From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask

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.

skull-kid-and-moon

“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.)

triforce

The Triforce.

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.)

Happy Mask Salesman entreating Link

The Salesman sets you on a fetch quest.

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!

The Salesman Encourages Link

The Salesman encourages Link and the player.

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.

Majoras Wrath

The final confrontation against Majora’s Forms.

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.

Fierce Deity's Mask

Link receiving the Fierce Deity’s Mask.

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.

MikausGrave

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. 

Link falling through time

Link bringing about a new timeline in Termina.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Kaepora Gaebora in Woodfall

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.

"Majora's Mask"

“YOU DIED”: despair and transcendence in “Dark Souls.”

Music fades away as you jog down an innocuous hallway.  You chart a mental map of your surroundings, and check your inventory to see how much insurance you packed to help you survive.  You reach the end of the hallway, and round the corner.  There is a doorway and a white light.  You traverse the light.  A moment passes; another; then you are left with two celebratory words printed across the screen.

You Died

Welcome to “Dark Souls,” a world where no one holds your hand except to break your fingers.  If you’ve played this punisher of a game, then you know that it takes the sentiment of “meeting with a terrible fate” to a whole new level.  In PvP (‘player-versus-player’), your peers unite to kill you, seeing that you die even more frequently.  And every inch of progress made comes with the quiet threat of being lost with your next death.

Today, the one meeting With a Terrible Fate is “Dark Souls.”

Like I did with “Xenoblade Chronicles,” I’m going to bracket a lot of the broader game culture in analyzing “Dark Souls.”  From “praising the sun” to “trolling fellow players,” this game has had a substantial impact on the gaming climate at large.  While this is certainly worthwhile to discuss, I’m more interested in understanding the fundamentals of what makes “Dark Souls” so frustrating and alluring at the same time.  To that end, the argument I defend in this article is as follows:  “Dark Souls” is a piece of art that is functionally mimetic of real life, while simultaneously maintaining the pretense of being a non-realistic video game.  Furthermore, I posit that this thesis is the ultimate explanation both for why “Dark Souls” is so frustrating, as well as why it can be so rewarding.  The argument goes in three parts:  firstly, I examine the metaphysics of “Dark Souls” in comparison to my model of metaphysics in “Majora’s Mask”; secondly, I offer a means of understanding the role of narrative difficulty in “Dark Souls” by comparing it to James Joyce’s notorious Ulysses; lastly, I explain how dynamical nihilism and transcendentalism emerges from the experience of playing “Dark Souls.”  (Please note also:  this article only aims to analyze the actual game “Dark Souls,” as opposed to the entire series of which it is a member.)

I.  Metaphysics

Link falling through timeThe "Dark Souls" bonfire

We don’t need to dive too deeply into “Majora’s Mask” theory to get the point that’s useful for “Dark Souls.”  Recall merely that Link is able to instantiate new timelines of Termina by playing the Song of Time, and that, together with the extension of player agency through Link, it follows that the player has the authority to direct the reality of Termina in relation to the shape of these timelines.  So the universe is iterative by virtue of it being in constant decay, but the authority in choosing when to instantiate each iterant of Termina and how to shape those iterations is vested in the player.

In Dark Souls, the universe is not locally in flux, as is the case in “Majora’s Mask.”  It is true that the narrative of the game takes place at a point when the world of Lordran is at a crossroads, when the Flame of the First Kiln, the primordial fire lighting the world, is weak; but the world is stable over the course of narrative, with its only potential change happening at the endgame (more on this later).  The result is that the player and her character are dropped into a world that is substantively stable, unlike Termina; rather, in “Dark Souls,” it is the player’s character who is substantively unstable.

The player’s character is tethered to the reality of Lordran by the curse of the Darksign, which renders him deathless and causes him to respawn at the last bonfire he has found whenever he is killed.  This mechanism leads to each death being narratologically significant, unlike the majority of games which merely “reset” each time a player dies, not counting the death as relevant to the progression of the narrative.  So while both “Majora’s Mask” and “Dark Souls” tell a narrative in which the player’s relation to the universe is fundamentally iterative, the locus of iteration is drastically different in each case:  Termina’s iterations depend on Link, whereas, in “Dark Souls”, the iterations of the player depend on the world’s metaphysical structure.

II.  Difficulty

Recovering lost powerThe difference in iterative locus might be interesting in a vacuum, but what makes it experientially crucial is its relation to the game’s stance on difficulty.  Of course, it’s trivial to say merely that “Dark Souls” is an exceptionally trying video game, so I will be more precise with what I mean.

The “universal currency” of “Dark Souls,” as it were, is souls, which the player’s character reaps from corpses and enemies, and which can be used both to purchase items and to develop through the process of ‘leveling up’.  In this way, souls unify the game concepts of currency and experience.  But the fact that death counts in “Dark Souls” adds a caveat to the mechanism of soul collecting:  whenever the player’s character dies, the total number of souls he was carrying is left as a pulsating green mass wherever the death occurred.  The player then respawns at the last bonfire rested at.  If the player can make it back to the point of prior death, then she can collect the lost souls and “recover”; however, if she dies again before reaching that point, then those souls are lost forever.

How does this set “Dark Souls” apart from other games?  Well, one of the clearest metrics in my mind of what’s vaguely termed “game accessibility” is how a video game ascribes worth to the time someone spends playing it.  For an example of what I mean, let’s return to my last analytic subject, “Xenoblade”:  if one is traveling through the world, accruing money and experience, and is suddenly cut down by a powerful enemy, then one will respawn at a point which is proximate but prior to where the fatal encounter occurred.  When one respawns in this way, all of the money and experience gained up to the very point of death is carried over to the respawn — and, if one dies again prior to the point of the first death, then that experience and money still remains.  In this way, even if one dies in the game, the time one spent on the game leading up to that death is still worthwhile insofar as it served to advance the experience and funds of Shulk and his party.

Return now to “Dark Souls.”  Suppose the same set of circumstances:  the player advances through the world, amassing souls, and is then cut down.  All the souls that the player was carrying at the time of death are separated from the player, and left at the point of death.  The player returns to the last bonfire rested at.  Suppose, now, that the player is killed before reaching the remains from the last death.  The player returns to the same bonfire, and all souls acquired from the first leg of her adventure are lost.  By returning to the same bonfire, no physical progress has been made through the game’s world; by losing the souls, no intangible value has been accrued.  Now, one still might have acquired weaponry over the course of this endeavor, which would carry over, and ostensibly the player has hopefully learned something by the series of deaths; yet the potential loss of souls, relative to other games, implies to me that the game constantly puts the player under the threat of meaninglessness.  The reason that loss of souls feels so devastating is that the fundamentals of the game conceptually link loss of souls to rendering your interaction with the game worthless.  “Dark Souls” directly imposes the nihilism of its world on the world of the player, because every death could ultimately render huge spans of time spent on the game devoid of result.  (It’s worth noting, too, the fact that “souls” are what’s being lost, adding to the narrative of life being rendered meaningless every time you fail.)

If the game wasn’t difficult in terms of enemies and level design, then this theoretical obstacle wouldn’t be an issue in practice — but the game goes out of its way to introduce enemies in novel ways, surprise the player with obstacles, and, in short, make it a merciless trial to progress a single time, let alone to recover lost souls after a death.  The game takes the quality of unforgiving difficulty as a virtue, not unlike Joyce famously did with respect to Ulysses.  Although the analogy is imperfect, the cases of Ulysses and “Dark Souls” share features which help shed light on what’s at work in the game’s narrative.  The difficulty in Ulysses, I submit, is a result of presenting a narrative as streams of consciousness and starting those streams in media res:  the characters of the novel make sense of events in their consciousness by reference to the prior contents of their consciousness, but since we as readers are not privy to their minds prior to the start of the narrative, we must depend only on the overlap of our knowledge base with the characters’ knowledge base in order to understand their thought process (and, by extension, to understand the narrative).  So, when Joyce throws us inside the mind of an intellectual and begins a chapter by alluding to Aristotelian philosophy (Proteus, viz. line 4), he gives us no explanation of the reference or its purpose beyond that which our own prior knowledge allows us to interpolate.  This particular sort of unforgiving textual barrier to entry underpins the difficulty at play in Joyce’s concept of the aesthetic.

