They made Zelda the protagonist of a game.
People can say what they will about how bad the CD-i games are comparatively to the rest of the series. As much as I’d like to say something as controversial as The Faces of Evil or The Wand of Gamelon being better than, oh, say, Spirit Tracks—and believe me, I would love to pick a fight and say something like that—I really can’t. It’s not true. I could write extensive essays about things I’d have done differently with some of the official Zelda games, but none of them are ultimately inferior to the CD-i games. So really, I’m there with you.
But no matter how bad the CD-i games by comparison, it is impossible to say that the choice to feature Zelda as the primary protagonist in two of their three games was a mistake. In fact, I’d say it was revolutionary.
So instead of talking about something that’s actually controversial, let’s talk about something that shouldn’t be controversial but somehow has managed to be controversial anyhow. Let’s talk about Anita Sarkessian and Damsels in Distress.
Let me state upfront that I don’t agree with every last word that Sarkessian has ever said. However, I do find myself generally in agreement with her major theses, and I do think that female characters in video games can and should be handled in more positive lights. And in the first of her many videos regarding Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, one of the primary targets that she places the magnifying glass over is The Legend of Zelda’s treatment of Princess Zelda.
Released one decade ago, The Wind Waker is one of my favorite games in the Zelda franchise; it’s easily in my top three. It features my favorite race of all time (the Rito), it’s got characters that I love intensely (Tetra and Medli), and it also had one of the biggest shockers in the whole franchise that I can remember (the exploration of sunken Hyrule). Sure, it’s not a perfect game, but it’s beautiful in so many ways.
Yet to this day, one of the most jarring experiences that I’ve ever felt in video games is the sudden change of characterization in and attitude towards Tetra the moment she is transformed into Princess Zelda. Tetra was one of my favorites because of her spunk, her audacity, and her fearlessness. She’s not just a pirate for the sake of the plot or plot device; she easily fills the shoes of the role. I still remember her running in and jabbing at Ganondorf a few times before he picks her up at arm’s distance; I was laughing but also cheering her on!
And then Daphnes Nohansen throws her into the Pink Dress of Helplessness™, tells her that it’s too dangerous for her to be galavanting about Hyrule without ever explaining why, and then tells Link that only he can go out and do what is needed to defeat Ganon. And here’s the surprising thing; Tetra—I mean—Zelda, at that crucial moment of character transformation, just passively agrees with this! That’s not the Tetra I remember! Where was the spunk that you were showing but minutes ago when you were annoyed with Link bringing you here? Why aren’t you putting up a fight against this, drawing your blade and challenging the big man who has no freaking clue what’s best for you? (Because he doesn’t.) I hope there’s some bit of food down here still for you when I leave you behind, Tetra, but I wouldn’t trust it; it’s over 100 years old and probably covered in mold.
Sure, Tetra/Zelda regains her spunk in the endgame where she tag-teams with Link against Ganon in one of the most epic boss battles to grace the series, but, no matter how hard I try, I cannot manage to chew and swallow the gristle of that scene where Link just leaves her in the basement of Hyrule Castle, especially considering that Zelda gets kidnapped anyway (thanks King) despite his empty promises and vain attempts to keep her safe and sound and locked up.
There’s a thing or five that’s ridiculously wrong with that scene. It just doesn’t make sense; it’s the circular peg of the Damsel in Distress trope that’s been pushed and stuffed into the square hole of Wind Waker’s plot.
And as Sarkeesian points out, the other games are only worse:
- The Legend of Zelda – Zelda is kidnapped and requires rescue
- The Adventure of Link – she’s in a coma, waiting for a hero to wake her
- A Link to the Past – she gets kidnapped twice
- The Ocarina of Time – she evades capture for 7 years and has a bit of sweet magic, but gets kidnapped the moment she reveals herself (and also temporarily while escaping the castle)
- Oracle of Ages/Seasons – she gets kidnapped, again… twice
- Four Swords – she’s kidnapped again
- Four Swords Adventures – she’s kidnapped again (though helps you fight at the end)
- The Minish Cap – she’s now turned to stone
- Twilight Princess – though she helps Midna, becomes the final boss, and helps you fight Ganondorf, she ultimately needs rescuing after sacrificing herself for her kingdom
- Phantom Hourglass – once again, she’s turned to stone
- Spirit Tracks – though able to help Link as a ghost, she is idiotically betrayed by the minister and needs Link to get her body back
- Skyward Sword – she gets rescued by Impa twice and by Link once
Is it just me, or is this trend a little repetitive to the point of being boring at best and potentially much worse?
But yet, looking back to the Unholy Triforce of the mid-1990s, defying this trope is of the things, however few they might be, that the CD-i games did right. We’ve already discussed how both The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon borrowed heavily from the 1989 cartoon The Legend of Zelda and later Captain N: The Game Master. In the cartoon, Zelda is a protagonist in her own right; she’s constantly sharing center stage with Link in their struggles against the forces of Ganon, sometimes even overshadowing Link given his naïve brashness. In that vein, the cartoon is actually very reminiscent of He-Man and She-Ra from the Masters of the Universe set of cartoons from the mid-1980s in that there was everything you needed to be relatable to both boys and girls. We had strong female protagonist presence in the Zelda cartoon, and Philips followed suit by making Zelda playable in The Wand of Gamelon. And as if to provide a counterpoint to A Link to the Past, they doubled down later in Zelda’s Adventure and made what appears to be Princess Zelda from A Link to the Past as the main protagonist.
