They are often non-linear, allowing players to explore a diverse game world. But they are also single-player games in which the story usually unfolds the same way for each player, no matter what paths he or she takes along the way.
The Story of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64, departs from this tradition. It takes the theme of time travel (from its predecessor The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), but weaves it into its storyline with much more complex implications.
The story begins as Link (the young hero and player avatar) is traveling home. He encounters the Skull Kid, a lonely but dangerous imp wearing a mysterious mask—the titular Majora’s Mask. The Skull Kid steals Link’s ocarina, leading him into the land of Termina. When Link confronts the Skull Kid atop the tower in Termina’s Clock Town, the Skull Kid releases the power of Majora’s Mask, causing the moon to crash into the world.
Yet this is not “game over." Link is able to recover his ocarina, and through its magic, he is thrown back in time three days before the end of the world. Link’s goal, and the point of the gameplay, is to travel through Termina and free four spirits, trapped in accursed dungeons, whose combined power is all that can avert the coming disaster. To reach these dungeons Link must also complete numerous side quests and other tasks, often at very specific times.
The Unique Narrative Properties of Majora's Mask
All this is naturally far too much to accomplish in three days. Thus the real twist—giving Majora’s Mask its unique quality from a narrative perspective—is that Link can travel back in time to dawn on the first day whenever he wishes, repeating the cycle as often as needed. Link’s progress is only saved when he uses the ocarina to go back to the beginning of the cycle, and even then only important items are carried over from before.
Many tasks and portions of the story must be played out within the time allotted for each cycle—for every minute of real time, an hour of game time progresses. Thus, Majora's Mask constrains in-game time and play time alike, while revealing the story in fragmented and overlapping episodes.
Fans have reacted to these unique constraints in interesting ways in the years since Majora's Mask was released. Some have seen the game's structure as a challenge beyond merely playing the game to its end, completing speed runs in which (after much practice) they defeat the Skull Kid within one three-day cycle of in-game time. Others abandon the narrative completely to explore the land of Termina, and let the game world end just that so they can observe how other characters will react.
It is also thanks to software emulation that interest in Majora's Mask continues. The title was re-released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003, and is now also available on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console. Ironically, the increased accessibility of older games since the 1990s means that now Zelda fans can travel back in time with Majora's Mask in a real-world way as well.
Both the narrative intricacies and longevity of Majora’s Mask makes it stand out in its genre, and continue to have influence. Indeed, the adventure video game medium may be the only one that could allow the kind of complex and cyclical narrative found in Majora’s Mask.