Aliens, cows, and “Assassin’s Creed”: what works, and what doesn’t.

My work on “Majora’s Mask” would not encompass the intriguing strangeness of the game without mentioning “Them.”  Never given a name, They are entities that descend upon Romani Ranch in Termina every two years, and abduct cows.  They are never explained, and Link doesn’t need to confront them to complete the game’s main quest; rather, this is a side quest where only the well being of ranch owner Cremia, her little sister Romani (pictured below with Link), and their cows, is apparently at stake.  If Link stops Them, then he is set on the path to being rewarded with a Mask; if he fails, then not only are cows abducted, but Romani is abducted, only to be returned with her memories erased.

Romani and Link

There are plenty of approaches one can take in speculating on this bizarre pocket of Termina’s three-day existence.  In this article, I offer what I hope to be a novel and useful commentary on what narratologically makes Them work well.  To do so, I will compare the use of aliens in “Majora” to what I see as an informatively bad implementation of aliens in video games:  the “Assassin’s Creed” series (I mainly have in mind the Desmond Miles arc, spanning “Assassin’s Creed” through “Assassin’s Creed III”).  What I hope to begin to draw out is a mode of understanding what leads the alien to be either useful or detrimental to the architecture of a video game.

It’s worthwhile to preface this commentary with a couple of background points.  First, from early on in this enterprise, I’ve made no secret of my feelings toward the trajectory of “Assassin’s Creed” as a series.  As a disclaimer, however, I should point out that there are many things I feel the games of the series do well, and I do not mean to offer a comprehensive overview of the series in this handful of posts within my analysis of “Majora.”  As such, if the reader feels more comfortable considering my critique of “Assassin’s Creed” as something more along the lines of a generic theoretical foil, then they should by all means do so — it shouldn’t impact the following discourse.

Secondly, I’m being very generous with what I gloss as ‘aliens’.  In “Majora,” They are sometimes referred to as “ghosts”; in “Assassin’s Creed,” the entities I have in mind — the “First Civilization” — actually existed on earth prior to humans.  Therefore, one might say that neither beings are, strictly speaking, “aliens.”  What I mean by ‘aliens’ is a set of characteristics that obtain both in the case of Them and in the First Civilization.  To name a few such characteristics, I am thinking of:  a distinct sense of ‘otherness’ from the normative inhabitants of the relevant world; abilities that allow them to interact with the world in ways that seemingly transcend human capabilities; and a degree of apparent inexplicability within our natural conception of the relevant world.

The Animus

The road to what I see as one of the main narratological problems of “Assassin’s Creed” begins with what I actually see as a major triumph of the series:  a victory in meta-gaming.  What I refer to as ‘meta-gaming’ is the act of one’s character within a video game engaging in the act of playing a game, such that another game is embedded within the overarching video game (another typical term for a ‘meta-game’, as I am using the term, is ‘mini-game’).  I haven’t yet discussed this concept at length, and it will be more appropriate to do so at a later time; suffice it to say, I see most games at failing to justify this mechanic because the player’s character is insignificant in relation to the meta-game.  If you come across, say, a casino in “Final Fantasy XIII-2,” you might have the opportunity to play a slot machine; yet there is no meaningful way, when the slot machine fills the screen and the player is left to pull its lever, that the player’s character has a stake in the play of the meta-game.  In my mind, a meta-game must earn its keep by maintaining the intermediary of the player’s character as a significant entity; otherwise, it’s probably filler or fluff.

“Assassin’s Creed” passes this test with flying colors.  It introduces, as featured above, the novel virtual reality device called “the Animus” (pictured above), which essentially accesses the user’s genetic data and thereby allows the user to assume the role of one of their ancestors.  Users can then effectively live out the memories of their ancestors through the virtual reality interface.  So, the player enters the world of “Assassin’s Creed” through the character of Desmond Miles, who lives in the present day; Desmond –and, vicariously, the player — then assumes the role of various ancestors by engaging the Animus.  The world created by the Animus, then, can be seen as an immense, nontrivial meta-game, and I see that as a triumph in the architecture of interactive, multi-layered narratives.

