Hero or Trope? The Legend of Zelda's Silent Struggle

Nintendo's hero of legend has gone through many changes, but there's still one challenge that he has yet to conquer: the trial of speech.

Nintendo is currently celebrating some of the highest praise it’s ever received, with the newest entry to the LoZ series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, being a gem. However, it's really little surprise.

The open-world approach eschews many of the modern-day conventions that we’ve seen out of the franchise in the last two decades, instead favoring a more liberating pace and freedom that players can dictate with a surprising degree of agency. The change has been widely considered to be a breath of fresh air for those tiring of the guided pace previous titles in the series had settled into.

Direction of the adventure hinges entirely on what you explore and engage with in this expansive version of Hyrule. Not only is the world huge, the narrative is, too, which is a bold move considering the amount of emphasis that Nintendo places on the importance of the game’s lore.

Discovering the bits of plot exposition is worth the trouble, though, unveiling the details surrounding the kingdom’s past. Questionable voice performances notwithstanding, the underlying story that Breath of The Wild contains is undeniably charming -- all in part to the captivating cast of characters and their ensuing developments and struggles that are on display here.

It’s within the very strength of Breath of The Wild’s storytelling that it also reveals a glaring flaw, potentially foreshadowing a much larger problem for the future of the series; a silent protagonist with an artificial personality.

Yeah, I know those are some pretty harsh words for a character that’s beloved by millions, but when you really stop to think about it, what exactly is the appeal to Legend of Zelda’s Link? Specifically, what are some of the qualities that he individually possesses that magnetize so many fans? Because what you may identify as a personality trait, I’ll simply refute to be a characteristic or idea that’s projected out of the role he’s meant to play and nothing more.

There’s a reason for that though, and it's the same reason I’d imagine that the series is called the Legend of Zelda, and not the Legend of Link. He was never meant to be a fully fleshed out character. Instead, he was meant to be a cipher to the world of Hyrule and everyone in it, pulling double-duty as a McGuffin.

The NES classic introduced a concept that was fairly new to video game scene: naming the hero you play. Looking back at it now, it’s pretty silly to think that this dynamic was such a big deal, but the quest to defeat Gannon and save Hyrule didn’t have to be Link’s -- it could’ve been Jerry’s, Dana’s, or even Buttmunch’s journey.

The experience, instead, became personal. As the property grew with title after title, only 2/3 of the main cast steadily received the development that they deserved, while Link was left with only aesthetic advancements, and the occasional fancy title -- all of them precluded with the word “Hero." 

This isn’t to say that Link’s stifled input really hurt the spectacle of Nintendo’s epic fantasy, but it’s definitely not status-quo that the Zelda series would be
able to keep up in the long term, and the decision to actively characterize Link was more inevitable than it was innovative. While Breath of The Wild goes into the unfamiliar territory of open-world game design, Nintendo pumps the brakes on the first real efforts to characterize their hero into an actual personality, and just half-assed the whole thing.

It's anyone’s guess as to why.

The introduction of voice-acting gives the presentation a sense of intimacy that it never had before, at least with in-depth character narrative. Only the effort falls apart in the moments where there’s a direct “exchange” of dialogue between Link and another character. The production put into the expressions of the cast -- who are allowed to have speech anyway -- just comes off a bit daft, especially when each scene is directed around various implications that are meant to infer contributions from the hero without directly showing it. The endeavor to keep the Hylian a mute ranges from subtle and absolutely ridiculous in certain segments, to the point where characters are reciting direct quotes from the man himself that we’ll never get to hear. It really kills a lot of the engagement when you notice it, and well, you just can’t help BUT notice it.

A lot of you are probably thinking that giving Link a voice would be a disastrous let-down, and to that I say that you’re probably right. Well, half-right at least. The odds that the eventual spoken word we’ll all hear out of the wielder of the Master Sword will most likely be underwhelming at best. But the alternative is one that I’d rather have, than whatever the hell it is that we have now in Breath of The Wild.

The Legend of Zelda is significant for the various influences that it has left on the video game culture, one of those being the consistent theme of interpretation, and what that meant to those who experienced the game for themselves. It’s safe to say that Link is the cornerstone to that philosophy, but if the franchise is ever going to grow, then Nintendo is going to have to embrace the idea of him being able to express more than his subdued emoting can convey -- because the state of arrested development just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Published Mar. 26th 2017

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