows the player to disturb the universe’s determined structure, and tell a story whose narrative arc is only valid by virtue of the player’s interference. This feature, then, reflects the value of the player acting upon the program of a game to bring its narrative from the realm of possible paths into the reality of a single path from start to finish.”
So we cannot conceive of VR, even when it is refined in the coming years, as an evolution and improvement upon video game narratives. Such a conception could only reasonably rest on the goal of the player being fully immersed in the narrative, because the other special aesthetic ends of video game narrative fall out of the separateness of the player and avatar – something that is lost in the case of VR. And, as I showed in Parts I and II, this goal of full immersion, when combined with player agency, makes our most fundamental notion of narrative implausible in VR. When we look to the future of VR, it cannot be in the form of the “ultimate video game.”
IV. VR could be the next evolution of film.
As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the above considerations are not intended to success that VR is an industry with no future or meaningful place in society – such a position would be misguided and naïve. I have only been concerned with blocking the intuition that VR can advance the storytelling of video games in a way that many people find intuitively plausible. In this last section, I wish to close by pointing to one of the many other areas in which I think that VR holds tremendous promise: further developing the notion of film.
In his August article on the VR industry, Stein nods repeatedly to the apparent potential for VR to allow people to experience events with a greater degree of intimacy than in other media. He describes the work of Xavier Palomer Ripoll, who designs VR simulations that “allow therapists to use immersion therapy with clients who have anxiety disorders, letting them virtually sit on a plane or ride in an elevator, for example.” Jaunt has developed an app that can gives its users “a good sense of what it’s like to be backstage at a Paul McCartney concert.” Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael are “documenting nomadic tribes around the world so you can sit in a Mongolian yurt while a family cooks.” The element of experience that VR has the potential to provide can make people feel as if they are “really in,” say, the events of a movie, or a nomadic tribe’s home.
Such an enhanced degree of intimacy and immersion, without the complications of agency, has tremendous potential. Not only will people be able to experience film-like narratives more vividly, but they will also be able to experience places in a nearer-to-life way that might not otherwise be available to them. Dreamporte, for example, is a non-profit organization that focuses on using VR to bring underprivileged youth educational experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. VR has the potential to hugely decrease the barrier of access to world travel (virtually experience sitting in a café in Paris), to classrooms (sit in a virtual classroom and listen to lectures), and so on. Particularly as the technological quality increases and cost decreases, VR will have an opportunity to very much change the lives of everyday people.
I call this an evolution of film because, as I argued above, extended agency in VR would render narrative virtually impossible. I therefore see film, with a fixed narrative or series of events, as a better model upon which VR can improve. VR can turn the passive experiences we observe in a film into felt experiences with which we can, in some limited capacity, engage; and, as Stein rightly says, this is enough to change much about the state of the world.
Yet with VR’s potential we must also acknowledge its limitations, and that, no matter how much we may wish for it to do, there will be some things it cannot do. Tidus famously opens Final Fantasy X with the injunction, “Listen to my story.” Video games toe a fine line between between the authority of authors and the authority of players; they manage (some more effectively than others) to architect didactic plotlines while also allowing the player to explore and sometimes determine the plot of her own accord. That VR could improve upon this may seem intuitive – but I believe, in the review, that this is one domain best left to video games.
Cartwright, Nancy. The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
Fagerholt, Erik and Lorentzon, Magnus. Beyond the HUD: User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games. Chalmers University of Technology, 2009. Web. 15 October 2015.
Monolith Soft. Xenoblade Chronicles. 10 June 2010.
Nintendo. Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. 27 April 2000.
Rocksteady Studios. Batman: Arkham Knight. 23 June 2015.
Square Enix. Final Fantasy X. 19 June 2001.
Stein, Joel. “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.” TIME. 6 August 2015. TIME. Web. 15 October 2015.
Suduiko, Aaron. Various. With a Terrible Fate. Web. 2015.
Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed. 13 November 2007.
 This panel featured Vicki Ebberts [UX, Undead Labs], Alexandria Neonakis [UI/UX Designer, Naughty Dog], and Kate Welch [UI/UX, Freelance]. See “From the Floor of PAX East, Part II: The Aesthetics of User Interfaces.”
 What I am claiming here does not depend on a metaphysical claim that we have free will; all that is required for the argument is that we have the experience of having free will, which may just as well end up being epiphenomenal or otherwise superficial with respect to metaphysics.
 Cartwright 27, italics mine. Cartwright uses this argument in the context of objecting to those who take a fundamentalist stance towards physical laws; the details of her overall dialectic are less important than the thought experiment itself.
