Quest Design: Majora's Mask v Fallout 4
Last time I did a compare and contrast, it was Mario vs Armored Core in my unhinged attempt to pick apart the broad stroke differences between two vastly different games. We’re gunna return to that energy today as I, for some reason, compare Majora’s Mask to Fallout 4!
The goal of this analysis is to better understand quest structure in two very different types of game, but this time with an open world design philosophy. More specifically, I’m looking at narrative design standard practices through the lens of a specific question: Is writing required to build an emotional story? Fallout 4 represents modern quest design for open world games in that the game is littered with NPCs who need your help to kill this enemy or that monster or bring them X item so they can fix Y problem. I’m looking at it because it delivers its storytelling primarily through text and dialogue, while also being famous for environmental storytelling, and thus contrasts nicely with Majora. I could just as easily compare Horizon Zero Dawn or Skyrim or any number of other games, I choose Fallout 4 because I’ve written about it before (it’s very good), but also because Fallout 4’s quest design does, at times, touch on some of the same techniques that Majora uses. As a bonus point comparison, Fallout 4 also happens to have some procgen quests in it and I’m gunna look at how that works at the end of this blog post, and see if we could find a way to give Majora the same scalability.
Let’s dive in! One of the first major differences between Majora and Fallout is at the start of a quest. If you’ve seen my roguelike celebration talk about quest structure in Lord of the Rings, I identified a series of elements which are unique to the beginning of a quest. Things like the Type of Choice a character is being given, and the Mechanics of Acceptance, which you can see in this slide from that talk:
Quests in Fallout always come from a quest giver NPC. Every single one of them is given to you directly by a character in need, to the point that the wiki has a column on its quest page listing the NPC who gives you that quest. Majora, however, is much more open-ended. Majora is happy to let you find any given piece of the puzzle first, as long as you arrive at the solution eventually. Quests in Majora’s Mask might come from an item, they might come from an object in the world, or they may not even be assigned to you at all, you may just see a character lying on the ground and the implication to help is internal to you as the player. Fallout’s structure is something we’re more accustomed to in AAA games, it uses dialogue as the narrative delivery vehicle to tell the player what they should do. Majora simply sets up a situation that begs to be interacted with, and trusts that the player will heed the call. Fallout tells. Majora does. There’s a classic bit of writing advice that is “Show, don’t tell” but Majora and Fallout exemplify the videogame version of this concept: Do, don't show.
As we continue this comparison, I want you to keep this difference in mind as noticing this distinction is what drove me to write this blog post in the first place. Majora’s quest design comes entirely from a place of offering unique and interesting interactions based on nonverbal story delivery as often as possible. Fallout is the more standard pattern of telling you an interesting, complex story verbally while relegating you to more basic interactions mechanically. We’ll come back to these comments later.
Moving on, the next major difference is that Majora doesn't center combat as the purpose of a quest. Enemies in Majora’s Mask exist only as obstacles. Fallout often has you defend a location or rescue an NPC or otherwise fulfill a power fantasy by killing many hostile NPCs. Fallout quests are about making the player feel like they’re the strongest, the most badass warrior alive, and every quest is about how tough you are compared to the others in the game. Nintendo centers novel gameplay first, and then gives a narrative justification second. The verbs you use in Fallout are “shoot enemy” and “interact with object” and you use these for all of their quests. Majora, on the other hand, gives you dozens of masks to use and each of them comes with their own mechanic, plus a similar number of non-mask items that allow other verbs like “shoot arrow” or “blow up a rock with a bomb” and etc. That’s not to imply that Fallout is somehow less complex a game than Majora, but Fallout puts its energy into armor and weapons as its way of customizing gameplay. The result, however, is that all of Fallout’s verbs are “shoot” because you have many slight differences in specifically how you shoot. Majora’s verbs are simpler and less nuanced, but you have many many more of them to use. Fallout favors personal expression while Majora favors novel gameplay that everyone must partake in equally.
