Zelda Facets (1): Introduction
The Virtuous Cyborg - Coming 2nd April 2018

Zelda Facets (2): Link

Last week, the production history of the Zelda franchise. This week, we examine whether Link is a character, and how he is used in Breath of the Wild.

Link and the Master SwordAccording to an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto in 2012, the original concept for the 1986 Legend of Zelda had involved the triforce being electronic chips from the future, and the hero of that game was thus a link between the past and the future. However, Eiji Aonuma, who took over the series from Miyamoto-san, provided an alternative explanation in a 2007 interview (quoted by Darrin W. Harr in a discussion of Link’s role and identity) that is more consistent with how the character has developed across the years:

When a player is playing a Zelda game, my desire is for the player to truly become Link — that’s why we named him Link, so the player is linked to the game and to the experience. Of course, the player can always change Link’s name to their own name to further that notion should they want.

On this understanding, the name ‘Link’ has a parallel to the term ‘avatar’ that, with some debt to the Ultima player character with that name, has been used to discuss the connection between players and the fictional world of games. However, the avatar concept is easily misunderstood. As I discuss in Imaginary Games, the term avatar describes the player’s capacity to act within the fictional world, but it is used most often to describe the in-game model of the player character, the doll that is being played with. Since not all videogames that allow the player agency in an imaginary world have visual representations, the avatar cannot necessarily be something visual. The term stands for the link between the player and the game – hence Link – and that can cause problems when the avatar is also a character.

Broadly speaking, there is a spectrum of approaches to the player character within videogames from a clearly defined character (in the narrative sense) that the player is invited to take on as their persona – Ryu in Shenmue is an excellent example – to a mask that the player wears that lets them act out in the world – Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, for instance, who has almost none of the qualities that would be ascribed to a character in the way this term is used in discussions of narrative, and is really only there as a surrogate for the player and not as a character, per se. Typically, this leads to a perverse schizophrenia. C.J. in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for instance (and any other GTA player character for that matter), is a mask for most of the time the player is in the world of the game but then transforms into a character for the cut scenes. There is almost no fidelity at all between the player’s thuggish antics and CJ’s personality. In other words, a mask is an avatar through which the player acts out, while a player character is an avatar that asks the player to role-play; combining the two by distancing the player from the character (by having all narrative aspects of the character occur solely in cut scenes) is schizophrenic, although also ‘business at usual’ in contemporary videogames.

Link is a particularly interesting case because with the singular exception of Skyward Sword, Link is not developed significantly as a narrative character but functions primarily as a mask for the player to act out with. Yet Link does not fall into the schizophrenia of the GTA franchise and its imitators, nor the player-led genericism of Elder Scrolls that defines a role for the player but lets the character fulfilling that role exist solely in the player head (which, all considered, is a perfectly reasonable solution to this problem). Link is a mask who remains consistent with the character he is intended to be. In other words, Link the character – Link the denizen of Hyrule – is designed to be consistent with Link the mask – Link the avatar of the player. The alignment is never perfect, of course, but the fidelity between avatar and character in the case of Link is better than in the vast majority of games.

Tied up in this is the fact that Link is not an adult. His age in all the Zelda games varies from 9 to 17 years of age. He is never an adult, in part because no adult could be excused from the relentless smashing of pots in search of rupees (or arrows in Breath of the Wild) that Link doggedly pursues under the player’s guidance. Link behaves badly because the player behaves badly, but everything that the player can do with Link (with any Link in any Zelda game) is consistent with this idea of who Link is, namely a rather unruly teenager. The series even disrupts the player’s expectations in this respect by occasionally having a character challenge Link about their anti-social behaviour. Thus Mila’s father in Wind Waker charges the player rupees for the pots they smash in his house – much to the shock of the player! – and Pumm, the landlord of the Lumpy Pumpkin in Skyward Sword, blows his top when the player breaks his chandelier in order to get a Piece of Heart, and indentures link into a delivery boy in order for him to repay his debt.

Of course, the reason for the close alignment between player and character in the case of Link is that the qualities that are ascribed to Link the character are either the qualities that we can expect the player to show because they are a mask (and thus free to act out) or those that the player must possess to play him effectively. In that latter case, we’re talking about qualities that players are expected to possess if they hope to succeed in most challenge-oriented videogames (which Zelda always is), but which are (uniquely) represented as the character in the case of Link. Most significant here is that Link has, as it is described in Skyward Sword, an “unbreakable spirit” – which is to say, the player must keep going, and Link is undaunted by any challenge that faces him. (Conversely, in my CRPG scripts, I sometimes have the player character comment on the absurdity of the challenges that the world is throwing at them, and mock the player’s willingness to keep participating in the charade.)

