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.

Interlude: of theoretical gaming analysis, and “Majora’s Mask” versus James Joyce.

As another interval of analysis draws to a close, I wish to take another moment to pause in reflection on the broader trajectory of this project of celebrating and critiquing “Majora’s Mask.”  In the introductory post to With a Terrible FateI said only that the aim of the blog was “to reflect on a game which, far beyond being merely the sequel to ‘Ocarina of Time,’ is, in my view, one of the most significant pieces of art in modern times.”  Later, in the first interlude of the series, I said that the aim of the blog was “to reflect on ‘Majora’s Mask’ as an important work of art in the general realm of aesthetics.”  But as time has passed and readers have commented on the academic nature of the blog, it has become clear that I haven’t been entirely forthright about the purpose of what I’m up to at With a Terrible Fate.  In this post, therefore, I take a first pass at articulating the rationale behind my approach, and what I am ultimately after with this tack of video game analysis.

James Joyce

In James Joyce (1959), Richard Ellmann quotes Joyce describing the process behind crafting his magnum opus, Ulysses:  “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” Joyce reportedly said, “that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”  The novel is, in fact, the continued subject of academic discourse and scholarly articles, living up to Joyce’s wishes.  Written works viewed as “canon” often remain subjects of analysis and literary criticism, no matter how often or to what degree they have been analyzed in the past, or how long ago they were written; and, what’s more, the fame and appreciation of many authors seem to only blossom after the author is deceased.

My intuition is that many academic critics who devote so much admirable time and energy to analyzing the same written works would not at first glance give any credence to analogous analysis of video games.  I think there are several reasons why this is the case:  as I mentioned in my first look at why video games matter, the examples of gaming available to one who has no direct experience playing games tend to be either children engaging with games, or people playing games like “Halo” or “Call of Duty”; so, non-gamers form preconceptions about the entire domain of video games based upon the available-yet-misrepresentative data.  Secondly, there is the matter I referred to in the same article that the language surrounding video games are identity labels of “gamer” or “non-gamer,” as opposed to a language of literacy in which video games are seen as a neutral medium to be understood as one would aim to understood what a book or film is.  Another thought is that video games are a new enough medium that most game designers are still alive or in recent memory, as opposed to canonized authors who are distanced from literary critics by a veil of history; this literal authorial presence could also mitigate the inclination towards analysis.  I am sure there are myriad other reasons, but these are the ‘big three’ that stand out to me.

So much for potential explanations of the current distance between gaming and academia; the next question might be, “So what?”  Does it matter that there is no lingua franca between aesthetes and video games?  I think it matters a great deal, and I offer three lines of reasoning to explain why.

1.  Philosophy has a lot to learn from video games.  Oftentimes when philosophers talk about ‘aesthetics,’ they mean something along the lines of examining an 18th-century painting.  While there is nothing wrong with analyzing this aspect of aesthetics, it is inaccurate to treat this as the whole of the aesthetic domain.  We live in a world where video games exist as intuitive examples of aesthetic objects that inherently depend upon participation of the aesthete.  The story of the game is not told unless you play it, which is a difference in kind from the static object of a painting, or even of a film.  This is an example of how video games actually have the potential to expand philosophical discourse and both revise and refine our conception of what an aesthetic object and an aesthetic experience essentially are.

2.  Gaming has a lot to learn from academia.  Frankly, some people don’t think very highly of video game theory.  They may complain that such theory is “over-thinking games that were just meant for fun,” or that “the writers of the game weren’t trying to make games nearly as deep as the theorist is making them.”  I think that the academic legitimization of video game theory could go a long way in shifting the perspective on what it means to theorize on a game.  For an example of what I mean, consider that there are many different schools of literary criticism, each of which approaches works of literature with a different eye as to how it ought to be analyzed.  Both of the complaints about video game theory I voiced above (and they aren’t straw men — I have genuinely encountered both opinions frequently) presuppose that authorial intent is integral to our assessment of what a game is saying — that is to say, they take the enterprise of gaming to depend upon what the designers were trying to convey when they crafted the game.  That’s certainly one way to approach playing a video game, but it’s by no means the only way.  The school of literary criticism called ‘deconstruction’ takes literature as an aesthetic object, and aims to parse out what it is functionally saying and doing based on its composition, independently of what its author was trying to say in crafting it.  This is a close cousin of the main approach I have taken so far with “Majora.”  There may be resistance to this perspective on video games because many game designers, as I mentioned above, are still living; but I am tempted to think that another factor is that we simply have yet to devise comprehensive theoretic machinery for translating literary criticism into video game criticism.  Though a book and a video game are different in crucial ways that need to be rigorously assessed, I believe the grounding for approaches to game analysis can learn much from literary models such as deconstruction.

3.  The marriage of video games and academia would give more credence to the notion of video games as an art form.  I’ve noticed something interesting that happens when I talk about video games as works of art:  some people take it as an obvious relationship not even worth explicating, and others scoff at the thought of video games ever being considered art.  I am sure part of this is simply resistance to a new medium of expression being validated, as evidenced by the resistance to the novel as an art form highlighted in the case of Jane Austen; but I think another part of it is that video games have little academic clout.  The main discussion of video games in academia is what neurological, developmental and sociological impacts they may or may not have; while I do not discount any of those conversations, I note that a conversation of aesthetic analysis is largely absent.  Why do more people tend to view film as an artistic medium than do video games?  Maybe it’s the length of time film has been around, but we can’t avoid the fact that film studies and film criticism are academically endorsed in a way that video games presently aren’t.  Even if one is unwilling to call video games ‘art,’ I think we should come to the point where it is broadly acknowledged that video games as a medium share relevant features with other media, and that these features merit rigorous analysis:  to name a few examples without presently pursuing any, there is the capacity to tell a story, the ability to represent the inner lives and development of characters, the tendency to incite measured emotional responses in participants, and the representation of comprehensible worlds distinct from reality.

Majora's Mask

So I do think that “Majora’s Mask” is one of the most important pieces of art in our times; but even more than that, I see it as paramount that an attitude of rigorous aesthetic analysis be validated in the case of such games as “Majora.”  That, more than anything, is why I have taken this particular philosophical tack in With a Terrible Fate, for it is this attitude that I hope to inspire and reinforce through a process that might, at first glance, seem to be “overthinking something meant as fun.”  I am of the mind that this manner of analysis is actually tremendously fun and well deserved by many games; with any luck, readers will agree with this claim, and we can begin to develop the theoretical machinery for cementing the place of video games in the aesthetic domain.