Minerva and Juno arguing


If the architecture of the series ended there, I might well be a strong proponent of it; but that’s only the beginning.  The story is locally framed as a struggle between the Templars, who seek to achieve peace through total control of the world, and the Assassins, who seek to achieve peace through individual freedom.  All well and good, but also all at the mercy of a First Civilization that created the human race, developed technology to communicate forward in time, and eventually leads your character, Desmond, to kill his companion (Lucy) and himself.

In one way this is a very unfair gloss of what is actually a surprisingly rich mythos, and in another way it’s uncomfortably fair.  First, we should take a moment to unpack the mythos a little:  in the distant past, the First Civilization essentially developed humans as slaves, and were almost wiped out by them in an ensuing war; later, as a threat of apocalypse by solar flare loomed, the First Civilization developed artifacts and technologies to interact with the underlying patterns of the universe, and to look into the future, by which means they are able to communicate with Desmond and his ancestors.  In 2012, another solar flare is threatening the world, and the First Civilization aims to prevent that threat, but internal discord between two of its members — namely, Minerva and Juno (above, pictured arguing in front of Desmond) — lead to Juno trying to manipulate technology to take over the world on her own.  Imprisoned for this conspiracy, she conspires to have Desmond release her by using a technological device that kills him, but protects the earth from the solar flare — and also liberates Minerva.

To clarify, I would not take particular issue with a such a story, as stated, as its own entity — complex timelines and world structures, as frequent readers might have guessed, are a few of my favorite things.  The crux of the problem, and the reason why I think my previous gloss was “uncomfortably fair,” is that the experience of Assassin’s Creed is rendered out-of-joint by the imposition of an enormous, even transcendental narrative on top of a tidy, interesting story of a cross-time power struggle between Templars and Assassins.  The series begins with an emphasis on the Animus, with Desmond encountering his ancestor and slowly uncovering the depth and breadth of the Templar/Assassin conflict; through the vicarious experiences of his ancestors, he is made to understand his lineage, and stake a position in the war of freedom versus control.

Apple of Eden

Yet little by little, the alien seeps into the narrative:  an Apple of Eden (above) with incomprehensible, seemingly magical powers is uncovered at the end of the first game; Minerva arrives; ultimately, Juno appears and the course of events becomes subsumed by an alien struggle which at times registers at times like a soap opera.  Juno’s husband was ultimately killed in an experimental solution to preventing the apocalypse, so she wants to take over the world; “Assassin’s Creed III,” a game whose meta-game chronicles a vast, impressive journey through the revolutionary war by a Native American, concludes with an argument between Minerva and Juno, leading to Desmond killing himself in the hopes of saving humanity.  Juno is freed, and ominously says that it is time for her to play her part.

What makes me look upon this is narratologically annoying is baked into the concept of the alien:  by its nature, the alien is out of place, mystified, and somewhat out-of-joint.  Suddenly, the alien instead subsumes a series whose conceit was the human struggle and exploration of identity across time and lineage.  This is messy, and leaves the player questioning what their stake is in the world of the game.

Questioning stake in this way is hugely problematic.  When the player is made to question, say, whether the course they are lead to take in a game is morally justified (for example, the case of killing the Garo in “Majora”), the potential to engage with the game on other registers opens up; but when the player questions what relevance at all they have in the course of a game, the incentive to engage with it at all is proportionately diminished.  And, to be blunt, if we follow the spirit of my earlier analysis regarding the worlds of games nontrivially depending upon player agency, then we might say that the narrative course I just described makes “Assassin’s Creed” substantially less of a video game series by discounting player agency.


