I played: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, originally released in the U.S. on the Nintendo 64 in October 2000. It’s a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, borrowing many of that game’s assets (e.g. background character models, music, etc.) but introducing a dramatically different narrative structure and melancholic tone that helped it become a cult classic in the franchise.
The first time I played it: was the day it came out in the U.S. It was the fall of my sixth grade year, and I was entering an age in which my zeal for different pop culture franchises (Legend of Zelda, Harry Potter, Star Wars) manifested as obsessive anticipation via fan sites and forums, as well as a physical subscription to Nintendo Power magazine.
I had followed the steady drip of development news fanatically and probably preordered the game months in advance, which means the copy in my possession (wherever our family N64 currently resides) is the special gold cartridge edition. This game is inexplicably but permanently tied in my memory to my older brother’s high school football games. Friday nights in autumn found my parents and me driving around south Texas for his away games, and I have the vaguest memory of being upset I couldn’t stay home to play Majora’s Mask instead, possibly on the day the game arrived or on a week when I had reached a major milestone.
Otherwise I have little memory of playing this game for the first time, in part because I’ve played it so many times since (including another day-long marathon with Duke, about a year after we played Ocarina of Time). I’ve noticed I have a poor memory of middle school generally, and I suspect it’s because in spite of all I loved about that age—especially my burgeoning friendships with geeky Christian band kids who became a close community—it was when my selves began a total dis-integration, fracturing my personality into an outgoing, enthusiastic student and a reclusive, anxious queer.
You would think that a game built around the mechanics of wearing masks and physically inhabiting distinct bodies in different communities would speak directly to that fracturing, but I wasn’t remotely ready to see myself in it. Whereas Ocarina of Time portrays the protagonist Link aging from a 10-year-old into a 17-year-old, in Majora’s Mask he remains a child the entire game, except when he temporarily inhabits alternate bodies. If memory serves, seventh grade was when I had my first girlfriend—a predictably short-lived relationship—and when the pull I felt toward other boys manifested into conscious (albeit suppressed) eroticism. But in sixth grade, when I was unwrapping that gold cartridge, all that possibility remained lurking below the surface, amorphous and menacing.
When I played it this time: I fell in love with the game all over again, less as a metaphor for grief or compartmentalization and more as a story about how people spend their time when an existential threat looms overhead.
Majora’s Mask takes place in an alternate world, Termina, where the hero learns that in three days’ time (about an hour in real-world time), the moon will crash into the earth, destroying the medieval metropolis known as Clock Town. Two central mechanics shape the action. The first is that Link gains the ability to travel back in time to the starting point, three days before the moon crashes, as often as he wants. Most of his progress and influence on the world resets when he does—a fresh start—but major accomplishments like completed dungeons or collected equipment persist so the player can advance gradually toward the game’s climax. (This playthrough consisted of about 18 cycles total.)
The second is that Link gradually collects masks by completing various quests. Most masks are largely situational (like the Keaton Mask, which allows Link to summon and speak with a magic fox), a few give Link enhanced abilities (like the Bunny Ears, which increase his running speed), and four masks transform Link into an entirely different creature, granting him all new abilities and new access to other races who accept him as one of their own.
As I played Majora’s Mask, I also read Gabe Durham’s delightful written history of the game. He references another written history—the Hyrule Historia—and confirms what I’ve increasingly suspected about the narrative integrity of Zelda games. Here he quotes Eiji Aonuma, a director on the game: “The question the developers of the Legend of Zelda series asked themselves before starting on a game was, ‘What kind of game play should we focus on?’ rather than ‘What kind of story should we write?’ Because the games were developed in such a manner, it could be said that Zelda’s story lines were afterthoughts.” There we have it: hard proof that Zelda stories, however satisfying they might be in the moment, exist largely in service to the sword swinging and dungeon crawling and not any loftier creative purposes.