In the world of a Zelda game, Link is associated with the Triforce of Courage and the fearlessness it embodies, but as a player, no such virtue could be implied because the player is never in any risk. Rather, Link’s courage and “unbreakable spirit” is embodied in the player’s tenacity in continuing to play the game – and rewarded by Link constantly improving his capabilities as they progress together through the challenges they are facing. This is the essence of a Zelda game, as confirmed by an interview in French for Game Kult (translated by a reader at Nintendo Everything), which raises the point that Miyamoto-san (the old master) and Aonuma-san (the apprentice becoming master) had always debated what the core of The Legend of Zelda might be:

It’s indeed always a source of debate with Mr. Miyamoto, simply because we both think about what defines Zelda and we’re not always on the same page. We eventually agreed this year, when we went to New York for a promotion tour. As we were talking, Mr. Miyamoto found the right words by saying that the essence of The Legend of Zelda is an environment where Link evolves and gains power, which the players will directly feel through the actions they can take as the story goes on.

Thus the acquisition of Heart Containers in all Zelda games is symbolic of the player having overcome challenges to gain in strength, and so too with Pieces of Heart for which commitment to exploration often replaces challenge-completion. The green Magic Meter (although white in Adventure of Link where it first appears) and the green Stamina gauge that replaces it from Skyward Sword, are also typically improved by the player’s continued persistence – in Breath of the Wild, Pieces of Heart being replaced with Spirit Orbs that can be used to acquire either Heart Containers or Stamina vessels. The Game Kult interview suggests that Stamina might have been adopted from Shadow of the Colossus, and Aonuma-san’s reply to this question is telling:

It’s funny that you’re mentioning this game, because we are friends with Mr. Ueda and he’s always said that he wanted to make a game like Zelda – hence the similarities in Shadow of the Colossus. Mr Ueda was kind enough to send me a copy of The Last Guardian late last year and as I was playing it, I could notice the moments when you climb on Trico’s head to find a path, and jump to reach places that were inaccessible from the height you were at. Without seeing each other or talking about it, I realize we had the same idea. It’s amusing to see we had the same inspirations, the same gameplay velleities at different times.

What can be seen here is the point made last week about the insular quality of the development practices of the Zelda team at Nintendo EAD: Aonuma-san barely plays any other games, and remains utterly embedded in the player practices of this one franchise. Shadow of the Colossus, as he alludes, has parallels to Zelda because Fumita Ueda is also participating in the player practices of Zelda; the idea that influence might have flowed in the opposite direction is effectively beyond belief for Aonuma-san.

The Stamina system is one of the most significant and divisive changes in the Zelda franchise. The conservation of player practices that underpins the design of all games creates particular challenges for an insular development community like that that makes the Zelda games each time the outcome of their process makes it out ‘into the wild’. Precisely because player practices are habits, they are conserved, but at the same time this creates resistances when players encounter constraints that they are unfamiliar with. ‘Why am I hamstrung by limited Stamina when (say) Assassin’s Creed lets me climb freely?’, the logic goes, and this resistance is apparent in Jed Pressgrove’s review of Breath of the Wild, Tim Roger’s complaints about Skyward Sword, Luke Plunkett’s commentary on his son’s responses to playing Breath of the Wild, and numerous forum posts along the same lines.

Such complaints are understandable, but arguably misguided: the Stamina system in Breath of the Wild (far more so than the one in Skyward Sword) are effective extensions of Link’s character – and are even more effective than Heart Containers at representing Link’s identity. This is because Heart Containers are something the player requires only to absorb their mistakes at playing the game, and as the player’s skill increases the usefulness of Heart Containers decreases. Conversely, there is no level of skill at which more Stamina is not more beneficial than less, and indeed experienced players almost universally argue for spending Spirit Orbs on Stamina Vessels not Heart Containers in the newest game. (I concur: in my second play through, I acquired only Stamina Vessels, and my enjoyment and appreciation for the game was greatly enhanced by this approach).

To fully explore this point, however, means to go beyond consideration of Link as a unique concordance of character and mask and to begin to look at the relationship between Link and Hyrule. For every avatar that can be considered, the relationship between world and character is essential because the avatar is what allows the player to take action inside the fictional world and the world is what responds to those actions. Thus while Link and Hyrule are two halves of the same whole, this is not a unique claim about The Legend of Zelda at all but a fundamental truth of the videogame experience: the avatar and the world are one.

Next week: Hyrule


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