In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
I could play video games for the rest of my life, and I’m confident every single one of them will have the exact same goal—beat the final boss, figure out that last puzzle, topple that ultimate tower with your meager supply of emotionally unstable canaries. Beat the game. Win. And no matter the game, whether it’s Super Mario Bros. or Tetris, I can count on there being levels to measure my progress toward that goal, so I know I’m doing things right. This is what’s known in the business as a “given.”
And then there are games like 2000’s The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and 2011’s Dark Souls, which take a counterintuitive approach: In order to win, you have to lose. Majora’s Mask forces repetition through time travel as you inevitably fail to stop a doomsday scenario, and Dark Souls kills you until you’re foolhardy enough to succeed.
In both titles, you’re asked to play levels over and over until you get them right, dying and failing multiple times in the process. And how will you know when you’re getting them right? In short, you don’t. There is only minimal indication that you’re making progress at all, and often it requires doing things completely out of order for seemingly no logical reason. And just when you think you’ve figured things out, you have to start over—only this time, you pray, you’re closer to winning.
These are games played in inches. They’re confusing, sure, like trying to map a route through an M.C. Escher painting. But there’s hope, every time you make a sliver of progress, that the game’s end will retroactively justify the hair pulling and controller throwing.
Majora’s Mask is a Zelda game with an infuriating twist. The world is ending in 72 hours, and if you’re unable to save it in time, you must reset the clock by playing the Song Of Time on your ocarina, rewinding three days. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, you keep your experiences and memories (and lust for Andie MacDowell), but with the exception of a few key items, you lose everything else—money, bombs, even the freakin’ sticks you carry around for the rare chance that you will have to light a torch. Going back in time is also pretty much the only way to save your game.
Plus, 72 hours in Majora’s Mask-land (a parallel Zelda-verse called Termina) isn’t very long. It’s tough to gauge exactly how much real-world time passes, but given that the clock occasionally pauses during dialogue and load screens, it seems to translate to roughly a minute per hour. That gives you 72 minutes to accomplish something substantial enough to justify losing everything else when you reset the clock.
There are only a few things powerful enough to survive the trip. There are four bosses before the final one, and killing one of them counts as a major coup. Plus, as if you didn’t already know, there are plenty of masks to collect, and each one remains in your inventory after time travel. There are also a couple of songs Link can learn on his ocarina that he won’t forget. That’s it.
The structure of Majora’s Mask isn’t immediately apparent in the first few hours of play. Taking place after the events of Ocarina Of Time—when, like every Zelda game, Link slayed the evil thief Ganon and saved the kingdom of Hyrule—Link is ambushed in the woods by a country-boy hooligan in a garish mask, like a scarecrow at Mardi Gras. This is the Skull Kid, and he immediately steals Link’s ocarina and uses evil magic to turn him into a spritely little tree-beast. Link chases the Skull Kid deep into what appears to be a forest cave, but soon finds himself, actually, inside the bowels of a giant clock tower in a place called Clock Town.
Link will later learn the transformation occurred because of a mask placed on his face. But for now, he’s trapped as this little forest dweller—called a Deku Scrub—until he can recover his ocarina. This requires about 45 “hours” of play, followed by a bunch of standing around and waiting. The Skull Kid has set up shop on the roof of the clock tower, and the door only opens once a year—midnight on the eve of the Carnival Of Time—leaving Link with a precious six minutes to recover his ocarina and go back in time, or furiously shit himself.
Until then, though, there is plenty of people-watching to be done around the town. Over to one side of town square, a construction crew builds a yet-to-be-identified structure. The postman runs by swiftly, while a kid with purple hair, wearing a yellow fox mask, drags his feet past. In another part of town, a burglar snatches an old lady’s purse, but as a Deku Scrub you’re powerless to stop him.
Later, as normal Link who can transform at will, you can thwart the thief and, theoretically, collect a reward—but it would involve burning almost an entire day waiting for him to show up. Now you have to decide whether or not it’s worth the reward to risk waiting, only to reset and potentially lose what you’d gain. Or, worse, what if you fail? Then you have to relive your mistake until you get it right, or come to terms with the fact that you might never get it right.
The longer you play Majora’s Mask, the more these side characters become important. Because time repeats itself, it’s possible to be everything to everyone. During one pass-through, you can defend the farm outside town from alien attack; during another, you can bring two star-crossed lovers together—two different masks are added to your inventory when you finish, as relics of your accomplishments. But you can’t do both at once. Majora’s Mask asks that you choose a singular path and follow it through to completion. Try to do too much and you’ll run out of time, reset the clock, and lose most if not all of your progress.
Proceeding through Majora’s Mask demands perfection and relentlessness. Even heading to the dungeons, the way to truly progress in the game, is a harrowing experience, simply because it takes time. As you travel through each of the four terrains (swamp, mountain, ocean, and canyon), solving puzzles to find each lair’s entrance, the sky darkens. Each failed attempt at, say, sneaking through the Deku Palace means a wasted hour, maybe more. Wolves come out, hunting only at night, and their howls indicate you should get your ass in gear. In the morning it rains—it always rains on the second day—and if you haven’t found the dungeon by then, you’re likely screwed. The best you can do is hope the milestones you’ve achieved are permanent, head back in time, and cross your fingers.
