Preview The Gender Select Option in Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The rumor mill is heating up. Multiple sources are strongly hinting that Nintendo will be including some form of a gender select option for the playable protagonist in the next major Zelda game for the Wii U / NX console. It hasn’t been confirmed or denied yet by Nintendo (and likely won’t be until E3), but in the meantime, Zelda fans are speculating and arguing about how such a change to the beloved franchise might be implemented.

One possibility is that Nintendo may include an established female character such as Linkle or Zelda as a playable choice at the start of the game (or in parts of the game or as an unlockable).

Another possibility is that Nintendo may simply allow Link, the iconic hero and playable protagonist avatar/character, to be either male or female depending on a gender choice the player makes at the start of the game.

But there’s a third possibility that’s even more interesting: Nintendo could just do away with a gender select option altogether by using gender-neutral language when referring to Link. Players can decide for themselves whether their playable Link avatar/character is male, female, or gender-less. No toggle button needed. No “complicated” coding needed. Just stick with the same androgynous style of Link’s physical appearance that’s been around for 30 years now in various reincarnations.

There isn’t any real reason why any of the Zelda games to date have had to refer to Link as a boy other than “tradition.” Link’s gender is completely irrelevant to the narrative and the mechanics of the games. Link’s physical representation has always been androgynous. Link has always been a silent protagonist accepting any given name the player chooses.

While we’re waiting for clarification from Nintendo about whether this rumor is true or how Nintendo might choose to implement it, anybody can see for themselves how big or how little of an impact this shift in language has on their experience of the Zelda games of the past by applying these “gender-neutral patches” (now available in a single ZIP file) to their own copies of the following Zelda games:

These patches don’t change anything in the games other than replacing male pronouns referring to Link (or the fabled hero of legend) with gender-neutral pronouns. For example, any character who calls Link a “boy” now calls Link a “kid”; “brother” is now replaced with “comrade” or “sibling”, depending on the context; “fella” is replaced with “kiddo”; and so forth. This allows all players (whom Link represents as an avatar due to the name registration system as well as repeated public comments by Nintendo) to choose to play as their own gender, or as their opposite gender, or even gender-less!

Some folks take issue with same-sex relationships, but there don’t appear to be any relationships at all involving Link in the Zelda games. Sure, there are many characters throughout the games that express their feelings towards Link, but those aren’t relationships; they’re unrequited one-way streets — Link never responds or reacts to any such “advances” — that are often written as jokes, misunderstandings or misguided flirtation. Even the supposed romance between Link and Princess Zelda never goes beyond the level of a platonic friendship.

Go ahead, try it out and give it a playthrough. Within the context of your gender in real life, how does this “minor/major” change affect your experience of these games? If you believe that Link is/was always male, can you still grant that others may disagree and may want to play these games as a female Link or a gender-less Link which should have no bearing on your experience of the same games? Does this change hinder or elevate your attachment to the Zelda series? Does it change your mind about the “true” gender of Link? Does Link need to have a “true” gender? Would you want Nintendo to implement the same gender-neutral language for Link in the next big Zelda game and going forward? Would you want Nintendo to re-release all of the prior Zelda games with gender-neutral language for Link?

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Gender-Neutral Ocarina of Time

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Zelda jumped from 2D sprites to 3D worlds in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64 console with much fanfare and critical acclaim. It has since been ported to the GameCube, Wii, Wii U and 3DS, but the original N64 version remains at the top of many “best games of all time” lists.

Like the other games in the Zelda series, the in-game text of Ocarina of Time refers to the player (Link) as male even after allowing the player to input their own name into the game. I’d like to be able to play this game with my daughter and not have the game calling her a boy, so I hacked a gender-neutral version that replaces all of the male pronouns with gender-neutral language wherever it refers to Link.

Does this mean that some of the relationships depicted in the game — all of which are notably unrequited since Link never responds to any romantic advances — might not be strictly heterosexual? Sure. Why not? I don’t see any reason why the fantasy land of Hyrule couldn’t include some diversity just like the real world. The only two female characters in the game that are mentioned as potential partners with Link are Ruto (the Zora princess who presents Link with the Zora’s Engagement Ring for rescuing her) and Malon (whose father, Talon, jokingly asks if Link wants to marry her). Link’s relationships with the other female characters, including Saria and even Princess Zelda, are loving but strictly platonic friendships.

What about the all-female tribe of the Gerudo which Link must infiltrate? Aren’t they suspicious of Link because he’s male? No, not necessarily. The Gerudo are suspicious of all newcomers regardless of gender. They don’t allow anybody to enter Gerudo Desert without their approval. Link only has to pass a few of their trials to prove that Link is a hero worthy of their respect and to gain permission to roam freely through their territory. Link’s gender doesn’t really have anything to do with it.

After using one of several methods to extract or “dump” your own Ocarina of Time N64 game cartridge (specifically, the 1998 original North American release) into a non-byte-swapped Z64 file, you can then apply my gender-neutral patch of Ocarina of Time as a .vcdiff patch file using the free xdelta utility which outputs a modified Z64 file. You can play the modified Z64 file using an N64 emulator or you can play it on an actual N64 using any method that allows custom Z64 files to be played on the N64.