And, to be blunt, if academics could spend a century on Ulysses, I venture to say I can comfortably spend a handful of months on “Majora’s Mask.”  Follow along, and let’s see if I’m right.

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.

“If you truly can see me, then follow behind me.” Part II of III examining the Song of Healing.

In the first part of this series on the Song of Healing, I argued that the Song of Healing, despite being described by the Happy Mask Salesman as “a melody that heals evil magic and troubled spirits,” is most parsimoniously understood as an intermediary tool between states of community and states of solitude.  I emphasized that the neutrality of this model was useful because it cohered with the thesis of metaethical nihilism with which we have been working since the beginning of this project; we will soon consider how moral valence might interact with this mechanism, but that exploration will follow the metaphysical analysis currently at hand.  I began this three-part analysis by considering the Song of Healing as it functions as a transitional mechanism from a state of community to a state of individuation, as in the case of Deku Link and Pamela’s Father; in this second part of the analysis, I want to examine how it functions when the directionality is reversed, and it returns an individual to a particular community.  Though I mentioned that the case of Kamaro falls into this category, I want to focus on the instances of Darmani and Mikau, for their cases are more directly pertinent to the structure of the narrative in “Majora’s Mask” than Kamaro’s is.  (Note that there is more to say about both Darmani and Mikau than is pertinent to this post, and that they will be treated further as the blog continues.)

Darmani in pain

When Link arrives at the frigid mountain of Snowhead, Kaepora Gaebora leads him to the Lens of Truth, a magical artifact that allows him to perceive things that would otherwise be invisible.  By using the Lens, Link is able to see the ghost of Darmani:  “If you can truly see me,” Darmani says to him, “then follow behind me.”  Darmani leads Link to his grave, where he laments that he perished while trying to free Snowhead from the “demon” of the Giant bound by the magic of Majora.  Darmani begs Link to bring him back to life so that he can save his village; or, barring that, to heal his sorrows.  Link then plays the Song of Healing, triggering a sequence in which Darmani sees himself applauded by his fellow Gorons; Darmani’s spirit then passes on, leaving Link with the Goron Mask and the charge to help his Goron Village.

Mikau in pain

Link encounters Mikau in similar-yet-distinct circumstances at the Great Bay, as I described previously in a discourse on the significance of death.  Though Mikau is not a ghost when Link finds him, his death is imminent, with Link being the only one to bear witness; Link is also the only one who can bury Mikau, and heal his pain with the Song of Healing.  When he plays the song, Mikau undergoes a sequence in which he sees himself reunited with Lulu, the singer of the Indigo-Go’s; they then walk towards the other members of their band, hand-in-hand, as the vision fades out and Mikau fades away, leaving only the Zora Mask and a charge to help Lulu (“that singer girl”).

In both of these scenarios, as I mentioned last time, the healing sequence triggered by the Song of Time involves a return of the suffering individual to the community they died trying to save — Darmani tried and failed to save his village, and Mikau tried and failed to save the eggs of Lulu from the band of Gerudo Pirates that stole them.  Importantly, in both cases, Link learns how to use the different features of the masks synthesized by the Song of Healing by reading the inscriptions of the fallen heroes’ graves.  This mechanic establishes a sense of heritage:  both Darmani and Mikau are passing on their histories to Link, effectively initiating him into their respective lineages.

The concept of inheritance, at first blush, is a clean way to parse how the Song of Healing functions in these scenes:  Link is carrying on the tradition of the Goron and Zora heroes, saving their people as the heir to the mantle of heroism.  Yet the relationship between Link, Darmani, and Mikau is more complex than this, because Gorons and Zoras do not perceive Goron Link and Zora Link as descendants of their heroes; rather, they believe Link to literally be Darmani or Mikau.  In the case of the Gorons, this causes confusion due to their belief that Darmani was dead, leading them to think that a miracle of some sort has occurred; in the case of the Zoras, this arguably precludes them from ever realizing that Mikau has actually died.  What does this conflation of Link’s identity with the identity of local fallen heroes imply?  I submit that there are two major consequences, which I enumerate below.

1.  The intra-timeline agency afforded by Termina to Link is hyper-protected, yet dependent on a relation to Termina’s native heroes.  We have begun to articulate a refined thesis of Link’s capacity to exert agency within any given three-day cycle (i.e. timeline) of Termina; one implication in the background of this thesis, which we have not hitherto explicated, is that this capacity to exert agency is in fact limited to Link.  This is obvious on an intuitive level, because Link is the sole character within the domain of the player’s control; yet this notion is also narratologically recapitulated by the relationship between Link and Termina’s native heroes.  Darmani and Mikau, as entities constrained to the apocalyptic framework of Termina, cannot independently succeed in advancing Termina towards the eventual defeat of Skull Kid; yet Link, whom we have already framed as a stranger in the alternate universe of Termina, cannot employ his agency within Termina without adopting the personas of the heroes who actually had a stake in saving the dying world.  What the Song of Healing does in these cases is to transform the relationship that Darmani and Mikau bear to Termina by establishing a connection between them and Link, the only source of agency within the universe.  We can use this paradigm to understand the association between the healing sequences of Darmani and Mikau, and the Masks that are left behind thereafter:  Darmani and Mikau perished in an effort to save their communities, and, in that act, they were fatalistically separated from their community by the veil of death; yet Link’s use of the Song of Healing allows him to don the guise of Darmani and Mikau and, using his own capacity of agency, to actualize the will of the fallen heroes by saving their communities.  So the thing meaningfully transmitted from the fallen individuals to their communities by the Song of Healing is their heroic will:  Link’s unique metaphysical freedom allows him to make a reality of what Darmani and Mikau were deterministically prevented from achieving.

