In my previous post, I looked at the minimal gameplay of Dear Esther as it related to video games functioning as art. Dear Esther succeeded as art, but did so with little interaction by the player and an almost cinematic design.
My argument here separates what are commonly referred to “video games” from what I call “video experiences”. When I see “video games” here, I am referring specifically to games with competition and goals. I am not referring to games that function only as experiences and immersions in a particular environment, but to games with goals and challenges that can be surpassed. The emphasis is on the “game” part.
In the last post, I also discussed how the act of running a race or throwing a football does not necessarily constitute an art form. Similarly, I do not think that a video game is necessarily a work of art. However, I think that many, perhaps most, games are art, and that video games are an art form. This post is about explaining how video games function and succeed as art by using one as an extended example.
Interaction is what defines video games and separates them from other comparable mediums, just as editing separated film from photography. “Interaction” can be construed more broadly to relate to many actions and possibilities that are unique to video games: being able to replay a series of events, experience variations of the same story, accomplish goals, travel to different locations, and so on.
So, how can the interactive nature of games be the source of art?
There are those who believe that “gaming” cannot be art. For example, video game designer Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear Solid series stated: “To put it in perspective, the service game creators provide is kind of like Disneyland—a setting for players to have fun in. If you look at each part of that service, break down the parts, then you’ll see that each part is comprised of artistic elements. But on a whole, it is more of a service than an art.” I elaborated in the previous post about the late Roger Ebert’s position that the “playing to win” presupposed by video games is incompatible with art. I sympathize to a degree, in that I think that mere competition does not necessitate art. I don’t think that throwing a football or running a race is art, just as I don’t think that merely playing a game to win is art. I also think that many games may succeed as art in purely visual terms without succeeding as art as a game.
For a video game to succeed artistically as a game, the competitive nature of it has to be interactive in some way that is more than purely competitive. The manner in which the game is completed cannot be limited only to, say, finding the end of a maze, finishing a digital game of Solitaire, or jumping over obstacles to rescue a princess. It is not enough simply to compete, there has to be some additional purpose, commentary, idea, or concept at play – just as a vase that merely holds water is not a work of art like one designed to also convey or reflect some sort of intention or idea.
The difficulty with this is that “winning” tends to be opposed to art – winning implies an assumption that something is “right” and deserves to be obtained. ‘Entertainment’ and ‘art’ are not incompatible, but the nature of gaming makes it difficult for these tendencies to converge.
Nevertheless, many games do this. Braid, for instance, allows your protagonist, presumably rescuing a princess from a captor, to travel in one direction to reverse time and in another direction to let time progress naturally. At the end, an image of a captor taking the princess away turns out to be a reversal – the princess, in fact, is fleeing from you. The gameplay is embedded with messages about time and fate, and a list of games that similarly accomplish artistic goals through their gameplay would be endless.
For the rest of this article, I want to look how one video game excels as a work of art within my own interpretation of it.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask begins with the series’ protagonist, Link, returned to his youth, setting out on “a journey in search of a beloved and invaluable friend.” Though never explicitly stated, the friend is presumably Navi, who left at the close of the previous game, Ocarina of Time. The importance of friendship and companionship plays a central thematic role in the story, as Link’s journey becomes paralleled with that of the Skull Kid, an imp resembling a scarecrow whose friendship with four giants has disintegrated.
The Skull Kid, possessed by the powerful Majora’s Mask, attacks Link in an opening setting imbued with expressionism and surrealism as Link pursues his attackers through a gloomy, mysterious forest, passing a tree that resembles a dead Deku (a forest creature) before falling into a dark chasm. At the bottom, the Skull Kid, wearing the powerful Majora’s Mask, turns Link into a Deku and flees.
The story takes place in a new world called ‘Termina’ after a journey through a twisted tunnel that resembles a transition into a new reality, one filled with the characters from Ocarina in different roles. Termina is a ghostly, strange world facing an apocalyptic fate in three days as its moon hovers closer and closer in a path of eventual collision. At times, the expressionistic imagery seems straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Early on, Link learns that he can play send himself back to the exact moment of the start of the three days. Thus, the player is caught in an endless cycle where you try to stop the world from ending, repeatedly observe the citizens slowly realize that they are about to perish, and then bailing out at the last possible moment to start all over again.
When played purely to win, this plot mechanism can be viewed as a simple gimmick that sets a time limit for completing important objectives. However, this device also conveys a message about the human desire to go back and change the events in our lives and the futility of having that ability but being stuck in an endless loop where every change becomes undone (much like in Groundhog Day).
Termina is full of lost people, wandering undead, and unfulfilled lives. These inhabitants may, in one interpretation, be the products of Link’s own fractured subconscious. In Ocarina, he also saved the entire land, but at the end he was returned to his childhood with the world saved but every event and every change essentially undone. In Termina, Link can deliver salvation to the characters, curing a father infected with a zombie-like ailment, reuniting a bride and groom or preventing a farm’s cows from being abducted by aliens (it’s a weird game, alright?). But none of these changes last. Some good deeds even create more problems – for instance, stopping a thief from committing a robbery prevents another character from recovering a stolen item from the thief when he takes his loot to his den.
