Critical Review: Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, and This is Why.

A while ago, I introduced a new feature to the site called “Critical Review”: articles where writers review their older articles and evaluate what they think of those older arguments now. Even though there’s only been one piece of Critical Review so far (discussing my work on Xenoblade and Leibniz’s metaphysics), I think that this series is some of the most important work we can do on With a Terrible Fate. 

In the first place, it’s always a good practice to revisit your old views and see whether or not you still hold them. But secondly and crucially, the serious analysis of video-game storytelling is still such a young discipline: we can only hope to develop this methodology in a productive way if we are constantly seeking and responding to whatever criticism our work invites.

With that in mind, this article reexamines “Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, and This is Why,” a piece that started With a Terrible Fate in more ways than one. Not only was it literally the second article published on the site (back when it was just a blog in which I analyzed Majora’s Mask), but it also went viral on Zelda Dungeon and presented many of the major themes that occupied the rest of my work on Majora’s Mask. 

Now, as we rapidly approach the site’s three-year anniversary, I invite readers to reread this work, and then to evaluate it with me using all the work we’ve developed since its publication. The full text of the original article follows; read on after that for my brand-new criticism of it.

Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, and This is Why.

It doesn’t take much effort to find horror stories inspired by Majora’s Mask online. The reason, we might imagine, is obvious: Majora’s Mask is the darkest title in the Zelda canon thus far. It takes place in an inexplicable parallel world; the apocalypse is constantly occurring; and the moon has an enormous, menacing face. We can easily write off the disturbing undercurrent of Majora’s Mask as a result of aesthetics such as these, but in this post, I want to offer an argument that the horror which pervades the game is much more subtle and existential than that interpretation. I submit that the ultimate reason Majora’s Mask continues to terrify us is that, as much as we want there to exist an evil for us to conquer, there ultimately exists no evil in the game.

Although I am often tempted to view Majora’s Mask in a vacuum precisely because it is so wildly different from other Zelda titles, it is important to remember that it is the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, and therefore in many ways engages with its predecessor in an artistic and philosophical dialogue. To that end, consider the premise of Ocarina of Time: though the game is undeniably complex and rich, the ultimate struggle is Link’s quest to save the kingdom of Hyrule from the barbaric usurper, Ganondorf.

Ganon Castle08--article_image

Ganondorf is represented unequivocally as the paragon of power, unparalleled in his desire to subdue the entire world with his will. When Link awakens after a seven-year stasis to find that the Ganondorf has transformed the castle of Hyrule into a proverbial citadel of darkness, it is unequivocal that we are meant to view Ganondorf as the archetype of evil, who essentially exists only that Link must stop him at all costs. (Ganondorf as a character, I should add, has become far more nuanced with the addition of games such as The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess; but it is Great King of Evil Ganondorf to whom Majora’s Mask responds.)

Where do we find the Great King of Evil in Majora’s Mask? The Zelda veteran and video game initiate alike continually pose this question as they play through the game, and it is the inability to answer it which instills them with mounting fear throughout the course of the game. In the Zelda canon, the game’s ethos is divided into three cardinal virtues, collectively known as The Triforce. Link, Ganondorf, and Princess Zelda are each endowed with one piece of the Triforce — Courage, Power, and Wisdom, respectively. We can understand evil as a result of pure, unchecked, imbalanced power; but we do not even have grounds for believing that the Triforce obtains in the world of Majora’s Mask. There is no mention of the Triforce throughout the entire course of the game, and although Link traditionally holds the Triforce of Courage, we do not have reason to think that the Triforce, a gift of three goddesses to the world of Hyrule, holds any sway in the parallel world of Termina.

The “villain” of this game is Skull Kid, a forest-dwelling child who is lonely and stole Majora’s Mask from the Happy Mask Salesman. The mask, possessed by the spirit of Majora, possessed him and compelled him to attempt to destroy Termina by crashing the moon into it.


We don’t want to ascribe evil to a disturbed child whose only problem seems to be deep-seated loneliness; in point of fact, various entities throughout the game, including the giants who serve as the arbiters of Termina itself, directly advise us to forgive Skull Kid. So we try to nail the label of evilness to Majora, the dark entity manifest — yet if we play through the entirety of the game, we find that Majora too is not truly evil.

The progression of Majora’s Mask to its conclusion goes roughly like this: in order to save Termina from the wrath of Skull Kid and Majora, Link must travel to four unique domains and liberate the four giants, which Skull Kid sealed away with masks that transfigured them into monsters. After all four have been liberated, Link is able to confront Skull Kid atop a clock tower on the night of the Final Day, and the four giants catch the moon as it falls, preventing catastrophe. Once the moon has stopped and Skull Kid has subsequently crumpled in a heap on the ground, Majora the Spirit takes over, snapping Skull Kid’s neck and possessing the moon itself, declaring that it will “consume everything.” In order to stop Majora once and for all, Link is teleported to the moon, where he encounters a surreal scene of five children under a single tree on a lush, green landscape. Four of the children are running around the tree in play, each wearing one of the evil masks that had been used to seal the giants away. The fifth child sits alone under the tree, wearing Majora’s Mask itself.


One of the major elements of gameplay in Majora’s Mask is the acquisition of masks: as Link progresses through the game and helps to heal people from their various difficulties and pains, he acquires masks representative of those people, each mask containing its own unique powers (the most important allow Link to transform into other heroes from the world of Termina). In total, there are 24 such masks for Link to collect throughout the game, though only a handful of these are required to complete the storyline. Based on whether or not Link collects all 23 masks available to him prior to the final confrontation on the moon, the game can end through two different means. If Link has not collected all the masks, he approaches the child wearing Majora’s Mask under the tree; the child notes that Link only has “weak masks,” and asks if Link wants to play. When Link says “yes,” a series of three heated battles against Majora ensues in a surreal environment, after which the spirit is ostensibly defeated.

However, if Link has collected all 23 masks, he has the opportunity to acquire the 24th mask. He does this by playing hide-and-seek with the four children wearing the masks that bound the giants, after which they ask Link to give him the masks that he has. After giving away all his masks in this way, these four children leave; Link approaches the child wearing Majora’s Mask, who observes the following: “everyone has gone away, haven’t they? Will you play with me? You don’t have any masks left, do you? Well, let’s play something else. Let’s play good guys against bad guys. Yes. Let’s play that.” He then gives Link the 24th mask: the Fierce Deity’s Mask. The description of this mask, as provided by the game, is offered as a question: “could this mask’s dark powers be as bad as Majora?” After Link acquires the mask, the child says to him: “Are you ready? You’re the bad guy. And when you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right? Well, shall we play?” Thereafter, the battle against Majora begins.


Donning the Fierce Deity’s Mask transforms Link from a child into a ferocious adult with blank eyes and an enormous broadsword with a blade that resembles a Möbius strip. As the player launches bolts of blue energy out of this sword at Majora, the battle that once was epic and trying becomes almost unfair to Majora: it becomes, in an ontological sense, child’s play. It is in relation to the Fierce Deity that we see Majora cannot be appropriately described as “evil.” There are two lines of reasoning which support this, and together they form the basis for the game’s thesis that morality has no deeper grounding than what is arbitrary.

1. Majora is just as much a lonely child as Skull Kid is. What we see manifested symbolically in the climax of Majora’s Mask under the tree is that Majora the Spirit subdued the four giants of Termina because he was lonely and desperately wanted friends. This is corroborated in the story when Link liberates the final giant, who tells him to “forgive [his] friend.” Though the giants were sealed away by Majora, they sympathize with him because he and Skull Kid are ultimately characters with pathos: whereas Ganondorf represents the desire to subjugate the universe, both Skull Kid and Majora represent the primal desire for unity and liberation from individuation. Majora’s endgame is a testament to this: he inhabits the moon and seeks to unite the moon itself with the earth, destroying the distance that separates them.

2. The battle between good and evil is ultimately characterized as a game. When Majora the Kid engages Link underneath the tree (assuming Link has acquired the Fierce Deity’s Mask), he invites Link to play a game called “good guys against bad guys,” and gives Link the role of the “bad guy.” The Fierce Deity himself is described as a dark god; yet, the entire game was predicated on Link saving the world from evil. As we noted, the final boss fight actually plays like a trivial game when Link is in the form of the Fierce Deity, almost as though he is victimizing Majora. What we see here is that, in keeping with the game’s motif of masks, morality itself has been framed as something that we can wear like masks — a fact from which we are led to draw the conclusion that moralizing is a fundamentally artificial process.

The resulting metaphysical image that Majora’s Mask paints is one where humanity fundamentally suffers from separateness, and seeks, like Skull Kid, to find existential comfort through grasping for something meaningful. Morality ultimately reveals itself as something that we postulate in order to comfort ourselves in just this way, although we believe it is something that inheres to the fabric of the world. So the terror the player feels mounting throughout playing Majora’s Mask is the result of a nagging doubt, slowly growing in the back of their mind, that the moral quest on which Link initially embarked is not fundamentally moral at all — good and evil, rather, are a single artificial concept, like a Möbius strip trying to convince us that its one side is in fact two different sides.

It is also worth considering that the information we use to draw this conclusion depends upon acquiring the Fierce Deity’s Mask, which is an optional feature of the game, requiring completion of every optional quest within the game. This design feature of the game actually enhances its ultimate message: for the designers have made it possible for the gamer to progress from start to finish believing that their quest was one objectively motivated by reality, while the underlying substance of Termina simultaneously refutes that belief. This means that only those who actually go to the trouble of helping every person in the game’s universe, thereby acquiring every mask, are ultimately led to the realization that morality is a construct — a narrative dimension which makes the ultimate realization of Termina’s nihilism that much more poignant.

This mental friction is even greater when the player has Ocarina of Time as background: for in Ocarina of Time, as I argued earlier, Link absolutely is engaged in a moral quest to stop the very incarnation of evil, Ganondorf. Because Majora’s Mask is the direct sequel of Ocarina of Time and starts with Link chasing Skull Kid through the woods in Hyrule (Skull Kid had stolen Link’s Ocarina), we are encouraged to believe that the entirety of Majora’s Mask is in some way continuous with Ocarina of Time. Even when Link falls down a proverbial rabbit hole in the woods and follows Skull Kid to the parallel world of Termina, we want to believe that the Link as whom we are playing is that same Link who traveled time to confront the Great King of Evil in Ocarina of Time. Yet I believe that, in review, we have far greater reason to believe that it is a parallel Link whom the player inhabits upon entering Termina, if it can be said to be Link at all.

Put aside the fact Termina’s Link can use a bow when Young Link from Ocarina of Time could not; put aside the fact that the Song of Time, the tool for resetting Termina’s 3-day cycle, had a completely different metaphysical mode of operation in Ocarina of Time; consider, instead, the conjunction of these three facts: first, we have seen there is no reason to believe that Link possesses the Triforce of Courage; second, we have seen that morality does not inhere to Link, and that the “ultimate form” offered to him by the game is actually that of an evil god; third, the narrative of the game is completely dependent upon Link donning masks to assume alternate forms, so that Link for most of the game is physically not even Link. While these facts do not entail that Link is a different entity in Majora’s Mask than in Ocarina of Time, that certainly seems to be the inference to best explanation. The Link of Ocarina of Time is directed towards the goal of conquering evil without faltering, and the game is heavily focused on his own coming-of-age, featuring a seven-year time jump explicitly contrived to turn him into an adult capable of defeating Ganondorf. The Link of Majora’s Mask, in contrast, appears as the classic existential Stranger, an unknown who exhibits unaffected agency in a world where meaning does not fundamentally obtain. This, I think, is another major source of why the gamer who specifically has already played Ocarina of Time feels disturbed while playing Majora’s Mask: they believe themselves to be playing the same character who occupied the world of Ocarina of Time, and slowly, by painful degrees, they realize that they are someone who barely resembles that former Link.

