For the past few weeks, I've been playing through Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask with the Vintage Game Club. I do not have the deep history of Zelda games others have, so this whole endeavor is new to me. Which means Majora's Mask has been one of the more frustrating gaming experiences I've had in a long while. I have been pushing my way this game with stubborn determination, playing off and on (mostly off). Despite my tendency to shout expletives at the screen, I've come to appreciate Link for what he is: an amazingly skilled voyeur.
I am using the term voyeur in the more child appropriate sense of the word; Link is no sexual deviant after all. He is, however, an agent who easily slips into the lives of others, navigating his way through various cultures. By donning various masks, some allowing Link to change into an entirely different species, Link has the uncanny ability to immerse himself (and by extension the player) into the lives of others.
On his excellent GameSetWatch column Lingua Franca, Daniel Johnson discusses "cultural pedagogy of the Goron tribe in the Legend Of Zelda series." In this piece, Johnson touches upon Link's ability to change into a Goron hero:
"What this mechanic does is allow Link to switch on the fly between ingroup and outgroup membership of the respective cultures, changing his interplay with each. This gives players the opportunity to observe first-hand how it feels to be treated as either one of the races within the game. Termina's residents don't have four sets of speech for the respective races, but rather, the speech is tied to the gameplay and narrative."
The Goron tribe's interaction with Link is based on thinking he is actually the hero Darmani. For a brief section of the game, Link is someone else entirely. Like the Deku, Darmani has his own unique way of moving and fighting. This makes Majora's Mask "a playground for cultural experimentation," as Johnson puts it, and a sort of multiple-game hybrid, allowing the player to take on the role of an entirely a unique protagonist. Of course the game requires all of Link's faculties, but the feel of combining several experiences into one cohesive package resonates strongly. Link is far more than a boy in green.
To some extent, Link has no real story of his own. The individual stories of the townspeople, even their mundane concerns, eclipse the larger goal of stopping the coming apocalypse. Link's lack of speech (a characteristic I find increasingly strange as the franchise matures) compounds the sense Link is a disembodied agent acting out the will of the player, completely independent from a preexisting "Link."
Being able to interact with NPCs numerous times with different results is incredibly rare. It breathes realism into Majora's Mask that other stagnant games should envy. The player easily becomes intimate with the townspeople, learning of their burdens and helping where he can. But this help isn't necesarily permanent. Link's assistance can be easily brushed away with time reversal. After aging one man's chicks into chickens and raising his spirits,a time reversal will return Link to day one to find the same man morose once again. Link is only temporarily responsible for the immediate fate of Termina's population. It's a voyeuristic social experiment at its best.
Another interesting quest has Link reuniting Kafei and Anju, two lovers in a dire situation. This quest involves secret meetings, romance, letter delivery, and heroism. This story in particular has all the contraptions of a television drama suitable for the whole family. Link has more in common with Dr. Sam Beckett of Quantum Leap than his adventuring genre companions.
None of this is to say Majora's Mask is immature or pointlessly complicated. On the contrary, I think Link's social interaction is by far the most interesting and innovative aspect of Majora's Mask. Few people are eager to admit voyeuristic tendencies, although the desire to gossip, interact with strangers, and play the role of insider is very human. Videogames are partly interesting because we can become someone else for awhile, with their own relationships and history. Majora's Mask feeds this desire by creating Link as not one character, but an amalgamation of many.