There is a lot to love about 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But one of my personal favorite parts of the game is its characters. From generic NPCs to close allies, Breath of the Wild is full of colorful, well-realized folks. Nowhere is this truer than with the titular princess.
The Problem with Princesses Past
A princess problem plagues the Zelda franchise. Princess Zelda is often more of a goal than a person. Many games withhold her entirely: Ganon or some other baddie kidnaps her until Link arrives to save the day. Other games make stumbling attempts to give her agency. Ocarina of Time (1998) sees Zelda aiding Link in disguise as the enigmatic Sheik before, well, being captured. Spirit Tracks (2009) makes a valiant attempt, casting Zelda as your constant companion, whose possession abilities are a key gameplay mechanic. But even then, Nintendo disallows the princess her personhood. She spends the game as a disembodied ghost, occasionally possessing massive suits of living armor called Phantoms.
Perhaps the most fleshed out iteration of the princess we have seen is the Zelda of Skyward Sword (2011). This Zelda is a strong-willed character who spends most of the game on her own quest, traveling around the world to awaken her latent divine powers. Nevertheless Nintendo fell into a number of classic pitfalls. Skyward Sword’s Zelda has little agency. She is led haplessly about the world doing as she’s told for almost the entire game. The only decision she makes for herself is entering a state of supernatural stasis, effectively removing her from the game. She lacks real motivation or ambition beyond some nebulous “greater good,” and her most defining characteristic is a romantic attraction to Link, the game’s male lead. And of course in the eleventh hour, she too is kidnapped and in need of rescue.
An Imperfect Zelda
In Breath of the Wild, Zelda is finally a person.
In many ways, Zelda is more the main character of the game than Link. She, unlike her mute counterpart, is the most present voice in the game’s handful of cutscenes. These scenes show the development of a young woman, torn between her instinct for what is best and the duty placed on her by society and her overbearing father. Fear of failure and the nagging dread that she will never live up to expectations plague her. She also forms relationships, not only with Link—a character she initially resents but grows to love—but also with other characters, especially other women. She makes decisions, rebels against authority, resents her shortcomings, and at critical junctures, wholly trusts in herself.
Now this Zelda is far from perfect. The story in this game is told almost entirely in flashback. Zelda, for the entirety of the title, is trapped in Hyrule Castle holding Ganon at bay. This cheeky twist does not change the practical result: she is just as much a damsel-in-distress as the others of her name. And while the fantastic Champion’s Ballad DLC finally allowed Breath of the Wild to pass the Bechdel test, before that point Zelda’s interactions with other women were relegated to in-game journals.
Still this Zelda is the strongest step in the right direction the franchise has made in its 34 years. Finally we see a Zelda whose personal story lives up to the legendary title of her games. The upcoming prequel Age of Calamity promises more of the princess, and even allows us to play as her. And while we don’t know much about the announced sequel to Breath of the Wild, the trailer features her prominently. Many fans, myself included, hope this hints at the princess finally taking the reins of playable main character. Either way the future is bright for Breath of the Wild’s Princess Zelda.
Now if they would only add her to Super Smash Bros.
Thumbnail image from The Fandomentals.
Do you like the portrayal of Zelda in ‘Breath of the Wild’?