Recently my brother and I started playing TriForce Heroes, the newest installment of the Zelda series on the 3DS. While this game didn’t necessarily catch my attention from either the Nintendo Directs or E3, when I watched other people play it and saw how much fun they were having, I decided I had to pick it up despite its forced multi-player angle. However, I did also want to pick it up for one other reason: the fact that this game is the first where Link isn’t restricted to a certain type of clothes based on his gender. It’s sad to say how unique it is for a game to both allow characters to wear whatever the fuck they want with no consequence (via in-game perception) and to practically encourage it. While this is what it looked like from the outside, I couldn’t be sure until I played the game myself. At around the same time as TriForce Heroes’s release, the Zelda fandom received another announcement that seemed to promote the message that, well, if some part of Nintendo was going to take the steps to being more inclusive in their games, it was going to be the Zelda franchise. But how effective will their efforts be? I can’t predict the future, but if anything, I think it’s a good start.
If you’re unfamiliar with the tried and true recipe of the Zelda series, let me break it down for you. Every game stars our intrepid, green-clad hero Link, who must save the princess of Hyrule, Zelda, from whatever foe has attacked today (it’s usually Ganon/dorf). There’s typically an artifact of great power called the Triforce—and well, I don’t really have to get into the specifics because shockingly TriForce Heroes doesn’t follow this formula at all. In fact, the game doesn’t even take place in Hyrule. This time, our hero—still Link—hails from the metropolis of Hytopia where the beautiful Princess Styla has been cursed with a terrible thing: the curse of being unfashionable. With their princess trapped in a brown bodysuit that makes her look a bit like a potato, Hytopia falls into despair, and a fear that they will become the next fashion victim plagues the land. Upon meeting all the requirements to be a “TriForce Hero” (pointy ears, sideburns, and side-parted hair), Link is drafted to be the hero and sets off to defeat the evil force simply called “The Lady”.
Going into the game, many people already had issues with Link’s portrayal which I agree with. If the game takes place in a completely different land, in a place that seems outside the rule-constricted timeline, why couldn’t Link be a girl? Or at least why couldn’t the player have an option to choose between a boy Link and a girl Link? We got an incredibly shitty reason from the game’s director, Hiromasa Shikata, when he spoke with IGN about it. He states:
“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.”
I’m frankly shocked how much casual sexism this is dripping with. I don’t think this even really speaks to cultural differences in gender perception, but the fact that Shikata seems to be implying that problem solving with others is mostly a skill belonging to males is baffling. The “legend” only mentions the three traits I mentioned earlier, so it stands to reason that the king isn’t going to look at a young girl bearing those qualities and say, “yeaaaah, maybe… not you.” It’s a lazy explanation. Shikata follows this up with “and to be honest, Link isn’t the most masculine of guys in the world, depending on how you want to project yourself into the character”, which honestly does feel like he’s trying slightly, but it still isn’t exactly allowing people the freedom to interpret Link however they want.
PR is PR though, so how do things come through in the game itself. Things are actually surprisingly inclusive. Link does get a selection of dresses he can pick from, and some of them do have combat purposes instead of simply defensive ones. More importantly, Link, and the player, are encouraged when they make these choices. When crafting these outfits, Link changes into them immediately and one of the customers in the boutique comments on them. Every time, she has something nice to say about Link’s chosen outfit; she always mentions how cute he looks and that he’s very stylish. While this is a simple thing that can be taken as a throw-away, I do think it’s important. How often do people, especially kids, get to see in media someone being complimented for wearing something that may not be stereotypically for their gender? Without it being a joke? Nothing else changes about Link besides his clothes, which puts forth the idea that you don’t have to be overly feminine to be so. Of course, I’m not saying this is the trans/nb/gender binary-breaking representation we’ve all been waiting for, but I do think that for Nintendo, this is a good step forward.
Furthermore, I do want to mention that I had to take a moment when I discovered that the two most fashionable women in the town (outside of the princess) were plus sized. Both the famous designer and her best customer were ladies of size, and none of the townspeople ever had anything rude to say to them. They were respected and looked highly upon. I’m still kind of in shock, and just so happy they designed the characters like that.
Going back to Link, however, late last week Nintendo announced that in the newest installment of Hyrule Warriors, Link would, at long last, be a girl. While people have complained about her name—okay, so maybe “Linkle” isn’t the best name—I think this is a huge step. While I like Nintendo and their games, they’re typically single-mindedly devoted to the storylines they’ve created over the year; Mario is always going to be somewhere with pipes, and the Zelda series is always going to be about a young boy saving a girl. Or that’s what I assumed. From what I can gather, it seems like Linkle will be the lead in the upcoming Hyrule Warriors, instead of an “alternate costume” for the usual Link. I love this character, and I hope with her arrival this means that we’re that much closer to getting a game where the titular Princess Zelda herself gets a more active role in her games.
However, while many are rejoicing in this, I do think Nintendo has one major area they need to do better in, and that’s in adding more people of color into their games. While Impa, Ganondorf, and the Gerudo have been staples for a while, and have had many interesting incarnations, I really do think the series as a whole took a huge step back when going from characters like Twilight Princess’s Thelma to Hyrule Warriors’s Cia. In Cia, they managed to once again use the damaging and cliche trope of “white is good, black is bad” as Cia is only one half to a whole. Her other part—her good side—manifested in the pale, innocent looking Lana, while Cia was left to be an oversexualized villain. I do have hope, however, that they’ll eventually be able to pull themselves out of this uninspired rut.
It seems clear that the powers in charge of the Zelda series are trying to move it in a direction that offers a lot more representation for all of its players. However, despite their best interest, the developers are going to have to work hard to overcome their internal biases and prejudices to give their audience characters that are inclusive, but don’t fall victim to ultimately harmful tropes. Even though Shikata himself seemed resistant to allowing people to headcanon Link as a girl, trans, or non-binary, he at least understands that people are going to headcanon Link any old way they want and he can’t do anything about that. Hopefully the success of TriForce Heroes will let him and others know that these headcanons aren’t people just being contrary, but the cry of an actual need in the industry. A need that, if filled, can have a serious positive impact on the older gaming community, but more importantly the younger members who may be struggling.