In the same places where I argue “Assassin’s Creed” errs with respect to the alien, I see “Majora’s Mask” succeeding.  By no means are They the most interesting or important element of the game, but they make good theoretic sense:  in a way that we might suppose necessary for the alien to remain alien rather than becoming normative, They appear only in an optional quest within the game — in point of fact, Cremia actually initially doubts that They exist, and thinks that Romani is playing silly games.  This preserves not only Their otherness, but also the authority of Link’s agency:  in spite of Their inexplicable materialization in a ball of light, “beaming up” of cows, and brainwashing of Romani, the consequences of Link not defeating Them are contained within a local area of Termina, and is also contained to that particular timeline of Termina.  In no way could They threaten the structure of Link’s struggle against the moon’s descent, or the metaphysical tension between the Clock Town Theme and the Song of Time.

Indeed, part of what makes Them so bizarre and memorable is that They are purely a local phenomenon, never speaking, never explained, always a threat to Romani Ranch but never a threat to the universe of Termina.  Interestingly, I think this is why They are perceived as “alien” whereas Link and Skull Kid are not.  At first glance, it seems as though two beings who entered Termina from a parallel universe (i.e., Hyrule) would be the ultimate aliens — yet in spite of their ontology, our entire understanding of Termina is grounded in these two characters, making them far more central and far less ‘other’ than the rest of Termina.  In this way, Link and Skull Kid are actually similar to Minerva and Juno:  with preexisting history and conflict, they are thrown into a universe distinct from their own.  If we were somehow put in the shoes of a citizen of Termina prior to Link’s arrival (something which I have argued may not be coherently imaginable), then we might be just as bothered with these two strangers as I am with the First Civilization.  But because of where the player and their agency is focalized in each narrative, “Majora” ends up being consistently framed by Link and Skull Kid, whereas “Assassin’s Creed” is progressively subsumed by the alien, until the alien is normative and the player lacks grounding.

“Wait a minute Mister Postman”: the problem of Termina in a single man.

“In my mind, I am running for exactly

ten seconds without looking at a clock.”

-The Postman, “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask”

So far, my analysis of characters in “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask” has primarily been contained to major characters figuring in the game’s main plot — the Happy Mask Salesman, Skull Kid, etc.  But some of the most salient characters in the universe of Termina need not ever be encountered in order to complete the main plot of the game, and it is to one of these characters that I turn in this article: the meticulous Postman of Clock Town.

What exactly is the Postman?  At first glance, he might seem as much a piece of scenery as a NPC:  in later entries in the series (e.g., “Twilight Princess”) he interacts with Link by giving him mail, but the only mail he delivers in “Majora” is to other NPC’s, making him seem more like mechanic of Clock Town than an individuated character.  Yet just as different levels of ethical discourse emerge based on how much of the game the player engages, so too does the player have the opportunity to discover much more about the Postman by seeking him out and engaging with him.  As the pace of life in Clock Town accelerates over the course of three days (something which I described when analyzing the music of “Majora”), the pace of the Postman’s daily route accelerates as well, effectively keeping time with the town.  Each night, in his home which is identical to the Post Office, he practices “mental training” in which he visualizes running for precisely ten seconds, in order to perfectly adhere to his schedule.

Postman Training

Yet at the same time that the Postman epitomizes public service in unflinching adherence to ‘the schedule’, another part of the Postman runs counterpoint to this:  his desire to escape Clock Town.  In the same breath that he preaches his devotion to the schedule, he bemoans that he cannot satisfy is desire to flee because fleeing “[is] not written on the schedule.”  In this way, the Postman’s internal struggle is eerily reminiscent of the cosmic friction of Termina, which I previously described as the struggle between Armageddon and renewal.  I quote from my article on the musical metaphysics of Termina:  “Termina is a world defined by time, and time in ‘Majora’ is metricized through music.  We can even frame the basic tension of the game through music:  the story of ‘Majora’ is the push-and-pull of the Song of Time against the Clock Town Theme.  The accelerating, manic juggernaut of the Clock Town Theme is the underlying tendency of the game’s universe toward extinction, and the Song of Time is manifest will, the agency of humanity staring into inevitable demise and asserting themselves in the face of extinction.  On a Nietzschean reading, every other component of the game is derivative of the counterpoint between these two musical themes.”  At the time, I did not pursue the claim that other components of the game are derivative of the musical counterpoint, but the Postman presents an example of exactly that:  his turmoil is a microcosm of the universal tension between inevitable demise and the desire for salvation.

