This week on The Ringer, we’re hosting the Best Video Game Character Bracket—an expansive competition between the greatest heroes, sidekicks, and villains of the gaming world. And along with delving into some of those iconic figures, we’ll also explore and celebrate the gaming industry as a whole. Welcome to Video Game Week.
You might think you know The Legend of Zelda’s Link as the green-clad, Master Sword–wielding blond mute who always saves Hyrule, rescues Princess Zelda, and defeats Ganon. But what if none of that is what really makes Link, Link?
Link always wears green … except when he doesn’t. He always has blond hair … except when he doesn’t. He always saves Hyrule … except when he’s somewhere else. He always rescues Zelda … except when she’s absent. He always uses the Master Sword … except when he has a different weapon. He always fights Ganon … except when he has someone else to fight. And Link always wins … except when he loses.
Link isn’t even always named Link. In early Zelda titles, the player would type in a name for the hero at the beginning of the game, and all other characters would use that name to refer to him. In looking into his character for this piece, I kept asking the question: Can “Link” even be considered a character at all?
Of course he can. The frequent exceptions to Link’s defining traits aren’t bugs—they’re features, as Link is canonically a different person in almost every game. The Zelda series, which spans tens of thousands of years and multiple different timelines, is steeped in reincarnation. Link, Zelda, and Ganon are not the exact same people in each game, but they are the same spirits—Zelda, for example, is the embodiment of the goddess Hylia—who always play similar roles as they wage the cyclical battle between good and evil that’s been fought for eons.
What links the Links (sorry) is that each possesses the spirit of the hero. And the spirit of the hero has, by my count, two real traits—neither of which has anything to do with the pointiness of Link’s cap. The first is an overflowing abundance of courage, and the second is a complete absence of any dialogue. It’s the combination of these two that make Link the quintessential video game hero.
The courage is a natural and perfect fit for a video game hero. Any player of a video game won’t frequently hesitate to pick battles to save the world, and so Nintendo embodying that characteristic in Link himself helps marry the way players play as Link with how Link as a character acts. Link is the holder of the Triforce of Courage, which sometimes grants him magical abilities and serves as an integral part of the plot to some of the games. Courage is a perfect trait for a video game hero. Link’s lack of dialogue, however, is a little more curious.
How did Link become such an enigmatic character? The easy answer might be that the first game was released in 1986, and that the story and lore were dramatically limited by the technology of the time. (To get a sense of how the scope of early video games was limited, The Legend of Zelda was the first console game in history that allowed players to save their progress.) Most of the story for the first game was told in an included instruction booklet, which detailed how Princess Zelda had broken the Triforce into fragments and hid them around the eight-bit overworld until a hero could unite them and defeat Ganon. Link didn’t talk in The Legend of Zelda because that game featured very little dialogue to begin with. He was a hero out of necessity—Nintendo wanted to make an action fantasy game and you can’t get there without one.
In the decades since, Nintendo has built the ship as it sails it. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was a side-scrolling adventure that represented a departure from the original game, before 1992’s A Link to the Past helped the franchise hit its stride. That game expanded on Hyrule and introduced defining Zelda elements like the Master Sword, as well as a parallel-world structure that has been present in many subsequent games. Since then, the series has continued to evolve, but some elements from the original title, such as Link’s silence, have remained.
When Nintendo significantly expanded the series’ lore with the 2011 release of Hyrule Historia, the book that included details like the official timeline for the series, a foreword from Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto explained how Link’s name came to be: “We named the protagonist Link because he connects people together,” Miyamoto wrote. “He was supposed to spread the scattered energy of the world through the ages.”
But that may not be all there is to the story. Just a year later, in an interview with French video game outlet Gamekult, Miyamoto had a slightly different origin for Link: “Link’s name comes from the fact that originally, the fragments of the Triforce were supposed to be electronic chips,” Miyamoto said. “The game was to be set in both the past and the future and as the main character would travel between both and be the link between them, they called him Link.”
The origins for the franchise’s other iconic characters are equally muddy. Princess Zelda is named for Zelda Fitzgerald, the 20th century writer who was the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the way Miyamoto describes it, you shouldn’t read too much into the name:
“I knew I wanted it to be The Legend of something, but I had a hard time figuring out what that ‘something’ was going to be,” Miyamoto explained. “That’s when the PR planner said, ‘Why don’t you make a storybook for this game?’
“He suggested an illustrated story where Link rescues a princess who is a timeless beauty with classic appeal, and mentioned ‘There’s a famous American author whose wife’s name is Zelda. How about giving that name to the eternal beauty?’
“I couldn’t really get behind the book idea, but I really liked the name Zelda. I asked him if I could use it, and he said that would be fine. And that’s where the title The Legend of Zelda was born.”
Meanwhile, Ganon’s name is of unknown origins, and Impa—Zelda’s companion who appears in many of the franchise’s titles—was named after the word “impart” because she imparts the story of the Triforce shards to Link in the original game. Taken together, there’s a pretty obvious reason the series—and Link—is the way that it is: Nintendo was winging it.
But Nintendo may also view Link as the archetypal silent hero, and his lack of spoken lines as a way to maintain immersion for the players. What happens if Link does speak, but he doesn’t sound the way longtime fans have imagined? Or he says something that seems outside the character that players have built up in their minds? In the same way that book-to-movie adaptations can disappoint fans if they change pivotal scenes or characters, a talking Link would just feel wrong at this point. He may not be the most interesting video game character, but there is no more perfect empty vessel for players to pour themselves into.
A main character without character and some hasty world-building has never hurt the franchise, either. Zelda has built a rich and rewarding universe in spite of both. Breath of the Wild, which features voice actors for Zelda and other non-Link characters, expands a bit on Link’s muteness. A diary entry from the princess explains that Link “feels it’s necessary to stay strong and to silently bear any burden. … It has caused him to stop outwardly expressing his thoughts and feelings.”
Zelda continues: “I wish to talk with him more and to see what lies beneath those calm waters, to hear him speak freely and openly. And perhaps I, too, will be able to bare my soul to him and share the demons that have plagued me all these years.”
Link isn’t just a hero because he swings a magical sword; he has the grace, the determination, and the demeanor to save Hyrule. But none of this is to say that Link is completely devoid of personality. Some of Link’s best moments are in the faces he makes in Wind Waker, which used its cel-shaded graphics to allow the characters to express themselves. And while the players never hear Link, some of the dialogue options the player is presented with throughout the games reveal that he’s a bit cheeky.
A mute but courageous hero was the perfect character for a fantasy adventure game in the 1980s. Some 35 years later, video game storytelling has evolved, as has the Legend of Zelda franchise. But Link hasn’t. He hasn’t needed to. He’s been the perfect video game character all along.