This still barely scratches the surface of a game that evades comprehension at every turn (and there is more to examine about everything that I have discussed within this post), but I hope it has provided at least the beginning of a framework for understanding the visceral reaction so many gamers have to this game. Staring into the eyes of Majora, we want to see evil staring back at us, yet find instead a lonely child; staring into the eyes of Link, we want to see someone familiar, yet in its place we see only the strange. I have found no better formula for instilling pure, existential discomfort in a gamer.



Before we dive in, it’s worth mentioning that I also wrote a much more recent piece on horror in Majora’s Mask based on my talk at PAX Australia 2016; if you’re interested in exploring the game’s special brand of horror even further, you may want to check that out. In the interest of space, I’ll also be assuming some familiarity with my overall body of work on Majora’s Maskbut I’ll link to articles from that work as they become relevant in our discussion here.

There are four aspects of this article that I want to interrogate in detail: the nature of Majora, the moon children, the moral nihilism of Termina, and the change in Link’s identity between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. I consider each of these in turn, introducing them with a relevant quote from the original article and then presenting my new criticism of that content. Ultimately, I think that the central points of the original article stand as sound jumping-off points for the rest of my analysis of the game; however, the rest of my work on the game reveals (as you might have expected) that key parts of this article require further exploration and revision.

First Subject of Critique: Majora. From the original article: “Majora is just as much a lonely child as Skull Kid is. What we see manifested symbolically in the climax of Majora’s Mask under the tree is that Majora the Spirit subdued the four giants of Termina because he was lonely and desperately wanted friends. This is corroborated in the story when Link liberates the final giant, who tells him to “forgive [his] friend.” Though the giants were sealed away by Majora, they sympathize with him because he and Skull Kid are ultimately characters with pathos: whereas Ganondorf represents the desire to subjugate the universe, both Skull Kid and Majora represent the primal desire for unity and liberation from individuation. Majora’s endgame is a testament to this: he inhabits the moon and seeks to unite the moon itself with the earth, destroying the distance that separates them.”

Readers familiar with my full body of work on Majora’s Mask won’t be surprised to hear me say that this analysis of Majora is far too quick. There’s an easy way to end up misinterpreting exactly what Majora is, and I fell prey to it in this original analysis: if you’re not careful, you can end up conflating Majora with his various objects and manifestations.

Although the influence of Majora appears to be omnipresent in Termina, the player never actually encounters Majora itself. Instead, we encounter various entities and objects allegedly influenced by Majora: Majora’s Mask; Skull Kid under the influence of Majora’s Mask; the moon under the influence of Majora’s Mask; a moon child wearing Majora’s Mask (more on that below); Majora’s Incarnation; and Majora’s Wrath.

In Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, I drew inferences from facts about Skull Kid and facts about the moon children to claims about Majora. For example, in the quoted section above, I infer from the fact that the fourth Giant Link frees in Termina tells Link to “forgive [his] friend” that the Giants sympathize with Majora—but it’s more plausible that the Giants are most directly telling Link to forgive Skull Kid, since their friendship is in fact affirmed at the end of the game by the etching that Skull Kid makes on a stump.

Link and Skull Kid

Skull Kid’s end-of-game etching, featuring him, Link, Tatl, Tael, and the four Giants.

Similarly, I claimed in the quoted section that the scenario of the moon children—four children wearing the masks of the spirits that sealed away the Giants, playing around a single tree under which a child wearing Majora’s Mask sits—symbolically shows that Majora (which I called “Majora the Spirit”) trapped Termina’s Giants because he lonely and wanted friends (again, I’ll discuss the moon children in more depth below).

This strategy of analyzing an entity by looking at its influence—call this analysis-by-proxy—isn’t categorically mistaken: oftentimes, stories are explicitly structured to facilitate this kind of analysis. For example, Final Fantasy VII features a story where the player learns about Sephiroth by seeing his influence all over the world; that’s why, by the time Cloud and his friends confront him at the very end of the game, the player feels as if she knows Sephiroth intimately even though she’s rarely encountered Sephiroth himself over the course of the game.

Even though Sephiroth and Majora are similar in many ways, they’re importantly different in two ways that make analysis-by-proxy a very bad strategy for understanding Majora. First, the player ultimately encounters Sephiroth himself in Final Fantasy VII, which allows the player to analyze Sephiroth’s influence by relating it to the actual entity Sephiroth whom she encounters; in contrast, the player of Majora’s Mask never actually encounters Majora itself, and so Majora’s influence can’t be related to the entity of Majora in that same, direct way.

Second, focusing just on Majora’s influence within Termina ignores the crucial factor of the entity that defines Majora from outside of Termina: the Happy Mask Salesman. The Happy Mask Salesman took on central importance later on in my analysis of Majora’s Mask, but I hadn’t begun to think about him at all when I published Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You. With a proper understanding of the Salesman in hand, the analysis of Majora that I offered in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You becomes much less plausible.

Roughly, the central idea behind the Salesman’s importance to Termina is this: he, like the player, exists outside of the metaphysics of Termina’s three-day timelines. Before the game has anything to do with “saving the world of Termina,” it’s initially framed as a fetchquest for the Salesman: he tells Link that he lost a mask of his (Majora’s Mask), and that he’d like Link to return it in three days’ time because he’s leaving Termina in three days.

Crucially, it’s only after the Link fails once to return Majora’s Mask to the Salesman that the Salesman tells Link that the mask is an “accursed” source of “an evil and wicked power.”

When combined with the absence of an ethical foundation in Termina’s metaphysics—something that I did defend in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You—this suggests that the Salesman is imposing something that I called moral artifice on the world of Termina: an appearance of morality that doesn’t actually inhere to the world of Termina. In other words, he tells Link that the Mask is evil even though there is no basis for good or evil (a basis like the Triforce) in Termina. He does this in order to motivate Link—and a player who, primed by Ocarina of Time, wants to defeat evil—to complete the fetch quest and return his mask to him. 

This is why, in later work, I argued that it makes sense to equate Majora with Termina’s concept of evil. The Salesman describes Majora’s Mask as a source of evil, and everything that Majora influences throughout the world is subsequently understood as being evil. The apparent evil in the world, put differently, finds its source in the Salesman, from whom it flows first to Majora and then out to everything that Majora possesses or influences in Termina.

At this point, you might rightly point out that this isn’t an explanation of what Majora the entity fundamentally is: it’s just an argument that Majora is the locus through which the Salesman imposes a seeming dimension of morality on the amoral world of Termina. I think that this point highlights an important insight that I completely missed in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: it’s impossible for us to know exactly what Majora is, and that’s centrally important to the overall story of the game.

If you were convinced by my arguments in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, you might object that we can clearly see that Majora what Majora is: it’s a lonely entity, looking for friends. But can we reallysee this so clearly? Putting aside the issue of the moon children for the moment, we can focus on two key data: the trapping of Termina’s four giants within “evil” masks, and the declaration of the moon (“possessed” by Majora) that it will “consume everything.” You might think, as I once said, that these data imply that Majora represents “the primal desire for unity and liberation from individuation.” But on reflection, this implication isn’t clear at all. To see this, consider two competing analyses of Majora that would account for our two data equally well.

  1. Majora is a lonely entity that first possessed Skull Kid, and then possessed the moon. This is the analysis that I used in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, and it explains the trapping of the Giants and the moon’s desire to consume everything just like I originally said: Majora, possessing the vessels of Skull Kid and the moon, is trying to cure his loneliness.
  2. Majora is a virus, with no sort of sentience or consciousness, that infects beings and causes them to behave unnaturally. This would explain the trapping of the Giants (and the disruption of the natural order in each of Termina’s five regions) by saying that Skull Kid was driven mad by the virus: perhaps his natural loneliness was augmented, and the virus caused him to express this loneliness by disrupting the world’s natural order. In the case of the moon, its natural status as a satellite of the earth is disrupted by Majora, causing it to instead desire to consume the very world it would ordinarily orbit (the moon’s face implies that it’s the kind of thing that can have desires).

These two interpretations of Majora are mutually incompatible and both plausible—and I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard to add more competing interpretations to the list. This underscores the point that we just can’t infer the nature of Majora from its influence throughout Termina.

Why should this ambiguity of Majora’s nature be “centrally important” to the story of Majora’s Mask? Step back from the technicalities of my analysis from a moment and recall how pre-theoretically weird the game of Majora’s Mask is: Link, a child, falls into a parallel world doomed to live out a countless number of three-day cycles leading up to the apocalypse, and every aspect of the world’s nature is out of whack (poisoned swamp, frozen mountain, etc.). Majora itself is this kind of weird: even though we can’t define it, its influence is everywhere, not unlike a Lovecraftian horror that walks the earth, utterly incomprehensible to humans.

The important thing about Majora, then, is that it contributes to the special kind of “terror the player feels mounting throughout playing Majora’s Mask,” which I discussed in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You. It causes the mounting fear that comes from calling something evil when you can’t possibly understand what that thing even is. This, I think, is one of the most foundational reasons why playing Majora’s Mask is such an unsettling experience: in a world with no basis for morality, the Happy Mask Salesman sends you on a quest against an incomprehensible entity, essentially asking you to take it on faith that the entity is really evil.

Second Subject of Critique: the moon children. From the original article: “In order to stop Majora once and for all, Link is teleported to the moon, where he encounters a surreal scene of five children [the moon children] under a single tree on a lush, green landscape. Four of the children are running around the tree in play, each wearing one of the evil masks that had been used to seal the giants away. The fifth child sits alone under the tree, wearing Majora’s Mask itself. […] What we see manifested symbolically in the climax of Majora’s Mask under the tree is that Majora the Spirit subdued the four giants of Termina because he was lonely and desperately wanted friends.”

Even though I analyzed Majora’s Mask for three months, I rarely mentioned the five moon children and never analyzed them in depth. When I did mention them, it was typically in the same vein as the above quote: I claimed that they were symbolic of Majora and his loneliness. It should be clear from what I’ve said so far in this analysis that I no longer find this symbolic account of the moon children satisfying. In revising my analysis, I first want to comment on why it’s so hard to produce a satisfying analysis of the moon children; after that, I offer a new argument for how the moon children fit into the overall economy of Majora’s Mask‘s metaphysics and storytelling.

MM Moon Children

The surface of the moon in Majora’s Mask, along with the moon children, is an example of something that’s fairly common in video games generally, but fairly uncommon in Zelda games: a final confrontation that takes place in a fantastical, quasi-magical space that exists beyond the scope of the rest of the game’s world. Many JRPGs end in this way: think of the endings of games like Final Fantasy, Xenoblade Chronicles, Dishonored 2, Namco’s Tales series, and so on. Often as the final boss of a game evolves towards its final form, the physical space of the surrounding world falls away, and the avatar battles the boss in an explicable, alternate dimension of sorts.

The Zelda series doesn’t do this very often. In Ocarina of Time, for instance, as the final confrontation mounts, Ganondorf transforms into the pig-horror, Ganon, and Hyrule Castle collapses. Even then, however, the game’s story remains firmly situated in the setting of Hyrule: there’s nothing metaphysically outlandish about Hyrule Castle collapsing and Link battling Ganon in its ruins.

