This past February, Nintendo gave “Legend of Zelda” fans a long-awaited gift: the ability to open their 3DS’s and return to Termina (or, perhaps, to encounter it for the first time). As has been the case in the past, they did not merely publish a port of the game with updated graphics: significant updates and changes were made to the game’s content, revisions that far outstrip previous tweaks made in the GameCube and Wii Virtual Console versions of the game. But just how significant were these changes to the world and story presented in “Majora’s Mask”?
With a Terrible Fate began as a three-month analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” focusing on the ways in which the metaphysics of Termina and agency of the player combine to create an enthralling narrative that is only possible in the medium of video games. Now, long overdue, With a Terrible Fate returns to these roots with an examination of the new world and story presented in “Majora’s Mask 3D” – for I do contend that, in spite of the game sharing a title with the original “Majora’s Mask,” the foundational changes that Nintendo made are such that we cannot understand this remake as merely a retouched version of the same story as the original.
The general claim I will defend is that “Majora’s Mask 3D” presents a story that renders the player himself much more important than Link, relative to the story of the original “Majora’s Mask.” The defense of this claim has three major horns: the metaphysics of Termina, the ontology of Majora, and the degree to which the game imposes guidance. I will analyze each of these horns in turn, with the goal being merely to offer a map of the new game’s dynamics, rather than arguing which game, if either, is “better” than the other.
A note before we begin: the aim of this piece is not to catalogue all of the changes that Nintendo made in “Majora’s Mask 3D” – such a list can easily be found elsewhere. Many changes in the new version will not appear in this article, simply because I do not believe they impact the overall metaphysical dynamics of the game, and are therefore not relevant to the task at hand. If you are interested in an article on fishing, then I suggest you go elsewhere – and if you are playing “Majora’s Mask 3D” in order to go fishing, then I suggest you reevaluate your choices.
I will also use the convention of referring to the world presented in “Majora’s Mask 3D” as ‘New Termina’, in contrast to the ‘Termina’ of “Majora’s Mask.” This is because, as I said above, I believe there is compelling reason to conceive of the worlds of these games as fundamentally distinct from one another – something of which I hope to convince you, dear reader, in the pages to follow.
I. Whether this world be forever or merely for a short time… that is up to you.
One of the first things a “Majora” veteran notices upon entering New Termina is a preponderance of the statues pictured above. Engaging one of these statues allows the player, at any time in any three-day cycle, save his progress in the game, incurring no penalty in the process. A first-time player, particularly one who has previously played other JRPGs (Namco Tales, Final Fantasy, etc.), may be unfazed by this; but a “Majora” veteran recognizes this as a tremendous shift in gameplay functionality from the original game. In Termina, there were only two ways in which the player could save his game: by playing the Song of Time and moving to a new three-day timeline of Termina, and by saving and closing out of the game at an Owl Statue (a “temporary save,” the save file of which would disappear once the player reopened his game). As I have previously discussed, these save dynamics have implications not only for the phenomenology of the player of “Majora,” but also for the metaphysical relation of Link as an agent to the world of Termina. Do these new Save Statues have their own such set of metaphysical implications, or do they merely serve to make the game easier to play?
The primary metaphysical function of these Save Statues, as I see it, is to endorse a vision of New Termina that I put forward speculatively a month before the release of “Majora’s Mask 3D.” I projected that the tendency of a portable console to be accessed from a variety of places could lead to a New Termina that functioned more as a reality that exists tangentially to the player’s own real world – this in contrast to accessing Termina via a stationary television, which instead promotes a conception of Termina as a discrete world into which the player extends his agency through the proxy of Link. Save Statues extend this tangency to the domain of time: whereas the player previously had to play by the rules of Termina’s metaphysics in order to solidify their progress, the player is now able to save in a variety of convenient places irrespective of their position in any of Termina’s timelines.
The temporal focus on the player’s actual world is augmented by an analogous spatial focus, which the New 3DS’s 3D graphics and gyroscope facilitate. When the player shifts to Link’s first-person perspective, as is the case when using arrows or merely looking around, he literally moves his console around in order to look around in New Termina, as though he were actually looking around in the real world. The result is that the dynamics of ‘looking’ in Termina involve mapping different spatial relations within the game’s world onto equivalent special relations in the player’s actual world. The 3D aspect of the game’s graphics further support the idea that the world of the game is directly related to the player’s actual world, because it leads to the visual content of the game more closely resembling the visual content of the actual world – though, of course, the game’s visual content is necessarily derivative with respect to actual reality.