What of “Dark Souls”?  In the case of Ulysses, the reader is at a loss to derive meaning from the text if she does not understand the reference which are rendered difficult by virtue of the narrative design (i.e., the stream-of-consciousness formula); just so, even though the world of Lordran is metaphysically constant, the player is unable to derive any meaning from it if she does not understand how to negotiate its unapologetically difficult architecture with respect to enemies and level design.  In both cases, the form of the narrative intentionally interposes itself as a barrier to the reader deriving value — the “casual gamer,” I argue, is just as lost in “Dark Souls” as the “casual reader” is in Ulysses.

III.  Nihilism and Transcendentalism

Dark Souls title screen

At this point, we have a problem.  It’s easy to say that we play games because we enjoy playing them — in fact, under most circumstances, such a statement seems trivially true.  But “Dark Souls” is a game that, by the fundamental architecture of its world, threatens the player with no return on huge amounts of time invested.  The game, in the sense we’ve been discussing, is designed to make you fail at every turn.  So the question of why someone would play a game, so trivial in the case of most games, is crucial to any hope of understanding “Dark Souls.”  Why, given the analysis I’ve offered, would anyone willingly play this game?

People have said that the game succeeds because it represents the learning process; I think this is misguided and does not do justice to the aesthetics of the game.  Any game, by virtue of allowing a player to retry after dying, facilitates learning; that’s an interesting feature of video games, but certainly not peculiar to “Dark Souls.”  I do ultimately contend, as I said at the outset, that “Dark Souls” represents life, but not with merely with respect to learning:  rather, I think that what keeps people engaged with “Dark Souls” is that the threat of meaninglessness comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity for transcendence.  There are three ways I conceive of this, which I present in turn:  flow states; the aesthetic of struggling; and the decision point presented to the player at the endgame.

If you’ve played “Dark Souls,” you probably know the feeling that comes with inexplicably making an atypically large amount of progress without dying:  you enter, in transcendentalist terms, a ‘flow state’, in which you’re not passively experiencing the game but actively thinking and operating in a way that is perfectly in synch with it.  On the level of theory, this makes sense:  in this world where your existence is constantly in danger of being rendered null and void, a stretch of not dying is identical to establishing a pattern of meaningful existence within the world.  Not dying in “Dark Souls” means substantively more than it does in other video games, precisely because it allows your time to be valuable in a way of which dying would deprive it.  Of course, one death will send the player crashing back to the game’s harsh reality — but memories of the ephemeral state will persist as a guiding force in the game’s narrative.  After my first of this sort of experiences within the game, I was significantly more motivated to pursue progressing through the game, regardless of its difficulty level.

But of course, flow states do not always obtain, and this is where the aesthetic of despair enters into the equation.  The game establishes value metrics of souls, experience, and currency; then, it introduces a mechanic that takes all of these away from you again and again.  If you cannot rely on the metrics of meaning stipulated by the game, then what meaning can you give to your actions within the game?  This is an open question, and that’s the point:  the actual exercise imposed upon by the game upon the player is to derive meaning from the game independent of the game’s own system.  You will despair at losing souls forever, souls which it may have taken a large amount of time to amass; but that despair creates the hermeneutic space for the player to critically consider what meaning they find in the process of the game.  Maybe they recognize that their ultimate motivation is merely getting to the credits at the end; maybe they recognize that they don’t want a game that imposes this flavor of nihilism, and so they simply turn it off and walk away; maybe they accept that the struggle is of itself a valuable enterprise, if only to learn how to fail.  Regardless of the specific answer, the relevant aspect of transcendence is that the player is urged to move beyond the game’s own concept of value — because that value is beaten out of the player every time they walk through a white light and die once more.

Gwyn, Lord of Cinder

And lastly, there is Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, who sacrificed himself to kindle the Flame of the First Kiln, bringing fire to Lordran.  It is he who waits to be killed by the player at the end of the story, at the First Kiln itself:  he must be slain for the player to earn the right to choose the world’s fate.  After killing Gwyn, you can either sacrifice yourself to rekindle the Flame and let light persist in the world in a new Age of Fire; or, you can let the Flame die, and usher in darkness, ruling over the world in the Age of Darkness.  Either way, the game immediately prompts you to begin a ‘New Game +’, which is a new cycle of the world with stronger enemies, leading back to Gwyn and the same choice point.

This is the music that plays when you face Gwyn in the First Kiln.  Consistent with the sparse narrative explication of the rest of the game, there is no cutscene, nor any dialogue:  the player enters the First Kiln, the score starts, and Gwyn attacks.  What is inconsistent with the rest of the game is the haunting melody, solely on piano, seemingly out-of-joint with everything one expects of a video game’s climax — and all the more so for a game as unapologetic as “Dark Souls.”  The music compels you to stop and consider the implications of what is going on; yet this is precisely the moment at which such contemplation is impossible, for Gwyn is hurling fire at you, and a single misstep will lead to the alert that “YOU DIED.”  But from a safe distance, at the end of our analysis, we can see what makes this incongruity so salient.

I once characterized the entropy of “Majora’s Mask” as pernicious, and I contend that a similar aesthetic is at play here.  After being thrown through the gauntlet of a merciless, minimally explained world, the player is offered a choice of how to reshape it — a choice, seemingly, that puts the universe’s design in the hands of the player at last.  Yet regardless of choice, the game has an immediate next-step:  the New Game +, representing the next cycle of the world.  Gwyn represents that even the very shaper of the universe, who might be framed as its architect or decider, must ultimately die and be killed; like Termina persists in three-day cycles even after the credits, Lordran continues in ages of light, darkness, and killing Gwyn — always at the end, the player kills the being responsible for instantiating the current age.  What the killing of Gwyn and the choice point at the First Kiln do is initiate the player into the meaninglessness of the universe on a metaphysically deeper, architectural scale:  rather than being a mere victim of nihilism, the player participates in instigating it.  Perhaps the cycle of death and suffering would end if the player chooses to extinguish the flame; but the reality of the game refuses to acknowledge this possibility, throwing the player back into the fray immediately after such a choice is made.

Yet regardless of all this, the player must choose in order to complete the game.  And to be able to exercise a meaningful choice in the face of nihilism is, on my interpretation, the innermost conception of transcendence.  What reason, justification, or teleology can you give to picking one ending or the other?  Yet you cannot say you chose at random, for it would no longer seem that such an act is a choice at all.  So it seems to me that the player must accept that the choice, in spite of ostensibly molding the world for a moment, will ultimately not matter in the grand scheme of cycles of the universe; yet at the same time, she must ultimately say, “I saw the world for how I would prefer it, and chose this path to assert my preference — even if that choice will someday be washed away, I will still have chosen it.”

Black Knight

At first glance, the dropping of souls and the counting of deaths seem like novel game mechanics, offering players a novel way to experience a video game.  This was very much the lure for me when I first picked up the game.  Yet spend some time in Lordran, and you come to see that the functionality of the narrative rebukes everything we have come to expect of a video game’s form.  Rather, when you peel away the artifice of “Dark Souls” being a novel video game, I think that what you find is a mimetic object closely resembling the experience of life.  Just as the player does in “Dark Souls,” so too must we wrestle with questions of how to locate meaning in a world that seems to ultimately be fleeting; so too must we wrestle with how to give value to decisions that will ultimately be buried under layers of other generations and history.  Beneath the reputation of the game is a mechanism that allows us to meaningfully meditate on our experience of the real world, and to find opportunities to transcend.  Ultimately, we will have to kill and become Gwyn — how shall we make our choice, when the Flame rests in our hands?

Line Analysis: “Wherever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow.”

In the first installment of Line Analysis, I offered an analysis for the words with which the Happy Mask Salesman invites Link into the world of Termina:  “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”  Now, I take players to the other “bookend line” of the game, so to speak, with which the Salesman bids Link goodbye and vanishes (quite literally) from the world.  After at last reclaiming Majora’s Mask (12:45 in the video), he says to Link:  “Oh… So the evil has left the mask after all… Well, now… I finally have it back.  Since I am in the midst of my travels… I must bid you farewell.  Shouldn’t you be returning home as well?  Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow.  However, that parting need not last forever… Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time… That is up to you.  With that, please excuse me… …But, my, you sure have managed to make quite a number of people happy.  The masks you have are filled with happiness.  This is truly a good happiness.”