The moon and its moon children aren’t like the final confrontation against Ganon: after Link chases Majora’s Mask up into the moon, he inexplicably appears on a green field, with the lone tree and the moon children in the distance. There’s no account within the game of what relation this green field—the “surface of the moon”—bears to Termina or anywhere else.

The upshot of this is that it’s very hard to integrate the events on the moon into the overall story and world of Majora’s Mask. On the moon, Link and the player are the only characters who are directly continuous with the rest of the game’s story: even though Majora’s Mask and the four boss masks reappear, they’re worn by the mysterious moon children, who are entirely sui generis in the game’s world.

This discontinuity between the moon children and the rest of the game is also why “analyses” of the events on the moon read more like Rorschach tests than like comprehensive theories or analyses. Without much to tether the surface of the moon and its moon children to the rest of the game’s world, people fall into the trap of just imposing their overall feelings about the game onto the events of the moon, without much by way of external evidence or support for why their interpretation is the right way to think about the moon. This is how you end up with work that forces the moon children into frameworks like the psychology of Skull Kid or Buddhism. Maybe some of this work will intrinsically interest you, but it won’t give you further insight into the game as a whole. It’s like a “theory” that says the phases of Earth’s moon represent different stages of life: maybe it’s interesting, but it won’t give you much insight into the actual moon. If anything, you’ll learn more about stages of life than you will about the moon from such a theory; similarly, a Buddhist interpretation of the moon children will tell you more about Buddhism than it will about the moon children and the role they play in the overall story and world of Majora’s Mask.

So now we have a better picture of why it’s especially hard to integrate the moon children and their world with the rest of Majora’s Mask; all the same, I think it’s possible to say something useful about them. We just have to go into the analysis understanding that, because of the above considerations, the scope of this analysis will be more limited than we might like. I think the seeds of this new theory, too, were already present in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: my thesis here is that the surface of the moon and the moon children reveal the artificial nature of morality in Termina because they exist beyond the Happy Mask Salesman’s domain of influence.

Link and the Moon Child

As I just explained, the surface of the moon is metaphysically alien to the world of Termina: it’s not at all apparent how it’s supposed to correspond to the stony-faced sphere hovering in Termina’s sky, and, crucially, time doesn’t flow here as it does in Termina. Instead, just like the inside of the Clock Tower—where the Happy Mask Salesman resides—time on the moon isn’t recorded at all. The surface of the moon thus exists outside of both space and time, relative to Termina. In light of this, it stands to reason that the Happy Mask Salesman would not be able to impose moral artifice on the surface of the moon in the way that he can impose it on the world of Termina.

What would the player of Majora’s Mask see if my theory of moral artifice were correct, and the player was able to see through this imposed veil of morality to the metaphysically amoral universe underneath? We would expect to see the “struggle of good and evil” for what it is: a game with no fundamental moral valence, and no real heroes or villains. This is exactly what we see on the surface of the moon: as Link chases the incomprehensible entity of Majora onto the moon, he encounters a metaphysically distinct world that recapitulates the entire, basic plot of Majora’s Mask without any apparent moral valence. The four “evil spirits trapping the Giants” are present, but now they’re just innocent children, and instead of battling them with the fate of the world on the line, Link is just playing hide-and-seek with them. And most explicitly in support of this analysis (as I discussed in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You), the moon child wearing Majora’s Mask gives Link a mask with dark powers (the Fierce Deity’s Mask) and asks to play “good guys against bad guys” with him, with Link playing the bad guy. Morality is explicitly, literally construed as a game on the surface of the moon, and in order for Link to “truly” complete his quest, acquiring the final mask for his collection (again, the Fierce Deity’s Mask), he must surrender to the moon children all his other masks that he allegedly earned by doing good deeds in Termina: in other words, he must surrender all the tokens that implied his quest was morally good.

Thus, I think that the best understanding of the moon’s surface and the moon children is that they recapitulate Link’s quest through Termina without the Salesman’s moral artifice, revealing the quest for the amoral game that it is. This coheres with and underscores the rest of my analysis, and I think it’s the most insight into the overall economy of Majora’s Mask‘s storytelling that we can squeeze out of the moon children.

Third Subject of Critique: the amoral nature of Termina. From the original article: “The resulting metaphysical image that Majora’s Mask paints is one where humanity fundamentally suffers from separateness, and seeks, like Skull Kid, to find existential comfort through grasping for something meaningful. Morality ultimately reveals itself as something that we postulate in order to comfort ourselves in just this way, although we believe it is something that inheres to the fabric of the world. So the terror the player feels mounting throughout playing Majora’s Mask is the result of a nagging doubt, slowly growing in the back of their mind, that the moral quest on which Link initially embarked is not fundamentally moral at all — good and evil, rather, are a single artificial concept, like a Möbius strip trying to convince us that its one side is in fact two different sides.”

During most of my analysis of Majora’s Mask, I was emphatic that Termina was metaethically nihilistic, which is to say that morality is not a metaphysically real feature of the world (in contrast to a world like Hyrule, the morality of which is metaphysically based in the Triforce). I’ve already reiterated that thesis several times in this Critical Review. However, late in my work on the game, I came around to the idea that Termina’s ethics are better described by a version of something called divine command theory: the theory that things are right and wrong just based on what some kind of god decides are right and wrong. This difference is subtle, but it ends up mattering a lot: this one change ends up making Majora’s Mask optimistic where it would otherwise be pessimistic. 

In my original work I focused on the idea that Termina had no inherent basis for morality, and then argued that the Happy Mask Salesman and the player could impose moral artifices on the world, where ‘moral artifice’ meant (roughly) the veneer or mere appearance of morality. This was key to why Majora’s Mask was to terrifying: players want to be doing good, but the universe provides them no possibility of doing so. If being a hero means being morally good, then, on this view, there’s no way for Link to be a hero in Majora’s Mask. That’s pretty pessimistic as far as stories go, and it’s especially pessimistic in the context of the Zelda series, in which Link is virtually synonymous with the notion of heroism.

Thankfully, I now think that this analysis is too quick. Even though the theory gets Termina’s basic metaphysics right, it fails to accurately describe the interaction between Termina and agents like the Happy Mask Salesman and the player who are metaphysically adjacent to it: outside of its spatiotemporal constraints yet able to influence its metaphysical structure.

The best way to understand this shortcoming of my original theory is to reconsider the concept of evil as it’s discussed within Termina. Even though the Salesman is the first to ascribe evil to Majora’s Mask and introduce the concept of evil into Termina (as I discussed above), he isn’t the only one to talk about evil throughout the course of the story. For example: after a giant turtle transports Link to the Great Bay temple and Link frees the Giant trapped within, the giant turtle warns him that “the evil that haunts this land has not completely vanished”; after Link defeats the ghost of the composer Sharp in Ikana Canyon, he tells Link that he wishes for him “to go to the temple in this land and sever the root of the evil curse that torments us.”

If the moral artifices that the Salesman and the player imposed on Termina were entirely superficial, not inhering to the world at all, then it would be hard to understand the apparent capacity of characters within the world to detect and recognize evil derived from the influence of Majora. But there’s an alternative explanation that squares this ability of citizens in Termina to detect evil with the capacity of metaphysically adjacent entities to impose moral artifice on Termina. This alternative is divine command theory: just as metaphysically adjacent entities can influence the spacetime of Termina (e.g., as the player make Termina a reality by encountering it), so too can they actually create the moral reality of Termina. Termina indeed lacks an inherent basis for morality, but metaphysically adjacent entities can actually provide it with that missing basis.

This means that technically speaking, when the Salesman ascribes evil to Majora, he actually makes it the case that Majora is the source of evil in Termina. The player’s initial horror as they engage with Termina therefore isn’t that there’s no basis at all for morality in Termina, as I originally argued: rather, the horror is the realization that good and evil only exist in the world because someone looking at the world (namely, the Salesman) said so.

Besides better accommodating and explaining the various data about the Termina and its people (e.g., people’s awareness of evil), this revision to the analysis crucially changes the tenor of the game’s story because it means that the player can actually determine what is good and evil in Termina. Late in my original work in the series, I argued (in details too long to reproduce here) that the player of Majora’s Mask is ultimately able to take control of Termina’s moral artifice away from the Salesman, imposing a moral artifice of their own by deciding what is morally good and imposing that standard of morality on Termina. This wouldn’t be a very empowering conclusion, however, if “moral artifice” was just a way for metaphysically adjacent entities to think about a world that fundamentally has no moral value. Our new model of divine command theory instead says that, once that player is able to recognize her own metaphysical authority and impose her own values upon the game, she really can establish her own moral order within Termina. In this way, the game’s story moves from despair to triumph: the player first despairs that only a Salesman running a fetchquest is able to determine the moral order of Termina; then, she triumphs as she realizes that she has the power to impose her own ideals of goodness on Termina. A small change in the metaphysical analysis, then, really can radically change the message of a video game’s story.

Fourth Subject of Critique: Link’s Identity. From the original article: “I believe that, in review, we have far greater reason to believe that it is a parallel Link whom the player inhabits upon entering Termina, if it can be said to be Link at all. Put aside the fact Termina’s Link can use a bow when Young Link from Ocarina of Time could not; put aside the fact that the Song of Time, the tool for resetting Termina’s 3-day cycle, had a completely different metaphysical mode of operation in Ocarina of Time; consider, instead, the conjunction of these three facts: first, we have seen there is no reason to believe that Link possesses the Triforce of Courage; second, we have seen that morality does not inhere to Link, and that the “ultimate form” offered to him by the game is actually that of an evil god; third, the narrative of the game is completely dependent upon Link donning masks to assume alternate forms, so that Link for most of the game is physically not even Link. While these facts do not entail that Link is a different entity in Majora’s Mask than in Ocarina of Time, that certainly seems to be the inference to best explanation. The Link of Ocarina of Time is directed towards the goal of conquering evil without faltering, and the game is heavily focused on his own coming-of-age, featuring a seven-year time jump explicitly contrived to turn him into an adult capable of defeating Ganondorf. The Link of Majora’s Mask, in contrast, appears as the classic existential Stranger, an unknown who exhibits unaffected agency in a world where meaning does not fundamentally obtain. This, I think, is another major source of why the gamer who specifically has already played Ocarina of Time feels disturbed while playing Majora’s Mask: they believe themselves to be playing the same character who occupied the world of Ocarina of Time, and slowly, by painful degrees, they realize that they are someone who barely resembles that former Link.”

I’ve come to think that this is a very bad argument for very good conclusion. First I’ll point out the weak points of the original argument, and then we’ll use our discussion of morality, together with some theory from my later work on Majora’s Mask, to see how to mount a better argument to the conclusion that the Link of Majora’s Mask isn’t the same Link that we play as in Ocarina of Time.

After I published Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, readers made the good point that the discrepancy between Link’s abilities in Majora’s Mask and Young Link’s physical abilities in Ocarina of Time needn’t count against the thesis that Link is the same person in both games. The “canonical” understanding of the link between the two games (more on that below) is that, after Link defeats Ganondorf at the end of Ocarina of Time, he’s sent back in time to his childhood; then, after a time, he sets off in pursuit of Navi, his fairy companion. So, as readers rightly point out, it could easily be the case that Young Link learned new abilities in the intervening time between the end of Ocarina of Time and the start of Majora’s Mask. That would explain why the Link of Majora’s Mask can do things that the Young Link of Ocarina of Time couldn’t, like use a bow and execute acrobatic flips through the air.

