The Postman

I think a lot about the moment when Daft Punk won the Grammy for Album of the Year. It’s worth revisiting that moment on YouTube, because you’ll get to see one of the greatest hugs ever captured on video. They’re fully decked out in their anonymizing robot costumes, without a hint of human skin visible. And yet, it is a deeply expressive hug: a genuine release of emotion happening behind the dark glass of their visors.

I suspect the reason I find this hug so moving is almost the same reason why I love Daft Punk’s music. You can see the emotion in this moment, but not fully. You can see it in their body language, but not on their faces. You feel that there is a human struggling to break free from the machine. Daft Punk is neo-romantic Kraftwerk. Their central obsession is humanity’s limited means of expression and struggle to connect, and their main method of communicating this is to pose as robots, limiting their own expression through mechanical means:

There are so many things that I don't understand
There's a world within me that I cannot explain
Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same
I am lost I can't even remember my name”

“Within” would be a forgettable song if not for the vocal effect. AutoTune changes the meaning of the song and, for me at least, makes it great. The singer is attempting in vain to convey their full humanity to the listener. They’re attempting in vain to connect. We as listeners are compelled to fill in the blanks formed by the leaving out of information: the vocal nuance and imperfection that the software has removed.

There is a particular kind of creative expression where the emotional payoff comes from this invitation to bridge the gap between artist and audience: where the listener is required to engage their empathy to understand the implied expression. Outwardly expressive art doesn’t require this: Billie Holiday’s vocal performances are complete in themselves. Listeners can likely sympathise, but they aren’t required to empathise. The empathy bridge is only required in art that maintains a distance from–though never a hostility to–the audience. It radiates warmth from under a layer of coldness. I hear this quality in music by aloof New York icons like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson: the king and queen of this specific phenomenon. I hear it in Einstein on the Beach, less because of Philip Glass’s music than because of Robert Wilson’s text. I see it in paintings by Mark Rothko and films by Wes Anderson, I hear it in Glenn Gould’s piano playing, and I read it in dialogue by Tom Stoppard.*

I also see it in the face of Clock Town’s unflappable postman.

Clock Town itself is an inverse of Daft Punk: it is a mechanical construction imitating life, as opposed to people imitating mechanical constructions. But inverses can provide a similar effect, and that is true here. Clock Town is a surprisingly poignant tiny diorama, valiantly simulating life within the limitations of the Nintendo 64. It is in essence an exceedingly sophisticated cuckoo clock, with events timed to specific moments and figures running along predetermined paths in accordance with the passage of time. The town is ostensibly named for the clock tower in its central square, but there’s a double meaning here: it’s also called “Clock Town” because it is the most clocklike possible town.

Time is the predominant obsession here, especially given the current situation: a three-day deadline to get out of town or be crushed by the falling moon. But the postman takes this obsession to a monomaniacal extreme. He is single-mindedly dedicated to his mail delivery schedule. His sprite moves at a metronomical tempo from one mailbox to the next, and if you slow the passage of time his speed is similarly affected: suddenly he looks like he’s running the wrong way along a conveyor belt at the airport. He complains if you get in his way, for he is One With The Flow Of Time.

The postman is Clock Town distilled into one person. His mechanical path through the world is the clearest way to see the workings of the simulation in action. So it makes sense that the culmination of his storyline is also Clock Town’s most urgent invitation to extend the empathy bridge. Clock Town empties out on the night of the third day. Only a few people remain. The banker seems not to recognize the danger he’s in. Anju quietly awaits her fate, or the return of her love. And the postman is racked with conflict, cowering on his knees at the post office, unable to flee because it’s not on the schedule.

This moment has been widely interpreted (perhaps even confirmed) as a cry for help from the desperate development team, forced to deliver Majora’s Mask on a punishing one-year deadline. But even divorced from that context, it maintains its poignancy. The postman here is a similar figure to the title characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: too marginal to exercise free will, but not so limited in faculty that he doesn’t feel this lack of free will intensely. His limitations are familiar not only to readers of Stoppard, but also to anybody who has ever detected an uncanny poignancy in an AutoTuned voice, or felt unaccountably moved as Laurie Anderson intones: “your eyes/it’s a day’s work/just looking into them.”

Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the postman isn’t doomed. The game provides us with the profound delight of freeing him from his endless loop. Naturally, we must do this by allowing him to exercise his purpose one last time: he must deliver a letter to his boss, the mayor’s wife, who then releases him from the curse of the delivery schedule. He gives us his treasured hat as a memento and vanishes into what we can only hope is a richer, fuller life. He waves his arms in the air as he leaves town: a unique animation that appears only here, for an absolute maximum of three or four seconds. Somebody on the relentlessly crunched development team cared so much about this tiny moment that they made an animation specifically for it. The freed postman no longer jogs: he prances.

To me, this is the most beautiful moment in Majora’s Mask. We identify with the postman for the same reason we identify with any other artist or fictional personage with a limited expressive capacity: because our own expressive capacity is also limited, even and especially when communication matters the most.

May we all find our way out of the loop.

*My very favourite example of this is especially relevant here, but requires a bit of extra explanation. There is a section of Ted Hearne’s contemporary oratorio The Source called “We called for illumination at 1630” that uses AutoTune to similar effect as in Daft Punk. Hearne takes two lines of text from the documents revealed by Chelsea Manning and sets them for a distorted and AutoTuned choir whose voices become more and more fractured as their cries for help become more urgent. It is the perfect musical expression of the difficulty of communicating in extremis.