Children of the Earth: The Limits of Link and the Promise of Aloy

Link and Aloy, the heroes of 2017’s two biggest and best open-world action-adventure games thus far, are both born of the world to save the world. In Breath of the Wild, Link emerges into the vastness of Hyrule from a mysterious structure, awakening from a century-long slumber during which he slowly recovered from wounds sustained in a conflict he no longer remembers. A significant part of his quest to save Hyrule involves remembering who he is, who he cares about, and what he’s fighting for. Aloy, the hero of Horizon Zero Dawn, emerges as an infant from a mysterious mountain compound. Like Link, she, too, knows not who she truly is or where she comes from, and on her journey, she investigates the purpose for which she was placed into the world.

If you were to ask me which of these games is better, I would emphatically insist that the new Zelda towers above its rival. Despite vanquishing the evil of Ganon some time ago, I continue to be drawn back to Hyrule, the most captivating realm a game has laid out for me in ages. In fact, freed now from my initial impulse to see the main quest through to its conclusion, my love for the game has only deepened. It’s extraordinary, the way this game treats your time in its world as inherently meaningful, largely doing away with the objective markers and skill upgrade systems that make so many adventure games feel much less adventurous, more controlled and transactional.

I spend hours roaming Hyrule, roaming the outer edges of its deserts and climbing its cloud-shrouded mountain peaks. So solid and substantial is this realm that I feel the earth under Link’s feet, and a connection to his pilgrimage to remember what he’s living for. Breath of the Wild’s gameplay seems to say that even if we’re alone, our lives, our actions can have meaning, as long as there is love in us, as long as we’re looking for, or fighting for, something larger than ourselves. In Breath I feel as if it is Hyrule that comes first, not Link, not the player. I make offerings to the world, leaving apples for the statues of spirits whose significance I’ve never known, and when dragons soar through the air above me in all their majestic grace, I regard with respect and awe how they have no regard for me whatsoever.

There was rarely such wonder in Horizon Zero Dawn’s world. Like so many game worlds, it bends over backwards to accommodate, guide and reward you. Where Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is filled with surprising potential interactions of enemies and elements for you to discover, Horizon Zero Dawn denies you that pleasure. Its interactions are straightforward, predictable and explicitly laid out for you: shoot this part of that robotic dinosaur with this particular kind of arrow to do extra damage.

The beauty of its world cannot be denied, and when I saw a tallneck majestically marching atop a rocky ridge in the distance, I felt for a moment like one small person in a vast and living land, which is exactly how I want a game like this to make me feel. But Horizon undercuts the potential strength of its world at nearly every opportunity, marking spots all over its map where objectives and collectibles are located, indicating circles within which whatever it is Aloy needs in order to complete her immediate errand can be found. It’s an approach that drives us toward our next goal with laser focus, as if just being in the world, exploring it on our own and seeing what’s over the next ridge can’t be a worthy goal in and of itself.

It’s the difference between games that fully trust their worlds and games that don’t. Breath of the Wild is brilliant in this regard. Yes, a few quests have waypoints you can turn on, but they only help you find who or what you’re looking for in a small handful of cases. You must find for yourself Link’s memories of his past, and the shrines scattered around Hyrule are indicated only by their proximity, not their location, leaving you to hunt them down. It’s an approach that prevents you from simply marking your destination on the map and making a beeline for it. It requires you to contend with the world in all its beauty and frustration, and the game is better for it.

Being present in the world, feeling its mountainsides under your hands and its grassy hills under your feet, fosters an intimacy with Hyrule, and along with it, a sense of why Hyrule is worth fighting for. The relationships, however, get short shrift, even for a Zelda game. Sure, Zelda herself is present — present most noticeably in her conspicuous absence, and in Link’s memories — but the central relationship in the game is the one between you and the land itself, and it’s essential that players feel that connection for the quest to have any real meaning.

It’s Link whose limitations ultimately hold Breath of the Wild back the most.

