I’ve never been good at understanding the expected outcomes of social situations.
As someone who grew up with Asperger’s syndrome, not diagnosed formally until adulthood, I often felt socially out of my depth in the world. The ways peoples’ facial expressions could convey a dishonesty of statement, the ways observable outcomes to events were meant to clue me in on how future events would affect others, and the reasons people acted the way they did were often a mystery to me. I didn’t really know how to understand how people knew what others were thinking or planning or expecting in the world.
Not understanding how to fit into the world around you as a child can be incredibly isolating.
As someone whose first real video game love affair was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, an escapist fantasy about an ostracised child venturing off into the world to make an important impact, I was incredibly excited when I learned Majora’s Mask existed. A new Zelda on the N64, I was ready for another adventure where I went off into the world and single-handedly saved everyone from scary, obvious, understandable threats. I was ready to go slice through problems until everything bad faded away through brute force.
I was not expecting to struggle as much as I did with the game.
Majora’s Mask’s main villain isn’t something that can be beaten down with a sword, it’s empathy and social understanding. It’s a game about learning to predict the emotional needs of others, understand how their actions lead on from each other, how to fix problems whose solutions are not spelled out, and ultimately understanding the motivations that lead people to the choices they make.
This was not something I was naturally suited to doing.
My first playthrough of Majora’s Mask, a complete mask collection playthrough, took me almost a year. It was the only video game I played during that year, and I played it religiously. I made physical copies of the Bomber’s Notebook by hand, and read them alone at lunchtime at school. I asked friends and family for their input on quest lines. I learned where characters went in their daily routines and why, what changes would affect their choices, what effects that had on their emotions, and what complex needs people had for their happiness.
While Majora’s Mask didn’t teach me to understand the world by itself, it did teach me a coping mechanism that stuck with me right up into my late teens, when I eventually got a diagnosis of Asperger’s. It taught me that flow charts could be used to map, track, and eventually extrapolate and predict behaviors and needs. It taught me that by watching others, the things they do and why, it was possible to predict what might help or be the right move in a given scenario.
After I finished Majora’s Mask, I began to make physical flow charts for common situations I could study, tweak and make use of. I still have most of these in a drawer in my office filing cabinet.
I learned that, while I might not always understand a social situation, by watching it play out in different ways and mapping out the results, I could eventually learn through trial and error how to progress through situations in the right way. I could learn to cope with complex situations, and help others, without always understanding how I managed it.
For me, that was enough.