2.  The macroscopic framework of the “Zelda” series can be collated using the same paradigm of transmitting the individual to the community.  In the same vein that I argued a meta-thesis about video games was derivable from the ‘community-to-individual’ direction of the Song of Healing, I submit we can extract a meta-thesis from the ‘individual-to-community’ direction.  Specifically, I think that this provides a useful means of answering the following question:  given that the “Legend of Zelda” series encompasses innumerable timelines, multiple ages, and multiple Links, how do we synthesize the stories of each game into a collective narrative?  While I certainly would not argue this to be the only response to that problem, I think a viable means of response is to point to the agency employed by the player in taking up the story of each particular Link, and, in so doing, experientially unifying them.  What I mean is this:  in spite of existing across various timelines and worlds, “Zelda” games maintain certain fixed points — for example, the Triforce, some incarnation of Demise (typically Ganondorf), Zelda, and Link.  Though I have argued that many of these fixed points do not obtain in “Majora,” one that always does, by virtue of being the player’s direct connection to the universe of the game, is Link.  What allows any particular Link to undertake his quest to save his particular community is the player of the game, and it is this dynamic that is identical to the functionality of the Song of Healing in this direction:  suppose Link, as an avatar, to be like a ‘mask’; you, the player controlling Link, are constant as the source of agency acting upon the game, even as each Link you control is distinct.  Thus, this paradigm endows the player with unique significance in fundamentally being the unifying thread of the series as a whole.

Mikau and Lulu

What is at stake when the Song of Healing sounds, and Mikau faces Lulu in a vision that will never come to pass?  The people wrenched apart by the inescapable apocalypse of Termina can never escape the universe of fate, but Link possesses a unique gift to offer them:  the agency to redeem their will and love of their community, in spite of their fate.  The Song of Healing in this direction extends the freedom of Link to the bound heroes of Termina, a special interaction predicated upon the special metaphysics of “Majora”:  by truly seeing Darmani and Mikau, Link is able to translate their will into action.  This, of course, remains an analysis that has been sanitized of moral valence — and it is towards this question of morality that I will turn in Part III of this series.

What can Deku Link teach us about the nature of gaming? Part I of III examining the Song of Healing.

The Happy Mask Salesman describes the Song of Healing, which I have already mentioned as a central element of Termina’s musical metaphysics, as “a melody that heals evil magic and troubled spirits, turning them into masks.”  He teaches it to Link at the beginning of the game, when Skull Kid uses the power of Majora’s Mask to transform Link into a Deku Scrub.  Besides healing Link, the Song of Healing can heal four other characters in Termina:  the ghost of the Goron hero, Darmani; the dying Zora guitarist, Mikau; the transformed scientist, Pamela’s Father; and the regretful ghost of the dancer, Kamaro.

In many ways, the Song of Healing is a cornerstone of what makes “Majora’s Mask” a unique entry in the “Zelda” series:  it is what facilitates the creation of Transformation Masks, and the scenes of characters being healed are some of the most poignant that Termina has to offer.  In light of the song’s scope, I offer readers a survey of it over a series of three posts, each considering different, specific aspects of its functionality within the game.

Although one song heals all five of the characters mentioned above, the instances of healing can be broken into two groups based on how the song functions:  in the cases of Darmani, Mikau, and Kamaro, the song puts to rest a deceased or dying entity who is not at peace with their lives — what the Happy Mask Salesman refers to as healing “troubled spirits” — whereas in the case of Deku Link and Pamela’s Father, the song excises from them a parasitic entity that does not belong — what the Happy Mask Salesman refers to as “evil magic.”  It is the latter category that I set out to examine in this post; in particular, I wish to offer a way of viewing this dynamic of healing that is universalizable to a general meta-thesis about the nature of video games.

When Link arrives in Termina, the Skull Kid invokes the mystic energy of Majora to effectively curse Link:  in one of the most surrealist sequences in the game (4:55 in the video), Link is embraced by a ephemeral colony of Deku Scrubs, then flees in vain from an enormous Deku Scrub that fills the entire screen; when the sequence ends, Link has become a Deku Scrub.  He remains this way until he regains his Ocarina from Skull Kid, at which point the Happy Mask Salesman teaches him the Song of Healing:  in a complementary surrealist sequence (0:45 in the video), the giant Deku Scrub recedes from Link, as Link waves goodbye to it; when the sequence ends, Link is Hylian again, and the Deku Mask rests at his feet.  It is easy to accept the Happy Mask Salesman’s claim that this transformation is a form of evil magic, which Link dispels using the power of the song; yet there are several reasons why we should doubt that what he says is actually the case.  (When we turn to consider the Happy Mask Salesman directly at a later point in this blog, I will assess precisely why there might be this apparent dissonance in his description of the Song of Healing.)

Firstly, the game’s metaethical thesis, I have argued, is that morality does not fundamentally obtain in Termina.  We should therefore be reticent to take any claim about “evil magic” at face value, for it is not readily apparent what ‘evil’ could mean.  I will put aside the question of evil until the third post in this analysis, at which point I will consider what sort of ‘evil’, if any, fits within our model for these instances of healing.

Secondly — and this is how I wish to frame this post — even once we eschew the notion of ‘evilness’, I think the dichotomy between ‘troubled spirits’ and ‘evil magic’ is inherently problematic.  To stake the weakest version of the claim, there is a more parsimonious explanation of the Song of Healing available to us, which describes both classes of healing events as two sides of the same coin.  The explanation consists of the relationship between individual and community, and the difference in the two classes of healing consists in diametrically opposed directionality taken by each class with respect to individual and community.

Music Box House

To see what I mean, consider the case of Pamela’s Father, transformed through an accident in his paranormal research into a disfigured hybrid of himself and a Gibdo.  Link must sneak past Pamela into their home, where she has locked her father in a basement closet, and play the Song of Healing in order to convert the Gibdo part of Pamela’s Father into the form of the Gibdo Mask.  When Link first arrives at the house, Gibdos are marching around its perimeter, effectively trapping Pamela and her father inside their house.  Notably, if Link approaches the Gibdos while wearing the Gibdo Mask (which, of course, requires the use of at least two three-day cycles), he is able to understand what the Gibdos are saying:  “Those inssside…Our friendsss…Brrriiiiinnnng them!”  Pamela shouts from behind the door of their home:  “Keep away from our house!  My father is not one of you!”  What this implies is that the Gibdos perceive Pamela’s transformed father as one of their own:  a friend who belongs in their fold.

