‘You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
This line is spoken by the Happy Mask Salesman, a strange and creepy man who meets our hero Link at the start of our adventure in Termina. Link, having been turned in to a small wooden creature called a Deku Scrub, strikes a deal with the Mask Salesman. He will return Link back to his human form, but Link must retrieve a mask that was stolen from him. A cursed mask. A mask that has doomed this world, the world of Termina, to total destruction in three days time when the moon will come crashing down. This is the story of Majora’s Mask.
But what does that line mean?
Uttered in the first hour of the game, this line conveys a lot of the magic of Majora’s Mask. On the face of it, this is a hero saves the world adventure tale with our silent protagonist braving countless dangers only to come out on top. It has a mere four main dungeons before the final one, it has the typical beating things up with swords and collecting items, and it has a slew of time wasting mini-games for when you need a break from heroing. And yet, underneath the surface, Majora’s Mask manages to be so much more.
The main gimmick of this game is the three-day time limit. You have three in-game days to save the world before the moon comes crashing down, killing everybody. Luckily, you obtain a magical song that will reset the time back to the dawn of the first day. But that’s just it- time resets. Other than keeping some plot important items, everything you did the previous cycle is gone. This is where the magic of the story comes in.
This doesn’t feel like the typical heroic power fantasy. If anything, the game made me feel hopeless and powerless. Do you feel good about yourself for saving that village from freezing to death? Good job because on the next three-day cycle, you’ll have to focus on something else and they’ll all be dead. But don’t worry, you’ll reset time again and they’ll be alive and freeze to death yet again. And so will the cycle continue until you finally beat the game and save the world. Not helping is the fact that so many NPC’s have stories that suck you in. Take Anju, the lady who runs the Clock Town Inn. She’s scatterbrained but sweet, she takes care of her senile grandmother, and her fiancé left her a few days before the wedding. You can spend your three days reuniting the happy couple, but at the expense of almost everyone else. But don’t worry, in the end you can reset time to help someone else and the couple will never be reunited. Instead, they’ll get to wait for the end of the world alone.
This sense of hopelessness followed me throughout the game. While the environments are bright, and the music is chipper, Majora’s Mask managed to fill me with a deep sense of dread that not many games have managed. A heavy feeling that sticks with me long after I’ve put down the game. It’s a game not just about saving a happy couple, but a game about understanding that by saving the happy couple you’re forsaking everyone else. The monkey will get boiled to death, the child will cry out in confusion and lonliness, and the singer who lost her voice won’t recover what was stolen from her. Not that most of it matters since it will all be gone when you switch things back. Of course in the end you save everyone and the world lives happily ever after, right?
Except the butler who finds what remains of his missing son.
Obviously, being depressing does not make a game good, let alone great. So what makes Majora’s Mask more than four dungeons and some touching NPCs? I think it’s the feelings people get from it, the opinions they cultivate, and the meaning they derive from the game. I felt depressed, lonely, and hopelessness in the world of Termina. Someone else I spoke to, however, found it to be hopeful. He took away from the game a message of persistence, of using time to his benefit to help as many as possible, and as being able to wash away past mistakes with each reset. We both played the exact same game and yet we both understood almost completely different things from it. Perhaps it says less about the game and more about ourselves. It’s almost like looking at a work of art; the viewer projects themselves in to it.
This isn’t limited to the feelings evoked, but the thoughts as well. I have read many theories on the “true” story of Majora’s Mask. A popular one is that Link is going through the five stages of grief, with each section of the world and story representing a different stage. I’ve read about the religious symbolism, ponderings about the Happy Mask Salesman, and questions about the true nature of Majora’s Mask. There’s even an entire, lengthy wikia fan theories page. The fact that this game can inspire such passion and curiosity is, to me, what makes Majora’s Mask more than the sum of its parts.
So what does the phrase ‘You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?’ mean? Well, on the surface it is the Happy Mask Salesman sympathizing with Link who was turned in to a small wood creature. But, much like the game itself, the phrase goes much deeper than that. Could the Happy Mask Salesman be referring to the fact that Link is here, alone, far away from his home of Hyrule, far away from his missing friend? Could it be a broader statement, addressing the fate that will soon befall Termina? Is it something else entirely?
I suppose that’s up to you to decide.