 One might disagree with me by taking the stance that, in life, “everything happens for a reason” in the sense that events are in some way pre-designed to serve some purpose. While I would deny such teleology for unrelated reasons, note that such a view actually does not speak against my case: for if one believes that events are pre-ordained for a certain end, then it is very difficult to also commit to any sense of free will in one’s life, even as an epiphenomenon; one is therefore committing to a Weltanschauung that very much resembles a traditional narrative without branching, choice-dependent elements – and there is obviously no problem with designing narratives such as these didactically. This view of real life therefore does nothing to mitigate the difficulty of representing freedom to choose in VR – it merely denies that any such freedom exists in the real world.
 This quote and the following come from my March 24, 2015 article, “From the Floor of PAX East, Part II: The Aesthetics of User Interfaces.”
 For my full review of Arkham Knight, from which this is excerpted, see “What is it like to be a Batman? Reviewing Arkham Knight.”
 This and subsequent quotes in this paragraph come from “Why Virtual Reality is About to Change the World.”
This past February, Nintendo gave “Legend of Zelda” fans a long-awaited gift: the ability to open their 3DS’s and return to Termina (or, perhaps, to encounter it for the first time). As has been the case in the past, they did not merely publish a port of the game with updated graphics: significant updates and changes were made to the game’s content, revisions that far outstrip previous tweaks made in the GameCube and Wii Virtual Console versions of the game. But just how significant were these changes to the world and story presented in “Majora’s Mask”?
With a Terrible Fate began as a three-month analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” focusing on the ways in which the metaphysics of Termina and agency of the player combine to create an enthralling narrative that is only possible in the medium of video games. Now, long overdue, With a Terrible Fate returns to these roots with an examination of the new world and story presented in “Majora’s Mask 3D” – for I do contend that, in spite of the game sharing a title with the original “Majora’s Mask,” the foundational changes that Nintendo made are such that we cannot understand this remake as merely a retouched version of the same story as the original.
The general claim I will defend is that “Majora’s Mask 3D” presents a story that renders the player himself much more important than Link, relative to the story of the original “Majora’s Mask.” The defense of this claim has three major horns: the metaphysics of Termina, the ontology of Majora, and the degree to which the game imposes guidance. I will analyze each of these horns in turn, with the goal being merely to offer a map of the new game’s dynamics, rather than arguing which game, if either, is “better” than the other.
A note before we begin: the aim of this piece is not to catalogue all of the changes that Nintendo made in “Majora’s Mask 3D” – such a list can easily be found elsewhere. Many changes in the new version will not appear in this article, simply because I do not believe they impact the overall metaphysical dynamics of the game, and are therefore not relevant to the task at hand. If you are interested in an article on fishing, then I suggest you go elsewhere – and if you are playing “Majora’s Mask 3D” in order to go fishing, then I suggest you reevaluate your choices.
I will also use the convention of referring to the world presented in “Majora’s Mask 3D” as ‘New Termina’, in contrast to the ‘Termina’ of “Majora’s Mask.” This is because, as I said above, I believe there is compelling reason to conceive of the worlds of these games as fundamentally distinct from one another – something of which I hope to convince you, dear reader, in the pages to follow.
I. Whether this world be forever or merely for a short time… that is up to you.
One of the first things a “Majora” veteran notices upon entering New Termina is a preponderance of the statues pictured above. Engaging one of these statues allows the player, at any time in any three-day cycle, save his progress in the game, incurring no penalty in the process. A first-time player, particularly one who has previously played other JRPGs (Namco Tales, Final Fantasy, etc.), may be unfazed by this; but a “Majora” veteran recognizes this as a tremendous shift in gameplay functionality from the original game. In Termina, there were only two ways in which the player could save his game: by playing the Song of Time and moving to a new three-day timeline of Termina, and by saving and closing out of the game at an Owl Statue (a “temporary save,” the save file of which would disappear once the player reopened his game). As I have previously discussed, these save dynamics have implications not only for the phenomenology of the player of “Majora,” but also for the metaphysical relation of Link as an agent to the world of Termina. Do these new Save Statues have their own such set of metaphysical implications, or do they merely serve to make the game easier to play?