More important than this objection in my mind, though, is that much of what I cited as evidence that Link wasn’t the same person in the two games is better construed as evidence that Termina is a fundamentally different world than Hyrule. No doubt, the Song of Time functions very differently in Termina than in Hyrule, but it’s much more plausible, I now think, to attribute this to the difference in the games’ worlds, rather than a difference in the Links of each game. Time in Termina constantly winds down to the apocalypse, whereas the Temple of Time in Hyrule serves as a unique nexus that allows travel through time; it makes sense that the same tool—the Song of Time—would be receptive to these different time-based constraints, opening the Door of Time in Hyrule’s Temple of Time and also allowing passage back in time, away from the apocalypse, in Termina, a perpetually ending world.

Similarly, the capacity of Link to transform using masks in Majora’s Mask—even into the Fierce Deity, a dark god—shouldn’t have any bearing on whether or not Link is identical with his counterpart in Ocarina of Time. These transformations are pretty clearly facilitated by the masks themselves, not by any special, new feature of Link himself. The in-game descriptions of the transformation masks, for example (the masks that allow Link to transform into a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora), say that Link can wear them “to inhabit the body of” a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora. This language doesn’t suggest that there’s anything special about Link specifically that allows for these transformations. And even if you were to argue that only heroes could successfully use transformation masks like the Goron and Zora mask (perhaps because these masks contain the spirits of heroes and therefore require a wearer whose own spirit is correspondingly heroic), the Link of Ocarina of Time is unquestionably heroic, and so this be no way to argue that the Link of Ocarina of Time couldn’t possibly wear masks and transform in the way that the Link of Majora’s Mask does.

MM Transformation Masks

I think the point I was trying to make here in the original article was that the player doesn’t spend a lot of time in Majora’s Mask controlling the Hylian version of Link, since Link is often transforming into a Deku Scrub, Goron, or Zora, which gives the player a different perspective on who Link is. But again, that point doesn’t translate into a thesis about the fundamental identity of Link the Hylian in Majora’s Mask relative to Link the Hylian in Ocarina of Time.

So the argument of Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You that Link in Majora’s Mask isn’t the same as Young Link in Ocarina of Time has serious holes. Nonetheless, there are better arguments available to reach that same conclusion. First, I’ll distance the current analysis from concerns about satisfying the “canon” of the series; then, we’ll consider how Link’s amoral status in Majora’s Mask estrange his identity from the identity of Link in Ocarina of Time.

Here’s one objection to the view that Ocarina of Time’s Link isn’t Majora’s Mask’s Link that I don’t find compelling, one that’s come up a lot since the publication of Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: “Nintendo has said outright that Link is the same person in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, so this theory is wrong because it contradicts the Zelda canon.”

I’ve spoken a lot about why “canon”—a creator’s “official” interpretation of his or her story—doesn’t get the last word in the analysis of stories. (This is, in fact, exactly what I’ll be discussing in With a Terrible Fate‘s presentation at PAX West this September). This past June, I discussed the limitation of canon interpretation specifically in the Zelda series, as part of my work on Breath of the Wild. Since I still stand by that discussion, I quote it here:

Zelda games, more than most games, are often heavily analyzed through the lens of “canon”: the official, Nintendo-licensed interpretation of how the series’ titles fit together into a coherent set of timelines. This canon mentality, I think, makes some people reticent to doubt any of the explicit information about the Zelda universe provided by the games. Nintendo’s words, and the words they encode in their games, are often taken as law in one way or another.

There’s of course value in theorizing about the Zelda canon—for example, hypothesizing about how Breath of the Wild fits into the Zelda timelines—but it’s dangerous to focus on canon to the exclusion of all other analytical methods. A common, established storytelling device is unreliable narration: stories in which a narrator or various aspects of the story’s representation are dubious within the overall ecosystem of the story and its world. This is how The Sound and the Fury works; this is how Fight Club works; this, I’ve argued, is how Majora’s Mask works. To focus only on the letter of canon and on the information a game literally endorses is to ignore the nuances of a story’s overall world: oftentimes, making sense of a game’s universe requires reinterpreting various data from the game’s story in order to gain a maximally coherent understanding of the overall work of art.”

So if the non-canonical nature of my analysis is your issue with it, take this as an invitation to consider my analysis afresh. With that in mind, consider a positive reason for endorsing the view that Ocarina of Time’s Link isn’t the same person as Majora’s Mask’s Link: the moral essence of Link’s identity.

There are two parts of my original argument about Link’s identity that I think hold up and are worth emphasizing: in Majora’s Mask, “there is no reason to believe that Link possesses the Triforce of Courage [and] morality does not inhere to Link.” I discussed at length in Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You that the Triforce is not a part of Termina (whence its lack of intrinsic moral grounding). Link is part of the resulting picture of moral nihilism within Termina: he’s not presented as any kind of destined hero; in fact, Kaepora Gaebora, the owl that repeatedly reinforces Link’s heroic destiny in Ocarina of Time, emphasizes in Majora’s Mask that Link is in no way destined to save Termina from its fated destruction.

When you’re considering the question of whether Ocarina of Time Link is the same as Majora’s Mask Link or not, it’s easy to hear the question as one of physical correspondence—that is, the question of whether it’s the same physical body called “Link” that the player has as an avatar in both games. But we can also think about the question in terms of spirit, where “spirit” is something along the lines of an immortal soul that can take various physical forms over time and space. Throughout the Zelda series, the various incarnations of Link in different times and timelines are all united by carrying the spirit of “the chosen hero”: just as the Triforce is a constant in the world of Hyrule, so too do their three bearers reincarnate constantly. There’s Zelda, the paragon of wisdom; Ganon, the corrupt incarnation of Demise; and Link, the courageous hero. Their physical bodies might change—for example, the Link of The Wind Waker is unequivocally a different literal person than the Link of Ocarina of Time—but the spirit that they represent stays the same.

An Abundance of Links

I think that this analysis by way of spirit is a far better approach to the question of Link’s identity than mere correspondence of physical body, especially when, as I said there are so many physically different Links across the series. And the spirit analysis makes the importance of Termina’s amoral metaphysics clear: the lack of any Triforce-grounded virtue or destined heroism inherent in the Link of Majora’s Mask is a very good argument, I think, that he doesn’t possess the soul of the hero that is such a central feature of Ocarina of Time Link’s identity. As I see it, this is a strong case for the two Links being fundamentally, radically different beings, even if they do use the same physical body.


I’m glad I was able to kick off my work on Majora’s Mask with Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You, because I think the piece succeeded in capturing what I still see as the key themes of the game: the horror of being thrust into an incomprehensible world and realizing that there’s no Triforce to cement the moral status of Link’s quest. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the intricacy of the game’s universe that months of intensive analysis can end up illuminating its story in ways we’d never before imagined. It’s with those months of analysis at our back that we’ve been able to revise Majora’s Mask Should Terrify You: appreciating the unknowable Majora, the symbolic moon children, the ultimate optimism of Termina’s metaethics, and the estranged identity of Link in a robust new light.

PAX Aus 2016, “Press X to Scream”: Full Presentation Content

With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX Australia 2016 entitled “Press X to Scream: Horror Storytelling in Video Games.” In the months since our presentation, we’ve been publishing our work from the panel in argument form, for the benefit of those viewers who were unable to attend. Now that all of the PAX Aus content has been published, we’ve aggregated it all in once place so that you can experience our entire presentation in written form.

  1. From PAX Aus: The Psychology and Neuroscience of Jump Scares
  2. Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games
  3. Bloodborne, Lovecraft, and the Dangerous Idea
  4. From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask
  5. From PAX Aus 2016: Guilt & Inequity in Silent Hill 2

From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask

With a Terrible Fate is in the process of releasing articles detailing the arguments of our presentation at PAX Australia 2016 on horror storytelling in video games. I’ve already released an article on the horror of Bloodborne, which I discussed at PAX; now, I’m returning to Majora’s Mask to discuss the metaphysical and metaethical details of the game that make it more horrifying than you might first think.

A word of background before we get started: before With a Terrible Fate became a central hub for rigorous video game analysis and theory, I began the site as a project in which I analyzed Majora’s Mask for three months leading up to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in an effort to defend my claim that Majora’s Mask is one of the most significant pieces of art in modern times. So, what I say here condenses various theses that I defend at length in that much larger body of work. If you’re interested in reading my comprehensive work on Majora’s Mask, you can find the entire library here. I’ll also link to articles from the library as they become relevant in this article.

With that in mind, let’s return to Termina and talk about what makes it far scarier than Creepypasta, fan videos, Gibdos, or nearly anything else. In keeping with the format of my PAX Aus presentation, I’ll first argue that there is no metaethical grounding for a hero’s quest in Termina. I’ll then turn to the iterative-timeline structure of Link’s journey through Termina, and argue that Termina cannot every truly be saved in the way the game suggests.


“Not In Hyrule Anymore”: The Lack of Ethical Grounding in Termina

It might not seem that there should be any question about whether Link is a hero in Majora’s Mask: after all, Legend of Zelda games are quintessential journeys of heroism, defeating evil against great odds. But I contend that special features of Termina deny that Link’s journey is truly good in the way that the journeys of other Links in other Zelda games are. To show this, I’ll first contrast the metaphysical foundation for morality in Hyrule with the lack of such foundation in Termina. I’ll then discuss the purpose of Link’s quest, and the degree to which morality within Termina is treated as a game. By the end of this section, we’ll see that players should be seriously doubtful that they can do anything good or heroic in Termina–and that should scare them. (You can read more about this in my early article on why Majora’s Mask should terrify you.)


The Triforce.

Perhaps the most recognizable image from the Legend of Zelda series is the Triforce: a sacred object derived from the three Goddesses who created the world of Hyrule. Each of the three triangles represents a different virtue: Power, Wisdom, and Courage. These are the virtues that created the world and that ground its goodness, metaphysically. They are also traditionally represented by the individuals in whom one of the three virtues is manifested: typically Ganondorf (Power), Zelda (Wisdom), and Link (Courage). The harmony of these virtues grounds order in the world and safeguards against chaos.

The heroism of Zelda quests is almost categorically grounded in restoring order to the world by restoring balance to the Triforce. Consider, for instance, the story of Ocarina of Time: Link must take up his fated role as the Hero of Time and bearer of the Triforce of Courage by uniting with Zelda, bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom, in order to defeat Ganondorf, the “Great King of Evil,” thereby preventing him from taking over the world and throwing it into chaos. This is fairly typical of Zelda games: Link’s quest against evil is grounded in restoring order to the Triforce.

The first thing to notice about Majora’s Mask, then, is that there is no mention of the Triforce at all in the game. There is no mention of Link as bearer of the Triforce of Courage, nor is there any “Great King of Evil,” nor–despite this being a “Legend of Zelda” game–is Zelda present at all, except for one flashback of dubious ontological status (you can read more about that problem here). Given that Majora’s Mask is supposed to be the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, it’s pretty remarkable that the entire metaphysical basis for moral facts in the universe is glaringly absent from Termina.

But of course, you might think that I’m being unfair: after all, the Triforce is the metaethical structure of Hyrule, but we’re in Termina now, not Hyrule. Thus, it’s plausible, you might object, that Termina still has a foundation for moral facts–it’s just not the same foundation as we see in Hyrule-centric Zelda games. Yet I think there are independent reasons to think that this hypothesis doesn’t hold up. To see why, we’ll turn to the purpose of Link’s quest, and the surprising way in which the enigmatic Happy Mask Salesman frames and motivates Link’s time in Termina. (You can read more about the Happy Mask Salesman’s ontology and narrative significance here; you can read about the significance of his two most famous lines in the game here and here.)