SisyphusPostman in anguish

At first glance, the struggle of the Postman looks like the Sisyphean primitive (i.e., being doomed, for all time, to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down to the bottom):  he is the man who is doomed to struggle for all time with an endlessly repeating task, with the only hope of ‘success’ manifesting in some form of existential transcendence (think Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus).  In the remainder of this piece, however, I will argue that the position of the Postman, from the player’s perspective, is too complicated to reduce to the primitive of Sisyphus.  It is that complexity which renders the Postman particularly salient as a case study within the world of Termina.

There are two levels on which we may assess the Postman.  First, we may ask the question of how he evolves as a character through the narrative of Termina, independent of the role played by the player as a narratologically significant agent; I will refer to this level of analysis as ‘flat analysis’, because it treats the game narrative as a planar construct independent of player involvement.  The second level of analysis, in contrast, takes player agency as an essential component of the narrative’s discourse, which coheres with my model of Termina as nontrivially dependent on player agency; in contrast to flat analysis, I refer to this as ‘full analysis’.  Readers who have been following the course of my argumentation may observe that this is a false dichotomy, for, if the narrative of a video game is dependent on player agency, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to examine its storyline independently of player agency.  What I hope to suggest in this article is that the process of first undertaking flat analysis, incomplete though it may be, can put the analyst in a better position for a full analysis thereafter.

Postman in Repose

There are two horns to the flat analysis of the Postman:  how he expresses his desire to escape on the one hand, and how he ultimately achieves “liberation” on the other hand.  To try to convince himself to flee the doomed Clock Town, the Postman writes and mails a letter to himself.  The letter reads:

To Myself,

You have been doing a great job delivering the mail.

I have a request for my hard-working self. 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…

From Me

What’s noteworthy here (no pun intended) is that the only apparent recourse available to the Postman in order to question his absolute adherence to schedule is an operation within the bounds of that schedule:  he must mail and deliver a letter to himself in order to question his uncompromising commitment to the delivery of mail.  This commentary is in 20th century literary theory:  our critiques of systems are limited to the language of discourse allowed by the system.

We get a fuller image of the Postman’s situation by considering the other horn of the flat analysis:  he is only able to attain “freedom” via a directive from his superior (Postmistress Madame Aroma) to abandon his schedule and flee (1:30 in the video).  After Aroma orders the Postman to flee Clock Town, the Postman remarks to Link:  “I have decided to flee.  It is an order from the Postmaster.  I am now free!  I can set my own schedule”; he then bequeaths his Postman’s Hat to Link, since he doesn’t need it anymore.  Yet there is an apparent contradiction in the Postman ‘deciding’ to flee based on an order from his superior — an order, to be blunt, from his master.  The problem, because of which I have been putting “freedom” in scare quotes, is this:  putting aside for a moment how we strictly define ‘freedom’, it seems as though being told to go elsewhere by the architect of one’s daily life (i.e., the Postmistress) cannot instantiate substantive freedom.

The dilemma of what ‘freedom’ means in the case of the Postman is fleshed out by the first horn of the flat analysis:  because the Postman’s life is determined by his schedule — and, more generally, by his role as the Postman, for we know him by no other name — he can only gain a sense of agency by the will of the determining system.  Because the Postmistress maintains the system, she is in a position to “liberate” the Postman from his schedule by ordering him to no longer follow it.  But this, of course, does not reveal the Postman to suddenly have free will; rather, it underscores the hard determinism of his existence by revealing him to be entirely subservient to his boss.  When he exclaims that he is ‘free to set his own schedule’, his words can be glossed as an exclamation of happiness that he is ‘under orders to operate outside of his previously-conceived schedule’.  When he dances out of Clock Town after leaving his Postman’s Hat, he does not do it as a result of having quit his work, or even from asking permission to leave the Town; he does it as the result of a direct order.

