From now until the start of the new year we're going to be republishing some of what we feel are our best features of 2015. Hopefully this will offer the chance for newer readers to catch up on content they might have missed and allow long-time fans to reacquaint themselves with features they enjoyed the first time around. Our final feature involves one of the big Nintendo news stories of 2015: the arrival of Linkle, the elusive "Female Link".
The idea of a 'female Link' isn't new, though has been a topic that's been a little more prominent in recent times before it all culminated with a reveal of Linkle in Hyrule Warriors Legends. When The Legend of Zelda for Wii U was originally revealed at E3 2014 the appearance of the character seemed to spark a bit of an online meltdown; conversation grew around the hero potentially being a woman. Then we had the design that would become Linkle pop up in a Hyrule Warriors artbook, and the recent additions of wearable dresses in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Hero for the male protagonist was perhaps a playful nod to the ongoing discussion around the topic.
I should probably start with a key point - we've put 'female Link' in quote marks in the headline because that's how Linkle is often being referred to, and I stupidly did that in the post-Nintendo Direct news article for the reveal. I was likely affected by all the 'female Link' chatter when writing that, and even in the Direct itself Bill Trinen spoke about how "she looks quite familiar..."
Yet Linkle isn't a Female Link, she's Linkle. See, it's in the name, a separate individual that'll clearly have her own backstory and role in Hyrule Warriors. She'll have her own segment of story that'll no doubt intersect with the rest of the campaign - the whole plot of Hyrule Warriors involves different characters from different Legend of Zelda universes intertwining and fighting the cause in unique worlds before teaming up. Linkle's the latest member of the cast along with various other deadly fighters that happen to be women, including Impa and Princess Zelda herself.
Of course, the rather rubbish name - in my opinion - of Linkle and all the 'female Link' talk applies more significance to the reveal, in some ways; it actually gives us a positive opportunity to look at how The Legend of Zelda can evolve as a franchise, especially in light of Aonuma-san's stated goal to apply his own twist to the open world genre. He's spoken about stepping back from the increasingly linear nature of the series and returning to the approach of the original NES game, which didn't have such a clear way to the end goal. Much of the talk is about giving players freedom, and right back to the Video Game Awards showcase at the end of 2014 the focus was on picking a place to explore and setting off at will.
Now let's look at some comments Aonuma-san made after the whole 'Link is a woman' chatter from E3 2014, speaking in this case to mmgn:
Actually that comment I made jokingly. It's not that I said that it wasn't Link. It's that I never said that it was Link. It's not really the same thing, but I can understand how it could be taken that way.
It seems like it has kind of taken off where people are saying 'oh it's a female character' and it just kind of grew. But my intent in saying that [was humour]. You know, you have to show Link when you create a trailer for a Zelda announcement.
...I don't want people to get hung up on the way Link looks because ultimately Link represents the player in the game.
I don't want to define him so much that it becomes limiting to the players. I want players to focus on other parts of the trailer and not specifically on the character because the character Link represents, again, the player.
Though Link is referred to as 'him' in that final paragraph, let's just look at Link as a character for a moment. In various titles from the series he's really just 'the hero', with Link being the default name that Nintendo applies. Yet let's not forget that the player is given the power to name the hero - rather than Link saving Hyrule it could be Spartacus, or Julio, or Jeeves. The hero is you, basically, or the name you want to be representative of the respective game's hero. Link is a default, a familiar name that's simply easy to associate with the franchise. Link is a placeholder.
Now, that's blasphemy, I know. After all we have official timelines and lore saying Link is the hero, yet I'm just pointing out the obvious; many have never played as Link. They've played as heroes dressed in green, yep, but that's it.
At this point you might want me to get to the point, so I will. What if all of this talk of freshening up the franchise and an open world with a freedom and non-linear approach in the Wii U game is on the level - what if the nature of Link as a hero is about to join a host of other RPGs and have a free choice of gender, allowing players to be the hero / heroine they truly want to be?
It's good enough for Xenoblade Chronicles X, Fallout 4 and various others; you create and customise a character to be your representative, which you can make a bit like your idealised self or something else entirely. The game narrative and how the world works operates regardless, through story elements and the seemingly random and emergent possibilities in the open world. If the next major Zelda title is aiming to implement some of these ideas, then a simple gender choice at the start is not only possible, but I think it'd be welcome.
It should be acknowledged, of course, that you can have sprawling RPG experiences with more fixed characters too, with a notable recent example being The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Yet I've always thought of the links between Zelda titles - in terms of storyline and lore - to be often tenuous as best. Yes, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask was a direct follow-on in one of the branching timeline paths, but often they're standalone adventures; it seems Nintendo likes to have the freedom to take different routes and tell new stories as it pleases. The timeline itself is only so furiously debated because it's so illogical and scruffy, applying a plot to a group of largely unrelated games; if it was all planned, the timeline (official or otherwise) would be blindingly obvious to all.
But yes, the hero of these games has always been male - apart from the awful CDi Zelda game, which hardly counts - and that'll bring calls that it should ever be thus. Yet if everything stayed the way it always did gaming would be rather dull, frankly. So much of what I love about gaming, regardless of platform and developer, is how it can be surprising and throw up the unexpected. Even if you want a Nintendo example let's just consider Super Mario Maker - that has features and editing options for 2D Mario platforming that have never existed in the main games; that's a good thing.
Having a male / female choice in The Legend of Zelda for Wii U need not affect the story or how the game's played in any way, especially as it's now so common and standard in the open-world RPG genre. The hero is the player remember, as Aonuma-san has suggested, and so providing that choice - whether with customisation or just one fixed variation for each gender - let's the player be their own kind of hero. You think the hero should always be a man or boy called Link? Fine, you could choose the male option and call him Link. No problem.
In terms of narrative, too, saving the world doesn't have to mean saving Princess Zelda, either - she leads the fight in Hyrule Warriors and your quest is to save the Kingdom with her and many others. Now, I loved the story-telling in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in which you're chasing after Zelda to rescue her (though she's doing hugely important work of her own), yet that was about a deep bond and friendship. I'm equally happy working through the story of exploration and protecting human-kind in Xenoblade Chronicles X.
The prospect of a huge open-world Zelda game, with freedom to approach the narrative in my own way, is hugely exciting. It would be a change from the narrative-driven norm for the series, yet that's wonderful - the series has mastered that mostly linear approach, it should have the freedom to evolve. Yet if that's the direction it's taking, with story merely being one part of experiencing the world, then the player should also - I believe - have a stronger say in who their hero is. The option can be positive, not harmful, for the series.
Linkle may have a slightly daft name and be described too much as the 'female Link', but if that sets the ground for our hero / heroine to choose their own gender in the future then so be it.