At this point I feel a need to define my use of the word “novel”. In Nintendo games, Zelda or otherwise, mechanics are used for more than one purpose. Your attack may kill enemies, yes, but it also unlocks doors and flips switches. Samus shoots blue barriers to open a path, and she finds new items which open green and orange barriers as well. Link uses his sword to trigger a statue to spread its wings and become a save point. Nintendo uses a single mechanic in many different ways. There’s the standard “shoot” mechanic that you expect, and then there’s some other way of using that mechanic which is more novel. So when I say that Majora focuses on novel gameplay, that’s what I mean. In Fallout this novelty does not exist in the same way, a gun is only ever used to kill enemies. This is true even though an explosive gun could just as easily be used to open doors, or a flamethrower could just as easily burn away trees or other barriers, even within the same thematic worldbuilding that Fallout uses. Instead of this, Fallout provides the player novelty by letting them wield different items which all interact with the world the same way. Fallout is saying that all paths are valid, and that it’s up to you to express yourself as you like.
What’s interesting, to me, is that personal expression and novel gameplay are not opposed concepts. There’s no reason you can’t include more novel gameplay in a game like Fallout, just as I mentioned in my explosive and flamethrower examples. I say all this, because I think there is value in bringing some of that kind of gameplay back into the Fallout quest structure, and indeed there are moments where Fallout 4 does actually touch on these concepts. The difference, however, is that Fallout’s novelty is all in its “Interact” button which is a contextual button whose purpose is different every time you use it. In the place of many items which give the player novel verbs to use, Fallout gives you a single button which interacts with many different things in bespoke ways, like spinning a dial which acts as a decoder ring, waiting for a password. Fallout still has all those novel verbs that Majora has, really, they’re just all assigned to a single button so you never have to question what to do. Ironically, this means that players are left without personal expression for their verbs. Shoot only ever shoots, and Interact does everything else. By simplifying all novel interactions down to a single button, the player is left with no way to express themselves in gameplay except to shoot someone with that one gun they enjoy the most. This is in contrast to Majora where every verb has multiple uses, and so different players will interact with the world in different ways. This setup allows Fallout to build more complex, verbose narratives around a single input which adapts to the story being told. Majora, by contrast, has to put more thought into how its story and verbs interact from the beginning of production, and then carry that through into the final game.
On the note of narrative, the storytelling in these two games is particularly interesting. Majora's dialogue is left bare and simple. Fallout frequently tries to convey character via long speeches. Majora relies much more on visual communication and clear, cartoony animation. Fallout even includes game mechanics inside their dialogue while Nintendo prefers to use ambient dialogue if the player is meant to interact while it happens. Nintendo centers doing, Bethesda centers telling. Majora’s characters act. They tell you who they are by how they stand, how they walk, or how they talk, instead of just the words used. Do, don't show.
The writing in Majora is less verbose, but the emotional impact is every bit as powerful, players hold Majora in high regard for its tone and theme even despite less reliance on verbal storytelling. Fallout is similarly well-regarded for its world building, but what’s interesting is that Fallout is primarily famous for environmental storytelling, which is also nonverbal in the same ways that I’m praising Majora for in this blog post. When google image searching for these two games to create the header image for this article, the image results for Majora were moody, emotional characters with clear expressions, while Fallout’s equivalent were mostly the blasted landscapes of its world featuring neutral characters in idle poses. We’ll come back to this shortly.
Continuing on, Fallout quests are usually long, complex narratives. There will be an underground railroad that you have to find, so you uncover clues hidden in the environment, eventually leading to a hidden door which you interact with only for it to open and for you to be questioned at gunpoint via involved dialogue options written to convey story tone and mood. This makes sense given the original Fallout games were 90s RPGs with a heavy emphasis on text. Majora does more segmented, simpler quest chains, and doesn't rely as much on verbal pressure. One puzzle hides the solution to the next puzzle which hides the solution for a third puzzle, each section distinct. No one tells you that you must do this before it's too late, characters simply need help and you offer it as soon as you can. Look at Koume being passed out in the forest and needing a health potion. You find this quest by finding a swamp you can't traverse, with a boat that needs a pilot. You find the pilot's sister who mentions where the pilot may have gone. As you enter the forest, monkeys guide you through a labyrinth, where you find Koume, the pilot, at the end. You give her a potion and you’re rewarded with a free boat ride to the location you just so happen to need to go next. All together the result reads as a similar level of complexity as any given quest in Fallout, but you get less of the cinematic timing. A quest in Fallout might read as more exciting because of its time pressure, while quests in Majora are more cerebral. This is notably ironic, because Majora is built entirely around time pressure as its central mechanic, but it does not employ the same with its quests, since that pressure is already built in. What I find interesting here is that Fallout quests have more complex scripts, more complex dialogue, etc, but if I compare a Fallout quest side by side with a series of Majora quests, I don’t think either one is distinctly better than the other at conveying a story. Majora’s use of nonverbal storytelling seems to be just as strong as Fallout’s verbal stories. Interestingly, in Majora it’s also hard to tell exactly where one quest ends and another begins. Majora quests are often not even called quests, because they flow so smoothly into and out of each other, and because there’s no end-of-quest verbal story delivery.