Link becoming a Deku scrub

In the context of this example, we can better understand the surrealist episode of Link’s transformation into a Deku Scrub:  the symbolism reflects Link being assimilated by a Deku community, first as represented by a group of fellow Deku Scrubs, and then as a monolithic Deku representative of the greater culture, from which Link cannot escape.  The imagery is of Link being subsumed by a community that views him in its likeness, just as Pamela’s Father is surrounded by Gibdos who see him as their friend.  What we see in both these instances of healing, therefore, is a paradigm wherein transformation leads to being embraced within an otherwise inaccessible community, and that healing serves to once again differentiate the individual from the community.

Compare this model with the three instances of Darmani, Mikau, and Kamaro.  All three of these entities, when found, are isolated from their communities:  Darmani is a ghost and therefore cannot return to the village of his people; Mikau is alone on the beach of the Great Bay, knowing that he is close to death and will never again return to Zora Hall; Kamaro is also a ghost, unable to accomplish his goal of “[bringing] the world together and [stirring] it into a giant melting pot with [his] dance.”  When Link heals these three souls, the focus is on returning them to their community as a mode of gaining peace:  Darmani’s healing sequence depicts him being applauded by all of his fellow Gorons; Mikau’s healing sequence depicts him returning to Lulu and the other members of his band, the Indigo-Go’s; with Kamaro’s Mask, Link is able to teach his dance to the Rosa Sisters, symbolically returning Kamaro to the community of dancers (4:25 in the video).  It is apparent, therefore, that the directionality observed in the cases of Deku Link and Pamela’s Father has been reversed in these cases:  as opposed to the Song of Healing individuating members of communities, here it functions so as to return estranged individuals to the communities from which they are absent.

In light of this analysis, I propose that it is more useful to talk of the Song of Healing as an intermediary between states of solitude and community, rather than as a device for the transformation of “evil spirits” and “troubled spirits.”  This mode of thought is also more useful because it allows us to place the Song of Healing in the metaethically nihilistic world of Termina in such a way that it is not contingent upon any sort of moral valence; rather, just as I considered in my general metaethical analysis, the only moral component of the song is based on our presupposition that Termina is an inherently moral world (a presupposition that is reinforced by the phraseology of the Happy Mask Salesman).  Next time, I will be analyzing how this model of healing functions in the direction from individuation to community (i.e., the cases of Darmani, Mikau, and Kamaro); presently, I wish to make good on my promise to analyze the case of Deku Link, and propose the meta-thesis that I see it offering towards the medium of video games.

Deku Link

As soon as Link arrives in the universe of Termina, Skull Kid transforms him into a Deku Scrub with virtually no explanation, saying afterwards that he expects Link will stay “looking that way forever.”  Link’s entry into Termina is therefore inextricable from his transfiguration and assimilation into the community of Deku Scrubs; yet at by the same token, Link can only gain mobility within Termina by being healed, thereby achieving individuation from that same community.  We can take the analysis a step further by recalling our preliminary compatibilist thesis of inter-timeline determinism and intra-timeline free will:  we described Termina as a set of timelines, the order of which is softly determined, but wherein the Link of an particular timeline can express agency.  Yet that agency is virtually nonexistent until Link heals himself by learning the Song of Healing:  although he does learn the Song of Time prior to the Song of Healing and could therefore hypothetically exist in infinite permutations of Termina timelines without healing himself, he is barred by city guards from leaving Clock Town until he regains his Hylian form.  The agency articulated by our compatibilist thesis therefore bears a dependence relation to Link’s individuation from the Deku Scrub community imposed upon him by Skull Kid.

Put the analysis in general form, and it looks like this:  agent is instantiated, by virtue of relation to a particular community C, within the first member of set S of timelines t with a softly determined relative ordering.  Within any given t, the related agent can express agency if and only if or some instantiated within to a prior timeline p has achieved individuation from C.  While I am still not satisfied with this as a complete model of Termina’s compatibilist metaphysics, it is significantly more rigorous than our previous model.  Yet at first glance, it seems like all this reformulation manages is to account for Link’s initial transformation into a Deku Scrub; therefore, it makes sense to ask whether or not this new thesis bears any utility in a broader understanding of the game.

What I finally propose is that this particular iteration of Termina’s metaphysics is useful because it uniquely serves as meta-commentary on the aesthetic nature of what it means to play a video game.  To explain what I mean, I take the formalization executed above and make the following substitutions.  Let agent L be any given avatar within a particular video game, S.  For simplicity’s sake, bound possible video games within the genre of role-playing games (‘RPG’s’, specifically third-person RPG’s; I am of the mind that this model can be extended beyond RPG’s, but will not take up that line of discourse presently).  Let be the in-game community of non-player characters (‘NPC’s’), and let t be the universe of possible courses of action to be taken from the beginning of the same to its ‘credits-roll’ conclusion.  I submit that this general form functions in a way that closely mirrors the model we have just tracked in “Majora,” and, moreover, that this framework in particular picks out a significant aspect of what sets video games as a medium apart from other forms of art.

The player can only enter the universe of a game through the intermediary of an avatar — the character whom the player controls.  The avatar, by virtue of existing within the universe of the game, necessarily exists in relation to NPC’s — and, in point of fact, is an NPC until the player picks up the controller.  The universe of the game, by definition, exists in its entirety on a literal level with or without the player, which is to say that the whole program that constitutes the game is present prior to the player’s engagement with the game; yet on an aesthetic level, the avatar cannot assert any sort of agency without the input of the player, who, by definition, individuates the avatar from the community of NPC’s.  Endowed with such agency, the avatar is able to move through the video game on unique, softly determined paths, which are unique to the given playthrough, but which simultaneously trend by design towards completion of the story.

This account of video games is important because it reflects why the player is important not only as the observer of the video game medium, but as an actual component of the medium — an accurate description of the aesthetics of a video games is fundamentally impossible without description of the player’s role in establishing the universe of the game.  What’s more, this account inherits the language of ‘healing’ from our analysis of Deku Link:  it is the action of the player upon the avatar that takes the place of the Song of Healing in our model, prompting the avatar’s individuation from the NPC community.  The medium of video games, on this analysis, depends upon the player to be completed, to be restored to its proper aesthetic form.  We can certainly intuit that video games need a player to be valuable, yet I think we would be hard-pressed without the model of Deku Link to fully appreciate the player’s aesthetic necessity within the medium of gaming.  The game demands a player, for the story it means to tell cannot be coherently understood in the player’s absence.