Happy Mask Salesman entreating Link

The Salesman sets you on a fetch quest.

It’s easy to forget that Link’s adventure in Termina is initially framed as a fetch quest: when he arrives inside the Clock Tower, the Happy Mask Salesman simply asks Link to retrieve Majora’s Mask for him within three days’ time, since he is only in town for three days. This is the context with which Link ventures out into Clock Town and Termina for the first time. His adventure only becomes a story of fighting evil once he confronts Skull Kid atop the Clock Tower for the first time, “remembers” the Song of Time, and travels back in time, meeting the Happy Mask Salesman inside the Clock Tower for a second time. When Link fails to produce Majora’s Mask, as the Happy Mask Salesman asked, the Salesman flies into a rage, warning Link of what will happen if he fails to recover the Mask. I quote at length:

What have you done to me!!! If you leave my mask out there, something terrible will happen! The mask that was stolen from me… It is called Majora’s Mask. It is an accursed item from legend that is said to have been used by an ancient tribe in its hexing rituals. It is said that an evil and wicked power is bestowed upon the one who wears that mask. According to legend… the troubles caused by Majora’s Mask were so great… the ancient ones, fearing such catastrophe, sealed the mask in shadow forever, preventing its misuse. But now, that tribe from the legend has vanished, so no one really knows the true nature of the mask’s power… …But I feel it. I went to great lengths to get that legendary mask. When I finally had it… I could sense the doom of a dark omen brewing. It was that unwelcome feeling that makes your hair stand on end. And now… that imp has it… I am begging you! You must get that mask back quickly or something horrible will happen!

The Salesman Encourages Link

The Salesman encourages Link and the player.

It’s easy to take the Salesman at face value here, but I think another analysis better explains the data of the overall game and world of Termina: namely, the Salesman is imposing an artifice of morality upon Termina and Majora’s Mask in order to motivate Link and the player to get his mask back for him. For at this point in the game, Link has already failed once to complete the Salesman’s fetch quest; thus it seems reasonable that the Salesman would seek to further motivate Link to complete the task. An easy way to do this is to suggest that the mask is endowed with evil power and thus must be recovered in order to prevent something terrible from happening. Combined with the observation that there is no obvious Triforce-analogue grounding morality within Termina, it seems plausible that the appearance of evil in Majora’s Mask is just that: mere appearance, rather than something evil in a metaphysically deep sense.

Moreover, the Happy Mask Salesman as an entity seems to be in just the right position to impose an “apparent morality” on Termina–this is what I call ‘moral artifice’, or moral dimension that lacks metaphysical grounding in a world, imposed by an external source. For the Happy Mask Salesman himself doesn’t really exist within Termina; rather, I think it makes sense to consider him as metaphysically adjacent to Termina: he exists externally to Termina but is poised to influence and interface with the world in a variety of ways. Inside the Clock Tower, where the Salesman resides, time does not flow, as it does in the rest of Termina. Moreover, it is implied that the Salesman effectively has comprehensive knowledge of Termina–without ever leaving the innards of the Clock Tower, he knows the origin and ontology of every mask Link acquires throughout the game, including masks that Link creates by healing fallen heroes (he describes the origins of these masks in vivid detail if Link speaks to him while wearing the masks). Moreover, he is the one who imparts to Link the Song of Healing, which allows Link to drastically change the structure of Termina by converting spirits into masks. This is the song that is described as healing “evil and troubled spirits”–again, the concept of evil is fundamentally introduced into the game by the Happy Mask Salesman. So it seems that even when we see evil at work in Termina, this is only the case because the Salesman is coloring the world this way for us. Again, there is no Triforce or heroic destiny guiding us here–we are left with only the guidance of a disarmingly smiling Salesman in pursuit of a fetch quest.

Majoras Wrath

The final confrontation against Majora’s Forms.

It’s worth noting, too, that when morality is introduced to Termina via moral artifice, it seems to center on the entity of ‘Majora’: the Salesman refers to an evil possessing Majora’s Mask, and the various putatively evil forms in the game–Majora’s Mask, Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath, and the masks sealing away Termina’s four giant–all derive their apparent relation to Majora. When Link obtains the Fierce Deity’s Mask, too (discussed further below), the game asks whether “this mask’s dark powers could be as bad as Majora” (emphasis mine), again deriving moral valence from the mask’s relation to Majora. But notice that it’s not at all clear in the game exactly who or what Majora is: Link only ever confronts various forms derived from from Majora (Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath), and the Salesman never says outright what Majora is. One virtue of the theory outlined above is that it gives us the resources to explain what Majora is: on my view, Majora is just identical with the concept of evil that the Salesman has imposed upon Termina. This makes sense when we consider other references to evil and to the impact of Majora on the world of Termina: in every corner of the world, we see that Majora has effected “evil” by distorting the natural order of things–a swamp is poisoned; a mountain in trapped in endless winter; an ocean is clouded and storm-ridden; and a desert is corrupted by lingering spirits and death. We can analyze these effects by saying that Majora, as the concept of evil, is distorting the universe of Termina, because Termina is a world that does not support moral facts or reality: by trying to impose morality upon Termina, the Salesman is distorting the very foundations of the world. (You can read more about Majora as Termina’s concept of evil here.)

If the above metaphysical considerations haven’t convinced you that there’s no basis for morality within Termina, then I invite you, lastly, to consider how the game treats morality in its ultimate confrontation: Majora’s Forms versus the Fierce Deity. Though the player needn’t acquire and use the Fierce Deity’s Mask to defeat Majora’s Forms, the game implies that this is the “proper” way to complete the narrative: the Mask is only available once the player has acquired all other masks in the game, at which point they must give those masks away to the various Moon Children with whom Link can play hide-and-seek before facing Majora’s Forms. At that point, Link can speak to the Moon Child wearing Majora’s Mask, who, noting that Link doesn’t have any masks left, says that they can instead play “good guys against bad guys,” and tells Link that Link is the bad guy in the game. He gives Link the Fierce Deity’s Mask, which, again, is described as a mask with dark powers that could be as bad as Majora.

Fierce Deity's Mask

Link receiving the Fierce Deity’s Mask.

In the final confrontation of the game, Link isn’t framed as a destined hero battling the Great King of Evil: he’s framed as a child playing the role of a villain in a game of good-and-evil. Moreover, the Fierce Deity’s Mask effectively turns the game’s final boss fight into “child’s play”: Majora’s Forms as frankly pathetic when faced with the Fierce Deity’s Mask, and it is trivial for the player to massacre a final boss that is quite challenging when faced without the Fierce Deity’s Mask. So the final battle isn’t a moment of heroism; rather, it’s a game in which Link takes on a mercilessly evil role. If we think that good and evil really have a metaphysical basis in Termina, it’s not clear how to make sense of this confrontation, nor is it clear how to make sense of Link’s relationship to the Fierce Deity’s Mask more generally; on the other hand, armed with our thesis that Termina lacks real moral grounding, this final battle is a poignant accent on the fact that the universe refuses to acknowledge Link and the player’s quest as morally significant.

If we accept the above arguments, then I think we already have ample reason to see Majora’s Mask as deeply horrifying, especially when we consider the game’s status as the sequel to Ocarina of Time. The player, having defeated the evil Ganondorf on Link the Hero’s destined quest in Ocarina, expects the same sort of heroism and triumph of goodness over evil in Majora’s Mask. The Happy Mask Salesman even assures them that they are right to expect this sort of heroism and goodness in their quest–he does this by imposing a moral artifice upon the world of Termina for the player and Link. Yet, over the course of the game, the player slowly discovers that there is no moral foundation for Link’s quest: there is no Triforce, no heroism, and no reason to believe that Link is doing something inherently good in his quest. And so the player is forced to confront the question: just what is the purpose of Link’s quest, as he goes to such lengths to fetch a mask for a Mask Salesman? The more the player looks for an ethical justification in Termina, the more it eludes her–and the loss of this basis for Link’s quest is a fearsome thing indeed.

In fact–despite this view being “against Zelda canon”–I think the scariest thing to emerge from this metaethical analysis is the implication that the Link of Majora’s Mask isn’t the same Hero of Time whom we encountered in Ocarina of Time. This strikes me as the best explanation of Majora-Link’s not possessing the Triforce of Courage, of ultimately donning the form of a dark god (the Fierce Deity), and generally bearing no relation to destiny in the way that Ocarina-Link did (you can read more about this here, and about how Majora Mask’s flashback to Zelda fits into this analysis here). So on my view, the deepest horror to be found here is just this: the player steps into Majora’s Mask expecting a classic tale of Zelda heroism, and slowly discovers that they literally aren’t controlling the hero that they thought they were. It is this profound alienation that makes the playing of Majora’s Mask a terrifying experience.

The Terminal Metaphysics of Termina: Majora’s Mask and the World that Can’t be Saved

Even if we agree that there’s no foundation for morality within Termina, we might still think that the player and Link can achieve something meaningful by “saving” Termina from the moon falling on Clock Town and the rest of the world. However, I think that trying to make sense of the game in this way just invites further horror, as we discover that Termina isn’t the kind of world that can be saved: rather, it is a world that is fundamentally doomed, and Link cannot change this fact. I’ll defend this claim in three parts: first, I’ll argue that Termina depends on Link for its existence; then, I’ll argue that Termina is constrained to three-day timelines; lastly, I’ll argue that the timelines of Termina are endlessly iterative. From these arguments, a picture emerges of Termina as a world that truly is Termina: though Link can participate in the world, he cannot save it from its doomed state.


Termina is a strikingly unusual video game world, and only because time in the world constantly counts down towards the apocalypse: events in Termina also happen in an unusual way. The best way to see this is to consider the puzzle of the Zora hero Mikau, who tragically dies during the course of the game (I case that I explore in detail here). When Link arrives at the Great Bay, he sees Mikau dying in the water: the player must bring him to shore and use the Song of Healing to convert his spirit into a mask as he dies–and then Link buries him, in one of the most poignant and jarring moments of the series. There are many things to say about this moment, and I’ve written much about it in the past; for our purposes, however, we just need to think about one surprising puzzle that emerges from this event: what was the status of Mikau in timelines before Link arrived at the Great Bay? By the time Link arrives at Great Bay, he has already traveled through multiple three-day cycles of Termina; presumably, we would want to say that Mikau still existed in those timelines prior to Link discovering him in the water. Yet the state in which Mikau existed in these prior timelines is not at all clear. Certainly he is not dead: he only dies once Link encounters him. Yet it also doesn’t seem quite right to say Mikau is alive and well in previous timelines, for he dies as soon as Link encounters him: we know he is dying and can’t survive the three days. So it seems as if we have to say that he is in an indeterminate state of being neither dead nor alive, but rather in a state of dying, suspended there until Link encounters him and he truly dies.

I think the conclusion to which considerations such as the above lead us is that the world of Termina actually depends on Link encountering it in order to exist. Beyond Mikau, we can also see (for example) that time doesn’t actually pass in Termina except when Link is there: when he enters the inside of the Clock Tower, time in Termina freezes until he exits into Clock Town. Generally speaking, the progression and instantiation of events in Termina do not proceed without Link. If you like, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that Termina is “solipsistic” with regards to Link.

