Less than a week ago, we all survived the end of the world as far as the Mayan calendar rumors were concerned. And since I seemingly had work in the morning and didn’t want to go out, I spent the alleged last night on earth playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a game that also gives a set date for the end of the world. Now I love this game through and through, but one of the most disturbing interpretations of the game’s plot – and one of the most depressing ones at that – comes from the realization that Link is consciously aware that you beat the game when you reboot. Much like Sisyphus, the Greek legend punished to an eternal toil of pushing a boulder up a hill, Link repeats the same actions over and over.
With most video games, completing the game leads to one of two options. In some, you save the world and get the save your progress one more time, allowing post-game extras and general enjoyment of a time where the world is finally safe. Or, in most other games, you save the world but don’t get to save your game progress, and you merely see the ending, knowing that the hero made it out alive – the characters, when rebooting the game, will have no memory of this, however, and still return ready to save the world from your last save point. But what makes Majora’s Mask eerily unique about this trope is that Link experiences an odd middle ground of those things. The world is saved in the end, and the game progress saves as well; however, when the game is booted up again, there is no post-apocalyptic world . Link awakes from saving the world, back at the Dawn of the First Day, with the ominous claim that he once again has 72 hours to save the world.
Unlike other games that reboot when the world is saved, there is reasonable evidence that Link actively remembers having saved the world already. His inventory is customized to the way it was when he defeated Majora, and Tatl will know (and emulate) what her brother Tael will say about Majora if they return to the top of The Clock Tower. Tatl also goes from terrified of entering the crashing moon to sort of a nonchalant “I admire you for doing this over and over” sort of attitude. In other words, what makes MM so depressing in ending aspects is that Link knows he saved the world and still has to do it again. He can’t escape, no matter how many times he does it. This purgatory-like cycle essentially is the post-game; all he can really do is replay the same quests and sidequests again, hoping there is one you missed in your 100% completion run so he can see something new.
To add insult to injury, MM is a world where Link has to accept that, no matter what he does, he can’t save everyone. Sidequests like saving Kafei and Anju’s marriage are not compatible with saving the Old Lady From The Bomb Shop (Sorry, that is in fact her real name, other than being called “Mommy” by the other shop employee); the Old Lady has to get mugged so Kafei can follow the robber Sakon to his hideout and recover his Sun Mask for the wedding ceremony. By the same token, the Postman will remain in a morally confused mess, laying on the ground debating whether to abandon his post and flee the moon unless Link gives him Kafei’s priority mail letter to Madame Aroma to deliver – but delivering it personally gives Link another glass bottle, a crucial commodity in the Zelda universe for some reason. Not to mention the fact that, with a timer constantly running and everyone else’s schedules on autopilot, it’s physically impossible to save everyone in one cycle even if the quests didn’t have contradicting prerequisites.
If people stayed saved, it’d be an entirely different story. Link has evidence that he saved them via masks, heart pieces, and his Bomber’s Notebook, but none of them will remember it the next time he returns, making the part where he saves the world and has to return much like Sisyphus’ boulder falling back down the hill each time he brings it up.
I keep comparing Link in MM to Sisyphus because of a philosopher, Albert Camus, who wrote an existential essay called “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which he writes “The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The image of Sisyphus, much like the image of Link in MM, is largely disturbing and depressing because of a certain deception we feel upon realization. And yet, only through realizing the futility of the situation can we reach a certain acceptance and content.
This notion that Camus implied can be interpreted a few ways. In one way, Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” argues that when life becomes void of meaning or clarity, the answer is to revolt – but only after said realization. Link can only break the spell of the three cycles upon realization of the endless pattern; the player will only stop playing the game when the player realizes there’s nothing left there, but when the player stops playing Link is finally free to revolt against the cycles as well.
But the main reason I compare the two is that Sisyphus, much like Link, will continue to start from the bottom and work back up again no matter how many times progress is lost – and in Link’s case, this extends far beyond MM now, into virtually every Legend of Zelda story. But unlike Sisyphus, Link is not forced to do this. It’s in his very nature to keep fighting for good, and to keep helping the townsfolk of Termina or Hyrule or wherever he is. It is for different reasons that Sisyphus and Link continue what they’re doing, though both at least on some subconscious level believe the struggle, that very effort, is far more important than the end result. Sisyphus will always continue his punishment, no matter how pointless. Link will always do what he believes is right, no matter how fruitless. That’s just what they should do.
So what seems like a journey of pointless struggle is not actually a depressing mess of an ending for Link after all. Rather, it’s an inspiration; Link proves exactly why he is a legend, showing us all that the absence of meaning is not the same as the absence of value. Link doesn’t care that a good deed may not have a good consequence; at the end of the day, it’s still a good deed. And so Link, like Sisyphus, will continue to push up that hill, just like we will.
The world hasn’t ended, after all.