“Your friends… What kind of… people are they? I wonder… Do those people… think of you… as a friend?”
As The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask begins, we find Link riding his horse Epona through a mist-strewn forest. It is here, in an unnamed wood, that he has come to find his departed fairy and once-trusted guide, Navi. The young Link has turned his back on Hyrule, gone in search of his friend.
It’s an opening that sets the tone for the rest of Majora’s Mask, where the conflicting themes of isolation and companionship often rear their head. Not that I noticed that when I first played it. I was too busy being eternally frustrated working out how to return Link from his Deku form back into being human again. There was a lot of running backwards and forwards through the central hub of Clock Town trying to get the sequence of events nailed down before the moon finally decided to collapse and crush the world. That impending apocalypse was a real nail-biter (quite literally). It wasn’t anything like the relatively languid pace of Ocarina of Time, where Link’s central task of saving Hyrule from Ganon could be delayed for as long as you wished in favour of a spot of fishing or hunting down all those elusive golden skulltulas. Hyrule could suffer under tyranny a bit longer if it meant Link could indulge in a spot of fishing.
Perhaps some of these childhood frustrations can explain why Majora’s Mask didn’t instantly jump to mind when asked to write about videogames and loneliness. I thought of a number of different options. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon seemed obvious choices; both games implanted the player into a community that (for the most part) was filled with friendly inhabitants, asking you to interact with them and influence their lives in a positive way. Final Fantasy (mostly VI through to XII) has often been equally as absorbing, providing lush and diverse environments to explore and epic narratives of good versus evil that were still often filled with depth and emotion. I also reflected on the numerous times that I’ve played Midway’s hack and slash adventure Gauntlet: Dark Legacy with my mother, the local multiplayer experience I’ve indulged in the most (and still continue to; the speed of my usual companion Green Archer continues to annoy the slower yet robust Blue Valkyrie, albeit more fleetingly).
Yet Majora’s Mask is the game I’ve continually returned to. But why? Yes, the gameplay is undoubtedly a factor in this. Its looping three-day cycle, which resets the vast majority of the narrative each time the Song of Time is played, means it’s easy to tackle the different mini-games and dungeons dotted around Termina time and time again (although the rubber-band physics on the Goron races never fails to make me want to tear my own hair out. Curse the quest for the Gilded Sword).
As time has passed, though, it’s gradually become clear that it was always the narrative that has a unique gravitational pull. On the surface it pretends to be similar to Ocarina of Time (save the world from a powerful, evil force) but is far darker in tone than its predecessor. Yes, there are some brief moments of levity, but for the most part Majora’s Mask is deeply steeped in a sense of sadness. Even from his first steps in Clock Town, Link, in his Deku form, is met with people who shun him for his plant-like form. The Bombers won’t let him join their group because of his transformation; though they have a somewhat reasonable explanation for it (a former Deku member apparently once broke their club rules), it still feels somewhat exclusionary.
Loneliness wasn’t something that ever came to mind much around the time I first stepped foot inside the world of Termina. Perhaps the concept of being lonely, though, was more of a subconscious feeling. In Matilda, Roald Dahl wrote that books gave the eponymous heroine “a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Similar to Matilda diving into Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, literature and music, helped to transport me to distant lands or place me in the shoes of another. Video games offered this in a more literal, hands-on sense. While sitting in a bedroom, it was possible to dive head-first into a completely different, fantastical land. The world of Termina – more geographically condensed than Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule – compacted mysterious swamplands, colossal mountains, a great ocean and a barren desert together into a space that could be traversed from end to end in a matter of a couple of minutes. Its diverse landscape makes it breath-taking to explore. And that early rejection by the Bombers of Deku Link gave me an almighty gut-punch, just a small sign of what else was to come.
Over the years, whether consciously thinking about it or not, I’ve come realise that the concept of loneliness is interwoven into the fabric of Majora’s Mask. Almost every character Link encounters in Clock Town he’s already met in Ocarina of Time. Yet, none of them recognise the boy who saved Hyrule. Termina is often described as a parallel world to Hyrule but even for a character like Link, who the player can project their own vision on to, it must undoubtedly be a surreal and alienating experience. When you eventually rewind the clocks, any positive impact that Link has on the citizens of Termina are erased from history and from their minds. We’re sent back to square one, back to when Link – and the player – meant nothing to these people. Even if you’ve spent all three days helping to reunite estranged lovers Anju and Kafei, ultimately you have to play the Song of Time, undoing that hard work and isolating the pair from each other once more.