Breath of the Wild astounds in its ability to put its world first, saying, “Here you are. How you tackle what lies ahead is almost entirely up to you.” It’s a design philosophy whose success is borne out by the fact that speedrunners can race through the game’s main quest in under 40 minutes while players like me can continue to find our time with it meaningful after over 100 hours, long after that main quest is complete. And really, it was essential that Breath of the Wild breathe new life into the franchise, because after the collective structural sameness of A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, the makings of a Zelda game had become calcified, the series’ adventurous heart crusted over by formulaic predictability and gatekeeping structures that offered anything but the sense of thrilling, daunting freedom I’d felt when I first played The Legend of Zelda in 1986.

But for all of Nintendo’s wonderful willingness to shatter the gameplay conventions of Zelda with a sledgehammer and remake the series anew, the company exhibits a steadfast unwillingness to significantly alter the details of the legend itself, an unwillingness that’s as frustrating as the newly liberated, reinvigorated gameplay is exhilarating. There’s always a princess in need of aid. There’s always an unspeakable evil. There’s always a male hero, born to save the land and the princess, too.

Some people respond to criticisms of Breath of the Wild‘s Zelda by pointing out that here, she holds Ganon off for 100 years. OK, but is the game actually concerned with her act of heroism? Does it honor her or celebrate her? No. Her tremendous struggle is minimized by the game, taking place offscreen, out of sight and, for most players, out of mind. She exists not to be recognized, but to recognize. Where so much of the game says that this is really about Hyrule itself, Zelda herself exists to say that this is, in the end, all about you.

The game cannot deign to honor her bravery, her sacrifice, her victory. She’s not worth it. She doesn’t get so much as an apology from the spirit of her father for all his browbeating of her before the war. His rebukes of her hang in the air forever, as if to say that maybe he was right. Maybe, if only she hadn’t been such a fuckup, if only she’d shouldered the burdens of her destiny the way he’d demanded of her, none of this would have happened.

But it’s Link whose limitations ultimately hold Breath of the Wild back the most. Forever a blank slate character, he remains one here, speaking to other characters but his voice unheard. In previous Zelda games, this has mostly worked well, but Breath of the Wild demands more of him, and he fails to give it. The game asks us to believe in the depth of the connection between Link and Zelda, one that has endured for over a hundred years. But then, when they’re finally reunited and standing face to face, she says to him, “May I ask, do you really remember me?”

He looks at her and says nothing. Even now, their battle over, Ganon finally vanquished, he can give her nothing. How daring, how powerful, how meaningful might it have been if at long last, Link became not just a real hero, but a real human being? What if he finally broke his silence and we heard him speak words of his own, giving Zelda the human response she asked for and deserved? What if his humanity was part of what he had discovered on his pilgrimage across Hyrule in search of his memories?

If his voice had rung out clear and true and he’d replied, “Oh Zelda, I’ve missed you,” I might have cried, to see this character I’ve known and inhabited for so long finally demonstrate a capacity for connection. But he doesn’t. It seems that Nintendo has decided that he can’t. He just stands there in creepy, awkward silence, and the moment the entire game has been building up to collapses, utterly deflated by Link’s inability to simply be a person.

Perhaps Link could learn a thing or two from Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy. Where he is silent and inscrutable, she is wonderfully expressive. Voiced by the great Ashly Burch, Aloy, like Link, is a bow-wielding hero shouldered with the burden of saving her world, but unlike Link, she is by turns assertive, proud, uncertain, insecure, grieving, and openhearted. She is warm and compassionate, principled and determined.

For all of that, Aloy is hardly a revolution. She’s another spunky, red-headed, conventionally attractive white female hero. She exists in a manufactured world that has its share of unfortunate creative decisions layered into it, not the least of which being that Aloy’s people, the Nora tribe, exhibit signifiers we associate with Native American culture as a kind of visual shorthand for “primitive.” But there is also so much about Horizon that elevates Aloy. It’s a kind of inverse Breath of the Wild. Where that game is mechanically daring yet narratively regressive, this one is mechanically predictable but narratively intriguing.

