I’m going to tell you an incredibly embarrassing story about myself with absolutely no shame; as a child, I thought Zelda was the protagonist of The Legend of Zelda.
Yes, the old joke about someone being shocked that Zelda was not the green-cloaked, blonde-haired male hero of the series and being fooled by the title, a joke so old it has managed to land on those shitty nerdbait t-shirts that get flung about the Internet, is absolutely true for me. Laugh, and then prepare to laugh even more at my childhood’s expense when I tell you that it took me two Zelda games to figure it out. Yeah, you read that correctly. It certainly didn’t help that I was seven, and that the first one I played was The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, a game that only features its titular character once in a brief, expository flashback, and in which the hero spends the sizable chunk of the game really not going by his given name or looking like himself (really, I’m just making excuses for my young ignorance. Its super-duper obvious). It also evaded me until after I completed Majora another seemingly important fact; that Majora was meant as a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Well, shit. That presented a problem; even at that young age, I was a continuity freak. So, at the expense of time spent with family, friends, nutritious food, or the outside world, I sat down with the intent of beating Ocarina of Time…
…And about 5 minutes in I learned that Zelda was not the main character. His name was Link, and Zelda was a girl. If I had been standing on a fishing rod, I would’ve slipped on the wire spool that was being wound in towards revelation, and my impact would have sent vibrations through out the line that carried the information of my addled mind’s disbelief out into the place in-between the known and the unknown. And then, somewhere in the world, a hardcore gamer felt a dull throb in the back of his skull for a reason beyond his knowing, and two words became imprinted in his mind, words he could not remove unless he wrote them down on some internet forum as part of an angry tirade he did not even know he wrote; Filthy casual.
I jest of course, but I was legitimately rocked by that revelation in ways that I, to this day, cannot fully explain. It was like a rug pulled from beneath my feet, expectations pulled away without a sound or warning as to their disappearance, leaving a slight void in their wake. I guess the apt word of description would be disappointment. Despite my undying love of the series, that void left in the wake of the moment in Ocarina of Time remains, seemingly eternal. The void seems to spread from a question; why wasn’t Zelda the hero of The Legend of Zelda?
I asked that question once, to my brother, older, a classical gaming veteran whom I credit with myself becoming a gamer. His response has a place in the void, forever built into a specific part of my moral conscious; “Because she isn’t.”
I am going to break this train of thought momentarily and assume that you have a notion of where I am going with this. To avoid dragging this out, and to avoid repeating the words of others who have made the same point, I’m going to say it succinctly; Zelda is not the protagonist or hero of a game series bearing her name because of old roots in sexist narrative traditions that mandate a male hero whose main goal is to save/protect the girl.
But that is not the focus of this piece. The “why?” has been explained, extrapolated, ex-everything’d far beyond where I could add anything new to the conversation, and I will work with the assumption that these problems of the Zelda franchise are known and accepted. This is not about asking; this is about solving. What can Nintendo do to make Zelda a female heroine worthy of her legendary stature in video games? What would be a modest proposal for The Legend of Zelda, one that both honors the legacy and narrative of the series and takes a more modernist view of gender roles in narrative, without alienating a fan base that practically spans the entire history of the medium?
How about expanding on her existing role, as a princess of Hyrule?
This is, to me, the most baffling aspect of her character; for someone apparently in such a position of power, she is consistently presented as essentially powerless in her role (e.g., all the damn kidnappings and captures, and really only able to do anything important once some arbitrary point has been crossed). If one were to change the Zelda character, this is where it should begin. Instead of using her position as a princess as a bit of throwaway justification for why she was important enough to kidnap and it’s imperative that she be rescued, use it as an emboldening. The new Princess Zelda should be a strong, exceedingly competent, decisive leader of Hyrule, who instead of her falling on the sword, her strongest act of leadership so far as seen in Twilight Princess, takes the kind of decisive action to prevent those situations from occurring and fighting them as they come.
Imagine this Zelda. When Ganon or Ganondorf or whomever decides to come knocking on the door, Zelda is the one influencing or even making the critical political and military decisions for Hyrule’s survival. Taking inspiration from the best of classical, female, strong, fantasy characters, she would be more than willing to command an army herself, but perhaps she is not allowed to because of her position, or her importance to the kingdom’s survival. And then, what if she was thrust into the position of making those grand choices? Perhaps her father or mother goes ill or even dies as a result of dark forces lurking about Hyrule, and now she becomes the person in charge? That would be fascinating material to explore in a series of games à la Ocarina/Majora duology; it puts, for the first time, Zelda in a position equal to Link’s importance in the heroic tales the series loves to tell.
It could even add new gameplay opportunities, now that I think about it. We all know Nintendo loves to spin-off their franchises with secondary characters; Wario, Luigi, Yoshi, Peach, even fucking Tingle have all gotten spin-off franchises in the modern era, and yet, for some reason, they have never done it with the titular character of one of their most legendary franchises. Now they have a chance if Zelda’s power, both magical and political, is used to its full potential. How about a real time strategy game from the prospective of Zelda trying to orchestrate a war with the dark forces of Ganon or a new enemy or whatever their writers come up with? In my head, it would be like some bizarre cross between Command and Conquer and Pikmin, or a good version of the King of Albion stuff from Fable 3. How cool could this be? How utterly and completely different and attention-getting and exactly what Nintendo needs for their floundering Wii U and reputation could this be?
My reasons, ultimately, for wanting such a change are completely selfish. In the end, maybe I just don’t want to feel quite as much a fool for my protagonist slip up all those years ago. But, perhaps I should be thankful I did not realize Zelda was not the hero, because it made me want Zelda to be the hero. It made me ask questions and wonder why in the world such a non answer that is so deeply embedded in gaming’s accidentally sexist past as “Because she isn’t” seemed to be acceptable. Even if, in the end, my reasons for this modest proposal for The Legend of Zelda have origins in the rectification of childhood stupidity, I cannot help but think of the grander positives such a move would bring. If we are going to begin a sort of grand undertaking of creating stronger female characters in games, why would we not start here? In one fell swoop, the old roots of one of gaming’s most beloved franchises is forever changed for the better, and one of gaming’s most famous and beloved heroines would truly become the character she deserves to be.
After all, she is a princess; shouldn’t she be one worthy of being beloved by her people?
Featured image credit goes to DeviantArt user Psyconorikan, whose work can be found here.