Your Shadow Self:
An Examination of the Player’s Relationship to the Game

He made his first appearance in Zelda II: Adventure of Link as our hero’s pixeled shadow come to malicious life. His most memorable role would perhaps be in Ocarina of Time as a fully-realized antagonist, cast in careful blues and greys so his features were startlingly clear, fought in a hall of mist and mirrors. I wouldn’t say Dark Link is an essential, eagerly anticipated part of the franchise, yet few secondary villains have inspired as much contemplation as Link’s shady alter-ego. Fan-fics abound with his dark character skulking about the paragraphs. Countless renderings of his familiar-yet-strange face litter fan-art pages; it’s as if we fans are as drawn to Link’s dark side as we are to the hero himself. This piece will examine the nature of Dark Link and possible reasons why he is so compelling.

It makes sense. In OoT, the fight with Dark Link is one of the hardest trials of the game (let’s move on from the Water Temple, shall we?). Certainly more difficult than firing arrows into the wizard Ganondorf, or hacking at the devilish tail of his more piggy persona on the crumbling castle allure. Though the Big Bad of the Zelda series has always been this master thief and Moblin king, defeating him comes part and parcel with the quest – he’s there at the top, the wicked puppeteer, and killing him means beating the game. Without Ganon, or in the few instances where developers have strayed some equal evil to hold sway of the land, there is no true purpose. And I suppose the relative ease (with healthy amounts of button-mashing cleverness, of course) with which he is felled is to be expected. After all, the road to the castle is rocky, and hard enough to travel as it is. To be a successful game, the final villain needs to walk a delicate line, giving one the impression of being impossible to trump and yet, ultimately, is a walk in the park once you’ve figured the trick. It can be confidently said that where there’s Ganon, a silver or golden arrow can’t be far behind; hopefully with good aim and precise timing, not to mention a healthy amount of built-up, Water-Temple-inspired angst to back it. Which is nothing like the task at hand when you cross blades with Link’s sinister alter-ego. Dark Link comes at you as you come at him – he matches your moves blow for blow, and is as unpredictable as every individual player.

This is, of course, why developers are probably loathe to over-use him. As an antagonist, he is the perfect mate to our feckless young hero, which makes him an unlikely candidate for Big Bad anytime soon. To hold the top spot a villain needs to be alien, strange – whose own grand plots are distant from the hero’s sun-speckled desires and fairy-flecked dreams, but not in direct opposition to. An effective scoundrel needs to be mad for power, glory or riches (usually some combination of the three); Dark Link is an effective tool as a soldier, but wouldn’t fit in the castle’s stolen throne-room, tough though he may be. Whenever he pops up in a game it is both a treat and a challenge – sure, you soon learn that a few good spin-attacks will stop him in his tracks, but the flurry of swordplay beforehand accounts for much of the mystique and exertion.

To put it simply: Dark Link is the evil twin of Link. Link, who starts his adventure as a boy without a care in the world; without the devious Ganon having usurped the king and kidnapped the princess Zelda, one could imagine Link would happily spend his days in the forest, perhaps succumbing to wanderlust on occasion and taking Epona out for a spin. He’d certainly be the go-to gardener for folk with a vegetation problem. Unlike Ganon, whose sole goal is to be the most powerful being in existence, it is perfectly logical to assume that Dark Link would spend his life in similar quietude. Where Link is helpful he would be cruel; while Link rides around on his trusty mare, Dark Link eats his. Link wants nothing but peace, so Dark Link wants nothing but war. Link will fight for his cause and so will his shadowed counter-part. But Link does not want to be king, and Dark Link is content to play the part of foot soldier.

Because Dark Link is created by Ganon in an attempt to foil Link’s quest, these speculations are somewhat without solid ground – we’re never going to see Dark Link butchering cows or slapping maidens. He was made to meet Link in that room. Because he was made of Link, or at least of the negative space in him, it is safe to guess at Dark Link’s proclivities. All this goes to show that, while he may be an adversary to reckon with whose skill rivals those of Ganon, he is merely a player as is our hero.

Establishing what Dark Link is in-game, I started to think about what he meant out-of-game; what does he signify? Everything produced from the human mind has the potential to be a symbol – a link, if you will, to some greater meaning. Outside of providing a chance for clever game-play, what does he stand for? Why are we drawn to him? And the answer came quick. It’s obvious. The reason we, as fans, are enamoured with Dark Link is because he is us.

The first problem with this theory is also obvious: aren’t I Link? You know, that pointy guy in green? The one I’ve been ever since I woke up sans-fairy? But where does a gamer sit in relation to their characters, really? It’s a knee-jerk reaction to say that you are put in the position of the player character, but one that doesn’t take into account how truly distant gamers are from the avatars they control.

As an outside example, think of Mario. The man can do everything you can’t – fight monsters with his bare boots, dematerialize in one world to be sucked into another, even kick-jump up conveniently placed walls to gain greater height. A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary when playing video games. They are an outlet for fantasy, of course, and no one should be told that in their fantasies they are not everything they want to be.

