Spoiler alert: I really bloody like video games. They’re great. I also think they have a way to go to become the entirely progressive medium that I’d love them to be (even though I feel they are bounds ahead of TV and film). The unveiling of the newest Legend of Zelda game has seen a surprising amount of backlash surrounding the now confirmed sex of the game’s protagonist. It’s male. Link continues to be a man, or a boy at least. This news doesn’t seem especially groundbreaking. Rumours before the game’s official announcement, however, hinted at a female lead in the next instalment of the popular franchise.
In what I’m assuming was intended as damage control, Nintendo has trotted out the lead developer on the game to explain Link’s gender away. The reasoning for the main character is rather embarrassing. These reasons included such gems as: “If we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?” and “Taking into account that, and also the idea of the balance of the Triforce, we thought it best to come back to this [original] makeup.” Let’s just make clear at this juncture that these are fictional characters controlled by Nintendo, since those ‘justifications’ make it sound as though Link and Zelda are real people living down the street fighting evil. I’ll provide a handful of truly radical solutions to these barriers that it took me about three seconds to think of. Firstly, Link and Zelda could just have their roles reversed; Link could play the damsel in distress while Zelda fought to come to his aid. Really, really radical. A role could easily be concocted for both Link and Zelda: the pair could be playable or Link could run a shop or act as main player in the fight against Ganon if having him as a character in need of rescue is just too much. Second, these games are controlled by Nintendo. The balance of the fictitious Triforce (and why it even needs a particular “balance”) is entirely up to them. If they wanted two women included in the power/wisdom/courage trio, they could quite happily do just that. It is far more likely that the decision to keep Link male is more indicative of the Japanese’s company’s conservatism. The justifications that Nintendo – a massive company which I’m guessing has a decent PR department – listed for not having a female link are frankly, pathetic.
Nintendo may not owe its audience a female lead, but seeing a leading developer introduce a female lead to one of its core franchises would have been a real statement. This is especially true when it is considered that only 3% of new games showcased at E3 this year featured female protagonists. Only two games out of 59 featured female leads. This is poor. Really poor. In 2016, I would have hoped this is a conversation I’d hoped would have ended. It appears that people need reminding that representation matters. That we are denied interesting female leads, which have been so great in the past in cases like Remember Me, Mirror’s Edge and Beyond Good and Evil to name three, is unfortunate to put it lightly. Looking beyond the fact that gaming, and media in general, is saturated with ‘gritty’ straight, white, male characters and that this is just tedious; representation matters.
That women are excluded as protagonists in video games matters. Video games reinforce the idea that men are the only ones able to be heroes and exert any kind of agency, placing women decidedly in the background. This holds true also for sexuality, something infrequently featured in video games but the dominance of heterosexuality is concerning. If for no other reason, I’d be happy for protagonists to have to be non-heterosexual to escape the ‘avenge/rescue my wife’ story. Women and non-heterosexual people continue to be viewed as minor players in the stories of straight men in video games, reinforcing typical cultural notions. Women and LGBTQ people are forced to identify with straight male protagonists, even though men are seldom encouraged to project themselves onto female or gay characters. Such characters would go a long way to combat traditional ideas held by many who might play games. Where video games do address sexuality, for example, it has been proven it can do so effectively as The Last of Us did. Showing players the world through the eyes of a woman or an LGBTQ person can challenge the idea that men shouldn’t identify with these people as equals.
I’m hopeful that video games to continue to progress. The past few years have seen increases in the number of female and LGBTQ characters, but more protagonists would be something to be celebrated. And something fresh, which protagonists need in general to flee the typical trappings of man, straight and white. The opposition to these developments including more diverse characters as unnecessary or potentially alienating players will hopefully decline as the saturation of the same old mould of character becomes more noticeable and the need to represent other people as equally valuable and respectable increases.