The Passage of Time in Hyrule

HanyouAugust 24th, 2012 by Hanyou

A significant number of games offer day/night cycles, and people who play Nintendo games are probably very familiar with the concept. Usually, certain things will only be available at certain times of day, or a number of days have to pass between events in order to complete sidequests.

Ocarina of Time certainly made it interesting; shops and houses in towns would be closed at night, the field would harbor new dangers, the overworld at large would offer new opportunities for skulltula harvesting, and most NPCs would acknowledge the passage of time. Ocarina of Time made us aware of how day and night could pass in a game world, but contrary to the real world, time was still static. It didn’t feel like it was moving forward so much as stagnating in a consistent cycle with too few changes over time. This wasn’t a shortcoming, it’s just that having a day/night cycle at all was sort of breaking new ground; infusing those days and nights with gravity and meaning would have to wait two years.

One of the most memorable things about Majora’s Mask — something that hasn’t been revisited in the franchise, and has rarely been revisited in any other franchise — is the three-day cycle. The chief effect of the mechanic on the gameplay and atmosphere is an unprecedented level of consistency and detail. Perhaps more than other Zelda setting, Termina feels like a living, breathing world, filled with people who have their own problems and their own motivations. That their solution is generally to ask for help from a complete stranger is of little consequence; Majora’s Mask offered a sandbox of a different kind, and did a wonderful job of it. What the three-day cycle gave us was a sense of place, a framework with nearly limitless potential. It was in essence about discovering not just places, but events. And surprisingly, this is still a largely new frontier for gaming.

Thus far, the three-day cycle appears to be one of the best solutions to an age-old problem faced by developers of adventure games, especially games that push NPCs to the forefront: “How do we make this world more believable?” Our lives may seem tedious, but we rarely do the same thing every day. There are nuances, surprises, and events completely beyond our control. But even more importantly, we see time progress steadily. We’re aware of the progression of days, months, seasons, and years, and it affects the minutiae of our daily lives. The Wind Waker presented similar questlines, and its often-overlooked sidequest quality was arguably a match for Majora’s Mask’s. But even The Wind Waker, in spite of its brilliant design, couldn’t do quite what Majora’s Mask did.

NPCs are very important in Majora’s Mask, of course, because it’s sidequest-driven. But could this depth be accessible without a cycle?

Most games that implement the passage of time do so in a way very similar to Ocarina of Time. Elder Scrolls games certainly utilize time mechanics, but, like Ocarina of Time, generally don’t acknowledge different seasons. Okami let the main character Ammy tackle monsters after dark, and showcased different events at different times of day, but as with Ocarina, it didn’t offer much more than a set cycle. All of this does usually influence how one approaches overworld travel, and can be a positive motivator for exploration. But several non-adventure games — primarily RPGs and sim titles — have an even more thorough implementation of the passage of time.

Harvest Moon, a farming sim that’s also often called an RPG, is one prominent example. At the most basic level, shops close on certain days, people have birthdays and anniversaries at specific times of the year, and some special events occur which can span several days. There are also seasons. Each season strikes at the core game’s mechanic: Crop-growing is usually one of the best ways to prosper financially, and different seasons yield different crops, with Winter sometimes not yielding any crops at all. Since gameplay is also patterned around the player’s routines, being unable to farm, harvest, mine, or take your animals outside influences all your other actions. The seasonal approach to time forces time management not only within the short span of a day, but also the much longer span of 10 to 30 days that make up a season, depending on the game. Rest, eating, and not overworking are all necessary to prospering, and planting crops early in the season is a must. Further differentiating the seasons are festivals and holidays, which break up the gameplay to keep it from being mundane. Animal Crossing uses time in a similar way, with festivals, unique character interactions, and changing items, albeit tied to the real-world clock.

Pok√©mon Gold and Silver debuted a time mechanic shortly after Ocarina of Time, and like Animal Crossing, time was bound to the real world. Certain Pokemon could only be caught at night and certain events only took place on particular days. Unlike Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, this is clearly just an RPG, showing that it’s not just simulations that can benefit from a more detailed time system. With the release of Black and White last year, seasons added yet another layer and helped keep things addictive, with changing environments across the overworld with each season.

Other games have their own time mechanics. The sleeper Dreamcast hit Shenmue took place over a few in-game months, but certain days have unique events. Near Christmas, decorations and banners start appearing, giving the game a festive environment. It doesn’t affect the gameplay, but it helps make the atmosphere a little more inviting in a game where atmosphere is the star. In Persona 4, the running clock only changes when the player allows it to, but it still forces time management as one of the game’s more difficult aspects, and still gives the player character a sense of place that deepens the narrative, character interactions, and locations.

These are all wildly different games than Zelda, but these examples are also relevant because different games across the franchise have had similar elements, and have used those elements to vary gameplay. No game has yet made time more important than Majora’s Mask, but if simulation games could enrich their worlds with seasons, weeks, and events timed to specific days, why couldn’t Zelda?

