Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thoughts on Majora's Mask, or: why Majora's Mask is the best Zelda, take XVII

New Zelda being on the horizon has me thinking about Zelda, by which I mean "why Majora's Mask is the best Zelda."

One thing that sticks out to me: it's a much, much smarter game with a clear overarching theme that infuses everything and lends it an incredible degree of cohesiveness and clarity of purpose.

Majora's Mask is a game about curses, hexes, disease. Unnatural, unwanted, alienating changes. Things that have been made wrong in a way that is irrevocable - that are left scarred, damaged, even if repaired. It's a game with a thesis. It's a game about picking up the pieces and moving forward while understanding that you can't ever hope to fully undo the damage that's been done.

And this is - fucking everywhere.

Aesthetic! You've got - these really sickly, gaudy, neon color palettes everywhere. Think of the poisoned swamp - vivid yellows, neon green and bright, hypersaturated purples all fucking assaulting your eyes. It's purposefully unpleasant, uncomfortable to look at. The world looks and feels diseased. When normalcy is restored to an area, things get less gaudy, less offensive, but even then Majora's Mask has a very different approach to the use of color compared to Ocarina of Time's efforts to strive for more grounded environments. Everything is just slightly too vivid. There's a preponderance of little details popping out, grabbing your attention; the colors are too saturated to look like reality; the idea of "wrongness" is present even when it's backgrounded. You don't make things perfect. You make them livable. You make it possible to move on and try to start leading your life despite the burdens you're still bearing.

Narrative! Again, this idea of - curses, disease, irrevocable loss. This is the entire basis of the Song of Healing and the various characters that become the transformation masks, after all. You can't undo what's been done. Darmani is dead, Mikau is dead - nothing will change that. "Healing" is - accepting what's transpired, allowing something new to come from it, finding peace and closure. Link can step into the roles of these dead people... for a bit? But he's not them. He's just wearing a mask, playing a part... ultimately, the dead are dead. All they can do is pass the torch, let someone else try to finish the things they left incomplete, and move on. But even outside of the main questline, you have this idea of things that can't be fixed that comes up again and again. I love the Couple's Mask quest because of just how goddamn little victory here amounts to, right? Kafei is still cursed with the body of a child, and he reunites with his fiancee... moments before the entire world is going to burn.

But that's perfect. It all returns to that idea of taking what can still be had and never letting go, and accepting this instead of wallowing in "what if." Those - few moments of imperfect reunion are all that remain for Anju and Kafei to seize. So you go to all that trouble - this hideously lengthy, convoluted questline that breaks if you screw up at any of a half-dozen stages - because that's what you have to do to get those moments that haven't already slipped away.

The player is given this phenomenal control over time and it just reinforces this theme. Because you get to try again, because you get to - fail and fail and fail. There's no way to fix everything. Whatever you do, you're going to... go around, do what you can, find flawed, incomplete solutions to people's problems, heal wounds but leave scars. And for every wound you heal there are two more you don't. Conflicting schedules, mutually exclusive choices. You are fundamentally limited, so do what you can to make the world better and don't worry about whether that's good enough. It is what is. You can break a curse, but you can't undo it.

And the mechanics reinforce this idea of - personal growth, of being satisfied with doing your best to be one of the good guys and taking the things you gain in the process, applying those to being a little better the next time you get a chance to do the right thing. Your first few runs, you're so fucking weak, and you can barely get around the world, and you can hardly accomplish anything before time overcomes you. As you play through the game, acquire new tools and abilities, learn about the environments and the schedules of the characters within... you get to be a little more effective, though. You grow and you can do more good.

But it's still not "enough," no matter how strong you get. It'll never be "enough," and that's fine. You can't right every wrong, and even when you can fix something, you're not going to erase the suffering that's already happened. And that's fine. Do what you can do and be satisfied with that - the idea that, at the end of the day, you did everything in your power to make things better. There's no point in regretting things. Try to do the best you can, and try to use the experience to make yourself better for the future.

Curses, disease, illness. Things that are - damaging in permanent ways. Accepting that you can't fix everything, and that even when you can fix something, you can only do so much. You can help someone up, help them start moving forward again, but the curse will leave scars that are there forever, and it's okay that your best is imperfect. What matters is doing everything in your power to help people, make the world better, face the world with - fearlessness and compassion and empathy and resolve.

I love that.

Real talk: I'm not actually a huge Zelda fan, per se. Like, Zelda is nice, ain't got no problem with Zelda. But I don't get psyched at the idea of a new Zelda game or anything, and I wouldn't tend to count the other Zeldas among my personal favorite games. They're fun, elegantly designed, but they don't speak to me on any particularly sophisticated level.

