The Women of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I mentioned on Friday that I was generally not impressed with the treatment of women in Breath of the Wild.  I don’t suppose I should really be surprised about this fact; Nintendo is a very conservative Japanese company with a corporate identity as being a producer of family friendly entertainment.  This is perfectly fine, except that “family-friendly” is often code for “featuring non-progressive depictions of gender roles and identities.”  You get that in spades throughout Breath of the Wild.

“I know, it really sucks to be a woman in Hyrule.” (Image credit: Fandom Wikia)

Perhaps the most egregious offense in terms of weird regressive characterization comes from the Zora Champion, Mipha.  Like all the Champions, Mipha was defeated by Ganon when he attacked Hyrule a hundred years before the start of the game.  That by itself isn’t so unusual, but what is is Mipha’s relationship with Link.  Where the other three Champions express respect and affection for Link in their various ways, Mipha has the misfortune of being in love with Link who was generally unaware of her romantic feelings.  Unrequited love is a perfectly fine story point, but it feels really icky given the fact that Mipha has been dead for a century and she’s still in love with this guy who was never interested in her in the first place (we all know that Link and Zelda are OTP).  Rachael commented once we finished the Zora section of the game that she was really mad that Mipha’s entire character seems to revolve around her undying love for Link (this is definitely not a crush; she made a suit of armor for him because he was the guy she wanted to marry) while other Champions appear to be psychologically healthy.  They all regret that Ganon bested them, but it’s actually possible for Link to help achieve the goals they all had in death; Mipha just really wanted Link to love her back, and all she gets is the consolation prize that he’ll accept her help.  It’s a raw deal, and because there’s literally nothing else about the character, she ends up feeling like the flattest in a cast that’s already mostly one-dimensional.

While Mipha is perhaps the most egregious example of poor female characterization, you get a lot of other more minor examples.  Many of the villages, if they have female characters, rely on a relatively narrow range of character types, from the painfully shy girl to the fawning fangirl.  Essentially, most any given female character is likely to be defined in relation to a man.  Even the Gerudo, who are effectively an all female race in the context of the game, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the fact that they have to travel all over the country because they can’t find husbands in their home town where men are forbidden.  Perhaps most bizarre of all is the near total erasure of queer characters from the world.  Among the Gerudo you would think that at least some lesbian relationships would occur, but these sorts of dynamics among characters are left invisible.  Gay characters hardly fare better; the only character who reads as gay (primarily because of Japanese stereotypes about gay men) is Bolson, the head of the Bolson Construction Company.  His interactions with Link are on the flirty side, but there’s little beyond that.

Surprisingly, genderqueer characters are slightly better represented than gay and lesbian characters (though really only slightly).  Again, because the Gerudo are an all-female race and they forbid men from entering their city, the player has to solve the problem of how to make Link appear female so that he can gain entrance into the town.  The solution comes in the form of a character outside the town who is biologically male but wears Gerudo women’s clothing.  Other characters in the game alternately gender this person as male or female depending on whether they’re aware of the character’s sex.  When Link finally encounters the person and has a conversation, the player has the option of interacting with the character as either male or female; it’s a small, pleasant moment that you’re given the choice to decide how you’ll respond to a character’s preferred gender presentation (there’s not really enough information to be sure of the character’s preferred gender identity).  The scene’s almost perfect in this respect, except that it ends with the punchline of a gust of wind blowing aside the character’s veil to reveal their beard underneath and Link responding in shock.  It feels like the intended read is that if you treat the character as a woman, you are being fooled.  I was left with a bad taste at the end of the scene, but it came close to being a pleasant surprise (I know that the value of almost is subjective, so you’re mileage may vary on the quality of this moment).  Perhaps more interesting and respectful than the clothes seller is the way the game treats Link’s own use of female coded clothing.

