When I want to give people an example of atmosphere done right in games, I have a few go to’s, but the one that impresses me the most might very well be The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and today, I’ll be telling you why that is. Won’t you join me?
What is Majora’s Mask?
Before explaining why I think Majora’s Mask is such a great example of atmosphere shaping in games, context is needed, because it is in how Majora’s Mask uses it’s own status as a Zelda game to its advantage.
Technically speaking, Majora’s Mask is the 6th main installment of The Legend of Zelda video game series, and was developed under very interesting circumstances. You see, the game prior to this was the legendary The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, often considered one of the greatest achievements in video games both at the time, and even right now amongst many players and critics alike. Ocarina of Time was released simultaneously in Japan and North America in 1998 to phenomenal acclaim, pushing the boundaries of the then major push for making good use of 3D instead of sprite-based games. This was the time when developers like Nintendo were attempting to bring some of its beloved 2D franchises into the 3D realm, and were immensely successful in doing so, creating classics like Super Mario 64, showing the true potential of 3D games to naysayers.
After successfully pulling off a hat trick with Ocarina of Time, Nintendo were frantic to capitalise on their repeated successes, by greenlighting a brand new Zelda sequel to Ocarina of Time, a good business move all things considered. But there was a catch, the Zelda team were given ONLY 1 YEAR to complete it. To give you some perspective, Ocarina of Time took FIVE, and coupled with the immense pressure to create a worthy sequel that wouldn’t disappoint fans of the series. According to Majora’s Mask director Eiji Aonuma, they were “faced with the very difficult question of just what kind of game could follow Ocarina of Time and its worldwide sales of seven million units”. The solution was to implement a central gameplay mechanic that the entire game would revolve around that would allow the team to use fewer resources to fill the game world, but wouldn’t make players feel cheated. That brilliant solution was the three-day system, which Aonuma himself described as achieving: “make the game data more compact while still providing deep gameplay”, the gameplay mechanic that made Majora’s Mask the classic it is today.
So that’s the story of Majora’s Mask, and how it came to be. Interesting circumstances and all that. But wait, what does this have to do with the game’s atmosphere? Well, kinda’ a lot actually. The Zelda team were desperate to create something that didn’t FEEL like Ocarina of Time rehashed, so the designers knew that minor mechanical differences to shake up the formula would do no good, after all, this would be the 6th main game in the series. So they took an incredible gamble. You guessed it, by having Majora’s Mask be a lot more darker than anyone would have expected.
Now, it’s time to address something, this article assumes you have already played or otherwise know how Majora’s Mask goes, but for those of you readers who have no experience with Majora’s Mask, and maybe have tried some other Zelda games might be wondering, “Dark? Isn’t Zelda supposed to be some grand epic adventure with a lots of colourful characters and places and is generally a pretty upbeat sorta’ thing?” Well done reader, you would be right, but those of us who do know Majora’s Mask can tell you that it’s atmosphere is so distinctly Zelda, yet so distinctly not, all at once. It keeps what makes it a Zelda game intact, but cleverly subverts nearly everything it can get away with to create an incredibly brooding and oppressive atmosphere, to match its deliberately darker tone. It’s kinda crazy, they make the story darker but not feel edgy, they made many character interactions more dire and foreboding without making things less colourful, they reused A WHOLE LOT of game assets from Ocarina of Time, and every now and then use those assets in very blatant ways that create more anxiety than frustration for fans of Ocarina of Time. I won’t be able to go through everything that Majora’s Mask does to achieve it’s signature atmosphere, so instead I intend to give a few key examples. Are you as excited as I am!?
The Main Plot
Skull Kid donning Majora’s Mask and Tael the Fairy.
Art taken from DeviantArt by Kenon-Highwind.
It goes without saying that the main plot of a story constitutes a significant portion of the tone, Majora’s Mask’s is no different. The story picks off right after Ocarina of Time, with the Hero of Time (that’s you…green, tunic-wearing Link) with his horse going through a forest. You get attacked by Skull Kid, some dude with a creepy as shit mask (hint hint) and he steals all your equipment, including your magic ocarina and even your horse, then you get turned into a Deku (a walnut-person), basically you figuratively and literally get knocked off your high horse. You get stuck with one of the fairies that was with Skull Kid, then you meet a Masks Salesman, a creepy dude with masks, who figures out that the mask that Skull Kid has is the extremely dangerous Majora’s Mask, and decides to help you turn back into a human if you can get your ocarina back so that you can retrieve the mask for him.