It’s not particularly interesting to derive hard determinism from a flat analysis, and the reason should be obvious:  if we artificially remove player agency from the narratological equation, then any remaining source of agency within the narrative seems disingenuous in comparison.  Because the ontological course of NPCs is charted purely by programs, it’s a trivial matter to say that their existences are determined — in point of fact, such a framework is really only useful for exceptions such as Mikau, whose existential state is indeterminate prior to player engagement.  So what’s much more interesting in the flat analysis of the Postman is his self-concept and matrix of sentiments in relation to his determined existence:  though his life is charted by schedule and work, his mental life is not one of polite acquiescence, but rather reflects a friction in a desire to survive — and, if we consider his joy at eventually being “free” to set his own schedule, a desire to transcend.  So the nontrivial understanding we can derive from flat analysis here is the picture of a man who is at once entirely subservient to the social structure, yet who, through internal dissonance, reflects a conceptual knowledge of and thirst for existence outside of that same social structure.

Postman's Hat

So much for flat analysis; what happens, then, when we return player agency to the mix and engage in full analysis?  Here I also propose two horns to our approach:  first, the role of the player in Termina’s metaphysical perpetuity; and second, the consequences of Link’s acquisition of the Postman’s Hat.  Lastly, I will comment on what agency in general adds to the case of the Postman, and what we might hope to gain from him as a character in the universe.

As a way into the first horn here, recall that I have actually already mentioned Sisyphean themes once before in this blog, during my general discussion of the theory behind the sidequests of “Majora.”  I quote the relevant section:  “The final result of the game’s counterfactual analysis is that not everyone can be saved; and indeed, insofar as Termina continues to exist as an apocalyptic world even after Majora is defeated, any instance of even one person being saved is entirely fleeting.  Yet though the game may tell you at every turn that your actions are meaningless, it demands to be played.  Like the structure of Hades’ punishment for Sisyphus, every new decaying causal chain Link learns about through sidequests and main quests cries out for him to save humanity, if only for one single moment.  It is this picture of Link saving no one but making everyone happy that emanates from the universe of the sidequests of ‘Majora.’”  We are now in a position to better articulate what I left implicit in that early account of Termina:  the Sisyphean nature of Termina is derivative of the player’s agency in playing the Song of Time.  We know this because the universe of Termina depends upon the player’s perception of it to exist [see my analysis of ‘meeting with a terrible fate‘], and because the Song of Time is the metaphysical mechanism that instantiates new timelines and keeps Termina in a state of constant decay, as opposed to allowing it to end [see my space-time analysis in my discussion of the absence of Zelda in “Majora’s Mask”].  While it is a useful mechanism for existential discourse to talk about human life metaphorically as “Sisyphean” (again, see The Myth of Sisyphus), the fact of the matter is that human lives end.  Without metaphysical intervention, the day-to-day “boulder pushing” of the Postman’s schedule would ultimately Terminate when the world was destroyed.  Yet because Link perpetuates the universe by constantly playing the Song of Time to continue engaging it, this framework is warped into one that is truly ‘endless’ in the Sisyphean sense.  The Postman may dance out of Clock Town after giving Link the Postman’s Hat, but Link need only play the Song of Time to stifle that timeline and see the Postman back at his delivery route on the Dawn of the First Day.  So what we see player agency doing here is transmuting the Sisyphean aspects of the Postman’s life, moving them from the physical to metaphysical domain.