Oracle of Seasons showed that different seasons could radically alter the overworld, offering different ways to explore and adding another layer of depth to the game world. Ocarina of Time and Oracle of Ages used long spans of time in a similar way A Link to the Past used alternate dimensions, and Majora’s Mask compressed that approach over three days, offering more detail and changes that were, realistically, almost as radical. The Wind Waker even demonstrated how visual cues from the overworld can help enhance exploration: at one point, the player has to watch the moon’s cycles to find an elusive ship.

All of this serves to change time from a simple pattern into something more. As with simulation games, it takes advantage of the fundamental element of the Zelda franchise — exploration — and multiplies the possibilities. The puzzle element plays a part, too, as it forces you to directly assess your environment and think laterally. Oracle of Seasons, while not particularly difficult, is especially good about this; it magnifies the light world/dark world mechanic, but does it in a manageable way that’s never overly difficult.

Why not combine these elements? Characters need not have the same schedules every day of the week. Given the relatively few NPCs of Zelda games even today, it shouldn’t be hard to duplicate the general principles of Majora’s Mask over a longer period. The day-to-day changes evident in the three-day cycle could manifest themselves seasonally, and vary by year and by the number of items Link has or how far he is in the main quest. Visual cues, as in The Wind Waker, could round out the experience, hinting to the player that it may be best to change the season or wait for a different day of the week before completing a quest. Absent a means of changing the season or day instantly, quests wouldn’t even have to be “locked,” necessarily, at a certain time of the year — a different season or day can simply necessitate a different approach to a quest, increasing replay value. A Piece of Heart may be available at all times of day and at all seasons, but there’s no reason why it can’t be more difficult to acquire in the winter, buried under snow, or in the summer, precariously positioned under a hornet’s nest.

Zelda games always feature novel ideas, and always offer new means of exploration. We’ve seen vehicles and radical changes to the overworld alter how we’ve interacted with it. Why not add the fourth dimension to the list of navigational options? It’s intriguing to think of the possibilities. Considering that this niche has still been filled by too few games — especially adventure games — there’s no reason for the developers not to seize on the opportunity and, taking into account the series’ past successes, boldly explore the possibilities offered by a more detailed approach to the passage of time.

Author: Hanyou

Hanyou has worked for the article staff, both as a writer and as an editor, for over a year. He has also been an active member of the Zelda Dungeon forums since 2008 and an avid fan of the Zelda franchise since 1998. He has degrees in writing.

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  • me

    brilliant thoughts…nuff said

  • ancel22

    nice post! well thoght out

  • Yoshi

    The moment you make it that detailed when it comes to days, seasons, hours, minutes or even seconds, it becomes very hard to obtain secret items without the help of a walkthrough.

    For example I played Majoras Mask a few months ago from beginning to end in about 2 days, but it took me hella long to remember some quests, getting the last bottle is obviously a pain because its such a detailed quest.

    Nice thoughts nonetheless.

  • ghost

    what if they made seasons in the game, not like changing of the season whenever like oracle of seasons, but as you progressed through the game it went from spring/summer (when all zeldas apparantly start) to winter later on in the game. but the changes would be caused by progression of events rather than a clock. but then all the npcs and different events follow a clock and and their actions change during each section of the season.

    • Brandon Terrien

      That would bring a consequence for missing an NPC side quest or make the game really long by requiring it to be done before moving on the the main quest

      • Hello I am a ChuChu

        So? In Spirit Tracks, if you brought the little goron into Castle Town before you brought the woman fish, you would completely miss out on a very handy potion of the tracks that comes as a reward for bringing the fish to her. And if you try to bring her fish a little later in the game than if possible(before the goron)then the woman selling the fish needs ice prior to your purchas, which is totally unecesary
        if you don’t want tose tracks, and a long distance if you don’t have the warp gate from this quest…see what I mean? Even without the time/seasons thing, some side quests are unnaturally complex. That would just be another bump on the log.

        • Brandon Terrien

          I can’t tell if you’re supporting my argument or are against it

  • Jam9t3

    ‘Save and return to the Dawn of the first day?’
    LINK: NOOOO!!!!! NEVER!!!
    TATL: Why not?
    TATL: Who cares!? Were all gonna die if you dont PRESS ‘A’!!!!!
    LINK: *Ignored Tatl* MY PRECIOUS……

    Lesson to be learnt: Rupees can corrupt even the kindest of hearts, to avoid this, next time try using the ‘Child’s Wallet’.

    -Happy Mask Salesman

    • WestClockTown Bank

      If only there was a place to keep ll you’re rupees no matter how many times you start from the beginning

      • DA LAWLZ

        Like…. Wells Fargo?

      • Hello I am a ChuChu

        Well, technically, a temple usually takes two or three days, so you have to play the song of time to go back to the Dawn of First Day. All items you have on you, as in gained in the temple during the previous cycle, stay on you, and Tatl does too. It
        thusly confuses me that the rupees you DON”T have on you, in the bank, always go through time with you. Don’t get me wrong, I get that Nintendo probably didn’t have the technology or the time to do so, but shouldn’t teh amount that you have in the bank increase as time goes on, so by the end of the cycle, you have the actual total, and only at the end? Keep in mind that I understand that while realistic, this would really just be obnoxious and plain ridiculous. It’s just a theory.

