Grief, Agency and Time in Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was the sequel to Ocarina of Time, released under two years after. In many ways, Majora’s Mask could not exist without Ocarina of Time. For example, many of the game’s character assets have been pulled directly from its predecessor, their characters otherwise totally transformed (one of Ocarina’s endgame bosses runs a swamp boat tour). However, Majora’s Mask goes far beyond what Ocarina of Time was able to accomplish, both narratively and mechanically, and cemented itself as one of the all-time classics of the N64 and gaming as a whole. The gimmick of Majora’s Mask is relatively iconic at this point ‒ the moon is coming crashing down into the world of Termina, and it’s set to impact in exactly 72 hours (54 real life minutes). Link must travel to the various regions of the realm, defeating evil spirits and doing general 3D Zelda things. However, within this relatively-simple structure is a shockingly mature and dark narrative about grief and denial. Intertwined is its brilliant usage of time as a mechanic, which is integral to that storytelling. 

In Majora’s Mask, time is a tool to be manipulated. Link can slow down, skip through and reset time whenever he pleases, even in the middle of combat. Most games do not bother with freeform time travel ‒ time generally just moves forward. Time manipulation makes a game’s story inherently vulnerable to paradoxes and strange contradictions. However, Majora’s Mask handles this surprisingly-elegantly. Resetting time makes Link lose his non-essential material possessions, like his spare arrows and money. He does maintain his key items, but with every cycle refresh, Link starts anew. The few ways in which Majora’s Mask isn’t logically consistent are in ways the player never questions. Technically, Link should move slower when time is slowed down. Or at the very least, enemies definitely should. But they don’t (for obvious game design reasons) and I never even noticed the logical inconsistency until researching for my presentation. Another example ‒ Link should lose his bow and hookshot too upon resetting, but that would, of course, put incredibly arbitrary limitations on how the game could be designed.

Those key items are central to how the game maintains both a legitimately circular game state and legitimately linear progression at the same time. For example, on your first three day cycle, you can’t leave Clock Town. You’re stuck in your Deku form, a race that the townsfolk explicitly discriminate against and view as defenseless. Guards block your path, and you need to get through the first cycle to gain the Deku Mask, allowing you to transform at will. Only once you’re back to child Link and can wield your sword again will they let you through, apologizing for underestimating you. However, on resets, you have to read that text, of the guards blocking and subsequently apologizing, every time. After all, the guards don’t know you have a sword until you show it! But the difference in new cycles is the hassle of earning the Deku Mask and becoming child Link again was already done. Through key items you can save the time you spent in earlier cycles. In every cycle, you’re investing in your future, accomplishing objectives to reach what are functionally checkpoints of progression. This is central to the game ‒ the four macguffins from the four temples travel through time too, which is the reason you don’t need to do all the temples (basically the whole game) in one cycle. It feels natural, and linear game progression is maintained in a believable, compelling and occasionally genius manner inside a constantly looping game state.

The storytelling in Majora’s Mask intrinsically relies on that system. Majora’s Mask is a game about grief and denial. In the wake of the moon’s slow descent to Termina, all of the characters in the world are coping with their inevitable demise. They do this in real-time, growing progressively more concerned, angry, delusional or depressed as the game moves from the dawn of the first day to the final hours. Some characters choose to flee, knowing its futility, while others accept their fate. Very few other games allow the player to watch characters grapple with their emotions in natural, if sped up, time. Even fewer let it happen with no player input. In most games, storytelling progresses through time artificially. The game state fundamentally changes when the player accomplishes objectives. In Paper Mario 64, the Shy Guys aren’t going to overrun the town no matter how long you leave the console running. You need to beat chapter 3 for it, and they will wait for you. 

However, Majora’s Mask’s manipulatable but constant timer makes the feelings of characters significantly more poignant. Their lives are legitimately in your hands ‒ if you leave your game on for an hour or two and never play the Song Of Time, entire civilizations die. When you reset the cycle after defeating dungeons and defrosting the mountains or purifying the swamp of poison, you are plunging entire civilizations back into misery for the sake of the greater good. The story is as much about watching characters cope with calamities while lacking agency as it is about you, the player, coping with the agency you’ve been given in the lives of its NPCs. While you’re saving the Zora, the Gorons are starving to death. While you’re saving the Gorons, the Zora are starving to death. You’re not going to save everyone in every cycle, and you certainly aren’t going to learn everyone’s story without many, many repetitions. All you can do is reset the clock and try your best. Even more than time and its manipulation, Majora’s Mask is a heartbreaking and brilliant game about grief, and the agency you can have in the lives of those grieving.

-Braden Hajer

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