The primary metaphysical function of these Save Statues, as I see it, is to endorse a vision of New Termina that I put forward speculatively a month before the release of “Majora’s Mask 3D.” I projected that the tendency of a portable console to be accessed from a variety of places could lead to a New Termina that functioned more as a reality that exists tangentially to the player’s own real world – this in contrast to accessing Termina via a stationary television, which instead promotes a conception of Termina as a discrete world into which the player extends his agency through the proxy of Link. Save Statues extend this tangency to the domain of time: whereas the player previously had to play by the rules of Termina’s metaphysics in order to solidify their progress, the player is now able to save in a variety of convenient places irrespective of their position in any of Termina’s timelines.
The temporal focus on the player’s actual world is augmented by an analogous spatial focus, which the New 3DS’s 3D graphics and gyroscope facilitate. When the player shifts to Link’s first-person perspective, as is the case when using arrows or merely looking around, he literally moves his console around in order to look around in New Termina, as though he were actually looking around in the real world. The result is that the dynamics of ‘looking’ in Termina involve mapping different spatial relations within the game’s world onto equivalent special relations in the player’s actual world. The 3D aspect of the game’s graphics further support the idea that the world of the game is directly related to the player’s actual world, because it leads to the visual content of the game more closely resembling the visual content of the actual world – though, of course, the game’s visual content is necessarily derivative with respect to actual reality.
The result of this reformulation of the relationship between the game’s world and the player’s world is that New Termina ontologically emphasizes the player where Termina did not. The player, along with Link, was a stranger in Termina, and had to learn how to play by its peculiar rules of time and space; only by mastering those rules could the player and Link ever leave their mark on Termina, and shift the course of events over three-day timelines. New Termina, however, espouses in the player a sense that the world has been “waiting for him”: Save Statues prioritize the player’s personal schedule over the three-day apocalyptic timetable of New Termina; special relations in New Termina map directly onto the world in which the player is currently playing the game. New Termina, in short, is a part of the player’s world, where the player was instead a part of Termina.
It is also worth noting that New Termina, at the same time that it increases emphasis on the player, also reduces emphasis on Link as a character. This is most apparent in the revised Owl Stones throughout the game: in addition to no longer functioning as game-saving mechanisms, Owl Stones here are different than those in Termina because any one of Link’s forms can activate them. Whereas Hylian Link had to activate Owl Stones in Termina by “leaving his mark” upon them with his sword, any form of Link – Deku Link, Zora Link, Goron Link, or Hylian Link – can activate Owl Stones in New Termina by “[speaking] forth to” them in order to “spread their wings.” With respect to Termina, I previously analyzed the masked forms of Link (Deku, Goron, and Zora) as derivative of Hylian Link, a means by which Hylian Link was able to extend the spirits of fallen heroes through him. Such an interpretation was supported by the fact that Hylian Link largely was the primary hero of the game: it was he who originally entered Termina with the player, and it was he who was able to leave his mark upon the spatiotemporal fabric of the world by striking Owl Statues with his blade. In New Termina, lacking the relevant features of the Owl Statues, such an argument seems far less plausible; rather, it seems the statues reflect that Link is only one of several heroes within Termina, and that any of them could potentially have saved the world.
The decrease in emphasis on the primary avatar of the game makes all the more noteworthy the increased emphasis on the player: although it has always been the case that Link has been a thin character, serving more as a conduit for the player than as an entity unto himself, this analysis of him is more grounded in the metaphysics of New Termina than it has been in the worlds of previous “Zelda” titles. It is evident that “Majora’s Mask 3D” is much more concerned with the player’s journey, in contrast with Link’s journey, than “Majora’s Mask” was. This invites the question: given the keen interest of “Majora 3D” in the player, in what manner does it engage its players?
II. “I believe in you, buddy”: Guidance as an imposition.
The term “handholding” – the condition of a game meticulously guiding a player through the steps required to complete it – has been thrown around a great deal lately in gaming, particularly in relation to Nintendo and the “Zelda” franchise. The Navi of “Ocarina of Time 3D” was probably the greatest offender of this, recommending that players take breaks from gaming so as to not stain themselves. There is an interesting host of questions around handholding – for instance, one might wonder just how Nintendo ought to strike the balance (if it ought to strike a balance at all) between the puzzle-solving gameplay that the “Zelda” franchise is known on the one hand, and sufficient handholding to prevent excessive frustration of children, the series’ primary audience, on the other hand.
Such questions are interesting, but in truth I only mention handholding in order to set it aside. The following analysis of the degree to which New Termina imposes guidance on the player has much overlap with handholding in terms of the game content being considered; however, the goal of my analysis here is not to examine handholding proper. Rather, I aim to assess how the particular types of guidance featured in New Termina influence the narrative dynamics of the game. One might raise many issues regarding handholding and yet suppose that handholding does not influence the meat of the narrative in question; what I argue here is that the guidance that “Majora’s Mask 3D” imposes upon the player does in fact influence the game’s overall narrative.