With that being said, I still believe the central conflict and resolution of Majora’s Mask is elegant, particularly in terms of how gradually it reveals itself. The main crisis is the falling moon, and various signposts (and general familiarity with how Zelda games work) lead the player to find and complete four dungeons, each of which results in freeing a bipedal giant, even though you don’t really know who they are or what saving them has to do with stopping the moon. Only in the game’s climax do the giants reveal their purpose. By playing a specific song on his ocarina, Link summons the four giants to Clock Town moments before the moon crashes. They surround the city, towering over it, and the four of them raise their arms, literally holding back the threat and keeping the moon suspended in the sky. The deus ex machina solution is one of my favorite in the series, an epic and mythic rescue. Ultimately Link still has to fight the final boss, but the world is saved because of the benevolence of these mysterious giants, summoned by an intercessory hymn.
What makes Majora’s Mask so magical—and the reason it’s become such a cult classic—is that this main storyline is really only a small thread of the game. The three-day cycle allowed the game designers to create a fully believable civilization full of charming and poignant micro-narratives. Whereas non-player characters (NPCs) in Ocarina of Time might stand in one place the entire duration of the game, always starting the same conversation whenever you walk up and press “A” to speak, the characters in Majora’s Mask move and change from day to day. As the player repeatedly travels back in time to replay the three-day cycle, the same micro-dramas play out again and again, a la Groundhog Day, making it possible for the player to observe their behavior and to intervene and help them. Certain interventions on Link’s part lead to different outcomes in the game, which you can only discover through trial and error (or, back in the year 2000, by purchasing a strategy guide). For example: At midnight on the first day, an old woman enters Clock Town through the north gate, and a thief emerges from hiding and steals her bag. If Link intervenes and stops the thief, then later in the week he can purchase a larger Bomb Bag at a shop in town, presumably part of the cargo she was delivering to town. But if Link doesn’t intervene, the thief successfully robs the woman but remains unaware of who Link is, an important factor in the game’s most substantial and complicated side quest.
Thus the world of Termina presents Link with a macro-crisis (the moon’s impending destruction) and countless micro-crises (all the longings and needs and requests of various NPCs). Nearly all of the side quests result in some kind of reward for Link, like a new mask or a heart piece, but it isn’t immediately clear which characters do and don’t get Link closer to solving the macro-crisis. In other words, most of those side quests are optional. As a player, then, the fundamental decision before you is: How do you spend your time in the face of an existential crisis?
From the beginning the game trains you that your time is limited, urging you to approach the tasks at hand with a posture of, well, urgency. The very first three-day cycle serves as a kind of tutorial, surprising you with a ticking clock interface but guiding you to take all the steps necessary to equip Link so that he can travel back in time to the first day before the moon crashes. During that first cycle, Link has no sword and encounters almost no enemies, so the real threat comes from his fairy companion’s constant interruptions, reminding him that he can’t afford to waste time. (I learned this time around that the in-game clock actually moves faster on that first cycle than on all subsequent cycles; likely this was a design decision to keep the story moving quickly, since you have so little to do in that first cycle, but it sets you up to feel even more stressed than you actually need to feel on subsequent cycles.) Even the game’s 4:3 aspect ratio, merely a remnant of its Nintendo 64 origins, lends the game a claustrophobic perspective. According to Durham’s history, that urgency may have reflected the lived experience of the game developers who had to build it on a rapidly condensed schedule, often at the expense of their personal lives. He quotes Mitsuhiro Takano, who directed the game’s script:
[Majora] was about being so tied up in work and not being able to tend to the things that are actually important to you. That was the impetus for a lot of those characters. They all had unfinished business. They didn’t get to play that one last song.(source)
Thankfully the game allows you to rewind the clock as often as you want, so it’s possible for determined players to complete every side quest (no matter how insignificant) and to save the world, which I did this time around.
(An aside: As I’ve been replaying all the Zelda games and writing these essays, I have challenged myself to complete each game at 100%, which means collecting all possible collectibles, finishing every side quest, etc., albeit with the help of an online guide. In some cases that leads to profoundly frustrating chores, like one mini game in Clock Town that took me more than an hour of real-world, What-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-one-wild-and-precious-life?-time to complete. In these moments I most identified with the developmentally-arrested Tingle, a 35-year-old man who wonders, “My father tells me to act my age, but why?” In other cases this 100% approach introduced me to areas I had never encountered in all my years with this game, like the secret shrine in Ikana Canyon, a spooky netherworld that felt recognizable and not-recognizable, in the way that only constructed worlds like video games or dreams can. In some quests I learned new details that colored the narrative, like how Anju’s mother insinuates that Kafei has run off with Cremia.)
