Many of the games in the Legend of Zelda series re-enact versions of the same story, which is centered around the heroic Link saving the princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganondorf. Due to the rarely challenged repetition of these plot elements, the Zelda series has become an archetypal example of what game critic Anita Sarkeesian has called “damseling,” or using the disempowerment of female characters as a motivation for the male player-protagonist. What do female players make of this story? Is it necessary to take the plot elements at face value, or are other interpretations possible? How do the games look from Zelda’s eyes?
To answer these questions, I’d like to investigate fan work based on the Zelda games from Canada, Australia, Japan, and the United States. I’m going to demonstrate how fannish creators deconstruct the damseling narrative common to the series and recombine its elements in ways that reflect larger conversations surrounding gender, culture, and media. I also argue that the activities of these artists and writers reflect a tendency in many fan cultures to view media properties not as passively consumable content but rather as templates from which more personalized and individually meaningful stories may be created.
First I’m going to introduce the series and explain why it’s important before zooming out and justifying critical interest in video games as a relatively recent storytelling medium. I will then examine a small sample of fanworks from several global territories. I’ll conclude with a broader discussion of international, internet-based fan cultures and their potential to shape and transform high-budget mainstream media at a global level.
The Legend of Zelda series began in 1985, two years after Nintendo had released its home video game console, which it called the Famicom, a portmanteau of “Family Computer” (Famirī Konpyūta). In the United States, this piece of hardware is known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short. Miyamoto Shigeru, the creator of Nintendo’s iconic Mario character, the current senior executive director of Nintendo Corporation, and the general producer of the Zelda series, was then working on a new Super Mario Bros. game, but a disc system periphery for the Famicom was slated to be released soon. Miyamoto was thus asked to help develop a new title that would take advantage of the new technology, which allowed, among other things, the ability to “save” a game so that the player could return to a previous moment in her playthrough, preserving her progress even after the machine had been turned off. I’m going to summarize a long and interesting story by saying that the title that ultimately came out in 1986 is the original The Legend of Zelda (Zeruda no densetsu), which Miyamoto directed. The image above this paragraph is an iconic screen from early in the game in which your avatar character, Link, is given his first sword.
A sequel, titled The Adventure of Link (Rinku no bōken), was released the following year; and, in 1991, the third title in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Zeruda no densetsu: Kamigami no Toraifōsu), became one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed games in the series. Lest you think that the game’s age has consigned it to obscurity, I want to assure you that it’s still being played and appreciated by the gaming community. To offer just one example of just how popular this game continues to be, the Game Grumps, a Let’s Play webseries hosted by Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson and Daniel “Danny Sexbang” Avidan, recently concluded a playthrough of A Link to the Past, and each of their videos received more than 200,000 views within the first 24 hours of being posted.
Despite the broad appeal and international success of these three games, the major turning point for the Zelda franchise came in 1998, when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Zeruda no densetsu: Toki no okarina) was released for the N64, a home console whose upgraded 64-bit processor allowed for 3D graphics. Although Miyamoto produced Ocarina of Time, the game was directed by Aonuma Eiji (the adorable nerd pictured above), who had overseen a 1996 Sgame titled Marvelous: Another Treasure Island (Māverasu: Mō hitotsu no Takarajima) that was strongly influenced by the Zelda series. Aonuma has continued to be involved with every main Zelda title, in part because Ocarina of Time immediately attained an appropriately legendary status. Not only did it break records for video game preorders and first week sales in Japan, the United States, and Europe, but it also received perfect scores from game critics in publications such as Electronic Gaming Monthly, Famitsū, and Edge, as well as gaming websites such as GameSpot and IGN.
The Zelda series has continued to move from strength to strength across subsequent Nintendo consoles; and, having sold almost 75 million units worldwide, it’s one of the top twenty bestselling video game franchises. The Legend of Zelda isn’t quite as big as some of Nintendo’s other properties, namely Super Mario and Pokémon, but it’s still well respected and can claim widespread brand name recognition. See, for example, Nintendo of America’s recent partnership with McDonald’s to promote a series of concerts featuring symphonic arrangements of the music of the Zelda series.
