The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is my favorite Legend of Zelda game. The central concept of the game is that you have three days to save the world before the moon crashes into it, killing everyone. Luckily, you can rewind time, so while you’re stuck within a three day time-frame, you can re-do it as many times as you wish, each time completing different tasks, exploring different dungeons, defeating different bosses, and meeting new people. This combination allows for a game world that really makes me feel important, much more so than in any other game that I’ve played.
In Majora’s Mask, if you don’t do something, the game keeps going. In most video games, even in other Legend of Zelda games, the world waits for you. This is mostly necessary. After all, it wouldn’t be fun to defeat Bowser and learn that the princess died because you spent too much time riding koopa shells. Players wouldn’t enjoy missing out on large parts of the game experience because they took their time or decided to explore. But because you can rewind time in Majora’s Mask, there’s no such danger. If you miss saving the milk delivery on your 5th run, there’s always #6! So while in other games, you can sit around, and the world never becomes doomed despite your inaction, in Majora’s Mask, if you don’t act, the world will end.
Interestingly enough, by creating a world that happens with or without you, MM makes me feel far more central to the story. You know what happens if you’re not around to rescue villagers: old women get mugged, young girls get abducted, couples stay estranged. You can’t just ignore them for fifty hours, defeat the final boss, and then come back and decide to find them that health potion they’ve been urgently needing. You have to be there, ready to help, or they suffer. If you’re not around, no one else is, either.
Xenonauts does a good job of replicating the feel, though, I’m finding. You can see incidents happening on the world map, like alien abductions or bombing raids, even if you can’t do anything about it because you have no jets within range. Local forces even act independently, bringing down alien spacecraft on their own, at times. It helps make the world feel larger and more real. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, by contrast, nothing happens that you’re not a part of. There are abductions you can’t react to, but only because other abductions are happening at the same time. From day one, you can reach anywhere on the planet. No one else will even attempt to stop the aliens. The world still happens without you, but not in a very dynamic way.
I wish that more games could have that sense of anti-solipsism, that the world doesn’t exist solely for you and your benefit. I definitely understand why they don’t, but it always leaves things feeling shallow when it’s so obvious that you’re the only actor in the world, and everyone else only reacts.