Storytelling in Majora's Mask
Majora’s Mask is perhaps the most fascinating Zelda title in a series of excellent games. That’s not to say it’s better than the others, but rather that it has unique qualities none of the others have explored. In my last blog post I compared Majora’s quest design structure and the quest structure in Fallout 4, but after writing that blog post I realized there was still more here worth examining.
Today I’m going to dive in deep on the specifics of how Majora builds its narrative. We’re going to look at how it uses cinematics, environments, and quests to convey the story of the game’s four regions, and how we can learn from their pacing structure and adapt it to our own games.
To start I’m going to go region by region and break them all down into their component pieces. I’m going to list out the main quest line for each of the regions, and only after I’ve broken down all 4 regions will I then discuss what we can take away from knowing this structure.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The swamp’s waters have been poisoned by a corruptive influence over the region, and access is limited due to the need for special precautions while traveling. Link arrives and finds that he can’t reach the temple he’s here to cleanse, because the swamp tour boat has stopped running. There is no other way to access the temple as long as the waters are poisoned, and so he immediately understands his first task. He finds the pilot of the swamp tour boat passed out in the woods and helps her recover. This earns him the trust of a group of monkeys living nearby, and they introduce him to a secret passage to the temple, where Link must go to save their missing brother.
To bullet point that narrative we have:
The Swamp tour is closed, please visit the Potion Shop for details
My sister Koume is missing, check the woods out back
The monkeys help guide you through the forest
Koume has been attacked by skull kid, and needs a healing potion
Koume is healed, now the monkeys need you to help their brother at the castle
Swamp tour leads to the castle
Castle is open for public execution of the missing monkey you’re supposed to help
Monkey swears he was trying to help the princess, begs for aid
The other monkeys know a secret entrance to the temple
Go to Temple
Princess is found at the Temple.
Princess yells at King, and monkey is free.
The mountain is trapped in an unnaturally long winter, and the Gorons are worried they might freeze to death. Several Gorons have traveled to find a solution to this problem, and they have all died or become trapped in some way, unable to reach the temple. When Link arrives he is greeted by the spirit of Darmani, the great warrior, who gives Link the power to inhabit his body as a way to complete the goal which ended his life. Link then enters the temple and brings spring to the mountain at last.
The Elder Goron left, and his son won’t stop crying
The spirit of Darmani wants you to follow him
Darmani died trying to save his people from this evil winter
The Goron Elder disappeared while trying to end this winter
The Goron Elder can’t remember the full lullaby
The Son Remembers the song and teaches it to you, and you put him to sleep
Use the song to put the giant goron to sleep, and access the temple
Go to Temple
The waters of great bay have become murky and dangerous to swim through due to the changing temperatures caused by unnatural weather patterns. The guardian of the Zora Temple, Lulu, recently laid eggs, which were then stolen by pirates seeking the treasure rumored to be within the Zora Temple. Link meets Lulu’s bandmate Mikau, who dies just after telling Link the story of what’s happened here and begs for his help recovering the lost eggs. Link raids the pirate stronghold, and the ocean cave nearby, and returns Lulu’s eggs, and her voice along with them. This awakens the spirit of the temple, who brings Link to the temple to cleanse the evil there.
A zora is floating in the water with birds circling overhead.
“Get me to shore!” he begs you
Mikau sings that Lulu’s eggs were stolen, and that she lost her voice along with them
The Zora band were supposed to be playing at Clock Town’s festival
Ocean temps have risen due to strange weather, and Zora eggs can’t hatch
The pirates have stolen 4 of the eggs, but 3 are with giant sea snakes in a cave
Skull Kid told them they could reach treasure in the temple with the zora eggs
You play the song for Lulu and a great turtle awakens and brings you to the temple
Go to Temple
The dead have overrun Ikana Canyon, and no life can thrive here. Link meets an angry guardian spirit who tells him of a curse binding the souls of the dead to this place. The spirit asks Link to the visit the King and break the curse. Link finds his way inside and defeats the king in combat, releasing his mind from the curse enough to remember the joy he and his kingdom has lost. The king begs Link to set them all free by sealing the temple at last.
The dead have taken over the canyon, forcing out most of the living
Play Song of Storms for Sharp, and the water flows, turning on the music box house
Sharp asks: Go to the temple. Break the curse. Speak to the king.
Inside the music house, a girl’s father has been taken over by a Gibdo spirit
Set the girl’s dad free, and get the Gidbo mask, which allows entrance into the Well
Use the Well to break into the Castle
Fight the king
Defeat him and he begs you to break the curse by sealing the Stone Tower Temple
Go to Temple
So that’s the full game of Majora’s Mask, minus all the stuff in clock town, and the intro/outro sections of the game before you meet the mask salesman or after you summon the 4 giants. Now that we can see each of these stories broken down, what have we learned?
