In the 31 years since The Legend of Zelda was released, the titular Princess of Hyrule has needed rescuing time and time again. By this point, it almost seems to be a matter of rigid, unchangeable destiny that Link, Zelda and Ganon are doomed to play out the same roles over and over throughout history, as Zelda repeatedly finds herself in peril at the hands of Ganon, a force of darkness, evil incarnate. Zelda’s peril represents the peril of Hyrule itself: bound to the land by her royal blood, she serves to put a human face on Hyrule and its fate. And each time, a hero emerges, embarking on an epic quest to vanquish the evil and save both Zelda and the realm.
For all of the narrative complexities and idiosyncrasies that emerge in one Zelda game or the next, the triumvirate of Link, Zelda, and Ganon seem stuck in their respective roles, clockwork mechanisms endlessly playing out the same functions across Hyrule history. With Breath of the Wild, it’s apparent that Nintendo wanted to breathe bold new life into the gameplay of the series, and in that regard, the game is a tremendous success. But the dramatic shift in gameplay is linked to a narrative structure that refuses to shift in the slightest, a complete failure of storytelling imagination in a game otherwise brimming over with creative energy. In Breath of the Wild, whatever character development Zelda’s given, she is once again a damsel in distress, a plot device propelling Link’s adventure, a conduit for his heroic journey. Over the past 31 years, this trope has repeated incessantly, and the latest game in the saga once again reinforces this tired motif.
In the first episode of Feminist Frequency’s own Tropes vs Women in Video Games, the damsel in distress is defined as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.” At the start of Breath of the Wild, you are presented with Zelda’s disembodied voice lulling Link awake, begging him to open his eyes. Within the first few minutes you’re introduced to Link and an ethereal Zelda, and the basic shape of the bromidic, enervated narrative becomes clear: Link must once again save Princess Zelda from Ganon. Just before you walk Link to the exit of his century-long sleep chamber, Zelda’s metaphysical voice proclaims, “Link… You are the light — our light — that must shine upon Hyrule once again. Now, go.”
About an hour into the game, you find out that a hundred years ago, Link, Zelda, and a band of four champions were at the precipice of sealing Ganon away before the Great King of Evil, known as Calamity Ganon in this iteration, dispersed his infectious malice throughout the land, took refuge at Hyrule Castle, and slayed the champions one by one. It is also at this time that you learn Zelda has been holding off Calamity Ganon on her own while Link has been asleep for a century. King Rhoam, Zelda’s father, pointedly states this, saying “Even now, as she works to restrain Ganon from within Hyrule Castle, she calls out for your help. However, my daughter’s power will soon be exhausted. You must save her, my daughter.” And thus, for what is the 13th time in the main storyline, Link must fulfill his destiny of rescuing Zelda from the clutches of Ganon.
Zelda, Nintendo would sometimes have us believe, is more than capable of protecting herself. In games like Super Smash Bros. and Hyrule Warriors, Zelda is a character of her own, with movesets specific to her. In Super Smash Bros. she primarily uses magic and ephemeral phantoms to send combatants catapulting across the stage. In Hyrule Warriors, she uses a rapier and a bow to clear waves upon waves of enemies. Zelda’s alter ego Sheik, a survivor of the rumored-to-be-extinct Sheikah clan, is also a distinct character. In Super Smash Bros. Sheik uses a combination of ninjutsu and martial arts to rapidly dish out damage. In Hyrule Warriors Sheik uses kunai and a harp to control the crowds while dashing around the stage. Both Zelda and Sheik are extremely powerful in these games (with Sheik being a top-tier character in just about every Super Smash Bros. entry she appears in), so it’s all the more confusing that in core entries in the Zelda franchise, she is relegated to the recurring role of damsel.
Back in 2009, the now-defunct Official Nintendo Magazine voted the Princess of Hyrule the third-greatest female character in Nintendo’s games, claiming she is “a strong woman who, with her sword and bow and arrow, is capable of holding her own in a fight.” Why, then, does Zelda not have a single weapon in Breath of the Wild? Because Link is destined to wield the Blade of Evil’s Bane while Zelda is “commanded to focus on [her] training” and “[offer] every ounce of [her] prayer to the Goddess.” Destiny weighs heavily on her shoulders, limiting her options, restricting her freedom. But it’s important to remember that it’s a destiny created by Nintendo itself, one they could alter at any time.
