Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Nintendo and the (unintended?) Linkle challenge

In a recent update for the upcoming Hyrule Warriors Legends, a portable version of the widely appreciated Zelda spin-off for WiiU, two new playable characters found their way into the game's roster, namely fan favourite Tetra (remember The Wind Waker?) and newcomer Linkle, a female counterpart for the series' traditional male avatar Link. While part of the audience were quite pleased with the initiative, something Nintendo had teased in the past but never translated into actual game content, some other people were less enthusiastic about it and labeled it a stereotypical, pandering cash grab.

I won't put quotes around that definition because it's actually mine, and it only serves the purpose of encapsulating the range of sentiments expressed by others in relation to the matter - with different shades of grey of course, but I think it's a pretty accurate synthesis. As you can see from the trailer up here, Linkle is an adorable female Hylian that shares the same colour scheme as the reference character, while swapping his iconic Master Sword with double crossbows and adding a distinctive golden compass on her neck. Well, each of these elements seems to lend itself to criticism about the alleged unfair depiction of a female character, with particular reference to...

  • The outfit and complexion: Linkle retraces exactly the same racial features and clothing style of Link, rather than presenting herself as an original and distinguished counterpart for the hero. Nintendo played it safe by simply applying girlish twists to the existing template, down to the name, making the base male audience more comfortable in the process - not the female one.
  • The crossbows and compass: why didn't Nintendo trust Linkle with the legendary Master Sword? Isn't she worth it? Or are the crossbows a more appropriate, graceful and prejudicial option for a lady at arms? The compass in itself adds nothing to Linkle's femininity, serving more as simple merchandising material (it's a physical bonus for the game's limited edition).

With the gaming industry as a whole striving (with variable degrees of success) to propose more effective and nuanced depictions of female characters, in both main and supporting roles, Koei-Tecmo's approach to Linkle's design may come off as simplistic and outdated: the developers stated that they wanted her to look like "a cute little sister to Link", an idea that Nintendo itself scrapped initially. But little did the publisher know that Linkle's abandoned design in the Hyrule Warriors artbook would actually become popular among fans of Zelda, despite its derivative nature.

The natural question is "why?", so let's venture into seeking answers, shall we? Anybody familiar with the Zelda franchise is aware of Link's conception as a neutral avatar, a shell for any gamer to dive into the world of Hyrule. But it also represents the basic features of the hero according to the lore: an innocent young Hylian, blond of hair and blue eyed, with a green outfit and a pointy cap. Those are the elements forming the long standing trope that defines the whole series' identity, not the gender, even though for many years Nintendo has been addressing Link as a boy (an assumption of theirs about the games' fanbase that doesn't hold much ground nowadays),

Link's neutral avatar represents the basic features of the hero according to the lore: an innocent young hylian, blond of hair and blue eyed, with a green outfit and a pointy cap. Those elements forms the long standing trope that defines the whole series' identity, not the gender

This perspective, in my opinion, effectively invalidates any accusation of pandering based on the character's appearance alone: Linkle represents Koei-Tecmo's compliance to the lore's premises. The lore premises allowed a woman to hoist Mjolnir and become Thor in Marvel's comics, along with all the appropriate marketing considerations. Speaking of weapons, I for one would love to see Linkle brandish the Master Sword to unleash some special musou techniques, but at the same time I'm OK with the crossbows as her regular mean of offense: it's not like Link has never touched a crossbow in 29 years, although in the context of a less than stellar spin-off, and she's got a powerful tornado attack too, for those still worrying about a "weak woman trope" reinforcing risk. Who said she's going to be a weak character in the first place?

In conclusion, I think Koei-Tecmo is providing both an opportunity and a challenge to Nintendo: by making Linkle a worthwhile addition to the Hyrule Warriors roster, the Big N may consider giving her more relevance in the future by creating dedicated titles or even better, turning her into the alternative avatar for mainline Zelda games. That alone would be a simple yet important step into contemporaneity for Nintendo, and a way to shake up accusations that often have an end in themselves. 

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