Many players have celebrated The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the space it made to find queer expression in Hyrule. Its story provided just enough possibility space for players to explore in ways that did not conform to its developers’ intent. But stepping into Hyrule Field again in Tears of the Kingdom, I felt much more constrained.
Players have been looking for gender in this generation’s iteration of Link since before Breath of the Wild released. Donning his tunic’s now iconic champion blue, Link’s androgyny in the game’s very first teaser trailer back in 2014 stirred mainstream audiences to scrutinize the player character’s presumed gender. And as early as that had come into question, so too did the character’s entire identity. The idea of a female Hero of Time simmered. And if the character shown wasn’t Link, then maybe it was a playable Zelda.
Nintendo would eventually address the speculation: Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma said that nothing so revolutionary as a woman was in the works, explaining that changing Link’s gender would “mess with the balance of the Triforce,” while focusing instead on Zelda as a playable female character would leave Link with nothing to do. “If we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights,” Aonuma asked, “then what is Link going to do?”
These assumptions and their casual misogyny reveal that particular kinds of gender are a priori to the very land and cosmos of Hyrule — that the Triforce both represents and enshrines the subordination of women to men in the kingdom’s religion, and that courage and power must only be an essential trait of men. Many fans have been disappointed in Zelda’s continued sidelining, while the developer has been content to give Zelda little to do in her eponymous games. While his developers imagine Link as a blank slate for players of all identities, Sarah Stang contends that Link’s gender expression has never been incorporated into that vision. “Though featuring an androgynous protagonist can be viewed as progressive in a Western context,” she argues, “Link’s design fits in with Japanese cultural preferences and was therefore not an overly risky choice for Nintendo.”
Breath of the Wild’s gender trouble continued closer to release, as a series of leaked screenshots revealed Link’s encounter with the character Vilia outside of Gerudo Town, the all-female city in Hyrule’s desert. The screenshots suggested a transphobic punchline about crossdressing, and the game would deliver on the joke (the quest being a necessary step to completing the game’s true ending). But when the game was released weeks later, players went on to find queer expression and even joy in the wilds of Hyrule. A crossdressing Link was genuinely embraced among artists, cosplayers, and authors of fan fiction, and queer expressions were captured in poetry, art and prose.
All of which is why I find Tears of The Kingdom so damning — it denies such space for imagination. Its narrative is ultimately not just a perpetuation of Hyrule’s status quo, but it introduces new constraints that deny queer subtext and even expression where once there was room before. And we can tease out these changes by going back to the fulcrum of gender discourse in Breath of the Wild: Gerudo Town.
Gerudo Town is a gendered and raced space unlike the other settlements on the periphery of Hyrule. Alongside the bird people, fish people, and rock people, the Gerudo are a vaguely Arabic or North African-coded, all female, matriarchal society. Their culture is a site of friction and humor in both games. The Gerudo are at once obsessed with and scornful of men, found on pilgrimages to find their one true love, a monogamous myth perpetuated by their own teachings, or else behind the walls of their single-gender desert city.
Women of all races (and the apparently genderless Gorons) are welcome in Gerudo Town, while men are prevented from entering by armed guard. In Breath of the Wild, many still try their luck, with several characters’ whole personalities being a one-note joke about how it’s funny to watch men chase after women when they wish to be left alone. But the Gerudo do not themselves police gender. Vilia, who can be read as a trans woman, is said to be welcomed in the city, and Link is welcomed in when he dons their attire. He seems comfortable, if bashful, when he first puts on the clothes. Moreover, when Link reveals himself at the city’s health-replenishing spa, the innkeeper Romah implores him to relax. “We’re all vai here,” she assures, using the fictional language’s word for “woman.” Many more compliment Link’s appearance in strictly feminine terms. As both the Gerudo chieftain Riju and armor shopkeep Greta address Link as if he’s in disguise, we can infer that many perhaps see Link as a non-conforming person moving through the city.
The presence of a black-market armor shop further denies any gender essentialist notions like the ones that suggest Vilia is a man dressed as a woman. In Breath of the Wild, the shop’s covert dealings of Gerudo armor for men suggests that there must be men in the all-female race, leaving one to assume trans men may be born of the Gerudo and, while not sanctioned in the city, are integrated into their material culture. But Tears of the Kingdom does away with almost all of the queer subtext brimming just beneath Breath of the Wild’s surface.
Vilia is one of a handful of named characters missing from Tears of the Kingdom, and there is no mention of her memory. The armor she gifted Link, which was once previously for sale in Gerudo Town’s market, is also conspicuously absent, just one of a few pieces of clothing to not return to the game. Instead, the game’s main quest takes players into a derelict Gerudo Town. Link must again infiltrate their sanctum (now an underground bunker), but this time he is welcomed as a man amongst the sheltering women. Moving through the now underground settlement, Link is greeted with suspicion and novelty to the sheltered children who have not seen men before, and he’s treated as a presumed threat for his proximity. Gerudo Town previously rejected essentialist logics like the idea men are inherently dangerous to women — which undergirds real-world transphobia — but here it simply invokes such beliefs in much less humorous tones than it did even in Vilia’s quest.
And outside of town, a Hylian man mentions to Link that he’s looking for a black market armor shop that sells voe (Gerudo for “man”) armor. The change transforms queer materials into something more like cultural tchotchkes, further denying the queer subtext of trans masculinity and furthering the sense of Orientalism pervading the Gerudo.
Tears of the Kingdom does introduce new armor sets that can play with expression, but none are explicitly feminine. Most are Zonai in origin, a fictional ancient culture that borrows heavily from pan-Mesoamerican and Egyptian imagery. As such, it’s hard to read their skirts and body paint as feminine when these were features of masculine presentation to their cultures. I guess there is the one-off Cece’s Hat, designed by a Hylian in Hateno, but it lacks a matching set of top and bottoms. So, there’s nothing really replacing the gender nonconformity that the vai armor introduced in Breath of the Wild. But this would perhaps be less notable if Link’s gender presentation wasn’t so ridiculed across Hyrule.
What pervades the land in place of calamity is not the evil of Ganon, but of gender deviance. In Tears of the Kingdom, characters often make jokes emasculating Link. At one stable, a Lurelin refugee laughs at the notion that “a skinny little guy” might attempt to rescue his village, while a Gerudo pilgrim jokes with Link that he couldn’t possibly be her destined lover. More than one Gerudo remarks on his short stature, while others reject the notion he may be the famed hero of time because he’s so short. The Great Fairy Mija, however fond of him, describes Link as “a slim little lad” in what is framed as a backhanded compliment. These comments envelop Hyrule with gendered expectations, much like gendered beauty standards and social norms do in our own world.
It turns out queer joy was only accepted in the empty, unstructured wilds of a Hyrule beholden to calamity. But in a world that has been filled by side quests and the new settlements of a monarchy reborn, there is no need for a hero who wears a skirt like a girl. Tears of the Kingdom presents a Hyrule where the Triforce rests not in the trinity of the spiritual aspects of Power, Courage, and Wisdom, but instead in the gender binary.