Throughout the Legend of Zelda series, protagonist Link, and by extension the player, interfaces with specific objects and items to interact with the game world. While many of these items can be used as weapons, like the Master Sword and Bow and Arrow, other objects allow Link to traverse and tinker with the world around him, from the Hookshot to the Gust Bellows. These items have become so popular and conceived as such a staple of the series that fans have made YouTube videos and countless posts about the best, worst, underused, or coolest items in the games (Novoa; Zeltik). The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was partially critiqued for its absence of items, often directly connected to the lack of dungeons (Berube).
Yet items in the Legend of Zelda games aren’t simply objects of fan discussion or ways to slaughter enemies; the items Link uses are crucial to the player’s exploration and engagement with the world and use of items often change how the screens, overworld, or even the character of Link looks and operates. For a simple example, using the Bow or Hookshot in Ocarina of Time adjusts the camera from a third-person to first-person point of view, showing how the player’s control scheme changes as item mediates Link’s interaction with the game world.
Other items directly affect Link’s form, such as the Shadow Crystal in Twilight Princess that changes Link from human to wolf form or the Master Sword that transitions the player from Young Link to Adult Link and vice versa in OoT. Most notably, the masks in Majora’s Mask can change Link into five different forms, each with their unique abilities, methods of movements, items that can be used, and strengths and weaknesses. As Link puts on the masks, his physical form changes, affecting how the player interfaces with the controller, Link, and Termina, the game’s setting.
More than any other game, Majora’s Mask positions the process of transformation and transition as an always existing fluid process that the player engages in at specific times and for specific purposes. For this short paper, I’ll consider the limitations and drawbacks of Richard Grusin’s and Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska’s conceptualizations of mediation, using The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask as a text to consider how mediation as a continuous process opens complex interpretations of the body as always already in transition in Majora’s Mask and perhaps in video games en masse.
What is Mediation?
In “Radical Mediation,” Richard Grusin builds upon his previous work on remediation to consider how mediation exists not only within discrete technologies, but rather as a process across technologies and communication. He argues that mediation operates affectively, constituting and affecting “broad structures of feeling among assemblages of humans and nonhumans” (125). Like affect, mediation functions as a process in which individual instances of media technologies or texts may occur. Taking the term “radical” from William James’ work on radical empiricism, Grusin uses the term “radical mediation” to refer to how mediation operates with “the immediacy of middleness,” in which the continuous process of mediation “provides the conditions for emergence of subjects and objects, for the individuation of entities within the world” (129).
In other words, mediation does not occur solely as a process between two individual humans, but rather coproduces forms of identification, meaning, separation, and distinction between all human and nonhuman actants. Mediation exists a priori of human perception and cognizance and is also constantly shifting and dynamically affecting relationships between objects and subjects. For Grusin, mediation is “always already mediating” (142) in a constantly shifting and dynamic process.
Kember and Zylinska, in Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, concur with Grusin on several points, including his argument that mediation operates between human and nonhuman entities and the importance of the relationship between the human body and mediation. Veering from Grusin, Kember and Zylinska center their work on a rejection of the term “new media,” noting the concept essentially constructs false binaries between digital mediation and analog mediation, two processes that are indivisible to them. The authors also go into more detail on how mediation affects and is affected by other influences, including those in the realm of the “technological, social, economic, geographical, and other influences or forces well beyond those controlled by the human” (9).
Kember and Zylinska also diverge from Grusin in their emphasis on the process of mediation as an “originary process of media emergence” in which mediation allows for new possibilities and is “always to of becoming, of bringing-forth and creation” (21, 22). These authors echo Grusin’s ideas about the dynamic process of mediation, but Kember and Zylinska generally conceptualize mediation as a process of lifeness that always holds the potential to spring new forms of mediation, new relationships and engagements between entities and objects.
Most important to my consideration of Majora’s Mask is the claim that the ontological bringing-forth of mediation also suggests a force of “differentiation… of ‘becoming other’” (Kember and Zylinska 27) that not only reproduces previous forms but creates and enacts new forms and processes of engagement and communication between, within, and through humans and nonhumans. So vital mediation is a pun here, noting that mediation is absolutely necessary to our experience and the world and that it produces new life in the form of future iterations of mediation. With such a broad definition of mediation, Kember and Zylinska argue that one must cut mediation, much as one would cut a film reel, and must ethically cut well in order to see how the process of mediation occurs in a specific instance or example.
These very brief explanations of Grusin and Kember and Zylinska’s theoretical arguments draw several parallels between the two works. Both works consider mediation as a process that occurs a priori of human involvement and perception. Both aim to extend mediation as a process beyond simply media technologies like film, television, or video games. Both want to consider how nonhuman actants engage in and affect processes of mediation. And both discuss how mediation is always already operating and is thus constantly shifting and changing through the humans and nonhumans that act across it.
