To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Kate explores the philosophy and tragedy behind Majora's Mask...
After The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released on the Nintendo 64 in 1998, the development team was exhausted. The idea of working on another multi-year project was daunting, so they made a deal: they had just one year to make the next Zelda game. It would be a race to the finish, using whatever they had on hand to save time, and then it would be done. Bonus points if they could make it good, of course - but with so little time invested, and a much smaller team to pay, at least it wouldn't take as long to break even if the game was a dud.
In the end, it took 18 months to finish what would become known as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, using assets created during Ocarina of Time's development and twisting them to create a whole new story. It sold relatively well, but only managed about half the sales of its predecessor. Its success was much more slow-burning than the instant classic of Ocarina of Time, and that's because it plays with convention and formula in unexpected, inventive ways, largely owing to its constraints - it takes a long time to see it as more than just "Ocarina, but weirder". Eventually, though, it got its dues. Today, it tops many critics' lists of best Zelda games, and even makes its way into lists of the greatest games of all time on a regular basis.
What is it about this strange, experimental mutation of Zelda that captures the imagination? Why do so many people adore a game that reused a bunch of assets, and was almost entirely made up of side quests? Why is one of the most popular Zelda games the one that doesn't actually have Zelda in it? To begin answering that question, we have to start long before Majora's Mask even came out.
Ocarina of Time is a classic largely because it follows the classic (and satisfying) Hero's Journey path. The "Call to Adventure" is literal: Link receives a message from The Great Deku Tree, and is given "Supernatural Aid" from the fairy, Navi. The "Threshold Guardians" are the three dungeons that give Link the three gemstone keys to unlock the Master Sword's chamber, where it slumbers in wait for him, and his transformation into an adult as a result is the "Death and Rebirth" nadir of the story.
By completing the temples, and restoring the six Sages, Link - now the Hero of Time - is able to defeat Ganondorf and save the Triforce. Ocarina of Time, and the Zelda tradition, is the greatest monomyth in video games - and Majora's Mask throws that all away.
And that's precisely what makes Majora's Mask so brilliant. It is a reversal, a twisted mirror reflection of Ocarina of Time, which literally takes the imagery so familiar to us - child Link, the Song of Storms, recurring characters - and turns them into something unfamiliar and unsettling. Even the Song of Healing, the game's signature theme, is Saria's Song reversed - a perfect example of how Majora's Mask turns comfort, safety, and the familiar into something unfamiliar, distressing, and foreign.
The child Link of Majora's Mask is a stranger in a strange land, wandering the earth as an itinerant nobody. He is not the Hero of Time, because he never grew up to be a hero; he exists in a timeline where he is little more than a kid with a sword and a horse. If Ocarina of Time is Lord of the Rings, then Majora's Mask is The Hobbit: a story about a no one who becomes someone almost entirely by accident. Link is merely in the right place at the right time to save Clock Town and Termina from its fate.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. At the start of Majora's Mask, Link is pulled, unwillingly, into the story by virtue of being cursed. There was no Call to Adventure - he's just stuck as a little tree boy, and needs to figure out how to return to his regular boy form. By chasing the Skull Kid, and unlocking the core time loop of the game, Link is drawn further into Termina's predicament: the moon is falling, and they have just three days left before it crashes to the ground, killing everyone.
That's dark, man. Zelda games are normally about killing big bad monsters, and defeating evil - but people don't usually die! Except Dampé, but if anything, dying made him better at his job. And all of this has to be done by a child?
Ocarina of Time, philosophically, presents the players with an altruistic choice: can Link sacrifice his innocence and childhood for the good of Hyrule? Link himself is a bit of a stoic: silent, uncomplaining, accepting of his fate. Altruism and stoicism are simple, virtuous philosophies that mean giving up something you want to help others, and accepting the unfairness of life - a sort of "might as well get on with it" policy. Link's role as the Hero of Time requires a Hero's Sacrifice: something bold, selfless, and straight out of a fairytale.
Majora's Mask, in contrast, presents us with a much more adult philosophical concept: nihilism. Many of the people in Clock Town, faced with the slow realisation of imminent death, become despondent, chugging dairy at the Milk Bar to drown their sorrows. Combined with another mature philosophical concept, absurdism, Majora's Mask replicates the kind of existential crisis we all go through in our difficult teen years, when we suddenly understand the weight of death, mortality, and the ephemerality of everything we've ever known.