        • RawrFish

          I don’t get what you’re saying about nintendo not having technology, but the reason you can go back in time and still have the same number of rupees in the bank is because the bank lady writes your total on your arm when you’ve deposited rupees. This total goes back in time with you, and you can withdraw those rupees from their big stash of what everyone has. Essentially, when you go back in time, you can rob from the bank, since you never actually deposited those rupees.

          • amrole

            This is true! lol

    • Nicholas Alexander Jabbour

      Wtf? lol. And that’s what the Clock Town Bank is for. :-p

    • itsameluigi1290

      This is why I love Majora’s Mask.

  • theonlylegend2510

    i love the picture of link and epona during sunset <3


    i like the part near the end when you talk about the piece of heart being under the hornets nest in the summer and buried in the snow in winter! Amazing article

    • guest

      This kinds of reminds me of the seasons system from Banjo-Kazooie, Click Clock Wood. Hmm.. would a dungeon or area like that be a good idea?

  • Pizzaman

    What was the deal with having no day/night in Skyward Sword?

    • Linkfan99

      There was day/night, but only in skyloft.

    • guest

      Yeah, that really bothered me. I wish I could have traveled around the surface at night, and maybe creepier enemies and certain secrets would only appear after dark. Would have been awesome. Oh well.

      • Name

        They could have simply put random beds in the wilderness. That would solve your problem without haveing to change the whole gameplay.

        *Lanayru Desert, before unlocking the mining facility*
        *link approaches the porwer generator*
        Link: I’m tired!
        LD-301: Sit down on that stool there.
        Link: No, really tired! I want a good night’s sleep!

        Link: Oh there’s a bed! In the middle, there!
        LD-301: WTF is it dooing the…
        *Link rushes off*
        *Arrives to the bed, almost sinking*
        Link: NOW I’m REALLLY tired, after ruching through that quicksand! *Jumps on the bed, leavign shield and sword on the side*
        LD-301: He said he wanted a good night’s sleep… It’s noon now. NOT what I call night.
        *Morning, next day*
        *Link gets up*
        Link: Where are my sword and shield?! OH NO they sank during the night!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        THE END.

      • mellentheherooftime

        you could of played at night on the surface. bokoblin kidnapping at eldin is a clue.

        • Philip Kunhardt

          That wasn’t night; that was darkened skies from the Eruption of Eldin’s Power.

  • Brandon Terrien

    The reason that a game hasn’t been made with a same or better level of time management as Majora’s Mask is because it’s almost impossible to create a game that has that kind of time management without copying the cycle and ability to time travel that was incorporated into Majora’s Mask. But if you can prove me wrong, please do. I encourage you to think of a way around this dilemma.

    • ???????

      Try thinking of a system of events that unfold each day, for each person, but is chosen at random, like spinning a wheel, you never would know which activity that each of the people would do on the particular day. The action of the day is chosen at random, every time you would enter a town, or the start of a new day. As for the seasons, they could try the seasonal changes that they made in Pokemon Black & White, a diffrent season every month.

      • Aerolfos

        This has already been done, have you never played The Elder Scrolls? It is called Radiant AI, invented by Bethesda. I kinda think they copyrighted it though so….

  • Cpt. Muffin

    well twilight princess sort of set some seasons in the game, like when you are in the mountains its snowing, and then when you see the yeti on top of that cliff with sled tree, the setting changes with more sun and even the snow melts down. i think twilight princess really put it in effect well!

    • Brandon Terrien

      That’s location, which all the games have done

    • Nicholas Alexander Jabbour

      That’s not seasons. That’s just different climates for different parts of the world. Ocarina of Time did the same thing with Zora’s Domain and the ice cavern. That doesn’t mean they’re different seasons. Same thing with the mountain in Twilight Princess. of course it’s snowing.

  • GSusanj

    yes, yes, and a million time yes. This is the game I want to play. A living, breathing city for sure!

  • Princess Zelda

    I like having the day/night cycle in video games. It gives it more depth, in my opinion. In Majora’s Mask, when I hear the bells, I automatically look down at the clock, relieved to see that it is only the first day. When it was night in Ocarina of Time, it kinda scares me, knowing that ghosts, poes, or stalchidren are wondering in the fields.


    Speaking of ocical of seasosn i am getting it soon :)

  • Alan Da Cruz Nascimento

    would be great fun. *-*

  • The Doctor

    This writer needs to get his facts straight. He thinks that time is a strict progression of cause to effect when, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey… stuff.

  • Neutopia

    That’s an amazing idea, I really hope they decide to eventually do something like that, it would be so addicting and interactive aha. :D

  • CrowZotax

    you should have mention pokemon black and white. They did a good job of using day & night and seasons, so you can do certain events at certain times. With that combination making the game a while to last.(unless you change the time on your DS but that is too much work.)

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  • Zelda is the Bomb!!!

    Why just have it correlate to the seasons? How about real-life weather, too!

    Sunny outside? Yes!

    Foggy? Yes!

    Tornado? Yes!








    Tropical storm!




    Heat wave!

    Any weather condition you can think of !!!