 Admittedly, that sounds pretty terrible:  if Link’s actions are turning the Postman into an actual Sisyphus analogue, it’s hard for the gamer to feel good about their actions, metaethical nihilism notwithstanding.  Thankfully, the second horn of the full analysis — the consequences of Link acquiring the Postman’s Hat — offers us a more positive conception of this of affairs.  Recall from my discourse on the absence of Zelda the concept of ‘temporal afterimages’:  “mental remnants or representations of alternate timelines that necessarily precede the timeline in which one actually exists.”  When I first coined the term, I was concerned with what exactly a temporal afterimage is, as opposed to what narratological impact they might have.  Now, however, we are ready to move into the realm of narratology.  As I noted in my discussion of Zelda’s absence, a prime example of temporal afterimages is the collection of masks that follows Link through the proceeding timelines of Termina.  The Postman’s Hat, as a mask, is a temporal afterimage.  It is also an emblem of public service, tantamount in the Postman’s case to an article of faith.  Mechanically, it vests Link with the authority to act as a Postman, checking mailboxes throughout Clock Town, and even withdrawing items from the mailbox (i.e., a Piece of Heart).

That Link is able through the Postman’s article of temporal afterimagery to assume the role of a Postman is crucial because it allows the Postman to achieve the transcendence that we would imagine him denied as an NPC.  The way this works is as follows:  as the flat analysis showed, the Postman is incapable of expressing agency outside the bounds of the system of his determined role as the Postman.  However, as I have previously described, Link, as the conduit from the player to the universe of the game, is the sole entity capable of expressing meaningful agency within the game’s universe.  When Link dons the Postman’s Hat, he is able to enter into the system defined by the role of ‘Postman’, but is also able to express agency.  He can therefore break the expected routine, by checking mailboxes at inappropriate times, taking the Piece of Heart, etc.  What this means is that, by virtue of his connection with the player as an external source of agency, Link is able to subvert the expected routine of the Postman, symbolically defeating the same schedule that binds the Postman.

The Postman's angst

Now we have at least one viable account of why the distinction of flat/full analysis is useful:  analyses proceeding in this form offer us a more precise account of how player agency influences and molds narratology, making it a helpful model for the interpretation of video games as aesthetic objects.  Without the player, the Postman is a man consciously trapped in the construct of a role and schedule throughout his life; when Link and the player arrives, the Postman’s suffering is immortalized, but he also transcends this suffering by inviting the game’s one true agent into the framework of his own role.  Though the Postman can never truly be free, we might say that the interposition of Link allows him to truly flee.

Console Analysis: What a portable Termina means for “Majora’s Mask.”

Something I haven’t yet mentioned on With a Terrible Fate is the role a particular gaming platform plays in how we experience a video game.  Because the narratives of video games, as I have discussed previously, are inherently dependent on the agency of the player, it makes intuitive sense that the narrative might also be impact by the literal interface through which the player engages the world of the game.  So, with “Majora’s Mask 3D” coming in less than a month, it seems like an appropriate time to talk consoles.

I do not have in mind a point-by-point comparison of the specifications of different gaming platforms, for such an undertaking would be unnecessarily broad and superfluous to the current course of analysis.  Instead, my aim in this article is to put one particular console distinction under the microscope, and answer this question:  what is the difference between playing “Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask” on a stationary console (i.e., Nintendo 64, GameCube, or Wii) and playing it on a portable console (the 3DS or New 3DS)?  First, I analyze the how stationary console gaming frames the experience of Termina; then, I move to theoretical speculation on how Termina might be conveyed on a portable console; lastly, I compare the two side-by-side.

There are two points I should note before I begin.  First:  my method of console analysis uses the original version of “Majora’s Mask,” because that is the version currently in circulation.  I am aware that changes are coming to the 3DS remake of the game, but will reserve judgment on that version until it is available in full.  Second:  from my claim that the agency of the player is narratologically significant in video games, it’s a reasonable move to extrapolate that the experience of a player engaging a game is also somehow significant.  It would be foolish for me to try to universalize player experience; rather, what I aim to do here is to outline the matrix of player experiences to which stationary and portable consoles are conducive.


To begin with, recall the relevant passage in my account of the player’s narratological significance in Termina:  “it is the player who is ultimately responsible for imparting that agency to Link.  This is what makes the line [‘You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?’], in my mind, so significant:  beyond encapsulating the aesthetic dynamics of ‘Majora’s Mask,’ it can be read as an argument for the nature of video games as a medium.  The player turns on a game and is informed by the game that, in turning it on and engaging it, they have brought a universe to life; yet the persistence of the universe in contingent upon the player’s choice to continue playing the game.  The game establishes a coherent universe, and yet the most basic authority of that universe must be ceded to the player.”  This stems from my framing of Termina as an ephemeral world which depends upon Link’s encountering it in order to exist.