The capacity to reverse the clock may expand those three days into infinity, but the other side of that coin is the awareness of everything you aren’t getting done on any given three-day cycle. One psychedelic side quest finds Link equipping his bow and arrow to help two sisters defend their ranch from extra-terrestrial invaders who appear in the middle of the night to abduct cattle. The first time I attempted this storyline, I failed: One of the floating aliens slipped by and reached the barn I was guarding, leading to a horrifying cutscene in which all the cows and even the younger sister, Romani, were lifted into the sky in a glowing light. The next day, the older sister, Cremia (who originally dismissed Romani’s warnings about the alien threat), greeted Link with stunned grief, having lost her sister and her livelihood. I reset the cycle, tried again, and succeeded, but I was surprised by how much that initial failure shook me, making me inescapably aware that on any given three-day cycle that I spent elsewhere in Termina, the aliens were still invading the ranch, abducting Romani and the cows. Whenever I went back in time, I also undid my acts of heroism, large and small. There was no way to save everyone.
Time is in much shorter supply in our world outside of Termina, where the threat of environmental destruction is only one of the existential crises facing us, and the means by which we might solve the macro-crises aren’t ever so obvious. So the way this game constantly asks, again and again, how you will spend the time that is available to you—will you attempt to complete a dungeon? will you help the loner punk achieve his dream of seeing his baby chicks grow into adult cuccos? will you grind and gather 5,000 rupees for one more heart piece?—felt a little too real. There is enough anxiety facing one’s own mortality; what ought we to do with the knowledge that everyone around us is going to die, too, particularly if the threat is only three days away? Here’s how Durham describes the meta-dilemma:
Will we go off adventuring to save the world through direct action? Will we take care of our friends, family, and neighbors in the face of so much pain? Is there time in the next 72 hours to somehow do both?(source)
As I played Majora’s Mask this time around, I experienced Link’s dilemma as a microcosm of how often I take on too many roles, those seasons when it takes me three months to get around to a task that ultimately takes only 15 minutes to complete, those weeks when I have to hope a friendship can survive a few more days without me responding to a text message. In those seasons the urgent tasks take up so much space that it feels impossible even to consider, much less make progress on, the “important but not urgent” quadrant of my priorities. On this playthrough, even though I knew I could play as many three-day cycles as I needed, I found myself trying to optimize my efficiency, squeezing as many accomplishments into each cycle as I could. I completed the game just after I read a striking column about the failure to cope “under capitalism,” a theme I’ve explored in earlier Zelda essays. That essay concludes that the only way to fail at life is to abandon the responsibility to choose:
There is good news. None of us are children anymore. You can and should organize for better working conditions, but you can also turn off your email notifications. You can choose to prioritize the good life over a promotion or pleasing your boss. You can live with the loss of status and resources that this probably will entail. You can leave your job and take on the risks of finding work that does not corrode your self-respect. You can bring new life into the world knowing they will face intolerable danger and suffering, and take a type of comfort in the fact that on an individual level, this has always been the case. You can raise children in a too-small space and with too much debt.
Or you can not. You can devote yourself single-mindedly to a career and enjoy the struggle to the top. You can decide that to ride the ebb and swell of New York’s changing moods is worth whatever price you pay. You can pledge your life to your craft or the cause of Monarch butterflies. You can turn down invitations to weddings and let friendships lapse, you can go to bars every night and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. But whatever you do, don’t kid yourself that you’re doing it because you have no choices.(source)
As for the game’s characters: They each have their own way of dealing with or aggressively not-dealing with their dwindling time, giving the game some of its richest pathos. Two characters in particular have always haunted me. The first is the swordsman who occupies a training facility in town. He teaches Link basic sword techniques and greets Link in a guru-like lotus pose. During the final few minutes of the three-day cycle, just before the moon is set to fall, the swordsman is missing from his gym. Slashing a tapestry on the wall reveals a hidden closet where the swordsman sits huddled in a ball, shivering: “I’m scared! I can’t take it! I don’t want to die!”