Whew… well, that’s it in a nutshell. Or so you think, when you walk into the main town square you immediately notice something is really off about the moon. For one thing, it’s morning, for another, the moon has a big shit-eating grin. Normal shit that happens everyday this ain’t. You go on to discover how the moon is crashing towards the world in 3 days time, so you frantically play the game with a CONSTANT TIME LIMIT, you have 3 DAYS, which after converting from Termina time (the kingdom you’re in) to Real World Time, you have exactly 54 minutes or just under an hour to defeat Skull Kid, AND stop the moon from annihilating everything. No joke, constant, as in, reading NPC dialogue…’tick tock’, walking around doing tasks…’tick tock’. Every single second that you play the game, time is running out. The only respite you get is for pausing the game, so at least Zelda’s developers weren’t completely evil.
*Plot and Gameplay Spoilers ahead, but honestly you probably already knew about them. However, if you have never heard or seen anything about Majora’s Mask, do yourself a favour and stop reading, because it ruins the incredible surprises of the game. Go play it for yourself, there’s even a 3DS remake available right now, alternatively there are plenty of incredible Let’s Plays on Youtube if you want to go that route, I personally recommend ChuggaConroy’s LP of Majora’s Mask, as it’s designed to be watched by people who never played the game, so he keeps spoilers to a minimum. You have been warned!*
Even though you later learn that you can reset time through the Song of Time so you can infinitely repeat the 3 Days ala’ Groundhog Day, the fact remains that during the first playthrough of the initial 3 Days, you would probably not pass your blood pressure exam. The intense sense of pressure and anxiety you get blumbling around Termina trying to figure out what on earth you need to do to save the world is surprising real. I liken it to the reality that was faced by the game’s developers, having only 1 year to complete the game under the immense pressure of the consequences if they failed. This is what sets the stage, and the tone for the rest of the game to build on with its atmosphere. Speaking of which, let’s talk briefly about how music plays a role in this game.
Intelligent Music Composition
The legend himself: Koji Kondo in an interview session.
Majora’s Mask’s composer, Koji Kondo, the genius behind the Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda, and Star Fox soundtracks was tasked to create a composition for this decidedly more sinister and melancholic Zelda game. As per usual, he didn’t disappoint. Majora’s Mask’s OST has a genuinely Zelda-sounding feel to it, but it’s almost like there’s something kinda…’off’ about the tracks. Kondo’s composition is incredibly intelligent, he utilises sly techniques to either distort the music in small ways to make them feel uncomfortable, without ever altering the core of the tracks. Even better, some of these tunes from the game have special triggers. The prime example to showcase the way the soundtrack was used to create the melancholic feeling of despair is in the following:
Do have a listen to this as you continue to read on if you will, so you can better understand my reasoning here as I go through each of the days. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.
So the game’s main hub: Clock Town! It’s a really memorable location with plenty of interesting characters and events that take place here. So you come here quite a lot. Because it’s so important, as well as the place most players will spend the most time in, Koji Kondo made 3 different versions of the Clock Town Theme, one for each of the 3 Days before the end of the world.
As you immediately tell, Day 1 is quite Zelda-esque, and has a great feel of adventure and childlike wonder to it, cheerful and upbeat. Makes you wanna go save the world or something.
Now on to Day 2, notice how it’s the same song, but some instruments are missing? Also, it’s ever so slightly faster, and it does feel a lot more empty than the original, but otherwise not too disquieting. Makes you wanna go save the world or something… but this time with feeling.
Finally, Day 3, and the song takes a turn for the darker, it’s tempo feels extremely rushed, there is a backing lead of very sombre tones accompanying the usual cheerful instrumentation, and everything just feels extremely frantic overall. Time, is running out. Makes you wanna go curl up into a ball in a hole somewhere and weep.
“The Final Hours”
Alas, the sky turns red, most inhabitants of the town have evacuated, with a few who have either given up or were stubborn to leave remain. Periodic earthquakes shake the ground, and the moon is so large in the sky, you feel as you can almost reach out and touch it. The Final Hours are upon you. The earthquakes have begun to shake more fiercely and frequently, and the Clock Town clocktower begins ringing across Termina. If you as Link are anywhere within or near the town, you hear the bell toll, counting down what little time is remaining. No matter where you are at this moment (save for a few special exceptions), all background music stops, and instead plays “The Final Hours”, it’s sombre and foreboding, and bell tolls faster and faster, as the earthquakes become ever present. Then all of a sudden, the cut-scene plays, and you sit back and behold whether you have accomplished enough to survive, or if you have failed in your mission. It’s a chilling feeling to be sure.