Rachael and I were pretty delighted by the whole subplot of Link needing to get some women’s clothes in order to enter Gerudo Town precisely because it gave us the chance to reconsider Link as a genderqueer character.  Back when everyone was still anticipating Breath of the Wild, there was a lot of speculation over whether this was going to be the Zelda game where a female protagonist would finally take center stage.  The first images of Link showed a character who was exceptionally androgynous, perhaps the most androgynous we’ve ever seen in any Zelda game.  It was quickly confirmed by Nintendo that Link was canonically male, but then the game came out and everyone learned about Gerudo town and the women’s clothing you had to wear to gain access.  Because the game is flexible in how it allows you to use equipment, there are no hard and fast rules denying players from using the women’s clothing in other contexts.  The game clearly doesn’t mean for you to use the women’s clothing regularly (its defense is abysmal and unlike other special outfits it can’t be upgraded), but you’re not barred from the choice.  Even more importantly, the aesthetics of the clothing on Link’s body don’t read as humorous like in some other games that have depicted male characters in women’s clothing.  Link’s androgyny makes the clothing look attractive on his body, and there are no situations where he’s humiliated or made the butt of a joke for wearing that particular garment.  While he’s wearing this outfit, all characters simply take it for granted that he’s female.  It’s because of all these small details that Rachael and I agreed that this is a Zelda game where Link is a genderqueer character.

Of course, we can’t discuss a Zelda game and its treatment of gender without at least touching on Zelda herself.  The lore of the Legend of Zelda franchise has long necessitated that while Link fulfills the role of hero, Zelda is typically stuck in a more passive support role.  Perhaps with the exception of Tetra in Windwaker, this Zelda is the most explicitly uncomfortable with her identity.  Through the memories that Link can recover from visiting various spots around the world, we learn that Zelda’s relationship with her Champion was a complicated one.  From Link’s ordainment as the Hylian Champion, Zelda resents him for representing her own inability to act independently.  She doesn’t like having a dedicated bodyguard, and it takes Link saving her life a couple of times before she accepts his value (the fact that Zelda even needs to be saved by Link has complex tones to it; at the same time she begins to see and appreciate Link’s dedication to her well being, we’re also seeing evidence that she really does need a bodyguard; Zelda’s ambitions, like Mipha’s, are undercut by the story’s needs).  Even after Zelda accepts Link, we still see that she feels uncomfortable with her pseudo-priestly duties and would rather devote her time to developing as a martial leader so she can help defend Hyrule.  The final memory in the series has Zelda accidentally embracing her power as the avatar for the Triforce of Wisdom to save Link from certain death, which is great except for how it continues to undermine what she has really wanted to be able to do since the beginning.  The summit of Zelda’s story is her learning to accept a role she’s never really wanted, and (given that I haven’t finished the main story yet) I’m not sure that we see any sort of resolution for her that is built around just accepting what she was destined to do from the beginning.  Zelda’s struggles in Breath of the Wild are probably the more well developed for any character in the game, but even they are founded on a narrative that requires her to accept the passive role while Link goes off and has all the adventures.

So Breath of the Wild is Kind of Great

Here is my primary criticism of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I would rather be playing it right now instead of writing about it, but I am a deadline monster who will hate himself in the morning if he doesn’t have a post to publish.

Besides just being a massive game (I’ve easily averaged at least six hours of play a day since I started, and I’m still not done just filling in the map), Breath of the Wild has a level of polish that I’ve not seen in other open world games that I’ve played recently.  The trend towards massive map games that provide you with all the collectibles to pad out your play time to over a hundred hours is not exactly one that I’m super fond of (it’s my biggest complaint about Horizon: Zero Dawn, which I swear I’m going to finish some day), but something about the way Nintendo has designed the challenges in Breath of the Wild overcomes all that ill will.  It’s not that there aren’t collectibles; there are.  I’ve grown to sort of resent the koroks who litter the landscape because they pop up absolutely everywhere and they remind me that I have to crawl into every little nook just to get the items I need to expand my woefully small tool inventory.  I originally set out to play the game with a laser focus on just completing main quest objectives and not getting bogged down in minutiae, but as I’ve carried on I continue to be drawn into the excitement of exploring the landscape.  There are way too many collection quests of all sorts (I am not happy with the prospect of gathering a bunch of bugs and lizards just to upgrade pieces of armor), but the style of navigation is so much more versatile here than in any other sandbox game I’ve ever played that I don’t mind picking stuff up as I go to see what’s on top of the next hill.

