A little while ago, I wrote an article about how silent protagonists can sometimes hinder otherwise great video games. I spoke to many colleagues and friends about the subject so I could get as many opinions and viewpoints as I could before I wrote the article. There was, however, one glaring issue that was omitted from said article, and that issue is Link, from The Legend of Zelda.
I didn’t mention Link in the above-mentioned article because I thought it was a topic that deserved its own discussion and dissection and because it has a lot of special circumstances. So should the hero of Hyrule speak, and would it make future Legend of Zelda games better?
Firstly, why do video games have silent protagonists? Well, there are a few reasons. Silent protagonists are used as a tool for the player to project their own personality, or a personality of their choice, onto the main character. Therefore, they choose the silent protagonists “internal” voice. This helps the main character appear more relatable even if they are more of a blank slate.
Having a silent protagonist is great for games with character creation or choice-based games as it can emphasize those aspects of the game, or other things like the plot focusing more on the world the game is based in, or centering more around the secondary characters. It’s an interesting aspect of video game storytelling and it has its practicalities.
Link has always been a silent protagonist (except for those oh-so-great Zelda CD-I games), even now that Breath of the Wild has voice acting to some degree. If you asked me a couple of years ago if Link should speak/ or have a voice, I would have said no. But now I’m not so sure.
This is because Breath of the Wild introduced voice acting to some of the major characters, mainly Zelda and the Champions of Hyrule. I didn’t think I would like it at first but I found that it added a lot of characterization, and for the first time I actually liked Zelda as a character because of the emotions she was able to display.
There was still an issue however, during almost all of these scenes, Link stays silent like his usual self, but it drains all the emotions that the scene is supposed to have. For example, there is a particular cutscene where Zelda falls into Link’s arms as she cries over her despair because she failed Hyrule. It’s an incredibly emotional scene that falls flat because Link just does nothing.
The writers clearly want you to understand Zelda’s despair due to her kingdom falling and her friends dying, but when you see someone that upset, your natural response is to console and try to get them to feel better/comforted.
If Link were to say something, anything even remotely consoling during this scene, it wouldn’t be weird, it would be relatable. The main character would be portraying the emotions that the writers want the player to feel which could make the player not only like Link more but actually grow closer to him emotionally.
If Link were to be emotional, have his own thoughts, opinions and be able to comment on what happens around him, it would lead to better storytelling, something the Zelda franchise isn’t that great with.
Now before people come at me with torches and pitchforks, allow me to clarify. The Zelda franchise has many great stories within its world and the world-building throughout the series is a masterclass, but the actual plot of Zelda games is overdone and boring. The destined hero has to collect special items/defeat enemies to rid the land of evil and stop the bad guy is the overall plot of every Zelda game.
If there is ever any personal storytelling going on, it’s usually in regards to Zelda herself (which is good and should continue), but Zelda is usually absent for a large chunk of each game. Link, however, gets to experience the entire plot and smaller stories that happen within each game. These story beats could further be explored by getting to see Link’s, the person who everything is happening to’s, opinion and viewpoint.
How does Link feel about losing Navi and then Epona, two of his best friends, in Majora’s Mask? How does it feel to wake up after being asleep for seven years and see the damage caused while he was sleeping?
Surely you could assume that in Breath of the Wild, after failing to protect his kingdom and watching Hyrule get destroyed, Link would feel despair and helpless, but would then try to pretend to be OK for the sake of Zelda’s well-being. But since Link can’t really emote, you can’t assume that.
There are some really interesting plot points, like the ones mentioned above, that could be explored further to make each game feel like more of a personal journey where you get to grow close with the main character due to relating, empathizing, and growing with him, not just because you’ve spent a lot of time playing as him.
The Legend of Zelda just isn’t the type of game that lends itself to the type of storytelling that a silent protagonist ensues. However, role-playing games like Skyrim or Dark Souls do, because you as the player get to create your own character and customize him to any specification the game allows.
Zelda does no such thing. You always have to collect the same items, beat the same bosses/dungeons, and save Hyrule (Breath of the Wild is a slight exception).
You don’t get to choose how you play Link, there are no optional abilities, skill trees, nor attributes to level up. You just play as Link. And hell, in Breath of the Wild you don’t get the choice of naming Link something else like you do in past games. You’re just Link, he’s a defined character, not just a vessel in which you get to experience Hyrule through. Breath of the Wild more than ever, introduces Link with pre-established relationships that are both complex and still developing.
Link might still be the silent hero of Hyrule, but in Breath of the Wild, due to his relationships and how others are voice acted, it just feels like the wrong choice for him to be silent. Considering that we are getting a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild and that once games get voice acting, they never really revert to silent characters, it just feels like the most natural course is that Link should also speak.
Whether it’s to keep some sort of nostalgic memory intact of what Link should be, or because people think it will be awkward, these feelings will eventually be overcome, just as they have with every other older game franchise that graduated to full voice acting.
The Legend of Zelda is already a fantastic franchise with superb world-building, deep lore, and characters that are begging to be further explored. Having the main character of the series speak and be voice acted would only enrich the storytelling capabilities that have long been shackled due to this hurdle.
Link has grown to be his own defined character, not just an empty vessel so that the player has a way to experience the game. Not only will it deepen him as a character, leading the player to grow more attached to him, but it will also deepen the relationships that the game is trying to convey to the player that Link already has. The hero of Hyrule shouldn’t be mute forever.