As a woman who loves games, who spends much of her time writing about them, and who would see them become the best they can be, I’m no stranger to disappointment. Yet when Nintendo decided that the protagonist of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could not be anything other than male, I was surprised by how much it stung.
The Legend of Zelda is a historic franchise, with seventeen main instalments all featuring Link as the playable protagonist. Almost nothing else has remained consistent across its 30 year existence: it’s been 2D and 3D; it’s been on every platform from the Famicom to the Wii U; it’s had a handful of art styles, from 16-bit graphics to cel-shading. Link himself has been a child; a teenager; able to transform into variations of plants, octopuses, and wolves; able to cross between dimensions into alternate universes, and to travel through time.
And in this eighteenth instalment, we thought that Link might, finally, be a woman. In fact, many people, including myself, were convinced that Nintendo was building up to it. The announcement of what was essentially a girl-Link, Linkle, for Hyrule Warriors Legends seemed to be Nintendo testing the waters. Early promotional images showed a very androgynous Link, and rumours, so often proven right around E3 time, said that the game would allow the player to choose their Link’s gender. Vague statements by developers appeared to cement the idea that they were preparing to make that exact announcement; seemingly the perfect solution for satisfying everyone involved. Even at the beginning of their press conference Nintendo was promising a game that was “breaking the boundaries of previous Zeldas in every way.” But not in protagonist gender, it turns out.
As I said, this sort of disappointment isn’t rare. However, the issue was compounded by statements from Nintendo producer Eiji Aonuma. He was quoted as saying that making Link female would “mess with the balance of the Triforce,” and that they had considered making Princess Zelda the player character but that they had ultimately decided against it because if she is “the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?”
These comments are, at their core, nonsensical, and much virtual ink has already been spilled in deconstructing them. Suffice it to say that a “tri” force will never be balanced if you are splitting it between two genders. In fact, a Link without a binary gender or one chosen by the player would be more balanced. Alternatively, making Zelda the player character could create a fantastic story that breathes new life into the franchise, and the creative team behind a critically acclaimed series such as this could easily come up with things for a non-playable Link to do. Have him be the one who needs rescuing; or put him in the advisory role usually saved for fairies; or have him be a co-op companion, for example.
It’s obvious that Aonuma and his undoubtedly talented team could have come up with any number of plotlines for a non-playable Link, and this glaring lack of consideration of their reasoning demonstrates a deeper issue.
Had they simply said that they did not want to have a female protagonist, it would at least have been honest, and they are well within their rights to make their own creative decisions. But Aonuma continues to make odd comments on the design choices, more recently saying that this Link was more gender neutral so that “anybody would be able to relate to the character”–clearly understanding the benefits of having a hero that women and girls can identify with, but not enough to have an androgynous-looking but female-identified Link.
And Nintendo have a history of these kinds of comments: asked why there were no female characters in Triforce Heroes, they said: “The story calls for this sort of legend/prophecy where heroes will come together to help solve a problem. And in that, they are male characters. So, because the game is set with that as the story background, you cannot choose a gender; you are a male character.”
This simply does not logically follow unless you believe that female heroes can’t exist: a damaging and frankly untrue message.
Nintendo are not alone in handing out statements that add insult to injury: just recently we’ve had the news that Battlefield 1 will not have female characters in its multiplayer because “boys would find it unrealistic” despite the actual historical presence of women in World War One. Before that we had Ubisoft’s famous “women are hard to animate” claim, and Fumito Ueda replacing a female protagonist in The Last Guardian, saying that he feared that players would look up her skirt.
These kinds of comments form a trend; a suggestion that developers know that they should do better but instead will come up with any excuse as to why they simply couldn’t do it, even when these excuses are easily countered.
But with Nintendo it feels worse because this is a game marketed at children. Young girls need to know that they can be the hero too, either as Link, the narrative’s literal personification of courage, or as a female character demonstrated to be equally as heroic and worthy. The image of both the celebration among old fans and the happiness of girls just being introduced to the series had taken hold in my imagination and the fact that Breath of the Wild seems to be breaking new ground for the series in so many ways–most of which look fantastic–meant that this would have been the perfect time. Instead, our hopes were shot down.
Of course, certain Zelda fans disagree, speaking out against the idea of having a female main character and in the process proving that they do not understand what this representation would mean for female fans of the series. “Link’s already androgynous!” they cry, not explaining why this precludes an androgynous looking female Link, or, conversely, others claim that he’s “iconic”, not explaining why his gender is inherently necessary to this iconic status.
Or they say “it’s just gender swapping for the sake of it!” To me, “the sake of it” means for all the women who play these games; who deserve to see themselves as the hero for once. That’s reason enough to switch things up. Not to mention that the positive press and renewed interest would presumably serve Nintendo from a purely monetary standpoint too.
Ultimately, an earlier Aonuma quote sums up the argument for allowing players to choose their Link’s gender: “Link represents the player in the game. I don’t want to define him.” Yet this is a definition, and it’s an unnecessary one.
We can hope that Princess Zelda and other secondary female characters are treated well in Breath of the Wild but it won’t ever be quite the same as having women be heroes in their own right. And if this is something Nintendo isn’t willing to do for the female fans of their games, they must stand by their creative decisions rather than worsening the situation with weak excuses.
Note: British spelling has been retained in the article at the request of the author