But holy shit I love Majora's Mask to pieces. It's just this - beautiful, twisted, soulful game. It's dark, and it's oppressive... but it's not bleak, and it's fundamentally idealistic, hopeful. It's about enduring all the pain the world throws at you and turning that into - love and mercy and empathy. It's about accepting that you are limited, mortal, weak, that there are things that are absolutely beyond you, and saying "okay" and responding to that by persevering, helping other people shoulder the burdens they can't bear on their own, and forgiving yourself for not being "good enough" to make everything right because that's not the point.

It's - it's simultaneously an incredibly dark, cynical, realistic worldview and a really positive, life-affirming one. (No surprise why I'd be thinking on why that's important right now.) Everything is cursed. The world is defined by disease, by suffering, by pain. But we can make a difference, and that effort is fundamentally worth it even when it seems like you're barely doing anything, and even when that will never be enough. There are so many wrongs in the world. There are so many curses, and not all of them can be broken, and even when it's possible to break a curse, the damage it's already done is irrevocable. But that okay. That is okay. You can't fix that, so don't beat yourself up over it; just... try to do what you can and become better for the next time duty calls.

The idea of progression by collecting masks plays into this, too. The most important means you have of expanding your abilities - of getting stronger and more capable - is by seeking out and acquiring masks. And the way you acquire masks is by interacting with people, helping them. You find the restless spirit of a great dancer, help him move on - and you get Kamaro's Mask, a little piece of that person that enables Link to dance like its namesake. Masks are mementos, reflections of the experiences you'd had, and being masks - faces - makes those personal in a way more mundane tools aren't. You're reminded of where you've been every time you use these tools; your current abilities, your current capacity to do good, is fundamentally a product of where you've been and what you've done in the past. And since these are masks, all of them share the same core trait that (whatever other abilities they bestow) they change the way you interact with others, allow you to adopt different personas. Some of those personas can communicate with people in ways that others can't. Masks are both a means of interacting with and helping people, and a physical reminder of the difference you've been able to make that persists long after every other result of those deeds has been swallowed up by countless resets.

Even the fucking Fierce Deity's Mask ties into this theme! The Fierce Deity's Mask is a tool that becomes available in the eleventh hour if you've done everything you fucking could to help people. If you've acquired all the masks - and you do that by interacting with people, throwing yourself out there over and over again, suffering and failing and just trying to do right, no matter how big or how small the deed, no matter how futile it all seems. And what you get is this - violent, dark power that Link is ultimately able to harness because he's guided by that compassion, that abiding love that allows rage to exist free of hate, function as a weapon that can be wielded to right wrongs without clouding your judgment.

The Fierce Deity's Mask is a direct counterpart to Majora's Mask, remember. It's "as bad as Majora's Mask," the dark hexing tool that sets this entire fucking game in motion. But the distinction is in its wearer. Majora's Mask is - cruelty, spite, directionless anger, a desire to see one's foes beaten down for the sake of it. You have this weak-willed, spiteful child wearing that mask, using it for - pranks and simple meanness at first, before the mask gradually starts taking over and driving its host down ever-darker avenues. The Fierce Deity's Mask is just as dark, just as violent, just as much a thing of rage, but the Link that can acquire it is not that child. The Link that acquires the Fierce Deity's Mask is driven by - compassion, and mercy, and love. And that turns this darkness into something positive, constructive. The Skull Kid dons Majora's Mask, and the mask... puppeteers and ultimately discards the wearer. The mask feeds on that malice and the hate it represents dominates the wearer's will.

But Link acquires the Fierce Deity's Mask, and puts it on, and it's a final transformation mask! And the form it produces is - an idealized version of Link. Literally - Link as an adult of heroic stature, clad in white armor and warpaint, equipped with a sacred blade that just cuts through anything in its way. An ideal made manifest. A divine warrior driven in equal measure by boundless love and righteous fury, who can wield that power - that violence, that anger - without losing that fundamental compassion, and is thus able to turn a frightful, dangerous power into something good. Fierce Deity Link is Link but bettered, perfected. This isn't even a fight if you get the Fierce Deity's Mask. You just... cleave through each phase of the Majora battle, one after the other. That - vile, corrosive, hateful thing - can't even put up a fight. It just loses, period.

It is a beautiful fucking game, is what I'm saying.

It's far and away the riskiest, most "artsy" or high-concept thing Nintendo ever did with one of their "big" franchises. I'd say I don't think they'll ever so anything like this again, but to be fair I don't understand how or why they let Majora's Mask happen in the first place, because it's this incredibly dense, purposefully player-hostile, mechanically and thematically nuanced game that thrives on subtle, minimalist storytelling, atmosphere, and ludonarrative cohesion. It's - haunting, melancholy, uncomfortable, wistful, loving, warm. It's the best Zelda but it's also, like, barely a Zelda game at all?

Yoshiaki Koizumi is in fact the best director Nintendo has on hand right now by a country mile and it's kinda outrageous they aren't giving him a giant fucking pile of money to do whatever he wants because goddamn.

He was also the director and scriptwriter on Link's Awakening, by the way, so, you know: why is this man not doing more shit?