These claims about mediation, much like any other philosophical or theoretical approach, have their benefits and drawbacks. First, considering mediation as an ever-changing process helps us consider how nonhuman actants affect and are affected by human behavior and discourses. Next, I think it critically intervenes in considerations of agency within game studies, a concept that has been long discussed and debated within the field (Domsch; Muriel and Crawford).
Approaching mediation as an ongoing process provides theoretical background to explore how large geopolitical processes like shipping routes, silicon mining, and discourses of embodiment may affect how we discuss agency within gameworlds. Similarly, Grusin’s and Kember and Zylinska’s work repositions humans as not sole perceivers of truth and knowledge, since our ways of perceiving of the world are always already mediated by our bodies, providing ways to consider how humans are never not just themselves, but also composed of their relationship with the actants around us.
By referring to Majora’s Mask throughout, I aim to show how these conceptualizations aid in considering how the complex systems of player, controller, game, and in-game objects are always already constantly mediating and being mediated by one another. Yet, I also note that Grusin, Kember, and Zylinska’s theories also threatens to teeter into meaninglessness if not considered with the right cut, here thought of as historical, political, social, and economic specificity.
Masks and Mediation
To apply radical and vital mediation to Majora’s Mask, I first want to explore why Grusin, Kember, and Zylinska’s ideas about mediation apply to more than digital works. Rather than taking a copy of Gulliver’s Travels or a film reel of Roshoman as the only object of inquiry, we can use radical and vital mediation to consider how the component parts of each object coordinate and engage in processes of mediation to convey the (seemingly) immediate forms that readers and viewers see.
This could take our inquiry anywhere from the ways that paper and human hands interact to form specific tactile qualities to how celluloid as a substance has been used economically, politically, and historically and how it became culturally attached to the “medium” of film. The substances that make up these supposed mediums can be considered mediums within themselves, nonhuman actants that have always already affected how humans have engaged and culturally developed the supposed immediacy of these objects. Doing so allows us to see how printed text, even text made before computer programs, typewriters, or the printing press, has operated within various processes of mediation: ink making, paper making, binding, wrapping, and writing, not to mention the complexities of language itself.
Considering these elements of technological media helps us move past the idea of sole human agency and knowledge over cultural products and allows to consider how the physical world and the materials we use affect the kinds of knowledge produced in these works. These, arguably post-structural, conceptualizations of mediation appear well-suited to discuss video games and other digital media, but I also want to note that all forms of mediation, including the mediated technologies we think of as simple, have questions of embodiment, materiality, and the engagement between human and nonhuman actants.
Digital media, including video games, seem to make the constantly shifting and dynamic interactions between human and nonhuman actants more apparent than their analog counterparts. Players interface with a controller or keyboard, which affects something on the screen in front of them, which then feeds information back to the player in a constantly shifting process. Some video games, especially games that include transformations, further complicate these processes as they adjust not only how the character engages with the game but also how the player controls the embodiment of the player-character. In these instances, the conceptualization of mediation as a constantly shifting process between human and nonhuman actants allows us to consider all of the ways that the game and the player mediate and are mediated.
As noted above, Link uses all kinds of items in the Legend of Zelda series, and some of these items transform Link’s body. The Deku, Goron, Zora, and Fierce Deity masks all transform Link into different characters with different embodiments.
With the Deku Mask, Link becomes a small shrub-like creature that can skip across water, twirl to attack enemies, and scuttle quickly along the ground. He also automatically passes out if he touches fire or ice.
The Goron Mask transforms Link into a tall, hearty rock-like creature that can curl up in a ball, roll quickly, and attack enemies with his spikes. He attacks with heavy, delayed punches, resists all fire damage, and drowns instantly in water.
With the Zora Mask, Link becomes a humanoid-fish creature, capable of swimming quickly through water and attacking with detachable boomerang fins. He also instantly dies to fire and has a tough time walking on land, sliding around on his slimy feet.
Finally, the Fierce Deity Mask transforms Link into an ultimate warrior. Basically, Link becomes a much larger and much more powerful version of his Adult form from Ocarina of Time, with a powerful sword that can shoot beams. This form can only be taken in boss battles, limiting its use.
Link gains access to these forms gradually throughout the game, with the game starting by Skull Kid transforming him into the Deku form by using the soul of another Deku Scrub. Link then goes on to heal a dying Goron chief and Zora musician to gain their masks. Finally, Link gains the Fierce Deity mask from the evil entity Majora itself after gathering all other masks in the game.
The game directly encourages, and often explicitly requires, Link to change forms as much as possible, especially in the Swamp, Mountain, and Ocean regions of the game where Link most often uses the Deku, Goron, and Zora mask, respectively. The final portion of the game, the Canyon, requires Link to use all three of those masks to solve complex puzzles including buttons, fire traps, water paths, and Deku flowers you can use to fly. Link constantly puts the masks on and off to transform into all these different forms, the masks violently mediating how he engages with the world and his own body.