By extension of the previous point about verbal complexity, Fallout will often have you use an interact button to achieve victory by focusing on a narrative first. In other words, the story is that you have to reach the bomb before it explodes and destroys the town, but the gameplay is just "walk over here and press interact". Majora centers interesting gameplay first. You never complete a quest with a generic interact button, all quests require use of your other mechanics. For example, the aforementioned quest to save Koume in the lost woods is ostensibly “walk here and press interact”, but it’s mitigated by the puzzle element of needing to figure out what item from your inventory Koume needs in order to recover. Fallout would do the same quest by eliminating the puzzle in favor of its generic interact button. This works well enough in isolation, but if your entire game is shooting dudes with whatever gun you prefer, then doing the same thing in a quest means that your quest doesn’t really register as a beat on its own. Fallout 4 will often get around this with environmental storytelling, which honestly works wonderfully, but the interactions involved remain simplistic.
The centering of combat as the only way to interact with the world is actually having a tangible impact on the storytelling of Fallout in this example. The variety in quests and emotions that we see in Majora is a direct result of the number of verbs the player has available to use, which echoes through the types of stories being told. As I mentioned before, I don’t think that the storytelling in Majora is any stronger than the storytelling found in Fallout, I just think Majora is more emotional. Given that Majora uses far less dialogue, this seems rather odd, doesn’t it? Majora uses very little dialogue and yet manages to be famous for its amazing world building and storytelling. The question to ask ourselves now is: How?
The obvious, immediate answer is the graphical style. Fallout is more realistic and so they simply can’t do cartoony characters the way that Majora does. My earlier comment about Fallout image search results being more neutral is a direct result of this, but there’s more to it than just that. Yes, realism prevents you from being as cartoony, but what’s valuable about Majora’s focus on visual storytelling isn’t that it’s cartoony. The value in Majora comes from clear communication. I think it would be absurd to say that Fallout can’t do visual story as well as Majora can because of its cartoony style. Fallout is primarily known for its environmental storytelling, something which is entirely visual. So my comments must be aimed elsewhere, and it strikes me that the real difference here is actually just in the presentation of characters. Characters in Majora read immediately. You know this character is creepy or boisterous or whatever else they may be from the moment you see them. Their posture, their clothes, and where they’re standing all tell you who they are and what they’re doing in the world. By contrast, what’s missing in Fallout is just that every character walks around aimlessly in a neutral pose. They might tell you an interesting story about their life verbally, but visually they’re all neutral.
Now, the reason for this is clear: Fallout is much larger than Majora. There are many more characters in Fallout than in Majora and so the scale stops the team from being able to use visual communication as much. That said, it’s obviously not impossible to bring more of this type of element into a game like Fallout. You can have generic, emotional poses that you choose from to convey particular personalities, and they can be shared across various characters. This won’t be as impactful as Majora, but it will at least be more than neutral. There are also other solutions to this as well, of course, I’m only offering a place to start. I assume anyone reading this more than capable of identifying your own solutions for your game.
Continuing from there, we’ve identified that characters are less impactful due to scale, but we can also extend the same to the quests. Quest design in Majora is more emotional due to each quest being bespoke. Majora is a much smaller game, so it’s easier to place quests with more intention. It’s also much easier to have a variety of different mechanics in Majora because the scale of the world means that you can place novel uses of those mechanics in particular locations, which makes actually creating that world possible. Doing the same thing in Fallout would be much more difficult. However, I don’t think it would be impossible, we’d just have to identify the specific elements of a quest or a mechanic in Majora and find a way to scale that interaction. Indeed, Fallout’s main story quests already have some examples of these more novel interactions, clearly proving the premise that it can be done, it’s only stopped by scale.