You don’t have to know anything about Buddhism to appreciate “Majora’s Mask,” but it helps.

There are several approaches one can take to interpreting an aesthetic work, but one major dichotomy in methods is the difference in applying a certain interpretive paradigm to a work of art, versus constructing a mode of meaning out of the aesthetic object itself. So far, I have mainly implemented the latter approach in analyzing “Majora’s Mask”; in this post, I wish to turn to the former of these methods in order effort to approach the game from a fresh perspective.

It’s sometimes said that most games coming out of Japan reflect heavy Shinto influence, heavy Buddhist influence, or both. Without taking a stance on authorial intent, I have observed that the whole of “Majora” fits quite cleanly into modes of Buddhist philosophical discourse, which is what I want to convince you of in this post. I will take up other such interpretations in future posts, which will, I hope, show that Buddhism is by no means the only useful lens to impose upon our perception of the game. Nonetheless, we will see that it is a natural stance from which to begin this mode of discourse.

The Buddhist reading of “Majora” takes place in two parts: first, I overlay the Buddhist conception of the universe as samsara onto the literal content and metaphysical structure of the world of Termina; secondly, I compare the path of Link through Termina to the Buddhist model of the Bodhisattva, an Enlightened being of pure compassion. Lastly, I offer remarks on what theses the Buddhist concepts of samsara and ‘skillful means’ put us in a position to make about the game.  (This analysis is by no means a complete Buddhist reading of the game, but gives a flavor of a theme that will return in weeks to come.)

Wheel of Samsara

Buddhism conceives of the universe as ‘the wheel of samsara,’ literally meaning ‘wandering’; this describes six unique walks of life into which souls are born, live, die, and are reborn through reincarnation. As long as people are bound by suffering to the primitive forces of hatred, greed, and ignorance, they cannot escape the cycle of rebirth in samsara and achieve peace. Like the return to new incarnations within samsara, the structure of Termina is always ending yet always being reborn through Link’s use of the Song of Time in order to instantiate new three-day cycles leading up to the apocalypse; the iterative metaphysics of Termina, then, matches that of rebirth within samsara.

Yet the analogy goes deeper than this, for beyond being cyclical, the Buddhist conception of time, the mahakalpa, describes cosmic decline and renewal. Just so, the cosmos of Termina is in decline by virtue of its ultimately unavoidable apocalypse, which we have described previously. Though we will return to Link shortly, it is worth noting here that under this interpretation, his quest is fundamentally a fight against the cosmic order, as he attempts to save everyone in spite of cosmic decline.

So much for time. What is just as salient, though, is that all six walks of samsara are represented within the universe of Termina. I enumerate each of the six points of comparison below.

Clock Town

  1. The Realm of Humans is a model for Clock Town. Ignorant of inevitable demise and rebirth, the citizens of Clock Town go about their lives in idle suffering as the moon moves closer. The citizens of Clock Town are also those who constitute the sidequests whereby Link can heal people’s pain, which corresponds with the Buddhist notion that only those in the human realm are in a position to be Enlightened and saved from the cycle of samsara.Deku King
  2. The Realm of Animals is a model for Woodfall. Poisoned by ignorance, the Deku King tortures an innocent monkey whom he blames for the disappearance of his daughter, who was trapped in the Woodfall Temple. The animal interplay makes the literal comparison of Woodfall with the Realm of Animals obvious, but what more significantly drives the analogy is that the pains of Woodfall are driven by instinct – the rash King is led to punish an innocent monkey for the sake of retribution, without rational deliberation or attempt at cooperation.Goron Elder's Son
  3. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts is a model for Snowhead. The Goron’s all yearn for that which they cannot have: namely, their fallen hero, Darmani. The crying Goron Elder’s son, who feels lost without the presence of his father, aptly represents this same kind of pain. Link’s use of the Goron Mask allows him to appear in the guise of Darmani, and to virtually unite father and son by playing their lullaby for the son; yet ultimately, these are artificial comforts. Like the hungry ghosts, the Gorons crave that which they cannot truly possess.Zora Hall
  4. The Realm of Jealous Gods is a model for the Great Bay—specifically, for the Zoras. Isolated from the tumult of the Great Bay in Zora Hall, the major problem for the Zoras is that the lead singer of their renowned band, the Indigo-Go’s, has lost her voice. They are relatively aloof from the other problems of Termina, yet still dissatisfied, a state of suffering analogous to Buddhism’s jealous gods. Nothing demonstrates this aloofness more than the fact that, though the Zoras wonder where their friend Mikau is (until Link poses as him with the Zora Mask), they never learn that Mikau has died.Ikana Canyon
  5. The Realm of Hell is a model for Ikana Canyon. Everyone in Ikana experiences some sort of torment. The landscape is populated by fallen Ikana warriors; Gibdos trapped somewhere between life and death; Garo, persecuted and trapped as invisible spirits; and Igos du Ikana and his men, corrupted by darkness. The Hell Realm is a place of punishment, yet its victims, because of their ignorance, cannot understand the punishment; this imbalance between punishment and acknowledgment manifests Ikana’s painful-yet-vague history, as in the violent Garo-Ikana war that has faded into myth.The Moon
  6. The Realm of Gods is a model for the Moon. On the literal level, the world of the Moon is physically separated from the rest of Termina, just as the Gods exist on their own plain. Put aside the status of the Moon Children for a moment: the two glaringly apparent Gods on the Moon are Majora and the Fierce Deity. The moon is their domain, where they engage in battle with the tenor of Gods playing with each other, as I discussed earlier.  In this framework, Majora most likely represents Mara, God of death; the Moon Children could possibly be his children, or subordinate deities — but in this post, they are peripheral to the analysis.

What are we to make of Link within this Buddhist framework? The goal towards which the narrative directs Link is unequivocal: save everyone. There is in Buddhism a ready analogue in the Bodhisattva, an Enlightened being who refuses to fully liberate himself from the cycle of samsara until every single other sentient being has been liberated from samsara. These agents of compassion travel and choose to be reborn all over the realms of samsara, in order to save as many people as possible. This is precisely the goal I described regarding the side quests of “Majora”: the entire story of Termina is told by the suffering of individuals, and the choices made by Link to save them.

