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Why arguing about Link’s gender is dumb, and why it’s important

So there is a new Legend of Zelda game coming out, as there always is. Nintendo have shown it at E3, and fans have been speculating about it endlessly in anticipation, as they always do. I guess somewhere or other, people glommed on to a rumor that Link might be a girl in this next incarnation.

Nintendo shot down that rumor with some spurious logic about balancing the triforce, which apparently becomes unbalanced if it goes from 2/3 male to 2/3 female. See, in the original Legend of Zelda, a Triforce was a golden triangle made out of 8 pieces of smaller triangles, and there were three of them: a triforce of wisdom, a triforce of power, and uh I forget let me look it up, oh yes a triforce of Courage. These triforces brought “balance” to the world, and whenever the balance gets out of whack, Link (using the Triforce of Courage) has an adventure to restore balance and peace to the world.

Later, I guess, these triforces became identified with the major characters in the Zelda world: Link, Zelda, and Gannon. And because these characters have gender, and because a 2M:1F gender ratio is apparently “balanced”, you can’t make Link a girl. Because apparently there’s no way to restore that imbalance through adventuring, or rewrite Zelda to be a dude, or whatever. It would just ruin Zelda as we know it, according to Nintendo. This, despite the fact that Link takes on a wide variety of identities in many of (immutably) his adventures.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine... except a girl.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine… except a girl.

My point in writing this is not to slam Nintendo for their decision to keep Link male, but to point out that Link is Nintendo’s property, and they can manage their property however they want to. They don’t have to make up dumb excuses (and they are dumb) why Link has to be male. They don’t owe fans a female Link. If they decided to offer a female incarnation of Link, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. But Nintendo created and own the Legend of Zelda world, and they’re the ones who get to decide how it works.

Except…

We get to play in that world. As it unfolds for us, we take part in the creation, and so each of us owns a small piece of it. We are invited to become Link — as is the common convention with nearly every videogame ever made: you are the protagonist.

And, it turns out, about half of us are girls.

So, regardless of what the instruction manual says, or what the pixels look like, or what Nintendo wants, about half of all Links are girls.

For some girls, they may think of Link as a boy, and so they’re playing “in drag” while they use Link as their avatar, in much the same way that, in Shakespearean times, men played the women roles too, since real women weren’t allowed to be actors back then.

Some girls playing as Link may think of Link as a girl. That’s fine. Maybe Link’s a tomboy. Or maybe she’s disguised as a boy, because Hyrule doesn’t accept that women can be action adventure heroes. Or maybe some other thing.

Who cares? If someone wants to play the game and use it with their imagination that way, who are we to tell anyone that they’re wrong? That’s the experience they had, playing their game. There’s nothing official about it of course, but that doesn’t matter.

The thing with videogame characters is, we inhabit them for the duration we play the game. It’s like putting on a costume and playing a role. Each actor brings something different to a role.

But if we neglect this aspect of theatrical artifice, and consider the character of Link as a real person, who is a distinct individual, the character has its own identity. Its original incarnation as designed by the original creator seems to have some sort of magical hold on the character concept that defines it. Link is small. Link wears green. Link uses a sword and shield. Link explores the world and finds things. Link is heroic. Link is… male.

But every time a serial storyline has a new story written, or goes on a new adventure, the author of that story takes the opportunity to create new things. If there wasn’t anything new, there wouldn’t be much point to creating a new story. These new stories may be said to extend the existing body of canonical stories that have to agree in continuity. Or they may have an “alternate” reality, often thought of as subordinate in some sense, or subject to pre-existing continuity where possible, but existing in a loosely connected multiverse of worlds surrounding different incarnations of the characters. Sometimes serial stories are “rebooted” or “reinterpreted” by new authors who take aspects of the original work, and use them as raw materials for writing completely outside of the canonical milieu.

There’s some core conceptual things that we sense in the character that can’t be changed, and everything else is subject to the interpretation the author/publisher chooses to present, and the vestiges of the actor’s persona that a player brings for the time they inhabit the role. In cinema, characters like James Bond and Batman have been portrayed by different actors. On stage, over 4+ centuries, different actors have portrayed the characters of William Shakespeare in countless different interpretations. In comic books, different writers and artists crank out new stories in a world that has been worked on in some cases for 75+ years, while the characters never seem to age, despite the world around them always being contemporary to the time of publication. Sometimes these characters go through dramatic re-inventions or spin-offs.

People debate whether these things are good or not, but the world keeps on going.

What’s different about videogames is, we all inhabit the role of our videogame protagonists. This is different from Christian Bale inhabiting Batman for a while, and then handing it off to Ben Affleck, etc. Each of us who plays a Zelda game is Link, contemporaneously and privately. Link *is* a girl, in hundreds of thousands of living rooms, right now. And Link is a boy. Link is all things to all people.

And Link is Link, the published work offered on the market by Nintendo. We’re invited to play with him, and as him, and become him. Or her. But Nintendo gives us a set of traits and constraints to work with.

People just need to get over it and accept it, or ignore it and substitute their own reality. It literally doesn’t matter which you choose.

If the publishers want to reinvent the character or take it in some really different direction, it’s up to them to do so in a way that brings the bulk of the fanbase along, or to be willing to leave a chunk of the fans behind. Either way, it’s fine.

Just do a good job with it.

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