Note also that this analysis prescinds from extended commentary on Sheikah Stones. Beyond personally having no interest in them, I refrain from comment because use of this handholding device is entirely optional in the first place, and for that reason it is hard to mount a case that the presence of Sheikah Stones foundationally impacts the narrative of the game.
I begin with an attempt to convince a skeptical reader that, in a special way, “Majora’s Mask” was much akin to “Dark Souls.” It may be unintuitive to compare a Nintendo title to one of the most famously unforgiving games of recent years; however, while the intended audiences and overall brutality of the two titles are quite different, they are strikingly similar in world-approach.
“Dark Souls” drops the player and his freshly minted avatar into a world with a vaguely outlined quest and next-to no explicit storytelling: the player has to find the path forward by trial-and-error. This is where “Dark Souls” thrives – the only way for the player to progress (aside from using strategy guides) is by learning the structure of the game’s world. This is true both in the microcosm and macrocosm of the game: microcosmically, a player may have to engage a single enemy or group of enemies several times, dying repeatedly, before finally learning their patterns of attack and movement to a degree sufficient for defeating them; macrocosmically, the player may have to wander around countless areas, encountering many pitfalls and dead-ends, going out of his way talk to NPCs along the way, before making any substantial progress in the game’s storyline – indeed, the player must go out of his way in terms of exploration in order to even understand what the plot of the game is. In these ways, “Dark Souls” is a narrative experience deeply rooted in the phenomenology of learning and appreciating through discovery.
In much the same way, “Majora’s Mask” is a story that thrives on learning through discovery. The entirety of Termina can be likened to an elaborate puzzle box, with intricately connected events causally strung together over the course of three days. In order to effect change within Termina, Link and the player must learn the ins-and-outs of which events happen, when they happen, and how they impact the overall causal chain of Termina. This process can require a high degree of trial-and-error over multiple timelines; influencing events in just the right way to complete the Anju and Kafei sidequest, for example, requires a knowledge of Clock Town’s events that the player is unlikely to have when attempting the quest for the first time.
The result of this puzzle-like world structure is that Link and the player, dropped into Termina with little ceremony and explanation, learn how to manipulate and save the world merely by exploring and experiencing it over and over again. Where “Dark Souls” demands learning through the mechanic of death, constantly announcing to the player that “YOU DIED,” “Majora’s Mask” demands learning through the mechanic of resetting Termina’s three-day sequence, constantly announcing to the player that they have returned to the “DAWN OF THE FIRST DAY.” In this way, “Majora’s Mask” espouses the puzzle-solving spirit of the “Zelda” series in a special, foundational way: rather than being guided through a temporally static Hyrule, as is the case in “Ocarina of Time,” the temporally evolving world of Termina is itself a complex problem for the player to solve, a macrocosm of the various dungeon challenges for which the series is known.
New Termina is just as much of a puzzle as Termina (in fact, the addition of a new sidequest makes it somewhat more complex a puzzle); however, the new gameplay dynamics of “Majora’s Mask 3D” reduce the expectation that it is incumbent upon the player and Link to discover and solve that puzzle by themselves. There are two horns to the explanation of why this is the case, which I will examine in turn: the first is that the game contains explicit mechanisms to facilitate discovery of New Termina’s secrets; the second is that the world of New Termina presents itself as much more in favor of Link than Termina did.
The most obvious example of what I mean by ‘imposed guidance’ in New Termina is the retooling of the Bomber’s Notebook. There are other, less-pervasive examples of the same concept – Tatl keeping track of the number of eggs remaining in the Pirates’ Fortress; Shiro being relocated from Ikana Canyon to the Pirates’ Fortress, the one place in which his Stone Mask is useful – but the Notebook serves as an excellent representative case of this change in game dynamics, and it is this case that I will therefore examine closely in this section.
In “Majora’s Mask,” it was possible to complete the game without ever acquiring this Notebook, which the Bomber children in Clock Town use to keep track of people, events, schedules, and the various problems in Termina. In fact, the player actually has to go out of his way in order to acquire it: the only interaction with the Bombers necessary to the completion of the game is earning their favor during the very first of Termina’s three-day cycles in order to gain access to the Observatory; however, because Link is trapped in his Deku form at the time, the Bombers only make him an “honorary member” of their club, and do not give him a Notebook. If the player wishes to acquire the Notebook, then he must go through the motions to gain the Bomber’s trust again in a later timeline, when he has access to Link’s original Hylian form – only then will the Bombers make Link a proper member, giving him a Notebook that keeps track of all the various “moving parts” of Termina as he discovers them.
