Gendered Spaces and Cultures in Video Games

A Personal Study of Breath of the Wild

FordR Cover

Ronny Ford is a PhD student in the English Department at Michigan State University. He also completed his English masters and Bachelor’s at MSU. His research area includes Medieval Literature, specifically gender and sexuality in a time before there was a concept of sexuality, and how transgressions of gender were portrayed and viewed. In his free time he enjoys playing and writing about video games as well as writing poetry. Follow the author on Twitter

Representations of gender in video games have come under increasing scrutiny recently, especially with scholars taking a vested interest in how video games affect and are affected by the player. These kinds of discussions have certainly reached the realm of the Legend of Zelda franchise, but with the most recent game, Breath of the Wild, there has come an influx of new questions concerning Link’s character and dress, especially with the ability to change Link’s outfits and have him dress in what would be considered more feminine clothing. While there have been discussions about dress and gender in previous Legend of Zelda games, specifically focusing on Zelda and her transformation into Sheik, the discussion has turned to Link in a new way. However, there appears to be a gap in discussion, being the moral questions concerning Link’s entrance into the Gerudo city, which is known as a city that does not permit men within its walls. Knowing that Link is a traditionally male character, his entrance into the Gerudo city seems to have the potential for a purposeful violation of the safe space the Gerudo women have established, and thus simply examining Link’s canonical gender is not enough to build a complete understanding.

Refusing to acknowledge the customs of the Gerudo people for the sake of entering the city certainly reads as a violation of a safe space when we only take into consideration Link’s canon gender. However, I also firmly believe, as someone who identifies as a transgender man and has spent much of his life exploring the intricacies of identity, that there is a potential for it not to be a violation depending on how the player views and conceptualizes Link. This leads to my central question: what circumstances allow for an ethical entering into the Gerudo space, and to what extent is this ethical entrance allowed and encouraged by the developers?

Player Identity and Isolation

Beginning with the identity of the player, I certainly do not want to argue that a cisgender man playing Link automatically means that his choice to enter into the Gerudo city is a violation. Identities are not locked in place, and video games have characteristically and historically been a place of self-exploration. Laura Kate Dale discusses how she was able to discover her own transness and identity through the medium of World of Warcraft, a clear example of a player creating a character to represent their gender identity as opposed to their assigned gender. Keeping this in mind, rather than parsing out every possible permutation of player identity and its relation to Link’s identity, I would like to take a more personal approach in my discussion of the questline and discuss my own embodied reactions to Link’s gender, dress, and actions.

BOTWISOLATION

Because of the many RPG elements of the game, I often truly felt like I was becoming Link, especially in the mundane and everyday actions one has to do to survive (cooking, eating, resting, etc.). The beautiful isolation the game provides as you and Link roam around open fields and sandy shores on horseback establishes a deeply connected relationship between Link and the player that must be taken into consideration when discussing the appropriateness and responsibility associated with the Gerudo questline. In these moments of isolation, it truly is just you and Link, you as Link, trying to discover yourself through the memories you’ve previously lost. You and Link are going on a mutual adventure of self-discovery in which Link recovers his memories and you are allowed to explore not only how you would act as the chosen hero of Hyrule but also how you would dress and present yourself in terms of gender expression.

Keeping with isolation, the game often feels crushingly lonely, especially as more memories of our lost friends are gathered. Although Link meets people and finds villages on the way, most of the game for me was spent alone. I reveled in this loneliness, as it felt like it was the first time I got to be alone with my true self. Breath of the Wild was instrumental in me discovering my identity as a transgender man. I found myself being pulled back to the game over and over, wanting so desperately to feel the way I did the first time I played it. I was drawn to this iteration of Link because he was androgynous and mysterious; I thought we almost looked similar. What I found, though, in my deep desire to play and replay this game endlessly, was the extreme desire to avoid the Gerudo quest and region altogether. Going back to my central question, I wanted to avoid this questline so badly because I felt that my entering into the Gerudo city was indeed a violation of not only the safe space of the Gerudos but also of my own desired image of myself-turned-Link.

BOTWOUTFIT

While entering the Gerudo city did make me quite uncomfortable, I still did it in every playthrough because I recognized how central the questline is to both the narrative of the game and my own personal ability to beat it. I felt every time that it was a violation, that me tricking everyone inside the walls (with the exception of Riju, the Gerudo leader who recognizes Link as a man, and a few others) was a physical representation of disrespect for the customs of the Gerudo people. I am a man, I play Link as a man, and me donning a Gerudo outfit made for women forced me to lie about a central part of who I am, even if I was doing it for the betterment of Hyrule. Here is where I would like to briefly discuss the responsibility of the game developers: I find it both odd and slightly unnerving that they would go to such lengths to establish a culture with strict gender related customs just to have the player break said customs. Despite wanting to create a more “gender-neutral” version of Link (Alba, 2016, pp.1), the creators still assigned him male, and thus created for the player this conundrum of choice: to adhere to the Gerudo customs and avoid the quest or to ignore and break the customs for the sake of narrative.

