You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?
As Link approaches Ikana Canyon in the build-up to the penultimate act of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, one barely-noticeable NPC ironically sticks out. Shiro is a Clock Town Soldier – far from home, invisible to anyone that passes him, and desperate to carve out the effervescent personality that he so solemnly believes he lacks.
“I’m shocked. You’re the first person who’s ever spoken to me,” Shiro tells Link when he looks through the Lens of Truth. “I’ve been here for many years, waving my arms around and asking for help, but everyone ignores me and passes me by. It’s ’cause I’m about as impressive as a stone, right? …I’m used to it, though.”
Existential loneliness is Link’s inherent lot in Majora’s Mask.
The Zelda series – in spite of its save-the-princess plot and regular forays into colorful wackiness – is no stranger to darkness. After being manipulated into maniacal delusions by Ganondorf, Twilight Princess’s tragic anti-hero Zant appears to commit suicide at the game’s conclusion. Beneath its cartoon facade, The Wind Waker is premised on the divine flooding and subsequent near-total annihilation of Hyrule. Ocarina of Time features one of the series’ few on-screen NPC deaths (an easy-to-miss Hyrulean Soldier with an uncanny resemblance to Majora’s Mask’s Shiro).
Nonetheless, as Link’s interaction with Shiro illustrates, Majora’s Mask integrates the issues of anxiety, loneliness, and identity most thoroughly throughout the game. Recent surveys suggest that millennials are one of the most anxious and lonely generations; millennials are also Nintendo’s core demographic. Prior to Breath of the Wild at least, Nintendo reported Majora’s Mask as the most regularly played Zelda game – could this be because it so perfectly encapsulates the millennial condition?
The direct predecessor to the game, Ocarina of Time, already starts to spin the threads of loneliness that weave through Majora’s Mask. At the end of Ocarina of Time, Link’s companion fairy Navi leaves him and he is sent back in time to Kokiri Forest, a place where he is shunned as a Hylian. This leads Link to wander the Lost Woods in the opening of Majora’s Mask, before Skull Kid ambushes him. Skull Kid is also a lonely figure, driven to mischief by his perceived abandonment by the Four Giants of Termina.
The most transformative masks are accompanied by a short clip in which Link screams at the horror of radically changing identity.
Isolation abounds in Hyrule’s parallel world. Three of Link’s core masks – the Deku, Goron and Zora masks – are obtained from characters that die alone. The musician Guru Guru sits by himself at the Laundry Pool, kicked out of the inn by the rest of his troupe. Anju’s fiancé Kafei is missing; the Frog Choir are without their conductor Don Gero; Romani is alone in her conviction that extraterrestrials will attack Romani Ranch. Solitude permeates Majora’s Mask, and is perhaps felt most keenly through the eyes of the protagonist. Existential loneliness is Link’s inherent lot – no matter whom he helps and what he achieves in Termina, he is always fated to be forgotten when he returns to the First Day. This speaks not only to the loneliness of millennials, but also to the feelings of hopelessness and an inability to make meaningful change in the world, symptoms that may be indicative of depression, which lonely millennials are twice as likely to experience.
Majora’s Mask’s appeal lies in its ability to both encapsulate the millennial condition and offer some hope in the face of our dejection.
The mood of loneliness is coupled with a pervading anxiety, most prominently from the falling Moon and the three-day-cycle game mechanic, meaning that there is always a time-limited task to worry about. There is literally never enough time to do everything required of you in one cycle of the game. This manifests itself in the forced selectivity of Link’s choices – should he save an old lady from a thief, or allow her to be robbed so that a separated couple can reunite? Anxiety of death is prevalent in Majora’s Mask (which fits well with the Five Stages of Grief theory). The Deku Butler anxiously anticipates the death of his son, while Lulu fears the worst for her stolen eggs and missing lover. The most pertinent metaphor for anxiety arises from the encounter with Shiro. He experiences social anxiety to the point that he has isolated himself next to a graveyard, in the vicinity of a barren valley of undead. He asks for a potion to assist with his troubles and although he’s enthusiastic at first, soon finds out that it’s ineffective.
Shiro’s malaise is largely existential – his social anxiety results from his feeling that he lacks a strong identity. In a title where a large part of the gameplay is spent pursuing 24 different masks, identity naturally plays an important role. Masks don’t simply obscure identity – they are imbued with the power to shift identity altogether. Five of the masks transform Link into different beings; others alter skills, such as scent, visibility and speed; another group enable communication with everything from frogs to Stalchildren and Gibdos; two of the masks inflict some degree of pain on Link. Through shifting identities, Link is able to assist the residents of Termina and ultimately save them from destruction. However, this is not necessarily an easy process for him. Some masks elicit negative reactions from characters. The most transformative masks are accompanied by a short clip in which Link screams at the horror of radically changing identity.
Once the player makes peace with their inability to complete every task, it becomes easier to focus on day-to-day achievements.
As a 12-year-old with a Nintendo 64, I was mostly concerned with the seeming impossibility of completing the Stone Tower Temple dungeon. When I picked up the 3DS Majora’s Mask remaster in my late twenties, the above themes were much more tangible and resonated deeply with my accumulated life experience. The loneliness of large-city-living was grinding me down. I had begun to experience anxiety disorder for the first time in my life. Independently, fears for my financial and social future were becoming increasingly stressful. It was tiring to meet new people and figure out what aspect of my identity to emphasize. It was equally tiring to be stuck in a cycle of insecure work, constantly putting on multiple employment masks to make ends meet, like many other millennials.
Revisiting a game from my childhood that – along with Ocarina of Time – brings a gentle stream of pleasant nostalgia was obviously helpful. Majora’s Mask is not simply an exercise in extended sentimentality though. For me, its enduring appeal lies in its ability to both encapsulate the millennial condition and offer some hope in the face of our dejection.
Early on in the game, Link meets a gang of children whose aim is to solve people’s problems and make them happy. The so-called Bombers Secret Society of Justice may be a touch too simplistic against the existential questions that Majora’s Mask raises, but the methods of the Bombers are difficult to fault. It is through the Bombers that we are introduced to the fundamental importance of interpersonal relationships in the game.
Moreover, they promote empathetic relationships where Link helps others – tasks range from straightforwardly playing the Song of Healing, to embarking on a three-day epic love quest. The Bombers’ Notebook also enables Link to step back from the impending chaos and plan his days. Yes, it’s somewhat saccharine, but there’s some truth in this approach. Empathy is linked with better mental wellbeing, increased coping capacity and higher relationship satisfaction. Writing down notes and planning tasks ahead can assist with reducing anxiety.
Yet there’s a paradoxical flipside to this. Loneliness and anxiety can inhibit our ability to engage in interpersonal relationships. It’s all well and good watching friendship play out virtually on Majora’s Mask, but applying it to the real world is admittedly more complicated. In this respect, the game offers another approach. Once the player makes peace with their inability to complete every task – and the relentless recurrence of loneliness – it becomes easier to focus on the day-to-day in-game interactions and achievements, trivial or grand.
When Link first arrives in Termina, the Happy Mask Salesman asks him: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” His tentative tone belies the seeming fatalism of his question. This is perhaps a more subtle message to young people playing Majora’s Mask, that beneath the crushing weight of existence – as seemingly inevitable as the enraged abomination falling from Termina’s sky – we might reflect on and accept our ability to make both flawed and fantastic choices.
Richard Greenhill is a freelance writer based in Warsaw, Poland. He covers culture, health, and sex. Follow Richard on Twitter.