Content Warning: mentions of depression, suicidal ideation related to OCD, death, grief, and loss.
Also, spoiler warning for The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask I guess?
I’ve been having a rough time lately, between my own mental health degrading thanks to holiday stress, a lack of sunlight on my daily walks, and the constant stress of talking to my parents again, so I’m bringing back something I haven’t done in over four months. As the blog’s title might have already told you, it is time for another post about The Legend of Zelda! Today, as I’m thinking about the game coming out in a bit under six months and reflecting on how many hours I’ve spent playing Breath of the Wild, I thought it would be fun to talk about my experience playing the game that had, until BotW, held the title for my most-played Legend of Zelda game: Majora’s Mask.
The game came out when I was nine, though I think I was a bit closer to ten when I finally played it. After all, we didn’t get a Nintendo 64 until the Christmas of 99 and it was a while between when we got the console and when we got Majora’s Mask. More than a year, I think. I don’t really remember, though, because most of those years have blurred together aside from a bunch of individual moments I don’t particularly care to recall. All I know for certain is that I saw a video of the gameplay somewhere, of Link being a Deku Scrub and blasting out of a flower to fly from one platform to another. It looked a lot like stuff that eventually made it into the game, but I could never find a place in the game that looked the same as this demo video, so I’m not sure what it is I saw. Maybe a demo video of some place made to show off the gameplay without revealing anything important, maybe some kind of demo video mixed with a dream I had, or maybe I just didn’t remember the video clearly enough to find the place in world. All of these are equally possible
Regardless of whether or not this video was real, it made a lasting impression on me. The prequel, Ocarina of Time, isn’t bright and full of sunshine, but it has both of those things in spades and is full of hope. It spoke about growth and change and of looking toward a future you hope you’ll be able to build. Majora’s Mask felt darker, it felt like there was a haze over the screen that seemed to fill in the corners of the TV when I think back to the times I played it. It wasn’t about hope or light or growth, but about grief and loss and how to still make a life despite that.
I remember playing the game and talking to a mix of NPCs, some who denied the impending doom of the approaching moon despite it getting visibly bigger every day, some who fled from it immediately, and some who stuck around to make sure that everyone else got out safely. It struck a chord with me in a way that nothing else had before then. After all, my parents spent my childhood largely ignoring the abuses my brother heaped upon me every day, I had already tried and failed to run away from the danger present in my young life, and I’d eventually grown into a person facing the danger so that other people would be safe. I saw myself in this town, in these imaginary people, and I was given the opportunity to explore these ideas and the world that made them in a way I was denied in the rest of my life.
Even now, decades later, the face of the angry carpenter boss still comes to mind when I imagine someone scoffing at clear danger or choosing to believe a something because they want it to be true rather than because it might be true. I can see his model in my mind, arms crossed as he rolls his head and derisively laughs at the people around him who are taking the danger of the moon seriously. I remember seeing it every time I played the game and feeling frustrated that there was never the chance to address him and his disbelief. After all, I knew what he didn’t. I knew that it was going to fall. I knew that it had already fallen. The game puts Link in a time loop and the nature of video games means that I could let the clock run out before restarting the loop and see what happened. Which I did after my first successful reset. I’d already seen the moon fall by the time I started really talking to NPCs (the game had a tendency to crash within the first 30 minutes of a new save file, so I had to rush a lot initially and didn’t have the time to talk to people) and so I already knew who was right and who was wrong.
I also didn’t always have a lot to do, while waiting for time to pass, so I would up talking to everyone multiple times. As it turned out, the game was built around this idea, around people doing different things as time passed, so I discovered early that none of the guards would abandoned their stations. Even as the world shook as the moon slowly neared the tallest tower in town, they stood at their posts and watched it. I remember seeing all the guards standing in a new position, heads tilted back with their empty hand on their chest, as they watched the moon while doing their best to keep those who had decided to remain behind safe. I also remember finding a woman sitting in a room by herself, waiting for her fiancé to arrive even if it meant the death of her. So many little moments of people making choices about how they’d spend what might be the last hours of their lives.