The existential dependence of Termina on Link doesn’t alone simply anything obvious about whether or not Termina can be saved; however, a clearer and scarier picture of these implications emerges when we consider this dependence relation together with the iterative-timeline metaphysics of Majora’s Mask. 

Link falling through time

Link bringing about a new timeline in Termina.

It seems clear to me that Link and the player progress through the game’s storyline by instantiating new timelines each time he plays the Song of Time. I detail this argument here, but the general thought is just this: Link clearly doesn’t reset the universe of Termina each time he plays the Song of Time, as various states of affairs throughout the world can change each time. Mikau, again, is an example: once Link sees Mikau die, he does not appear again even after Link plays the Song of Time. Link also retains the masks he acquires even when he plays the Song of Time. Thus I think that the best explanation of the Song of Time is that it allows Link to effectively abandon the timeline of Termina in which he’s currently situated, and travel to a new timeline that is linked to the most recently abandoned timeline by what I call ‘temporal afterimages’–metaphysical remnants of earlier, alternate timelines. As an aside: this notion of temporal afterimagery, I think, has broader applicability in the series: even when Link alters time, the inhabitants of whatever new timeline he brings about seem to have “remnant” memories of previous timelines; again, the Zelda flashback in Majora’s Mask is a prime example of this.

With a metaphysical picture in view of Link’s journey through Termina as bringing about increasingly more timelines as the game progresses, we can better understand the implications of Termina’s existential dependence on Link: Link only ever encounters Termina as three-day timelines, bounded by his arrival on one hand and the apocalypse on the other hand; thus, if Termina’s existence really does depend on Link, then Termina itself seems metaphysically constrained to Link’s arrival and its apocalypse. There seems to be no broader existence of the world that Link can fight to preserve.

But, you might now object, this is clearly false: if you beat the game, then we very clearly see that Link has saved Termina, once and for all; thus, there is a greater existence to the world that Link can fight to preserve. Yet I think we have every reason to doubt this, and to take this ending to the game instead as a case of unreliable narration (about which you can read in more detail here). For one thing, the ending doesn’t make much sense with regard to the overall narrative. We know that Link cannot save everyone in Termina over the course of a single timeline, yet the ending “victory” scene of the game implies this sort of success, with everyone in the world happy. And, even more pressingly, the game itself implies that the perpetuation of doomed Termina timelines persists after the end of the game. We can see this because there are certain events that the player can only bring about after she instantiates a new timeline in Termina after beating the game. For example, one of the functions of the Fierce Deity’s Mask is to allow Link to transform into the Fierce Deity during the four Giant boss battles in the game; and, since Link only gets the Fierce Deity’s Mask during the final battle of the game, he must go back and bring about another doomed timeline to use the mask in this way. Notice how starkly the above vision of Termina contrasts with the world of Ocarina of Time: it is not possible to “continue” in Hyrule after defeating Ganon; the game simply proclaims that the game has ended, and, if the player reloads her save file, she returns to wherever her last save was before defeating Ganon. Termina could just as easily “conclude” if Link were able to really save it; yet the very fact that the player can return to Termina and bring about further doomed timelines even after beating Majora’s Forms suggests that there is no way to truly overcome Termina’s doomed fate.

Though we might initially trust the game in telling us that Link can save Termina, the metaphysics of the world tell us otherwise: beyond the metaethical nihilism of the world, it is not even possible for Link to end the apocalyptic timeline cycle of the world. Termina, as the name suggests, is inherently terminal: it should fill the player with horror to realize that they are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to save a world that literally cannot be saved.


As we reflect on the overall horror of Majora’s Mask, it’s useful to contrast Kaepora Gaebora, the owl and sage whom Link encounter in Ocarina of Time, with Kaepora Gaebora, the owl whom Link encounters in Majora’s Mask (I study the owl in more detail here). In Ocarina, Kaepora Gaebora is a manifestation of the sage Rauru, who guides Link on his quest to defeat Ganondorf. Kaepora Gaebora inundates Link with the message that he is the Hero of Time, and that it is his destiny to travel through time to defeat Ganondorf. He repeatedly emphasizes what I said above: the Link of Ocarina is an agent of goodness and courage who will ultimately save Hyrule.

Kaepora Gaebora in Woodfall

The Kaepora Gaebora of Majora’s Mask is virtually antithetical to his Ocarina of Time counterpart. He constantly treats Link as an intruder in a world that he describes as “destined to fade,” and offers to help Link only if he has “the courage and determination to proceed in the face of destiny.” Rather than Link being destined to save the world, Link is fighting to save a world that is designed to be destroyed. This in essence, captures the horror of Majora’s Mask: at every turn, the player expects to be able to do the right thing, and to save the world; yet, at every turn, the game denies the player the ability to find any moral justification for her actions, along with any possibility of truly saving the world. Without this foundation for making meaning out of Link’s journey, the player is left to make up some form of alternative meaning for the journey through Majora’s Mask. If you read my full analysis, you’ll see that I actually do think this is possible, and that the player can ultimately be a positive and meaningful force in the world of the game–but this is only possible once she overcomes the initial horror of the game, a horror which you’d be hard-pressed to overstate.

"Majora's Mask"

“YOU DIED”: despair and transcendence in “Dark Souls.”

Music fades away as you jog down an innocuous hallway.  You chart a mental map of your surroundings, and check your inventory to see how much insurance you packed to help you survive.  You reach the end of the hallway, and round the corner.  There is a doorway and a white light.  You traverse the light.  A moment passes; another; then you are left with two celebratory words printed across the screen.

You Died

Welcome to “Dark Souls,” a world where no one holds your hand except to break your fingers.  If you’ve played this punisher of a game, then you know that it takes the sentiment of “meeting with a terrible fate” to a whole new level.  In PvP (‘player-versus-player’), your peers unite to kill you, seeing that you die even more frequently.  And every inch of progress made comes with the quiet threat of being lost with your next death.

Today, the one meeting With a Terrible Fate is “Dark Souls.”

Like I did with “Xenoblade Chronicles,” I’m going to bracket a lot of the broader game culture in analyzing “Dark Souls.”  From “praising the sun” to “trolling fellow players,” this game has had a substantial impact on the gaming climate at large.  While this is certainly worthwhile to discuss, I’m more interested in understanding the fundamentals of what makes “Dark Souls” so frustrating and alluring at the same time.  To that end, the argument I defend in this article is as follows:  “Dark Souls” is a piece of art that is functionally mimetic of real life, while simultaneously maintaining the pretense of being a non-realistic video game.  Furthermore, I posit that this thesis is the ultimate explanation both for why “Dark Souls” is so frustrating, as well as why it can be so rewarding.  The argument goes in three parts:  firstly, I examine the metaphysics of “Dark Souls” in comparison to my model of metaphysics in “Majora’s Mask”; secondly, I offer a means of understanding the role of narrative difficulty in “Dark Souls” by comparing it to James Joyce’s notorious Ulysses; lastly, I explain how dynamical nihilism and transcendentalism emerges from the experience of playing “Dark Souls.”  (Please note also:  this article only aims to analyze the actual game “Dark Souls,” as opposed to the entire series of which it is a member.)

I.  Metaphysics

Link falling through timeThe "Dark Souls" bonfire

We don’t need to dive too deeply into “Majora’s Mask” theory to get the point that’s useful for “Dark Souls.”  Recall merely that Link is able to instantiate new timelines of Termina by playing the Song of Time, and that, together with the extension of player agency through Link, it follows that the player has the authority to direct the reality of Termina in relation to the shape of these timelines.  So the universe is iterative by virtue of it being in constant decay, but the authority in choosing when to instantiate each iterant of Termina and how to shape those iterations is vested in the player.

In Dark Souls, the universe is not locally in flux, as is the case in “Majora’s Mask.”  It is true that the narrative of the game takes place at a point when the world of Lordran is at a crossroads, when the Flame of the First Kiln, the primordial fire lighting the world, is weak; but the world is stable over the course of narrative, with its only potential change happening at the endgame (more on this later).  The result is that the player and her character are dropped into a world that is substantively stable, unlike Termina; rather, in “Dark Souls,” it is the player’s character who is substantively unstable.

The player’s character is tethered to the reality of Lordran by the curse of the Darksign, which renders him deathless and causes him to respawn at the last bonfire he has found whenever he is killed.  This mechanism leads to each death being narratologically significant, unlike the majority of games which merely “reset” each time a player dies, not counting the death as relevant to the progression of the narrative.  So while both “Majora’s Mask” and “Dark Souls” tell a narrative in which the player’s relation to the universe is fundamentally iterative, the locus of iteration is drastically different in each case:  Termina’s iterations depend on Link, whereas, in “Dark Souls”, the iterations of the player depend on the world’s metaphysical structure.

II.  Difficulty

Recovering lost powerThe difference in iterative locus might be interesting in a vacuum, but what makes it experientially crucial is its relation to the game’s stance on difficulty.  Of course, it’s trivial to say merely that “Dark Souls” is an exceptionally trying video game, so I will be more precise with what I mean.

The “universal currency” of “Dark Souls,” as it were, is souls, which the player’s character reaps from corpses and enemies, and which can be used both to purchase items and to develop through the process of ‘leveling up’.  In this way, souls unify the game concepts of currency and experience.  But the fact that death counts in “Dark Souls” adds a caveat to the mechanism of soul collecting:  whenever the player’s character dies, the total number of souls he was carrying is left as a pulsating green mass wherever the death occurred.  The player then respawns at the last bonfire rested at.  If the player can make it back to the point of prior death, then she can collect the lost souls and “recover”; however, if she dies again before reaching that point, then those souls are lost forever.

How does this set “Dark Souls” apart from other games?  Well, one of the clearest metrics in my mind of what’s vaguely termed “game accessibility” is how a video game ascribes worth to the time someone spends playing it.  For an example of what I mean, let’s return to my last analytic subject, “Xenoblade”:  if one is traveling through the world, accruing money and experience, and is suddenly cut down by a powerful enemy, then one will respawn at a point which is proximate but prior to where the fatal encounter occurred.  When one respawns in this way, all of the money and experience gained up to the very point of death is carried over to the respawn — and, if one dies again prior to the point of the first death, then that experience and money still remains.  In this way, even if one dies in the game, the time one spent on the game leading up to that death is still worthwhile insofar as it served to advance the experience and funds of Shulk and his party.

Return now to “Dark Souls.”  Suppose the same set of circumstances:  the player advances through the world, amassing souls, and is then cut down.  All the souls that the player was carrying at the time of death are separated from the player, and left at the point of death.  The player returns to the last bonfire rested at.  Suppose, now, that the player is killed before reaching the remains from the last death.  The player returns to the same bonfire, and all souls acquired from the first leg of her adventure are lost.  By returning to the same bonfire, no physical progress has been made through the game’s world; by losing the souls, no intangible value has been accrued.  Now, one still might have acquired weaponry over the course of this endeavor, which would carry over, and ostensibly the player has hopefully learned something by the series of deaths; yet the potential loss of souls, relative to other games, implies to me that the game constantly puts the player under the threat of meaninglessness.  The reason that loss of souls feels so devastating is that the fundamentals of the game conceptually link loss of souls to rendering your interaction with the game worthless.  “Dark Souls” directly imposes the nihilism of its world on the world of the player, because every death could ultimately render huge spans of time spent on the game devoid of result.  (It’s worth noting, too, the fact that “souls” are what’s being lost, adding to the narrative of life being rendered meaningless every time you fail.)