In principle, my mode of analysis will take the same form as when I discussed “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”:  first assessing the speaker of the line; then the intended audience of the speaker’s words; then the relationship between speaker and audience; the content of the line itself; and, finally, a synthesis of all prior components.  However, since this moment shares some important features with the earlier-analyzed line — namely, that the Salesman is the speaker and Link is the spoken-to, I will be glossing over some argumentation that I have already done, linking to the relevant articles where necessary.

The payoff for this line, and the place it establishes for the player both within the context of Termina and beyond, might just be bigger than you expect.

The Salesman

Speaker

I quote from my previous line analysis:  “I analyzed the Happy Mask Salesman last time, and argued that he functions as an entity that is metaphysically adjacent to Termina, and is responsible for Link’s agency, Termina’s fatalism, and Termina’s moral artifice.  Not only is he generally crucial to the architecture of Termina, but he is also crucial to Link’s capacity to engage with Termina, both because of his teaching Link the Song of Healing and because of the motivational force of ascribed moral valence.  We might say, then, that the analysis describes the Salesman as a speaker who both creates the problem of Termina — that is, the plot of the game — and prompts Link to solve it — and, to put it another way, motivates the player to play the game.

Young Link

Audience

Recall that in my prior line analysis, I argued that the Salesman, in speaking to Link, speaks both to Link and to the player.  The major line of justification for this interpretation is that it explains the contingent nature of Termina as a closed system (read:  universe) by directly defining its existence in terms of the player’s choice to encounter it.  Because the Salesman, who serves as a metaphysical determinant of Termina, is again speaking to Link, it is fair to once again define his audience as ‘Link + player’.  It’s also worth noting that here, the Salesman speaks to Young Link, the agent, rather than Cursed Deku Link, who, as I have described previously, lacks agency.

Speaker-Audience Relationship

In the last analysis, I described a relationship in which the Salesman framed the quest and means by which Link and the player encounter Termina; I went so far as to remark that “it isn’t apparent that Link could enter Termina without encountering the Salesman.”  I think that at this juncture it will prove useful to say a word or two more about the relationship between the Happy Mask Salesman and the player.  The reader may ask herself:  “With a Terrible Fate, you said that the Happy Mask Salesman is not Termina’s God, but you also defined him as a metaphysically adjacent entity which is responsible for the brunt of Termina’s architecture.  How in the world is such a being not God?”

It’s a fair point, and one which I think is worth answering more directly, because the answer draws out what’s at stake in both the Salesman’s first words and his last words.  In my article analyzing the Salesman, I credited him for three specific dimensions of Termina:  the world’s definitional existential risk (i.e., Majora’s Mask, wielded by Skull Kid); Link’s intra-timeline agency, as facilitated by the Song of Healing; and the artifice of evil imposed upon Termina.  What I failed to underscore in this account of the Salesman is that he is a very specific facilitator of Link’s agency within Termina; so, although it is he who grants Link the degree of choice within the realm of Termina, it is not he who fundamentally is responsible for Link being an agent in the first place — that state of agency, as we have discussed before, is the result of Link serving as the conduit for the player to enter into the world.  It is the player whose agency external to the world of Termina is conveyed unto Link, rendering him an agent; the Salesman merely facilitates that agency within Termina.

In my own studies, I often like to work through conceptual models graphically.  To that end, and bearing in mind that I am by no means a visual artist, I offer a diagram of this model of Termina.

Metaphysical Model of Termina

Zoom-in of Link's mobility

Figure 1.1 describes the entire universe of Termina in terms of a 3-dimensional narratological space:  the z-axis describes the main plot of the game, such that Link moving further in the positive z direction signifies his advancing in the main plot (this happens by completing story events such as liberating a giant).  The (x,y)-plane describes what I call ‘available paths of exploration’, which really just refers to any action available to Link that does not advance the main plot (think of side quests, farming rupees, playing mini-games, etc.).  Each line segment in Figure 1.1 describes a single three-day timeline within Termina; such timelines can advance at any angle from a line that only changes in its z-coordinate (i.e., if Link were to do nothing for three days except for advancing the main plot) to a line that only changes in x and y coordinates (i.e., if Link were to take three days to only explore Termina in ways that did not at all advance the main plot).  The circles, highlighted in Figure 1.2, describe the total set of available vectors by which Link can move in the universe of Termina.  Ostensibly, Link has multiple vectors available to him almost all of the time, and so there is no reason for each Termina timeline to be a straight line instead of curved; I have only drawn the timelines as straight for simplicity’s sake.

If we consider Termina in terms of this three-space, then we can more precisely define the metaphysical roles played by the Salesman and the player.  I have said that the Salesman frames the main plot of the game and also that he serves to define the scope of Link’s agency within Termina; what this means is that he defines the upper z-bound of the universe (i.e., the course of its main plot) and that he enumerates the available vectors with which Link can proceed through the universe (i.e., Figure 1.2).

To test the limits of the Salesman’s role, suppose that Link entered Termina and met the Salesman, but lacked the agency afforded him by the player.  Theoretically, the entire main plot would still exist, and Link would still have all the paths described by the vectors of Figure 1.2 afforded him; yet this would only be a world of potentials and an apocalypse, because Link would lack the agency to pursue any of these vectors; more to the point, he would lack the capacity to play the Song of Time and instantiate any three-day cycles beyond the very first one.  There would be no conception of three-day cycles; instead, there would be only three days in Termina, followed by the apocalypse.

Now, let us turn to the player.  Certainly, the player, as the source of agency for Link the Avatar, is able to choose vectors and perpetuate the existence of the universe of Termina beyond three days; if you’ve been following my analysis, then this is nothing new.  But something else is apparent from this model, which refines my claim that the universe of the game “cedes authority to the player”:  suppose that the Salesman defines the outer bounds of Termina in the (x,y,z) directions all — now, it’s not apparent that he could define the x and y bounds, but it seems plausible that the shape of the rest of the universe might be subordinate to the main plot.  Either way, we will see in a moment that this is a technical point that can be worked out later, and is not presently crucial to analysis.

Like the vectors of movement which the Salesman affords Link, this universal bounds establish a domain of potential:  all possible timelines of Termina exist within the confines of these outermost limits.  Yet these bounds fail to, of themselves, establish any reality:  for the world of Termina, as I have said before, depends upon the player encountering it in order to exist.  The diagram shows us why:  the actual universe of Termina, as described by the total set of timelines undertaken by the player from the game’s inception to its conclusion, is represented by the chain of line segments traveled by Link in his exploration of Termina.  Link moving along these lines is only possible by his choosing which vectors by which to move.  Just a moment ago, I explained that choosing which vectors by which to move is dependent upon the agency conferred to Link by the player.  It follows that the player, in a very real sense, determines the actual universe of Termina.

I’m reluctant to say that this argument implies that the player is God.  What I would rather say is this:  even if the Salesman gives the player the metaphysical building block to work with, it is the player who ultimately creates the world of Termina, by entering into its narrative in the way described above.  So we might say something along the line of this:  the Salesman and the player are both demiurgic in nature, but the determining metaphysical authority is vested in the player.

Happy Mask Salesman

Line Content

That might have seemed like a long digression from the task at hand, but I think we will find that a precise definition of the Salesman-player relationship leads to an interpretation of the Salesman’s last words falling easily into place.

Firstly, we can describe the Salesman’s superficial meaning, if only to put it aside.  The Salesman, having recovered Majora’s Mask, notes that the source of evil within it (i.e., Majora) is gone, and prepares to leave.  He suggests that Link does the same, but advises him that saying ‘goodbye’ can always be taken as saying ‘until we meet again’, because we can always cross paths with those people we have left behind, if we desire to do so.  He admires Link’s masks as evidence that Link has made many people happy, and then departs, vanishing from the world.

Somewhat trite, but certainly touching.