Yet I have also observed that Link cannot save everyone in Termina in a single three-day cycle. In my own theory I have worked out possible explanations for this dynamic of the game; but it also lends itself to particular implications when we are working within a Buddhist framework. I have already offered an argument for each three-day cycle functioning as its own discrete timeline, and this coheres with the Buddhist framework because we can interpret each timeline as a unique incarnation of people in samsara. People are reincarnated into different walks of samsara, based on the actions taken in past lives (karma) and the general influence of suffering, it follows that the entity manifested as the mailman (as an example) in one timeline is not necessarily the same entity perceived as the mailman in another timeline.

This is important because, in the Buddhist framework, the people of Termina actually can be saved by Link’s intervention; what explains the reiteration of their problems in the next three-day cycle is the mere fact that another entity mired in samsara has been reborn in that same place. So, although Link can meaningfully save people, it is impossible for him to save everyone in the universe. This is compatible with the Buddhist notion that because so many beings and so much suffering exist in the degenerating world, it would take a cosmically unfathomable amount of time to liberate all sentient beings.

Link can acquire all masks as proof of his compassion, become the Fierce Deity, defeat Majora, and let the credits roll, but I have said before that this sense of completion is a false one. The Buddhist framework is useful because it does explanatory work in helping us understand this false sense of completion: the Fierce Deity is a God, and a characteristic of a God realm is ignorance of the profound suffering of the world. Thus the Fierce Deity, slaying Majora, would falsely believe that the world was freed of suffering—yet returning to the realm of humanity, it becomes apparent that this is only illusory.

Goron Link

What do we glean in particular from a Buddhist reading of “Majora”? There are two directions we can consider here.  The first is that an account of Link as a Bodhisattva would give us uniquely useful machinery for explaining exactly why he is so dependent on masks.  The philosophy of Buddhism avails itself of a technique called ‘skillful means’; roughly glossed, this means that, in order to teach the same thing to different people, one must teach using methods particular to the individual.  Skillful means can sometimes even explain apparent lies and deceit, when an Enlightened and compassionate teacher implements them for the sake of bettering another life.  So, for example, we might rightly be confused as to why Link poses as Darmani to his beloved Goron tribe that mourns him; skillful means would succinctly explain that Link needed to deceive them in order to gain access to the Snowhead temple, where he could free the Giant and restore balance to Snowhead — or, alternatively, that for the Gorons to ultimately be healed of their pain and achieve peace, they needed at that moment to see the one for whom they yearned.

Happy Mask Salesman

The second direction to go is to consider the famous, final address delivered by the Happy Mask Salesman to Link, as the game is ostensibly ending: “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.” We can understand why the Salesman refers to Link having made “quite a number of people happy”: it is impossible for him to have made all sentient beings happy, but he can make as many as he wants happy without an upward bound. The art of meeting and parting goes hand-in-hand with the Bodhisattva vow: without grasping or holding on to anything, Link has a literally infinite number of opportunities to encounter the different beings living out the same tortured roles, genuinely know them, and ultimately save them. Link is the compassionate hero whose compassion lies in the action itself, rather than in the end state beyond all action.

Mister Owl, how many timelines does it take to get to the center of free will and determinism?

Do we have control over our actions?  Does fate exist?  If fate obtains, then can it be changed?  Questions like these have been on the minds of humans since art’s inception, with works ranging from Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis taking up the matter of how much control we have over our lives.  It’s one of the less-esoteric debates of philosophy, to which everyone can relate on some level.

Of the many unique aspects of video games as a medium, one that most entices me is the capacity of video games to offer sophisticated illustrations and theses of the problem of free will.  The reason why video games are uniquely positioned to do so is this:  the narrative of a video game takes the input of the player as one of its fundamental elements.  Because of this, each playthrough of a game is unique, whether it is on the level of the player’s character dying at different points in the game, or on the level of the player’s choices leading to different game endings.  One could say that reading a novel is also always a unique experience because the reader can interpret the story’s meaning differently, or read the narrative out of logical sequence (perhaps, for example, reading a poem from end-to-beginning).  Yet neither of these aesthetic properties are equatable to what we see in video games:  the argument for different experiences on the level of interpretation is independent of literally different narratives presenting each time the aesthetic object is examined; the argument of out-of-sequence reading is also interpretive in that the very concept of approaching art out-of-sequence implies reading the work in a way other than the way intended by the author, whereas the artistic variation in video game playthroughs typically all follow the beginning-to-end structure of the game.

There is far more to be said about this aspect of video games in general, but I will leave the analysis here as introduction.  I turn now with this background to “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask”:  we have already begun to broach the metaphysics of the world of Termina; what do the unique spatio-temporal structure and game mechanics of this title propose in terms of freedom and fate?  To begin our inquiry, I turn to a subject that I left as a parenthetical in my previous discussion of musical metaphysics in Termina:  the Owl, Kaepora Gaebora, who serves as Link’s guide in Termina.

(A note on terminology:  ‘fate’ is glossed here, roughly, as ‘determinism’, which contrasts with ‘free will’, the existence of some form of agency.  Both terms are broad, and I endeavor to be as precise as possible when using each in the following analysis.)

Kaepora Gaebora

I quote my relevant commentary from the previous post:  “the only way in which the player can genuinely save progress in the game is by playing the Song of Time.  This means that even the player’s metaphysical relation to the game in terms of recording their in-game actions in the game’s history is governed by music.  (I use the term “genuinely save” because players can also save their game at Owl Statues throughout Termina; but these saves are described as temporary in that the game is exited upon saving, and the save marker is deleted when the save file is reopened.  Thus, the very design of the Owl Statue suggests that it only provides the player with an artificial and indirect relation to the game’s universe, as compared with the Song of Time.)”  This is the grounding for Kaepora Gaebora’s metaphysical significance in Termina:  he exists in relation to Termina, as opposed to as a constituent of Termina.  This is evidenced not only by his narratological role as an observer and director of Link towards upcoming objectives, but also mechanically in the way that Owl Statues facilitate the player’s temporary quitting Termina.  I will return to Kaepora Gaebora’s relation to Termina in due course, but it will be useful presently to consider his character in a broader context — particularly regarding his role in “Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time.”