If the game wasn’t difficult in terms of enemies and level design, then this theoretical obstacle wouldn’t be an issue in practice — but the game goes out of its way to introduce enemies in novel ways, surprise the player with obstacles, and, in short, make it a merciless trial to progress a single time, let alone to recover lost souls after a death.  The game takes the quality of unforgiving difficulty as a virtue, not unlike Joyce famously did with respect to Ulysses.  Although the analogy is imperfect, the cases of Ulysses and “Dark Souls” share features which help shed light on what’s at work in the game’s narrative.  The difficulty in Ulysses, I submit, is a result of presenting a narrative as streams of consciousness and starting those streams in media res:  the characters of the novel make sense of events in their consciousness by reference to the prior contents of their consciousness, but since we as readers are not privy to their minds prior to the start of the narrative, we must depend only on the overlap of our knowledge base with the characters’ knowledge base in order to understand their thought process (and, by extension, to understand the narrative).  So, when Joyce throws us inside the mind of an intellectual and begins a chapter by alluding to Aristotelian philosophy (Proteus, viz. line 4), he gives us no explanation of the reference or its purpose beyond that which our own prior knowledge allows us to interpolate.  This particular sort of unforgiving textual barrier to entry underpins the difficulty at play in Joyce’s concept of the aesthetic.

What of “Dark Souls”?  In the case of Ulysses, the reader is at a loss to derive meaning from the text if she does not understand the reference which are rendered difficult by virtue of the narrative design (i.e., the stream-of-consciousness formula); just so, even though the world of Lordran is metaphysically constant, the player is unable to derive any meaning from it if she does not understand how to negotiate its unapologetically difficult architecture with respect to enemies and level design.  In both cases, the form of the narrative intentionally interposes itself as a barrier to the reader deriving value — the “casual gamer,” I argue, is just as lost in “Dark Souls” as the “casual reader” is in Ulysses.

III.  Nihilism and Transcendentalism

Dark Souls title screen

At this point, we have a problem.  It’s easy to say that we play games because we enjoy playing them — in fact, under most circumstances, such a statement seems trivially true.  But “Dark Souls” is a game that, by the fundamental architecture of its world, threatens the player with no return on huge amounts of time invested.  The game, in the sense we’ve been discussing, is designed to make you fail at every turn.  So the question of why someone would play a game, so trivial in the case of most games, is crucial to any hope of understanding “Dark Souls.”  Why, given the analysis I’ve offered, would anyone willingly play this game?

People have said that the game succeeds because it represents the learning process; I think this is misguided and does not do justice to the aesthetics of the game.  Any game, by virtue of allowing a player to retry after dying, facilitates learning; that’s an interesting feature of video games, but certainly not peculiar to “Dark Souls.”  I do ultimately contend, as I said at the outset, that “Dark Souls” represents life, but not with merely with respect to learning:  rather, I think that what keeps people engaged with “Dark Souls” is that the threat of meaninglessness comes hand-in-hand with the opportunity for transcendence.  There are three ways I conceive of this, which I present in turn:  flow states; the aesthetic of struggling; and the decision point presented to the player at the endgame.

If you’ve played “Dark Souls,” you probably know the feeling that comes with inexplicably making an atypically large amount of progress without dying:  you enter, in transcendentalist terms, a ‘flow state’, in which you’re not passively experiencing the game but actively thinking and operating in a way that is perfectly in synch with it.  On the level of theory, this makes sense:  in this world where your existence is constantly in danger of being rendered null and void, a stretch of not dying is identical to establishing a pattern of meaningful existence within the world.  Not dying in “Dark Souls” means substantively more than it does in other video games, precisely because it allows your time to be valuable in a way of which dying would deprive it.  Of course, one death will send the player crashing back to the game’s harsh reality — but memories of the ephemeral state will persist as a guiding force in the game’s narrative.  After my first of this sort of experiences within the game, I was significantly more motivated to pursue progressing through the game, regardless of its difficulty level.

But of course, flow states do not always obtain, and this is where the aesthetic of despair enters into the equation.  The game establishes value metrics of souls, experience, and currency; then, it introduces a mechanic that takes all of these away from you again and again.  If you cannot rely on the metrics of meaning stipulated by the game, then what meaning can you give to your actions within the game?  This is an open question, and that’s the point:  the actual exercise imposed upon by the game upon the player is to derive meaning from the game independent of the game’s own system.  You will despair at losing souls forever, souls which it may have taken a large amount of time to amass; but that despair creates the hermeneutic space for the player to critically consider what meaning they find in the process of the game.  Maybe they recognize that their ultimate motivation is merely getting to the credits at the end; maybe they recognize that they don’t want a game that imposes this flavor of nihilism, and so they simply turn it off and walk away; maybe they accept that the struggle is of itself a valuable enterprise, if only to learn how to fail.  Regardless of the specific answer, the relevant aspect of transcendence is that the player is urged to move beyond the game’s own concept of value — because that value is beaten out of the player every time they walk through a white light and die once more.

Gwyn, Lord of Cinder

And lastly, there is Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, who sacrificed himself to kindle the Flame of the First Kiln, bringing fire to Lordran.  It is he who waits to be killed by the player at the end of the story, at the First Kiln itself:  he must be slain for the player to earn the right to choose the world’s fate.  After killing Gwyn, you can either sacrifice yourself to rekindle the Flame and let light persist in the world in a new Age of Fire; or, you can let the Flame die, and usher in darkness, ruling over the world in the Age of Darkness.  Either way, the game immediately prompts you to begin a ‘New Game +’, which is a new cycle of the world with stronger enemies, leading back to Gwyn and the same choice point.

This is the music that plays when you face Gwyn in the First Kiln.  Consistent with the sparse narrative explication of the rest of the game, there is no cutscene, nor any dialogue:  the player enters the First Kiln, the score starts, and Gwyn attacks.  What is inconsistent with the rest of the game is the haunting melody, solely on piano, seemingly out-of-joint with everything one expects of a video game’s climax — and all the more so for a game as unapologetic as “Dark Souls.”  The music compels you to stop and consider the implications of what is going on; yet this is precisely the moment at which such contemplation is impossible, for Gwyn is hurling fire at you, and a single misstep will lead to the alert that “YOU DIED.”  But from a safe distance, at the end of our analysis, we can see what makes this incongruity so salient.

I once characterized the entropy of “Majora’s Mask” as pernicious, and I contend that a similar aesthetic is at play here.  After being thrown through the gauntlet of a merciless, minimally explained world, the player is offered a choice of how to reshape it — a choice, seemingly, that puts the universe’s design in the hands of the player at last.  Yet regardless of choice, the game has an immediate next-step:  the New Game +, representing the next cycle of the world.  Gwyn represents that even the very shaper of the universe, who might be framed as its architect or decider, must ultimately die and be killed; like Termina persists in three-day cycles even after the credits, Lordran continues in ages of light, darkness, and killing Gwyn — always at the end, the player kills the being responsible for instantiating the current age.  What the killing of Gwyn and the choice point at the First Kiln do is initiate the player into the meaninglessness of the universe on a metaphysically deeper, architectural scale:  rather than being a mere victim of nihilism, the player participates in instigating it.  Perhaps the cycle of death and suffering would end if the player chooses to extinguish the flame; but the reality of the game refuses to acknowledge this possibility, throwing the player back into the fray immediately after such a choice is made.

Yet regardless of all this, the player must choose in order to complete the game.  And to be able to exercise a meaningful choice in the face of nihilism is, on my interpretation, the innermost conception of transcendence.  What reason, justification, or teleology can you give to picking one ending or the other?  Yet you cannot say you chose at random, for it would no longer seem that such an act is a choice at all.  So it seems to me that the player must accept that the choice, in spite of ostensibly molding the world for a moment, will ultimately not matter in the grand scheme of cycles of the universe; yet at the same time, she must ultimately say, “I saw the world for how I would prefer it, and chose this path to assert my preference — even if that choice will someday be washed away, I will still have chosen it.”

Black Knight

At first glance, the dropping of souls and the counting of deaths seem like novel game mechanics, offering players a novel way to experience a video game.  This was very much the lure for me when I first picked up the game.  Yet spend some time in Lordran, and you come to see that the functionality of the narrative rebukes everything we have come to expect of a video game’s form.  Rather, when you peel away the artifice of “Dark Souls” being a novel video game, I think that what you find is a mimetic object closely resembling the experience of life.  Just as the player does in “Dark Souls,” so too must we wrestle with questions of how to locate meaning in a world that seems to ultimately be fleeting; so too must we wrestle with how to give value to decisions that will ultimately be buried under layers of other generations and history.  Beneath the reputation of the game is a mechanism that allows us to meaningfully meditate on our experience of the real world, and to find opportunities to transcend.  Ultimately, we will have to kill and become Gwyn — how shall we make our choice, when the Flame rests in our hands?

Line Analysis: “Wherever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow.”

In the first installment of Line Analysis, I offered an analysis for the words with which the Happy Mask Salesman invites Link into the world of Termina:  “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”  Now, I take players to the other “bookend line” of the game, so to speak, with which the Salesman bids Link goodbye and vanishes (quite literally) from the world.  After at last reclaiming Majora’s Mask (12:45 in the video), he says to Link:  “Oh… So the evil has left the mask after all… Well, now… I finally have it back.  Since I am in the midst of my travels… I must bid you farewell.  Shouldn’t you be returning home as well?  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.”

In principle, my mode of analysis will take the same form as when I discussed “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”:  first assessing the speaker of the line; then the intended audience of the speaker’s words; then the relationship between speaker and audience; the content of the line itself; and, finally, a synthesis of all prior components.  However, since this moment shares some important features with the earlier-analyzed line — namely, that the Salesman is the speaker and Link is the spoken-to, I will be glossing over some argumentation that I have already done, linking to the relevant articles where necessary.

The payoff for this line, and the place it establishes for the player both within the context of Termina and beyond, might just be bigger than you expect.

The Salesman


I quote from my previous line analysis:  “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.

Young Link


Recall that in my prior line analysis, I argued that the Salesman, in speaking to Link, speaks both to Link and to the player.  The major line of justification for this interpretation is that it explains the contingent nature of Termina as a closed system (read:  universe) by directly defining its existence in terms of the player’s choice to encounter it.  Because the Salesman, who serves as a metaphysical determinant of Termina, is again speaking to Link, it is fair to once again define his audience as ‘Link + player’.  It’s also worth noting that here, the Salesman speaks to Young Link, the agent, rather than Cursed Deku Link, who, as I have described previously, lacks agency.

Speaker-Audience Relationship

In the last analysis, I described a relationship in which the Salesman framed the quest and means by which Link and the player encounter Termina; I went so far as to remark that “it isn’t apparent that Link could enter Termina without encountering the Salesman.”  I think that at this juncture it will prove useful to say a word or two more about the relationship between the Happy Mask Salesman and the player.  The reader may ask herself:  “With a Terrible Fate, you said that the Happy Mask Salesman is not Termina’s God, but you also defined him as a metaphysically adjacent entity which is responsible for the brunt of Termina’s architecture.  How in the world is such a being not God?”