Perhaps more than any other region in the game, Ikana Canyon embodies the lingering sense of isolation and alienation most vividly; it is a land “stained with a history of darkness” and “drenched in blood.” Unlike the other areas in the game, little changes when Link defeats the evil lurking within the Stone Tower Temple; it still remains a barren wasteland even when supposedly “cleansed”. Igos du Ikana, the undead king of the region, proclaims: “Believing in your friends and embracing that belief by forgiving failure. These feelings have vanished front our hearts.” These are spirits alienated from their feelings, vessels with little attachment to the world. It’s unsurprising that here Link learns the Elegy of Emptiness, a song that produces hollow, surreal representations of his living form.
Despite being the most barren of landscapes though, music permeates through the narrative of Ikana Canyon. Pamela and her father reside in a Music Box House, where two songs save their fragile existence: the melody that plays from the house itself repels the onslaught of Gibdos, while the Song of Healing restores Pamela’s father from his half-mummified, monstrous state, temporarily returning him into the warm embrace of his daughter. A history of pain and loneliness flows even deeper through the tales of composers Flat and Sharp. Sharp sold his soul to the devil, imprisoning his brother in the graveyard. When Link meets Flat his discontent comes pouring through his words after a millennia of isolation from the outside: “The thousand years of raindrops summoned by my song are my tears. The thunder that strikes the earth is my anger!”
Now though, I can also see the threads of loneliness stitched through some of the game’s seemingly most minor occurrences. Take one instance just outside Ikana Canyon (or underneath the watchtower in the Pirate’s Fortress if you happen to be picking up the 3DS remaster). There, you can use the Lens of Truth to meet Shiro; give him a Red Potion and he’ll give you the Stone Mask. It’s a very fleeting encounter, but one that’s deeply tinged with feelings of separation. His appearance is non-descript; unlike most of the notable NPCs in the game who help Link on his journey, his model is simply that of a typical Hylian soldier. Shiro remarks that “you’re the first person who’s ever spoken to me. I’ve been here for many years, waving my arms around and asking for help, but everyone ignores me and passes me by.” Shiro’s is a short side-quest, one that seems utilitarian and designed simply as a quick aside to obtain a useful item. Yet even here, Shiro is so alienated that he spends the rest of his three days trying his hardest to “stand out” and finally be noticed. Even the Stone Mask, probably one of the most useful items in the game, renders Link invisible, no matter how close he stands to others. Loneliness is so entrenched and interwoven into the story and mood of Majora’s Mask that it even permeates the very fabric of the gameplay.
All of this begs the question: why would I continue to return to it, even in my loneliest of times? One thing is quite clear: I didn’t notice all of the little details embedded within the narrative when I played Majora’s Mask as a child. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t somewhat aware of what some of the characters were experiencing or feeling as I lived my own solitary existence, a sense of loneliness hovering around in the subconscious. This, I believe, is where my affinity for the game stems. When playing Majora’s Mask, there was a sense almost of fighting fire with fire, of becoming aware of, learning about and combating loneliness as the game progresses through a virtual process of empathy.
Admittedly, there’s something slightly strange about contemplating all of this when I am probably the least lonely now than I have ever been. For the characters of Majora’s Mask though, the cycles they go through though will never cease. Their three days waiting for the apocalypse to happen will repeat ad infinitum, all the emotions that they experience in that time continually flooding back. They are stuck in a perpetual Groundhog Day, except it’s a dystopian version of Groundhog Day where Bill Murray never gets to leave Punxsutawney with Andie MacDowell.
When Link finally reclaims Majora’s Mask back from Skull Kid, the Happy Mask Salesman has some final words for him, including the lines: “Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever… Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time… That is up to you.” Theoretically, Link can now choose to shorten his time spent apart from the one he was searching for in the first place. Whether we chooses to or not, we never do find out. But those meetings and partings happen beyond the virtual realm of Termina as well. With his final lines, the Happy Mask Salesman offers a glimmer of hope after the despair that has come before it. Even after all the despondency that the player has encountered within its borders, there’s still always the possibility that isolation and loneliness can one day transform into companionship.