The way the game copes with this futility is to allow Link to keep the masks that he collects throughout the game when he goes back in time. The masks, for the most part, represent the spiritual reconciliation of the people Link helps. Although their problems return every 3-day cycle, the cinematic at the end of the game shows their lives as if the side quests that end with the rewarding of a mask had been completed, implying that the masks retain some sort of power through the end of the three days.
Termina can be interpreted as a battle within Link’s damaged identity as he fights to help a world preparing for the apocalypse and to prevent his impacts from being erased. Its bizarre images and interlocking themes can also be approached under a myriad of other, equally valid interpretations, including one that Link is experiencing the five stages of grief over his friend’s departure.
The darkness of the setting produces some affectingly tragic moments as we see how characters act when facing the imminent demise of their world. The supposedly brave sword master cowers in the back of his store. Link can overhear a conversation where the an older sister allows her younger sibling to have a fancy drink and asks to share her bed with her on the final day, saying to herself, “That’s how life goes, I guess. There are some things that you can’t change no matter how hard you try.”
This strikes me as a general message that the emerges from the gameplay, one that is highlighted in perhaps the games most powerful and poignant moment.
Early in the game, a Deku Shrub who is a butler for a king, mentions that Link, in Deku form, reminds him of his son who he hasn’t seen in a long time. Even as the game’s closing montage to a fully completed game shows the various successes and triumphs that Link’s actions led to, it always also shows the Butler crying outside the tree in the form of a dead shrub at the beginning. This implies that the Skull Kid killed the Butler’s son before the start of the three days and that the Butler only found his dead son at the end. Similar to the scene with the dying homeless man in Groundhog Day, the message is that despite any amount time traveling or fiddling, “There are some things you can’t change, no matter how hard you try.”
The pathway towards “completing the game” involves solving puzzles and defeating monsters in four temples. This is by far the least interesting part of the game. The third Temple, in the ocean, unfortunately bears the same problems as Ocarina‘s Water Temple – it’s endless, confusing, and boring. The boss, a fish who attempts to jump out of the water and land on you (not kidding about that), is even less threatening and more ridiculous than the blob from the previous game. Still, there are great ideas, such as one temple that can flip upside-down to reveal an entirely new layout.
Completing the four temples gains Link the ability to call upon the four giants (the Skull Kid’s old friends) to stop the moon from falling. Link then travels into the moon to defeat Majora’s Mask. The setting that he finds is entirely abstract – four kids resembling the mask salesman and wearing the masks of the four bosses run around a clear field and while another kid sulks by a tree in the middle. The kids all give cryptic, creepy questions about friendship and morality: “Your friends…What kind of people are they?” “I wonder…Do these people…Think of you…as a friend?” “What makes people happy – doing the right thing?”
The detachment of the Skull Kid from this scenario (he’s unconscious and on the surface) reinforces that this incident and the whole game are reflections of Link’s damaged psyche. Just as the game represents Link’s futile efforts to defy temporal reality to fix everyone’s problems, these questions pertain to his struggle to understand how his actions that ‘fixed’ Hyrule resulted the undoing of many years of his life and his separation from his friend Navi. The giants left the Skull Kid like Navi left him despite his accomplishments, and he struggles to understand why. More broadly, the complex and lengthy gameplay of Majora’s Mask conveys the difficulty of easing private sorrows.
Link fights and defeats Majora’s Mask in a intense and colorful battle, bringing peace to Termina and allowing for the “Dawn of a New Day”. The mask salesman leaves with Majora’s Mask, commenting that Link has “managed to make a lot of people happy.” The Skull Kid asks to become Link’s friend and the game ends with Link riding off, followed by an engraving that shows the Skull Kid, the giants, and Link happily playing together in a thematic resolution showing Link gaining a valued friendship.
Majora’s Mask fuses expressionism, abstraction, exploration of the subconscious, and straightforward adventure with immense success. The animation is creative and the story multilayered and absorbing. Link is more damaged and in need of help than any of the characters he interacts with, with the game dropping subtle hints that much of Termina represents his own difficulties.
But much of this overlaps with cinema and the conundrum brought about by Dear Esther. What makes Majora’s Mask a great work of video game art is the role of the interaction. We experience the long, often futile reset at the start of every three days. On the one hand, we learn to value each passing moment as grains emptying from a container of sand. On the other hand, the Godlike ability to start over and over again eventually makes time feel meaningless. We see our progress disappear and everyone’s problems return again and again. At the center of the land, Clock Town, fittingly, is filled with clocks that tick away at the few moments of remaining time. It’s a hellish, Twilight Zone-like nightmare with messages that would be impossible to convey so strongly in any other medium.