Why Legend of Zelda’s Link should be gender optional

A month ago, something quite peculiar and funny happened in the gaming world: A teaser was released for the new Legend of Zelda game, wherein we saw a character who looked a lot like Link, but lacked his traditional tunic. And on top of that, in jest, one of the developers hinted that this character might not be Link at all.

This made the fans wonder. If it wasn’t Link, who could this person be and… doesn’t the person above look, well, kind of ladylike? Could it be that this character is a playable woman? Would this mean we get to play as a female Link for the first time ever?

The cynical mind might think that the entire gaming community as we know it would be outraged by the very notion of a female Link, but the opposite happened, as people got genuinely excited. They actually wanted this character to be a female Link. Word got around and people were really looking forward to the finished product.

Then it turned out it was all a joke, and the figure above is just the same old Link we all know and love. It was a stretch to imagine that Nintendo would make a major change like this, so it’s hard to be too disappointed. But still, it raises a good question: Why not make Link female, or at least gender optional?

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Link falls under a very specific category of gaming character: he’s what we call a blank slate character. Link has purposely been given very little personality and no voice of his own. It’s a rather common character type in RPG games, and the idea behind it is simple: By making the main playable character a blank slate, you the player can insert yourself into the story and pretend to be him. Which is also why you get to choose a name to be addressed by in these games, so the other characters can call you by your own name.

Other games that function like this are the Pokémon games, and the Dragon Quest games. However, Pokémon has had its own notable development in recent years: in marked contrast to the first few games, where gender was not optional, not only can you now choose your own gender, but also skin color and clothes.

Why Legend of Zelda's Link should be gender optional

Gender was never optional in the original Dragon Quest games, but with the updated DS releases of the classic titles, it now is.

Why Legend of Zelda's Link should be gender optional

And because both series are centered around blank slate main characters, it makes no difference to the gameplay if that character happens to be male or female. And it makes sense to have a female option available to make it easier for female gamers to insert themselves into the protagonist’s place.

This is of course not the case with all games; some, like Final Fantasy, have voice acting involved and a more fleshed out lead character, so to simply make the protagonist gender optional wouldn’t be as easy to accomplish. They would basically have to make two versions of the same game, thus having to do twice the work, which is not really feasible.

Why Legend of Zelda's Link should be gender optional

In the case of Zelda, however, the more you think about it, the more natural it seems that Link could be gender optional. You could easily have a gender optional Link in a re-release of Ocarina of Time, or Majora’s Mask, or any other Zelda game. And it would make very little difference at all.

To not have Link be gender optional at this point would be to exclude female players for no reason at all. We already know that a significant percentage of people playing the Zelda games are women. In each and every con I go to, there are at least a couple of female Links running around in green tunics.

This kind of change would be an incredibly easy tweak to the upcoming Zelda game. There’s no reason at all why Link shouldn’t be a gender optional character. It would please the fans and expand the world of female heroes in a positive way.

[—Editing/cleanup/revisions to this article provided by Dr. Winston O’Boogie and Elliot Hodgett.]

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  • I’m someone who, given the option, would play a female in a game, most of the time, without even thinking. But, the idea of a female Link seems odd to me. Don’t know why, it just seems… off. Nice article, though, very well said.

    • Sofie Liv

      well that’s why it should be optional, so you can choose to play the games the way it has always been… or don’t.

      It wouldn’t even be a featured directed to you, but rather the female population of the gaming world, I must admit I have yet to encounter a male pokemon gamer whom chose a female icon in the pokemon games.. we do tend to pick our own gender in these games.

      • Crobatman

        I usually choose to play as the female protagonist (Leaf, May, Dawn, Hilda ect) in Pokémon, despite being male. The women just tend to have the more interesting designs.

        • Sofie Liv

          More power to you sir.
          The option is there, gamers should be free to choose.. I am just calling. “usual.” on this one because I have to admit.. this is just me but..
          When-ever I actually get the option of playing as a woman in a game, I will pick that option.

