20 years on from its release, the events of the real world are mirroring one of the game's most memorable scenes.
Because my worldview has been so thoroughly colored by video games, I can't help but look at the events of the past few days--namely, the smattering of anti-lockdown protests that have occurred around the US in response to stay-at-home restrictions--and draw parallels to one of my favorite games, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which coincidentally celebrated its 20th anniversary recently. Since its debut, Majora's Mask has been regarded as perhaps the series' most divisive installment due to its smothering three-day structure and somber atmosphere, but one scene in the game seems particularly prescient now in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
Minor Majora's Mask spoilers follow.
Although Majora's Mask continues Link's adventures directly after Ocarina of Time, its story really revolves around Clock Town--a bustling city in the heart of the doomed world of Termina. In three days, Termina is destined to be destroyed by the falling moon unless Link can somehow avert this tragic fate and save the land.
When the young hero first stumbles upon Clock Town, its denizens are busily preparing for the city's annual celebration, the Carnival of Time. As the townspeople note, Clock Town is normally overrun with tourists at this time of year, but the moon looming ominously in the sky has understandably had an impact on tourism, and the city is eerily deserted just days before the carnival is set to begin.
Whether the Carnival of Time should proceed in light of the circumstances is the subject of a tense debate in the mayor's office. The soldiers of Clock Town urge the mayor to evacuate the city and cancel the carnival in the interest of safety. The carnival committee--led by a surly carpenter named Mutoh--argue that the soldiers are being alarmist and demand that the carnival go on as planned.
"You cowards! Do you actually believe the moon will fall?" Mutoh spits. "The confused townsfolk simply caused a panic by believing this ridiculous, groundless theory. The soldiers couldn't prevent the panic, but outside the town walls is where the danger is! You want answers? The answer is that the carnival should not be canceled!"
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Mutoh's head-in-the-sand dismissal of the danger facing the city seemed unfathomable to me when I first played Majora's Mask; after all, how could anyone deny that the moon is falling when it is very visibly lurching closer toward Clock Town with each passing day? And yet, this scene feels all too similar to the numerous protests playing out around the country recently. Like Mutoh, a fringe segment of the population is willfully denying a very real threat to humanity, despite the profound damage it has wreaked around the world. Even the language Mutoh uses, dismissing the falling moon as a "groundless theory" blown out of proportion by the townspeople--"fake news," if you will--is startlingly similar to the way political hucksters like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones have downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and blamed the media for inciting hysteria.
Watching the parallels between the protests and Majora's Mask's meeting scene has been frustrating and confounding, but it also helps illustrate why the game remains so affecting even two decades on from its original release. Majora's Mask endures because its characters feel true-to-life. Mutoh's denial is one example of the human ways the townspeople cope with their circumstances. The duty-bound postman, despite desperately wishing to flee, continues to deliver the mail, even after the other residents have taken shelter. The swordsman who runs the local dojo blusters about his fearlessness, only to be found cowering feebly in a corner the night the moon falls. And the reserved innkeeper at the heart of the game's most involved sidequest chooses to stay behind at the inn and wait for her missing fiance to return while the rest of her family flees.
These heartrending vignettes remind me of something the famed film director Orson Welles once said. During an interview, Welles recalled that someone had described one of his movies as "unreal, and yet real." Welles offered a slight correction, saying he was trying to create something "unreal, but true," which is an apt description of Majora's Mask as well; the scenarios the game presents may be fantastical, but the ways the characters react are reflective of our reality, which is why the title still resonates so powerfully after 20 years.
As for the debate around the Carnival of Time, the mayor ultimately relents to pressure from the committee and agrees to hold the carnival as planned--much as some states have begun to ease their social distancing measures, despite the fact the crisis is still very much not under control. In the end, however, the mayor's decision is irrelevant; the townspeople have already fled, and the only one left to witness the ringing in of the Carnival of Time is Mutoh, standing pitifully alone in the town plaza. And then, a few hours later, the moon obliterates Termina.