There’s no doubting that the latest Breath of the Wild trailer is visually breathtaking,introducing a colourful cast of characters and locations.
It is also the first real introduction to the character of Zelda herself, beyond a few headless shots in this and previous trailers. And she first shows up bathing.
It’s not an encouraging sight, especially following producer Eiji Aonuma’s previous comments about Zelda and the reasons they decided not to make her a playable character, casting an apprehensive shadow over the hope that she might take a different role than the tired trope of the passive princess that has so often (though not always) defined her.
As the trailer progresses, there are some hints that her character will have more depth than solely being a damsel in distress. “Everything I’ve done up until now,” she says, “it was all for nothing!” This implies both that she has been taking an active role in combating whatever danger the world of Hyrule is facing, but that she has been ineffectual. This is essentially a necessary side effect of insisting that Link must be the player character; nothing that Zelda does can be narrative-defining or it would rob agency from the player.
Nonetheless, at times, she comes across as a competent secondary character. For example, in some shots she appears equally as equipped as Link for an adventure in her practical outfit complete with sturdy, flat shoes and climbing gloves. Yet she is predominantly shown as vulnerable–crying and/or running. At one point she is shown appearing to cast a spell against an enemy, yet moments later her father entreats Link to save her.
With proper context, a level of vulnerability–especially emotional complexity–can add depth to a character. Zelda crying does not inherently make her weak. Yet the trailer’s focus on her distress, combined with the aforementioned previous disappointments about Breath of the Wild’s treatment of gender, remains worrying.
An emotionally complex, yet ultimately capable and autonomous Zelda in Breath of the Wild would fit perfectly into Nintendo’s E3 promise of a game that is “breaking the boundaries of previous Zeldas in every way.” There have been notable exceptions to her otherwise samey story before–such as Wind Waker’s Tetra (who is eventually revealed to also be Princess Zelda), a capable and well respected pirate captain–yet they are few and far between.
Therefore, another break from Zelda’s otherwise stale character archetype could revitalise the series in ways an open world cannot; by providing it with a greater human interest.
Whether or not Breath of the Wild will take this approach does still remain to be seen, and there are both reasons to be optimistic and fearful for this opportunity in this latest trailer. However, in the meantime, it’s worth discussing the marketing decision to focus on Zelda’s vulnerability rather than any other traits such as adventurousness and diligence that are merely hinted at.
In order to sell the first major game of their new platform (and, for that matter, one of the later ones, Super Mario Odyssey), Nintendo decided to fall back on encouraging the player to feel protective of a female character in need of saving, rather than selling independence, companionship, and mutual support.
Even if Breath of the Wild gives Zelda a heroic arc full of character growth, emotional depth, and self-reliance, their marketing priorities remain concerning, particularly in conjunction with their reluctance to allow her and other secondary female characters to become protagonists in their own right. A balanced focus on Zelda’s heroism and emotionality would have made for a more compelling trailer, and would have me less concerned for her treatment within the game.