One of Breath of the Wild’s main quests is Captured Memories, a task given to Link by Impa, alternately the princess’ nursemaid and bodyguard throughout the Zelda mythos. Link is required to visit 12 spots pictured in photographs in order to regain memories of his adventures with Zelda that took place 100 years ago. In these flashbacks, Zelda is always weaponless, clad in form-fitting clothing, sometimes strutting in such a way as to convey an idea of delicate femininity. In one memory, Zelda is chased into the Gerudo Desert by the Yiga clan before tripping in the most quintessential helpless-princess way. Just as she clinches her eyes and grits her teeth, fearful her life may be haplessly cut short, Link saves her from certain death and all Zelda can do is gasp and marvel at his prowess and bravery.
In another memory, we see Zelda admiring Link’s “commitment to the training necessary to fulfill [his] goal,” and pondering the reality that she may not be capable of bearing the burden destiny has placed upon her. And in a different memory still, we see Zelda partially submerged in water in front of a statue, crying that the “holy powers have proven deaf to [her] devotion” and exclaiming that something must be wrong with her. In one of the final memories, Zelda admits she “may not be much use on the battlefield” before later collapsing in a forest, stating that all the champions are dead because she “couldn’t harness this cursed power” and she’s “a failure.”
Breath of the Wild has no problem demonstrating the Princess of Hyrule’s incapability of doing anything on her own. In spite of her struggles and failures, some characters continue to believe in her, even when she may not believe in herself. Daruk, the Goron champion and pilot of the divine beast Vah Rudania, says “The princess is a strong personality” and Urbosa, the Gerudo champion and pilot of the divine beast Vah Naboris, professes that “she really is quite… special.” The problem isn’t that Zelda sometimes loses faith in herself. The problem is that Nintendo seems to have no faith in her, refusing to break from the mold and trust her with a greater, more active role. Sure, Zelda ultimately finds strength enough to keep Ganon at bay, but conveniently, this is a role that locks her away in the castle, damseled in spite of her strength, serving the same narrative function she has served so many times since the first game was released back in 1986.
Some players defend narrative decisions by using in-game logic, as if the logic governing the story wasn’t created by Nintendo specifically to support the story they’re telling, as if Nintendo couldn’t alter that logic to tell a different story. The fact is that Nintendo deliberately constructed Zelda to be damseled, to need Link’s protection, and his rescue. Even after she disrupts a field of Guardians with the power of the Triforce, all Zelda can do — or rather, what Nintendo chooses to have Zelda do — is sit on her hands and knees, waiting for Link to come and save her.
Interestingly, many of Hyrule’s denizens who know of Zelda’s plight sing the same tune: thank goodness Link is awake; Zelda’s been holding off Ganon for 100 years; Link must save her, and fast. It’s understood that Zelda’s power will soon be exhausted and Hyrule will then give in to Calamity Ganon, but there’s no urgency to the game, no sense of a race to prevent the end of the world like there was in Majora’s Mask. While Link is sauntering around Hyrule, relishing the joy of cooking delicious food and pretending to be an Aperture Science test subject in the world’s many puzzle shrines, Zelda is just waiting. And waiting. The game actually doesn’t want us to think too much about her experience or her plight. She is out of sight and largely out of mind so we can just enjoy the many pleasures that Hyrule has to offer.
It’s not until Calamity Ganon reveals himself that you finally feel a sense of dread for the plight of Zelda and Hyrule, but even that tension is squeezed dry when Zelda’s incorporeal voice interjects with her weakness: “Link… I’m sorry… but my power isn’t strong enough… I can’t hold him…” Like everything else about her, her inability to hold him is the result of a creative decision. It’s not that she actually isn’t strong enough, but that she was designed to not be strong enough. Even after every denizen in the world states that Zelda is strong and has held off Ganon for 100 years without Link, the underlying issue remains that she needs to be rescued. Once again, without Link’s presence, the fate of Hyrule would be darkness and defeat, and Zelda, it seems, can never stop it, regardless of how strong she becomes. This isn’t her fault, but the fault of Nintendo for designing her this way, for creating her to be damseled and never yet truly daring to move away from that. If only the creative energy that infused Breath of the Wild’s gameplay and made it such a thrilling break from series tradition had been allowed to infuse the story as well.
At the end of the game, after Calamity Ganon’s malice is purified by Zelda’s sudden, radiant appearance, she asks Link, “Do you really remember me?” Link may not remember Zelda’s power, but I do, and I wonder when Nintendo will remember her power, too. For if they gave her a chance, she would be able to survive an adventure on her own, being the savior of her own kingdom without the need of a savior herself.