The dawn of a new day
The screen beginning to shrink as black borders fill the remainder.
While playing Majora’s Mask, many players thought their game cartridge was corrupted, because something peculiar happened during final 30 minutes before the dawn of a new day: the screen started shrinking in size. It was confusing players and made them suddenly very anxious, giving them a sense of claustrophobia, as with each toll of the Clock Town Bell, the screen got ever so slightly smaller and smaller till dawn arrived. Never before in any video game (and in my personal opinion, after) did such a unique effect ever had been employed as a game feature. It was cost effective, as it required no additional resources from the developers, they just needed to add a few lines of code. It was striking, you NOTICED when it happened, and would start to slightly panic and play the game more frantically, even if you still had a whole day left. If anyone ever were to ask me what game feature in the history of gaming more than any other was able to shift the tone of gameplay so drastically and with such impact that didn’t take away control from the player (like a cut-scene would), I would have to tell them: Majora’s Mask’s screen shrinking.
Serious Existential Themes
Finally, the last thing I want to bring up are the game’s themes, or basically it’s content matter. There is a real sense of hopelessness in this game, and nowhere is this is more apparent than in its quests. While trying to save the world, Link can always go through the trouble and helping people in need, creating domino-chain reactions that can affect outcomes or events in the world, however because it’s impossible to complete all these side-quests and still have enough time to save the world, you simply have to ignore most of them. Of course many of these side-quests lead to you obtaining various permanently retained Masks that provide various effects for Link, all the progress, and all the effort you put into solving these events will be reverted as if you never interfered at all when you choose to rewind time to the Dawn of the First Day.
It’s really depressing, there are some seriously sad things happening in Termina, people whose deaths only you can prevent due to your prophetic knowledge of the future, people who are need of dire assistance, rampaging spirits of the land (the bosses) that have corrupted the surrounding landscapes, which even after you defeat them and restore the lands, return to being corrupted upon resetting time. So, when you finally decide to end the game for good and save the world, the actions of that final timeline’s are final, and you can’t save everyone, not by a long shot, it’s an existential nightmare. What a bloody downer after just saving the world from destruction.
The Masks of Mikau, the Zora musician; Darmani, the Goron warrior; and [Identity Unknown], the Deku Scrub.
Art taken from DeviantArt by evolsets.
The 3 major masks of the game that Link gathers in his quest are all obtained from the deceased. Putting them on transforms link into their actual bodies, and everyone in the world that these dead individuals knew will recognise you as them, thinking them to be still alive. No matter what you do, these people are dead for good, and you use their personas to accomplish your tasks as required. There’s something really disturbing about pretending to be the respected hero of a village, giving them false hope about how their hero was invincible and would never fall, when that was exactly what happened, and you just assumed his role to restore his warrior’s honour. Or arguably more fucked up, masquerading as a dead person and trying to console their lover and talking to them, with them believing that nothing ever happened to the person they once knew, watching them treat you like their significant other, not knowing the truth about their death. Chills man, chills. What the fuck, Majora’s Mask developers.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a game that stood the test of time (no pun intended), it was a instant classic on release and remains one to this day. You will never play anything ever like it, and that’s a proud badge to wear for a game that was rushed out the door with limited resources and time, to be a worthy sequel to one of the greatest games of its generation, and stand on its own. So with that said, remember to always consider the importance of tone and atmosphere in video games, and try imagining just how different the experience would have been if it had a different one to replace it.
Oh yeah, go play the goddamn game you sneaky reader that disregarded my warning earlier in the article!
Oh yeah, and here’s ChuggaConroy’s excellent Let’s Play:
Alright, bye now!
Next week on “The HotSeat”: “The year 1998 for video games… or the greatest year of video game releases.”
“ArcticLyrae is a 3rd-year Monash University Malaysia undergraduate with great enthusiasm for all things related to gaming and its many forms. He is the Game Master of Monash Gaming Society and writes articles for Radio Monash Malaysia covering various gaming-related discussions in his weekly section, The HotSeat.”