Scholars have used several approaches to analyze these transformations in Majora’s Mask, including hauntological analysis (Skott and Bengston), mythological construction (Morell), and Japanese theater (Osborne). I want to focus on the ontological arguments of Grusin, Kember, and Zylinska’s work, particularly that mediation is a constantly ongoing process that we engage within in certain occurrences or cuts.
Majora’s Mask offers a compelling example, since we have at least four sites of mediation occurring: player-controller, controller-game, player-Link, and Link-masks. While other in-game characters interface with objects and the gameworld all the time, the masks present discrete forms of mediation that directly affect how Link is embodied in that gameworld. Considering mediation as an ongoing process, always already occurring, helps us consider how virtual masks act as more than simply digital facsimiles of their “real world” counterparts. Rather, we might consider how these masks mediate both Link’s and the player’s engagement with the gameworld of Majora’s Mask, the game controller, and the player’s physical body.
Although I don’t have enough time to engage with this concept fully here, I think it would be interesting to further explore how Majora’s Mask relates to work on trans mediation, particularly from queer scholars like Mel Chen. In my seminar paper, I’ll relate Grusin, Kember, and Zylinska’s considerations of the dynamic, ever-changing processes of mediation to other scholars who consider how mediation relates to transness, as it relates to transgender embodiment and other processes and discourses that position the human body as always already dynamically shifting, changing, and transitioning.
As mentioned above, most games within the Legend of Zelda series contain necessary bodily transformations of one kind or another but focusing on the masks in Majora’s Masks allows me to consider how items in games, specifically those that affect how the player engages with the game screen and controller, may position the digital avatar as always already transitioning. In other words, Link in Majora’s Mask serves as a prime example of how avatars are constantly dynamically shifting, requiring the player to adjust their approaches to play and games. As discrete objects of mediated transformation, the Deku, Goron, Zora, and Fierce Deity masks represent easily-identified cuts in that continuous process of mediation.
Thus, Grusin’s and Kember and Zylinska’s work can be used to consider how games stabilize or cut these flows of mediations through in-game objects, which are themselves strings of code and data that operate in tandem with player controls. By considering trans mediation in Majora’s Mask, I aim to explore theblurred and always already mediated boundaries between Link’s body, the body of the player, the controller used to control the screen, and the objects Link uses within the game.
Drawbacks of Radical and Vital Mediation
As with other arguments about the ontology of mediation or objects, Grusin’s and Kember and Zylinska’s works could easily erase how mediums, genres, technology, and objects operate in specific historical, geopolitical, social, and discursive environments. If we don’t limit what we consider within our cut of mediation, the entire process becomes too abstract to adequately consider any one area of inquiry.
A non-exhaustive list of all the forms of mediation that coordinate to allow one to even play Majora’s Mask includes all the material components of the N64, the mining equipment that humans operate to gather silicon, the electrical grid one attaches their N64 to, the methods of shipment of the game and the controller, and that’s not even considering all of the ways the person themselves have been mediated as a player or mediate the game screen. Simply, we need to be explicitly clear about how these conceptualizations of mediation interact with, build upon, or add to discussions of specific examples, historical periods, players, or other entities.
Similarly, like object-oriented ontology, radical and vital mediation stake claims about the ontology of objects, staking claims about the very essence of things, despite also arguing that we as humans are always already mediated and/or are unable to truly see the essence of things. If we truly took Harman’s logic as truth, objects receded, escaping our conceptions of what those objects could be, which leads me to wonder why Harman could claim that objects recede, since he also would not be able to perceive the receding objects that recede.
Grusin’s and Kember and Zylinska’s arguments are distinct, and I would argue much more cogent, than Harman’s, since they are indicating that mediation is always already a process, not that mediation performs specific actions. Yet, I think vital and radical mediation sometimes could teeter dangerously into a flattened apoliticization, a common critique OOO and new materialism (Boysen).
Essentially, if everything is mediation, how do we conceive of discrete on-the-ground occurrences that directly impact peoples’ lives? If everything is mediation, how do we avoid therefore flattening differing experiences of race, gender, sexuality, identity etc. as it operates within specific time periods, social groups, and discursive structures? What does vital and radical mediation truly allow us as researchers to discuss that hasn’t already been discussed in other methodologies and theories? How do we as researchers posit that everything is always already mediated while accounting for difference?
As Boysen argues, OOO and new materialism do “neoliberalism and capitalism a great favor by insisting that the problem has to do not so much with the social and political conditions as with our missing appreciation of or empathy toward the inner life of things and objects” (238). That tacit support of dominant institutions is something that I’m afraid vital or radical mediation might similarly do if not situated within specific historical, political, economic, and social contexts.
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