The big innovation to character movement is actually a really simple thing: Link can climb walls.  This isn’t a feature like in some games that have certain special walls that are climbable; the reverse is true here.  With the exception of certain surfaces that are only found in shrines and other places steeped in ancient Sheikah technology, everything can be scaled.  The only limitation is Link’s stamina meter, which you can expand with upgrades or refill mid-climb with food.  This isn’t Skyrim where scaling a mountain is an arduous process that requires cleaving closely to whatever seams in the terrain you can find that aren’t too steep to walk along while furiously jumping to gain altitude.  If you want to see what’s at the top of a mountain but don’t feel like taking the road up and around, you just run at the wall and start climbing.  The fact that the climbing is slow is only a deterrent early in the game; there’s an outfit that can be acquired through some exploration which increases your climb speed so that Link can go just about anywhere in the world by whatever path you like while he looks his douchiest (the climber’s gear is… not an attractive look for Link).  I can’t overstate how much this simple addition to the controls makes the whole game world feel like less of a slog to traverse.

Besides the innovation in the overworld navigation, Breath of the Wild also changes up the traditional Zelda dungeon formula significantly.  Instead of a collection of central, highly complex dungeons with scores of puzzles to complete, the landscape is dotted with shrines that contain mini puzzles to be solved.  These shrines double as waypoints for fast traveling, providing an extra incentive to seek them out beyond their ubiquitous reward of one quarter of a heart or stamina upgrade.  The puzzle component of Zelda has been converted into something more bite-sized that nonetheless encourages the player to keep seeking out more and more samples (I suspect this is an element of the game design intended to keep players exploring that gigantic map instead of crawling through dungeons).  Supplementing the shrines are the four Divine Beasts, who serve as major dungeons to be completed to advance portions of the story.  They’re all especially engaging in their own way, each with an exciting setpiece challenge that the player has to complete to gain entry followed by a more traditional, if still abbreviated, Zelda dungeon experience.

In the realm of story, the most I can say is that Breath of the Wild is a Zelda game through and through, which means that it has all the hallmarks of the series while being a mostly bland fantasy.  Link is the Hylian Champion, blah, blah, defeated by Ganon a hundred years in the past and put into stasis to heal, yada, yada, has to regain his power and memories so he can confront the great calamity.  The bad stuff already happened in the past, and most people living in the present aren’t terribly put out by the fall of Hyrule, so there’s pretty much zero narrative urgency to go fix things.  The speed I’ve found myself pushing through the main quest again goes back to my desire to not get bogged down in all the side fluff.  I don’t particularly dislike any of the characters (as far as they’re sketched), but I’m not super into any of them either.  Some characters have really messed up stories (Mipha, the Zora Champion, has a needlessly sad backstory about unrequited love that will never be resolved because she’s, y’know, dead), and others are mostly just bland (Daruk, the Goron Champion, is just a very affable, well-adjusted dude who just so happens to be dead with unfinished business).  There are things to be said about the incredibly regressive gender politics going on, especially around the aforementioned Mipha and a host of other meek female characters, but that might have to be its own post because there’s just so much there.  Suffice it to say that I’m pretty nonplussed on the story, which makes it a really good thing that the gameplay and exploration are so much fun.

Also, everyone realizes you’re important because you have a smartphone on your belt. It’s the most ridiculous thing ever.

New Zelda? Yay! No Female Link? Boo! Nintendo’s Explanation? WTF.

I don’t have a Wii U.  It might be just that I’m getting older and I don’t have time to game all the time anymore, so I’ve lost interest in following what’s coming out for all the major systems.  More likely though is the fact that Nintendo’s always been a company that does outstanding work on its first party titles, but never really attracts any other interesting developers (also, and I’m a curmudgeon about this, I just like the way a traditional controller feels better than any of the innovations since the Wiimote).  Its recent systems are not built on the strength of their game libraries and particularly since I seem to be gravitating towards smaller games and studios these days, which generally don’t port to Nintendo’s systems, that’s a major detriment.