So the Legend of Zelda is a big deal in the world of video games, but why should we care about video games? To my fellow gamers, this is a silly question, but it’s been raised in a number of academic contexts, so I might as well address it briefly here. To begin with, games make a ton of money, and they’re only making more as the market expands. At the end of 2013, the information technology research and advisory company Gartner valued the worldwide video game industry at US $93 billion, with a projected increase of at least US $10 billion for every subsequent year based on past performance. In other words, more people have been buying more games, and more types of games, with each passing month. To give a comparison, according to the professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers, the worldwide cinema industry generated a revenue of US $88.3 billion in 2013. Therefore, even if we consider nothing more than the revenue they pull in from eager consumers, video games are just as much of a cultural force as movies.
As with any such cultural juggernaut, video games are orbited by countless discourses and debates on the purpose, future, and validity of the medium. Many of the more recent and troubling of these discussions within the context of the English-language gaming community have been amalgamated under the moniker “Gamergate,” which has become shorthand for heated internet flamewars over the role of gender in video games and gaming cultures. It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins and spread of Gamergate, but an initial outpouring of vitriol was directed at Anita Sarkeesian, the founder of the media criticism website Feminist Frequency.
In May 2012, Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund a video webseries titled “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” Sarkeesian was able to raise US $158,922 from 6,968 donors, but accompanying this incredible interest and support were death and rape threats from people on the internet who were angry that she was dragging her dirty feminism into the hallowed temple of their favorite video games. Such reactions, ridiculous though they seem to an outside observer, did not peter away but escalated; and, last October, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk at the University of Utah after the school received an email from someone claiming that they would commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she were allowed to present her lecture. This unfortunate series of events is beyond the scope of this essay, but I think it’s fair to say that Gamergate clearly demonstrates how people take the stories told by video games seriously – and personally. Simply put, games and their stories have enormous cultural currency.
The Legend of Zelda is one of the video game franchises that Sarkeesian critiques in Tropes vs. Women, as many of the games are classic examples of an easily identifiable trope that she refers to as “damseling.” Damseling, in its purest form, is the process by which a female character is rendered inert and thereby positioned as an object that will motivate the male player-character to complete his quest. The point of the game is therefore to rescue the damsel in distress, who is subordinate to the hero and is not allowed to rescue herself.
In the Zelda series, Princess Zelda is frequently such a damsel. Although there are many variations, the Zelda games all share a basic story and a common mythology. The setting of these games is the land of Hyrule, which was created by three goddesses. These goddesses departed from the land, but they left behind a representation of their demiurgical power called the Triforce. As a magical relic, the Triforce is so powerful that it can grant the wish of any person who touches it, and so it has been sealed away by various means. When threatened, the Triforce can split itself into three parts: courage, wisdom, and power. Each part is held by a chosen bearer. Link, the player-protagonist hero of the games, is the bearer of the Triforce of Courage. Zelda, the princess of Hyrule, is the bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom. The primary bearer of the Triforce of Power is a man named Ganondorf, who is described as a thief from the desert. Although Ganondorf is not in all of the games, Zelda is in most of them, and she is variously kidnapped, imprisoned, placed into an enchanted sleep, crystalized, zombified, and turned into stone. The player’s job, as Link, is to acquire a weapon powerful enough to kill Ganondorf (or whoever happens threatening the land) and save Zelda, thus returning peace to Hyrule. Again, there are variations, but this is the eponymous “legend of Zelda.”
If you go to any anime or comics convention in the world, you’re certain to see all sorts of cosplay and art prints based on the Zelda games. Recently, self-published fan comics have started to pop up as well. Although everyone loves Link, the hero of the story, many of these comics give agency and interiority to the female characters of the series.
In Canadian artist Louisa Roy‘s ongoing series Zelda: The Dark Mirror, a minor female character from Ocarina of Time named Malon is instrumental in saving Hyrule. In the original game, the young farmhand serves no other purpose than to provide Link with a horse. In The Dark Mirror, which is set several years after the events in Ocarina of Time, Malon has grown into a warrior in her own right; and, when Link and Zelda vanish from Hyrule, she spurs the kingdom’s soldiers into action. Other female characters from Ocarina of Time, such as Impa, Ruto, and Nabooru, are equally important in the fan comic, which passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The Dark Mirror is thus a story less focused on a single male hero saving the world than it is on the concerted efforts of multiple female characters, who are only accorded a few lines in the original game.
