Op-Ed: Linkle and the Question of Identity in Video Games

Is Linkle a true beacon of diversification?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 12/15/2015 09:00 9 Comments     ShareThis

There’s been a flurry of excitement among many fans over the announcement that Linkle, the female reimagining of Link who will be appearing in the upcoming Hyrule Warriors Legends on 3DS, might be considered for a future Legend of Zelda project. I don’t count myself as one of those fans.

As a Mexican-American, I grew up in the late ’80s and ’90s playing video games, reading comic books, and watching cartoons and movies that didn’t feature many characters who looked like me. I say many, because to insinuate that there was zero diversity in the mass media I consumed during my childhood would be inaccurate; Saban’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers is a good example of early attempts to represent a broader demographic on kids television, and Samus has been rocking the scene as the strongest woman in video games since I was in diapers. That said, there’s no denying that of all the hobbies and pastimes of my youth, gaming was the least inclusive of other ethnicities and genders in terms of representation.

It never bothered me, at least not in regard to my ability to connect with the material. Maybe it was because I grew up in the Bay Area, so if I wanted diversity all I had to do was stick my head out the front door, or maybe it was because my family didn’t raise me in a way that clung to my so-called ethnic heritage. Whatever the reason, I don’t look to characters in a game to represent me, or look like me; I play the games that I do because I want to be entertained, and the skin color or gender of the characters involved (if it’s a title that even has humans in it) is entirely inconsequential to me. I’ll admit, it’s a good thing when a developer makes pains to deliver a cast that’s diverse. I’ve even gone to bat more than once here on Nintendojo to laud the times when the industry has gotten diversity right, or to make arguments for how to do it better. I want to see more than just pale, male faces in my games, but the key is that it has to come naturally. Linkle, in my eyes, is the opposite of that.

The reason Linkle irks me is because ultimately she represents the dangerous notion that identity, be it gender or race, is fluid and meaningless when it comes to fictional characters. This is a point that I am in absolute opposition to, for several reasons. First off, fictional characters in almost every culture and society are of vast import to people. Stories, legends, many of the fantastical narratives that bind human beings across the globe are retold generation after generation, conveying invaluable wisdom and insight into life. In commercialized western culture, through a number of external forces, we’ve come to embrace serialized characters like Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker as our version of the classical myths of old. They might not be real, but their impact on our lives, for good or bad, is a real thing. If they weren’t, I doubt people would be making efforts to forcibly diversify them, to begin with.

I believe that the gravitas that we as people grant to the Peter Parkers and Harry Potters of the world makes their identities as valid as those of people of flesh and blood. In this effort to be inclusive (which has been especially pronounced in the U.S. of late), what’s been occurring as a result is a failure to recognize what that word actually means. I don’t consider it inclusive to take a character and declare that their gender or race is meaningless, particularly when the criteria for making these alterations is decidedly prejudiced. We’ve reached a point where it’s been unilaterally decided that if a character is white, male, or both, their identity is up for grabs. I can’t think of a single instance where, if the character was female and/or a minority, it would be acceptable to say the same thing.

While I freely admit that a character’s race or gender doesn’t impact my ability to connect to a game or any other form of entertainment or storytelling, that doesn’t mean those aspects of their identity aren’t important. Every ethnicity and each gender is on equal standing. As such, if one group is disrespected, even if that group is grossly disproportionately represented in mass media, then there can’t be true equality. Unfortunately, there are a number of misguided people reciting rhetoric, knowingly or not, that flies in the face of this. For instance, I once read a piece on the website Comic Book Resources where the writer claimed that Star Lord of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie could have easily been made a different ethnicity because there was nothing that “intrinsically” tied him to being white. It was an absurdly ignorant point to make (besides the idea that his being white is somehow throwaway), because it unwittingly asserted that there are ethnic roles in this world that must be followed in order for a person to lay claim to being of a particular ethnicity. To put it more simply, the writer was basically saying, “well Star Lord doesn’t do enough white people things to establish him as a true white person!”

