Skip to content

Link, the protagonist of the Zelda games, is designed to officially be a boy, but a strange kind of boy: a boy who’s supposed to make you question his gender. After early Breath of the Wild artwork hit in 2016, featuring a conspicuously androgynous Link – soft-featured, big-eyed, face framed by long, loose strands of hair – the elfin protagonist’s look sparked rumours that maybe Link would, this time, be playable as a girl. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma quashed those rumours in an interview with Time, asserting that Link is ‘definitely a male’, but that Breath of the Wild marked a return to the character’s original ‘gender-neutral’ design in the Ocarina of Time period: ‘I wanted Link to be gender neutral […] I wanted the player to think ‘Maybe Link is a boy or a girl.’’

In the official Nintendo narrative, Link is safely marked as a straight boy, but allows for some gender fluidity as a marker of inclusivity – girls can ‘relate to’ Link, just like boys can. This isn’t a symmetrical relationship, though: if girls think of Link as a girl, they have to do so quietly and internally, submitting to the official canon that he’s a boy-hero. Other communities can claim Link, but they’re not going to get official recognition or validation in doing so. This relationship also characterises the queer and trans community’s relationship to Link, but there, the relationship of identification and secrecy is more intense, because Link is coded as gay and trans in a way that is obvious to many but is also dangerous to claim as anything other than just a ‘possibility’ or a vibe.

There is a very careful dance being done around gaming’s most famous ‘fairy boy’. The Zelda games implicitly understand that Link cannot actually be the kind of figure he is designed to be – beautiful, elfin, ambiguously childlike, a measure apart from traditional masculine heroes – without being understood as potentially gay, potentially trans, and potentially a woman. He is regularly treated as such within the games themselves. But the Zelda games craft layers of plausible deniability around Link’s gender and sexuality, and one of their ways of doing this is the way in which other gay/trans characters are used in the games.

The history of the Zelda games, as well as the history of Nintendo more generally, is a history tied up with both Anglo-American and Japanese gay archetypes and homophobia. Just as one example, the Carpenters in Ocarina of Time are effeminate, wear bright colours, call Link ‘cute’, and appear to have tried to join the all-female Gerudo tribe: they are clearly affiliated with the Japanese idea of okama, an often-pejorative term encompassing both gay men and trans women. This is also the franchise that birthed Tingle, a 35-year-old ‘man who wants to be a fairy’ who was once named ‘gaming’s gayest character’, and who triggered IGN’s 2004 “Die, Tingle, Die!” campaign, which is clearly rooted in Tingle’s apparently odious queerness. “You know and hate him. That nutty clown freak that spoils the lands of Hyrule like a poison,” laments IGN, connecting the “great, dark mystery” of Tingle’s sexuality to both his “hideously deformed figure” and his “selfishness” (part of Wind Waker is taken up by doing fetch quests for Tingle – but most fetch-quest characters don’t lead to calls for the death penalty). Aonuma has officially pronounced Tingle to be ‘not gay, just an odd person’ – a claim that bears no relation to the reality of how Tingle is received and treated, but that sidesteps certain forms of scrutiny.

Overtly gay and trans-coded characters in Zelda are defined against Link’s mute prettiness. They are strange, often abject, often mockable; Link is lovely, young, and free of markers of seedy adult sexuality. His reticence is marked against the Carpenters’ flamboyance. His story-granted power as the Hero of Time, his clear purpose, and his affiliation with the Princess contrast with Tingle’s apparently pitiable stagnation and low status. Not all the gay characters are framed negatively, per se, but all of them are doing a form of gayness that Link is conspicuously not doing, while also understanding Link as part of their world. This gets dangerous at times, because acknowledgements of Link by queercoded characters also often consist of flirtations from adults towards a child, which puts queer players of the game in a bind: seeing Link as gay means you have to think about, and be discomforted by, those flirtations. If you see Link as safely straight and impenetrable, however, you don’t have to think about it.

Confirming a character in a children’s game as gay or trans is seen as inherently corrupting. There’s a reason that Vivian is cis in the English-language Paper Mario release, or that we haven’t got an answer on Birdetta for 35 years. Naming gayness gives the game away: it acknowledges the gay sexual imagination as present and active within a set of children’s games, and we all know from current anti-gay legislation in the US alone how the idea of gay sex and gender change in children’s media opens a chasm of fascist rhetoric. Nothing of this must get named. But this conflicts with the fact that the Zelda games have made a world in which gayness and transness is present, based on a culture in which those things are also present – as real phenomena and as objects of a swirl of dreams and fantasies, both positive and negative, about how non-normative gender and sexuality can change how the world works. This brings us to Breath of the Wild and Gerudo Town.