          Heck, when I played Dragon Quest 9 and got to choose the gender of not only my hero character but every single character in my party.. it was females all around, no males in my group, I went on a quest for female power and I liked it… I am silly that way X)

        • Hit the nail on the head there, man.

  • Chris Hedrick

    Of course, Square Enix already put the time and effort to make a game where the main character is a female Cloud. I believe it was called Final Fantasy XIII.

    • Zack_Dolan

      oooh buh-zing,

      • Sofie Liv

        BURNED!

  • Theredmadman

    This is what this site’s become, has it?

  • GreenLuthor

    “To not have Link be gender optional at this point would be to exclude female players for no reason at all. We already know that a significant percentage of people playing the Zelda games are women.”

    I dunno, but it seems like those two statements kind of contradict each other, no? I mean, if there’s already a significant percentage of women playing the Zelda games, obviously a male-only Link isn’t excluding them at all, is it? (Or am I missing something?)

    • Zack_Dolan

      I don;t think she means exclude as in they can’t play the games, but rather that they are being denied the option to make the character more relatable to them by switching gender if they so chose. i think what she;s saying is that there is no reason there can’t be that option since link has so few actual traits as a character.

      • Sofie Liv

        Yes.. that.

        All though lord knows I actually don’t want to bash the Zelda games, at all! in regards to female representation.
        I can’t say I have played any games post ocarina of time.. gimme a break I was born in 89, the nintendo 64 was my first consol.
        How-ever one of the amazing things about Zelda is indeed that it always has an extremely rich representation of female characters! Just one example is when you go collect the sages in ocarina of time, five out of seven are women. And not just blank slate blank women, women with background stories, unique designs, personality and wow.. that happened!

        This just seems to be such an easy flaw to point out I mean, yeah.. the entire plot about Zelda is that Link is a reacurring hero in their world, whom always get reborn just in time to save the world and the princess… where in the rule book does it say he has to look the same every single time?
        It would actually make more sense to go avatar the last airbender style, it has just become old tradition now that that is link.

        With the newest Dragon Quest games, you downright get the option to design just about everything about your characters, of course that feels a bit more natural to those games as you play as a new character every game, a character whom is not a re-incarnation of the old but still… in this very unique zelda case.. it makes sense within the univers.

  • Moppet

    I think I’d just like to have to option to play Link or Zelda, personally. Getting to play as Zelda in a game that’s not a bad CDI game would be really nice.

  • Nessus

    My understanding was that Link is supposed to be a sort of recurring hero archetype in Hyrule’s history, not a specific individual. Like the name “Link” is almost a title or descriptor rather than a proper name.

    If that’s true (I’ll gladly accept correction if it isn’t), then I don’t understand why a female Link would be a problem, provided the quest/story is not directly gender-related in some way. It doesn’t seem any more of a real “change” to the character than, say, a brunette instead of blond Link, or (as implied in your article) a Link who wears blue instead of green. People accept female fantasy heroes all the time (I’m staring at picture of Korra in the frame right above the comments as I type this, for Godzilla’s sake), so the idea that Link’s archetype is in some way essentially masculine doesn’t seem grounded.

    If Link’s not a single character anyway, then I don’t see why it’d constitute some kind of major re-imagining. Different individuals are different, so it makes sense that some details are just going to be a coin toss between incarnations. If Link is a different person each time (or even just some of the times), then the fuss kinda just looks like male gamers who’re averse to playing female characters trying to shift responsibility for their hang-ups.

  • Zack_Dolan

    I am actually one of the first people to go against an arbitrary change of gender or race or anything really about an established character, especially when it falls under the “did it just to do it” category to boost sales, but i actually feel that the option of making link female would only help bcs, as you said, link has no traits of his own. basically none. he’s a guy who never talks and just runs around and does stuff and never really interacts with anyone besides to just stand there and blink. it’s actually a little mind boggling he’s so beloved to this day considering he has absolutely no personality to speak of. even mario has developed a personality over the years to some degree. but link is still the same blank faced dead eyed cypher he’s always been and frankly to be able to customize him in some way is the only way to actually make any real impact on the character. hell, if you have to assign him triats yourself, you might as well get the option to assign them in the game itself. Usually the only reason i can tolerate those “stand there and blink” heroes is bcs i got to create everything else about them (within the limitations of the character generator anyway) and i think making link a customizable hero with racial and gender option would be great bcs he/she would finally have some personality beyond what my 7 yr old brain applied to his little 8 bit sprite all those years ago.

