Great Game Spaces: Majora’s Mask’s Clock Town

 

Majora’s Mask is the forgotten step-child of the Zelda series. Smaller, shorter than Ocarina of Time, with a depressing story about a suicidal moon and a deranged child kidnapping horses and fairies, it nevertheless received good reviews at the time. Since then, though, I’d argue that the game has become an also-ran, a second best behind the blazing sun of Ocarina of Time, and if it’s odd and diverse you want, you’re generally a fan of Wind Waker instead.

But Majora’s Mask is well worth your time. In fact, I’d suggest it is among the best Zelda games ever made – if not the best. This is in no small part due to the terrific use of space in the game. Though the world is smaller than Ocarina of Time, I would argue that in many ways, it is more successful.

The central hub of the game, Clock Town, is a beautifully constructed piece of clockwork. It’s an elaboration on a cuckoo clock, a wind-up toy, an automaton. Each character in the game operates according to their own rules and functions, giving life to the city beyond Ocarina‘s characters, who were cemented to the spot to serve the player. Some characters follow specific arcs that you can engage, or not engage with throughout the three days. Some only take brief instants, like being in the right place at the right time to foil the robbery of the Old Lady who runs the Bomb Shop. Others take almost all three days, like the heartbreaking story of Kafei and Anju, who only wish to get married and await the destruction of Termina together. Even the postman follows a distinct story and path.

If you spend enough time in the wonderful world of Majora’s Mask, you begin to instinctively know exactly where each character is at any given moment, and what they are doing. Each character becomes more than the humorous blank slates found in other Zelda games. They are individuals who have plans and emotions. And they have a schedule to follow.

In many ways, I feel like the town is Nintendo’s illustration of Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe theory, of a world wound up by a God and left to run smoothly on its own predetermined route for ever. It is only the intervention of the player that causes this Groundhog Day to ebb and flow. The whole of Clock Town feels on rails of sorts, like one of those old clocks that on the hour would give the viewer an excellent display of rotating gentlemen pursuing rotating ladies.

It’s no surprise then, that the major thematic preoccupation of Majora’s Mask is time, like Ocarina. Except in Majora, time is built into the game space in a different way. In Ocarina, we saw the effects of time as two snapshots: of the ravages that time can cause over seven years through two bookends. In Majora’s Mask, instead we see time as a force that flows through the game space, having impact in real time. It moves characters, it furthers plots (whether the player has anything to do with them or not), and it inflicts death upon all characters and the world if allowed too much freedom. And all this is conveyed through Majora’s space. The player can slow time, and even reset the three days, but can never escape its power. Time and space are always interlinked concepts, but never have they been made more so than in Majora’s Mask.

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8 Comments

Filed under Great game spaces, videogames

8 responses to “Great Game Spaces: Majora’s Mask’s Clock Town

  1. I’ll confess that for me, Majora’s Mask represents the kind of gameplay concept that I like in theory much more than in practice. I really think that the idea here is phenomenal (in many senses of the term) but playing it actually drove me crazy. Losing hours of gameplay because I failed to complete tasks in an allotted time led me to never finish the game–because I eventually got tired of having to go back in to try and do things right.

  2. catfishmaw

    Majora’s Mask is a giant, virtual Big, Big Loader.

    I think that the use of the time mechanic was also an important part in making the player think through the game. At the beginning of every three days, they had to plan what they wanted to achieve and work out how to do it all.

    @ Christopher hyde: the problem is motivation. Personally, I found the threat of running out of time a challenge.

  3. @catfishmaw motivation is partially the problem, I guess. But on a personal level, I find nearly every game with a time limit somewhat frustrating. Maybe this is simply because I’m probably the single worst videogame player in the history of videogames and things that other people breeze through under time limits can cause me no end of problems. So I have trouble with games that make me spend long periods of time to fail and then expect me to do it again. I suppose I’m just not motivated enough to take the time to engage this kind of mechanic in games given my skill level. I’d much rather while away the hours in the Hyrule of Ocarina of Time, exploring spaces at my own leisurely pace.

    But that’s just me.

  4. I too loved Majora’s mask, but again, I never managed to finish it. Either the time aspect became a micro-management issue or I couldn’t solve one of the puzzles in the final temple I can’t remember. Probably bit of both.

    The clockwork universe analogy is spot on – but I wonder if it wasn’t mostly to do with the limitations of scripting and the Nintendo 64.

    If it were more influenced by chaos theory (introducing more randomness or procedurality to events) I wonder what kind of a game we would get. Probably Far Cry 2 with faeries or something. =P

  5. I loved this game; as soon as it shows up on the Virtual Console, I’ll be lobbying for it as a VGC game. The marriage side thread in particular was wonderful.

  6. @Catfishmaw and Christopher Hyde – Now, that’s a fascinating point. I actually have a post planned on time limits in games, and I hadn’t considered Majora’s Mask in the same light. Preview – I hate, *hate* time limits in any sort of game, so I don’t know how Majora managed to get away with it. I’ll have to consider this one…

    @ Ben – I do think you’re right that it was probably a result of the limitations of the 64. I remember reading an interview where the dev team said as much; that the three-day cycle allowed them to have deep gameplay while compressing that actual amount of data on the cart.

    @ David – I haven’t yet joined the VGC, but I’ve been hanging out for a VC release. If it gets one, I’ll be the first to try and evangelize everyone into playing it!

  7. catfishmaw

    I hate them too, though I had felt that in Majora, they were less obviously restrictive and more of an interesting game mechanic. I mean, they never really significantly hindered progress, did they? The three-day cycle is about three hours of play time.

  8. This was actually my favorite Zelda game. The world had great amounts of depth. the puzzles were complex and creative, the bosses challenging. Although most people regard this as shorter it takes a lot more play time to get through the entirety of Majora’s Mask then Orcarina of Time. Orcarina can be beaten in about 8 hours without rushing much. Majora’s mask however required a lot more play time to get through especially if one wanted to perform any of the numerous side quests in the game.

    I never really found the three days to be limiting in the slightest. As long as you slowed down time, you had more than enough time to complete each section, along with side quests. The only aggravating thing for me was losing your supplies and having to restock every time you went back in time. Plus eventually you could solve the problems in all four areas and then go beat the final boss within three days too. It was like you were constantly working to have the perfect three days.

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