The result of this reformulation of the relationship between the game’s world and the player’s world is that New Termina ontologically emphasizes the player where Termina did not. The player, along with Link, was a stranger in Termina, and had to learn how to play by its peculiar rules of time and space; only by mastering those rules could the player and Link ever leave their mark on Termina, and shift the course of events over three-day timelines. New Termina, however, espouses in the player a sense that the world has been “waiting for him”: Save Statues prioritize the player’s personal schedule over the three-day apocalyptic timetable of New Termina; special relations in New Termina map directly onto the world in which the player is currently playing the game. New Termina, in short, is a part of the player’s world, where the player was instead a part of Termina.
It is also worth noting that New Termina, at the same time that it increases emphasis on the player, also reduces emphasis on Link as a character. This is most apparent in the revised Owl Stones throughout the game: in addition to no longer functioning as game-saving mechanisms, Owl Stones here are different than those in Termina because any one of Link’s forms can activate them. Whereas Hylian Link had to activate Owl Stones in Termina by “leaving his mark” upon them with his sword, any form of Link – Deku Link, Zora Link, Goron Link, or Hylian Link – can activate Owl Stones in New Termina by “[speaking] forth to” them in order to “spread their wings.” With respect to Termina, I previously analyzed the masked forms of Link (Deku, Goron, and Zora) as derivative of Hylian Link, a means by which Hylian Link was able to extend the spirits of fallen heroes through him. Such an interpretation was supported by the fact that Hylian Link largely was the primary hero of the game: it was he who originally entered Termina with the player, and it was he who was able to leave his mark upon the spatiotemporal fabric of the world by striking Owl Statues with his blade. In New Termina, lacking the relevant features of the Owl Statues, such an argument seems far less plausible; rather, it seems the statues reflect that Link is only one of several heroes within Termina, and that any of them could potentially have saved the world.
The decrease in emphasis on the primary avatar of the game makes all the more noteworthy the increased emphasis on the player: although it has always been the case that Link has been a thin character, serving more as a conduit for the player than as an entity unto himself, this analysis of him is more grounded in the metaphysics of New Termina than it has been in the worlds of previous “Zelda” titles. It is evident that “Majora’s Mask 3D” is much more concerned with the player’s journey, in contrast with Link’s journey, than “Majora’s Mask” was. This invites the question: given the keen interest of “Majora 3D” in the player, in what manner does it engage its players?
II. “I believe in you, buddy”: Guidance as an imposition.
The term “handholding” – the condition of a game meticulously guiding a player through the steps required to complete it – has been thrown around a great deal lately in gaming, particularly in relation to Nintendo and the “Zelda” franchise. The Navi of “Ocarina of Time 3D” was probably the greatest offender of this, recommending that players take breaks from gaming so as to not stain themselves. There is an interesting host of questions around handholding – for instance, one might wonder just how Nintendo ought to strike the balance (if it ought to strike a balance at all) between the puzzle-solving gameplay that the “Zelda” franchise is known on the one hand, and sufficient handholding to prevent excessive frustration of children, the series’ primary audience, on the other hand.
Such questions are interesting, but in truth I only mention handholding in order to set it aside. The following analysis of the degree to which New Termina imposes guidance on the player has much overlap with handholding in terms of the game content being considered; however, the goal of my analysis here is not to examine handholding proper. Rather, I aim to assess how the particular types of guidance featured in New Termina influence the narrative dynamics of the game. One might raise many issues regarding handholding and yet suppose that handholding does not influence the meat of the narrative in question; what I argue here is that the guidance that “Majora’s Mask 3D” imposes upon the player does in fact influence the game’s overall narrative.
Note also that this analysis prescinds from extended commentary on Sheikah Stones. Beyond personally having no interest in them, I refrain from comment because use of this handholding device is entirely optional in the first place, and for that reason it is hard to mount a case that the presence of Sheikah Stones foundationally impacts the narrative of the game.
