Fans of The Legend of Zelda series are well aware that Link is the name of several green-hooded heroes throughout time that all share a reincarnated spirit. Unlike most iconic video game characters, Link is subject to change with each new incarnation, opening up a wealth of possibilities for who and what “Link” can be.
From a story crafting angle, the ever changing Link grants game creators a wonderful bit of versatility allowing each games’ Link to be starkly different from the last without it feeling untrue or contradictory to an established ‘Link personality.’ In one game, Hyrule’s hero can be a brave and courageous young adult, and in the next he’s a goofy child who loves trains. Yet for all the ways we’ve seen Link transform, one thing has strangely remained the same: he who possesses the spirit of the hero has always been, well, “he.”
From role playing games like Pokemon and Fire Emblem to non RPGs such as Animal Crossing and Splatoon, a considerable chunk of Nintendo’s modern game lineup offers its audience a gender option for their character. It’s certainly understandable why select video game icons might stick to a fixed design (“Maria” or “Samuel” starring in the next Super Mario or Metroid titles might cause some confusion, for example), but The Legend of Zelda’s hero is different than other mascots like Mario or Samus. Link can change from story to story, serving primarily to embody the player in game.
Aside from altering between boy and man, stalwart and squeamish, one thing that never changes is Link’s role as an avatar, a blank page for the player to ascribe themselves into the game world. Never in 30 years has Link had a line of dialogue, yet characters in the world seem to react to him as if he speaks, implying that Miyamoto and co. intended for you to fill in Link’s side of the conversation with your own imagination.
This isn’t simply speculation. In the Zelda compendium Hyrule Historia, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto is quoted as saying, “The name Link came from his role as a connector…Link is you, the player.” Longtime series producer Eiji Aonuma elaborated on Link’s scarce personality and role as a stand in during an E3 2014 interview. “I don’t want to define him so much that it becomes limiting to the players,” Aonuma insists. “Ultimately Link represents the player in the game.”
But if Aonuma and Miyamoto really wanted Link to embody any player, why strictly dictate his gender? The answer could trace back to the fact there weren’t nearly as many women playing games as there were young boys when the franchise emerged in the mid 80s. In a 1988 industry overview, Nintendo reported that only 27% of game owners that year were female. Today we know those stats are vastly different, with females making up on survey average half of all game players, and women over 18 years old making up one of the industry’s largest demographics. Additionally, a gender select option may have been unavailable by the technical limitations of those early consoles.
But as we’ve seen from this new Link’s curious blue tunic and cape, things are different now. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, customization and breaking conventions seem to be the aim of this western RPG inspired Zelda – and what better way to nail both targets than to let players choose what gender their Link is?
The Zelda series is no stranger to powerful and complex female characters. Sheik, Impah, Nabooru, Tetra, Midna, and countless Princes Zeldas; all iconic and memorable characters who have never been playable, save for spinoffs like Hyrule Warriors and the Super Smash Bros. Games. The series’ first playable female character could offer women and those who don’t identify with a male figure a level of representation unprecedented in this franchise.
Returning to the reincarnated hero, the introduction of the first female Link is so easily facilitated thanks to the already established fact that each game’s hero is a new reincarnation. Think of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra series, two shows that star the same spirit born into a male body in the former show and a female in the latter. The Zelda team could look towards team Avatar for a crash course on how to handle reincarnation across genders.
To answer the question posed in my headline, how does having a female Link change The Legend of Zelda? It doesn’t, really – and that’s the best part. Aside from allowing some players to connect more fully with their character, the game won’t be altered for those who prefer a male Link simply by having the option of gender presented at the beginning of the game. Link will always serve the role of the silent, imagination inspiring bridge between gamer and game world whether as an 8-bit sprite, a gritty warrior, a cell shaded child, a male, or a female.
Pokemon Crystal is celebrated as one the best entries in its franchise in no small part to the fact it introduced the option to choose a male or female sprite, effectively telling audiences that anyone can be a Pokemon trainer. The Legend of Zelda would be wise to do the same, convincing new and old gamers alike that the women in Hyrule can do more than be rescued by sword wielding boys in green. They can pick up and swing the Master Sword themselves.