Link, the legendary hero(ine)
by on June 5, 2016

Link! The Hero of Hyrule! A young adventurer who heeds the call to action and saves the land from darkness. Reincarnated time and again, forever destined to wield the Master Sword in defense of the Triforce and the people of Hyrule. Link, of course, is us, the persona we embody when we play a Zelda game, the avatar of our own heroism; the stand-in that represents us in the world of the game. Link is defined by many things: the tools we wield when we play, the land we save, the monsters we defeat, the dungeons we explore, the characters we meet. A green tunic, a sword, the Triforce of Courage. The actions we take and the fantasies we fulfill when we pick up the controller.

The stronger our connection to Link, the stronger our link to the world becomes.

That is why future Zelda games should allow the player to choose Link’s gender.

This may be a controversial position. You may have some concerns with the concept, and that’s fair. I posit that (a) this would allow more people to enjoy the games we love, and (b) it would have no ill effects on the quality of the game, its story, or its characters.

Let’s dive in.

The audience surrogate

There is a long history of characters who represent the viewer, reader, or player and help draw the audience in to get them emotionally invested in the story. This character is the audience surrogate: someone that the viewer relates to, sees themselves in, and empathizes with. The surrogate may say or do things that the viewer could see themselves saying or doing. The surrogate asks questions that the audience wants to ask. In some cases, the audience surrogate is fluid; a different character from scene to scene, or depending on who the viewer is. Harry Potter and Charlie Bucket are classic examples.

Images of Harry Potter and Charlie Bucket

As a general rule, the more you can relate to a character, the more you will empathize with them, and the more effectively that character will pull you into the story. The ultimate surrogate would be a character modeled after you, the viewer. They look like you, talk like you, act like you, think like you. That’s why fan fiction writers often write themselves into their stories.

The surrogate is often the main protagonist, but not always. In Sherlock Holmes, Watson is an audience surrogate; Holmes himself is a genius whose mind works in strange ways, whereas we, the audience, usually identify more with Watson. This shows the second big role of the audience surrogate: they are often rookies or outsiders or bystanders in the story, learning new information at the same time as the audience. It allows authors to write exposition: if a surrogate is ignorant, then they need to have things explained to them, and thus, the audience.

Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, the Doctor’s many companions in Doctor Who, and Penny in The Big Bang Theory are other examples of audience surrogates.

Character abstraction as amplification

Ok, so you want an audience surrogate in your story. Now we just need to make a character that everyone can strongly relate to and see themselves in! …Which is easier said than done. As I said before, the ultimate audience surrogate is someone exactly like the viewer in every way. But that only works for that one person. The more detail you add to a character to make them relatable for one audience, the less relatable they are for a different audience. If you start with a stick figure, that figure is equally relatable for everyone. If you add a skin color, then it’s more relatable for people who match that skin color, and less for those who don’t. Add gender, same deal. Add dialog, a voice, a backstory, personality, facial features, level of education, cultural background, and family. Every detail brings that character closer to one part of the audience and further from another part. Scott McCloud illustrates this in his excellent book, Understanding Comics:

An image that shows a progression from a stick figure to a detailed photograph of a man's face.

Many video games allow avatar customization so they can have both detail and relatability. Mass Effect allows you to customize your character’s looks and backstory, for example. But there is another way, common in games, comics, and cartoons: character abstraction. If you leave details unspecified, then the audience will fill in the blanks with assumptions from their own life. Voila: instant relatability. This can work with visuals, personality, background, and everything else. Anime and manga offer a great example of this: most Americans think that anime characters look Caucasian, whereas people in Japan think they look Japanese. The reality is that the characters are abstract and don’t resemble either; they’re just simple lines on a screen or page, and the audience is subconsciously filling in the blanks.

This also has the advantage of amplifying the details that you do define. Let me cite Scott McCloud again: “By stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning,’ an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.”

"When we abstract an image through cartooning, we're not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to the essential 'meaning,' an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can't."

I’m sure you’ve put it together: silent heroes are a way of abstracting an audience surrogate. Instead of defining details like voice or personality, we leave them undefined, which in turn allows the player to superimpose their own identity onto the character. Well, their own identity plus the now-amplified details that define the fantasy we’re fulfilling. Link is successful because he is us, plus a little extra: the skill to wield a magic sword, a heroic destiny, the wind of Hyrule at our back.

