Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Legend of Linkle

Let’s talk Linkle.

Nintendo recently had another Nintendo Direct. Okay, I guess that’s their shtick these days. But one of the big announcements was a female Link named “Linkle”. She was confirmed as a playable character in the WiiU game Hyrule Warriors, which I assume is a real-time hack-’n-slash video game (I haven’t played video games in years, so I’m behind on many current events.) It seems like no one’s happy with Linkle’s existence: on one hand, people are calling her “pandering to those evil feminists”, while on the other hand, she’s touted as a cheap attempt at the “Ms. Male Character”, complete with sexist design choices that cater to the male gaze. And where do I stand?

I dunno, I kinda like Linkle. I'll explain why:

I’m not the biggest Legend of Zelda fan. I’ve played a handful of entries, but I’ve only beaten two. And I’ve only fully enjoyed one of them, the same one that gets crapped on most by hardcore Zelda fans: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It had its share of problems, but it also wasn’t a nightmare to beat, something every other entry was to some extent (especially The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but I’ve harped on that one enough.) Essentially, the franchise’s biggest hook, its prioritizing with in-game puzzles, is something I’m bad at, hence not really caring for it.

In other words, give me Okami any day of the week.

I mention this because my relationship with the franchise isn’t committal. I respect and admire it, I think its games are well-made and aesthetically-pleasing, but it’s not for me. Therefore, I’m speaking on a detached level when I say that Linkle’s existence not only doesn’t bother me, but is pretty cool. And given how the franchise has long been in need of an overhaul, this looks to be a step in that direction. A late one, but one nonetheless.

Let’s analyze Linkle’s design, as I think doing that will help put any complaints people have to rest.

Firstly, the elephant in the room: Linkle is a gender-swapped Link. I get it, she’s a “Ms. Male Character” at first glance. For those unaware, the term was coined by feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian to describe characters that are re-skinned versions of their male counterparts. Ms. Pac-Man, for example, is Pac-Man with lipstick and a hair-bow. Toadette is Toad with hair braids. And now Linkle is Link with two crossbows. In other words, it’s a character whose sole identity begins and ends with not being her male equivalency.

Let me ask you something: what kind of identity does Link have? I know fans instantly point to his warrior persona and that he’s selfless and brave, but still. Link isn’t much of a character, he’s not really a character at all. Shigeru Miyamoto, Link’s creator, has openly implied that Link is more a blank slate avatar for the player to project onto. In other words, like Mario, Link is whomever you want him to be.

That’s fine, but it’s important to remember that Link is also male. He has a masculine voice, although it’s high-pitched, he wears masculine clothing, he’s the average height of a male and he has the physique of a male. He’s the stand-in for the typical, male gamer. Which, again, is fine, but he really only represents one gender. And given how girls now outrank men in gaming sales, that’s somewhat shortsighted.

So how do you rectify that? That’s a difficult question to answer. One possibility is to create a similar franchise where the playable character is a woman. Okay, not a bad start. But then you have the challenges of funding, backing, even wide-appeal for your game, in order to ensure its success. In a world fuelled by capitalism, one where money speaks, that won’t be easy. To paraphrase Lord of the Rings, one does not simply create a new franchise these days.

Okay, that’s off the table. Now what? The next possibility is to add a female character to an already-established franchise. This is more accessible because you already have a guaranteed fan-base. It’s been done before, as seen with characters like Elika from Prince of Persia. By introducing a new character into a pre-existing franchise, you’re increasing the odds of success.

However, this also raises a problem: how do you make the character appealing? That…I have no easy answer for. It varies from franchise to franchise, so what might work in game A, might not work in game B. But hey, that’s why I’m not a game designer.

In the case of Linkle, I think Nintendo did the best they could. Remember, Link is a blank-slate. He’s whomever you want him to be. Therefore, a gender-swapped Link isn’t a big deal. Because if Link is a blank-slate, then so is Linkle.

Now we have to look at Linkle’s design. One of the traps you can fall into with a female character is “male gaze”. This is when a character is over-sexualized not because it fits her, but because it’s meant to appeal to horny men. Fortunately, Linkle avoids that trap. Because Nintendo caters to the family-friendly demographic, Linkle has to dress conservatively. She wears boots, cargo pants, an undershirt that covers her shoulders, and a tunic that covers her undershirt and gloves. The only remotely-sexualized parts of her body, and even then it’s debatable, are her arms and legs. Even then, I’ve seen Orthodox Jewish girls with more visible skin, and they dress pretty modestly.

Basically, Linkle passes the test, as she’s nowhere near “male gaze”.

Then there’s the issue of her weapon(s) of choice. Link’s signature item is a sword, while Linkle…carries crossbows. The complaint is that Linkle’s weapon of choice is a default, female warrior weapon and, therefore, really lazy and uninspired; after all, why do boys get the cool weapons and girls the crappy ones? This is Katniss Everdeen redux…except that Katniss is really awesome and, therefore, the point is kinda moot. An interesting character isn’t defined by weapon of choice. Some of the best characters in fiction can’t even fight. Interest is defined by personality or intrigue, not weapons. So Linkle carrying crossbows isn’t a big deal.

And finally, there’s the fact that Linkle even exists, which bugs the crap out of paranoid, insecure men. To that I say…really? Linkle is in one Zelda game of how many? You’ve had Link for almost 30 years! Linkle being in one game isn’t the end of the world, especially since she’s optional. Grow up.

Actually, “grow up” is how I’d address that complaint anyway. Fantasy is so heavily dominated by men that a little changing up is welcome. Besides, remember how awesome Katniss Everdeen, Princess Nausicaä and San are? They’re three of the many wonderful characters in fiction, and-surprise-they’re women. If Linkle’s appearance is indication, she’ll be another awesome girl warrior. Not to mention, I’m more concerned that Linkle will be the newest victim of internet fan-porn than I am that she’ll be awesome (trust me, it’ll happen sooner or later.)

So yeah, I’m in the “I like Linkle” camp…even though her name is silly. But whether or not you’re ready for her is up to you.

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