Ever since I played my first Legend of Zelda game – it was Link’s Awakening, if you were curious – I’ve wondered why I was playing as Link in a series named for Zelda. Eventually, I stopped asking questions, because that was just how things worked in Hyrule. In every game, Link would set off on an epic quest and go rescue Zelda, and that was that.
The most recent Zelda game, 2017’s Breath of the Wild, is just about my favourite video game of all time. I don’t say that lightly; I truly do consider it a masterpiece. Over the years since Breath of the Wild‘s release, I’ve tried to hold up multiple other games to its ridiculously high standard, only to see them pale in comparison.
Now that the attention has shifted to the sequel, there’s been a lot of recent discussion about making Zelda a playable character. Zelda’s shorter hair in the trailer, claim some theorists, is an indication that she will likely be playable, because short hair is easier to animate. Article after article I’ve read lists speculations and reasons a playable Zelda would be great for the series.
All the Wrong Reasons for a Playable Zelda
In an article entitled “A Playable Zelda Would Be a Game Changer for Breath of the Wild 2”, Charlie Stewart (GameRant) claims that being able to play Zelda would make the same map of Hyrule feel fresh and new through her eyes1.
Both Zelda and Link, as well as the other champions seen in spirit-form in the first game, are now playable in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. Nonetheless, the introduction of Princess Zelda as a playable character in the “main” series could be an elegant way for Nintendo to switch things up in Breath of the Wild 2 and make the kingdom of Hyrule feel worth exploring once again.
Under the headline “Breath of the Wild 2: What Zelda Could Offer As A Playable Character”, Scott Baird (ScreenRant) discusses Zelda having a new playstyle based on magic, offering players a new perspective on Hyrule through her eyes, and allowing a co-op mode2.
The portable nature of the Nintendo Switch, coupled with the online capabilities of the system, means that players might finally have a co-op mode in a mainline Legend of Zelda game. Link has had to save Princess Zelda on many occasions throughout the series, but the time might have arrived for them to take to the battlefield as a couple and face Ganon together.
And in a piece called “Breath of the Wild 2 Needs to Break Zelda’s Oldest Taboo”, Tomas Franzese (Inverse) mentions including Zelda as a counterpart to Link by having her play as a “Mage to his Knight”, while focusing on how to keep their gameplay distinct3.
Additionally, you could make Link and Zelda play distinctly enough from each other to where it doesn’t feel like one is more important than the other. … Maybe have her be the one who can use Sheikah Slate and bow powers instead of Link, or position her as more of a support-based character that could debuff enemies or buff Link.
The more I read, the more frustrated I became. Because, as much as these articles extolled the importance of having Zelda be playable, and talked about how it would affect gameplay or make things fresh and new, they really don’t hit on why Zelda should be a playable character. All of these articles seem to be missing the point.
Zelda Should be the Leading Lady, not Link’s Co-Star
The importance of female video game characters is not to help their male counterparts out when they are injured, or save them in the “reverse damsel in distress” syndrome that Anita Sarkeesian talks about in Feminist Frequency’s “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” video series4. Having Zelda add a mage-style play mode to complement Link’s is not a good enough reason, nor is using her to add novelty and discovery to the map from Breath of the Wild.
Simply making Zelda playable, then, does not cut it. It does not suddenly “change the game” or make things “equal” between Link and Zelda if players can choose to play her in a co-op mode, or even if players are forced to be Zelda in some scenes where Link is trapped in a cave or kidnapped by Ganon. If Link is still there, and still playable, Link will by default be the main character of the game, with Zelda relegated to an alt.
The only way for Zelda to really take back her game is for her to become the main character. She needs to have her own journey, not to be exploring dungeons with Link or fighting Ganon with him. We need a Zelda game about Zelda, where she is not just a playable character, but the only playable character. Link, after all, has had his turn for more than thirty years.
Just a playable Zelda? Nintendo can do better.
In Breath of the Wild, I was impressed by the rich storyline that Zelda was given. From the memories you pick up through the game, players get an insight into her struggle with expectations of her as a princess, and her yearning to be able to be the hero like Link, which leads to some resentment between the two. Her feeling of being trapped in a prescribed role resonated with me, and I’m sure with other players out there, particularly women. Overall, I think Nintendo did a great job of giving her character more depth than she has had in any previous Zelda game.
Why We Need Playable Female Lead Characters in Video Games
Playable female characters are notoriously underrepresented in video games5. In 2020, it was reported that 41% of all gamers in the United States were female6. At the same time, the percentage of female protagonists in games was 18% in 2020, which was higher than the 2% it was in 20167,8.
Seeing Zelda as a main character, then, not just a playable one that does some missions with Link, is hugely important for players because avatars are the fictional player inserts into a game world. We want to identify with characters that we play as, by how they look and how they experience the world. Link’s story has been told, while Zelda’s has only really been explored in Breath of the Wild and is frankly the more interesting one.
Having Zelda lead the story is a way of telling female players that they too can be the hero. It’s a way of showing that women can unequivocally be the central character, not just part of a duo or the support, and that women are seen as a valid and valuable part of the gaming community.
In the numerous articles I’ve read about introducing a playable Zelda in Breath of the Wild 2, not one has suggested truly giving her centre stage by removing (or even greatly reducing) Link’s playability. Most give nebulous comments that “it’s time for her to be in the spotlight” or “this would be great for gameplay or for Link in some way”, with halfhearted suggestions of co-op modes or treating Zelda as a support mage.
No-one has mentioned that Zelda should be playable because there are female players out there who have gone thirty-odd years without ever being able to identify with the playable hero they control in a Zelda game in the same way their male counterparts have. It seems that even now, the gaming community cannot imagine the iconic Legend of Zelda series without its leading man, even when it should have been Zelda’s story all along. Looks like we have a long way to go.
- Stewart, Charlie. “A Playable Zelda Would Be a Game Changer for Breath of the Wild 2.” GR Originals. GameRant, 20 November 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Baird, Scott. “Breath of the Wild 2: What Zelda Could Offer As A Playable Character.” Game Features. ScreenRant, 14 July 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Franzese, Tomas. “Breath of the Wild 2 Needs to Break Zelda’s Oldest Taboo.” Gaming. Inverse, 12 December 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Feminist Frequency. “Damsel in Distress: Part 3 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games.” Uploaded to YouTube, 1 August 2013. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Kaser, Rachel. “Why is it so rare to have a woman leading a game?.” Gaming. The Next Web, 22 October 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Gough, Christina. “Distribution of computer and video gamers in the United States from 2006 to 2020, by gender.” Video Gaming & eSports. Statista, 24 July 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Gough, Christina. “Share of video game protagonists from 2015 to 2020, by gender.” Video Gaming & eSports. Statista, 28 October 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Sarkeesian, Anita and Carolyn Petit. “More Video Games Featured Women This Year. Will It Last?.” Culture. Wired, 15 October 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Jones, Camden. “Breath Of The Wild 2 Theory: Why Zelda Will Be Playable.” Game Features. ScreenRant, 4 March 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Hernandez, Patricia. “Breath of the Wild’s sequel may finally do right by Zelda.” Polygon, 11 June 2019. Web. 30 December 2020.
- Fox, Tanner. “Breath Of The Wild 2: How Likely Is Playable Zelda, Really?.” TheGamer Originals. TheGamer, 12 May 2020. Web. 30 December 2020.