I love that Horizon is filled with the faces and voices of women, many of them women of color. As it weaves together its two stories — the story of Aloy’s life in the far future and the story of how our own culture collapses in the mid-21st century — I was struck by the reality that women, as a group, are almost never as prominent and numerous in the narratives of games as they are here. Among the Nora, there are the matriarchs, wise, experienced, and opinionated, debating what is best for the future of their people, as well as Sona, the war-chief, and her daughter Vala. When you venture out into the wider world you encounter women everywhere, as leaders and fighters, as lovers and mourners. My favorite of these characters is the machinist and inventor Petra Forgewoman. Where the queer-coded characters in Breath of the Wild are broad, insulting caricatures, Petra’s warm, low-key flirtatiousness with Aloy feels entirely human and natural.

Some of these women live and some of them die, but because they exist in such numbers, none of them feel singled out for death because of their gender. Each loss has meaning, as it should, but Horizon doesn’t sensationalize or exploit the deaths of any of its female characters simply to fuel its hero’s story arc. It shouldn’t be noteworthy or significant today to have a game world in which women make up a significant percentage of key characters, and in which those women don’t just exist for or in relation to male characters, but in fact, it still is.

Aloy must work with flesh-and-blood people to prevent a catastrophe that immediately threatens her world, but equally important to Zero Dawn’s narrative is her time with the ghosts of humanity’s past. Here, too, in the holographic memory banks of Project Zero Dawn, humanity’s last-ditch effort to preserve itself thousands of years ago, women are essential. Aloy’s genetic forebear, Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, heads up Zero Dawn, and it only makes sense that, in enlisting the greatest minds in the world to assist with the operation, she would have recruited women as well as men. These “alphas” of Project Zero Dawn, including cultural anthropologist Samina Ebadji and robotics expert Margo Shen, are brilliant women who matter not because of their objectified bodies or their availability as romantic partners, but because of their knowledge and their expertise.

Unfortunately, the tale of Project Zero Dawn’s desperate creation and its terrible final moments is clumsily told, sometimes awkwardly burdening you with numerous audio logs, as if the game expects you to stop what you’re doing and just stand around for minutes listening to them. Horizon doesn’t care enough to tell this story well. It’s implemented so poorly at times that it feels as if the game is practically begging you to brush aside most of what you might find in Aloy’s exploration of the past. And it’s a shame, because what Aloy uncovers in these ruined facilities is fascinating. These characters were written with care, and even though they now exist only as ancient holograms and voice recordings, the personalities of Sobeck, Ebadji and Shen shine across the centuries that separate their lives from Aloy’s.

What surprised and impressed me most about Horizon was its humanity, its regard for its characters, women and men, in all their diversity. When you come across a AAA game like this, one that elevates its characters, the living as well as the long-dead, and avoids with aplomb many of the conventional narrative traps that so many games fall into, you realize that you’re not at all wrong to want and to expect more from games, even when those games are mechanically focused on fighting robotic dinosaurs.

It’s Aloy at the center of Horizon, with all her own vibrant, expressive humanity, who lends the game its compassion and its concern. Where Link and, by extension, Breath of the Wild itself silently regard Zelda’s humanity with something bordering on coldness, Aloy is there with people, present in the moment with them. She reacts, sharing a look, a joke, a kind word, a quiet moment. She isn’t the chosen one, the be-all, end-all of video game protagonists who will singlehandedly save gaming forever, because that’s not how representation works. But she definitely helps, and I’m glad she’s here, because if Breath of the Wild fills me with hope and excitement for the worlds that action-adventure games may create in years to come, then Horizon Zero Dawn makes me a little more optimistic about who might populate those worlds, and the heroes who may rise to save them.

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