For starters; Majora seems to take a strong stance on exactly when and how to put a narrative moment into the world. At the beginning of each region we see a brief camera sweep over the area to give the player a familiarity with what can be found here. After that camera sweep, we’re immediately set free to explore in normal gameplay. Not only that but the camera sweep doesn’t always happen the moment you enter a space, but often you’ll only see it once you reach the narratively-important part of the area. Regardless of camera timing, each region’s story is visually obvious the moment you enter. Notice how the first bullet point in each story is something that is static about the world of that region. The swamp is poisoned, and its passages are blocked by octorok. The mountain is frozen and the Gorons are missing. The Bay is overrun by pirates and its waters are untraversably murky. Ikana is inaccessible and inhospitable to any but those attuned to the dead. By making each region’s story visibly clear, you free yourself of the need of text or video. You can rely on your gameplay to tell your story instead.
Majora’s Mask only uses cutscenes at key points, and all other story is presented during normal gameplay as much as possible. They choose not to have “cinematic” moments for the sake of allowing the player to experience the entire depth of the story themself. The popular justification for Cinematic games is that it helps to make the player feel more like a hero, or to heighten the narrative. However, I don’t think anyone who has reunited Kafei and Anju could possibly say that the moment was anything less than heightened. And this moment is particularly important to my point here because this moment itself actually IS a cutscene. There is a brief cinematic cutscene included right at the end, but that cutscene is only a minute and a half long, and, most importantly, its intensity is below that of the moments leading up to it. It’s a release of tension, not a building of it.
The finale of Kafei’s quest line in Majora actually takes place 1 minute before the end of the world. The gameplay leading up to that cutscene is where the tension builds to its highest point. That tension increases through the gameplay the player experiences directly, and it culminates as the countdown timer begins to flash red, and then shortly after that Kafei finally arrives just as the player’s anxiety is causing their heart to explode in terror, mimicking the uncertainty felt by Anju in a way no cutscene could possibly replicate. You can’t TELL someone to feel the weight of the world’s ending as the last few minutes tick down. You can show them the timer and use cinematic framing to highlight the intensity of that feeling, but it won’t make them feel that dread and uncertainty in the way you feel when that timer starts flashing. In Majora you directly experience that ticking clock yourself. I know people who have refused to continue playing Majora’s Mask because that sense of impending doom is so oppressive. This narrative delivery method is so powerful people actually reject it!
By extension of that point, I have trouble playing Horror games at all because of the intense emotion that comes with experiencing fear directly. I tend to find Horror movies boring, but Horror games are so intense that I avoid them. Majora capitalizes on this knowledge excellently, using gameplay to build tension, and cutscenes to release it. Think back to that moment in Ikana Canyon where you meet Sharp. You get a cutscene that introduces you to Sharp as he fades into existence, he delivers his story, and then the game releases you into gameplay where your life is literally being drained out of you every moment, spiking the emotional intensity as your health bar slowly goes down. You have to realize, in a moment of panic, what must be done here, and then we get another cutscene to release all of that built-up tension. This exact same formula is then repeated when we reach the King of Ikana and he introduces himself, fights us, and then his spirit begs for us to release the curse. The introduction shows us the stakes, the gameplay builds up the tension, and then the resolution releases that tension and resolves whatever was given to us in the introduction. Throughout this game we see cutscenes at these moments of introduction and resolution, but tension is always built during active gameplay.
I did a breakdown, some years ago, where I mapped the intensity in PS4’s Spiderman, comparing the cutscenes and the gameplay in the first sequence of that game.
That chart looked like this:
The narrative intensity ramps consistently upwards, but the gameplay intensity is all over the place. Notably, the final spike of intensity as you battle Fisk while falling all happens while the player isn’t actively in control. The intensity is spiking here, but the player isn’t allowed to feel it themself. This is in stark contrast to Majora’s philosophy that seems to enforce intensity spikes only while the player is in control. If the game can’t tell the story through gameplay, then the game chooses not to tell that story.
If you look at the Zelda series at large, this I think is the secret sauce. Before Breath of the Wild reworked the Zelda formula, players often complained about the stories present in the more recent titles, even as those stories got more and more elaborate and interesting. Skyward Sword, on paper, sounds far more interesting than Ocarina of Time, and yet Skyward Sword is largely hailed as among the least popular in the series and Ocarina the best. I believe it’s partly because of this use of gameplay tension. Modern games tend to rely on story moments which convey intense action scenes and big narrative beats, and then let the player play for a while until they unlock a new one. Often this is criticized as a separation between narrative and gameplay, you watch a movie and then you play a game and then you watch another movie and then you play more game. One and then the other, the two never mixing together. Majora’s formula, however, blends gameplay and story seamlessly. The story almost never begins in a cutscene, and it certainly never reaches its climax in one. Instead, the story begins while we’re wandering the world, it begins with environmental narrative. Then we reach a point where maybe we hit a cutscene to lay down some specific stakes. After that we’re back into gameplay to build tension, and then we finally arrive at our final cutscene where that tension is released.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may recognize a concepts here: Regional narrative and the particular flavor of that regional narrative found in Elden Ring. The region around a dungeon, in this case the Swamp, Mountain, Bay, or Canyon, each has a major narrative theme that is visible in the same was as we saw in Elden Ring. Also similarly, each region has a main character. In Elden Ring that character was a leader who the region teaches us about, but in Majora the character is more arbitrary. Majora’s characters are less important to the world overall, but more important to us as players, because they are much more directly involved in our gameplay. Still, it’s the same structural use of environmental narrative based on physical location. That environmental narrative, in both cases, reinforces the dungeon you ultimately unlock and explore, but first we must meet the important character present in that region. The region teaches us about that character and their needs, meaning we can spend less time Showing and more time Doing.
