In the Mouth of the Moon: A Personal Reading of ‘Majora’s Mask’
The freshly remastered "Majora's Mask" is a Zelda game unlike any other, where pertinent lessons are there to be learned.
I wanted the moon in Majora's Mask to be bigger.
That's what I remember thinking when I first saw the game being played at a friend's place back in 2000. I wanted the moon to fill the sky, looming massive and terrifying over everything, an inescapable presence inching ever closer as the seconds flew away.
It was because of this print ad I'd seen in GamePro, my favorite print ad ever for a video game, depicting our moon dwarfing Manhattan. I couldn't get that image out of my head. I couldn't stop seeing the moon descending on New York, grinding all its buildings into dust. When I heard that an updated release for the 3DS was on the way, I immediately flashed back to that image and my heart broke a little, the presence of the Twin Towers making the game's constant threat of cataclysmic destruction even more haunting.
And when I first saw the moon fall on Clock Town and witnessed the shockwave radiate outwards, unstoppable and unendurable like the shockwaves in those old films of early nuclear-bomb tests, I knew that it's not the size of the moon that matters. It's what you do with it. And with its setting and structure and premise and that moon sinking in the sky, Majora's Mask does so much.
I love the way that Termina, the land where Majora's Mask takes place, feels like a dream. I think of Link's Awakening, my other favorite Zelda game, which always felt to me like a product not of Link's subconscious but of the subconscious of Nintendo itself, with so many characters from other franchises showing up in one form or another. Majora's Mask feels like Link's dream to me, as if he rode his horse into the mysterious forest we glimpse at the start and end of the game and nodded off, and the whole game took place in his mind.
By this point, the lore of Hyrule, the usual setting for Zelda series adventures, is relatively concrete. Hyrule feels established as a physical, geographical place with a kind of history. But what even is Termina? Where exactly is it in relation to Hyrule? What is its history? Thank goodness Majora's Mask never bothers to answer any of these questions. It's precisely the vagueness surrounding Termina, the lack of lore and explanation, that prevents Majora's Mask from feeling burdened by reality. If Hyrule is a fantasy world, Termina is a surreal world. This lets Majora's Mask take root in my mind as a kind of symbolic quest, rife with dream logic, in ways that more grounded fantasy adventures just can't. And although the first time I played the game I was disappointed that so many of the residents of Clock Town were duplicates of Hyrule citizens from the preceding Ocarina of Time, I now think this is essential to Majora's Mask's dreamlike power. I imagine Link returning to Hyrule and feeling like Dorothy feels when she wakes at the end of The Wizard of Oz. "You were there! And you were there!"
What I find so affecting about Link's time in Termina is that he never gets to really connect with any of those people. Link's path—the hero's path—is often a lonely one, but Majora's Mask is more directly concerned with loneliness than any other Zelda game. It's loneliness that drives the antagonistic Skull Kid to lash out against the world as he does, and I understand the bitterness and anger that loneliness can threaten to cultivate in someone. In a way, I know loneliness better now than I did 15 years ago when Majora's Mask first came out on the N64, so the game only seems more relevant to me today. When people ask me about the things I've been through over the past year, they often assume that the toughest thing has been losing my job. But the truth is that the toughest thing, the thing that makes everything else tougher, is the loneliness.
And so, while I think it's important that Majora's Mask wants us to view Skull Kid with some compassion, I also think it's important that it lets our experiences as Link show us a different way of dealing with solitude. As is always the case in Zelda games, Link never gets to truly be a friend to most other characters; he's too busy being their hero. There's no opportunity for closeness to form. There are no dinners and drinks, no heart-to-heart conversations. But Majora's Mask feels lonelier to me than other Zelda games because of its three-day cycle structure, and because each time you restart the cycle (as you inevitably must), your actions are undone.
The Gorons won't remember that pleasant spring day we shared at the racetrack. The Zoras won't recall the time we got the band back together. For them, these things never happened. And even if they did remember, they wouldn't know it was Link who shared these things with them. They see you as the Goron warrior Darmani, or the Zora musician Mikau. They don't know the part you played in their lives. You don't get to establish bonds with them, and then you erase the events from existence altogether. And that makes me wonder, as a transgender woman, about the things I shared with people when I was younger, when I was pretending to be someone I'm not: Do the people I shared those things with associate them with me, with Carolyn, or with a person they think doesn't exist anymore? It's my life to live and I have to live it this way in order to form bonds with other people that feel real to me, and I don't apologize for that; but I know that, in the difficult process of finding my path, I hurt other people.
Which brings me to the other great theme of Majora's Mask: forgiveness. Forgiveness comes up again and again: The four spirits you go to so much trouble to summon tell you to "forgive your friend," and the ghosts haunting a kingdom of the dead tell you: "Believing in your friends and embracing that belief by forgiving failure... These feelings have vanished from our hearts." But I don't think it's just Skull Kid here who needs forgiveness. I think Link does, too.
This is a game with failure built into it. You can't help everyone. You can't save everyone. There's just not enough time. And you're just one person. I hate not being able to help everyone. And I think about how we help people, and how we let people down, how we fail others and fail ourselves, how I've walked away from people I loved who were in desperate need because I didn't know how to help them without destroying myself, and how hard it has been for me to forgive myself for my failures.
Even in the end, when all is said and done, the world is saved and a new day has dawned, Link doesn't get to share in the celebrations. "Well... it's almost time for the carnival to begin..." his fairy says. "So why don't you just leave and go about your business? The rest of us have a carnival to go to." And so, on he goes. Whatever it is Link is looking for on his secret, personal journey, like many of us, he still hasn't found it. But whether it was real or all just a dream, I like to think that he takes two things with him from his time in Termina: a hope that can sustain him on the lonely road ahead that somewhere there's a place where he belongs, and a greater willingness not just to view others with compassion but to view himself with compassion, too. At least, these are the things I take with me from my time there.
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