As it turned out, the entire game was about these people. Even the villain, a being that seemed angry, cruel, and heartless thanks to the negative influence of the evil mask he wore, was waiting for something. After all, the mask could only warp his intentions, not change him entirely, so instead of trying to destroy the world, he was just trying to draw out his four friends who had left him behind. It was difficult to not be sympathetic to him, even after all the harm he’d done, because I recognized in him something I’d felt myself. I didn’t have the words at the time, of course, but over the years I eventually figured out that he was lonely and depressed, just like me. I never summoned a moon to destroy the land I lived in, of course, but I also never had that option and am not sure what I’d have done if it had been available to me.
One of the main themes of pretty much every little quest and adventure you go on as you pursue the tools you need to stop the moon from falling is grief. Some of the grief is very literally about death and dying, as the primary tools you gain for world exploration are masks containing the souls of people who passed away in failed attempts to fix the problems that now fall to you. Some of the grief is a bit more abstract, as you deal with people mourning the life they were promised and then denied. Some of the grief is a step removed, as you do your best to help people who have lost someone dear to them. Sometimes you even delay the grief by stepping up to take the place of the fallen friend or loved one through the magic masks you’ve obtained, putting off the person’s mourning until you’ve saved the world and are forced to leave, reintroducing the void in that person’s life.
One of the interactions that left the strongest impression on me is with the Zora hero whose abilities and grief you take on. He fell as he attempted to recover eggs, Zora children, that had been taken by pirates. You find him washed up on the beach and while he has enough strength left to tell you his tale, he quickly passes on. As he fades away, he says “Soon, I’ll be just another wave in the ocean… destined to disappear.” Whatever marks he made on the world will fade in time, even after you take on the mantle of his responsibilities and save the world, because the time loop you’re in starts after he received his mortal wounds. His is not a life you can save. All you can do is lay his spirit to rest by finishing his business and saving the people he cares about. Unlike everyone you meet in a similar position, he seems to accept his passage, to acknowledge that his place in the world is transient and that all traces of him will eventually disappear. As a kid, I found the idea comforting, that eventually things will fade away and that even the most horrible events of our lives will merely no longer matter. It was a dark, difficult idea to grasp and embrace given that the compulsion portion of my OCD, suicidal ideation, developed around the same time, but it was the first time I’d ever thought of death as something you could accept and embrace rather than fight against and flee.
It was the first time I saw someone process their grief in real-time, especially the grief they held about the life they could have lived and the life they had lost. It was a moment that has echoed through the years of my life as I’ve slowly learned to do the same. After all, that’s what the game is about. Even with all this grief, all Link can do is give people closure or temporarily allay it until the person is ready to deal with it. You can’t fix any of the stuff that was broken because it all broke before the time loop began. All you can do is help people make sense of what is left to them and then do the best they can to make a new life after it. That young woman waiting for her fiancé? She waits until you can send him to her, something made incredibly difficult because he has been trapped in the body of a child by a curse, and while they can’t have the life they imagined since they’re reunited right as the moon is about to crash down, they commit to each other in that moment that they’ll do their best to live whatever life they can as they are. The end of the game implies that the curse on the fiancé is broken and they are formally married, but the quest involving them shows them symbolically getting married as they commit to each other all over again, no matter what tomorrow might bring.
This game is what planted the seed in my head that I had to figure out how to keep living whatever life I could despite everything that was happening to me. It would take well over a decade to properly turn into anything I could give voice to, that I could write about or talk about in any useful way, but playing through that game as a child is what started me on the path to acceptance and growth. I had to survive a lot of dark and difficult years between the first time I beat Majora’s Mask and when I finally figured out the lessons it taught me, but it was still comforting at the time. I didn’t need to be able to verbalize it to understand it intuitively.
I’ve played it many times over the years, returning to explore the ideas and themes as I’ve changed and grown, and I keep finding things I know I understood as a child that I also could never have explained. Like the idea that Link might have been avoiding his own problems by attempting to fix other people’s problems. Or that every repetition of a cycle is a new chance to break free of it. That some people would rather believe a comforting falsehood that affirms their world view than entertain the idea that they might be wrong, no matter how disastrous the consequences might be. I’m due for a replay, soon, and I’m excited to see what I take away from it this time, even if all I learn is that I’m past the point in my life where I need this kind of comfort and validation.