    • Sofie Liv

      It is a very unqiue case with Link for sure.

      I am not really a fan of genderbending characters just for the sake of genderbending them either, then I would rather that the creator would you know… just hand us new unique different female characters whom doesn’t have to stand in the shadow of their much more popular male counterpart and therefore will never really be able to stand as their own person.

      This case though.. is very unique due to the blank slate nature of Link.. obviously it’s not the character himself but the games that has become so beloved over time, and well, you play as him so.. nostalgia.

      To keep him as he has been, is pretty much just following old tradition because that’s what people are familiar with.

      Obviously since I keep mentioning dragon quest is because I am a fan of that gaming franchise, it’s not all the games you can costumize your character though the character will always be a blank slate like link so… I can’t say it bothers me to much.
      In fact. In Dragon Quest 9, where I got to costumize not only my main character but my entire party.. I really really missed having just some-body around with a personality.
      But oh well.. it’s a minor nit pick when it comes to Link sure, the games has so many good things to offer, including a vast representation of delightful females, i shall praise the games for that not complain.
      But yeah.. would be really cool if I could costumize my link and make him a she.. I would be delighted.

  • Cristiona

    Totally agree. I mean, I didn’t play Blood Dragon because I couldn’t play a female character. And my brother has never played any Tomb Raider game because he can’t play a dude.

    No, wait. That’s not right.

    While making a female link involves little more than tweaking pronouns and editing a sprite (not that Link’s ever been particularly masculine) and is thus No Big Deal, the converse is also true: since changing him is no big deal, it doesn’t make a difference if he’s the same.

    If the change is nothing than cosmetic, what’s the point? Isn’t that just tokenism?

    • Sofie Liv

      Doesn’t Lara Croft have more personality to her than Link? So it kind of matters more that she is a woman in the way we identify with her.

      I am not saying that it should ALWAYS be an option, when you build your game play and story around character development and so on, their gender often ends up mattering.
      My favourite game of all time is this game called “Ni No Kuni.” where I play as a 13 year old boy, but he also have a very strong personality, voice, and character development throughout the game, so to have his character locked makes sense… also because of the wonderful 2D animated cutscenes you can’t just change :3

      Any-way… Link is a pretty unique case, because he is a blank slate character like most pokemon trainers..
      He has no personality, no voice, no background story aside from the always being re-incarnated thing.. he is designed like that for a very specific purpose. The purpose of you the player, being able to project what-ever you want unto him, and pretend to be him.

      So really, just fullfilling the desire of being able to costumize his chosmetisc seems like a natural choice around now.. I really think the only reason it hasn’t happened is due to tradition.

    • Nessus

      That argument cuts both ways equally: if the change is meaningless because the thing to be changed is meaningless, then arguing against the change is as pointless as arguing for it. The whole thing is reduced to a shrug and a coin toss (which IMO it is anyway).

      Tokenism would be marked by something being lost or compromised for insufficient gain. If you’re not losing anything, and if the “token” element is as consistent as it’s alternative, then it’s not token.

      There’s nothing lore wise to say Links must always only be male. And different Links are actually different people, so the comparison to Lara Croft or another singular, defined characters is false. A better comparison would be insisting a Green Lantern shouldn’t be female (and claiming a female GL would be “tokenism”), just because the previous humans to wear the ring up to this point were male.