I begin with an attempt to convince a skeptical reader that, in a special way, “Majora’s Mask” was much akin to “Dark Souls.” It may be unintuitive to compare a Nintendo title to one of the most famously unforgiving games of recent years; however, while the intended audiences and overall brutality of the two titles are quite different, they are strikingly similar in world-approach.
“Dark Souls” drops the player and his freshly minted avatar into a world with a vaguely outlined quest and next-to no explicit storytelling: the player has to find the path forward by trial-and-error. This is where “Dark Souls” thrives – the only way for the player to progress (aside from using strategy guides) is by learning the structure of the game’s world. This is true both in the microcosm and macrocosm of the game: microcosmically, a player may have to engage a single enemy or group of enemies several times, dying repeatedly, before finally learning their patterns of attack and movement to a degree sufficient for defeating them; macrocosmically, the player may have to wander around countless areas, encountering many pitfalls and dead-ends, going out of his way talk to NPCs along the way, before making any substantial progress in the game’s storyline – indeed, the player must go out of his way in terms of exploration in order to even understand what the plot of the game is. In these ways, “Dark Souls” is a narrative experience deeply rooted in the phenomenology of learning and appreciating through discovery.
In much the same way, “Majora’s Mask” is a story that thrives on learning through discovery. The entirety of Termina can be likened to an elaborate puzzle box, with intricately connected events causally strung together over the course of three days. In order to effect change within Termina, Link and the player must learn the ins-and-outs of which events happen, when they happen, and how they impact the overall causal chain of Termina. This process can require a high degree of trial-and-error over multiple timelines; influencing events in just the right way to complete the Anju and Kafei sidequest, for example, requires a knowledge of Clock Town’s events that the player is unlikely to have when attempting the quest for the first time.
The result of this puzzle-like world structure is that Link and the player, dropped into Termina with little ceremony and explanation, learn how to manipulate and save the world merely by exploring and experiencing it over and over again. Where “Dark Souls” demands learning through the mechanic of death, constantly announcing to the player that “YOU DIED,” “Majora’s Mask” demands learning through the mechanic of resetting Termina’s three-day sequence, constantly announcing to the player that they have returned to the “DAWN OF THE FIRST DAY.” In this way, “Majora’s Mask” espouses the puzzle-solving spirit of the “Zelda” series in a special, foundational way: rather than being guided through a temporally static Hyrule, as is the case in “Ocarina of Time,” the temporally evolving world of Termina is itself a complex problem for the player to solve, a macrocosm of the various dungeon challenges for which the series is known.
New Termina is just as much of a puzzle as Termina (in fact, the addition of a new sidequest makes it somewhat more complex a puzzle); however, the new gameplay dynamics of “Majora’s Mask 3D” reduce the expectation that it is incumbent upon the player and Link to discover and solve that puzzle by themselves. There are two horns to the explanation of why this is the case, which I will examine in turn: the first is that the game contains explicit mechanisms to facilitate discovery of New Termina’s secrets; the second is that the world of New Termina presents itself as much more in favor of Link than Termina did.
The most obvious example of what I mean by ‘imposed guidance’ in New Termina is the retooling of the Bomber’s Notebook. There are other, less-pervasive examples of the same concept – Tatl keeping track of the number of eggs remaining in the Pirates’ Fortress; Shiro being relocated from Ikana Canyon to the Pirates’ Fortress, the one place in which his Stone Mask is useful – but the Notebook serves as an excellent representative case of this change in game dynamics, and it is this case that I will therefore examine closely in this section.
In “Majora’s Mask,” it was possible to complete the game without ever acquiring this Notebook, which the Bomber children in Clock Town use to keep track of people, events, schedules, and the various problems in Termina. In fact, the player actually has to go out of his way in order to acquire it: the only interaction with the Bombers necessary to the completion of the game is earning their favor during the very first of Termina’s three-day cycles in order to gain access to the Observatory; however, because Link is trapped in his Deku form at the time, the Bombers only make him an “honorary member” of their club, and do not give him a Notebook. If the player wishes to acquire the Notebook, then he must go through the motions to gain the Bomber’s trust again in a later timeline, when he has access to Link’s original Hylian form – only then will the Bombers make Link a proper member, giving him a Notebook that keeps track of all the various “moving parts” of Termina as he discovers them.