Absurdism is how we cope with mortality. As a philosophy, it's a response to the search for meaning, for a point to everything, so our deaths can have meaning, too - but absurdism instead acknowledges that there is no point, everything is stupid, and we're all just Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill and watching it roll down again. Majora's Mask is full of absurd strangeness, with alien invasions, a mask that attempts to impose "order" on the world, but really just makes you good at herding chickens, and a creepy Mask Salesman who seems to be a trickster god in secret. Things are strange in Ocarina of Time, but they make sense. In Termina, nothing does.
Just as Ocarina of Time presents us with a typical Hero's Journey of defeating evil, asking the question, "What would you give up to save the world?", Majora's Mask looks inward, and asks - "What's the point of saving the world?" Indeed, what's the point of anything? We're all going to die.
Pushing past that initial existential fear is what gives us the game, of course. Even though it all seems hopeless, Link soldiers on, fulfilling the requests of the townsfolk, defeating bosses, and living on through timeloop after timeloop in the vain hope that he'll someday find a key to stopping the moon. It's worth noting, too, that despite its appearance, the moon isn't evil - in fact, neither is Skull Kid, really. Link isn't fighting evil as much as he is trying to restore peace and order to a world that makes no sense.
Link eventually does figure out how to stop the destruction of Termina (spoilers: it's masks), because it's a video game, and video games always have neat endings - but in real life, that existential crisis that we all have at some point in our lives never really gets solved. We just decide to live on despite the crushing weight of mortality.
Majora's Mask, at the heart of it, is about loss - the loss of innocence, the loss of stability, and the loss of ourselves upon realising that we will all, one day, cease to exist. This theme of loss runs through the game like a delicious swirl of chocolate through a tub of Ben and Jerry's: Link loses Navi and Epona, Tatl loses Tael, the Deku Butler loses his son, Lulu loses her children, Darmani loses his life, and, at the centre of the whole story, Skull Kid loses his friends. One of the stages of grief is anger, and one is depression, and all of these characters feel one or another as a result of their loss.
Majora's Mask guides us, and the characters, to the resolution of grief and loss: acceptance. We travel through the lands of nihilism, despondency, absurdism, and bargaining, resetting the cycle over and over again in an attempt to change things. Eventually, the story is resolved by helping Skull Kid come to terms with how his life has changed, and how friends move on - but that doesn't erase their importance to us, or their love for us.
The two songs that are key to completing Majora's Mask are the Song of Healing and the Oath to Order. They represent the two sides of the story - loss, and acceptance - and composer Koji Kondo uses clever music theory to tell that story through sound.
The Song of Healing uses an F-A-B pattern of notes, similar to the creepy Nocturne of Shadow from Ocarina of Time. This sequence of notes revolves around dissonance, using tritones to create a tone of tension and unease. Dissonance is unpleasant to the ear, and requires resolution - a return to the original key - to put the listener at ease again. However, even when resolution does arrive in the Song of Healing, though, its minor key setting leaves us feeling unsatisfied and unsettled - just like nothing can soothe us when we are grieving.
The end of the game revolves around the Oath to Order, a slow, melancholy tune that, although mournful, is intimate, and ultimately, accepting. The end of Link's quest in Majora's Mask is not a neat and tidy one where the world is saved, and everything is returned to normal - instead, it is about Skull Kid, and Link himself, learning to move on from changes that can't be reversed. Acceptance of grief, change, and loss is not about moving on entirely, but in accepting a world that is different to the one we once knew. Like the Oath to Order, acceptance is slow, and bittersweet.
Secretly — or perhaps not so secretly, given the many, many deep-dives that have been done on the topic — Majora's Mask is also about growing up. Not as a result of some magical sword, not for any divine, prophetic reason, but slowly, naturally. Link has been given back his childhood, but at the cost of becoming an adult the proper way, and losing his innocence and naivety across the years, rather than all at once. Ocarina of Time is a holy tragedy - but Majora's Mask is a human tragedy, and that's what makes it all the more special. It's about us.