By Lulu Blue
Sufficiently Human’s latest guest post comes to us from game designer, critic, musician and illustrator, Lulu Blue. In this essay, Blue brings their concise yet powerful insights to bear on the surprising humanity to be found in the world of Majora’s Mask, and the lasting impact the game had on them as a kid. If you can, please consider supporting Blue’s rpg/dungeon-crawler project, Fantastic Witch Collective, here.
[TW: This piece discusses emotional trauma.]
Listless despair was an ephemeral yet dominating emotion of my childhood as a queer kid growing up in rural California without a support network. I played videogames to distract myself and escape from my reality, and while The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask has gone down in videogame history as something of a scrappy, offbeat cult classic, within it I found one of the most touching narratives of my childhood.
On a superficial level, Majora’s Mask seems to be all we’ve come to expect from the Zelda franchise with a bit of Lynchian sugar on top. It’s your Nintendo comfort food, with its Nintendo gimmicks and its Nintendo cookie-cutter narrative; a thoughtless, phrenic experience of action and puzzle-solving. And then there’s some surrealist and Jungian imagery as icing. Yet, in the opening scene of Majora’s Mask, a fairytale narrator remarks that Link is about to embark on a deeply personal journey, one unlike any he had before.
The prankster, Skullkid, has wrought havoc throughout the land of Termina, aided by the otherworldly powers of the titular Majora’s Mask. Link becomes caught up in this web of events and, like many of the people in Termina, is deprived of what he holds dear at the hands of Skullkid. As is the nature of trauma, his identity is stolen from him. His beloved horse, Epona, and the Ocarina of Time—links to his past—are taken from him as he is transformed from a boy into a Deku Scrub. Unlike the archetypal adventure narrative much of Zelda adheres to, you are given no higher cause to propel you forward; while the world is set to end in three days, Termina isn’t your world. It is a place whose existence has caused you nothing but misery, and you want nothing but escape. I had to find my own hope even as I suffered tragedy, despair and dispossession once and again through Link, constantly being confronted by a question reminiscent of my own adolescent depression: Why even go on?
Even from the beginning, it is made clear the importance of masks to this game. Skullkid is adorned with Majora’s Mask as he sets the plot in motion; soon after, you encounter the Happy Mask Salesman, and you use masks to transform into others so that you may confront the challenges put between you and reclaiming what you’ve lost. Masks are also tokens gained by completing sidequests based around various characters and misfortunes similar to your own, which often offer unique abilities or feed into other quests.
However, the significance of the masks is not their literal function, as masks are a classic symbolic object in literature and philosophy. Masks are not simply a tool, but a framework of expression we use to relate to the world around us, and Majora’s Mask expresses this through how masks transform our interactions with game spaces and NPCs. Masks are manifestations of pain used to shield our fragile inner selves, an eerily familiar narrative to a younger me.
Yet, for how much this game dwells on pain, I found in it something far more substantial than an affirmation of my despair: I found the empathy and compassion that my heart ached for. My time with the game would’ve been nothing were it not for the level of care invested in filling the world with characters defined by their own passions, and pain, and everything else as they struggle to cope with their impending death. They’re more than NPCs serving a gameplay function; they feel like people. It gives Link’s journey emotional stakes that didn’t exist before. It becomes even more personal—these aren’t strangers you’re saving because you’re the hero, these are people you want to save because you have a relationship with them. Just like us, Kafei seeks to reclaim what has been stolen from him. Pamela is unable to let go of a lost loved one. Guru-Guru is driven to desperation, repeating the same actions nonstop in the hope something will change. Just like us, Skullkid adorns a mask to protect himself from his pain.
The apex of what this characterization represents is in the scene where you ride with Romani and Cremia by wagon to deliver a shipment of milk to Clock Town, the central city in Termina. You ride from sunset into the night, where Cremia shares with you a delicate exchange about life, her loves and her fear. There are many precious moments like this in the game, where characters cast off their masks and expose their inner selves to you, but none are so tender and so romantic as this scene. For me, a teenager perpetually struggling with alienation, this made me feel less alone.
I never expected to find myself within Majora’s Mask, but there it was: a piece of media which, for the first time in my life, touched on my inner emotions instead of distracting me in the fantasy of being somebody else. I’m left feeling like if all these people can find purpose to live in the face of such hopelessness, then so can I. No, it’s not a feeling. I already have it. It’s represented by these masks I carry with me, marks of the impressions others have left upon me. When my journey began, my mask collection’s emptiness reflected my own. Now it is full, and I find within myself the wills of many who’ve touched my heart, driving me to protect what I love.