This project is an ongoing work in progress, but here are the gender-neutral patches for the games in the Zelda series that I’ve completed so far and have made freely available:

Gender-Neutral Four Swords Adventures

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Multiplayer Zelda was only a pipe dream until Nintendo released Four Swords as a bonus add-on with the GBA port of A Link to the Past in 2002. But it wasn’t until the follow-up Four Swords Adventures for the GameCube in 2004 that lonely players without three other Zelda friends could control all four Links in a single-player campaign mode, albeit with tedious maneuvering of pre-defined formations.

If you’re able to round up three other Zelda friends, all four players can each connect their own GBA with GBA-GC link cables and have portions of the game played on their own GBA screen. But for the ultimate Four Swords Adventures game play experience, each player can bring their own GameCube, GameCube GBA Player and TV display for supremely blissful 5-screen Zelda nirvana.

Like the other games in the Zelda series, the in-game text of Four Swords Adventures refers to all four players as male. I’d like to be able to play this game with my daughter and not have the game calling her a boy, so I hacked a gender-neutral version that replaces all of the male pronouns with gender-neutral language wherever it refers to the four Links.

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After using one of several methods to extract or “dump” your own Four Swords Adventures GameCube game disc (specifically, the 2004 North American release) into an ISO file, you can then apply my gender-neutral patch of Four Swords Adventures as a .vcdiff patch file using the free xdelta utility which outputs a modified ISO file. You can play the modified ISO using a GC emulator or you can play it on an actual GC/Wii using any method that allows custom ISO files to be played on the GC/Wii.

This project is an ongoing work in progress, but here are the gender-neutral patches for the games in the Zelda series that I’ve completed so far and have made freely available:

The Gender-Neutral Wind Waker

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About 13 years ago, Nintendo let players take to the open seas in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The game was first released for the GameCube and later “remastered” for the Wii U in 2013. Like previous Zelda games, The Wind Waker allows the player to become the hero by inputting their own name at the start of the game but then continues to use male pronouns when referring to the player (“Link”) regardless of the player’s actual gender. Link’s physical appearance and grunting vocalizations don’t really identify Link as a specific gender, and there’s absolutely nothing in the story of the game that requires the hero to be specifically male. This matters because male leading heroes are abundantly overrepresented in popular games and I want my baby daughter to see that gender doesn’t define a hero. Anybody can be a hero.

The Zelda games are some of the greatest games in popular culture. I’ve played and replayed all of them over the past 30 years and I’m looking forward to sharing them with my daughter if/when she develops an interest in gaming. I think the old GameCube version of The Wind Waker still holds up well today, so I decided to gender-neutral hack it for my daughter and other non-male gamers to enjoy fully immersing themselves in the experience of being Link and sailing the open seas.

After using one of several methods to extract or “dump” your own The Wind Waker GameCube game disc (specifically, the 2003 North American release) into an ISO file, you can then apply my gender-neutral patch of The Wind Waker as a .vcdiff patch file using the free xdelta utility which outputs a modified ISO file. You can play the modified ISO using a GC emulator or you can play it on an actual GC/Wii using any method that allows custom ISO files to be played on the GC/Wii.

This project is an ongoing work in progress, but here are the gender-neutral patches for the games in the Zelda series that I’ve completed so far and have made freely available:

Gender-Neutral Twilight Princess

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Last week, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD for the Wii U. As an HD remaster of a decade-old GameCube/Wii game, the graphics are visually much sharper and the new GamePad controls are excellent, but there’s a long-standing grammatical “bug” that still remains: female players who choose to rename Link with their own name are still awkwardly referred to as male by many of the characters in the game. Link’s physical appearance and grunting vocalizations don’t really identify Link as a specific gender, and there’s absolutely nothing in the story of the game that requires the hero to be specifically male. This matters because male leading heroes are abundantly overrepresented in popular games.

I have fond memories of playing through the original Twilight Princess when it was released for the GameCube in 2006. As an old school gamer, I’m not a big fan of motion controls and I prefer the accuracy and comfort of a standard controller. I think the old GameCube version of Twilight Princess still holds up well today, so I decided to gender-neutral hack it for my daughter and other non-male gamers to enjoy fully immersing themselves in the experience of being Link in both human and wolf form.

I’ve already gender-neutral hacked several of my other favorite games from the Zelda series to fix the same grammatical bug, but this Twilight Princess gender-neutral hack took a bit longer since there was such a large amount of in-game text to review and edit.

To prevent introducing any glitches, I also had to stick within the same character length when replacing words. For example, the Gorons would frequently call Link “Brother,” so I replaced all of those instances with “Comrade.” Wherever the mayor or others would call Link “sonny” or “fella,” I swapped those out with “kiddo.” And when Malo calls Link “brudda,” I replaced those with “friend.” But in some cases, it wasn’t possible to simply swap a male word for a gender-neutral word with the same number of characters, and I had to subtly rephrase some lines of dialogue where the in-game text talks about the hero using the pronouns “he,” “his” and “him.”