Link in abstract

So let’s look at Link. He’s a silent hero. He’s already had many character-defining traits, like voice, dialog, or detailed history, abstracted away to make him a better audience surrogate.

But he’s not completely abstract. He has a character design, after all — we know what Link looks and sounds like. He’s always been male, so far. In Ocarina of Time he had a voice and body language that conveyed personality. Recall the scene where Saria gives him the Fairy Ocarina, and he backs up then runs away. In The Wind Waker, Link’s face and movements had personality and emotion. In Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, Link’s character is strongly implied by the way others act towards him and the way he’s animated in cutscenes.

The level of characterization is a spectrum. Let’s chart it, which might look something like this:

An chart of all the Zelda games that ranges from "more abstract" to "less abstract."

Note that this chart represents the abstraction of Link as a character, which includes but is not limited to the visuals. If we were to add other games, something like Final Fantasy X would be to the far right of the Zelda games, and Half-Life 2 or Portal would be near The Legend of Zelda or Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Newer Zelda games tend to have a less abstract Link. This is fairly easy to explain: the more visual fidelity, the more Nintendo needed to fill in Link’s personality to keep him from feeling stiff and out of place. It’s a balancing act: Nintendo needs to leave Link a blank slate while also needing to show relationships to other characters and place him in the world.

There’s some interesting stuff that can happen if you have some strong characterization in an otherwise blank slate avatar. If you show a relationship towards another character — protector, mentor, friend, rival — then anyone who inhabits that avatar will more readily feel that relationship. If Link expresses emotion, then it can help create that same emotion in the player, but it also risks distancing the player from their avatar if the player’s mindset doesn’t match.

The Wind Waker has some successful scenes where Link’s animation and face help prompt a strong emotional response, because many players are already primed to feel those emotions by the gameplay and events leading up to them. But sometimes, Link would show an emotion at odds with the player’s mindset, and that would distance us from our surrogate character. Excitement was usually far from the player’s mind when finding the umpteenth Triforce Chart, for example.

Link’s huge variety of expressive faces, almost emoticon-like, combined with the heavy abstraction of his design was a deliberate attempt from the Zelda team to use these concepts. It was probably the reason they chose The Wind Waker’s visual style. They highlight Link’s emotions and reinforce and direct the emotions that they wanted the player to feel.

A collage of Link's faces from The Wind Waker.

Breaking barriers

So we’ve discussed the value of a good audience surrogate and using abstraction to achieve that. Link exemplifies this philosophy already. But there is a detail that we can’t abstract away: Link’s gender.  This impedes some players from identifying as Link.

My conclusion: Let players define the gender of their Link at the beginning of the game.

I envision Zelda games where the player chooses their gender, but that choice changes very little in the game’s content or story. At most, it would affect the pronouns in dialog and some slight visual changes. I would leave Link’s relationships, motivations, personality traits, and classic outfit untouched. I would even use the exact same animations. I don’t think that many female fans want a female Link if she’s portrayed as less strong, courageous, and capable or more vulnerable, nurturing, sexy, and demure. The goal is to reduce barriers between the player and their surrogate without altering the role that they play.

karane

Karane, from Skyward Sword, is close to a good female Link design.

This isn’t pushing an agenda; this barrier is real, complete with real human ramifications. I have a sister that loves action-adventure games and has enjoyed Zelda games in the past. She enjoys games more when she can play a female avatar. Her favorite action-adventure game is Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil. She once asked me if I could recommend more games like it or Zelda, with female leads. I, a professional game designer who loves this genre, could only give her a paltry, tiny list. And one of those games was Okami, where you play as a female wolf.

It’s common to respond with, “But I can play characters of opposite genders just fine.” Or “I’m a female player, and I don’t care about having a female option!” That’s fine! Some players feel these effects more strongly than others. And sometimes the effects are subtle and unconscious.

When I ran my Zelda Fan Survey in 2014, I got nearly 6,000 responses. One of my questions was “Should future Zelda games allow you to play as a female protagonist?” and over half of the responses were in favor of either a set female protagonist or a gender selection option.

