Kids are assholes. I committed so many terrible acts as a kid. When I was six, I stole a bunch of random objects from around the house and hid them in my closet. When I was eight, my friends and I bullied the same two classmates every recess. When I was ten, I wrote a fake note from my friend’s crush in order to humiliate him.
Why did I do those cruel things? Because I could. Because it made me feel powerful. Because I had no empathy for other people.
Eventually, I grew up from an immoral child into a somewhat decent adult. I credit a lot of my moral development to The Legend of Zelda series, in particular Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Taken together, they showcase the development of ethics in a young boy.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarino of Time is a fairly standard fantasy story where Link has to save Hyrule and Princess Zelda from the evil Ganondorf. The game’s unique trope is that halfway through the game Ganondorf takes over Hyrule. Link is basically put into a seven year coma and is able to jump back and forth between his childhood and teenage years using the Master Sword.
One key aspect to note is Ganondorf’s motives are never explained in OoT. He merely wants to gain power and conquer Hyrule. Later games in the series, in particular The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, take a more nuanced approach to Ganondorf’s character. Near the end of Wind Waker, Ganondorf declares his motivations to the player:
My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing…Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose. It can only be called fate…
Suffering and jealousy drove Ganondorf’s character development. Wind Waker is a game about the acceptance or rejection of our fates, and Ganondorf demonstrates what being beholden to your fate can look like. He never chose to be evil; the world made him so. But none of that is brought up in Ocarina of Time. In OoT, Ganondorf is a banal representation of pure evil lacking any motivation. The King of the Gerudo does bad things solely because that is what the plot calls for.
Similarly, Link in Ocarina of Time is the definitive representation of good. From the opening scene, the Deku Tree declares Link as “the chosen one” when he describes Link as “the youth whose destiny it is to lead Hyrule to the path of justice and truth.” You then spend the rest of the game saving the inhabitants of Hyrule. The only bad actions Link can perform are breaking villager’s pots and attacking Cuccos, but the game never takes note of this in the narrative.
Despite the seven year jump in time, Young Link and Adult Link are effectively the same character. In terms of dialogue, Link remains silent throughout. Even from a gameplay perspective, the two versions of Link are extremely similar. While each Link does a different amount of damage and can use only some items, the two play fundamentally the same. Regardless of whether the Kokiri Sword or Master Sword are equipped, the player still presses B to attack. Most importantly though from a narrative standpoint, the jump in time is instantaneous. When Link travels through time his, body undergoes a physical change, but his mind does not. Throughout the entire game, the reason for Link’s heroics is simply that it is what you are supposed to do.
But the narrative is aware that Link undergoes little character development. On many adventures, the hero is often rewarded with a damsel. Nintendo themselves use this trope repetitively in both Mario and other Zelda games, but Ocarina of Time rejects this device because doing so would effectively be statutory rape in this game. After the final battle against Ganon, Zelda and Link talk; this would be the scene in another story where the two kiss and live happily ever after. But Zelda is an adult and Link is mentally still a child. Due to their mental age difference, Zelda making a move on Link would be weird and creepy like those middle school teachers who sleep with their students. So instead the princess returns Link back to his younger self and correct timeline with these words:
Now, go home, Link. Regain your lost time! Home… where you are supposed to be… the way you are supposed to be…
Due to Link’s nature as a silent protagonist and childlike character (and his rejection from a girl), I related to the Hero of Time. My childhood was spent watching Star Wars movies and reading the Redwall books; my heart firmly believed I would grow up and head off on a quest to fight evil. However, I did not want to be a hero out of some pursuit of good but rather because the the hero was the protagonist and got all the attention. I was drawn to the characters of Luke Skywalker and Martin the Warrior because the audience spends the most time with those protagonists. When I was a kid, acting good had nothing to do with the concept of being the good guy.
Next comes Majora’s Mask, and this is the game that educated both Link and myself on what good and evil actually are. The story begins with a more personal connection. At first, Link is not trying to save the realm; he is trying to find his lost friend, Navi. The Hero of Time ends up in Termina, not for some noble goal, but because he was lonely. From the beginning, Majora’s Mask was a more relatable game even if I did not realize it at the time.
The characters of MM are more fleshed out than their OoT predecessors, and their motivations are varied and deep. The Deku King lashes out because his daughter is missing. Darmani is a dead hero filled with regret. Mikau tries to save Lulu’s eggs but fails and dies filled with regret. These characters and Link’s relationship to them are much more fleshed out than in OoT. Beating the dungeons has an immediate impact on these characters lives. These connections drive the player through the main quest in a more powerful way than in OoT.
But it is in the side quests where Majora’s Mask truly shines. In Ocarina of Time, the side quests are limited in scope (except the Biggoron’s Sword quest) and few in number. On the other hand, MM is filled with numerous exciting side quests, but those quests and their rewards are not directly presented to the player through a quest log. Instead, the player is able to and chooses to complete these side quests because they establish a relationship with the game’s characters.
Take for example Romani Ranch. On my first playthrough of the game, I went to the ranch to recover Epona. After reacquiring my horse, the older sister Cremia asks you to stay until the evening to protect the cows from what turns out to be alien invaders. I stuck around because I liked Cremia and Romani. When I failed the mission that evening, the aliens kidnapped Romani, leaving Cremia heartbroken. Part of me wanted to push this side quest to the back of my mind and complete it later. But seeing Cremia crying over her sister broke my heart. I played the Song of Time and immediately headed back to the ranch to try again. For the first time, I had established an emotional connection to a video game character. But more importantly, I did something good because I wanted to help another person, not because it was what I was supposed to do. That was when I realized Majora’s Mask was so much better than its predecessor.
Link and the player build connections with the people of Termina. Contrast this with Skull Kid who is a fundamentally lonely character. Skull Kid takes both Majora’s Mask and the Ocarina of Time, not because of their great power, but simply because he wants them. He is a child who takes what he wants. Skull Kid is not a malicious character but rather a selfish one.
And Skull Kid’s form of evil is much more real. “Good versus evil” is not an abstract concept. The true form of that is selflessness vs selfishness. Bad guys are not bad guys because they wear black. Bad guys hurt people. And as we grow up, we realize that we should not do bad things because it hurts others. The only way we can understand that pain though is by relating and empathizing with others.
And that is the theme at the center of Majora’s Mask. Ocarina of Time is about fighting evil. Majora’s Mask is about why we fight evil.