After using one of several methods to extract or “dump” your own Twilight Princess GameCube game disc (specifically, the 2006 North American release) into an ISO file, you can then apply my gender-neutral patch of Twilight Princess as a .vcdiff patch file using the free xdelta utility which outputs a modified ISO file. You can play the modified ISO using a GC emulator or you can play it on an actual GC/Wii using any method that allows custom ISO files to be played on the GC/Wii.

This project is an ongoing work in progress, but here are the gender-neutral patches for the games in the Zelda series that I’ve completed so far and have made freely available:

Myth vs Fact: There Aren’t Enough Video Games With Female Playable Lead Protagonists

Are there enough video games with female playable lead protagonists? Some male gamers seem to think so. But why do so many female gamers disagree?

Let’s assume that “enough” means parity or at least somewhat close to parity with the number of games featuring male playable lead protagonists.

It would be arduous — though not impossible — to catalog every video game publicly released since 1958’s Tennis For Two (considered to be the first video game created for entertainment) and determine whether the playable lead protagonist is female, male, or unspecified/player-selectable/gender-neutral. Some studies have attempted to do this but only with a subset of games.

Perhaps a simpler and more useful approach would be to qualify the scope. What if we looked at, say, just the Top 100 Games of All Time? Is there such a list that we could all agree on? Ever since video game journalists started compiling “Best of All Time” lists, gamers have endlessly argued over the rankings.

It turns out that Wikipedia editors have attempted to come up with One List to rule them all by surveying more than seventy “Best of All Time” lists across English-speaking publications from 1985 to the present and then ranked the games according the number of times they appeared in the surveyed lists. The concept is similar to a meta-analysis that statistically combines the results of many independent studies.

So how many of these Top 100 Games of All Time feature a female playable lead protagonist?

The answer: 8.

That’s right, only 8 out of the Top 100 Games of All Time feature a female playable lead protagonist.

Since there are so few to remember, it’s no surprise that most male gamers are quick to point out these time-honored examples of great games with female playable lead protagonists: Metroid, Super Metroid, Metroid Prime, Tomb Raider, Ms. Pac-Man, Portal, Portal 2 and Okami.

Even if we lump in the 19 games that feature a lead playable protagonist whose gender is unspecified/player-selectable/gender-neutral, that still leaves a whopping 73 of the Top 100 Games of All Time with a male lead playable protagonist. Clearly, this is far from parity and a long ways away from an “even playing field” that allows for female gamers to feel included and fairly represented in video games.

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Go ahead, pick any Top 100 Games of All Time list, run the same analysis and post your findings in the comments section. I’m betting that the splits won’t look that much different, but I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Here’s the raw data from my analysis. For games featuring more than one playable lead protagonist, the gender determination was categorized as either female, male, or neutral depending on the composition. For example, games like Street Fighter II got counted as male due to having only one female out of eight selectable fighters, and Resident Evil counted as neutral because players can choose between Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine. Let me know in the comments if you find any errors.

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Why I’m Gender-Hacking Zelda

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about why I decided to hack the Zelda games to make the playable protagonist, Link, gender-neutral for my daughter and why I decided to release the patches online. So I tried to address it as best I could in my interview with The Mary Sue:

I have no idea which video games will “speak” to my daughter or if she’ll even become enamored with video games at all. I just wanted to tilt the odds slightly by removing what I saw as an impediment that could possibly prevent her from experiencing my favorite video game of all time in the same deep and immersive way that I was able to experience it. I always felt like I was Link and that I was the hero going on the great adventure to battle evil and save Hyrule and its inhabitants. There wasn’t a single odd pronoun in any of the Zelda games that broke the spell for me, but that’s because I just happened to be a dude and the game’s text assumed I was a dude.

The words we use and the stories we tell in our games and books and movies are important because they not only reveal how we see our world, but they also show how our world could be. Too many of our monomyths — ancient, new and recycled — tell us that only men can be world-saving heroes. In her impressionable years, I hope that my daughter discovers and consumes so many female monomyths that she will never see a ceiling above her. And in her powerful years, I hope that she creates new monomyths of her own.

This project is an ongoing work in progress, but here are the gender-neutral patches I’ve completed so far and have made freely available:

Coincidentally, it turns out that I might be helping to return Link back to Link’s original roots. I reached out to Clyde Mandelin, professional translator and author of Legends of Localization, for his take on the debate over Link’s intended gender in the early Zelda games. Specifically, I asked him if the original Japanese language version of A Link to the Past (“Triforce of the Gods”) referred to the player as male in the game and instruction manual. He dug into it and found something quite extraordinary: Link’s gender is very rarely mentioned anywhere in the original Japanese game, box or manual! While the English manual for The Legend of Zelda refers to Link as male more than 70 times, the Japanese manual specifies Link as a boy only twice! It appears there was a notable shift to define Link’s gender more concretely when Nintendo exported Link from Japan to the English-speaking world in the late ’80s and early ’90s.