      The people arguing for a female Link aren’t “changing” the character. They’re just asking to see/try a potential that as far as anyone knows has always existed, and which in no way retcons or prevents other Links from being male. Meanwhile those arguing against it basically have no actual argument other than, well… that the idea threatens their comfort zone, or something. I mean, if it really does not matter to the gameplay, character, story, lore, or even imagery if Link is male or female, then the difference has to be projected from outside; from the player’s own issues.

    • The definition of Tokenism:
      the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.

      So you have to ask, “Is the option of having the protagonist of the game be a gender of the players choice, the same as recruiting a small number of people of a particular disaffected group so as to avoid the criticism of being sexist?”

      I would say “No.” It is a cosmetic change, but the idea that a character that saves the world can be an effeminate man or woman is not tokenism. If anything, the simplicity of the change not being done could be interpreted as a deliberate slight against women.

  • mamba

    One way for future games is to simply have the character be robotic or alien. They don’t HAVE to have ANY gender, so nobody would have anything to say then. If someone’s examining a character that has 4 tentacles, one eye, and speaks in clicks, and you’re looking to see if they have breasts or not, the game isn’t the one with the problem!

    Still, whenever a game designer has a story in mind, it means that when they write a good fleshed-out character, they better be careful when they decide on the gender because someone’s always going to complain it’s either tokenism or sexism, no matter what they do. And Goddess help them if they make the character (gasp), attractive! Now it’s pure sexism, no matter what the reason apparently. How silly.

    Tomb Raider’s actually a good example. After all, she’s basically a female Indy Jones with a dash of Monkey Island thrown in. she’s well written and well developed over several series. And if she was a male, nobody wold care at all about her because she’d just be Indy. So making her a woman was equality? Tokenism? Attempt to introduce some sexist breasts to an adventure game? Who knows, becasue that’s all people can focus on and it’s all meaningless opinion. Maybe the person wanted to just make a girl adventurer for completely arbitrary reasons, but due to sexism, there’s so much noice around her gender that it drowns out the fact it’s just a good game, no matter WHO or WHAT you’re playing as.

    I like how many games are allowing the customization of genders though…let the player decide what path they want to go down…after all, games are all about interactive choices, otherwise you’re watching a movie.

    • Sofie Liv

      Ever heard of the game journey?
      You basically play as… This thing.

      http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Observer/Pix/pictures/2012/3/14/1331726916392/Journey-games-007.jpg

      And really it’s quite genius, that thing is cloaked through the entire game.. it doesn’t have a voice, doesn’t have a name, doesn’t have a gender or a race, it just is… the epitamy of a blank slate character.

      The entire game is based around the concept of no speech, the game offer you no guidlines, or no author explaining things to you, it’s all about you going on a visual journey exploring all those things around you, and it’s brilliant.

      I see so many great things that game explore that could be used and explored further in other connections in other games.

      Really it’s just quite brilliant and should be played.

      And yes.. yes a huge problem with talking for female characters is that no matter what you do, some-body out there will point to it and call it wrong.

      Really, you can turn every-thing into some-thing negative if you wanna, which is why I make a point out of praising the things I feel like is doing it right, if you read some of my articles, that should be noticable, that when I see some-thing I think is positive, I will praise it.

      And I actually have praise the Zelda games quite a lot for their vast variety of big female characters, those games are allready great for female representation… having the mere option of playing female would just be making it all even better.

  • CaptainCalvinCat

    The first Elite Force game comes to mind. In said game, you had the opportunity to play either as Alexander or Alexandria Munroe. The game mechanics didn’t change, the story didn’t change, but all in all – I thought, that was rather nifty. You could choose to play the badass Ensign Munroe (insert Linkaras “ENSIGN MUNROEEEE!” here) as a male or female character.

    S/he was badass, s/he was able to solve the riddles etc. where all her NPC Counterpart of the Hazard Team were failing – that game was relatively gender neutral.
    And that could be the way for Link – where you just can choose, if you want to be male or female.

    I would find that pretty awesome, if by the push of a button, the whole story would evolve around a woman saving the world – and if you are afraid, that there would be subtext about a girl being saved by a girl… with the push of a button, you can change Princess Zelda to Prince Zelda – (or Zeldo), which is basically the same character, just genderswapped.

