What would the internet do?
[Art by Sarah Thomas]
A while ago, Jim Sterling, Lindsay Collins and I floated around the idea of doing a "What if?" web comic about videogames. Sadly, the only ideas we could come up with was "What if Yorda from Ico was a guy?" and "What if Alucard from Symphony of the Night was a Shopaholic?" Both ideas had their charms, but that's where the spark went out.
There was a third idea though -- "What if the next Link was Blasian (Black and Asian)?" The idea was impossible. There is no way that the punchline to that one could fit in a comic strip, in part because the repercussions of a Blasian Link would be so wide spread and long lasting.
There is a precedent for this kind of thing. Black Nick Fury is a huge hit. Black Spider-Man was all over the news when he was first announced, and has continued on to be the only hero in comics to carry on the name. A lot of the characters in Monster Hunter 3 are brown. The new Black Avengers just debuted in comics to positive sales and reviews. Black Annie is set to hit theaters next year in the usual blockbuster style. And don't even get me started on Black Jesus.
Pop culture seems to be getting more comfortable with familiar characters taking on different races, as long as they successfully carry forward the classic concepts that they were created to represent. Still, there seems to be a glass ceiling in videogames, where nearly all of the most well known and loved icons are Caucasian.What if Link were the first to break that trend?
A trailer is shown at E3. It features a new Blasian Link (both young and adult) doing things that Links do. It ends with the words. "A Legend like you've never seen before".
Nintendo wouldn't say a word about Link's new color. Instead, they focus on the new HD graphics and how they affect the experience, and whatever other little things they can smokescreen with. Maybe the game takes place in a more futuristic setting than prior Zelda titles. Maybe it will feature some new Wii U specific gameplay ideas like asymmetrical multi-player or items that use the Gamepad touch screen and camera. That's what Nintendo talks about. Not a word would be said about any new brown-ness.
When asked about the new Link's look, they stay on message with, "We worked hard to create the perfect version of Link for this new adventure. This iteration of the character is meant to evoke feelings of both familiarity and of freshness. We hope that both existing Zelda fans and those new to the series will enjoy exploring the world of Hyrule through his eyes."
[Grape-y Link by International Texture Team]
The first day reaction
Almost immediately, people will accuse Nintendo of everything from being racist, to being unintentionally racist, to being racially insensitive, to pandering to progressives, to being genius. Racist jokes would flow like wine, as would accusations of "virtual blackface." Self appointed experts on Japanese culture will announce, "This is suicide. No one in Japan will buy a game about a Black person!". Other self appointed experts on identifying the race of fiction characters will counter with "Just look at his eyes. He's not black. He's Blasian. The Japanese will love it." The easiest and most superficial comments like these always come first. They don't usually resonate in people's minds for very long.
The easy and superficial images tend to make a bit more of an impact. Photoshops with the words "Familiarity and Freshness" featuring Link as the Fresh Prince of Bel Air will be generated in a matter of seconds. Footage from the announcement trailer will be edited to make Link look like he's twerking behind Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. Kanye West will make a statement about it. President Obama will say something about it. The Daily Show and Rush Limbaugh will make jokes about it. Videogames will bombard the headlines of mainstream media outlets for a reason other than "presumed links to mass killings" for the first time in years.
The feelings about Blasian link will be blasted out everywhere, even by those that don't care. They will tweet and Facebook and blog about how much they don't care, which will make other people feel they should care, which will make them care about defending how much they don't care. Emotions are contagious, especially on the the internet, where a feeling can be communicated to millions in an instant. Well articulated thoughts take a little longer.
[Art by BallerMCG_Tru2U]
The first week reaction
Videogame critics and culture personalities begin working to cash in on the emotional currency carried by Blasian Link almost immediately, with shots fired on both sides in rapid succession. Dave Jaffe will be quick to point out that Blasian Link is stupid and distracting, as there is "no point to it." Cliffy B will be just as quick to point out that there was "no point" in Link being Caucasian, but nobody complained about that.
Some of the Blasian Link Detractors will fire back by accusing their critics of being racist, as evidenced by their focus on race in general. "I don't care about race at all" they'll say "I just think it's stupid for Link to change colors just to drum up controversy for click bait". After which, they will click multiple times on the post where they made that comment to see if they get any responses.
Many of those responders will accuse Blasian Link Detractors of being hypocrites, because loudly yelling that you don't care about race is just another way to care about race. Then everyone will call everyone a troll until they get so annoyed that they need to take a break from the topic for a few days, as they spend hours thinking of witty responses and harsh put downs for the people that don't feel the way they do about a videogame character who is now brown.
