A cast of thousands: Link

[Editor’s note: HarassmentPanda talks about Link for his Monthly Musing piece. — CTZ]

As the days ticked by for this month’s Musing, I watched the Community Blogs with nervous anticipation. Surely someone was going to write about Link. How could no one mention one of gaming’s most iconic and, in my opinion, relatable characters? Some came close, but no one took the plunge.

Only now, at 1:00 am on July 31, have I come to terms with the fact that I will be the one who must shoulder the monumental responsibility of doing justice to what is arguably Miyamoto’s greatest creation. Why is Link so personally special? Why could Link be considered the most easily relatable character of all time? Read on to find out. 

For me, the Zelda series has defined and shaped my gaming experience like none other. As a child, the allure was instant: Looking up at the towering video store racks, I knew there was no way I could resist plucking the giant golden box with the gilded cartridge from the shelf. It was not until I returned to my father’s home that I realized the true value of my new treasure.

My first Zelda experience was on a rented NES with a rented copy of the game — two items that eventually came to define Sundays at my father’s house. Upon first plugging the cartridge into the NES and turning it on, I noticed something I had never seen before: a bunch of other people’s names. I picked Steve, the name with the most hearts next to it (Who am I? Chad Concelmo?), and started to play.

The on-screen blackness quickly peeled open like a stage curtain and I found myself standing in a dungeon, sword in hand. I was Steve, the brave adventurer. Needless to say, my first Zelda outing was a failure. I found myself dying before four-headed monsters and fumbling through an inventory of items I had never seen. I shut the game off and didn’t come back until after lunch.

After filling my belly with macaroni and cheese and a small mountain of hot dogs, I turned back to Zelda, determined to make some progress. I noticed this time I could register my name, but, unfortunately, some other poor sap was going to have to fall victim to “elimination mode” and have all of his progress erased. I chose to erase Steve, his file was clearly no good to me, and I started my own venture into the land of Hyrule.

From that day forth, I never played games in the same way again. Zelda became my obsession. I played every moment I could and every time I played, I tried something different. I tried speed runs, I burned every bush and bombed every wall, I awoke every statue, I pushed every tombstone. Eventually, much later in life, I set off on my quest without a sword — only to eventually reach Ganon and realize, foolishly, that there was no way to kill him. Since 1987 I have beaten Zelda close to fifty times and I fall in love with it again every time I play.

It wasn’t until later in life, around play through twenty or so, that I realized why I had never fallen for a game quite like the original Zelda. In Link, Miyamoto created the most perfectly relatable character in history. Link is, most literally, the player’s “link” to the land of Hyrule. In fact, it took years (and numerous green-tuniced Halloween costumes) for me to even realize that the boy on screen was anyone other than myself.

By allowing the player to name his character, by leaving Link as a generally silent protagonist, by creating a character with a past that changes with each iteration of the series, Miyamoto created a character that was simultaneously iconic and inconsequential. Over the years, countless Web sites and game magazines have held “greatest character” polls and time and time again, Link comes out on top. All things considered, a character that never speaks, has no past, and displays no discernible personality is an odd choice for anyone’s most beloved character. But, in reality, Link is admired by millions because he is a projection of the uniquely innocent and courageous traits of the individual player.

Every time I played The Legend of Zelda, I was adding to Link’s history; I was telling his story through my actions. His story was my story. Shigeru Miyamoto once said that his goal with Zelda was to recreate the feeling he had as a child exploring the woods and caves around his home. In this regard, I believe The Legend of Zelda to be the most perfectly executed game of all time. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone who grew up playing Zelda felt the joy of exploration or experienced goosebumps while watching Hyrule come to life in 3D for the first time.

I realize now that the reason I felt lost when I first played The Legend of Zelda was because I was pretending to be Steve. Sure, our characters looked the same on screen, but Steve’s Link was different from, and likely never the same as, my Link. I was lost in the dungeon and bumbling with the inventory because I hadn’t taken the journey to get there. Sure, I could pick up any save file and play it now, but that’s because I’ve had similar experiences. Even then, picking up another person’s journey always feels empty. It’s the joy of exploration and the building of Link’s history that make Zelda games great, none of which would be possible without a small Hylian boy with no past.

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