While most things at this year’s E3 variously leaked, dribbled or gushed forth from any number of sources prior to the event, one of the rumours we’d all heard (and were pretty sure would come true) actually didn’t come to pass: there isn’t going to be a playable female character in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
When queried about the decision not to feature a playable female character, Nintendo producer Eiji Aonuma told GameSpot that “We thought about it, and decided that if we’re going to have a female protagonist it’s simpler to have Princess Zelda as the main character.”
Which kind of makes sense, I suppose, but Zelda’s not actually playable in Breath of the Wild either. From there, the logic gets increasingly specious.
“If we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights,” continues Aonuma, “then what is Link going to do?”
(Bloody Hyrulian princesses, coming over here and taking our jobs! Is it any wonder that unemployment amongst young men is so high, when there are no princesses out there that need saving? It’s a scandalous situation, and I for one blame the European Union for the unchecked immigration of job-stealing princesses.)
It’s a ludicrous notion, isn’t it? The idea that Princess Zelda needs to be continually rescued by Link, because without it Link himself would have no cause to exist without that drive, that fundamental raison d’être. The way Aonuma paints it – seemingly forgetting the well-established fact that rescuing Zelda is usually subordinate to the grander task of saving the entire bloody world – Link would basically curl up into a foetal ball and fade from existence for want of a princess to save, in the same way that Wile E. Coyote would have nothing to fill his life with if he ever successfully caught and killed the Road Runner.
But if we are going to accept Aonuma’s (rather flawed) premise that Zelda needs saving and ultimately – in Nintendo’s eyes – our princess must always be in another castle, there’s still not a compelling reason why Link, the character doing the rescuing, couldn’t actually be female. This is especially evident when you consider all the other things that Link has been throughout the years, including:
- A child;
- A teenager;
- A young man;
- A Deku;
- A Goron;
- A Zora;
- A Fierce Deity;
- A Wolf;
- A ghost of his aged future self;
And the list goes on and on from there. I particularly recommend humming game show prize selection Muzak while trying to remember all the various forms Link has taken.
What really surprised observers about the lack of a female protagonist in Breath of the Wild however, was that Nintendo do already have form in this area.
Linkle, ostensibly the female version of Link, is already a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends on the 3DS and it would have been oh so simple for them to simply drop a gender selection screen in at the commencement of Breath of the Wild, but I’m really rather glad they didn’t.
The genesis of Linkle
Linkle first appeared in a companion art book to the Hyrule Warriors series, released in Japan. She was featured in a section ignominiously marked as ‘not making the cut’ for the final game and according to The Mary Sue, Linkle – translated from the Japanse ‘Rinkuru’ – was planned to be a “girl version of hero Link” (勇者のリンクの女の子版) who is “little sister-like” (妹的) but is not related to Link in any way.
While the Hyrule Warriors art book was the first mention of Linkle in Nintendo’s own words, and the character herself is playable in the follow-up Hyrule Warriors Legends, it certainly wasn’t the first time anyone has ever envisaged Link as a girl. In the intermingled worlds of fan art and cosplay – no stranger to gender-swapping characters for creative, aesthetic or simply “why the hell not?” reasons – Link has been a girl in the eyes of many fans for a very long time; when you think about the origins of the character, it makes perfect sense.
Link’s name, for one thing, is thought to have multiple meanings.
The official story for how the name came about, as told by Shigeru Miyamoto, tells of how the game “was to be set in both the past and the future and as the main character would travel between both and be the link between them, they called him Link.” Another widely-held fan theory however – as detailed in this interesting piece over on Kotaku – suggests that the name ‘Link’ simply exists as a placeholder, a better version of ‘INSERT NAME HERE’ that acts as filler for those who wanted to change it (or a perfectly good name for those who didn’t) while also signifying the direct link between the player and the empty vessel of the silent protagonist they seek to inhabit.
So if Link merely exists as a blank canvas, an untenanted container upon which we’re expected to imprint ourselves, it seems foolish that Nintendo would rule out half their audience being able to make that sort of connection.
Secondly, there’s the obvious link to Peter Pan. In the same interview Shigeru Miyamoto talks of the influence of Peter Pan in the creation of Link, when they wanted to create a distinctly recognisable character – with pointy ears, a sword and shield – for the low-detail sprites of the time. “At the time, when you said long ears you thought of Peter Pan,” recalls Miyamoto, “and as he’s [Takashi Tezuka, the original designer] a Disney fan, they drew inspiration from it.”
Now Peter Pan may be a male character, but if you’ve ever gone to see a production of J. M. Barrie’s famous tale of pirates, fairies and crocodiles at the theatre, you’ll know that – in that arena at least – Peter Pan is most definitely a girl. In the world of theatre, it’s very common for female actresses to play the part of young male characters like Peter Pan, Dick Whittington or Aladdin, with the view that their higher-pitched voices and softer, feminine features distinguish the age of the character from the male ensemble cast. It helps the audience draw a line between the courageous and brave protagonist, with a plucky spirit and waif-like features, and the lumbering, whisker-chinned profile of the male villains of the piece.