Workarounds and Temporary Respite

Bringing back the identity of the player, perhaps for transgender women or certain nonbinary individuals, this questline would feel much less troubling, as wearing an outfit made for a woman is potentially gender affirming. An integral part of me coming to my current identity was identifying as a nonbinary person for many years, and I even still identified as such during my first ever playthrough of the game. During that time, I found my entrance into the city to not at all be a violation because I saw the city as one that excluded men rather than only allowing women. I would like to acknowledge here that the Gorons, large genderless rock creatures from the volcanic region of the game, are allowed within the walls despite being very masculine, which meant to me that the city excludes men rather than only allowing women. Thus, when I played the game as a person who used they/them pronouns, I felt more comfortable entering the city. That comfort rapidly changed as I came into my current identity.

Returning to the developers, there is no workaround for this questline. You either do it or you don’t; there’s no creative solution that would allow for you to defeat Thunderblight Ganon, the final boss of the Gerudo questline, prior to the final fight with Ganon without infiltrating the city. The lack of a workaround suggests that the game developers likely didn’t consider how this act of wearing a women’s Gerudo outfit would make the player feel. While it certainly has the potential to be gender affirming for some, for a player like myself, the questline triggers discomfort and dysphoria. I am envisioning myself as Link, the boy I want to be, and suddenly I am forced to wear an outfit to try and make myself look like a woman. I am pulled out of the game and the fantasy is lost; I am back in my own real life having to make decisions about how to dress, if I will pass, etc. I am certainly not saying that the outfit shouldn’t be in the game, as it has allowed a lot of trans women and nonbinary individuals to find themselves in Link, but I am saying that a second solution to the Gerudo questline problem would have been both beneficial and interesting.

BOTWSHOP

But there is no second solution, and so I find myself, as Link, in an outfit that makes me uncomfortable, wandering a city where I do not feel I belong. There is a moment of respite, though, in the secret men’s clothing shop that requires a special password to enter. Whenever I am in the city, I always bring Link back to this shop, for two reasons: the shop owner, Greta, recognizes me/Link for who we are (a man), and because her saying that there is “a high demand” for male clothing in the city tells me that I am not the only trans man within its walls, that I am not the only one wearing an outfit that doesn’t suit me. While she may just mean that there is high demand because Gerudo women want to buy clothes for their male partners, I choose to interpret it as an admission of the fact that there are trans Gerudo men living in secret. Thus, perhaps my entering into the city isn’t such a terrible transgression after all. If there are indeed Gerudo trans men living within the walls, then my entering isn’t simply an immediate action of disrespect, but rather an action that is complicated both by the narrative of the game and by the politics of the city.

I feel that my entering into the city is less transgressive knowing there are other trans men in its walls because it means it is my circumstances that have forced me into the city, not a desire to disrespect the culture. While the city doesn’t allow men, some trans men do have to live there regardless because it is their home and their culture. This solidarity with other trans men, although fictional, makes the questline easier to bear at least in my understanding of whether I am doing something unethical. It does not help, however, in my own personal discomfort of having to see Link, a character I heavily project onto, wear an outfit I myself would be extremely uncomfortable wearing.

In Game Choices and Moral Dilemmas

While I do think the developers failed to examine how their own writing would affect a trans man player like myself, I would like to say that I think they provided the player with an interesting moral dilemma. The choice of completing or not completing the questline is difficult for me, but I do not mean to say that it makes me want to play the game any less. A game without any difficult decisions and without any moral questions is one I simply don’t want to play. I do think the game developers created a situation in which the player can potentially disrespect one of the fictional cultures, but in doing so they also created a situation in which players can think more deeply about how we treat customs different from our own and how we might want to change our behaviors to be more respectful and understanding.

This is all work done on the part of the player, though, and is neither nurtured nor encouraged by the developers. Link faces no consequences for infiltrating the city despite knowing the customs, which makes it clear that while I interpret this quest as one which brings to light questions of ethics and responsibilities, that was not its original intent. Players are excellent at turning intent upon its head though, which is exactly what I do when I play this game. I will continue to play the game and question my own decision to enter the city. I will continue to enjoy playing as Link.

References:

Alba. (2016, June 18). Link is “Gender Neutral” In the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Dale, L. (2017, March 15). The Complexities of Trans Gerudo Town.

Kate, L. (2014). Gender Identity Exploration in Video Games.