Link looking just as androgynous as ever, but apparently still with a penis. (Image credit: Kotaku)

Anyway, the point is that I’m not up to date on all the cool Nintendo stuff, but I do know that there’s a new Legend of Zelda coming out.  It’s apparently supposed to be massive (probably following the same pattern as recent Western adventure RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher III that pack in tons of side content to pad the experience out to be close to a hundred hours), and there’s much excitement since it’s the first new major Zelda title since Skyward Sword, which was fun but not really what a lot of people were expecting from a Zelda game (super constricted outdoor areas, an over world that was extremely empty even in comparison to Wind Waker, a combat control gimmick that was fun until it made your arm tired and you realized you had to change the batteries in the remote every four hours and the low battery warning went on forever before it was actually time to get some replacements, and also Link was right handed again).  I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun for everyone who wants to enjoy another Zelda game; I expect I’ll probably pass because I’m not a big enough Zelda fan to invest in an entire game console.

Anyway, that’s not the really big news here.  The big news is that designs for Link have been floating around for a few months now, and all the art got everyone’s hopes up because this new Link looks super androgynous (I mean, more so than usual) and a lot of fans were wondering about the possibility that the hero for the new Zelda game would be female.

As we learned at E3 this week, that did not happen.

Now, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this creative decision: the developers are older Japanese guys, and Japanese culture is sexist as hell.

Full stop, end of story.

Except that’s not the end of the story, because the game’s producer Eiji Aonuma had to explain the rationale behind keeping Link male.  It generally goes along the lines that since development on Breath of the Wild began three years ago, they had always planned on Link being male, long before they released any details and fan speculation started to heat up.

Okay, sure, I can buy that.  I’m not going to get up in arms over an incredibly conservative company just not thinking that they could mix up the gender of their hero without prodding from fans.

Then he said this (from the Kotaku article linked above):

“You know there’s the idea of the Triforce in the Zelda games we make. The Triforce is made up of Princess Zelda, Ganon and Link. Princess Zelda is obviously female. If we made Link a female we thought that would mess with the balance of the Triforce. That’s why we decided not to do it.”

I don’t know what to do with this.  Does anyone else see the absurdity of trying to pigeonhole a gender binary model into a story motif that rests on a trichotomy?

If you only recognize two genders, you can’t balance a system with three parts that way.  It does not math.

Also, it falls into the ubiquitous problem of men being so unaccustomed to seeing stories about women that anything approaching gender parity looks out of whack to them.

Of course, Aonuma wasn’t content to just let that turd lie there.  He also explained to GameSpot:

“We thought about it,” said Aonuma, “and decided that if we’re going to have a female protagonist it’s simpler to have Princess Zelda as the main character.”

This idea was ultimately rejected, because according to Aonuma “…if we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do? Taking into account that, and also the idea of the balance of the Triforce, we thought it best to come back to this [original] makeup.”

I don’t know, maybe you make Link do what Zelda normally does?  Be the background support character who hands out the quests?

Guh, I can’t even with this.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 8/11/13

Finished the first week of school, and we’re off to a good start to the year!  Here’s what I’ve seen happening this week:

Fiction

Schrodinger's Cat

Schrodinger’s Cat (Photo credit: jieq)

1. From 300 Stories, a super short piece that toys with quantum superposition.  If you understand the thought experiment Schrodinger’s Cat, then you’ll enjoy the joke.

2. A cinematic short about a girl who controls everything and her boyfriend, whom she makes come rescue her.  I don’t quite get the point of it, but the filming is beautiful.

3. I’ve been really short on time this week (that’s probably going to be normal for the time being), so I have not read this story yet and can’t speak to its quality, but it’s advertised as an unusual superhero story.  Once I get a free half hour, I’m going to look at it.

4. I’ve forgotten about this in the past, but once a month i09 features a short story from the latest issue of Lightspeed magazine for free.  This month’s entry is “The Knight of Chains, The Deuce of Stars” by Yoon Ha Lee.

Religion

1. At Experimental Theology, Richard Beck links to the commencement speech given by George Saunders at Syracuse University this year.  If you haven’t read it yet, then be prepared.  It will make your eyes sweat.

2. From Slacktivist a link round-up that had so many good articles I wasted an entire evening going through them.  I couldn’t pick just one to pass on, so just go there and click on pretty much anything in the list; you’ll come across something cool.

3. From Theoblogy Tony Jones talks about why it’s important to encourage children to ask hard questions when we educate them about faith.