Link is starting to sound more and more viable as a girl, but this is where – with Linkle – things start to come off the (spirit) tracks.
The problem with Linkle
There’s a history of gender choice within role-playing games, for as long as I can really remember. While games with fixed characters (like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) have offered the player female protagonists as part of an ensemble cast, it is RPGs based on the infinitely customisable mechanics of either Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Rogue that have offered true gender enablement to the player.
When playing Daggerfall, Bethesda’s enormous predecessor to Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, the game simply asks you to “select thy character’s gender” and makes no further mention of it again. That’s it. Gender is such a non-issue in the world of The Elder Scrolls that it’s barely a note in the margin when choosing your adventure.
When building your character at the start of classic RPG Baldur’s Gate, you find yourself wending your way through the usual suspects in character selection: skill rolls, stat assignments, race, character class, and indeed gender. When called to select the latter, the screen would proudly proclaim that “Males/Females of the Realms can excel in whatever profession they choose” and indeed it was true: there were no classes or archetypes forbidden from one character or the other.
There’s absolutely precedent there for Nintendo to offer a female Link to the player, then – you could even argue that they are some considerable distance behind the times, given that Daggerfall was released in 1996 and Baldur’s Gate in 1998 – but in a bizarre way, I’d rather they stuck to their admittedly chauvinistic guns and kept Link as male-only, if the alternative is them trying to placate us with another Linkle offering.
The reason why I find the notion of Linkle particularly offensive is the twee nature of the name. ‘Linkle’. Say it aloud: it sounds like something somehow smaller, weaker, lesser than a full-sized Link. By canonising the name Linkle in Hyrule Warriors Legends, Nintendo may as well be saying “You could play as Link, resolute, steadfast Link… but if you’re a girl, who clearly must like Hello Kitty and unicorns, then you’re probably going to want to play as Linkle, because isn’t she just so adorable?”
You certainly don’t catch other games trying to pull that sort of crap:
- In the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate, the player character is referred to as the ‘Ward of Gorion’, a wonderful example of a gender neutral monicker that allows the game’s NPCs to play the pronoun game and carry with it no expectation of gender whatsoever.
- In Fallout 3, Galaxy News Radio DJ Three Dog isn’t referring to the player character as the Wasteland Wanderess in his broadcasts, just to make sure the world from Rivet City to Little Lamplight knows that the person performing these heroic deeds is a girl.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, the heroic player character sent to save the world from the rising threat of dragon re-emergence isn’t known as the Grey Matron, as opposed to the Grey Warden, just because she has ovaries under her armour.
- In the original Mass Effect trilogy, where the player can do virtually anything they can imagine with and to their main character, they’re simply known throughout the in-game world as Commander Shepard.
Unfortunately however, in that last example, the gaming community has come up with an additional designation for Commander Shepard: FemShep.
FemShep, much like Linkle, is an unwarranted construct and completely unnecessary identifier for a character for whom it makes precisely zero difference to the story, or indeed the way you play the game, whether they’re male or female or anything else. Just look at the way Failbetter Games have adjusted to a world without binary gender norms in Sunless Sea as a shining example of “let the player do whatever feels right for them, it’s their experience” when it comes to gender choice.
What BioWare didn’t do, though, was inadvertently canonise the demeaning and gratuitous FemShep monicker by retrospectively introducing it into the series once they realised it was somewhat popular and had caught on with the fans. Unfortunately, with Linkle and 2016’s Hyrule Warriors Legends, Nintendo have done just that, and that’s an embarrassing error in judgement on their part.
We don’t need Linkle, we just need a female Link
So where do we go from here, then?
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is looking and playing great, and while it is a massive missed opportunity for them not to include a playable female protagonist – be it Princess Zelda, or a female Link, or someone else – I’m rather relieved Nintendo haven’t plumbed the depths of condescension by making the saccharinely twee Linkle a playable hero in a main-series title. Hopefully Linkle will disappear quietly into the background, much like Aonuma’s 1950s attitude to gender roles, and in the future we’ll see a proper gender choice available for Link.
It would certainly make sense, given the rumours that the next next Legend of Zelda title might be co-operative, that Nintendo introduce a second playable – and hopefully female – protagonist, to avoid all that silly colour-coded multiple Link nonsense we’ve seen in previous multiplayer titles. Maybe one day Zelda herself will be allowed out from the tower to do some adventuring.
In the meantime, Link is androgynous enough that even if Nintendo never grow a pair – of balls, boobs or something else entirely; your choice – and do the right thing with proper, unpatronising gender enablement, we can at least all just pretend that Link is anything we want to be. Isn’t that the point, after all, of a silent protagonist into whom we can project ourselves?