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Why the N64 Majora's Mask Could Not Be Made Today As a AAA Title

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 17 Mar 2015 16:00
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So just to clarify last week's video, I quite liked Zelda: Majora's Mask, which I'm sure the fanboys would be quick to start waving around like they're doing the Dance of the Seven Veils with my opinions. Not sure why though, since the main things that appealed to me were the bits that felt most unlike the usual Zelda game. That is to say, rather than a bland simplistic tale of a standard blank slate hero defeating a villain characterized as evil mainly by asking us to assume that he is, in an unchanging cycle predetermined by fate, it was instead a grim story themed around futility, indifference and identity crisis.

It might seem like I feel the need to go on the defensive every time someone, horror of horrors, accuses me of liking Nintendo now. But it's not the accusation that annoys me; it's this implied notion that you can only ever like Nintendo and support everything they do, or be one of the ignorant outsiders who don't. Come to think of it, that's the false dichotomy that blights virtually all internet debating.

But I digress. I made a little funny in the ZP review to the effect that it's surprising that Nintendo made a game that garnered critical acclaim with a new and interesting gameplay mechanic, then proceeded to not even try to milk the shit out of it with numerous similar sequels. I suppose the fact that they eventually re-released it on 3DS is a bit of a brief suck on the udder, but otherwise they've been pretty restrained. It's almost like they feel a little awkward about it, possibly because it's tonally rather far removed from the Nintendo company line.

I think the interesting question to ask ourselves is this: could Majora's Mask be made today, in the industry as it stands? Anything goes in the indie circles, obviously, but could it ever be considered and developed as a full-on triple-A first party release, as it was back in N64 times?

No. I strongly doubt that it could. Most obviously for the fact that the timing mechanic could give a shit for how the player wants to experience the game. Make no mistake, you might be the one with the ocarina shoved in his gob but you're dancing to its tune, motherfucker. Sure, you can mess around and decide for yourself what tasks you want to undertake, but if you're not finished undertaking by the time the three days are up, then you're going to have to undergive everything back and start again. I find it interesting that there's so much of the game you can miss, just because most of the people and events involved in sidequests are working to a schedule regardless of your actions. It's not the case that characters simply wait indefinitely in their little rooms for the player to enter, at which point they are instantly ready to concisely express the most salient points of the situation.

This is almost completely unique in the field of video game structuring. Most video games simply guide the player along like it's walking a dog, yanking on the leash when the dog takes exploration too far. Even in a sandbox game where the player chooses their own route, all the enemies, story missions and encounters are kept in stasis, waiting for them to approach so that they can activate, like the pop-up cardboard monsters on a cheap ghost train. Meanwhile, Majora's Mask feels like a game world existing without necessarily being aware of the player inside it.

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You can see something similar in Lure of the Temptress or Oblivion; NPCs move around pursuing their own lives even when the player isn't around or looking at them. In those cases, though, it doesn't do much more than inconvenience the player when they are trying to pursue an objective relating to specific characters. There is an unavoidable need for the player to be all-important, but Majora's Mask provides that in a more roundabout fashion, by letting the player repeat the event cycle as many times as they wish. And just as Bill Murray's character discovers in Groundhog Day, what initially feels like a curse eventually reveals itself to be a sort of gradual omnipotence.

That's what makes it unique, and as we know by now, the business of gaming doesn't like uniqueness. Video gaming has moved on from its experimental youth, and as tends to be the case with a new medium, has become old enough that the easy solutions are now the bad habits. Enough precedent has gone by that certain things are established as The Way Things Are Done. We have names for all the standard items on the checklist, like 'critical path' and 'player training'. It gets harder and harder to break things down the fundamentals and try something completely new, especially for an installment of a long-established franchise.

Mainly I can't picture being able to effectively deliver a 20-second elevator pitch for the game. I'd picked up some details here and there, but I never understood how the time loop gameplay worked until I started playing it myself, and it's hard to explain to another person in a game design context. Time resets and the player loses everything. So does that mean you have to complete the entire game in the three days or start all over again? No, when I say lose everything, not everything-everything, you keep the tools and songs you've found, you just lose the consumables that can be easily refilled by running outside and mowing the lawn a few times.

No, what we mean is, everything the player has achieved gets undone. But that's a difficult sell, too. One of the main things that drives commercial game design these days is that the player has to constantly be feeling like they're achieving progress. This is why the concept of 'Achievements' was invented. And why they're called 'Achievements' as opposed to 'Drops in the ocean of futility'.

I suppose my point is that Majora's Mask probably couldn't be made today because games are designed these days for the sake of maximum accessibility. If a player is confused for one second too long by a menu interface it goes back for another iteration. Even Dark Souls has a consistent sense of progress; Majora's Mask is an idea birthed from the intention to deliberately drag the player down and fuck with them. I don't think publishers would buy that nowadays, and it's a shame, because sometimes deliberately fucking with the player can make a strong artistic statement. That's why I want to make a game for the Xbone that makes the console catch fire and explode. I'm thinking the Arts Council will give me a grant if I show them Ryse: Son of Rome.

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