You can tweak the flow of time using your ocarina, but only forward. There’s no way to rewind just a little bit; it’s all or nothing, and often “nothing” is a better choice.
All of this makes progress in Majora’s Mask more of a gamble than an inevitability. After flawlessly conquering a dungeon or procuring a rare mask—often by executing timed events in a very specific order—the Song Of Time becomes a victory cry, and one of the only things that maintains your sanity.
Majora’s Mask takes a simple truth—that time moves forward—and focuses its entire concept on the opposite. In this way, Dark Souls isn’t very different. In order to make any sort of progress, however small it may be, you have to do what every other game has trained you not to do: die.
And you will die—a lot, to the point where death loses any negative stigma it might have accrued from every other video game in existence. A ghoulish medieval role-playing game, Dark Souls sends you out as an undead corpse, donning armor to explore an abandoned kingdom and its demonic underbelly. There is mostly silence, broken up by doing battle with skeletons and other fearsome beasts, many of which are at least 50 times larger than you. Even the weaker ones are capable of dealing massive damage. Any enemy, no matter how clumsy or passive, has the potential to kill you at any moment. And even if you kill them, every time you heal—by resting at one of the sparsely placed bonfires—most of those enemies regenerate. No matter how powerful you become, there’s no point in Dark Souls where you can rest on your laurels.
But Dark Souls’ world is also predictable, and that tempers its potential to rise up and kill you without warning. Enemies appear in the same place every time you encounter them, even after regeneration, and with few exceptions, they behave the same way each time. While that tall snake-faced warrior knocked you flat with its scimitar the first time, you know to roll behind its back when you return—or, failing that, hope this death is at least swift.
Even though you die a whole lot, no death in Dark Souls is meaningless. You lose all of your souls—the game’s currency—every time you’re killed, but you keep any items you’ve found. Plus, you can return to the spot where you died and collect the souls from your bloody stain.
You have to perform a delicate ballet between one bonfire and the next to progress through a crumbling fortress or submerged, ghost-infested ruins. Every swing of the sword or perfectly executed parry is important, as is every point of your health meter. Thus even the most minor tweaks in your equipment can mean the difference between a successful run and another botched rehearsal. A stronger axe might sacrifice speed, but it’s the perfect instrument with which to bludgeon those giant stone knights. The discovery of a magic-resistant helmet can allow you to finally beat that pesky giant butterfly (which, yes, is a real enemy).
None of these advancements come easily; most are hidden around corners or accessible only by falling from a great height. From the very beginning, Dark Souls is cryptic. After escaping a place ominously called Undead Asylum, now infested with deadly zombies, you’re dropped on a mountainside in front of the rare non-hostile person who will actually speak to you. There are two bells that must be rung, he says, one above and one below. With that (and only that) in mind, you head up some stairs, slashing at skeletons and avoiding firebombs thrown by the more sadistic ones. You eventually emerge onto an upper level of a castle. This is the Undead Burg, and there’s a bonfire nearby.
This quickly becomes your home base. The next stretch of game includes an impressive number of firebomb-throwers and skeleton knights with very heavy armor. Each failed attempt to move forward is like dipping your toe in scalding hot water—immersion therapy. Finally, you’re brave enough to take a proper run at a distant castle spire, which is as good a destination as any. You’ll probably die a few more times now, too, but this is nothing new; somehow it only makes you braver, the repetition breeding familiarity. When you finally manage to get past the onslaught of skeleton warriors (and a massive minotaur boss), your reward is…a ring of invisibility? 100,000 souls? A sword that’s like a big lightning bolt that zaps everything? Nope: A ladder you kick down to your bonfire, creating a permanent shortcut to circumvent everything you just did. It’s better than you could have imagined.
Little victories in Dark Souls are so overwhelming, in fact, that the game’s biggest milestones almost go unnoticed. The ringing of the first bell occurs shortly after the Undead Burg, in a higher level of the castle. What follows is pretty much up to you, though it likely involves sneaking through an abandoned town full of ninjas, fighting bug-eyed monsters in a massive sewer, climbing around a treehouse-type village over a poisonous swamp, and fighting an oversized dog with an equally comic oversized sword in its mouth. Then, upon defeating a fire-breathing spider named Chaos Witch Quelaag, you pull a lever and, to your surprise, a second bell rings. Oh right, that.
The game is far from over, though. After both bells are rung, the gate opens to a previously closed-off area known as Sen’s Fortress—full of booby traps, giant boulders, and the aforementioned serpent warriors. There are plenty of deaths inside as well. It’s a similar feeling to when, in Majora’s Mask, you learn that by playing the ocarina a certain way, the days go by half as fast. Great: More time to worry about the impending apocalypse. Neither of these two accomplishments offer much solace, only the promise that if you keep trudging along, inch by inch, it might someday feel like winning.