Moving on, let’s superimpose the theses we’ve derived from analysis so far to see if we can glean more from the Salesman’s words.  I’m going to parse the Salesman’s little speech into three major sections:

1.  “Oh… So the evil has left the mask after all…”  We’ll look at this line in relation to the thesis of metaethical nihilism with which I’ve been working from early on, and in relation to the artifice of morality imposed by the Salesman on Termina.

2.  “Well, now… I finally have it back.  Since I am in the midst of my travels… I must bid you farewell.  Shouldn’t you be returning home as well?  Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow.  However, that parting need not last forever… Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time… That is up to you.  With that, please excuse me…”  This seems like a big section of text, but the brunt of it is a single theme:  encounters and departures.  We’ll approach this in particular using the metaphysical model articulated above.

3.  “But, my, you sure have managed to make quite a number of people happy.  The masks you have are filled with happiness.  This is truly a good happiness.”  This last section will return us to the realm of temporal afterimagery, and will raise some more questions of ethical justification.

Beginning with Section 1:  recall from Part III of my analysis of the Song of Healing that I argued for the artificial perception of evil within Termina originating from Majora.  I quote the relevant section:  “it is useful to think of ‘Majora’ [the entity] as identical to the game’s concept of evil.  Not only can this explain the Happy Mask Salesman’s description of the force of Majora’s Mask as simply ‘evil,’ but it also accounts for the superficial moral valence present throughout Termina… This conception of Majora has the additional benefit of framing the driving conflict of the game’s story as friction between the apparently moral and the actually amoral.  The artifice of evil, on my reading, is congruent to Majora’s Mask threatening Termina, a world in which, I have argued, morality does not exist.  This friction explains why the problems of Termina on a regional scale are presented as a loss of natural order… Just so, the instantiation of morality fundamentally clashes with the natural metaphysics of Termina, which is why the Happy Mask Salesman describes the endgame… [as] the removal of moral valence.”  As I said in that prior analysis, the expression that the “evil has left the mask” fits parsimoniously with a model of Majora as the nexus of artificially-perceived moral valence; once the perceived evil has been eradicated, the natural order of the amoral universe of Termina is restored.

But there’s something else going on in this section:  seeming surprise on the Salesman’s part.  He doesn’t say, for instance, “At last!  The mask has been purged of evil!” or “And so it has come to pass that you have saved this world from evil.”  He says instead, “Oh… So the evil has left the mask after all…”  He might even be read as sounding disappointed that the evil is gone, but this seems incongruous with our image of the Salesman as a neutral entity.  Thankfully, if we run with the idea of ‘surprise’, we yield a plausible interpretation that doesn’t depend on the Salesman somehow being evil.  Recall from the metaphysical analysis that the Salesman has no authority in perpetuating the universe of Termina beyond a single timeline — that is the domain of the player.  We also know that it takes more than three days to defeat Majora’s Forms.  So the Salesman could genuinely be surprised that the quest he defined by the artifice of evil has been completed, because that could only be the case as the result of a metaphysical entity other than himself — namely, the player.

On to Section 2:  this is the meat of the line — the most memorable portion, and also the portion most generalizable beyond the scope of “Majora’s Mask” as a particular game.  Thankfully, the metaphysical analysis gives us the tools to very quickly perform just such a generalization.  When the Salesman bids farewell and declares that he is on his way, he is concluding the universe as he defined it by the main quest z-axis.  Therefore, when he asks “Shouldn’t you be returning home as well?”, his words can be read as a direct indication to the player that it is time to withdraw from the game, agency and all, and move on to other worlds.  Yet this isn’t the entirety of his message:  “Whenever there is a meeting,” he adds, “a parting is sure to follow.  However, that parting need not last forever… Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time… That is up to you.”  Within the player-Salesman dialectic, it seems apparent that the ‘meeting’ can refer to the player’s encounter with the universe of the game; just as the player created the universe of Termina by encountering it, so too must she part with the universe whenever she exits the game.  Yet, as the Salesman says, the length of time spent away from that universe is left entirely to the discretion of the player on whose agency the universe depends.  In this way, a commentary on the metaphysical structure of Termina and its contingency on the player’s encounter is transposed into a claim about video games in general:  the Salesman, who architected Termina, asserts that this mechanism of the contingency of reality is true whenever there is a meeting between player and world, not merely in the case of Termina.  So in this small set of lines, the Salesman moves from acknowledging the player’s authority within Termina to acknowledging the player’s authority without Termina.

And then there’s Section 3:  beyond the purgation of evil, there is the Salesman’s commentary on happiness.  I’ve previously described the masks received and created by Link as temporal afterimages, vestiges of prior timelines which establish a degree of continuity across timelines.  The way in which the Salesman begins here — “But, my, you sure managed to make quite a number of people happy” — is another expression of surprise, perhaps in combination with admiration.  He describes these artifacts of timelines in which Link helped people as artifacts “filled with happiness”; but then, he goes even one step further to call it “truly a good happiness.”  Why so many modifiers, Mister Salesman?

Well, here’s one solution:  if we buy my analysis so far, it could be that the Happy Mask Salesman is tacitly acknowledging that he has lead Link and the player on by imposing an artifice of morality on their quest, because he distinguishes this “truly” moral instance from preceding moral instances.  He is complimenting Link for doing something genuinely good.  But how can this be?  In a metaethically nihilistic world, it isn’t readily apparent how the moral could worm its way back into the conversation.

Synthesis

Putting together all three sections of the speech here will help us to resolve this final tension.  The Salesman expresses surprise that a metaphysical entity other than himself was able to complete his fetch-quest, returning Majora’s Mask to him and eschewing the artifice of morality from Termina; from this surprise, he pivots and acknowledges the authority of the player in creating and collapsing universes; then, after suggesting it may be time for the player to return home, he pivots again and remarks on the artifacts of happiness collected by the player, calling that happiness ‘truly good’.

These masks of truly good happiness obtain beyond any single timeline of Termina, following Link even when he travels back to the Dawn of the First Day.  In this way, they transcend the literal world of Termina, and are capable of traveling through multiple iterations of the world while maintaining metaphysical constancy, similarly to the player.  It was by the agency of the player that these temporal afterimages were synthesized through the process of making citizens of Termina happy; and, in this moment, the Salesman is acknowledging that agency by effectively bowing to it.  Consider:  at the beginning of the narrative, the Salesman imposed a framework of morality on Link and the player, which the player took to be true, and which motivated the player to undertake the main quest of the game.  Now, the player’s use of agency has lead to realities — i.e., temporal afterimages — which the Salesman takes to be moral truths.  The player and the Salesman have fundamentally exchanged roles in terms of who gets to impose morality on Termina.  The continuation of the universe itself depends on the player — I have shown there are reasons why the universe is designed to persist beyond the seeming-conclusion of the game’s credits sequence, but it only persists in reality if the player chooses to continue playing it.  So in the moment of acknowledging the player’s metaphysical authority, the Salesman also poses an epistemic challenge to the player:  you are now in a position to determine what is perceived as ‘truly good’ in Termina; can you, in endless timelines of an apocalyptic, amoral world, impose moral goodness in such a way that chaos does not ensue?  For the time being, I leave this an open question for readers to consider.

“He was lonely”: the pathos of Skull Kid.

Throughout the course of “Majora’s Mask,” there are suggestions that Skull Kid deserves forgiveness.  When the fourth giant is liberated by Link in Stone Tower Temple, the giant tells Link and Tatl to “forgive [their] friend”; when Skull Kid is ultimately stopped, his fairy, Tael, tells Tatl (Tael’s sister) to not be “hard on the Skull Kid” because “he was lonely” and overcome by the power of Majora’s Mask.  Yet it is Skull Kid who leads Link into Termina, and who threatens Termina over its entire three-day cycle by pulling down the moon.  I previously analyzed Skull Kid peripherally in my discussion of why he cannot be healed with the Song of Healing; in this post, I broaden the scope to analyze what makes the Skull Kid who he is.  I approach this treatment by attempting to resolve the problem of Skull Kid’s pathos:  ought we to forgive the child who aims to destroy the world?