I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t watch soccer, and I don’t visit Mexico during the holidays. My family has never lived the way that Mexican-Americans are stereotypically perceived to, and it’s presented a number of challenges to me over the course of my life so far as my own personal identity goes. There’s this perception that people are supposed to act a certain way if they’re from ethnic group A, B, or C, or if they’re a man or a woman, but the reality is that there is no set criteria that’s supposed to be followed. For me, when a character like Linkle is bandied about as some great example of diversification, I balk because it comes across as insincere. Some fans have pointed out (including on this website) that Linkle feels like a political correctness ploy, and to a certain extent I agree. I see no reason to casually dismiss Link’s masculinity for a feel-good headline grabber when there are characters like Impa in the Zelda canon who are dying to be explored and further fleshed out. Frankly, it’s just as easy to argue that taking an established male character and making them female is a quiet surrender to the idea that women characters can’t be successful of their own accord, that they need to rent the respectability of their male counterparts in order to be viable.

That’s ridiculous, of course. Microsoft’s ReCore, which will feature a female lead, looks astounding and has had my interest piqued since E3 back in June. Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly was able to draw legions of devout fans to line up and purchase the game, despite the fact that Lara was never Larry Croft at any point in her existence. For women gamers, I can appreciate their excitement at the thought of playing a Zelda game with a woman lead, and I want them to be able to play more games with women as the stars, but I want to see it done right. Put Zelda at the fore and have her save Link, or even have Sheik in the lead (seriously, why the heck would I want to play a game as Linkle when I could be Sheik?!). Highlight and honor the women characters who are already here, and make new ones. But don’t swap character genders and tell me it’s progress. What it actually represents is laziness and ignorance, which is the whole reason we’re even still talking about a lack of diversity in the gaming industry after all these years, in the first place.

9 Responses to “Op-Ed: Linkle and the Question of Identity in Video Games”

  • 745 points
    OG75 says...

    “The most important thing about the Zelda series is that the player becomes Link. One of the challenges with full voice is that if we’re trying to convey the player’s emotion through Link, but you hear Link talking in somebody else’s voice, that creates a disconnect between you and the role that you’re taking on” –Koji Kondo 2011

    Obviously, Mr. Kondo was addressing voice acting, but it’s quite a bold statement to mention “the most important thing about Zelda” is that “the player becomes Link.”

    Not all game franchises subscribe to this philosophy. I obviously don’t think of myself as a dinosaur made of yarn. I’m certainly not Italian and don’t know jack about plumbing.

    However some game characters do transcend their franchises because of this ability to have the player identify with the protagonist. Bungie subscribed to this belief and refused to show us Master Chief without his helmet. Kondo’s point was that another voice would create disconnect. Nintendo is aware of the changing landscape of gamers (see: more females) and is addressing it… by attempting to reduce disconnect.

    I do love the suggestions of Impa, Sheik, and Zelda, but frankly Linkle is, to borrow your words, a feel good headline grabber (what profit driven company wouldn’t want that?)

    The other characters are strong, compelling, and have their own stories just begging to be explored. However Nintendo sees the writing on the wall. Not only are they making a myriad of moves to stay relevant (mobile market, toys-to-life, etc.), but they’re trying to keep the Zelda franchise relevant as well (Zelda U’s open world, HD remake of their best selling TP, etc.). Skyward Sword didn’t exactly sell too well.

    Look at other current and upcoming triple-A titles. Fallout 4, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Dishonored 2. These titles and more provide players with meaty single player experiences as both male or female protagonists (or both.) At this rate, if Zelda-U doesn’t have an option for a female protagonist, I’d be surprised. In fact, Nintendo may come off as looking behind the times.

    In my humble opinion, it’s an Impa or Sheik campaign that would feel like an unnatural tacked on side quest at this stage of the game (albeit one that I’d like to play.) Instead, Nintendo is giving us a new option for a main course which will turn heads, grab attention, and get people talking.

    Nintendo have done their research, are trying to please their shareholders, and are attempting to reach as many gamers as possible.

    They’ve come a long way since “Super Princess Peach”

    Respectfully, I will absolutely call that progress.

    • 1294 points
      Robert Marrujo says...