Yet you are not Mario. You are a young girl or boy tapping buttons on a controller. It is a game, and though you can turn Mario this way and that, you are very conscious of the fact that Mario is a distinct character with his own elaborate fictional history. You are merely the driver at the wheel. On some level, no matter how involved you are in a game, you can’t forget that you may appear to be Mario, but Mario definitely isn’t you.

Same thing with Link. You sign on to his quest when you first start, and you inhabit his persona. Link doesn’t represent you in any significant way – he has his goal, predetermined, and here you are helping him out. That’s the whole point of a game; to participate in something fantastic, but not to be it. Each primary player character can be looked at as a suit, or a role, that gamers fit themselves into. It’s like acting, in a way – your actions and reactions bring life to Link or Mario, but you are merely performing.

Since playing as Link is like acting a role in some elaborate theatre production, the character loses any reflective properties he may have. Though Link is representative of every girl and boy daring enough to wander into dark places, he is destined to succeed – while each individual gamer may falter in some areas, the character of Link is meant to triumph. It’s the whole point of the game – your job as player is get our elfin hero to The End. When Link slumps over on his side, perhaps grateful that the god-awful beeping has finally stopped, it is not because the ‘script’ says he should. When Link dies, you have failed to perform his role adequately. Like any acting job, really – you may slip up on occasion, flub a line or step on someone’s toes, but once you figure all the elements into one cohesive body, you know you’ll get through.

This is the relationship between you, the gamer, and Link, the primary character in the story. It’s fairly transparent and easy to map. As such, it doesn’t offer much insight into the psychology of the gamer. I posit the reason we as fans are drawn to this idea of Dark Link is that Dark Link articulates the position of a gamer in relation to their primary character. It is in Link’s sinister reflection that we see ourselves.

Think on this: Dark Link is made to mimic every move of his counterpart. Link raises his sword – Dark Link echoes. But wait, why does Link raise his sword? Because you make him do it. And why do you make him do it? Because you are trapped in the quest – trapped in making him succeed, and the road to success is littered with bodies. As the performer, you are obligated to fend off attack. If you don’t, you fail – Link never fails, because he isn’t designed to. It would be a sorry game indeed if you had but one life and lost it, unable to continue.

So you know what you must do when faced with a villain. You fight. You are obligated to fight, because the role demands it. Just as Dark Link echoes the movements of Link, so too do you – Link, as a character, has a set number of attacks and defences that you become familiar with, intimately. When you press your buttons in play, you are merely setting a pace for his progress – Link will do battle because the character must, and in acting the role you have come to know when and where you are expected to have him strike. In performing the character, you are as much his reflection as is Dark Link.

Link comes to a door – he must go through it in order to make any headway, and you, having developed super-keen Zelda Logic after hours of play, make him enter. The door slams shut, and you are faced with your shadow self. You are obligated to make Link strike – Dark Link is obligated to strike back. He knows the exact moves of the titular character, just as you do. He reacts as he is designed to, just as you react as you’ve learned to. On the one hand there you are, performing as Link and doing the usual Link-ish things; on the other is he, a perfect reflection of your performance. In this way, Dark Link articulates the trapped nature of the gamer to the machinations of the game. Because the true Link is your costume, he is merely a point of access.

Dark Link shows us that we have the potential to be our own worst enemy. His tricks are your tricks reflected back on you. As a simple matter of logic, the reason he starts off so hard to beat is because you, playing as Link, have become almost too adept in your role – it is only when you start trying new things that you are able to best him. You must step outside your standard performance. Though you are still using tactics you’ve learned while getting comfortable with the role of Link, the fight with Dark Link represents the gamer’s need to separate themselves from their complacency in participation. Yes, there is a story, and yes, it has a predetermined conclusion – yet you can not expect to get there without effort. Dark Link is skilled because you are skilled, and you beat him only if you are able to work outside the trappings of Zelda Logic. Common Zelda Logic tells you that the good ol’ hack-n-slash should work here, as it does with every other creature to a certain degree, but because Dark Link moves as you do, it appears he is unbeatable. Going through your combinations, you discover that Dark Link is not as precise a copy as he first appears to be – once you are able to judge his reactions, you find pauses, disconnection, a certain lag in his reaction. This process represents a gamer’s relationship to themselves in the game – in order to improve you must constantly revisit your performance, and to succeed you must let yourself be better than you have been. At no other point in the series are you faced with such a character that so adequately explains the relationship between gamer and game, character and performance.

This is why Dark Link is so appealing. We write him into our fictions because to know the character of Dark Link is to see ourselves. He is a symbol of what we are in relation to our games. Besting him is besting yourself as a gamer. In-game he is the reflection of the hero; out-of-game his design is the reflection of we, the players. Wherever he makes an appearance (and I suspect a likely place will be in the upcoming GameCube adventure), it gives us the opportunity to momentarily understand the whole process of playing games.


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This retro article was originally posted January 5th, 2005.