Earlier this year, several sources of rumors in gaming leaked several things regarding the upcoming Zelda game, Breath of the Wild (then known only as “Zelda U”). One notable rumor was the possibility of a female version of Link for players to use. While this prospect made some gamers rejoice (especially feminists), I can say I am not one of them. I was rather upset by this rumor, especially after reading the Zelda Universe article arguing to Nintendo why a gender-neutral Link would give more gamers the ability to connect with the world of Zelda.
I would like to simply say “that’s hogwash,” and get over it. But that’s hardly a proclamation worthy of an article providing a counterpoint, and since the ZU article provided such a logical argument, I’m going to have to rival them with my article on how identifying with playable characters is actually made more difficult when the character is as blank as can be.
For starters, we all know that Link is what is known as a “silent protagonist.” Common in video games, the silent protagonist is designed to personify the player’s choices in a game. Nintendo often employs the silent protagonist for this same reason; the main protagonist acts as a “skin” that the player wears while interacting with the game’s world. That being said, a character’s silence can only take immersion so far, and in games with complex stories, such as the Zelda series, an overly stoic character can actually sever the connection, acting like a wall of silence between the world and the player. Tetsuya Takahashi, the creator of the Xeno series and designer of Shulk for Xenoblade Chronicles, according to a report on SiliconEra, felt that a silent protagonist is not the only nor the best way to get players to “resonate” with the character. He felt that a “likeable” character had a better chance of resonating with players. “Sarah,” you say. “Why are you even talking about this? Link has always been a silent protagonist. Are you arguing that he should talk now?” Let me restate my thesis: a blank character makes empathy more difficult. Letting players choose Link’s gender will only serve to make Link more of a nobody.
So what exactly is wrong with a “nobody protagonist”? Other than the fact that it doesn’t sound very nice, it brings up another important point that actually has much to do with our education and culture. Believe it or not, Common Core and its predecessors could be a cause of the apparent need for gamers to feel represented as themselves in the games they play. When teachers taught reading back in the day, the most important thing was to teach young students to enjoy reading. There were no obsessions with “academic language,” “analyzing,” and “rhetoric studies” in earlier grades. Teachers knew that young children would find such things tedious, and would as a result find reading “not fun.” Today, the public school curriculum forces upon students the importance of tedious analysis, margin notes, and making sure that students know “books are just ‘text.’” As a result, students are drawn away from literature, because it just isn’t enjoyable anymore.
So what does literature have to do with video games? Bear with me while I talk about characters. People think empathy in school is a new thing. They are wrong. Literature class used to be about empathy—with fictional characters. Reading literature for fun used to enable people to connect with characters who are completely unlike them. I am an adolescent girl, but as I was reading the Cirque Du Freak series, I was experiencing the world as Darren Shan, feeling his every injury, emotion, and adventure. This is why teachers wanted students to enjoy reading above all else. The idea of completely losing one’s identity terrifies the authenticity-obsessed people of today, who believe that there is nothing more important than being true to oneself. It is this mindset that causes gamers like the writer of “Link, The Legendary Heroine” to firmly believe that the only way to make Link more “identifiable” is to strip him of his “character” status and reduce him to “Player.”
This is the part of the article where I am supposed to present a counterargument so this whole thinkpiece doesn’t seem overly one-sided. And I tried. I really did. But I simply could not find an argument that didn’t seem like a straw man when I tried to present it. But I did have a debate recently with a Twitter user (whom I will call “Anon,” for privacy reasons) who argued that there should either be a gender choice or that Link should outright be female in an upcoming installment. Their reasoning: “a girl Link would add some interest into an otherwise boring and repetitive series.” Yes, Anon’s argument was that they are bored, and that enough was a reason to change an integral part of a beloved series. They also stated that Link “wasn’t important to the series at all,” and that “[the series] would be fine” if Nintendo were to forego Link entirely. I don’t want to sound judgemental, but that is a ridiculous assertion. If that were true, then would Link be one of the most recognizable icons in gaming? Would he have millions of fans of all genders and races? Would people care as much who would portray him in a live-action movie? Of course not, if what Anon says is true. Anon, you might not care about Link, but you can’t say the same for others.
The fact is (and this is a fact), is that people love Link, for all the things that he is. People do identify, resonate, and empathize with Link. It’s why he’s so popular, even with girls. When fans play these games, they become the hero. And it doesn’t matter if he isn’t the same gender as the player. There is nothing “broken” or “stale” with the Zelda series. And if Link is going to lose “fans” because he hasn’t had a vagina yet, then they probably weren’t fans of him in the first place.