Once we establish the quest of the region and we know the characters involved, we are released into gameplay to actually solve the temple dungeon itself. At the end of the temple we are given one last cutscene as a release of tension while we greet the great spirit who was trapped there. This resolves our motivation to explore the dungeon, and the game chooses to acknowledge that and not force us to revisit our quest giver. That said, there’s always something more available for us, if we choose to see what has happened as a result of our actions, but that part is always a choice. It’s also never a cutscene, because cutscenes are only used to establish stakes or release built up tension. After you’ve finished a questline, additional story beats must happen in gameplay or else ruin the pacing and structure of the story delivery here.
To repeat that structure one more time we have:
Establish stakes through environmental narrative
Cutscene to introduce our main character, who is affect by the environment
Explore solutions to their problem with interesting gameplay
Increase gameplay intensity as we approach the final solution
Cutscene to release built up tension, and resolve the story
Release back into gameplay with new skills which allow progression to next area
This structure is responsible for the game’s remarkably simplistic quest design. The game gives the player extremely simple tasks to complete, and the structure here gives those simple quests all the narrative weight they can bear.
To extend this line of thinking, let’s do a second bullet list examination of the 4 temples. Let’s now look at the verbs used to complete each quest:
Go To Potion Shop
Go To Woods
Take The Swamp Tour
Talk To The Captured Monkey
Go To The Temple
Jump Over The Invisible Platforms
Play The Song of Healing
Find The Elder
Play The Lullaby
Go To The Temple
Push The Zora To Shore
Play The Song of Healing
Find The Eggs
Sneak Into The Pirate Base
Swim Past The Giant Eels
Bring The Eggs To The Laboratory
Play The Bossa Nova
Go To The Temple
Go To The Fountain
Play The Song Of Storms
Heal The Father’s Curse
Enter The Castle
Fight The King
Go To The Temple
Notice how many of these verbs are just “Go To A Location”. Of course the gameplay of reaching a location is full of all sorts of puzzles, there’s an entire underground well between “Heal The Father’s Curse” and “Enter The Castle” in Ikana, so I’m definitely glossing over a significant part of the gameplay. However, that’s kind of the point I’m making here. The gameplay is simple but highly interesting. It’s not clear what will heal the father’s curse, players have to figure that out themselves while a mummy man slowly tries to eat them alive.
The gameplay of these moments isn’t that different from a point and click adventure game. After all, what you’re doing here is just finding an item which unlocks an interaction with a particular character, who then allows you to move into the next area. What makes these moments interesting is that the emotional stakes are built into the gameplay. The interaction is “Play The Song of Healing” but the player has to choose that verb from among dozens of other possible verbs. Not knowing which verb to choose, and the narrative of showing a cursed man wrapped in mummy cloth slowly approach you with malicious intent, helps to build the tension while the player is actively in control.
You don’t get this moment without setting up the story first. You have to see the house surrounded by mummies, with its door locked. You have to free the house from the mummies while simultaneously learning that the dead are trapped here, their spirits twisting the place into an evil shadow of itself, corrupting any who dare to enter. You have to coax the girl to leave her father behind to patrol the outside. Then, after you’ve learned about the curse, and forced a little girl to leave her father in hopes of protecting him, THEN you can heal him. It’s not until that moment that you understand the emotional weight of what you’re doing. The fact that these are actions you must do yourself lends them the weight they need to feel important. By doing these things yourself, you have endangered this girl’s dad. That’s essential for this cutscene to release the tension of all that as you finally play the Song of Healing and see him return to himself at last. This could have been done in a cutscene, but then the player wouldn’t be directly responsible, and so the stakes wouldn’t be as high, and I frankly doubt the scene would work at all. I wouldn’t imagine most players will even notice this difference, if asked, but try asking people to compare their emotional attachment to random NPCs in a game like Fallout vs their emotional attachment to NPCs here in Majora.
This is, I believe, the secret storytelling technique of Majora’s Mask. I admit this isn’t my favorite of the Zelda games, but it’s pretty clear why so many people regard it so highly. The storytelling here is second to none. Twenty years later and I can’t think of any other games that use this storytelling formula. Even Elden Ring, that I compared directly earlier, doesn’t build its characters up in the same way, and they are mostly less memorable as a result. We still see some of the influence of this formula on modern Zeldas, but I’m unsure if the formula was ever codified, because they do seem to have lost some of the important details along the way.
At the end of the day, this is but one among many approaches, so feel free to take from this the parts that you find useful and leave the rest. Personally, it’s my hope that examining this game in this way will help me to weave story into the gameplay of everything I work on going forward. With any luck, it may have also been useful for you to read.
Thanks for taking the time, and feel free to leave your thoughts below!