There have been a few cases of parents hacking ROMs of Zelda games to change the sprites for Link and the pronouns in the character dialog for their daughters — and nothing else! That’s all it took.

I want to tear these barriers down so that more people can enjoy and be inspired by these great games.

Which brings us to the final question: what do we lose from the Zelda experience if we offer this option? What is the price?

Gendered characterization

To answer that, we must ask: is Link’s gender important? Is there something we gain from a set gender that we lose if we offer a choice?

In some stories, gender is very important. Cersei, Sansa, Brienne, Arya, and Catelyn’s character arcs in Game of Thrones are all heavily influenced by the role of women in that world and the way they react to that role. The same goes for the male characters: in that setting, there are certain expectations that come with gender, and characters’ influence, opportunities, and challenges are affected. When they deviate, they face consequences.

It matters when defining romantic relationships. There are cultural expectations that come when portraying romantic relationships. What are the courtship rituals and expectations? How are power and responsibility divvied up? How do other characters react? The list goes on.

I say that none of this matters for Link. Link has almost no gendered characterization in the Zelda games. You could swap Link’s gender in any Zelda game, and it still works, even in ones with less character abstraction. Regardless of gender, in The Wind Waker you’re still playing the protective older sibling. In Twilight Princess you’re still acting as an older sibling to the Ordon children, the childhood friend to Ilia, and the friend who teaches Midna selflessness. None of these are inherently male or female.

Link has never had a canonical romantic relationship. Usually, when players perceive one, it’s because they are projecting themselves onto the avatar. When I was 12 I had a crush on Malon. That colored my perception of her: I always thought of her as a romantic interest for Link. But nothing in Ocarina of Time supports or implies that; what happened was that I identified with Link and projected my own thoughts about Malon onto him. The silent hero worked exactly like it should. This was not inherent to Link’s character; it stemmed from the player. It can work the other way around, too; some players might have identified with Malon in those moments instead of Link. This is where shipping come from, my friends.

Link’s relationships with Midna in Twilight Princess and Zelda in Skyward Sword went a little bit beyond player interpretation and actually implied romantic feelings. With gender selection, that level of implied romance would likely be toned down, not as a statement against same-sex romance but because it would define a character trait — sexuality — that is best left undefined to help with surrogate relatability.

There isn’t much else. Maybe we’d want more male characters Link’s age. Over the course of the series, there are many important female peers for Link but very few male ones. We have Groose, Ralph, Prince Komali, and Ravio, maybe Mido. Across the whole series! Just like male players can project relationships with Link’s female peers, we’d want female players to have that option. I’m down with better representation of my gender amongst Link’s peers. Open a new front in the shipping wars, I say.

Don’t do it wrong, Nintendo!

the-legend-of-zelda-the-wind-waker-hd-screenshot-ME3050184580_2I’ve explained why it’s important to offer this option and why it wouldn’t damage the experience. I have one last warning: there are many ways for this to go wrong. Nintendo has a pretty good track record with how they treat gender, but they’ve made some missteps. Letting Team Ninja destroy Samus’ character in Metroid: Other M or letting Koei anywhere near original female character designs in Hyrule Warriors were missteps. Changing Tetra’s character from strong, self-reliant pirate captain to passive and vulnerable as soon as she learns she’s a princess. So the dangers are there: giving a female Link design unnecessary vis
ual changes, making characters act differently depending on gender during important story moments, or failing to portray a female Link with the same character traits as a male Link.

I could see this going very well or very badly depending on Nintendo’s philosophy while developing a Zelda game with a gender selection option. However, I’m optimistic that Nintendo would do a good job with it.

Fin

It’s been a long road, my friends. I’ve made my case. I think giving a gender selection option is a no-brainer. It’s a win-win with all upsides and no downsides. It will make some players feel more invested in the character they’re playing while preserving the male Link for the rest of us. It won’t damage the storytelling or the relationships between Link and other characters. It will broaden the Zelda audience without sacrificing quality. It means I would have an answer the next time my sister wants a recommendation for a great action-adventure game with a female lead.

It would make the Zelda games better and make Zelda fans happier.

May the way of the (gender-neutral) hero lead to the Triforce!

Max Nichols