    You could either tell the story of a man saving another man, the story of a girl saving another girl, the story of a man saving a girl or of a girl saving a boy. Which would give the game some kind of replay value.

    • Sofie Liv

      Hahaha, sounds like a fun idea.

      Though, a girl saving a girl doesn’t sound to bad either, kind of sounds like fun.

      • CaptainCalvinCat

        I think so, too, but there are the watchdogs, who will think that this could be a depiction of (oh my gosh) lesbianism (le gasp, le shock, l’horreur).
        Hey, watchdogs – I watched Xena the other day, the episode with the vampire-ladies, the one, that you german watchdogs banned in the sunday-night-slot…. what was the big deal? What was sooooooo shocking there, that you needed to put it in the night-slot.

  • Jon

    I feel I have to correct you about what you said of gender in Dragon Quest, in Chapters of the Chosen on the NES you could, it was the only one until modern one that you could do it, it was not added on the DS version, in fact none of the updated versions of the other old ones have it.

    • Sofie Liv

      Ah, fair enough.
      I wouldn’t call myself a Dragon Quest exspert, I never owned a NES.

      My introduction to the franchise was Dragon Quest 8 on the playstation 2 back in the day, of course I played through Dragon Quest 9 where you get to fully design and costumize your lead character to your hearts content, choosing both gender, hair style, hair colour, eye-colour, skin colour, seize and what-ever.
      I was though told, that the ability to pick gender in chapters of the chosen, which I own for the DS, and played through, was a new thing.. but then again, you actually get to play as multiple characters in that game, and I even dare say… the other characters are actually more interesting than the hero, I really like Toriko, there’s just some-thing.. about playing a middleaged, chubby, married, merchant, there was some-thing cool about that X)

  • There is no reason not to.

  • Hey guys, Sensei has a TV Tropes page, written amateurishly by me. Any help in editing is appreciated.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WebVideo/MovieDorkness

  • nejiblue

    Nintendo has every right to make any game they wish with whatever gender for the main character they wish. You have every right to not buy it and say whatever you want. I’ll bet good money you will buy it anyway, which tells me and nintendo that’s it not really a issue for you and you’re just posting this to for page counts. If you were a real feminist and believed that Link’s gender is symbolic or nintendo being hateful of women or whatever, you wouldn’t buy it. Makes you a hypocrite. But whatever, I’ll be playing and enjoying it. I just nintendo never listens to bitches like you. And by buying it, you’re actually helping me, so I guess I should thank you. bye:)

    • mamba

      Ouch! Little harsh there…and Sofie’s certainly no bitch, even if she has a right to be occasionally!

      If she did what you’d asked and only bought games or watched movies that highlighted female-only, or ignored the male-centric ones, she’d have nothing to watch or play! That’s the point, the imbalance. Juts like if you hate soulless corporations and vowed to only buy from a non-corporation, you’d find you have nothing very quickly. She’s just asking for choices!

      You’re right that they can make the game any way they want…and they risk losing half their audience right from the get-go. Their choice to alienate 50% of the population…she’s just saying maybe it’s a bad choice to make.

      By the way, it’s possible to be a “real” feminist and just not a MILLITANT feminist, just like you can be a bible-believing christian who doesn’t follow literally every word of the bible. doesn’t make her hypocritical, just makes her a semi-casual activist with a opinion, exactly what you’d want from a blogger/reviewer!

      …and this is from me, someone who doesn’t even agree 100% of the time with her. (be silly to expect anyone to) So preach on Sofie…preach on!

      • Sofie Liv

        Actually, I can only praise the Zelda franchise in particular for it’s high representation of women.
        Just think back to Ocarina of time, five out of seven sages were in fact women, and not just blank slade women, women with distinct design and personality, all the zelda games has a vast variety of women in the game play, which I can only praise.