It’s a fair point, and one which I think is worth answering more directly, because the answer draws out what’s at stake in both the Salesman’s first words and his last words.  In my article analyzing the Salesman, I credited him for three specific dimensions of Termina:  the world’s definitional existential risk (i.e., Majora’s Mask, wielded by Skull Kid); Link’s intra-timeline agency, as facilitated by the Song of Healing; and the artifice of evil imposed upon Termina.  What I failed to underscore in this account of the Salesman is that he is a very specific facilitator of Link’s agency within Termina; so, although it is he who grants Link the degree of choice within the realm of Termina, it is not he who fundamentally is responsible for Link being an agent in the first place — that state of agency, as we have discussed before, is the result of Link serving as the conduit for the player to enter into the world.  It is the player whose agency external to the world of Termina is conveyed unto Link, rendering him an agent; the Salesman merely facilitates that agency within Termina.

In my own studies, I often like to work through conceptual models graphically.  To that end, and bearing in mind that I am by no means a visual artist, I offer a diagram of this model of Termina.

Metaphysical Model of Termina

Zoom-in of Link's mobility

Figure 1.1 describes the entire universe of Termina in terms of a 3-dimensional narratological space:  the z-axis describes the main plot of the game, such that Link moving further in the positive z direction signifies his advancing in the main plot (this happens by completing story events such as liberating a giant).  The (x,y)-plane describes what I call ‘available paths of exploration’, which really just refers to any action available to Link that does not advance the main plot (think of side quests, farming rupees, playing mini-games, etc.).  Each line segment in Figure 1.1 describes a single three-day timeline within Termina; such timelines can advance at any angle from a line that only changes in its z-coordinate (i.e., if Link were to do nothing for three days except for advancing the main plot) to a line that only changes in x and y coordinates (i.e., if Link were to take three days to only explore Termina in ways that did not at all advance the main plot).  The circles, highlighted in Figure 1.2, describe the total set of available vectors by which Link can move in the universe of Termina.  Ostensibly, Link has multiple vectors available to him almost all of the time, and so there is no reason for each Termina timeline to be a straight line instead of curved; I have only drawn the timelines as straight for simplicity’s sake.

If we consider Termina in terms of this three-space, then we can more precisely define the metaphysical roles played by the Salesman and the player.  I have said that the Salesman frames the main plot of the game and also that he serves to define the scope of Link’s agency within Termina; what this means is that he defines the upper z-bound of the universe (i.e., the course of its main plot) and that he enumerates the available vectors with which Link can proceed through the universe (i.e., Figure 1.2).

To test the limits of the Salesman’s role, suppose that Link entered Termina and met the Salesman, but lacked the agency afforded him by the player.  Theoretically, the entire main plot would still exist, and Link would still have all the paths described by the vectors of Figure 1.2 afforded him; yet this would only be a world of potentials and an apocalypse, because Link would lack the agency to pursue any of these vectors; more to the point, he would lack the capacity to play the Song of Time and instantiate any three-day cycles beyond the very first one.  There would be no conception of three-day cycles; instead, there would be only three days in Termina, followed by the apocalypse.

Now, let us turn to the player.  Certainly, the player, as the source of agency for Link the Avatar, is able to choose vectors and perpetuate the existence of the universe of Termina beyond three days; if you’ve been following my analysis, then this is nothing new.  But something else is apparent from this model, which refines my claim that the universe of the game “cedes authority to the player”:  suppose that the Salesman defines the outer bounds of Termina in the (x,y,z) directions all — now, it’s not apparent that he could define the x and y bounds, but it seems plausible that the shape of the rest of the universe might be subordinate to the main plot.  Either way, we will see in a moment that this is a technical point that can be worked out later, and is not presently crucial to analysis.

Like the vectors of movement which the Salesman affords Link, this universal bounds establish a domain of potential:  all possible timelines of Termina exist within the confines of these outermost limits.  Yet these bounds fail to, of themselves, establish any reality:  for the world of Termina, as I have said before, depends upon the player encountering it in order to exist.  The diagram shows us why:  the actual universe of Termina, as described by the total set of timelines undertaken by the player from the game’s inception to its conclusion, is represented by the chain of line segments traveled by Link in his exploration of Termina.  Link moving along these lines is only possible by his choosing which vectors by which to move.  Just a moment ago, I explained that choosing which vectors by which to move is dependent upon the agency conferred to Link by the player.  It follows that the player, in a very real sense, determines the actual universe of Termina.

I’m reluctant to say that this argument implies that the player is God.  What I would rather say is this:  even if the Salesman gives the player the metaphysical building block to work with, it is the player who ultimately creates the world of Termina, by entering into its narrative in the way described above.  So we might say something along the line of this:  the Salesman and the player are both demiurgic in nature, but the determining metaphysical authority is vested in the player.

Happy Mask Salesman

Line Content

That might have seemed like a long digression from the task at hand, but I think we will find that a precise definition of the Salesman-player relationship leads to an interpretation of the Salesman’s last words falling easily into place.

Firstly, we can describe the Salesman’s superficial meaning, if only to put it aside.  The Salesman, having recovered Majora’s Mask, notes that the source of evil within it (i.e., Majora) is gone, and prepares to leave.  He suggests that Link does the same, but advises him that saying ‘goodbye’ can always be taken as saying ‘until we meet again’, because we can always cross paths with those people we have left behind, if we desire to do so.  He admires Link’s masks as evidence that Link has made many people happy, and then departs, vanishing from the world.

Somewhat trite, but certainly touching.

Moving on, let’s superimpose the theses we’ve derived from analysis so far to see if we can glean more from the Salesman’s words.  I’m going to parse the Salesman’s little speech into three major sections:

1.  “Oh… So the evil has left the mask after all…”  We’ll look at this line in relation to the thesis of metaethical nihilism with which I’ve been working from early on, and in relation to the artifice of morality imposed by the Salesman on Termina.

2.  “Well, now… I finally have it back.  Since I am in the midst of my travels… I must bid you farewell.  Shouldn’t you be returning home as well?  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…”  This seems like a big section of text, but the brunt of it is a single theme:  encounters and departures.  We’ll approach this in particular using the metaphysical model articulated above.

3.  “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.”  This last section will return us to the realm of temporal afterimagery, and will raise some more questions of ethical justification.

Beginning with Section 1:  recall from Part III of my analysis of the Song of Healing that I argued for the artificial perception of evil within Termina originating from Majora.  I quote the relevant section:  “it is useful to think of ‘Majora’ [the entity] 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… 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… Just so, the instantiation of morality fundamentally clashes with the natural metaphysics of Termina, which is why the Happy Mask Salesman describes the endgame… [as] the removal of moral valence.”  As I said in that prior analysis, the expression that the “evil has left the mask” fits parsimoniously with a model of Majora as the nexus of artificially-perceived moral valence; once the perceived evil has been eradicated, the natural order of the amoral universe of Termina is restored.

But there’s something else going on in this section:  seeming surprise on the Salesman’s part.  He doesn’t say, for instance, “At last!  The mask has been purged of evil!” or “And so it has come to pass that you have saved this world from evil.”  He says instead, “Oh… So the evil has left the mask after all…”  He might even be read as sounding disappointed that the evil is gone, but this seems incongruous with our image of the Salesman as a neutral entity.  Thankfully, if we run with the idea of ‘surprise’, we yield a plausible interpretation that doesn’t depend on the Salesman somehow being evil.  Recall from the metaphysical analysis that the Salesman has no authority in perpetuating the universe of Termina beyond a single timeline — that is the domain of the player.  We also know that it takes more than three days to defeat Majora’s Forms.  So the Salesman could genuinely be surprised that the quest he defined by the artifice of evil has been completed, because that could only be the case as the result of a metaphysical entity other than himself — namely, the player.

On to Section 2:  this is the meat of the line — the most memorable portion, and also the portion most generalizable beyond the scope of “Majora’s Mask” as a particular game.  Thankfully, the metaphysical analysis gives us the tools to very quickly perform just such a generalization.  When the Salesman bids farewell and declares that he is on his way, he is concluding the universe as he defined it by the main quest z-axis.  Therefore, when he asks “Shouldn’t you be returning home as well?”, his words can be read as a direct indication to the player that it is time to withdraw from the game, agency and all, and move on to other worlds.  Yet this isn’t the entirety of his message:  “Whenever there is a meeting,” he adds, “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.”  Within the player-Salesman dialectic, it seems apparent that the ‘meeting’ can refer to the player’s encounter with the universe of the game; just as the player created the universe of Termina by encountering it, so too must she part with the universe whenever she exits the game.  Yet, as the Salesman says, the length of time spent away from that universe is left entirely to the discretion of the player on whose agency the universe depends.  In this way, a commentary on the metaphysical structure of Termina and its contingency on the player’s encounter is transposed into a claim about video games in general:  the Salesman, who architected Termina, asserts that this mechanism of the contingency of reality is true whenever there is a meeting between player and world, not merely in the case of Termina.  So in this small set of lines, the Salesman moves from acknowledging the player’s authority within Termina to acknowledging the player’s authority without Termina.

And then there’s Section 3:  beyond the purgation of evil, there is the Salesman’s commentary on happiness.  I’ve previously described the masks received and created by Link as temporal afterimages, vestiges of prior timelines which establish a degree of continuity across timelines.  The way in which the Salesman begins here — “But, my, you sure managed to make quite a number of people happy” — is another expression of surprise, perhaps in combination with admiration.  He describes these artifacts of timelines in which Link helped people as artifacts “filled with happiness”; but then, he goes even one step further to call it “truly a good happiness.”  Why so many modifiers, Mister Salesman?

Well, here’s one solution:  if we buy my analysis so far, it could be that the Happy Mask Salesman is tacitly acknowledging that he has lead Link and the player on by imposing an artifice of morality on their quest, because he distinguishes this “truly” moral instance from preceding moral instances.  He is complimenting Link for doing something genuinely good.  But how can this be?  In a metaethically nihilistic world, it isn’t readily apparent how the moral could worm its way back into the conversation.


Putting together all three sections of the speech here will help us to resolve this final tension.  The Salesman expresses surprise that a metaphysical entity other than himself was able to complete his fetch-quest, returning Majora’s Mask to him and eschewing the artifice of morality from Termina; from this surprise, he pivots and acknowledges the authority of the player in creating and collapsing universes; then, after suggesting it may be time for the player to return home, he pivots again and remarks on the artifacts of happiness collected by the player, calling that happiness ‘truly good’.

These masks of truly good happiness obtain beyond any single timeline of Termina, following Link even when he travels back to the Dawn of the First Day.  In this way, they transcend the literal world of Termina, and are capable of traveling through multiple iterations of the world while maintaining metaphysical constancy, similarly to the player.  It was by the agency of the player that these temporal afterimages were synthesized through the process of making citizens of Termina happy; and, in this moment, the Salesman is acknowledging that agency by effectively bowing to it.  Consider:  at the beginning of the narrative, the Salesman imposed a framework of morality on Link and the player, which the player took to be true, and which motivated the player to undertake the main quest of the game.  Now, the player’s use of agency has lead to realities — i.e., temporal afterimages — which the Salesman takes to be moral truths.  The player and the Salesman have fundamentally exchanged roles in terms of who gets to impose morality on Termina.  The continuation of the universe itself depends on the player — I have shown there are reasons why the universe is designed to persist beyond the seeming-conclusion of the game’s credits sequence, but it only persists in reality if the player chooses to continue playing it.  So in the moment of acknowledging the player’s metaphysical authority, the Salesman also poses an epistemic challenge to the player:  you are now in a position to determine what is perceived as ‘truly good’ in Termina; can you, in endless timelines of an apocalyptic, amoral world, impose moral goodness in such a way that chaos does not ensue?  For the time being, I leave this an open question for readers to consider.

“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.