The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Structural analysis, Part 2
Act III focuses on the story’s Midpoint, where the flow of dramatic tension is reversed. This change in tension is particularly stark in Majora’s Mask, as Link gains the ability to travel back in time. As long as Link has that ability, he can reverse any of his mistakes without ever having to face the consequences of failure. Fortunately, the ocarina also allows Link to get to know every single person in Clock Town—something he could never do with only three days’ time—and the information he retains with each loop lets him help the people who need it most. These side stories, enclosed within the frame of the main narrative, are where Majora’s Mask shines, and it’s their strength that mitigates the loss of tension on the whole.
The Act begins when the clock strikes twelve on the final day and the door to the top of the clock tower opens. Link and Tatl race to the top to find the Skull Kid and Tael directly beneath the moon, which is now mere feet above their heads. As the Skull Kid tosses Link’s ocarina around, taunting him, Tatl tries to reason with the Skull Kid. When he refuses to listen, Tael gives his sister an important clue: ‘Swamp. Mountain. Ocean. Canyon.” Skull Kid smacks him for his impudence, then remarks that it doesn’t matter, as it’s too late for anyone to stop him. He cries out, calling down the moon with his dark power, and it seems as if all is lost until Link knocks his ocarina from Skull Kid’s hand.
The moment Link touches his ocarina, memories of the day he received it come rushing back. It was a gift from Hyrule’s Princess Zelda, who taught him a sacred song to use whenever he was in trouble: the Song of Time. This segment works well for both fans of Ocarina of Time and newcomers to the series, as it bridges the gap between games without requiring the audience have prior knowledge of Ocarina‘s plot. It’s also noteworthy for being the only time Princess Zelda appears in the game, in spite of the fact that her name is in the title. If nothing else, this scene is a reminder that this is still a Zelda game, even if it is not a conventional one.
With the moon moments from falling, Link plays the Song of Time as Zelda instructed, and both he and Tatl are thrown backwards in time to the moment they first emerged from the Clock Tower: the dawn of the First Day. Neither Link or Tatl is quite sure how they were able to move back three days in time, but when they return to the Mask Salesman with the ocarina, he seems to understand. As promised, he teaches Link a song that turns him back into a human, and then demands Majora’s Mask as payment. There’s just one problem: Link wasn’t able to get the mask back. The Mask Salesman, apoplectic, shakes Link and tells him that the mask contains a terrible power, and the longer it’s out in the world, the worse off everyone will be. He begs Link to bring it back, whatever it takes. He also stresses that time is limited, as the moon is still falling towards the town, just as it did before. Fortunately, Link has a tool that the Mask Salesman doesn’t: the Ocarina of Time.
The Ocarina of Time, capable of reversing the flow of time, prohibits any further increase of dramatic tension. By giving Link the ability to undo any mistakes he makes, the narrative limits the consequences of his failure. No matter how dire things get, Link is guaranteed to escape lasting harm. The only question from this point forward is how many times Link will have to go back before he can successfully stop the Skull Kid. The consequence of failure is therefore not lasting harm, but an eternity in a time loop. While this is still a bad outcome, there’s no chance that all hope will be lost. No matter how many times Link repeats the cycle, he’s always one good run away from breaking free.
Act IV covers Link’s journey to the four corners of Termina, beginning on the dawn of the first replayed day and ending at the second confrontation with the Skull Kid. This section represents the vast majority of the gameplay, including all four of the game’s dungeons and the bulk of its side quests. To stop the moon from falling, Link must complete all four dungeons, as each dungeon contains a powerful ally. Those allies are essential in stopping the moon’s descent, but stopping the Skull Kid will be all on Link.
When Act IV begins, Link only has access to one area: the Southern Swamps in the Woodfall region. On the journey south, Link comes across a carving of an imp with two fairies, which causes Tatl to reflect on her time with the Skull Kid. She and her brother found him alone in the rain, shivering inside a hollow log. Although they enjoyed their time together, his love of pranks drove most of his friends away and led him to steal Majora’s Mask from the Mask Salesman. Once that happened, the power changed him, leading up to the events that began the game. This brief interlude contextualizes the Skull Kid’s actions and allows players to empathize with him despite his misdeeds.
When Link and Tatl reach the Woodfall region, home of the Deku Scrubs, they discover that the Scrub princess has disappeared. This is the first of the many crises Link stumbles upon during his journey, and each one leads back to the Skull Kid. Whenever Link resolves one of these crises, a giant spirit approaches him. The first spirit teaches Link a song and asks him to call them; the others provide enigmatic clues of their own. Individually, their advice seems useless, but together, the clues they provide give Link the courage he needs to take on the Skull Kid once more.
As Link visits the remaining three regions, he befriends more locals and helps them solve their problems. The Goron mountains are plagued by excessive snowfall; a Zora woman’s eggs have been stolen; the Ikana valley is overrun by the walking dead: each dilemma is tied to the Skull Kid, and each area has its own enchanted masks. By helping the people in these regions, Link grows stronger and moves closer to his goal. These sequences ramp up in intensity and difficulty with each phase, creating a smooth fourth act with only one bump: recovering Link’s horse.