        This thing, about the blank slate hero being optional is really just… a minor nitpick, and kind of a genneral thing.
        The idea with a blank slate hero is that you insert yourself into the role so well… what if you are a woman.
        It would just be nice to have the option that’s all, and I am just pointing that out.

        I am not out to dismiss things just because there is a lack of females in them, I just like to point out what could be done to make this thing even more enjoyable for me and fellow fans.

        I’m not out to hate on the Zelda franchise, I love the Zelda franchise, it was a big part of my childhood and I am currently playing through “link between worlds.” and thus far, highly enjoy that game.

        as for feminism… gesh guys I don’t know.. i’m from a culture where we don’t use the word in the same way and certainly not as frequent i’m just… a woman whom is a geek, and like to have fan fantasies inserting myself into stories and games as well, so I get a little bit sad when there are no women I can relate to, and all the characters I relate the best to because they are the most interesting.. a males.
        I’m even a cosplayer and yeah.. get a little bit sad to when most of the characters I find the most interesting to cosplay are men.
        Not that the female spectrum is compleately devoid, not at all! I cosplay as Sofie from Howls moving castle, Harley Quinn, Trixie and Attack on Titan soldier cannon fodder.

        As for Mamba… yeah that’s fair.
        All I can give is my own personal opinion and view point, doesn’t mean I am right, some-times I even get to regret what I said after having more time to think about for instance… I was way to kind on that Godzilla movie.
        It’s not a bad movie, but it’s definetely not as good as I made it out to be, it’s just.. merely allright. I was wrong.

    • “I just nintendo never listens to bitches like you.”
      nejiblue has been banned. No personal attacks on our reviewers, please.

      • Skylar Zenas Mullins

        good job. when the response to “well maybe we could have a female link.” is “!@#$@!#!&#$%@!” that person needs the boot.

  • Jasper Jones

    When I read the title I thought you meant like Link not having any gender at all, which would be cool and would work for anyone (even those without gender!) who plays Zelda games ’cause Link is a self insert sort of character.

    But the idea of Link being playable as either male or female like the way they have that set up in pokemon is cool. And now that you point it out, seriously overdue.

    • Sofie Liv

      Haha! I don’t know why I found that funny I just did.
      I guess you can argue that Link allready kind of is genderless because… he does look like a girl in a lot of games, he does.
      When you play him as a thirteen year old, what on earth really sepperates him from being a girl? Even the voice could might as well have been a girls lol.

      Not that I have any-thing against feminimn boys! he is kind of an elf after all… i’m just saying… it’s actually not stretching it to far to theorise that Link was secretly a girl all the freaking time, with long flowing golden hair and petite build.
      Or just… genderless.

      • Jasper Jones

        That’s pretty much why I was thinking that. Link already looks kinda ambiguous with that long hair and that tunic and tights combo, so why not? It’s not like it affects his character one way or the other. And agreed, there are feminine/elfish looking boys and they’re adorable. But it wouldn’t be hard to read Link in other ways. Either as female or as genderless.

      • Nine Breaker

        Actually, I seem to remember reading a fan theory some years ago about how the “original” Link died in Link to the Past, and the descendents of Link are actually the daughters of the Seven Sages from LttP who were trained by Impa and formed a sort of “sisterhood” to cover up for Link in the future games. This explains why Link is androgynous-looking as the series went on. Sounds kinda far out there, but I liked that theory. Reading your article made me remember that.

        • Sofie Liv

          Some fan theorise, how silly they might be, are a lot of fun.

          That one is kind of fun, but unfortunately kind of falls to pieces when you realises that some-times there are decades or even centuries between games, and we allready know, as is established, it’s the three goddess whom send their hero of time when Hyrule is in need.

          I wonder if Link ever wakes up in one of his lifes and goes. “Really? again? I’m reborn AGAIN, to safe another decendant of that princess, I have no control of my own life, and can only do what these higher beings demands of me… fuck it i’m done with this shit! I’m going to a tropical island now, bye!”

          I know I would be pissed if I was re-born for time number ten only to have to go over the god damn same thing again, haha X)