In “Ocarina,” Kaepora Gaebora is an incarnation of the ancient sage Rauru, who guides Link on the beginnings of his quest to stop Ganondorf — literally guiding him from the very moment he leaves his home, the Kokiri Forest.  One of the major themes of “Ocarina” is Link realizing and fulfilling his destiny as the Hero of Time, and Kaepora Gaebora acts largely as an agent who directs Link towards that destiny.  Implicitly, he does this by appearing whenever Link encounters a new area, directing him towards his next objective; explicitly, he does this by actually explaining to Link his destiny to become the Hero of Time and save Hyrule.


Kaepora Gaebora refers to Link as a “child of fate,” “chosen by fate” to possess the Triforce of Courage, traverse time, and defeat Ganondorf.  Link the Hero of Time is framed in this way as the archetypal epic hero, who is meant to undertake a great quest, and finds ultimately that he must do so.  The game design of “Ocarina” recapitulates this framework:  although side quests exist, the ecology of the game is dominated by the monolithic main quest to defeat Ganondorf.  Every event within the game is designed to move Link closer to the final confrontation against the Great King of Evil, to the point that Navi, the fairy who serves as Link’s guardian, incessantly tells him “Hey, listen!” and reminds him of the main quest objective at hand.  So the tale of “Ocarina” is fundamentally deterministic, and Kaepora Gaebora is a harbinger to Link of the world’s determined framework.

Kaepora Gaebora in Woodfall

Move now to the Kaepora Gaebora of “Majora”:  he, too, speaks of fate, but in a context that is diametrically opposed to the usage in “Ocarina.”  Whereas the dialectic in “Ocarina” centers on Link realizing his destiny as a hero and savior, the dialectic in “Majora” centers on Link changing the destiny of Termina.  When Link encounters him in the swamp of Woodfall, Kaepora Gaebora implies that the world of Termina is “destined to fade,” having lost its deities (i.e., the Giants).  He introduces the Owl Statue mechanism, which I discussed earlier, in this way:  “If you have the courage and determination to proceed in the face of destiny,” he says to Link, “then I shall teach you something useful… I have placed [Owl Statues] throughout the land to aid one with the power to change the destiny of this land… Wherever he may appear.”  There are three salient points apparent from this shift in Kaepora Gaebora’s discourse, which I enumerate below.

1.  The valence of destiny has changed from individualist to universal, and from positive to negative.  In “Ocarina,” Link’s unique fate as the Hero of Time, arduous though it was, was empowering in that it promised the ultimate salvation of Hyrule and defeat of Ganondorf.  In contrast, the fate in “Majora” is one belonging to the entire world, and is a downward trajectory of “fading.”  Thus fate is a pathway towards success in “Ocarina,” and the ultimate frustration of success in “Majora.”

2.  Link has lost his unique import in Termina.  Link in “Ocarina” was a child of destiny, entrusted with a guardian fairy and backed by Sages in a battle that only he could wage against Ganondorf.  The goddesses themselves choose him, by virtue of his being endowed with the Triforce of Courage.  Yet when Link arrives in Termina, he has no titles, no honorifics to fall back on.  Kaepora Gaebora addresses him in the conditional:  “If you have the courage… then I shall teach you something useful”; later, when Link meets Kaepora Gaebora on the mountain of Snowhead, he says to Link that “perhaps you do have enough strength to change the fate of this mountain after all.”  His reference to “one with the power to change the destiny of this land… Wherever he may appear” implies that the course of Termina is in no way dependent upon Link per se.  Link could be the one to save Termina, but he is not necessarily the one to save Termina.

3.  Kaepora Gaebora is exogenous from Termina.  As suggested by my preliminary remarks on Owl Statues, Kaepora Gaebora as an entity is implied to exist outside the bounds of Termina’s apocalyptic framework.  This is because his Owl Statues (thinly-veiled analogues to shrines) not only allow Link to teleport across Termina, but also allow the player to temporarily extricate themselves from the universe of the game via temporary saving.  Combine this with the fact that Link must strike the Owl Statues to activate them, an action referred to as “leaving proof of the encounter,” which remains even when time is reset:  the Owl appears to serve as a “fixed point,” an observer of the myriad timelines of Termina, who enters the universe only twice in order to speak to Link and direct him onwards, provided that Link wants to go onwards.

What follows from [1], [2], and [3]?  Kaepora Gaebora was a signpost of determinism in “Ocarina”; now, he leaves the possibility open that fate can be changed, and that Link could possibly effect such a change.  Are we to interpolate this as the collapse of determinism in Termina, with the course of the universe totally alterable by Link?  Such a conclusion is implausible, in light of the arguments I have put forth regarding the inescapable decay of Termina.  Yet the relationship between Link and fate has clearly changed between “Ocarina” and “Majora,” so something more nuanced is at play here.  With this background of Kaepora Gaebora, I take a first pass at sketching a Majoran thesis of free will / determinism.  The full endeavor will take far more than a single blog post, but we now have enough machinery to make significant headway on the matter.

Recall from my post about the absence of Zelda my theory of timeline proliferation within Termina, loosely strung together by what I called “temporal afterimages,” roughly glossed as ‘remnants or artifacts of prior timelines.’  Recall also my theory from my first post about Termina’s metaphysics that Link in Termina is not Link the Hero of Time from “Ocarina.”  These theses, combined with our exploration of Kaepora Gaebora’s function within the game, will serve as the basis for our analysis.

To begin with, we must distinguish between two different “flavors” of determinism:  one that I will call ‘intra-timeline determinism,’ and another that I will call ‘inter-timeline’ determinism.  ‘Intra-timeline determinism’ is the name for determinism within a single timeline — so, in more generic games that only have one timeline, this would be the thesis for all future states of the timeline being causally determined by prior states of the timeline.  ‘Inter-timeline determinism,’ in contrast, refers to a possible type of determinism emergent from the nature of timelines proliferating within the universe of Termina:  specifically, it claims that the chain of timelines is predetermined, such that any given three-day cycle Link lives within Termina is causally determined by the prior three-day cycle.  These distinctions, as far as I can see, are only possible in a game as metaphysically imaginative as “Majora’s Mask,” but lead to some provocative, generalizable modes of inquiry.