The second is the town’s postman, who spends all three days racing around town delivering mail between Clock Town’s various mailboxes. Nearly every line of his dialogue includes the word “schedule,” a tic that hit a little too close to home for this Type A Gamer: “If I stop to talk, it will disrupt my schedule.” “According to my schedule, it is now my nap time.” Eventually he writes a letter to himself, as if the postal system is the only way he knows how to work out his inner turmoil: “All of the townsfolk have taken refuge. I want myself to flee, too. Even if it is not written on the schedule, I want myself to flee. Please…” In most circumstances he won’t flee the town, even when the moon crashes down.
One particular side quest has Link ask the postman to deliver a crucial letter on the final day, and the recipient happens to be the postmaster. After he delivers this letter, he greets Link joyfully with a new mantra that made me gasp, the way it captures the liberty and burden of one who is finally facing his own responsibility to choose: “I have decided to flee. It is an order from the Postmaster. I am now free! I can set my own schedule!”
It may be impossible to say anything new about Majora’s Mask, a game whose gloomy tone and iconic dialogue have inspired countless essays over the years. It may also be impossible to play Majora’s Mask in 2022 without noticing the game’s explicit themes of climate anxiety, whether the game developers working in the late ’90s had the climate crisis in mind or not. In addition to the game’s threat of the looming moon—the internet joke about simply wanting to live in “precedented times” comes to mind—there is evil afoot in Termina in the form of a sylvan imp possessed by a demonic mask, Majora. Although the game’s final battle with Majora occurs inside the moon itself, the game never makes it completely clear that Majora is directly responsible for the moon falling. Majora may simply be exploiting that crisis to carry out their own evil purposes. Outside of Clock Town are four different regions, each home to a different race and climate, and each region is facing its own environmental crisis: The mountain home of the Gorons is covered in an unseasonable snow, for example, and the ocean home of the Zoras is too hot. (A fisherman complains that the water is so warm it’s affecting his fishing haul.) The game explicitly attributes most of the environmental crises facing each region to Majora’s mischief rather than to the falling moon, a reading supported by the fact that undoing Majora’s work in any given region by completing its dungeon heals the climate: The mountain snow begins to thaw, presumably the ocean water cools.
But the moon is always looming. Literally, it looms in the background, staring at the world with devilish bulging eyes and bared teeth. Any time Link is outside, the moon is visible in the background, day and night, and it grows larger and larger as time advances. It’s the elephant in the room in every interaction, the thing every character is either talking about or aggressively not-talking about. (The construction foreman’s complaint: “I wish I could scare that moon away!”) Where the metaphor fails is that nobody in Clock Town can actually do anything about the moon or, for that matter, about Majora’s evil deeds; for them, the threat is more of a capital-A Apocalypse, not our potential and preventable climate apocalypse, so their only dilemma is whether they should flee the town or hunker down to carry out their annual Carnival of Time. The entire weight of the crisis rests on Link’s shoulders—on you, the player—and even then, the resolution is the aforementioned divine intervention.
Only the fourth dungeon, the Stone Tower Temple, provides something like an out-of-body moment of temporary relief from the crushing weight. That dungeon has an ingenious design, featuring a mechanic that requires Link to flip the entire dungeon upside-down and back again to explore and advance through every room. When the dungeon is inverted, suddenly the earth is above and the moon is below, and the effect is a simultaneous weightlessness and dizziness as the sky spills out below Link, a great abyss, like the earth is trying to push him away.
Death looms in Majora’s Mask, too, more vividly than any Zelda game yet. Each Zelda game I’ve played so far has featured a graveyard, and I’ve noticed the way these settings serve as passive reminders of death and trauma. In Majora’s Mask the graveyard itself is small, but it’s located in a region that is dedicated almost entirely to the dead, including the bumbling skeletons of fallen soldiers (who respond to Link wearing the Captain’s Hat with rapt obedience) and whispers of wandering spirits. One ghost greets Link cautiously—”This is no place for one as full of life as you”—before trying to kill him—”Or do you say that you wish to join the dead?” Link never sleeps across the three days (save one side quest that involves an old woman telling him a story so long he dozes off, costing him precious hours), and he cannot go back in time far enough to enjoy the days before the moon was falling; so the only respite available to him is to stop the moon and save the world. No matter how many times Link restarts the cycle, he can only ever experience time moving forward. There is no reversing the crisis; what remains is to solve it.
