Dark Light

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.

Hyrule Warriors Linkle book

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 based on Peter Pan

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.

Male of Female Commander Shepard - There's no difference

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?

The Legend of Zelda Wii U artwork 01

  1. I don’t think the reasoning was that Zelda being the fighter would mean Link has nothing to do… because he exists to save her. But rather, Link’s narrative function is ‘Hero’, so if you give that role to someone else within the story, then Link becomes totally superfluous.

    Of course that doesn’t rule out the choice to play as a girl incarnation of Link. Given all the different outfits that Link will wear in this game, and the fact that the fan desire for a female Link has apparently caught Nintendo completely off guard, it’s easy to see why they ruled against it from a work load standpoint, especially now that they’re launching the game on two systems.

    So… Maybe next time?

  2. Hmm I think this is a pretty convinicing argument and I must admit I was skeptical.

    Link is pretty much the opposite of a defined personality. Watching Breath of the Wilds reminded me of the Witcher (and shadow of the Colossus of course), and Geralt is in some ways a great foil to Link; exhausting backstory, personality through voice acting, a violent world with “shades of grey” morality, and full male-female and father-daughter relationship baggage to deal with. I mean switching Geralt for “Geraltle” would be beyond absurd; and any female protagonist in that world would be a very strong character in their own right.

    Link could pretty much be a girl through the entire series of Legend of Zelda, there is no “adult” tension between Link and Zelda, they could be friends and the series would look almost exactly the same. (Ok, well Link and Marin was a different story; showing how unique Link’s Awakening really is!)

  3. link has been male for 30 years there no need for him to become a girl.

  4. I clicked on this article expecting some rare, genuine resistance by the media from the whole “make link a woman” belly-aching I’ve heard everywhere else. Instead, I find yet another progressive panderer of ambiguity looking to further stir the tepid broth of gender neutrality. Or perhaps suckle the teet of modern feminism? I mean, come on – you don’t hear folks complaining that they don’t get to play Samus or Lara Croft as a man. While some rpgs serve as a blank page for players to write their own tale, the legend of zelda is, and nearly always has been about clearly defined characters following the purposed storylines of their authors, therein creating the very reason we love these stories. Let characters be what their creators intended them to be, and let the malcontents play something else with a female lead. I know plenty of female gamers who love and appreciate Link as he is, male though he may be.

    1. ok, imagine your favorite zelda game. Now imagine if link was female in that zelda game. nothing would really Change about the Actual Story, right? it’s the same as saying “his name is link, it’s clearly defined” even though the ability to choose link’s name at the start of the game changes nothing about the game.

  5. idea
    in this open world game that is the next in the zelda franchise, I can just imagine logging myself in and linking to a random friend and instead of seeing TWO LINKS in an open world game, we see Link (your character) and Linkle (your friend’s character) in the same game.

    Given that Link doesn’t have a defined personality (the joy of voiceless characterization) we never know what kind of individual each Link is beyond the courageous moniker that identifies him as a character we heroically play as. LINKLE, on the other hand, has no canon stigma behind her, but I can see her playing a role almost similar to what SHIEK does in OoT. Linkle could be just a reflection of Link in the Triforce of Courage, an alternate universe version or even just an artificial intelligence that aides the hero of courage during his adventure. Linkle is just like Link, she doesn’t actually have a defined personality in the Zelda Canon. So shoehorning her in would be a great multiplayer addition to the game, taking on dungeons and even hordes of enemies with allies would be unbelievable.

    She certainly doesn’t need to be an NPC in this new game. I am going to play Breathe of the Wild and I really don’t want to see Linkle (such a stupid name; I love it) reduced to an NPC. Also, with the promise of mobile console multiplayer, I REALLY hope I can coop Breathe of the Wild with a friend, and that Linkle becomes an Avatar you can see your friend as.

