People who’ve played Majora’s Mask (and even many who haven’t) know the bittersweet story of Anju and Kafei. Their relationship is so genuine and heartwarming, and their struggles are truly saddening. It’s compelling from a player’s perspective — you want to help them because you want to see them happy, whether you receive a reward or not. This is a motivation that many games — past and present — often struggle to achieve, because they are driven by reward seeking instead of emotionally evocative storytelling.

When you fail to help Kafei recover the Sun’s Mask from Sakon’s Hideout, it’s crushing. You feel responsible for preventing them reunite, and desperately want to try again once you go back in time. You aspire to see Kafei and Anju together before the world ends, no matter what it takes — even if it means foregoing all your other responsibilities.

However, there’s a moment in the game — one involving Anju — that I think even exceeds the heart-wrenching sight of Kafei stood silently, defeated, in Sakon’s Hideout. It’s a moment I always remember from my first playthrough of Majora’s Mask because of how moving it is, and it’s a standout example of what makes the game’s writing so emotionally investing.

kafei

It was the second day in Clock Town. The grey sky drizzled, mimicking the melancholy mood of the town, and I saw Anju leave the Stock Pot Inn, carrying an umbrella that shaded her sunken face. I was curious about where she was going, so I followed her. I found it strange that I couldn’t interact with her while she walked, especially because I had been able to the day before, and could with other characters. Plus, in my experience, NPCs were always around to tell Link something, or they were simply never available to talk to from the start. Why now, all of a sudden, was Anju’s life seemingly separate to mine? Why wasn’t she simply an NPC to provide me a quest or service, or a bit of world-building banter?

I had caught bits and pieces of her and Kafei’s story, but was not yet taking part in the quest. Normally in games that means nothing happens — the NPCs wait until you accept a quest to trigger events. But Anju was clearly still leading her day-to-day life, not standing around idly until I did something to find Kafei. Again, this was unusual for NPCs in games to me, although by Majora’s Mask’s standards not that unusual, as people do move around based on a schedule. However, the game takes it one step further with Anju, to truly encapsulate the emotional weight of her and Kafei’s story, and make her seem like more than just an NPC.

anju's despair laundry pool

Once she sat on the Laundry Pool bench and I spoke to her, she soon erupted into tears. I was surprised, and saddened – feelings I wasn’t that used to games evoking at the time. I found it rare to see an NPC’s mood change so dramatically yet naturally, especially without me triggering some sort of event. I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, sure, I’d seen characters cry or experience other emotions in games, but it was never portrayed quite like this.

Here was a video game character who I saw in a moment of real vulnerability, and it was purely for the purpose of showing just that. By that point it’s too late in the three-day cycle to help them, and she will go there whether or not you talked to her before (unless you started the quest). So although it has been designed to motivate you to help her, it does this so effectively because its primary aim is to portray a character with real, relatable emotions.

I felt for her because the reason she was crying — for Kafei — was portrayed so organically and relatably (and let’s not forget the dramatic irony in the fact that she is literally a dozen or so feet away from Kafei). I think even without knowing beforehand about Kafei, it would have still left a poignant effect on me, particularly when you listen to her dialogue about being afraid to find him and hear why he “wanted to disappear”. “It might be because of… me…” “Should I wait?” These are the thoughts of a confused and emotionally broken human being. Her words and reactions, and the fact that you are genuinely powerless to do anything, give this moment real weight and humanity.

anju crying

Because she is not weeping like this for the whole game, it makes her character all the more three-dimensional. She is more than just an object or a quest. She is a person with her ups and downs, with fears and uncertainties. She is a person who can experience moments of vulnerability just as much as you or I.

It was one of the first of many surreal moments I experienced in the game with characters like this: characters who mirrored humans, who portrayed real emotions and evoked them in the player. Characters whose lives didn’t revolve around mine, but rather their own needs and struggles. And sometimes, a hero can’t offer them solace and help at every moment of every day — just as you can’t with Anju in her moment of despair.

anju and kafei

It makes it all the more rewarding when you finally do reunite them, and eventually see them marry (save for the tease of not showing Kafei’s face).  And it’s truly a sign of wonderful game writing when the happy ending for two people you became emotionally invested in is more than enough of a reward.