Similarly, in Australian artist Queenie Chan‘s novel-length “prose manga” The Edge and the Light, Link is in grave danger, and it is Princess Zelda who must rescue him, along with the help of the three oracles from the Gameboy Zelda titles Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons (2001, Zeruda no densetsu: Fushigi no kinomi ~ Daichi no shō and Jikū no shō). In these two games, the young female oracles are kidnapped and must be rescued by Link, so it’s quite satisfying to see them team up with Princess Zelda to solve mysteries and fight evil in the fan comic. At the end of Chan’s manga, Zelda is forced to make a difficult choice concerning the ultimate fate of Link, who is chained to his role as the hero regardless of his own desires. This twist emphasizes the difficulties faced by the Zelda characters in the original games, who must often manipulate events in order to force Link along on his quest. Like The Dark Mirror, The Edge and the Light foregrounds the female characters of the Zelda series, allowing them to drive the plot through their action instead of their misfortune. It’s worth noting that these fan works don’t significantly alter the tone of the Zelda series or completely rewrite the canonical characters. Rather, they divide the screen time a bit more equally as they offer perspectives other than that of the male hero.
The Zelda series is just as popular with gamers in Japan as it is overseas, and in Japan there are entire fan conventions (dōjin ibento), devoted to Zelda-themed self-published fan comics, or dōjinshi. I’m going to simplify things greatly by putting forward the generalization that dōjinshi tend to fall into two categories. The first is dansei-muke, or “directed toward men.” Dansei-muke dōjinshi tend to feature graphic heterosexual pornography; and, from what I can tell, there are very few of them based on the Legend of Zelda series (although they certainly do exist). The second category is josei-muke, or “directed toward women.” A common assumption regarding josei-muke dōjinshi is that they’re all about male/male homoerotic encounters, but the level of homoerotic content depends on the fandom, and in any case this stereotype doesn’t reflect the reality of the broad range of fan comics that female artists create for a (presumably) female audience.
When it comes to josei-muke dōjinshi based on the Zelda games, a significant number are four-panel (yon-koma) gag manga meant to poke gentle fun at the characters, while others focus on the implied romantic relationship between Link and Zelda. As in the genre of shōjo manga, which serves as an inspiration for many josei-muke dōjinshi, the relationship unfolds through the eyes of the female character – in this case, Zelda.
In Sakura-kan’s 2012 dōjinshi Wake Up! (excerpted above), which is based on the Wii game The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011, Zeruda no densetsu: Sukaiwōdo sōdo), the reader is presented with several touching moments between Zelda and Link. When Ghirahim, a servant of the evil demon lord Demise and the primary antagonist of the game, shows up to kidnap Zelda, she swiftly attacks him in order to punish him for interrupting her time with Link. This is an interesting reversal that exposes both how creepy and weird the antagonist is for wanting to kidnap Zelda and how strong Zelda actually is in the original game, in which it is suggested that she undergoes a number of the trials that Link later undertakes. Although the artist plays the scenario for its humor, she seems to be suggesting that, in a world in which Zelda weren’t required to act as a motivational MacGuffin, she would have no trouble dispatching the game’s villain herself.
Likewise, a one-page short manga included in Shiroyui Hiromi‘s 2004 dōjinshi Kaze dorobō (which might be translated as “The Thief of Wind”) plays on a scene from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002, Zeruda no densetsu: Kaze no takuto) in which Link finds Ganondorf hovering over Zelda, who is lying in an enchanted sleep. Wind Waker‘s incarnation of Zelda has spent her life as a strong and hyper-competent pirate queen named Tetra, and so it is strange that she would be so incapacitated. Kaze dorobō offers symbolic resistance to this strangeness by mocking it, showing the brash and outspoken Tetra arguing with Ganondorf and refusing to sleep on his bed. In the process, she calls him an ossan, a derogatory term for a middle aged man. When the two see that Link has arrived, they grudgingly assume their positions as villain and kidnapped princess, as if they were only staging a show for Link’s benefit. By highlighting the illogical artificiality of Tetra’s damseling in her role as Princess Zelda, the artist offers her readers a veiled critique of a game that refuses to acknowledge the full complexity of its characters and themes, which it subsumes under highly gendered tropes.
As many media producers are fans themselves, what happens in fandom spaces is of obvious interest to entertainment industry professionals, and a surge in feminist consciousness (regardless of whether it is explicitly identified as such) is now fully capable of influencing the development of media properties. One of the more interesting responses to fan discussions of the Zelda series is the 2015 graphic novel Second Quest, which is titled after a feature in the original 1986 Legend of Zelda that allowed the player to start a remixed and more challenging game after she had mastered the first.