In New Termina, a Bomber’s Notebook is instead thrust upon Link and the player by the Happy Mask Salesman, who gives it to Link after teaching him the Song of Healing. The result is that every new event, person, and problem that Link encounters is catalogued in the Notebook by default, gradually sketching a temporal map of New Termina as the player encounters each of its moving pieces. Moreover, the Notebook has a new alarm feature, allowing the player to set reminders of events that have been recorded in the Notebook, so as not to miss them. This changes the tenor of the player’s engagement with the world’s game, from one of trial-and-error discovery in Termina to one of time management and procedural following-of-instructions in New Termina. If there are incomplete chains of events in the Notebook, then the player can follow each of the already-catalogued events in the chain and easy fill in the blanks; this is analogous to players running over every pixel of areas in a game where maps fill themselves in based on precisely where the player’s avatar has been.
One might object that this is not a true change in the overall tenor of the game, since the Bomber’s Notebook was available to the player in the original “Majora’s Mask” as well, where it served a similar function; but availability is not the point. The fact that it is merely available in Termina reinforces the claim that the player’s path through “Majora” is one of unaided discovery: the very mechanism that allows the player to better track events in the world of Termina must first be acquired by the player understanding and manipulating events in Termina, thereby completing an optional series of events. On the other hand, the fact that the Notebook is imposed upon the player as he begins his journey in New Termina reflects that the world of “Majora’s Mask 3D” is more concerned with the player’s experience of traversing the events of Termina than it is with the player’s experience of discovering these events for himself. What was previously optional assistance is now embedded into the basic framework of how the player interfaces with the game’s world, which is ultimately what makes this difference in the two games foundational in nature.
The general tonal shift of New Termina in favor of Link is both subtler and more significant than the imposition of guidance mechanisms such as the Notebook: in effect, it changes the status of Link’s journey from one of a stranger who, against expectations, struggles to save an apocalyptic world, to one of a hero who is expected to save an apocalyptic world.
In analyzing “Majora’s Mask,” one of the ways in which I argued the game was a response to “Ocarina of Time” was that it presented a “hero” who, unlike the Link of “Ocarina,” was not destined to save the world, was thought unlikely to be able to save the world, and whose ultimate act of “saving the world” was undercut by a metaphysics that suggested he could not actually save the totality of Termina in a satisfactory way. Where the Kaepora Gaebora of “Ocarina” was the veritable arbiter of Link’s destiny, the Kaepora Gaebora of “Majora” is skeptical that Link is at all capable of changing the apocalyptic fate of the world. The rest of Termina recapitulated this attitude: whereas the Link of “Ocarina” had the support of Navi, the Sages, the Deku Tree, et al., the Link of “Majora” has Tatl, who virtually always resents him, a skeptical owl, and four Giants who have been sealed away by the corruption of Majora. Part of what makes “Majora’s Mask” so thematically neat is that both Link and Skull Kid are forced to confront isolation from friends.
In contrast the world of New Termina has a degree of faith in Link that is conspicuously absent from Termina. The seahorse that guides Zora Link to the pit of sea snakes in the Great Bay offers what is effectively polite cheerleading once they arrive there, saying, “No rush or anything, but I can’t wait for you to defeat those nasty sea snakes and save my friend. I believe in you, buddy!” When Link awakens Captain Keeta in Termina, Keeta immediately turns around and begins his ascent of the hill behind him; when Link awakens Captain Keeta in New Termina, Keeta instead speaks to Link before moving, saying to him, “Young swordsman! You summoned me? Ah, but before we may exchange words, I must first test your skill.” The text that prompts Link to challenge a boss again after already defeating it in a dungeon has been changed to “Enter that I may witness thy power once more.” It is easy to write off a tonal shift such as this by merely saying that it serves to render the game more inviting and accessible, particularly to children; however, even though that may well have been why these changes were made in New Termina, this has no bearing on the ways in which they change Link’s status within the game’s world. Link and the player face less adversity and find more encouragement on their journey, which makes the relationship between Link and Skull Kid asymmetric: Skull Kid is alone in his machinations, whereas many people willingly help and encourage Link, reinforcing his status as someone who can and will save the world.