As Jennifer Unkle talks about in Paste Magazine, the joy many trans Zelda fans felt at gaining access to feminine clothes for Link in Breath of the Wild was undercut by the transphobia in its Gerudo Town storyline. Link needs to enter Gerudo Town to reach one of the four Divine Beasts and defeat one of Calamity Ganon’s forms. But only women can enter Gerudo Town, and Link is forcefully expelled if he tries to enter the city, with the guards informing him that no voe (men) are allowed in the city under Gerudo law. However, someone lets Link know that a ‘man’ has been sneaking into Gerudo Town to trade; you eventually track down this ‘man’, Vilia, who is wearing feminine Gerudo attire and flirts heavily with Link. “Link confirms Vilia’s identity by scrutinizing her body, and is then prompted to either exclaim she’s a man or compliment her beauty,” Unkle notes; “the latter convinces Vilia to sell you a convincing outfit before the wind hits her veil, revealing her beard to a shocked Link.”

Vilia’s character model under her mask does not look like a cis man, but like a transphobic caricature of a trans woman, with a highly discoloured lower face; it matches closely to other okama caricatures I’ve seen in Japanese game art. The game’s uncritical presentation of a trans woman within a ‘sneaky man’ rubric, as well as its reliance on a ‘shock’ reveal, is unnervingly transmisogynistic. That being said, when I played the relevant storyline, I found myself with a different read of it than Unkle’s, who says this experience makes her see Link as “a brat looking to circumvent his way into an exclusive society”, and argues that Link doesn’t deserve to wear the Gerudo’s clothing. Link is defined against Vilia’s lasciviousness and beardedness in a way that is clearly transmisogynistic, but Link is also subject to transmisogyny: the Gerudo guards are the ones who define him as a voe, expressing surprise that Link doesn’t ‘know’ he’s a voe, and lock him out. Link blushes and looks pleased wearing feminine clothing, and while the reveal of Vilia’s appearance causes Link to look shocked, there’s no apparent rancour in his shock.

Moreover, if we think about the wider storyline of Breath of the Wild, we might rethink the logic behind the Gerudo’s gender exclusivity. Link is trying to help save a city that is unable to effectively fight Ganon – the singular male Gerudo and the Gerudo’s King by birthright – because of the binary gender logic Gerudo Town holds to, which keeps Link and his powers out. It’s possible to argue that Link is therefore acting as a de facto patriarch, sneaking in as the Gerudo’s new male champion to defend them, but it’s also possible, and arguably more intuitive, to read him as a slippery, androgynous combatant against a patriarchal villain: he exposes how restrictive, myopic views of gender prevent the exact connections and collaborations that must be used to take down Ganon.

Plus, Link doesn’t act like an entitled cis boy in his interactions with the Gerudo, nor is he received as one by the Gerudo Chief. If Link appears to Riju in male clothes before they fight Ganon together, she replies “Well then…That’s what you really look like, huh…Hehe…With voe banned from town, it’s not very common for me to see someone like you.” Crucially, Riju is not angry or shocked here – she immediately moves on to battle strategies – and she also does not explicitly call Link a voe: her precise phrase in English allows for the idea that Link is a trans woman, nonbinary, or another gender that may be caught up in the voe ban. It’s not a sensitive reply, but that ‘someone like you’ marks transness as present in the game’s world.

Link is thus a frustratingly ambivalent and rich character for queer and trans players: he’s a ‘good’ avatar of gayness and transness, full of beauty, mobility and possibility, whose existence is dependent on defining his goodness against ‘bad’ figures like Vilia. Even as Link is ‘good’, though, he is still subject to the same forces and norms that create and shape Vilia, Tingle, Bolson, Ghirahim, and many other incidental characters across the franchise. He is held within a protagonist archetype that is not permitted to explicitly recognise his affinity with other queer characters, let alone to decide his relationship to their overtures; he has to tacitly obey the logic that he is a heterosexual man, even as the character’s own attachments to both ‘heterosexual’ and ‘man’ have always appeared vague at best.

Is Link gay and/or trans? Yes. But what’s going on is more foundational than Link’s precise gender identity or who he might be attracted to. Link and his story cannot exist without gayness and transness, as both a set of references to tap into and a set of fears to define Link against. He is a hero shaped by both gay culture and the backlash to gay culture. Loving Link, therefore, comes with its share of grief – but that’s never stopped queer people before.