  6. So this entire article is about sexism stereotype? Tell me exactly why can’t she be cute an strong at the same time.

  7. Ok, but I don’t think a girl being cute and liking Hello Kitty automatically makes them weak, and “girliness” . I, personally, know a woman who grew up in a bad part of a big city and was part of a gang until she moved to my small town, and she’s a total badass, of course, but she’s one of the cutest girls I’ve ever met and she has Hello Kitty EVERYTHING.
    Just because you’re cute and like Hello Kitty doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. Jeez.

  8. I disagree with your theses. 1-Linkle isn’t condescending, it merely sounds like a feminized Link. It isn’t different than having a Maria as a female Mario 2-We don’t >NEED< female Link any more than we NEED male Lara Croft.

    My opinion: I expect breath of the wild to minimize magical things like the masks in Majora's mask, I'd suggest Linkle as an Easter egg mask that players could find and wear as they see fit. Side quests made Zelda games great, and the Linkle quest would be a fan favorite. It also wouldn't interfere with the continuity of the game ("Zelda canon")

  9. I personally wish Linkle WAS a playable female alternative to Link in breathe of the Wild. I would love to play a cute badass female version of Link… Also Linkle is a cute feminine styled version name of link(doesn’t sound like a lesser than name…), and you’re making yourself look Sexist by saying stuff like “being cute and liking hello kitty” apparently makes someone weak?… anyways, if they did add Linkle as a substitute to play a Female Link for people who would like to play her instead of a male protag, then i would play her, hell, why not? it’s not like making Linkle playable as a female version would be a huge deal, why do people make a big whoop out of Genders anyways, would it really kill someone if Nintendo decided to make her a playable alternative? all they’d have to do is change up voice acting and pronouns… and maybe a couple other simple things… and Boom now you have a bunch of even Happier people who just think it’s nice to play a Female… Link isn’t a very backstory character with his own full fledged focus on being Male, if he were a she, nothing would change, and if they made zelda and linkle in love, then i wouldn’t mind playing a Lesbian LMAO

    1. Don’t get me wrong, I totally see your point and I absolutely wish there was a playable female character in Breath of the Wild – I just don’t think ‘Linkle’ is the answer. The games industry literally has a history of sticking a pink bow on something and going “That’s the female audience catered for” and I really don’t want to see them Ms Pacman-ing such an important character as female Link. They need to treat female Link with the same respect and gravitas as male Link, not make her a derivative, lazy afterthought with a pink bow stuck on.

      Instead, the Bethesda/BioWare approach of making your character’s gender selectable – and also completely irrelevant – would be far better. You want to play as guy Link? Go for it. You want to play as girl Link? Great! Literally nothing changes. Zelda can still fall in love with girl Link just as much as boy Link (why not lesbian Zelda and female Link? Makes absolutely no difference to the game, but would make lots more fans happy and represented) and everybody gets to play the game exactly the way they want. Look at all the character and romance options in Mass Effect, regardless of gender: it’s still the same game and the same Shep, whether you’re playing male or female, and that’s what Nintendo should be aiming for with Link.

      I think the other issue that’s come out of Breath of the Wild (since I wrote this) is the fact that Link now takes his shirt off and you can definitely see that he’s a boy, for obvious reasons. For thirty years, Link has always been girly enough that if you wanted to imagine the character as female, then you could – I know plenty of people, boys and girls, who were happier with their own mental picture of Link as being female or even androgynous – but now that ambiguity has been taken away, which is a real shame.

      If you’re not going to give us a proper female Link option, at least reinstate gender neutral, whatever-the-hell-the-player-fancies Link, Nintendo.

      1. If you read the lore to LoZ you would realize the issues that having a female link would bring. The reason why link and zelda look similar in every game is because they are reincarnations of the heroes of the triforce…. that’s why Ganon is a boar. When the producer was talking about the balance of the triforce he was refering to this. Also the option of gender isn’t really up to the player but instead it is up to the storyteller. Telling a producer to have gender options for their own characters is like saying others have the right to choose the gender of a strangers child…

Comments are closed.

Related Posts