I haven’t yet talked about themes of subversion, but Skull Kid, like “Majora” more generally, is rife with subversive elements.  Skull Kid is the arch-villain without an agenda, a nexus of destruction that is at the same time no more than a child.  Like the ethical domain of the game, we want to be able to pin evilness on the chaotic Skull Kid, yet he seems at every juncture to defy this classification.  In the game, Skull Kid assumes the role of an absent villain:  one who, in spite of architecting the major conflict of the plot, is predominantly absent from the narrative until its ultimate climax.  This structure itself is fairly standard both within and without the field of video games — think Sephiroth from “Final Fantasy VII,” Smaug from The Hobbit, etc. — but Skull Kid is unlike many of the other arch-villains who wait at the end of quests.  Not only is Skull Kid the locus of conflict for the narrative, but he also causes the narrative in a nontrivial way by leading Link in chase into the perpetually-ending world of Termina — in this way, Skull Kid is the reason why Link is trapped in a world whose persistence is dependent on Skull Kid being stopped.

Link and the Moon Child

This last point is important because it allows us to understand Link’s quest as a game on another level.  From the beginning of this blog, I have described the morality of Termina as something put on as a game, as in the final confrontation between Majora’s Forms and the Fierce Deity; more recently, I have described the metaphysics of “Majora’s Mask” as ontologically reflecting the essence of video games’ aesthetic dependency on player agency.  But now a different form of play is afoot:  Skull Kid’s introduction of Link to the universe in which Skull Kid must be stopped can be understood as an invitation to play.  Just as Majora the Child invites Link to play “good guys against bad guys” on the moon, the Skull Kid pits Link against him on a universal level by leading him to Termina.  In this way, the plot of the game is itself a game.  This may seem trivial, yet it is difficult for me to conceive of Final Fantasy VII as a world in which Sephiroth uses Meteor to get Cloud to play with him.

The explanation of Skull Kid’s plot as a game he is playing with Link conforms to the model of Skull Kid’s perceived-evil being reducible to loneliness:  games impose the rules of play upon their participants, thereby creating a systematic relationship between the players.  Such a system eliminates the potential for isolation, and is therefore an ideal remedy for loneliness.  Just as Skull Kid and Majora’s Mask sealed the four giants away while at the same time seeking their friendship (see for evidence:  the giants’ desire for Link to forgive Skull Kid; the giants reconciling with Skull Kid after Majora’s defeat; and the presence of the four children symbolizing the sealed giants playing on the moon around Majora the Child), so too has Skull Kid sealed Link within Termina in order to engage in play with him.

Skull Kid at play also explains the endgame of “Majora”:  whereas Ganondorf is sealed away in isolation at the end of “Ocarina of Time,” the final image of “Majora” is a drawing of Skull Kid, Link, Tael, Tatl, and the four giants, together as friends.  As Skull Kid ultimately says, “friends are a nice thing to have,” and the game concludes with his loneliness ending.  Of course, this means we have to bite the bullet and accept that on this interpretation, Skull Kid actually “wins” in the end:  by getting Link to play through his game, he ends up making friends.  So, in spite of losing the game he set up, his goal is achieved.

Skull Kid bringing down the moon

We might take issue with an understanding of the game in which Skull Kid wins, and not only because of Termina’s artifice of morality.  Within the scope of the game, we might ask exactly why the Happy Mask Salesman must impose morality in order to prompt the player and Link to participate in Skull Kid’s game.  This also invites discussion outside the scope of the game:  can we assign moral culpability to children, and, if so, how are we to go about it?  The game asks difficult questions, but I think it also gives us the theoretical equipment to answer these questions.  I close by beginning to derive such answers.

First, consider morality within the scope of the game.  When I analyzed the Happy Mask Salesman, I described the moral imposition as motivational force hearkening back to “Ocarina of Time”; I think this line of reasoning is also useful in the current case.  How do you convince a player who has walked into a game assuming the role of a hero (Link) to undertake a game lacking the moral grounding with which to adequately define heroism?  Convince the player that the game is, in fact, a heroic quest.  Only later is it implied that the quest is morally groundless, as the play element is explicated in Majora the Child’s invitation to play good guys against bad guys.  This is actually another instance of subversion:  it is oftentimes the case that in playing games, we encounter moral structures (e.g., the good-and-evil of “Ocarina of Time”); yet in this case, Link engages a moral structure only to uncover that it is a game.  Subversion is useful for Skull Kid in this way because Skull Kid is trying to subvert his own self concept by making friends:  like the Song of Healing functioning as a transitional device between solitude and community, Skull Kid is seeking to transform his loneliness, something which is fundamental to his worldview.  Thus, Skull Kid, in his childhood state of mind, subverts the entire world around him in order to subvert his worldview.  This subversion is what draws both the player and Link in, and is what allows Skull Kid to “win.”

What about the moral question beyond the game, of morality with respect to childhood innocence?  Recall from my account of why Skull Kid cannot be healed that I described Skull Kid as ‘possessed’ by the moral valence of Majora, which is incoherent with the metaphysics of Termina.  We can reframe this account in terms of actions and intentions:  that is to say, there is a difference between the amoral desire of Skull Kid to not be alone (in our reframing, ‘intention’), and the moralized instrument of Majora and the power of the Mask (‘actions’).  I think this account demonstrates that it is useful to analyze and treat agents independently of the moral ramifications of their actions.  The reasoning is this:  playing a game with Skull Kid, instead of treating him as evil and extinguishing him, allows Link to become Skull Kid’s friend and effectively “heal” him without implementing the Song of Healing.  In a way similar to how the lack of Zelda allows a more human tapestry of princesses to emerge, the amoral level of discourse in the game is what allows Link to stop Skull Kid by befriending him, in a way that he would never be able to befriend Ganondorf, the Great King of Evil.  So a secondary moral thesis emerging from the metaethical thesis of “Majora’s Mask” could be stated as follows:  ‘it is pragmatic to analyze and address agents prior to moral analysis of the actions taken by said agents’.

Skull Kid as a Friend

The pathos of Skull Kid is that in spite of driving the entire plot of “Majora’s Mask” and constantly threatening the world’s existence, he never has to be seen as a villain — and, indeed, the salvation of both him and the world depends upon seeing him as a friend instead of a villain.  This is the crux of the game he plays:  it is not only an internally consistent instance of play, but it is a paradigm with which we can view the moralized structures of other narratives beyond the moral lens.  Perhaps Link could never befriend Ganondorf, but we may be able to understand even the most moral of conflicts better by viewing them as games prior to ethics.

Line Analysis: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”

The most iconic line of “Majora’s Mask” is the very first line spoken to Link by the Happy Mask Salesman upon Link’s arrival in Termina:  “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”  To many, this line alone captures the essence of what it means to play “Majora”; here, the Salesman succinctly sums up Link’s sudden encounter with a dark parallel world.  It’s one of the lines that leave a haunting impression on players long after the game has been put down.  It’s also the namesake of my present analytic endeavor.

In today’s article, I offer the first in a series of analyses focusing on particular lines of dialogue within “Majora’s Mask.”  I understand that, even for this project, such an enterprise might feel like over-analysis; however, I hope to convince readers to take a different perspective:  after a lot of heavy, theoretical work, we have the background analysis to examine lines such as “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” in an illuminating way, with a new perspective unique to our overarching theses.

I have a confession to make to readers before proceeding:  a significant portion of my theoretical approach over the past two months has been tacitly designed to provide the necessary machinery to examine this particular line of dialogue.  This is because, as I will argue, the line does actually encompass a tremendous amount of what it means to enter into the world of “Majora’s Mask”; and, it may just provide insight to the world beyond the game.  Before beginning analysis, I list the relevant theses I will be using, and where to find their first stipulation and defense.