We know from Kaepora Gaebora that Termina as a universe has a fate, and that the fate is one of ultimate annihilation [1].  We have cause to trust the reliability of Kaepora Gaebora about the general metaphysical shape of Termina, because he is exogenous from Termina [3].  Kaepora Gaebora also acknowledges that it is nomologically possible for Link to change the fate of Termina, though Link will not necessarily do so, and it is not necessarily Link who will change Termina’s fate [2].  We know from analysis that the Link of Termina is not the Hero of Time, and also that he relates to the Hero of Time through the phenomenon of temporal afterimagery.  Yet if we accept that the Link of Termina is only related to the Hero of Time and his timeline through temporal afterimagery, we find ourselves with little reason to believe that the Link of any given Termina timeline is the same Link as the one in any other Termina timeline.  Rather, it seems more plausible that, like the case of the Hero of Time’s relation to the first Link of Termina, each subsequent Link of Termina is connected to the previous only through the effects of temporal afterimagery.  This is important, because it will allow us to explain how the universe of “Majora’s Mask” is at once determined and undetermined.

Consider first a playthrough of “Majora” described by a setof three-day cycles (i.e., timelines) in Termina, from the first cycle when a player begins the game to the last cycle when Majora is ostensibly defeated and the fall of the moon is stopped.  The set can increase without limit depending on how many times the player uses the Song of Time, and each timeline can proceed differently based on what choices the player makes (more on this below).  Regardless, the game is structured such that the first and last members of the set are the same:  the former is the first Link’s entry into Termina and quest to reclaim his Ocarina and human body, and the latter is the defeat of Majora by the Fierce Deity.  Similarly, all main story events — the liberation of the four Giants, etc. — must exist in the same relative positions within all sets S; that is to say, one cannot undertake story events out-of-order.  So, on this macroscopic level, the game drives the player towards its conclusion, irrespective of whatever path they might take within the game.  What follows is that a certain brand of inter-determinism holds for the game:  players are driven through the story sequentially, and as a result, timelines in which the story advances are consistent in their relative positions, and all must occur within timeline set S.

Now consider any given three-day cycle, ‘Timeline X‘, which exists within S.  The Link within Timeline X is unique, and is capable of advancing the story — but he also does not have to advance the story.  This is what explains Kaepora Gaebora’s conditional appraisal of Link in [2]:  any particular Link may advance the cause of stopping the moon from falling, but it is not required of him.  The game mechanics recapitulate this theory:  typically a “game over” event within a game indicates that the player has, as it were, failed at the story of the game, and so they must restart from an earlier point in order to play out the “proper story” of the game.  Yet if Link does nothing to advance the main story of the main in the three days prior to the end of Termina, this does not necessarily lead to a “game over” event — rather, Link can play the Song of Time, thereby instantiating a new timeline and a new Link.  The result of this is that the game itself endorses individual Links who are not heroes, and who do not contribute to the inter-timeline determined plotline.

Kaepora Gaebora is exogenous from Termina [3], which is why we can trust his appraisal of the overall shape of Termina’s universe, and set of timelines.  Given this, the fact that he addresses Link conditionally implies that he does not know whether any given Link within a specific Timeline X will advance the inter-timeline determined story or not.  This reinforces what we know intuitively, which is that the player can exercise choice in what they can do within any given three-day cycle, even though they must ultimately undertake the main story in order to complete the game.  Significantly, what we see here is that the actions of a particular Link in Termina cannot be determined, because Kaepora Gaebora would then not have cause for referring to Link’s capacity to save Termina conditionally.  It follows that intra-timeline determinism does not hold, and that any given Link has the ability to exercise free will.


We have not, of course, defined precisely what ‘free will’ means for a localized Link.  It will take more work than this post to approach a satisfying definition, but we can get something provisional off the ground at present.  We know that there is a fixed number of actions Link can take in Termina — after all, the world is spatially and temporally finite within any given timeline, and Link’s actions are limited to those that the player can input via the finite button combinations on their controller.  Yet we also know that many actions available to Link do not advance the main plot.  These range from the universe of side quests within the game, to literally taking no action, to actively wasting time — e.g., the salient character of the Scarecrow, who offers Link the opportunity to “forget the time” and dance for hours on end, serving no function besides moving the world closer to its end.  So if there is a set A of all actions available to Link in the entire universe of Termina, and subset a is the set of all story-advancing actions available to Link, then we can provisionally define ‘free will’ in this context as ‘the capacity of a given Link to select a course of action from without regards to whether it is a member of a.’  Again, this definition is incomplete, but it suffices to endorse a form of agency in any given Link within a timeline of Termina.

In a way, the analysis offers more questions than answers.  Besides the precise nature of Link’s agency, there is the question of a more exact account of set of all timelines of Termina.  I have mentioned several times already that Termina ultimately cannot be saved, even though the game has an ending where it appears to be saved, after which the credits roll (this apparent paradox, by the way, is another example of the narrative dissonance that I mentioned previously).  So for now, it is an open question as to whether timelines proliferate ad infinitum even after the credits, or if the set is bounded by the “credit-rolling” event.  Yet the model of all playthroughs being representable set with particular members whose relative positions are fixed, combined with a framework of Link’s agency as an entity within a single timeline, does give us quite a lot of information about the metaphysics of Termina.  In sum, the analysis illustrates a universe that, by virtue of its multiple timelines, accommodates a compatibilist framework of:  determinism on a second-order, inter-timeline level, and free will on a first-order, intra-timeline level.

I will return to matters raised here in later posts, but for now I wish to close by considering the ramifications of this thesis in the broader scope of video games in general.  We saw in analysis the importance of the player as an entity in relation to Link, and it is the player who is ultimately able to exercise choice within timelines of Termina, even while proceeding along the story arc preserved on the inter-timeline level.  And surely, if we are to ask ourselves what temporal afterimage bonds every Link in every timeline of Termina together, the answer is the player, the one who accompanies each and every Link on his passage through Termina — essentially, from the inception of the Link when the Song of Time resounded in a previous timeline, to that Link’s extinction when he plays the Song of Time.  This relation, far from being an aside, underscores a way in which the player’s agency and interaction with the game becomes a component of the game’s metaphysics and aesthetics, for it is our agency that, narratologically, makes the story told by the entire set of timelines significant, whereas timelines otherwise would only be vaguely aware of each other based on the other, less-robust temporal afterimages generated by Link.  Video games are uniquely poised to not only acknowledge the agency of the person who engages with them, but to make the meaning of the story intrinsically related to that agency, and “Majora’s Mask” serves as the template for how to achieve this on a deeply metaphysical level.