[Art by Benny Disco]
The second week
A few days later, more long form essays will start to come together. One will focus on the fact that for years, Hollywood and videogames seemed to be working harder to diversify the casts of high fantasy stories, but that in recent years, most fantasy-based games and TV/movie franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, and Dr. Who have almost completely eliminated minorities from the equation. They talk about how the bigger the budget on a game, film, or TV show, the more likely that the the production companies need to assure that they appeal to the segment with the largest amount of disposable time and income. The article will read: "It's not about racism. It's playing it safe with your money. What they don't understand is, playing it safe only gets you so far. There comes a time when the consumer catches on to the fact that you're only interested in coercing them into handing over their cash, and not in providing them with any real value or inspiration."
They'll go on to say that for better or worse, the concept of Blasian Link is a risk worth applauding. It sends the message that Nintendo wants to try to say something new with one of their most recognizable figureheads. Link is a purely visual and physical character, made to work as a stand-in for the player. To acknowledge that we no longer resort to the default cis gendered Caucasian male avatar in order to "link" a wide audience into a game is important. "It shouldn't be important," they'll implore. "Skin-deep changes to a character shouldn't matter, but in today's culture, they still do. Running away from that fact won't help change it."
Some longtime Zelda fans will congregate and attack the article en masse, stating that Nintendo has betrayed the Zelda fan base by changing the appearance of a beloved character to the point where he is no longer recognizable, all in a cheap bid to look "progressive". "Why is he Blasian?" they'll say. "Wasn't just 'Black' enough for them? Two Virtual Underground Railroads for the price of one? Keep your civil rights bullshit out of my videogames."
Other Zelda fans will fire back, stating that it's about the gameplay, not the color of a character's skin, and that they don't appreciate being lumped in with the veiled-racists who can't shut up about how mad they are that Link got a tan. Non-Zelda fans will pop up out of nowhere and squawk about how the Zelda series has been racist for a long time, with few non-Caucasians appearing in the series, most of which are villains like Demise or Ganondorf. Zelda fans will counter by saying that Tetra had brown skin and therefore Wind Waker is not racist. Someone else will say that doesn't count because she had blonde hair. Yet someone else will counter by saying that if Sisqo counts as Black, so does Tetra. Then a debate will rage about if Black blonde people are self loathing and need counseling.
Way off on the side, someone will write an article about how if Nintendo wants to make everyone happy, they can make Link's appearance customizable, like in Pokemon X/Y, but with many more options. They can still make the "canon" Link Blasian if they want, just as the "canon" Shepard in Mass Effect is Caucasian, but by allowing players to link to the game world with an avatar that best represents them, everyone wins.
No one will pay attention to this article because its too well reasoned to elicit much emotion.
[Art by R-Legend]
The continuing march towards launch
These conflicts will continue to froth and expand. All the while, Nintendo will sit back and watch as the teaser trailer for the next Legend of Zelda accumulates 20 times more views than any other video they've yet released. By now, hundreds of thousands of Black people will have written personal testimonials about what Blasian Link means to them -- how by keeping people of color on the sidelines of the videogame world for years, they were led to feel that they weren't valued by videogame developers and publishers. With Blasian Link, they feel a new sense of inclusion that they never felt before. Hundreds of thousands of others will jump on this bandwagon just because it gives them a sense of pride to be on the "right side" of an argument. Hundreds of thousands more will become immediately irritated when they read the words "Blasian", "inclusion", or "race" on a videogame blog ever again, but still feel the need to click and comment on the blog so their irritation is known to everyone.
Those hundreds of thousands of Blasian Link Fans, Blasian Link Detractors, and millions of onlookers, attention seekers, would-be intellectuals, diehard Zelda fans, and everyone in between will all be waiting in earnest curiosity over the next trailer for new Legend of Zelda to see what Nintendo will do next. Where the last few Zelda releases have engaged the attention of just a subset of the videogame community, all eyes would be on this new title. No one would want to be left out of the culture wide dialogue. No one would want to miss out on the experience of praising, damning, or typing "WHO CARES" in all caps at the reveal that the new Zelda is overweight, or that the new Ganondorf turns out to be trans*.
The actual game
The game sells more in the first week than Skyward Sword sold in its first month. Many who buy the game immediately announce that they hate it, but they'll play it until the end anyway. It'll be worth it to them, to be sure their hate of the game is well-informed and respectable.
As they play, they will live tweet their feelings on how Link, Zelda, and Ganon's race and gender does or does not affect the quality of the game. They'll plan their essays on the implications of altering the race of a silent protagonist compared to a voiced character who can define themselves in ways other than physical. Then they'll beat a boss. Then they'll plan their next essay on the problematic undercurrent intrinsic to a game about a Blasian player character created by Japanese developers for a largely Caucasian audience.
Eventually, they'll finish the game. In the end, maybe they'll have spent more time playing this new Zelda game than they did thinking about it, writing about it, video blogging about it, and tweeting about it. Maybe, just maybe, if the game is fun, they'll notice that it is fun. They won't write about that though. Writing about how videogames are fun is so ten years ago.