I’m going to make a very bold claim here. It should be to Nintendo’s shame that the only games so far to star Zelda as a protagonist—or dear goddesses, even just not having her kidnapped or turned to stone or whatever—have been in games that Nintendo didn’t publish, and namely in games that Philips made for the CD-i. In 14 out of the 14 Nintendo-published Zelda games Princess Zelda appears in, she has been the damsel in distress. A helpful damsel she may be, but she’s a disempowered damsel nonetheless.
And I don’t think that there’s any sort of excuse tall enough to overcome this oversight.
While The Legend of Zelda in its earliest forms does borrow heavily off medieval history and fairy tales, from times when chivalry ruled and women were rarely in positions of power or strength, it might have been okay a few times to draw upon that in order to create a believable medieval world. But with so many Zelda games since then branching out into genres and “time periods” that clash with that symbolism (The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword most notably), this isn’t an excuse to do it over and over again. Not to mention, I don’t think real princesses of those days were kidnapped this much.
While Zelda has occasionally exhibited moments of awesomeness and helpfulness (Sheik, Tetra, and Spirit Tracks Zelda most notably), no matter how significant her help actually is, invariably she becomes the object that Link has to save, the invariable MacGuffin that must be pursued. And as such, those mere moments in the spotlight aren’t enough to overcome the dark specter of her being largely being a side note to the game, almost like Princess Peach in the Mario games. Link still owns the spotlight, not Zelda. It’s not enough.
While Zelda does feature some very strong-willed female characters throughout the series (Ruto, Nabooru, Romani, Medli, Ashei, Telma, and Karane, just to name a few), the large majority of them are awesome in characterization alone and generally not in physical action. Most of the characters mentioned are only there to point Link in the right direction and not actually to do anything of substance, especially anything of substance outside of a cutscene. And often, Link is saving their sorry behinds as well. While it is better than nothing, I’ll grant, it’s not anything that truly challenges conventions. It’s not a bold stab to change the status quo for merely the sake of challenging it. It’s ultimately still playing the trope far too safe.
One of my friends told me a while ago that every Zelda game these days were either named after “an item that you needed to get or a chick that you needed to save.” And it’s too true, far too true.
And let’s add insult to injury while we’re on it. What’s even odder (at least to me) is that every instance of Zelda within the franchise, with the obvious exception of Skyward Sword for obvious reasons, only gives Zelda the title of princess. Never mind that The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, Oracle of Ages/Seasons, Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures, Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks make no mention of any king or queen above her; somehow Zelda is always regaled as just a princess. It’s a real oddity, especially in Twilight Princess and Spirit Tracks when she seems to be the one truly governing the kingdom, that she’s not Queen Zelda in her own right. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t roll off the tongue or perhaps it’s to keep that sacred tradition of saving the princess (since saving princesses seems so much more chivalrous than saving queens), but in the end, it just points out that Nintendo seems rather content to lounge in the wave pool instead of making some real splashes.
Nevertheless, the scoreboard doesn’t lie. The Entertainment Software Association reports that 47% of gamers in the United States 2012 were female, and that was up five percent from the year prior. It’s very possible that, come the end of this year, female gamers will come to represent the majority demographic in the industry, and with that comes a need to change the way we present women in video games.
Add to this the light of two major headlines in the last five months, news stories about fathers who have hacked video games in order to better immerse their daughters into the games they’ve want to play, and you’ve got a sign of the times. Back in November, a father changed all of the pronouns referring to Link in The Wind Waker from masculine to feminine, and more recently, a father swapped sprite maps and palettes to let Pauline rescue Mario in the original Donkey Kong. And note what website that last link goes to. That’s NBC News. NBC freaking News! When a mainstream media outlet like that reports on a matter as small as this, it’s easy to see we’re at a cultural and societal tipping point. I’d argue that we’re ready to start challenging tradition and push the limits a bit.
Gaming is now mainstream, popular culture, and it’s time that we embrace the societal changes within our own hobby and pastime. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t or can’t have Link be the star in any Zelda game going forward; that’s going too much and is far too reactionary. It’s very Tartuffe. At the very least, however, if we can’t actually let Zelda have her own game, can we at least play a single dungeon without Link in tow? Or can she find a way to escape Ganon’s clutches on her own for a change? Or can we at least allow her to be significantly involved with the plot but just not kidnapped? For once? Please?
Because honestly, I think if any of us were offered the opportunity, I think if Nintendo were to tell us that the next Zelda game would be about Zelda leading her pirate crew going across the great sea finding adventure and treasure on the high seas, we’d be ecstatic at the prospect. If we were to find out tomorrow Zelda Wii U were to be about Link and Zelda journeying together throughout Hyrule, working as a team, to conquer dungeons and slay Ganon, most of us would say, “Nintendo, please kindly shut up and take our money.”