In New Termina, a Bomber’s Notebook is instead thrust upon Link and the player by the Happy Mask Salesman, who gives it to Link after teaching him the Song of Healing. The result is that every new event, person, and problem that Link encounters is catalogued in the Notebook by default, gradually sketching a temporal map of New Termina as the player encounters each of its moving pieces. Moreover, the Notebook has a new alarm feature, allowing the player to set reminders of events that have been recorded in the Notebook, so as not to miss them. This changes the tenor of the player’s engagement with the world’s game, from one of trial-and-error discovery in Termina to one of time management and procedural following-of-instructions in New Termina. If there are incomplete chains of events in the Notebook, then the player can follow each of the already-catalogued events in the chain and easy fill in the blanks; this is analogous to players running over every pixel of areas in a game where maps fill themselves in based on precisely where the player’s avatar has been.
One might object that this is not a true change in the overall tenor of the game, since the Bomber’s Notebook was available to the player in the original “Majora’s Mask” as well, where it served a similar function; but availability is not the point. The fact that it is merely available in Termina reinforces the claim that the player’s path through “Majora” is one of unaided discovery: the very mechanism that allows the player to better track events in the world of Termina must first be acquired by the player understanding and manipulating events in Termina, thereby completing an optional series of events. On the other hand, the fact that the Notebook is imposed upon the player as he begins his journey in New Termina reflects that the world of “Majora’s Mask 3D” is more concerned with the player’s experience of traversing the events of Termina than it is with the player’s experience of discovering these events for himself. What was previously optional assistance is now embedded into the basic framework of how the player interfaces with the game’s world, which is ultimately what makes this difference in the two games foundational in nature.
The general tonal shift of New Termina in favor of Link is both subtler and more significant than the imposition of guidance mechanisms such as the Notebook: in effect, it changes the status of Link’s journey from one of a stranger who, against expectations, struggles to save an apocalyptic world, to one of a hero who is expected to save an apocalyptic world.
In analyzing “Majora’s Mask,” one of the ways in which I argued the game was a response to “Ocarina of Time” was that it presented a “hero” who, unlike the Link of “Ocarina,” was not destined to save the world, was thought unlikely to be able to save the world, and whose ultimate act of “saving the world” was undercut by a metaphysics that suggested he could not actually save the totality of Termina in a satisfactory way. Where the Kaepora Gaebora of “Ocarina” was the veritable arbiter of Link’s destiny, the Kaepora Gaebora of “Majora” is skeptical that Link is at all capable of changing the apocalyptic fate of the world. The rest of Termina recapitulated this attitude: whereas the Link of “Ocarina” had the support of Navi, the Sages, the Deku Tree, et al., the Link of “Majora” has Tatl, who virtually always resents him, a skeptical owl, and four Giants who have been sealed away by the corruption of Majora. Part of what makes “Majora’s Mask” so thematically neat is that both Link and Skull Kid are forced to confront isolation from friends.
In contrast the world of New Termina has a degree of faith in Link that is conspicuously absent from Termina. The seahorse that guides Zora Link to the pit of sea snakes in the Great Bay offers what is effectively polite cheerleading once they arrive there, saying, “No rush or anything, but I can’t wait for you to defeat those nasty sea snakes and save my friend. I believe in you, buddy!” When Link awakens Captain Keeta in Termina, Keeta immediately turns around and begins his ascent of the hill behind him; when Link awakens Captain Keeta in New Termina, Keeta instead speaks to Link before moving, saying to him, “Young swordsman! You summoned me? Ah, but before we may exchange words, I must first test your skill.” The text that prompts Link to challenge a boss again after already defeating it in a dungeon has been changed to “Enter that I may witness thy power once more.” It is easy to write off a tonal shift such as this by merely saying that it serves to render the game more inviting and accessible, particularly to children; however, even though that may well have been why these changes were made in New Termina, this has no bearing on the ways in which they change Link’s status within the game’s world. Link and the player face less adversity and find more encouragement on their journey, which makes the relationship between Link and Skull Kid asymmetric: Skull Kid is alone in his machinations, whereas many people willingly help and encourage Link, reinforcing his status as someone who can and will save the world.
