Time passes, people move. The design of the in game clock in Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask
No spoilers. These games have aged well: play them. Any version (n64/gcn/3ds) is fine.
"the mechanic": letting a clock run
Time passes in the real world, and basically everyone learns about it. So why not put something all our players are already familiar with, into the game?
Under the hood, we’re just counting a number for the smallest unit of time in the game. The real world has 86400 seconds in a day, but you don’t have to copy that for a game.
What does it mean to add a clock?
It means the game world changes WITHOUT player intervention. With just a clock, all you’ve done is aided in world-building.
But since the clock is just a counter… we could pause it, or change it’s speed. We could even go back in time.
"frozen time": ocarina of time teaches you
The only way to mess with OoT’s clock is by simply entering a town, a dungeon, or Lon Lon Ranch. Once you’re inside, whatever time of day it’s set to is frozen. Why?
Well, the designer is teaching the player by freezing time. This is crucial, because when OoT was released, it was the first of it’s kind.
Suppose you’re a new player.
You begin in Kokiri forest. Time here is frozen, and until the first dungeon is defeated, you cannot gain passage to greater Hyrule, where time will begin to pass. Why?
Progressing the clock is unnecessary for what is actually a tutorial village.
Without getting too distracted on tutorial design, just know that OoT gives you training wheels, but it doesn’t hold your hand. You are soon told to find a sword and a shield, but otherwise the game lets you roam the forest area. There is already enough concepts for the player to learn, without having the forest change to a nighttime version.
After the first dungeon, Hyrule field serves to continue slowly expanding the playable world. It also does hint towards the castle town. It doesn’t take long to understand that if you want the time of day to change, you need to hang out in the fields for a short while.
With the day cycle established, its not jarring for the player when time freezes in the town. Why? Because it’s convenient, and the player is already used to it.
Basically there was enough world building done on Hyrule field. You know the Zelda universe now has days and nights. But you want to explore the town at your own leisure, without it swapping between it’s day and night versions every 2 minutes.
There isn’t much else that OoT does with the clock. It works the same way as child or adult link.
"true time": majoras mask tests you
In Majora’s Maks, there are 3 distinct days (or 72 unique hours).
Time… never freezes in this game. A clock is now a prominent part of the interface, in the bottom center of the screen. Once the 3 days are fully used, the game must “end”.
The player now directly interacts with time. You can go back to the first hour, and you can change the speed of time. When you return to the first day, you also save the game.
In Majora’s Mask, manipulation of the clock is a tool entrusted to the player. Why?
You allow the player to attempt quests multiple times, by resetting time and trying again.
Many NPCs now have time-sensitive quests. You could miss an appointment, or fail to solve the puzzle or find the next clue on time. You can study what a character does within the 3 days, then go back in time and help them.
It’s no longer a single day loop. You are navigating an invisible schedule of events. Fortunately, the game gives you a notebook to help keep track.
Strangely, the game uses items as checkpoints. While the owl statues can pause your progress (in the english version of the game), you still have to resume.
Each quadrant of greater Termina (swamp, mountain, ocean, canyon) involves one or two smaller quests which upon completion, can give you a key item unlocking a shortcut, or a song necessary for gaining entrance to a temple. Its… up to the player to notice when a new item trivialises a portion of the quest.
There could have been more organic characters in the quadrants of greater Termina, but because its convenient, they’re mostly in Clock Town. They also had to finish developing MM within a year, which is understandable.
I suppose when asking “Did these games need a day/night clock”, the answer is “They effectively used them, so yes”.
2D Zelda games didn’t usually need to cycle the clock. There was less room to have characters do day and night time activities. Houses were smaller and less complex. Finally you couldn’t see the sun set given the camera angle.
Ocarina of Time just needed to build the world and in a sense, show off what was possible on a Nintendo 64. Majora’s Mask had some fun enriching some characters, even if the outer quadrants were more akin to open-air dungeons.
Ocarina of Time had more dungeons too. I think when I was younger that simple fact ranked it above Majora’s Mask. But now that I’m older, I really liked how Termina is doomed, but unlike Hyrule wasn’t really asking for a hero to save it.
But enough about comparing. There’s a long winded post about ranking games that I might never finish. There’s a flood of thoughts about the design these Zelda games if I don’t restrict the topic to an in-game clock!
I haven’t even started talking about clocks that are synced with the real world.
Have fun out there won’t you?
[1. welcome to clock town]