As one example, in Majora we have the classic Zelda eye-arrow puzzle. The puzzle is a lock and key puzzle where there’s an eye located on a wall in a difficult place, and the player must shoot this eye with an arrow. This is a simple lock and key, and while in Zelda it’s placed by hand in very bespoke puzzle environments, Fallout also has locked doors. In Fallout the design of locked doors is a mini-game where you pick the lock by turning tumblers, but this really isn’t functionally any different, except that Zelda requires a novel interaction with what is otherwise a combat mechanic.
Let’s take that idea and look at it in a place that doesn’t map as directly. The Koume quest I mentioned earlier involves bringing a potion to a fallen character to revive them. Majora includes many different items, and so they give the player a mechanic to trade specific items to specific NPCs. Fallout 4 also includes many items, and indeed some of its quests are built around bringing NPCs a specific one. The difference, however, is that the item you bring an NPC in Fallout is always a quest item which sits at a particular place in your inventory and is meaningless to the player because it serves them no other purpose. It’s just a key that sits on a key ring until the time comes to open the one and only door that requires it. Majora tries to give each of its items multiple use cases. The quest item you need might be an arrow to shoot into an eye, but the arrow is also useful for killing enemies. In Fallout you never use a lockpick for anything other than opening a lock. This specific item isn’t the best example because what else would one use a lockpick for, but you can imagine using your bullets for their gunpowder to blast open a lock, or opening an electronic door by plugging your laser rifle ammo in as a battery. This kind of tradeoff is a common game mechanic, so we know it works. It’s also fairly scalable because it’s just another kind of lock and key, something the game uses already. You could also extend it beyond more literal lock and key design, by having NPCs in the world need the same resources that you need. Sure, you can grow plants at your settlement, or you can give those plant seeds to the town in need, which flourishes and eventually grows enough to farm their own fields. Imagine if all the crafting materials in the game were equally desired by the people who lived around you. Suddenly all the items you’ve been harvesting for your own use can be traded and used in multiple ways. Which choice will you make? Will you roleplay a philanthropist or a greedy despot? This kind of thematic choice fits perfectly in the Fallout world already established.
This kind of redesign of quest structure also scales quite well. NPCs don’t need involved dialogue, they just need a sad animation and an item they can’t get themselves. You can fill a world with characters of many different emotional states who need things the player can bring them. Some of this already exists in Fallout 4, even, it’s just not the focus. The reason it’s not the focus is that in order for any of this to work well, it needs consequences. Majora’s world grows and changes over time, and then resets after 3 days. Fallout’s world is relatively static. In the example I just gave of bringing seeds to a settlement which grows a farm and prospers, that settlement needs to change over time. It needs to grow. That means you have to make game states showing the settlement at different stages, you need AI which reacts to those different stages, animations for the characters there, etc. This isn’t an impractical amount of work, of course, but it would be impractical to just slap it on top of Fallout 4 as it already exists.
There’s a focus on telling these kinds of stories in dialogue. The cutscene tells you that these interesting events happened, and the game designers fill the entire world with those cutscenes as smoke and mirrors to obscure what’s hidden beneath: A static world. It’s completely practical to design a game which tells its story through unfolding changes in world and character, to tell your story in a way that is more focused on visual communication rather than verbal communication. This is “show, don’t tell” in action. It’s also possible to keep going, and to design a game which tells its story through the game mechanics you engage with, a game where you don’t just see a cutscene about how you’ve saved the village, you actually watch the village recover. This is “do, don’t show” in action.
Ok, so that was a lot of information. Let’s recap.
Fallout quests start from an NPC via dialogue, where Majora quests start with items or just a visual story moment like someone lying on the ground.
Fallout centers combat for its quests, where Majora enemies are just obstacles.
Majora uses novel verbs, while Fallout centers expression within one verb.
Majora’s dialogue is simple, while Fallout uses words to describe more complex events than it can possibly show, which lets the world feel larger and more grand than it is.
Fallout quests are long, verbose stories, while Majora’s quests are in tiny chunks.
Majora communicates character with rich visuals, Fallout uses words to fill gaps.
That basically covers the quest structures between these two games, but now I want to take that knowledge and apply it a little by trying to imagine how to use Fallout 4’s procedural quest engine to build out a Majora quest. Hold onto your butts folks, we’re going in!
