The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Structural analysis, Part 1
As an ensemble story built around time-loops, Majora’s Mask does not feature the traditional pacing of most video games. In typical game narratives, the gameplay is somewhat evenly spaced around the story’s midpoint, but Majora’s Mask front-loads its major story beats and places the majority of the gameplay after the midpoint. Despite this irregular pacing, the story still follows a conventional structure. The Five-Act Structure is the best fit for analysis, as the narrative’s introduction of a time-travel mechanic at the halfway mark makes the midpoint the height of dramatic tension. Any mistakes the protagonist makes after that point can be reversed, which reduces the stakes for the back half of the narrative.
Majora’s Mask features one of the quickest openings in the series, reaching the inciting incident after less than ten minutes of total game time. This is possible because Majora’s Mask is a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, which means the player is expected to have some degree of knowledge of the world and its characters. Hence, the player doesn’t require extensive exposition or character development to get them invested in the story, and they’re able to jump in with only a paragraph of explanation on the title screen:
“Done with the battles he once waged across time, he embarked on a journey. A secret and personal journey…A journey in search of a beloved and invaluable friend. A friend with whom he parted ways when he finally fulfilled his heroic destiny and took his place among legends.”
This brief introduction establishes both the story’s relative place in the series—directly after Ocarina of Time—and its focus. As a ‘secret and personal journey,’ Majora is less focused on external events and more on internal conflict. By making this clear from the start of the game, players know what to expect going in and won’t be surprised by the story’s deviation from the series’ established norms.
Once the text fades away, the first cutscene opens with young Link riding his horse through a misty wood as two fairies watch him from behind the trees. Once he’s close enough, they charge him, knocking him off his horse, Epona. A mask appears in the fog, followed closely by the figure behind it: a forest imp the fairies call ‘Skull Kid.’ As the fairies, Tatl and Tael, argue over who gets to play with Link’s ocarina, Link pulls himself together and realizes he’s being robbed. Before Link can get his ocarina back, the Skull Kid hops on Epona and rides away with his fairies in tow. Link tries to give chase, grabbing the side of Epona’s saddle, but he can’t hold on and falls in the dust.
Without his horse, Link tries to follow the Skull Kid on foot. The journey takes him deeper into the woods, where he falls through a hidden hole. A surreal arrangement of masks flashes across the screen, and Link lands atop a flower in the center of a pond. The Skull Kid is waiting for him. He mocks Epona for being disobedient, then reveals he got rid of her. As further punishment, the Skull Kid summons waves of dark energy to inflict a curse on Link, transforming him into a wide-mouthed wooden creature known as a Deku Scrub.
Within ten minutes of run-time, Majora has already established its protagonist, its antagonist, and the hurdles the protagonist must overcome. The protagonist, Link, has been robbed and transformed by the antagonist, the Skull Kid. Now Link is missing his body, his horse, and his ocarina, and he won’t be able to resume his search for Navi until he gets them all back. It’s a quick, efficient opening that utilizes the groundwork laid by Ocarina without requiring it. Even for players who have never touched a Zelda game, Link’s predicament makes sense. He’s looking for his friend, but he’s lost everything he needs to find her. If he wants to continue his journey, he’ll have to recover what’s been taken from him first.
Act II encompasses Link’s first three days in Termina. This act introduces the central area, Clock Town, along with its inhabitants and their many problems. Their biggest problem: the moon is falling, and none of them know how to stop it. Their varied responses to this inescapable problem form the foundation for the game’s side stories, which make up the majority of the gameplay. Although these side stories add character and depth to the main narrative, they do not impact the events that transpire and are therefore not part of the central structure. Nevertheless, their problems add to Link’s problems, creating a sense of rising tension as the act progresses.
Act II begins when the Skull Kid leaves the newly-transformed Link behind in a sealed chamber. When one of the fairies, Tatl, stays to push Link around a little longer, she gets trapped inside with him. Rather than admit her culpability in her current predicament, Tatl demands Link open the door for her. When Link doesn’t immediately follow her command, she yells at him for staring at her and asks what he’s looking at. Although the in-game text never answers this question out-right, the paragraph that appears at the beginning of the game offers the most likely solution. He’s staring at Tatl because she reminds him of the friend he’s looking for: Navi, the fairy who left him at the very end of Ocarina of Time. Given Ocarina’s record sales and Majora’s status as a direct sequel, the developers chose to assume anyone playing Majora would have a working knowledge of Ocarina’s plot. However, Link’s search for Navi has very little to do with the plot of Majora after this point, so those who skipped Ocarina are still able to enjoy Majora’s story.
Once Link agrees to work with Tatl, they escape the chamber and find a path through a murky tunnel. When they head for the exit, a voice calls out to them, saying: “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” This iconic line introduces the Happy Mask Salesman, a merchant who travels the world collecting rare masks. His most valuable mask has just been stolen by a woodland imp, the very same one who turned Link into a Deku Scrub. Fortunately, the Mask Salesman knows how to return Link to his human form, but he’ll need Link to get back his ocarina from the Skull Kid first. In exchange, the Mask Salesman asks Link to recover his mask, as well. Since the Mask Salesman will be leaving town in three days, this gives Link less than seventy-two hours to complete both tasks. This is an extremely literal example of a narrative device known as a ‘ticking clock.’ Ticking clocks are timetables imposed on the characters to create a sense of urgency, forcing them to act quickly when they might otherwise take their time. Thanks to the Mask Salesman’s tight schedule, Link can’t waste time figuring out what to do next; he has to act now.
When Link emerges from the sewers, he finds himself in the center of Clock Town. An enormous moon looms overhead, menacing the town. Some of the locals believe it’s falling; others think everything is fine. Their argument is ramping up as the annual festival is less than three days away. Those who think the moon is falling want to call off the celebration and evacuate; those who think everything is fine refuse to stop the proceedings. This is the central conflict for the townspeople, who are largely unaware of Skull Kid and the threat his mask poses. Their conflict also creates problems for Link, increasing the tension in the narrative. People don’t have time to answer his questions, and when they do, they’re rude and dismissive. In this stressful situation, allies are in short supply. To earn their trust, Link will have to help them overcome obstacles of their own. This ability to connect with others will continually serve him well throughout his journey, as working through their problems often helps him untangle his own.
Tatl knows the town better than Link, so she suggests they meet with the Great Fairy in the north of town, as she might know where the Skull Kid went. Unfortunately, the Skull Kid recently attacked her, splitting her spirit into pieces. Link overcomes this obstacle by finding her missing pieces and putting her back together. As thanks, the Great Fairy gives him a lead on the Skull Kid. There’s an observatory on the edge of town, and the old professor who works there knows everything about everyone. If anyone knows about the Skull Kid’s whereabouts, it’s him.
Getting to the observatory presents its own problems. As a Deku Scrub, Link looks like a child, so the guards won’t let him leave the town unaccompanied. With the aid of a child-gang called the Bombers, Link gains access to a tunnel beneath the guards, allowing him to continue on his journey.
When Link reaches the observatory, the old professor informs him that something strange is pulling the moon down to earth. When Link looks through the telescope, he spots the Skull Kid on the very top of the clock tower. According to the professor, the door to the top of the tower only opens at the start of the carnival. This is Link’s best chance to confront the Skull Kid and win back everything he lost. He is ready to venture into Act III: the Midpoint.