Second Quest, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign and published by Fangamer, was written by game critic Tevis Thompson and drawn by David Hellman, whose most well-known project is the award-winning 2008 puzzle platformer Braid, which is famous particularly for how it upends many video game conventions. Specifically, as the player progresses through the story, she learns that the male player-protagonist is the monster whom the female quest-object is attempting to escape, a situation that serves as a cogent deconstruction of the “damsel in distress” trope.
Second Quest is narrated from the perspective of its Zelda character, who is torn between her desire to be a useful member of her society and her strident rejection of the hero-and-princess narrative that this society has imposed on her. In one particularly moving scene, she tosses her treasure chest full of hero’s tools off of a cliff and into a void, signifying that she doesn’t want to be a damsel or the sort of hero who runs through the world killing things for fun and profit.
The graphic novel’s website states that it was inspired by a painting of Hellman’s that depicted a Hyrule that was open to the player, allowing her to create her own narratives as she moves through the world. In an interview with the feminist geek media website The Mary Sue, Thompson added that he was motivated to explore the fate of the “missing woman” prevalent in so many games. He says, “It’s not so much a question of whether a princess – or anyone – needs to be saved or protected. It’s that no one ever asks the princess what she wants to begin with. It’s really a question of agency and subjectivity.” What we’re seeing here, then, is how feminist discourse within fandom has shaped the viewpoints and ideas of creators who have pushed their own fannish interests into the realm of professional production.
And what about the games themselves? Has any of this fanwork acted as a catalyst for a transformation of the actual Legend of Zelda series?
Video games, as a medium, are well on their way to becoming the same sort of big-budget, focus-group-oriented affairs with which Hollywood has made us familiar; but, as is the case with both live-action cinema and animation, there are also many independent creators using open-source technology to create their own low-budget but high-creativity artistic experiments, some of which later become commercial products. A number of career and aspiring game designers communicate through online gatherings called “game jams,” many of which are organized around a common theme.
One of the most outspoken and prolific advocates of game jams, Anna Anthropy, wrote the following in her 2012 book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: “Every game that you and I make right now – every five-minute story, every weird experiment, every dinky little game about the experience of putting down your dog – makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness.” Game jams are amazing and deserve their own essay, but suffice it to say that there have been many interesting voices finding each other in the darkness and then sending up sparks with their games, which, because of the magic of the internet, are quite widely shared and distributed.
One of my favorite new voices is Alice Maz, whose contribution to the 2014 session of the apocalypse-themed Ruin Jam was a play on Super Mario Bros. titled Average Maria Individual, which cuts to the core of the physical and emotional violence that many of us take for granted when we play video games (see Jess Joho’s wonderful essay in independent gaming web magazine Kill Screen Daily).
Feminist critique through media development is far from uncommon in the international gaming community. For instance, a number of enthusiastic contributions were made to this summer’s Female Link Jam, which was organized in response to Aonuma Eiji’s comment that the protagonist of the Legend of Zelda game currently in development was definitely not female. When large game development studios continue to offer only tired tropes, then, creative game fans respond with feminism, offering interesting and viable alternatives to dominant video game narratives that marginalize women both fictional and real.
This is not saying, however, that Nintendo hasn’t been paying attention to its legions of fans. In the 2014 Zelda spin-off game Hyrule Warriors (Zeruda musō), the player can hack and slash her way across large battlefields teeming with enemies as Princess Zelda herself, as well as several other female (and nonbinary) characters. These characters proved so popular with players that developer Koei Tecmo recently announced that it would include Tetra (Zelda’s pirate queen incarnation from The Wind Waker) in the lineup of the game’s handheld release. Also, earlier this month, at the gaming trade convention E3, Nintendo released a promotional video of an upcoming game called The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (Zeruda no Densetsu: Toraifōsu san-jūshi), in which Link can gain various abilities by wearing different outfits, including Zelda’s dress.
I could happily go on, giving endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Europe, and Japan have pushed back against and responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to conclude here by emphasizing that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit. Video game fan communities hold respect for the texts that they engage with and critique. After all, it requires a high level of passion and dedication to attain the skills not only to fully appreciate the games but to express one’s reaction through art and design. Despite their strong admiration for the original games, fans have demonstrated that they understand these digital texts as open-access narrative platforms to be challenged and reconfigured to better reflect social and political concerns and their own personal identities.