1.  The world of Termina become reality by virtue of Link encountering it. [Discourse on death in Termina]

2.  There exists no substantive, metaphysical grounding for morality in Termina.  [The metaethical thesis of “Majora’s Mask”]

3.  There is an artificial perception of morality in Termina, focalized on Majora and catalyzed by the Happy Mask Salesman. [Argument for equating Majora with Termina’s concept of ‘evil’, analysis of the Happy Mask Salesman]

4.  Link’s journey in Termina reflects inter-timeline soft determinism and intra-timeline agency, and intra-timeline agency is unique to Link.  [Analysis of free will / determinism in Termina, revision of free will / determinism thesis]

5.  The Happy Mask Salesman is ontologically responsible for Link’s agency within Termina, because he gives him the ability to heal his Deku form.  [Analysis of Deku Link, analysis of the Happy Mask Salesman]

6.  “Majora’s Mask” is framed by an unreliable narrator.  [Third consequence of the theory of Garo as a marginalized race]

So much for background theses.  This is the form that my line analyses will take.  I will consider:  the speaker of the line; the intended audience of the speaker’s words; the relationship between speaker and audience; and the content of the line itself.  Lastly, I will synthesize these components to present an attempt at comprehensively explaining the line.

Happy Mask Salesman

Regarding the speaker:  I analyzed the Happy Mask Salesman last time, and argued that he functions as an entity that is metaphysically adjacent to Termina, and is responsible for Link’s agency, Termina’s fatalism, and Termina’s moral artifice.  Not only is he generally crucial to the architecture of Termina, but he is also crucial to Link’s capacity to engage with Termina, both because of his teaching Link the Song of Healing and because of the motivational force of ascribed moral valence.  We might say, then, that the analysis describes the Salesman as a speaker who both creates the problem of Termina — that is, the plot of the game — and prompts Link to solve it — and, to put it another way, motivates the player to play the game.

Deku Link

And who, exactly, is the audience of the Salesman’s words?  The obvious answer is ‘Link’, but I think that what I just said above should give us pause:  as we have discussed before, Link is less of a substantive character and more of an avatar that directly links the player to the universe of the game.  Combine this with the Salesman’s position adjacent to the general domain of Termina, and I think we can plausibly interpret him as speaking both to Link and the player.  I will flesh out a defense of this more in a moment, when I consider the line’s content.

The Salesman Encourages Link

As for the relationship between the Salesman and Link, it is worth noting that this is the line that directly establishes that relationship in “Majora.”  It is this line that stops Link from exiting the Clock Tower into Clock Town, and prompts him instead to encounter the Salesman, who frames Link’s quest as a mission to reclaim a stolen mask, and to return to “normal.”  In keeping with the theory of the Salesman as ontologically crucial to our conception of Termina, it’s not at all clear what would happen if Link were to exit the Clock Tower without encountering the Salesman; more to the point, it isn’t apparent that Link could enter Termina without encountering the Salesman.  Analyzing the line’s content will explain what I mean.

“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”

Let’s suppose, to begin with, that the referent of ‘you’ is Link, ignoring the player.  We are equipped with an explanation of what it means for Link to ‘meet with’ something in Termina:  I argued in the examination of Mikau that Termina is brought into reality by Link encountering it [1].  Using this argument, we can gloss the meaning of ‘meeting’ as ‘creating through encountering’.

Turning to the subject, ‘a terrible fate’, we can understand it by parsing it in two parts:  ‘fatalism’ and ‘terribleness’, which [4], [2], and [3] allow us to explain.  I have defined ‘fate’ as the softly determined set of timelines constituting a given playthrough of “Majora,” within which timelines each particular Link possesses agency.  ‘Terrible’, which I read as a moral term, is an instance (actually, the first instance) of the Happy Mask Salesman ascribing morality to a universe in which morality does not fundamentally obtain.  Combining the terms, then, we find the concept of an artificial, negative moral gloss to the framework of a deterministic set of timelines, which Link is about to encounter.

Of course, the presumed referent of ‘a terrible fate’ is Link’s transformation into a Deku Scrub; is it plausible to expand the notion of ‘fate’ in this case to the timeline set?  I think it is, because I see the transformation and timeline set as inseparable:  it is the transformation of Link that leads him to learn the Song of Healing from the Salesman, thereby endowing him with meaningful agency within Termina, and also allowing him to proceed through the timeline set [5].  But of course, that ‘terrible fate’ comes hand-in-hand with intra-timeline agency, and Link’s ability to meaningfully alter the number of form of three-day cycles.  Inseparable from the fate of Termina is Link’s capacity to act willfully.

This is what brings us to the end of the line, ‘haven’t you?’, which changes the tenor of the line from a statement to a question.  In this phrase, the Happy Mask Salesman cedes his position of metaphysical authority by admitting uncertainty; even if the question is rhetorical, the tenor is fundamentally more tentative than if he were to say, for example, ‘You’ve met with a terrible fate, I see.’  That the phrase accompanies a statement that coherently reinforces the metaphysical and metaethical structure of Termina suggests that this may also be the first instance of narrative dissonance and unreliability in the game [6].  Moreover, the admission of fallibility from a figure that is architecturally crucial to our concept of Termina suggests that the narrative is aware of its own dissonance.

Synthesize these points, and we can gloss the Salesman saying “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” as follows:  a metaphysical arbiter of Termina is fallibly claiming to the link between player and game universe (‘Link’) that he has brought a morally negative set of softly determined timelines into being by encountering it.  But there is a seeming paradox here:  how can an architectural fixture of a universe coherently inform someone that they have created that universe by encountering it?

The most compelling reason I find on this interpretation for believing that the Salesman is speaking to both Link and the player is that this relationship resolves the seeming paradox.  The Salesman may narratologically justify and substantiate the limited agency of Link, but it is the player who is ultimately responsible for imparting that agency to Link.  This is what makes the line, in my mind, so significant:  beyond encapsulating the aesthetic dynamics of “Majora’s Mask,” it can be read as an argument for the nature of video games as a medium.  The player turns on a game and is informed by the game that, in turning it on and engaging it, they have brought a universe to life; yet the persistence of the universe in contingent upon the player’s choice to continue playing the game.  The game establishes a coherent universe, and yet the most basic authority of that universe must be ceded to the player.  From that jumping-off point of narratological fallibility, other, more complex forms of narratological dissonance, such as the artifice of morality and the genocide of the Garo, may be posited, adding unique aesthetic elements to the game which cannot be achieved in other media.  This is why I have chosen to make this line the namesake of my work on this blog:  it is the open front door of gaming as a medium, inviting the player to create a work of art by mere virtue of experiencing it.

Dawn of a New Year, and the curious case of the Happy Mask Salesman in Termina.

I begin by wishing readers a Happy New Year, and all the best in the year to come.  Though I see it as more of personal sentiment, I would take a moment before diving into our next series of analysis to reflect upon New Year’s resolutions, and to make an appeal to “Majora’s Mask.”  If you find yourself wondering how to approach resolving to change in the New Year, a practice that is commonplace to so many, consider perhaps seeing it as a Dawn of the First Day:  society has framed the celebration of New Year’s as a transformation of the self in light of what has transpired in the prior year, just as players of “Majora” are encouraged to chart each three-day cycle in light of what progress and mistakes they made in the prior cycle.  By meditating on Link in this way, we might just learn how to see New Year’s celebrations as a set of transformative milestones over multiple years, a perspective which could allow us to approach resolutions as steps towards self-evolution, rather than barriers that will inevitably defeat us.  With that in mind and a toast to new beginnings, I turn to the next subject in our growing aesthetic and philosophical model of what “Majora’s Mask” is.


Before the last interlude in With a Terrible Fate, I undertook a three-part analysis of the Song of Healing, a central game mechanic taught to Link early on by the Happy Mask Salesman.  But in spite of arising several times so far in our discourse, I have yet to ask the question of precisely what the Happy Mask Salesman is, or what he is doing in Termina.  In spite of existing on the outskirts of Termina’s world, some of the most memorable quotes from the game are uttered by the Salesman:  “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” and “Wherever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow” bookend Link’s entire adventure, and the Salesman says both of them.  I begin by providing background of the Happy Mask Salesman from “Ocarina of Time”; next, I assess the relation he bears to the world of Termina in “Majora’s Mask”; lastly, I turn once more to the Song of Healing to see what our new perspective on the Salesman can reveal about the sequence in which he teaches Link the song.  This post aims to argue a thesis as to what exactly the Happy Mask Salesman is in relation to Termina; what bearing his more famous lines have in the game will be treated individually hereafter.