Link and the Rabbit Hole

“Majora’s Mask” begins with Link’s chasing down Skull Kid, who has stolen the Ocarina of Time; in chasing him, Link accidentally falls into a gaping chasm that drops him in Termina — much like the Rabbit Hole of Alice in Wonderland.  This is the point from which Link enters the world whose existence is metaphysically contingent upon his acting as a witness.  This presents an immediate point of comparison with stationary consoles:  the console, like the rabbit hole, is a fixed point which facilitates access to a distinct universe dependent upon the agency of the being who passes through the conduit.  This framing effectively creates a player experience that mirrors Link’s experience:  the player arrives at a particular point (the console), and stumbles upon a world contingent upon their agency — and the ‘stumbling’ really happens when the player begins the game without prior knowledge of the storyline.

New 3DS

If stationary consoles are in a position to model the player’ experience after Links, then what is the 3DS in a position to offer the player, if anything?  There was a time when technology limited portable gaming such that stationary consoles were able to offer more elaborate gaming experience; while it is still the case that stationary consoles have greater capabilities than portable systems by design, the state of portable consoles is such that they can be utilized to effect unique aesthetic experiences.  I point to “Okamiden,” the sequel to “Okami,” as an example of what I mean.  “Okami,” a game for the PS2 and Wii, told the Shinto epic of Amaterasu from beginning to end.  “Okamiden,” for the Nintendo DS, miniaturizes everything about “Okami”:  the story follows children of heroes and gods instead of the actual heroes and gods, and the entire narrative is conveyed through the diminutive vehicle of the DS.  I think, therefore, that we are at a point in time where we can analyze the aesthetic value of portable consoles relative to more “robust” consoles.

Owl Statue

The aesthetic relation I see between “Majora’s Mask” and portable gaming is that of the Owl Statues.  Recall my mention of them in my article on Termina’s musical metaphysics:  “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.”  At various points throughout Termina, Link is able to use the mechanism of Owl Statues in order to temporarily disengage from Termina’s universe — presumably by virtue of his relationship to Kaepora Gaebora, the owl who exists outside of Termina’s bounds.  Just so, the use of a portable console allows a player to “depart from their universe,” as it were, and enter the universe of a game, by turning on the console virtually anywhere.  So, whereas the stationary consoles create an aesthetic analogue of Link’s rabbit hole, the portable consoles act as Owl Statue analogues.

Most interesting about this analysis is that, when we compare stationary consoles alongside portable consoles, they appear to describe two sides of a single coin.  Both kinds of console aesthetically reflect movement of the player between universes, but the directionality of this movement is diametrically opposed in each case.  The stationary console describes the player’s entry into a closed universe derivative of their own, dependent on their actions in order to exist; the portable console, on the other hand, describes the player’s return to a single, umbrella game universe that is accessible independently of the player’s position in reality.  What’s particularly exciting about the remake of “Majora’s Mask” is that it’s not yet apparent what the latter horn of this theoretical model implies.  My theory thus far has been an explanation of the game from the position of stationary consoles, which culminated in the analysis of the line ‘You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?’.  But consider an approach to gaming that takes the universe of a game of substantively prior to our reality.  What sort of theses could we derive from such an approach — an approach that, for instance, would probably allow us to frame Termina as existentially prior to Hyrule?  It is this mode of inquiry that I will pursue when the remake is released next month; with both analytic perspectives at hand, I am inclined to believe that an entirely new level of discourse will become available in “Majora’s Mask” and beyond.

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

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

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

Link and the Moon Child

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

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

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

Skull Kid bringing down the moon

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

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

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

Skull Kid as a Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Mask Salesman

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

Deku Link

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

The Salesman Encourages Link

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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