In isolation, the imposed guidance and encouragement of Link in New Termina suggest that Link actually is a chosen hero like the Link of “Ocarina of Time”; yet we have also seen that the metaphysics of New Termina devalue Link, shifting the locus of importance to the player. Given this, I think the most plausible implication to draw from imposed guidance and encouragement is not that Link in particular was chosen as a hero, but rather that the player in particular is implied as a special hero meant to save Termina. I have already said that Link serves as more of a mere conduit for the player than a character in New Termina; when one reflects on the types of guidance and encouragement offered in the game, it seems that the game is actually availing itself of Link’s status as a conduit in order to guide and motivate the player. The Bomber’s Notebook is a piece of user interface that serves to make the game more manageable for the player; encouragement conceptually serves to motivate action, and it is the player that is the source of Link’s agency, the component of him that is capable of direct action. So, where the metaphysics of New Termina serve to emphasize the importance of the player in the world of the game, imposed guidance and encouragement primarily serve to reframe the narrative as one describing the player’s eventual success in ostensibly saving New Termina, rather than a narrative of Link and the player uncovering the puzzle of an alien world and struggling against its fate. But can the player save New Termina? And against what sort of villain does he fight in this new world?
III. Will Majora ever be a memory? Revising the scope of the player’s enemy.
In my article about the pathos of Skull Kid in “Majora’s Mask,” I loosely compared Skull Kid to Sephiroth of “Final Fantasy VII,” noting that both are architects of apocalyptic plots and are largely absent from game events until the final confrontation – not to mention the fact that both have a penchant for hurling giant space debris at their respective world. Now, I wish to establish a more precise analogy between Sephiroth and Majora in order to show that “Majora’s Mask 3D” alters the ontology of Majora in a way that makes the player immune to the influence of the antagonist. (Note: as avid gamers will recognize, a similar argument to the following can be mounted using Xehanort of “Kingdom Hearts” in place of Sephiroth/Jenova. While such an analogy is interesting for its own reasons, I bracket it in this article for the sake of simplicity. Also for the sake of simplicity, the gloss of “Final Fantasy VII” events is rough, but will suffice for the task at hand.)
Besides being a largely absent archvillain, Sephiroth is known for existing in the shadows of everyone around him, like a latent virus, through the influence of the alien Jenova’s cells. The entire plot of “Advent Children” turns on three derivative manifestations of Sephiroth’s spirit ultimately bringing about his reconstitution; but, more to the point, Cloud himself – the major protagonist of “Final Fantasy VII” – is also “part-Sephiroth,” possessing cells of the alien Jenova, just like Sephiroth. This means that the villain against whom Cloud constantly struggles is, at the same time, a seemingly inexorable part of himself. So, when a fading Sephiroth in “Advent Children” tells the victorious Cloud “I will never be a memory,” a plausible interpretation of his words is that Cloud cannot truly eradicate Sephiroth due to Jenova — and, by extension, Sephiroth — being part of Cloud.
There is a possible interpretation of Majora that loosely mirrors these dynamics of Sephiroth, Cloud, and Jenova. As I have previously remarked, Majora simpliciter never appears in “Majora’s Mask”; rather, he is manifested through various derivative forms—Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath. Majora is shown in the game only through his various influences and extensions, up to and including the four bosses in the game. Majora sealed Termina’s Giants within cursed masks, leaving Link with the task of liberating them. The player will recall, too, that the game begins by Skull Kid using the powers of Majora’s Mask to curse Link, sealing him within his Deku Scrub form; in this way, the plight of Link at the beginning of the game of analogous to that of the Giants, and he must save himself before he can save any of them.
Insofar, then, as Majora only exists in the game by virtue of his various derivative manifestations, it seems possible to mount the argument that Link has been corrupted and influenced by Majora as much as the Giants have; and although all of them can be healed, we know that remnants of this corruption remains through masks and boss remains. Following this line of reasoning, we might well say that Link, once-corrupted by Majora, is partly responsible for maintaining Majora’s influence within Termina. More importantly, given that the player’s agency constitutes Link’s capacity to act, this argument implies that the player, by virtue of connection to Link, is also connected to the influence of Majora.
I should point out that I find the overall utility of this interpretation to be limited because, as I have said before in my analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” I find it most plausible that Majora as an entity is only the source of evil within the externally-imposed moral universe of the game. However, I see no compelling reason to dismiss this interpretation, and it does have some interesting consequences. For example: if, as I have theorized, the player of “Majora’s Mask” has the authority to determine the moral universe of Termina, then this argument demands that the player must ascribe whatever moral value he places on Majora (if any) on himself to some degree as well, on pain of inconsistency. If this argument is taken seriously, then the player cannot consistently define Majora as evil and himself as entirely good. To put it tritely, so long as Link and the player exist, Majora will never be a memory.
