Wednesday 26 August 2015

A happy fate: Masquerading in Majora's Mask

There are many things Majora's Mask is not. It is not the prettiest Zelda game. Despite Grezzo's excellent work on the 3DS update, the rudimentary polygons of the N64 entries locate them squarely in the fifth console generation. It is not the most original Zelda either, reusing engine, assets and music from its predecessor and doing very little to update its base mechanics. And neither are those mechanics best-in-series. Hugely influential, they have been iterated on many times since and returning to their second-ever outing only highlights the enhancements made over the years, particularly to Z-targeting and swimming. Yes, Majora's Mask can be frustrating.

So why then is it considered the 'hidden' best of the series? All the cool kids claim it's their favourite, but why when it's so obviously flawed? For me, it's simply the most interesting Zelda has ever been.

Moody PAL.
Visually, Termina is a mash-up of Ocarina's locations, snow and ocean additions notwithstanding. Although it feels darker, the actual world is pieced together with the same earth tones as Hyrule, plus some luminous highlights in the dungeons. That wonderful impression of rich purple and forest-green really comes from the art that accompanied its release. The development teams' recycling also extends to the inhabitants themselves. Many of the characters are duplicates from Hyrule, here assigned new identities (or sometimes multiple identities as with the Gormon Brothers or the Romani sisters). These doppelgangers exist as archetypes across dimensions and as satisfying touchstones for returning players to recognise. Our familiarity allows the makers to subvert expectations of these characters and perhaps reconsider the originals too. The player's memories of the egotistical Ingo from Ocarina (himself already an analogue for Luigi, the under-appreciated Mario Brother) colour our impression of Gorman the Troupe Leader, and give him a more textured personality when we discover his real story of entering showbusiness with youthful idealism and his anger at his failure to succeed.

The three-day cycle, maligned as the primary cause of player confusion and fatigue, rather than being a restrictive device, actually provides context for the characters' endlessly repeating paths and gives us a far more detailed view of their lives than would otherwise be possible. In this short cycle, every cause has an effect. If the bomb lady is mugged on the first night, the Bomb Shop will lose its stock. If Anju isn't on reception at the Inn, she'll be cooking lunch or taking a walk in the rain. In those 72 hours we become intimately familiar with these people: their hopes and fears; the risks they take; the secrets they keep.

The real draw to Majora's Mask is the universal questions it poses about mortality, acceptance, attachment, friendship and failure. It asks the biggest of all questions: what is our purpose here? The four moon children at the end of the game ask the player the questions in the textboxes throughout this page. I've written before about the effect of meeting these masked characters, and their questions impacted my impressionable teenage mind. The game concerns itself with giving the player tasks and experiences that directly relate to these questions. It's impossible to please everybody all of the time, but we still empathise with them because we have witnessed their potential - their best self - in another time. The game can often be a gloomy proposition with the enemy-filled map and the looming lunatic face in the sky. No, I don't have time to save the Gorons today, so their winter will not end. The shambling mummies of Ikana must be ignored today because I'm needed elsewhere. My power to affect the world is great but so are the demands on my resources. And, just as in the real world, time is my most precious commodity.

Perhaps this is one reason why so many take umbrage with the time limit. It denies the player the escapism of other games and forces self-reflection. From a company that habitually prizes mechanics and game feel over story, the moments when Nintendo do explore narrative ideas and deeper questions seem all the more profound in a catalogue of work featuring a deluge of kidnapped princesses.

The Happy Mask Salesman instructs us to work to improve the world and create happiness through the use of masks. The essential duality presented, mirrored throughout the game by the recurrence of doubles, twins and alter egos, demonstrates through masks that pretence and play are very necessary components of the human condition. This ties into the very nature of games themselves, video or otherwise. Nintendo are experts at enabling play - Majora's Mask asks us to consider why that is so important.

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