Happy Mask Salesman in "Ocarina of Time"When Link arrives in Hyrule’s Castle Town in “Ocarina of Time,” he finds the Happy Mask Salesman running a storefront in the town square.  He invites Link to be a “happiness salesman,” which involves finding people in the world of Hyrule who want to purchase the masks available at the shop, and giving them the mask in exchange for however many rupees they think it’s worth.  Link must sell four different masks to particular characters — the Keaton Mask to the Hylian Soldier guarding the Death Mountain trail, the Skull Mask to Skull Kid in the Lost Wood, the Spooky Mask to the boy in Kakariko Graveyard, and the Bunny Hood to the Running Man — after which the Happy Mask Salesman will also allow him to loan out the Gerudo Mask, Goron Mask, Zora Mask, and Mask of Truth.  Each character to whom Link gives a mask has some desire fulfilled:  the solider believes “[his] boy will be very happy with [the Keaton Mask]”; Skull Kid thinks the Skull Mask will make him “look a bit tougher”; the Boy in the Graveyard thinks he will be “just like Dampe” with the Spooky Mask; the Running Man believes the Bunny Hood will allow him to “[return] to the wild life.”

The personal wishes of each character reinforce the Happy Mask Salesman’s statement to Link that “[somewhere in the world], somebody is waiting for these masks.”  Moreover, the microcosm of the Happy Mask Shop quests recapitulate the fatalistic framework of “Ocarina of Time,” which I outlined in my analysis of Kaepora Gaebora:  just as the overarching course of “Ocarina” is constituted by Link’s destiny of the Hero of Time, so too are each of the initial four masks in the shop destined for particular NPC’s.  So we see that the Happy Mask Salesman operates here in accordance with the deterministic metaphysics of Hyrule:  when he tells Link to “have faith” that he will find the destined owners of the masks, it is a coherent imperative because the player and Link can both rationally appeal to the design of the game’s world in order to seek out a particular NPC for each mask.  This invites the question:  if the Happy Mask Salesman of “Ocarina” is contiguous with the metaphysics of Hyrule, then how does the ostensibly same character relate to the universe of Termina?

I think the best way into our analysis here is the observation that the way in which the Happy Mask Salesman exists relative to Termina is not obvious.  Link meets the Salesman inside the Clock Tower, which constitutes the exact center of Termina and the target of the moon’s descent, prior to the start of any three-day cycle:  time only begins to “count” after Link exits the Tower and enters Clock Town (time also stops whenever Link later reenters the Happy Mask Salesman’s location within the Tower).  Moreover, at the game’s end (13:10 in the video), the Salesman famously “fades out” of the world of Termina, disappearing without a trace.  Both of these facts suggest that the Salesman, as opposed to existing within Termina, exists beside it in some way.  Two more observations will help explain what I mean.

Happy Mask Salesman entreating Link

First, when we consider how to frame the three-day cycle of Termina, we find that the game actually offers us two options.  The first way, which I have used in analysis thus far, is that Skull Kid / Majora’s Mask will bring down the moon and destroy Termina three days after Link’s arrival.  But the other way is actually presented to Link before time even begins to pass:  upon first meeting the Happy Mask Salesman, Link learns that the Salesman is leaving Termina in three days.  “I’m a very busy fellow,” the Salesman says, “And I must leave this place in three days.  How grateful I would be if you could bring [Majora’s Mask] back to me before my time here is up.”  So, curiously, in spite of the framework we have been analyzing of Link embarking on a quest to save Termina, an argument can also be made for the game very explicitly defining itself as an enormous fetchquest, in which Link must procure a particular item (Majora’s Mask) for a particular NPC (the Salesman).

Second, the Happy Mask Salesman appears to possess some form of limited omniscience when it comes to masks.  Link can return to the Salesman wearing any mask (except the Fierce Deity’s Mask), and the salesman will remark on the mask in a way that reflects knowledge of its history.  For example, he acknowledges Link’s Goron and Zora forms as possessing the spirits of Darmani and Mikau, “the [Goron and Zora] who could not be healed.”  So in spite of apparently remaining in the Clock Tower during the entire three-day cycle, the Salesman has an intimate knowledge of the ontology of masks acquired by Link.

The Outsider

What these two facts suggest is that the Happy Mask Salesman observes Termina from an independent vantage point — think, to use an aptly named example from another game, of The Outsider in Bethesda’s “Dishonored.”  The Outsider exists tangentially to the world of “Dishonored,” only engaging it through those whom he brands, such as Corvo Attano (the player’s character).  Analogously, the Salesman possesses no agency or apparent connection within the world of Termina, but interfaces with Link and “brands” him, as it were, by teaching him the Song of Healing, thereby granting him an ability to be extended by his own agency.

And what of the Song of Healing?  In my analysis of the game’s musical metaphysics, I framed the Song of Healing as a mechanism whereby characters could be recalled to the fundamental nature of Termina’s universe.  In my first pass at the temporal structure of Termina, I referred to the masks of “Majora” as ‘temporal afterimages’ linking its manifold timelines together, which implies that the Song of Healing has the capacity, by generating masks, to generate temporal afterimages and fix points on subsequent timelines.  The Happy Mask Salesman is the progenitor of this song within the game; combined with the thesis of his tangential relation to Termina, this suggests that the Salesman’s relationship to Termina is architectural in nature.

I will try to take care in explaining this claim, because it is easy to overstate it as saying something like ‘the Salesman is Termina’s God,’ and this is not what I mean.  In the course of my analysis, I have spent a great deal of time discussing what Termina is without discussing much of how it came to be — that is, its ontology.  What I have in mind by framing the Salesman as an architectural constituent of Termina is the beginnings of synthesizing an ontological explanation of precisely how the bizarre world of Termina came to be, and the Salesman is a major nexus of this account.  I offer this preliminary thesis in the form of a threefold statement of the Salesman’s influence on Termina as a universe.

1.  The Salesman is the imminent origin of fatalism in Termina.  This horn of the thesis is fairly straightforward.  The Skull Kid imposes existential threat and irrevocable disaster upon the universe of “Majora’s Mask” is contingent upon his possession of Majora’s Mask, and it was the Salesman from whom Skull Kid stole the Mask.  If we don’t want to pin responsibility on the Salesman for having the Mask stolen from him, consider this:  from his account of the Mask’s history (2:30 in the video), it is apparent that he understands the Mask’s potential, yet he chose to possess it rather than to destroy it.

2.  The Salesman is the source of Link’s agency within the set of Termina’s timelines.  In Part I of my analysis of the Song of Healing, I expanded my thesis of free will and determinism in Termina to include the observation that Link’s intra-timeline agency is contingent upon the Song of Healing vis-a-vis his being restored from the Deku Curse — and, of course, the Song of Healing is later needed to progress by healing Darmani et al.  As I just mentioned, the Salesman is the progenitor of this song; therefore, if we accept the free will / determinism thesis I argued in my earlier analysis, it must now follow that the Salesman is the furthest-back traceable source of Link’s agency within Termina.  And, since I have also argued that Link is the only strictly understood agent within Termina, it follows that, within the framework of the game, the Salesman is the ultimate source of agency within Termina.

3.  The Salesman is the cause of the apparent artifice of evil within Termina.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, it is the Salesman who ascribes the qualities of ‘evilness’ and ‘wickedness’ to Majora’s Mask, and it is also he who describes the Song of Healing as a song that can heal “evil magic.”  He is the one who frames the quest against Majora as a quest against evil — an ironic fact, seeing as we have just seen that he also frames the entire game as a fetchquest.  So at the same time as we previously identified Majora as the entity constituting that which is perceived as evil within Termina, we also see that it is the Salesman who has lead to the perceived evil which takes Majora as its object.  He is also partially responsible for the ultimate metaethical nihilism of Termina, but this is only by extensions of [1] and [2]; metaethical nihilism results from the friction between these, the Fierce Deity, and the Song of Time.  It does not appear that either of the latter two bears immediate relation to the Salesman.