Enter “Majora’s Mask 3D.” One of the most readily noticeable and well-advertised new features of the game is that each boss was redesigned to bear an eyeball in the same style as Majora’s Mask, which Link must destroy in order to defeat the boss. Certainly, this retooling of the bosses changes the mechanics of the boss fights; however, I believe that it also modifies the ontology of Majora within New Termina by effectively blocking the above argument that Link and the player are “part-Majora.”
What makes the part-Majora argument compelling is, in large part, the fact that Skull Kid seems to use the same cursing mechanism on Link and the four Giants of Termina; given sameness of mechanism, it is a plausible move to infer that Link and the Giants are influenced in similar ontological ways. Yet it seems wrong to draw the same inference in New Termina because the corruption of the Giants is very clearly represented by their “Majoran Eyes,” and Link, though cursed by Skull Kid, never bears any such eye. We have seen from prior analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” as is intuitive from merely playing the game, that Majoran Eyes are not necessary to conclude that the cursed Giants are extensions of Majora; however, when their status as extensions is instead explicated by such Eyes, we must revise our standards for what it means for something to be an extension of Majora. Given that Link lacks such an eye, it is not reasonable to assume that he is part-Majora in New Termina; by extension, it is not reasonable to assume that the player is under the influence of Majora.
This reformulation of bosses ends up as an ontologically rigorous way of reinforcing the world of New Termina being “on the player’s side,” as I discussed in the last section. With Link no longer conceptually bound to Majora, there is no pain of inconsistency to preclude the player from ascribing evil to Majora and pure goodness to himself. With the scope of Majora’s manifestations reduced to the cursed Giants and Majora’s Forms, Link’s capacity for heroism is less ambiguous: the game’s guidance and support suggests that Link can save the world, and the ontological status of the story’s villain echoes that sentiment.
Conclusion: On Player Experience
Despite “Majora’s Mask” and “Majora’s Mask 3D” being obviously similar in most content, their worlds are irreducibly different, as I have indicated by referring to the former as ‘Termina’ and the latter as ‘New Termina’. While this analysis is not exhaustive with respect to interesting changes in “Majora’s Mask 3D,” it articulates what I see as a consistent re-theming of the game: ‘you’ – that is, the particular player of “Majora’s Mask 3D” – are a hero meant to save the world, and you are capable of doing so. No longer the stranger struggling against Sisyphean odds in Termina, you are now the lynchpin in telling the story of New Termina’s salvation and purification.
Yet, as I said, much of the game remains the same. I see no changes that block the most central parts of my analyses of the original game: moral artifice, the player as a metaphysical and metaethical authority, and the ultimate futility of saving the inherently apocalyptic Termina are all still valid. Indeed, perhaps the most haunting addition to the game is the echo of the Happy Mask Salesman’s laugh following the game’s “The End” screen, which I believe reinforces my theories about both his metaphysical authority and the nihilism of Link’s quest: it is the Salesman who presides over the ostensible end of the game, and whose laugh implies, as I have argued previously, that the battle to save Termina never truly terminates.
What, then, are we to do with the seeming positivity of “Majora’s Mask 3D” in the face of the same haunting implications as its predecessor? I submit that the overall bent of the game, in keeping with the above analysis, is much more focused on player phenomenology than on the universe of the video game itself. That is to say, even if Majora cannot be destroyed in an absolute sense, and even if Termina will always persist as apocalyptic, the player can still have the experience of ‘being victorious’, by which I mean defeating the game’s final boss and completing all side quests. It is this sense of player victory that is augmented by the above-listed modifications in New Termina; given this new approach to the game, we might even say that the persistence of Termina beyond the end of the game is less metaphysically pernicious and more of a friendly, metaphysically substantive invitation for the player to return to the game and replay it later. “Majora’s Mask 3D,” in sum, is a game that espouses the importance of player experience in every sense: here more than any prior “Zelda” game, Link “links” the world of the game to the player, rather than linking the player to the world of the game.
If you’ve been following E3 or care one iota about “Final Fantasy” or gaming, then you have probably already seen the following video that Sony released at the expo.
Now, it’s not standard protocol at With a Terrible Fate to post reactions to current news, as it were — but fans will know that exceptions have been made in the past for exceptional circumstances. A remake of “Final Fantasy VII” qualifies in that regard.