The most evocative artifact of Majora’s Mask may not be its creepy designs (the moon, the titular mask) or its iconic dialogue. When I think of Majora’s Mask, I think of the magical “Song of Healing,” an ocarina tune Link learns early in the game from the Happy Mask Salesman, a kind of liminal, morally neutral, demigod figure. Here’s how the Salesman describes the song’s effect: “This is a melody that heals evil magic and troubled spirits…” Throughout the story, many of the characters Link encounters are at a point of crisis, and you learn early on that in these moments Link ought to play the “Song of Healing.” It is written in a minor key, and its effects vary widely. Playing the Song for a grieving Goron ghost allows him to accept his failures and let go of his regrets. Playing the Song for a monstrous, half-mummified man restores him to his senses and reconciles him to his daughter. Playing the song for a dying Zora allows him to relish the best part of his life—making music with his friends—and then surrender to death. In short, learning the “Song of Healing” equips Link to offer a tangible means of grace in situations that can’t be solved by a simple fetch quest or favor, individuals facing major thresholds they must cross themselves. In these moments, which are some of the most beautiful and affecting vignettes in the game, Link offers little more than non-anxious presence and a willingness to bear witness. At the end of the game, the Happy Mask Salesman reappears and offers Link some of the only praise he receives after saving the world: “My, you sure have managed to make quite a number of people happy.”
It is when Link witnesses these moments of healing, whatever form healing takes, that he collects most of the masks in the game, each one often commemorating the particular event. (So, for example, the half-mummified man leaves Link with the Gibdo Mask, resembling a mummy’s face, which allows Link to communicate with other mummified monsters who would otherwise attack him.) Link literally carries with him, then, relics of the pain he has helped people to heal from. Only a few of these masks fully transform Link’s body, including those left by the Goron and Zora mentioned above. But the more faces Link assembles and the more he shifts from form to form, the player might wonder whether Link—who is as characteristically stoic as ever—is at risk of losing his grip on who he is. A song learned late in the game, the “Elegy of Emptiness,” allows Link to create statues of each of his various forms. The statues have a kind of feral, primal aesthetic, like pure id. They’re the most tangible expression of the way Link learns to use different identities to accomplish his goals. And he leaves them behind, like small bits of his soul scattered across the world.
I started this playthrough just a couple months after starting my first full-time professional ministry position, a role that has provoked a lot of the questions guiding this essay, particularly in terms of how I can best use the time and role allotted to me in light of, well, everything: the climate crisis, the existential threats to democracy, the spread of monkeypox seemingly picking up where COVID was starting to leave off. I have wondered what kind of tangible means grace I can offer, whether a non-anxious presence and a willingness to bear witness are enough. I have wondered how to integrate all my different identities and experiences with a big new identity, Pastor. In the midst of this big life transition, I have struggled to keep up with random 15-minute tasks and text messages. Thankfully nothing has happened on the job yet that left me wishing I could rewind the clock by 72 hours, but I know those mistakes will come.
Nestled in the eastern neighborhood of Clock Town is a members-only club called the Milk Bar. Link can only enter once he earns Romani’s Mask, a cow-shaped hat given to him if he helps the sisters at the ranch. The bar is open nightly, and it’s a great place to meet characters working out some of the game’s most relatable existential dread. The Milk Bar’s bartender is cordial. Like most of the game’s characters, even though his dialogue and movements change from day to day, he is only ever found in the Milk Bar—the bartender has, at least, decided how he wants to spend his 72 hours. If Link enters the bar on the final night, mere hours before the moon is set to crash, the bartender welcomes Link warmly with my favorite line of dialogue in the game, a statement that stopped me in my tracks. The bartender embodies a posture I hope to carry with me in this ministry career with everyone I encounter, however long it lasts, whatever crises still await us. As with all the game’s text in the N64’s low resolution, the greeting appears on screen a few lines at a time:
“As you can see, all of our customers have taken refuge.
It may be my undoing, but I’m the sort of fellow who’ll stay at his business through thick and thin.
And I continue standing here at the counter hoping one of my favorite customers will appear…
And I wasn’t wrong. See? You stopped in.”
Read the other essays in this series here.