Ok, so one of the major benefits of Fallout 4’s quest design structure is that it’s highly scalable. Because words describe things you don’t have to see, you can put quests pretty much anywhere. You also benefit from the focus on combat because it’s easy to spawn in enemies as a way of making the quest more interesting, and calling it a day. However, I think we get some advantages back from Majora’s more novel verbs which will let us pull this sorcery off.
To make a procedural Majora quest, you need a few things. The first is a visual scenario such as a person lying on the ground or a baby crying in their bedroom. You’ll have to rank these by how distinct they are, because while it’s believable that many people might be lying on the ground, at a certain point it becomes obvious that this is just another meaningless quest. And god knows you can probably only get away with like three crying baby gorons. If that. So anyway, the first thing you need is a set of visual scenarios that you can spawn into the world onto a socket. You have someone sitting by a campfire playing banjo, or someone lying in the street, or etc. Anything to draw the player’s eye or ear.
Next, you need a need. This character wants something that’s relevant to their mood. Campfire banjo guy might ask for bandages, but clearly they wouldn’t be for him, while the person lying in the street might need those bandages themself. A much more scalable approach to quest giving might just be items. We can include mysterious letters and engraved jewelry and all sorts of different things which exist in the world in a way that’s somewhat novel and interesting, but while also being scalable (Just look at Elden Ring for an example). Because Majora is already built around the idea of delivering items from one character to another, we already have a strong mechanic for actually accomplishing the goal of this kind of quest, so it’s probably a perfect delivery vehicle for our scalable needs.
While you’re on the quest, you might need your novel verbs. A quest could spawn with a tag saying “This quest requires the bomb” and if it has that tag, the generation will know to spawn a boulder or a cracked wall or whatever in between the quest giver and the item they need. If the world is not being rebuilt for each quest, then the generation would instead look for premade locations where bomb walls or large rocks already exist. This same formula could be true of any novel interaction because you know what interaction verbs are available, and because they’re all relatively simple. The generation algorithm would have to check the path between the NPC who needs the item and the item itself, and ensure the path is traversable with nothing other than the tagged interactions. It’s also fine if a quest requires more than one mechanic, as long as we know not to spawn this quest without a way to gain all the prerequisites. It’s also important here that procedural Majora quests overlap each other a little bit such that while you’re solving one quest, you’re seeing others. So there should be some consideration for passing through hub regions.
Rewards in Majora are pretty consistently just items like heart pieces or rupees, of course, but this does bring up the major issue with making this design choice. Majora’s quests are low in number and so each one feels important and intentional. If you’re scaling up the number of quests to build a larger world, you must also find additional novelty within the quests themselves. The reward can only really be rupees, heart pieces, or ammo for your bow or bombs or whatever. Those rewards are, on their own, fairly meaningless. If you’re gunna procgen Majora quests, those quests need to serve a purpose. Koroks in Breath of the Wild show us a good way to bring novelty into abundant quests by rewarding them with a more overall meta progression, so there are ways to do this. Another idea might be to give a cheap reward, but use quests as a worldbuilding tool such that the player gains a simple item, yes, but also some valuable knowledge of how the story works.
So let’s recap that procgen quest formula.
Start the quest with a procedural item or character spawned into a socket
Whatever the spawned character/item needs should then be spawned elsewhere
Obstacles which use novel verbs should be placed in between quest start and end
Quest rewards should increase overall power or knowledge of the world
I think it’s fairly obvious that Majora does not need procedural quests, and Fallout 4 wouldn’t be any better just because we slap some Majora NPCs into it. With that said, however, I think it’s also obvious that the Fallout 4 method of generating very generic quests in a very generic way is functional but not all that exciting. To some extent this is built in to the idea of creating quests en masse, and I think that less is definitely more, but still I find great value in being able to generate quests procedurally for some type of games. These two very different approaches show us benefits and drawbacks to various aspects of quest design. At the end of the day, your game has to dictate what your quests involve, but I think there’s a lot to be learned by comparing these two vastly different styles.
Fallout 4 and Majora’s Mask are both excellent games. I love both of them. Examining them in this way helps me to come to terms with each one’s strengths so that I can apply these ideas in my own game projects.
Hopefully you found this comparison equally valuable. Feel free to leave comments if you did! I’d love to hear feedback.
Thanks for reading!