There are many things I could say and will say about the game in due time. In many ways, dated as it now is (yes, it was released in 1997), it marks the pinnacle of role-playing video games as traditionally conceived. For now, I will dwell only on one point, which, although it has yet to formally appear on the site, has tacitly informed a lot of my work thus far: namely, I believe that key aspects of “Majora’s Mask” stand on the back of “Final Fantasy VII” and its groundbreaking work in the medium.
There’s a pretty well-known theory about “Majora’s Mask,” far afield from my own work on the game, that describes Termina as the various stages of grief: Clock Town is denial, Woodfall is anger, Snowhead is bargaining, Great Bay is depression, and Ikana Canyon is acceptance. The idea is that Link has actually died chasing Skull Kid in the woods prior to entering “Termina,” and Termina is actually Link coming to terms with his own death. It’s an interesting notion, and I won’t go out of my way to respond to it here. What’s important to note is that it turns on the entire world of Termina manifesting as a personal journey for Link. And in this way, it is rather similar to my own analysis of the game — for I, too, conclude that Termina as a world is constituted by the act of Link encountering it. The physics of Termina seem to demand that the world be understood as some sort of representational content that is generated by Link, as an agent.
Why does this matter to “FFVII”? Well, buried deep inside an epic saga spanning an entire world, a Meteor, and a cast of characters featuring one wing, one arm-gun, and a red lion, there’s one small section that ensnares the player and subverts their concept of the kind of world in which a game is embedded. After Ultimate Weapon attacks the town of Mideel in the game, main characters Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart are thrown into the Lifestream — the lifeblood of the world, from whence all life came and to which it is ultimately returned. When this happens, Tifa finds herself within a surreal world, which turns out to be the Cloud’s subconscious. Rendered mentally unstable by experimentation (experiments which were a part of the Jenova Project), Cloud’s very identity has fractured into pieces, seemingly beyond repair. At this point, the player takes control of Tifa, and the entire focus of the game shifts: instead of saving the world and stopping Sephiroth’s rampage of destruction, your goal is merely to put the pieces of Cloud back together again.
This is by no means what “FFVII” is most remembered for, nor is it what it does best. But it is a single example of how you can turn the game over and over in your hands and always find the light catching some new marvel that you never noticed before. The game manages to convert its themes of mass destruction, threat of persecution, and threat of nihilism into the microcosm of a single person’s psychology. Inside of Cloud’s mind, with the specter of an unconscious Cloud floating in the background of the world, all the weight of a Final-Fantasy-level mission is hoisted onto a single girl with the singular goal of helping her friend not lose his mind. There is no real combat to speak of; every path through Cloud’s mind is a different piece of his past, which together reconstitute the truth about how he became the vestige of a person that he now takes to be an identity.
Does that remind you of anyone else — one, perhaps, who wears a little green cap?
Whether or not you take seriously a model of Termina as literally psychological, it’s fairly apparent that it’s at least susceptible to that interpretation. And prior to that kind of claim, it’s clear that the universe of “Majora’s Mask” is hugely concerned with questions of identity and healing broken psyches.
The architecture of Termina: in the center is a town full of people with seemingly hopeless problems, and a desperate, lonely child — Skull Kid. Skull Kid can only be saved by the player traveling to every corner of Termina, learning the history of the people there, healing the souls of fallen heroes, and liberating tormented giants from the cursed masks that sealed them away. By bringing those giants to the center of the world, Majora’s Mask can be stopped — Termina can be saved from falling apart.
The architecture of Cloud’s subconscious: in the center is Cloud — unconscious, his sense of self broken. Cloud can only be saved by the player traveling to every corner of his subconscious, learning the history of Cloud’s past there, and restoring every fractured piece of Cloud that is found in these locations. By bringing those pieces to the center of the world, Cloud’s breakdown can be stopped — he can be saved from falling apart.
I would certainly not claim that “Final Fantasy VII” was the first piece of literature to explore notions of the subconscious, nor is it necessarily the case that Aonuma &co explicitly looked to it when developing “Majora’s Mask.” But if nothing else, Cloud’s subconscious gave us the basis for understanding and approaching games as explorations and analyses of psychology and identity, rather than as mere ‘alternate worlds’. If the idea seems done-to-death now, I would offer that this is at least partly due to how strikingly well Square did it in the first place. Needless to say, I eagerly anticipate how they handle the world of Cloud’s mind in the remake to come.