After saving the Gorons from the continuous blizzard, Link and Tatl are forced to detour to Romani Ranch. There they find Link’s horse, Epona, who was taken by Skull Kid in the opening. Strangely enough, there’s not much fanfare to their reunion. Link and Tatl’s reactions are similar to the way they react when Link receives any other item. The difference between Epona and the rest of his equipment—aside from the obvious fact that she’s a living creature—is that Epona was the last reason Link had to remain in Termina. When the Skull Kid robbed Link in the opening, Link was forced to chase after him because he lost his ocarina and his horse, and his body shortly thereafter. Recovering Epona means he’s regained every item he lost, which negates any personal interest he has in the antagonist. By this point, it’s assumed that Link will have met enough townspeople that he’s personally invested in their survival, but the downsides of leaving are not as high for him as they once were. Once again, the story’s stakes have been lowered, which goes against conventional storytelling wisdom. It’s only because Majora’s Mask is an unconventional story that structural defects like this aren’t as debilitating as they could be.
Once all four giants have been contacted, Link and Tatl have everything they need to face the Skull Kid a final time. This segment roughly corresponds to the ‘Crisis’ moment in the Three-Act Structure, as the villain gets closer to victory than ever, and the heroes must dig down deep to stop him.
When the clock strikes midnight on the final day, Link and Tatl head to the top of the Clock Tower, where they find him in the same position he was before: ready to bring down the moon. This time, Link has a chance to play the song the giants taught him. When Link calls out to them with the tune, they convene below the moon and hoist it up. The moon stops mere inches from the top of the clock tower, unable to fall. For this brief moment, it would seem as if Link and Tatl have won.
The Skull Kid collapses, worn out from the effort of sustaining the moon’s descent. Tatl tries to yell at him for causing so much damage, but Tael begs her forgiveness, saying: “The power of the mask made him do it. It was too much for him to handle.” When Tatl argues otherwise, it seems the Skull Kid awakens to agree with her, except it’s not him talking to them any longer; it’s the mask itself, ready to discard its useless puppet. Before Link and the fairies can stop it, the mask flies into the mouth of the moon and possesses it, vowing to consume everything. The giants tremble from the renewed force, and it seems they’ll eventually falter until Link volunteers to enter the moon himself.
Act V contains both the Climax and the Resolution of the narrative. The climax of Majora’s Mask is a brief, impersonal affair that plays out largely through combat. As Link is risking nothing personally (beyond his life) and Majora’s motivations remain opaque through the end of the game, the two characters don’t sit in strong opposition to each other. Fortunately, their fight still has meaning because Link is fighting on behalf of others. If Majora wins, the moon will fall and crush everyone in Termina, including the dozens of friends Link has made on his journey.
The climax begins when Link and Tatl pulled into the mouth of the moon. They find themselves not inside a lightless rock, but a sunny field with a lonely tree in the center. Four masked children run around the tree, playing with each other, while a fifth child sits alone. That child wears Majora’s Mask, representing Majora itself. If the player has collected all of the game’s masks, Link is able to engage with the playing children and run through a series of mini-dungeons. If not, then the climax progresses straight to the final conversation with Majora. The child wearing the mask simply asks Link to play with him, at which point, Link is taken to a new room and the last battle begins. There’s no further story-building during the fight. it functions purely as boss battle, satisfying the expectations of the adventure game genre. When it ends, it does so without any dialogue or other moments of character developments. The mask simply dissolves.
Once the climax is over, the narrative shifts to wrapping the biggest plot thread: the Skull Kid’s relationship with Tatl, Tael, and the giants. The secondary plotlines get their own closure through a series of vignettes played in tandem with the credits. Almost all of the characters Link met in his journey are revisited in one way or another, and the story ends exactly as it began: with Link searching the woods for Navi.
The wrap-up begins in Termina Field. As the moon dissolve into dust, the giants approach the Skull Kid, who stares up at them and asks: “You guys…you hadn’t forgotten about me?” The giants walk away without answering, but the Skull Kid seems satisfied as he acknowledges Tatl and Tael’s role in saving him, as well as Link’s. His mood improves at the thought of so many people coming together to help him, and he asks Link to be his friend, too. This gives Link a final opportunity to help someone, wrapping up his personal journey in Termina.
The Mask Salesman and his cursed mask also have a spot in the wrap-up. After Link and the Skull Kid agree to become friends, the Mask Salesman remarks that the evil seems to have left the relic, which means it’s time for him to leave. He suggests that Link has places to go as well, then adds: “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.” With those parting words, he disappears, and Link rides off to continue his search for his friend as the annual festival begins. Like the Giants before him, he leaves the Skull Kid behind, but this time the Skull Kid understands. He has learned that distance does not define friendship, and he can always count on true friends to be there for him.
A series of vignettes play during the credits, showing what’s become of the people of Termina. These short scenes reveal how many lives Link has changed through his efforts. When the credits end, the scene shifts to Link in the woods, resuming his search for Navi. As he rides past a sun-lit stump, the camera zooms in to reveal a carving like the one he found in Termina Field. This carving is similar, as it features Skull Kid and his fairies, but it also has five newcomers: Link and the four giants of Termina. Together, they represent all of Skull Kid’s friends, both old and new. It’s a strong image to close on, as it shows how much Link and Skull Kid have both gained from their meeting.
Although Majora’s mask is a non-linear story centered around repeating events, the narrative still roughly confirms to a traditional Five-Act structure. Tension rises as complications are introduced, and then the literal reversal of time shifts the tension downwards. The falling action results in a climax where all of the initial obstacles are overcome, and the central villain is reformed by his experiences. It’s not the most complex story in the series, but it’s the perfect framework for a series of side stories that explore complex characters and themes.