The Salesman Encourages Link

By this paradigm, it becomes apparent that the Salesman is crucial to the architecture of Termina and “Majora’s Mask” as the player conceives of them.  Yet besides being such a haunting and important entity, the Happy Mask Salesman’s nature invites one particular question, with which I close:  why does the Salesman impart the artifice of evil to Link (and, indirectly, to the player)?  I would offer that it has to do with the history inherited from “Ocarina of Time”:  we would not be motivated to embark on the journey of “Majora’s Mask” if we initially perceived it as a mere fetchquest; therefore, the Salesman injects morality into the exposition early on, hearkening back to the strictly moralized framework of the previous games.  At the same time, we find embedded in this explanation an account of what the Salesman is up to when he tells Link to “believe in [his] strengths”:  to motivate Link is to encourage him, and, in a world lacking the Triforce of Courage to appeal to in order to grant Link courage, the Salesman must offer his own motivational laudations to the child.  The Salesman is the source of decay in Termina, but he is also the impetus for Link to bravely proceed in the face of futility, through timeline after timeline, ad infinitum.

Why can’t Skull Kid be healed? Part III of III examining the Song of Healing.

In the first two parts of this analysis of the Song of Healing, I offered a framework for understanding the song as a mechanism of transition between states of community and individuation.  Part I examined the instances of in-game healing that extricates individuals from communities, with a focus on Deku Link.  I argued that this direction of healing refined the game’s model of free will / determinism by tracking Link’s instantiation into Termina through the Deku community; I also offered a take on video games as a medium that took as inspiration this mode of entering a world through forcing individuation from a community.  In Part II, I examined the instances of in-game healing with reverse directionality, returning an estranged individual to their community — in particular, the cases of Darmani and Mikau.  I argued that this direction of healing allowed Link, the sole source of agency within Termina, to actualize the heroic-yet-ill-fated will of Termina’s fallen native heroes; I also suggested that this model of relating disparate entities through a single focal point of agency could also allow us to meaningfully unify the multiple Links of the “Zelda” series.

I pointed out in Part I that this theory of the Song of Healing is independent of any ethical valence, which is useful for my theory because it coheres with the thesis that Termina is metaethically nihilistic.  Yet an issue present in the case of the Song of Healing, as well as with regards to the game in general, is that moral valence appears to obtain even when morality fundamentally does not obtain.  For example, as I mentioned in Part I, the Happy Mask Salesman describes the song to Link as “a melody that heals evil magic and troubled spirits, turning them into masks.”  Likewise, Majora appears to be an evil being, in spite of the Fierce Deity’s counterpoint implying metaethical nihilism.  How, then, do we make sense of this more superficial level of morality that appears in “Majora’s Mask”?  I propose we engage this issue by answering the following question:  given the analysis I have offered of the Song of Healing, how can we account for the fact that Link cannot use the song to heal Skull Kid / Majora?  We will begin by tracing the ontology of Majora’s Mask (within the game, independent of the account of Majora presented within manga) in order to see whether it bears any relation to the masks Link acquires by using the Song of Healing.

Skull Kid and Majora

When the Happy Mask Salesman tells Link the history of Majora’s Mask (2:34 in the video), he describes the mask as having “been used by an ancient tribe in its hexing rituals.”  He goes on to say that whoever wears the mask — in the case of this game, Skull Kid — is endowed with “an evil and wicked power.”  It’s interesting to note what the Happy Mask Salesman does not say:  at no point in the game does he refer to any sort of spirit or sentient being living within the Mask; the closest he comes to referring to a sentient Majora is when he says at the very end of the game (after Majora’s defeat) that “the evil has left the mask.”  Yet we as players are aware that the Mask is in some sense sentient independently of Skull Kid, because the Mask eventually discards Skull Kid, at which point Link must face the three forms of Majora — Majora’s Mask, Majora’s Incarnation, and Majora’s Wrath.

Majoras Wrath

This matters to the ontology of Majora’s Mask because there is a difference between the Mask being sentient and a sentient being trapped within Majora’s Mask.  The language of the Happy Mask Salesman suggests that the sentience belongs to the Mask itself, and that it is identical to the evil that is purged from the Mask.  This is also corroborated by the fact that Link fights objects of Majora — Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath — never fighting Majora itself.  Yet a problem remains, because by the very act of naming these forms, something named Majora is instantiated.  So, given the game’s framing of Majora’s Mask, just what might Majora be?

Fierce Deity's Mask

I would speculate that it is useful to think of “Majora” as identical to the game’s concept of evil.  Not only can this explain the Happy Mask Salesman’s description of the force of Majora’s Mask as simply ‘evil,’ but it also accounts for the superficial moral valence present throughout Termina.  The evil plaguing Termina originates from the Mask, particularly in Skull Kid’s use of the Mask to seal the spirits of the four Giants within evil bodies.  Similarly, the Fierce Deity’s evilness is postulated in relation to Majora — the only time in the game when Majora is referenced independently of Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, or Wrath.

This conception of Majora has the additional benefit of framing the driving conflict of the game’s story as friction between the apparently moral and the actually amoral.  The artifice of evil, on my reading, is congruent to Majora’s Mask threatening Termina, a world in which, I have argued, morality does not exist.  This friction explains why the problems of Termina on a regional scale are presented as a loss of natural order:  the swamp is turned toxic; the lush mountain is trapped in eternal winter; the ocean is inexplicably clouded; the desert is fraught with corruption.  Just so, the instantiation of morality fundamentally clashes with the natural metaphysics of Termina, which is why the Happy Mask Salesman describes the endgame not as a triumph of good, but rather as the purgation of evil — i.e., the removal of moral valence.

If we take this attitude towards Majora, I think the explanation of the Song of Healing’s ineffectiveness in this instance is readily available to us:  a mechanism without moral valence cannot functionally operate within the moral domain.  Rather, we see that Link must take on the form of an evil god, the Fierce Deity, in order to defeat the evil that is Majora; that is to say, Link must moralize himself in order to defeat Majora within his own domain.  We have previously identified Skull Kid and Majora’s Forms as lonely beings, and Skull Kid, at least, as returned to a community of friends after Link defeats Majora; yet even though this transition resembles our model of the Song of Healing, it is secondary to the moral game played out between the Fierce Deity and Majora’s Forms.  The beings healed via the Song of Healing do not possess the same moral pretense present in the case of Majora’s Forms, and so there is no artifice preventing the engagement of them with an amoral mechanism of transition.

Darmani being healed

Another tack we can take in defending the same model is to return to an earlier discourse about the way in which music constitutes the universe of Termina.  I quote the relevant section:  “the mechanism for healing the spirits of Mikau and Darmani… is a song:  the Song of Healing.  Link heals the pain of people by recalling them to the universe of music, reminding them of their loved ones and dissolving their acute individuation and loneliness.  To paraphrase Darmani, the sorrows of those who suffer melt away into the song.”  What I pointed towards in this passage was a fundamental relation between the Song of Healing and the musical formulation of Termina as the Clock Tower Theme in counterpoint with the Song of Time.  What follows is that the Song of Healing is in accord with the natural order of Termina, whereas morality, as I have said, is not.  This further distances the case of Skull Kid and Majora’s Mask from those in which the Song of Healing obtains.

Though Skull Kid himself is arguably most in need of healing, he is immune to the mechanics of the song because he is ‘possessed’ by the influence of morality, the power that is uniquely able to wreak havoc on Termina’s natural order by virtue of its moral valence.  What emerges from our analysis of the song, then, is the picture of a versatile tool for transitioning beings within Termina between community and individuation, but only as long as these beings operate within the normative constraints of the universe.  What makes Skull Kid uniquely problematic is that he is moralized in a world without morality, which is why the song that in so many ways defines the pivotal moments of Link’s quest is ineffectual against the ultimate object of his quest.  We might be tempted to view the Song of Healing as an instrument of moral goodness, but the limiting case of Skull Kid reinforces that, in keeping with the terror generally suggested by the game, any morality observed in using the song is ultimately ascribed by the player — the game itself rebukes moralization of the song.  We are left with the model of a tool for ‘helping people’ in the absence of morality, and this is possibly the most salient feature of the song:  by playing it, Link is able to help people in some way even when morality has no fundamental grounding.