4. ForgedImagination writes at Defeating the Dragons about her experience with absurd fundamentalist rules growing up, and how it was the motivation behind the rules that was the truly damaging part of the culture.

5. Morgan Guyton’s finished up his series on 5 verses God’s tattooed on his heart.  I thought the last one was outstanding, but the entire series is good, and you should give it a read.

Gaming

1. Ash (Not from Pallet Town) at i09‘s Observation Deck came across a demo reel for a pitch that the same studio who made the animated TMNT movie made for a Legend of Zelda film.  It looks very pretty, so give it a watch.

2. The Artificial Selection Project has started up a conversation about Anita Sarkeesian’s recent videos on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.  Unlike a lot of conversations I’ve seen (I’m looking at you, Kotaku comment section!), this one’s trying to take a look at the issues Sarkeesian’s raising without dismissing her out of hand.  Also, as someone pointed out in the comments there, remember that a trope is not the same thing as a cliche; tropes can be good, but cliches are always bad.

3. This game’s not done yet, but it looks really good.  The Novelist is about a ghost who’s trying to help a writer balance his work and his family.  The underlying idea is that it’s not possible to finish the game and have the writer succeeding with his work, his wife, and his son, so the player has to make value judgments on what they think is most important.

Science

1. The Atlantic published an interview with psychiatrist Christine Montross this week, that has some very interesting insights into the world of intensive therapy.  Some of her stories remind me of situations I’ve encountered at my job working with children who suffer from psychological illnesses.  It’s a good read.

2. Another piece from The Atlantic, this one about the struggles that people on the autism spectrum have with pursuing romantic relationships.  It raises a good point that in doing behavioral therapy with people on the spectrum who want to better fit in socially, romantic interactions are usually overlooked.

3. It’s probably not actually possible to see impossible colors (otherwise they wouldn’t be impossible), but it’s a fun thought.  Also, definitely play around with the blue and yellow squares embedded in the article; when I crossed my eyes and stared in between them, I saw this weird effect where the illusion square shifted from blue to yellow and back again as my cones got fatigued (or something; I’m not really sure what the actual explanation would be).

4. So there’s quantum mechanics and there’s relativity in physics, and we haven’t figured out yet how to harmonize the two theoretical frameworks.  This is a pretty good primer on why we might be interested in doing that in the first place.

5. Unfortunately, I’m back at work so I can’t stay up all night to watch meteor showers.  However, if you can, here’s some info on how to get the best view of the Perseids, which are supposed to be peaking from early Monday through Tuesday this coming week (8/12-8/13).  Meteor showers are amazing, and I would go do some stargazing if I didn’t have to be at work.  Go see it if you can!

6. I love dystopias.  They’re so much fun for exploring how we can make our world suck more.  I also found this list of seven technologies that will probably never be implemented the way they are in their respective stories to be fun.  Enjoy.

7. Not all grapes are spherical.

8. A polar bear wandered over 200 miles out of its normal territory looking for food because the ice flows it relied on to catch seals were not there this year.  It starved to death.

Comics

1. From i09‘s Observation Deck, MyDearPeaBody delivers an excellent rant against male comic book writers who recently made comments to the effect that comics are not for girls–especially not superhero comics.

Movies

1. Real-world Wall-E robot.

TV

1. Rachael and I are really looking forward to Breaking Bad starting back up.  It’s such good television.  If you’re all caught up, then feel free to check out this summary of the first four and a half seasons in middle school musical form (it’s even kid friendly!).

To Do With Friends

1. Dr. Frood shared a fun game to play with your friends when you’re hanging out but have run out of things to say.  I would probably ban cars with their standard mufflers removed so that they sound louder, and I would require everyone to spend fifteen minutes reading something every day (internet videos do not count).

2. This is kind of a lopsided water balloon fight.  I’d want to be on the winning side.

Cool Pictures

1. Photographer Fong Qi Wei has put together a series of photos that show the passage of time in a very unique way.  It’s hard to describe in words, so just follow the link to see what I’m talking about.

2. Children wearing watermelons.

3. Researchers caught a shark that was promptly eaten by another shark.

And that’s it from my little corner of the internet!