In isolation, the imposed guidance and encouragement of Link in New Termina suggest that Link actually is a chosen hero like the Link of “Ocarina of Time”; yet we have also seen that the metaphysics of New Termina devalue Link, shifting the locus of importance to the player. Given this, I think the most plausible implication to draw from imposed guidance and encouragement is not that Link in particular was chosen as a hero, but rather that the player in particular is implied as a special hero meant to save Termina. I have already said that Link serves as more of a mere conduit for the player than a character in New Termina; when one reflects on the types of guidance and encouragement offered in the game, it seems that the game is actually availing itself of Link’s status as a conduit in order to guide and motivate the player. The Bomber’s Notebook is a piece of user interface that serves to make the game more manageable for the player; encouragement conceptually serves to motivate action, and it is the player that is the source of Link’s agency, the component of him that is capable of direct action. So, where the metaphysics of New Termina serve to emphasize the importance of the player in the world of the game, imposed guidance and encouragement primarily serve to reframe the narrative as one describing the player’s eventual success in ostensibly saving New Termina, rather than a narrative of Link and the player uncovering the puzzle of an alien world and struggling against its fate. But can the player save New Termina? And against what sort of villain does he fight in this new world?
III. Will Majora ever be a memory? Revising the scope of the player’s enemy.
In my article about the pathos of Skull Kid in “Majora’s Mask,” I loosely compared Skull Kid to Sephiroth of “Final Fantasy VII,” noting that both are architects of apocalyptic plots and are largely absent from game events until the final confrontation – not to mention the fact that both have a penchant for hurling giant space debris at their respective world. Now, I wish to establish a more precise analogy between Sephiroth and Majora in order to show that “Majora’s Mask 3D” alters the ontology of Majora in a way that makes the player immune to the influence of the antagonist. (Note: as avid gamers will recognize, a similar argument to the following can be mounted using Xehanort of “Kingdom Hearts” in place of Sephiroth/Jenova. While such an analogy is interesting for its own reasons, I bracket it in this article for the sake of simplicity. Also for the sake of simplicity, the gloss of “Final Fantasy VII” events is rough, but will suffice for the task at hand.)
Besides being a largely absent archvillain, Sephiroth is known for existing in the shadows of everyone around him, like a latent virus, through the influence of the alien Jenova’s cells. The entire plot of “Advent Children” turns on three derivative manifestations of Sephiroth’s spirit ultimately bringing about his reconstitution; but, more to the point, Cloud himself – the major protagonist of “Final Fantasy VII” – is also “part-Sephiroth,” possessing cells of the alien Jenova, just like Sephiroth. This means that the villain against whom Cloud constantly struggles is, at the same time, a seemingly inexorable part of himself. So, when a fading Sephiroth in “Advent Children” tells the victorious Cloud “I will never be a memory,” a plausible interpretation of his words is that Cloud cannot truly eradicate Sephiroth due to Jenova — and, by extension, Sephiroth — being part of Cloud.
There is a possible interpretation of Majora that loosely mirrors these dynamics of Sephiroth, Cloud, and Jenova. As I have previously remarked, Majora simpliciter never appears in “Majora’s Mask”; rather, he is manifested through various derivative forms—Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath. Majora is shown in the game only through his various influences and extensions, up to and including the four bosses in the game. Majora sealed Termina’s Giants within cursed masks, leaving Link with the task of liberating them. The player will recall, too, that the game begins by Skull Kid using the powers of Majora’s Mask to curse Link, sealing him within his Deku Scrub form; in this way, the plight of Link at the beginning of the game of analogous to that of the Giants, and he must save himself before he can save any of them.
Insofar, then, as Majora only exists in the game by virtue of his various derivative manifestations, it seems possible to mount the argument that Link has been corrupted and influenced by Majora as much as the Giants have; and although all of them can be healed, we know that remnants of this corruption remains through masks and boss remains. Following this line of reasoning, we might well say that Link, once-corrupted by Majora, is partly responsible for maintaining Majora’s influence within Termina. More importantly, given that the player’s agency constitutes Link’s capacity to act, this argument implies that the player, by virtue of connection to Link, is also connected to the influence of Majora.
I should point out that I find the overall utility of this interpretation to be limited because, as I have said before in my analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” I find it most plausible that Majora as an entity is only the source of evil within the externally-imposed moral universe of the game. However, I see no compelling reason to dismiss this interpretation, and it does have some interesting consequences. For example: if, as I have theorized, the player of “Majora’s Mask” has the authority to determine the moral universe of Termina, then this argument demands that the player must ascribe whatever moral value he places on Majora (if any) on himself to some degree as well, on pain of inconsistency. If this argument is taken seriously, then the player cannot consistently define Majora as evil and himself as entirely good. To put it tritely, so long as Link and the player exist, Majora will never be a memory.
