Rule 3: Whenever you solve someone’s problem, it makes you happy, so a Happy Sticker will be added to your book.
– The Bombers Secret Society of Justice
Writing about Majora’s Mask, creatively or otherwise, is a daunting task: it is the world of video games’ first Borgesian work. It earns the title in a number of ways, as the interplay between the time cycles and the player’s experiences provides a harrowing insight into the burden of time and the infinite. In the process, the Groundhog Day-like game has spawned lengthy think pieces, bizarre stories, and countless theories about the game’s message and place in the Zelda universe. The reality or unreality of the game and the players’ subsequent impressions are beyond the point–what matters are the seemingly endless layers of meaning and depth made possible by the mysterious land of Termina.
So when I write about the Bombers Secret Society of Justice, I’m forced to leave out a lot of what makes Majora’s Mask so unique. After all, the Bombers simply grant (yet another) motive for the player to pursue the many sidequests the game has to offer–lots of games have those, right? Yes, but the Bombers show players and interested developers how to do it right: by providing stakes through the integration of narrative and mechanics.
As for the mechanics of Majora’s Mask, a compilation of sidequests and progress is a necessity: the player can begin one task but find themselves at the beginning after resetting the infamous three day cycle. Quest logs are a staple of the RPG genre, of course, allowing players to manage their laundry list of objectives without having to use the note section of their physical manuals (note section? what is that?). Mechanically, it’s an efficient system, but one that unintentionally masks the significance of the missions or quests. In a list often arranged by date received, the ones important to the player become lost between fetch quests and other standard RPG fare. Here, Majora’s Mask has an unfair advantage: to the character of Link, each of the sidequests included in the Bombers’ Notebook has paramount importance. The game knows that you’re not only saving Termina as a whole, but on a smaller scale as well, as you help ghost dancers retain their legacy and provide hapless soldiers with the attention they so desperately need. This is the very heart of Link’s adventure, encapsulated by the Bombers’ dedication to the well-being of their peers. In a word, what sets the Bombers Secret Society of Justice and their notebook apart from other mechanically minded quest systems is altruism.
Altruism is a confusing word when attributed to modern role-playing or action games, where even the allegedly “moral” quest lines are engineered to provide the player with a certain reward. Once again, Majora’s Mask’s focus allows the player to avoid this dissonance through the Bombers’ message, where the happiness of the individual is reward enough. Of course, Link often gets something from his troubles, but the masks are unique in that they are practically necessary to the gaming experience, forcing the player into a position where their ability to help others is paramount.
This is where the Notebook weds the underlying mechanic (quest keeping, in-game reminders, etc.) to the narrative, enhancing the player’s sense of motive and raising the stakes for each sidequest. The characterization of each NPC and the altruistic mission of the Bombers makes helping a joy, instead of a chore you complete to gain an item you probably wouldn’t use anyways. Although the character won’t remember your help after you commit that transgressive act of resetting the three day cycle (an act warranting much more in-depth discussion later), the Bombers’ Notebook doesn’t let you forget through the placement of a happy sticker, a childish token which, when applied, lives up to its namesake. When those much maligned Zelda fans who prefer Majora’s Mask to, say, Ocarina of Time or a Link to the Past profess their love for the game, I imagine they have these characters in mind–for me, it all derives from the closing scene after a fully completed game.
Prescient as ever, Nintendo shows their understanding of why the Bomber’s Notebook works–Rule 4, gratis of Jim: No removing stickers! Use Promise Stickers to keep track of people until everyone is happy.