Analysis: What's Special About Little, Lovable Link
The Ocarina of Time was the first title in the Zelda franchise to add the third dimension to Link and his world. For the first time, people could see the classic character making facial expressions. 3D brought a sense of depth and expanse to Hyrule, letting players share the sort of wonderment and immersion that a journey of discovery needs.
But the recent 3DS remake of Ocarina brings into sharp focus just how unusual it is to be playing a little point-eared "fairy boy," as some call him, in an era where the phrase "video game hero" tends to conjure images of a soot-smudged, buzz-headed tower of man scowling grimly against a landscape torn by something or other. This summer alone has seen been two games starring overly-forceful jerks named Cole. Link, by contrast, begins his game as a boy in tights.
With the updated graphics, the character looks almost heartbreakingly adorable. The little swordsman puffs childishly as he climbs steps too tall for him, seems equal parts surprised and petrified to learn new songs on the ocarina, and when bossy Ruto, princess of the Zoras, decides that she will marry him, players are told Link doesn't really understand what she's going on about, but he's happy to have gotten the gem he needed from her.
Link's continual cluelessness is understated, even when used to comedic effect. And it's not that naivete is necessarily a trait of his. In fact, he has few discernible qualities except the persistence and bravery he gains from being controlled by a player who persists. An unfazed and wide-eyed openness is simply the character's default expression.
That fundamental neutrality is central to the character's appeal; he's intended to be a blank slate on which the player can project him or herself, one which doesn't suggest anything other than "brave young boy."
But that's Nintendo's MO. Its three most iconic franchises, Mario, Zelda and Metroid, have gained permanence through a specific approach: If characters and the laws of their worlds are both simple and constant, then all of the innovation from one iteration to the next can be concentrated on the gameplay. Mario's world can change from flat to deep to round, but he never changes, and nor does his objective: Save the princess.
Mario, the only protagonist of the three with the privilege of having his name in the game's main title, shares that goal with Link, albeit to a more complex extent. Rescuing Zelda is always a generally indirect objective, a means to saving the world and putting things right from the effects of bad magic. But the games are all named for her, not for their protagonist -- even though she rarely gets much screen time, she's the most important character in the game, an avatar of all that's good and right with the world, an essential concept.
Link is also a concept. Each game features a slightly different incarnation of him, but he is always small in stature (even when adult), maintains the same basic physical descriptors and green tunic, and is always silent. Although all Nintendo-made games rely on very simple building blocks, the "boy hero" concept is practically archetypal.
Zelda games are an interpretation of that classic narrative where a boy leaves the home and becomes a man" through his experience of the world, a theme that suits a game focused on gaining increasing skill and power over the environment. That Nintendo-made games tend to be designed to relate to a basic archetypal human story arc is part of what makes them so perennial.
That's why Link never stops feeling relevant, either. It's an ideal time to return to Hyrule with Ocarina on 3DS -- everything that makes the Zelda franchise so enduring and unusual seems to stand out all the more. Link may have been chosen to be the "hero of time," but as the orphan "boy without a fairy" in his Kokiri village hometown, he didn't quite fit in. This difference is emphasized when he returns as an adult, having learned he's not a Kokiri at all.
Despite this sense of alienation being one of the few plot markers that defines Link, his journey to the future in the game and abrupt rebirth as an adult self still feels empathetic, in defiance of all kinds of narrative logic: Is he still emotionally a kid? How can you wake up one day seven years older and not have a ton of questions? And who changed him into an outfit exactly like his child one but bigger?
But when Link wakes up only to continue gamely on into battle against evil, it somehow just makes him more lovable. Especially now, as most of us playing are older, wiser selves than we were when we first discovered the game.
It's interesting to think about, as developers of modern video games look at how to deliver richer, believable characters and stories to increasingly broader and more sophisticated audiences. We often default to perceiving a correlation between complexity and engagement. But Link, Mario and Samus are iconic for their simplicity. Against Zelda's beautiful, thoughtful canvasses, all kinds of small things seem meaningful with this type of minimalism.
Especially a little "fairy boy. Put the Rabbit Hood mask on him, it's adorable!