Enter “Majora’s Mask 3D.” One of the most readily noticeable and well-advertised new features of the game is that each boss was redesigned to bear an eyeball in the same style as Majora’s Mask, which Link must destroy in order to defeat the boss. Certainly, this retooling of the bosses changes the mechanics of the boss fights; however, I believe that it also modifies the ontology of Majora within New Termina by effectively blocking the above argument that Link and the player are “part-Majora.”
What makes the part-Majora argument compelling is, in large part, the fact that Skull Kid seems to use the same cursing mechanism on Link and the four Giants of Termina; given sameness of mechanism, it is a plausible move to infer that Link and the Giants are influenced in similar ontological ways. Yet it seems wrong to draw the same inference in New Termina because the corruption of the Giants is very clearly represented by their “Majoran Eyes,” and Link, though cursed by Skull Kid, never bears any such eye. We have seen from prior analysis of “Majora’s Mask,” as is intuitive from merely playing the game, that Majoran Eyes are not necessary to conclude that the cursed Giants are extensions of Majora; however, when their status as extensions is instead explicated by such Eyes, we must revise our standards for what it means for something to be an extension of Majora. Given that Link lacks such an eye, it is not reasonable to assume that he is part-Majora in New Termina; by extension, it is not reasonable to assume that the player is under the influence of Majora.
This reformulation of bosses ends up as an ontologically rigorous way of reinforcing the world of New Termina being “on the player’s side,” as I discussed in the last section. With Link no longer conceptually bound to Majora, there is no pain of inconsistency to preclude the player from ascribing evil to Majora and pure goodness to himself. With the scope of Majora’s manifestations reduced to the cursed Giants and Majora’s Forms, Link’s capacity for heroism is less ambiguous: the game’s guidance and support suggests that Link can save the world, and the ontological status of the story’s villain echoes that sentiment.
Conclusion: On Player Experience
Despite “Majora’s Mask” and “Majora’s Mask 3D” being obviously similar in most content, their worlds are irreducibly different, as I have indicated by referring to the former as ‘Termina’ and the latter as ‘New Termina’. While this analysis is not exhaustive with respect to interesting changes in “Majora’s Mask 3D,” it articulates what I see as a consistent re-theming of the game: ‘you’ – that is, the particular player of “Majora’s Mask 3D” – are a hero meant to save the world, and you are capable of doing so. No longer the stranger struggling against Sisyphean odds in Termina, you are now the lynchpin in telling the story of New Termina’s salvation and purification.
Yet, as I said, much of the game remains the same. I see no changes that block the most central parts of my analyses of the original game: moral artifice, the player as a metaphysical and metaethical authority, and the ultimate futility of saving the inherently apocalyptic Termina are all still valid. Indeed, perhaps the most haunting addition to the game is the echo of the Happy Mask Salesman’s laugh following the game’s “The End” screen, which I believe reinforces my theories about both his metaphysical authority and the nihilism of Link’s quest: it is the Salesman who presides over the ostensible end of the game, and whose laugh implies, as I have argued previously, that the battle to save Termina never truly terminates.
What, then, are we to do with the seeming positivity of “Majora’s Mask 3D” in the face of the same haunting implications as its predecessor? I submit that the overall bent of the game, in keeping with the above analysis, is much more focused on player phenomenology than on the universe of the video game itself. That is to say, even if Majora cannot be destroyed in an absolute sense, and even if Termina will always persist as apocalyptic, the player can still have the experience of ‘being victorious’, by which I mean defeating the game’s final boss and completing all side quests. It is this sense of player victory that is augmented by the above-listed modifications in New Termina; given this new approach to the game, we might even say that the persistence of Termina beyond the end of the game is less metaphysically pernicious and more of a friendly, metaphysically substantive invitation for the player to return to the game and replay it later. “Majora’s Mask 3D,” in sum, is a game that espouses the importance of player experience in every sense: here more than any prior “Zelda” game, Link “links” the world of the game to the player, rather than linking the player to the world of the game.