      I think you’re either missing or sidestepping substantial chunks of my article here, OG. This piece actually counters everything you’ve just said, but one of the points I want to touch on that you made is that no one argues Link isn’t a cypher for the player, but you don’t have to be a man for it to work; any man who’s played a Metroid game and been sucked into Samus’s shoes throughout can attest to that. Again, to counter you I’m just going to point upwards, but I’ll leave with a quote from you: “frankly Linkle is, to borrow your words, a feel good headline grabber (what profit driven company wouldn’t want that?)”-and that’s the problem. There’s no substance, no thought to the character, just, “hey, look, we’re being inclusive now!” Which they’re not-they’re just being ignorant and pandering to the mindless trend of people wanting to look like they’re doing the right thing, even if they’re doing it the wrong way. Say what you will, OG, but I’m going to stand by my points, here.

      • 0 points

        Well said Robert. Stand your ground.

      • 745 points
        OG75 says...

        Hi Robert,

        Thanks for your reply! I appreciate it. I know you’re not hating on me and hopefully you know the same from me to you.

        Actually my reply doesn’t miss the point at all. In fact, look at your statement

        Robert: “I don’t look to characters in a game to represent me”

        side by side with Kondo’s

        “The most important thing about the Zelda series is that the player becomes Link”

        This pretty much sums it up. Honestly, there’s no way to reconcile those two statements. In short: You’re not buying what Nintendo’s selling. Not to say you enjoy Zelda any less, but it’s clear their stated goal doesn’t apply to the way you relate to games.

        Again: Choice is good. It’s good for consumers who want the option. It’s good for Nintendo’s bottom line. It’s good for everyone. Period.

        It’s important to keep in mind the word “choice” and our beloved medium of gaming as compared to movies. Take for example the Ghostbusters reboot. It’s all female. Some people don’t like this (and rightfully so.) Unfortunately, they have no choice. They can’t arrive at the ticket office and say “one ticket for the men’s Ghostbusters please” or “two tickets for the women’s Ghostbusters please.”

        But in gaming, we can do this. Thank goodness!

        You’ve alluded to the idea that a choice is somehow taking away or belittling women or their ability to carry their own franchises. But it’s time to be honest: People have preferences. To deny them this from a business perspective would be stubborn at best and foolish at worst. In the end, it’s “customers” who game makers are aiming to please. Not just yours, but millions and millions of gamers. Nintendo is making progress in this area. Pandering? Of course. Mindless? I doubt it. I’m sure a lot of number crunching and market analysis has gone into this decision. Nintendo is profit driven and they aren’t sitting on a war chest full of Billions for nothing. Ignorant? Lol.

        I have to chuckle a little about all the resistance to Linkle. It’s silly when the “unnatural” critique comes up. Look, if Linkle came riding in to Hyrule in a cross-promoted Mercedes SUV, that would be unnatural. It’s a game with a supernatural setting. If you’re looking for natural, you’re doing it wrong.

        The “name stinks” argument also makes me chuckle. Seriously? We as Nintendo fans play on systems called “Wii” and “WiiU” I’ve imported a game with “Tingle” in the title. My old DS version of Super Mario Bros still has “New” in the title. We don’t have to like it, but Nintendo fans will get used to it. We always have.

        Truly all this resistance is not only futile, it’s baffling.

        Thankfully, you can still choose male Link. I know I will.

        It’s time to take the “boys only” sign off the club house. Even if we don’t, those days are thankfully over.

    • 1294 points
      Robert Marrujo says...

      (Not hating on you, btw, OG; I genuinely love seeing the debate on here!)

  • 66 points
    haruhi4 says...

    i still think nintendo needs to have more female playable characters… come on, it´s always mario/link/… at least they sound they are trying with rosalina,toadette,dixie kong…

  • 1379 points
    xeacons says...

    You bring a very strong point. I for one was excited to see more female protagonists, and see Linkle as more of a gender swap in the position, not the person. I’ve seen many fictional stories gender-swap their roles to see how the story would play out, with good results.

    However, if people see this as just Link getting a sex change, then we have a problem. People often see gender as fluid, not just in fiction, but in real life as well. We want diversity, but sometimes I think people get the wrong impression.

  • 129 points
    Silverspoink says...

    A refreshing display of common sense considering the topic and the fact that this is a piece on the internet.

    Thanks for writing!

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