Okay, I’ll admit it. Yeah, I know no one is asking, but, as a child, I button mashed through video game dialogue all the time. Whenever a cut scene emerged crucial to the plot of the game, I had no time to waste in making sure the boring storyline was removed from the screen as fast as possible so that I could commence with the action. As a child, I failed to see how this was hindering my enjoyment of the game; I saw the cut scenes as a tedious burden that only occurred because the game needed some extra time to load or something.
Now, without an N64 (and too confused to understand anything regarding emulators) to replay my favorite childhood video games, I’m left spending more time than I probably should looking over stories and quotes that passed me by while playing these games years ago. One particular series of games that I was excessively guilty of button mashing through dialogue points crucial to the story on were the entries in The Legend of Zelda. Although I’ve spent the last several years espousing that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is my favorite video game, I’ve found myself rereading dialogue that I missed years ago and regretting more than ever my previous button mashing tendencies.
In Ocarina of Time the protagonist of all the Zelda games, Link learns many songs on his ocarina. Often these songs are taught in correspondence with particularly beautiful words that flew right over my head. Without delving too much into plot, in three separate moments another character teaches Link songs and gives an extended speech regarding the nature of time, a central concept to Ocarina of Time. I’ve broken up the three separate passages the character delivers when she appears to teach Link different songs and crafted one united message:
“The flow of time is always cruel… Its speed seems different for each person, but no one can change it… A thing that doesn’t change with time is a memory of younger days…
It is something that grows over time… a true friendship. A feeling in the heart that becomes even stronger over time… The passion of friendship will soon blossom into a righteous power and through it, you will know which way to go…
Time passes, people move… Like a river’s flow, it never ends… A childish mind will turn to noble ambition… Young love will become deep affection… The clear water’s surface reflects growth…”
The lyrical style of these connected thoughts leaves the player with a profound sense of this expansive concept of time. Ocarina of Time, as the title suggests, concerns Link’s forays with traveling through time as both a child and adult Link are playable. The game forces us to understand the incredibly complex nature of time’s passage. While we long for what time has left us with, memories, we also understand that growth is only possible through the reflection that time has indeed passed.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time and furthered on the already dark elements present in Ocarina of Time. Perhaps the most ubiquitous image that comes to mind with this entry in the series is the moon’s visible descent through the sky as it hurtles toward the land in a constant reminder of pending doom. Unfortunately, although I was a few years older when this title came out, my button-mashing nature continued as I ignored the intricate plot details and merely concerned with immediate action. Years later, upon revisiting the franchise through internet plot descriptions, I only truly remembered the phrase “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” that I distinctly remembered coming from this entry in the series. Although I don’t remember being particularly frightened upon this phrase (as I child, I was much more afraid of any of the monsters over a simple text) nowadays I understand the particularly frightening nature of the text itself.
Perhaps the most cerebral dialogue that occurred in a Zelda game to date comes with the final boss battle in Majora’s Mask. Taking place in an idyllic countryside with a single tree, this setting is far removed from the usual doom-and-gloom areas where major boss chambers are located throughout the series. Instead, this boss battle doesn’t even include any terrifying monsters, only masked children begging you to play with them (which, in retrospect frightens me more than anything I remember from the series). During this ‘playtime,’ these children all speak with Link and begin their separate interactions with the same refrain, “Heh, heh…Thanks…You’re nice. Umm…Can I ask…a question?” Each of the individual children follows up with their own unique question:
“Your friends… What kind of… people are they? I wonder… Do these people… think of you… as a friend?
What makes you happy? I wonder…what makes you happy…does it make…others happy, too?
The right thing…what is it? I wonder…if you do the right thing…does it really make…everybody…happy?
Your true face… What kind of… face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that… your true face?”
As far as rhetorical questions go, these specific quotes are quite profound and things I don’t blame my younger self for feeling the need to mash through as they would have been lost on me anyways. Years later, I’m left reading the words on a wiki entry and realizing just how meaningful and poignant they are. Certainly some of the questions these children ask focus on the idea of utilitarianism as the happiness of yourself and others is concerned. Two of the children seem particularly interested in whether the potential exists to achieve universal happiness, whether an action can truly guarantee every individual will be happy. The other two seem focused on the authenticity of the self and whether we can ever truly know the intentions of others. Nowadays, as I read the questions the children asked, I’m left pondering them more than any simple fighting scenario present in the game.
In addition, the final question ponders the nature of hiding your true identity by using the familiar notions of wearing masks to hide true natures. Masks are a familiar trope that depict an ironic disposition towards the world where truth is subverted by individuals concerned with hiding their true natures from the external environment around them. I’m reminded specifically by the quote from Søren Kierkegaard on masks in his work Either/Or: “Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when every one has to throw off his mask?… I have seen men in real life who so long deceived others that at last their true nature could not reveal itself…” The protagonist, Link, throughout “Majora’s Mask” constantly dons various masks to transform himself into other beings. Authenticity though is something that these children seem much more concerned with as they emphasize the familiar trope of masks being used to conceal authenticity.
The Happy Mask Salesman guides the main character’s actions throughout “Majora’s Mask.” Link works for this character to secure a particular mask that has been lost to the main antagonist. Upon the conclusion of the game, he delivers a final remark that plays particularly true in a much, much larger setting beyond the game itself:
“Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever…Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time…That is up to you.”
If I was Link, I don’t know how eager I’d be for my next meeting with the Happy Mask Salesman. However, when considering that Link has just left all his loved ones and memories to travel to a new land in this Zelda entry, the line on meetings and partings must ring particularly true for Link. It’s not a stretch at all to relate to this quote in life on a daily basis. Certainly the Happy Mask Salesman delivers a particularly zen statement in the dwindling moments of Majora’s Mask: Isolation, often a self-imposed state, can easily be remedied by self action.
As I moved onto the GameCube, the next Zelda entry, Wind Waker, was another game that received the brunt of my button mashing. Upon revisiting the game, the following plot adds another dimension entirely to the Zelda universe:
“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….Heh… Heh… The wind… It is blowing.”
Ganondorf, constant villain of the Legend of Zelda series appearing in well over the majority of the games, delivers these lines upon the Wind Waker’s ending as the closest thing to a motivation the player receives. These lines humanize a villain, a humanization that I missed completely during my years while obsessed with the franchise. As I return to the series and this quote itself, a character whose only ambition seemed to be power is given a dramatically human characteristic of simply desiring a better lot in life for himself and his nation. While we initially perceive Ganondorf as wholly evil, this cut-scene explores a character that seems to have been motivated to resort to seizing a better life for himself and others around him that grew up in the harsh desert. As death surrounded his childhood and was a constant element that he engaged with, he saw an opportunity to break free when he gazed at Hyrule. Ganondorf’s villainous actions recall the rhetorical questions from Majora’s Mask which questioned what qualifies an action as being in the right. This final monologue provides Ganondorf with a humanizing characteristic that shows his evil was at least grounded in reason beyond a simple desire to wield power.
In the end, the conclusion comes with Ganondorf finally feeling the deadly wind he attempted to outrun after he is killed by Link. In this moment of self-realization as Ganondorf delivers the line acknowledging the blowing of the wind, his body turns to stone and is left to only experience the slow erosion at the wind’s hand.
In an effort to remember things from my childhood, it’s interesting coming back to the games I used to play all the time and the stories that seem so deep in reflection. These years have shown me what a powerful medium video games have to depict themes and words that are beautiful both in their context as well as in the larger scope of our own lives. It’s hard for me, when observing the Zelda franchise I’m familiar with, to not argue in the inherit artistic quality that video games posses.