When The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild leaked two weeks before its official launch, most fans and writers stayed far away, eager to preserve their own surprise for as long as they could. This cold streak was broken by a series of screenshots with Impa’s daughter: face buried in her hands, doing her best to talk with an attractive Link without embarrassing herself. Egged on by journal entries dripping with innuendo, folks floated the idea that Nintendo is now “thirsty,” a term used to describe wholehearted expressions of sexual desire. It seemed like a stretch for a company dedicated to its family-friendly image, but stranger things have happened in 2017.
If pun-laden diaries and a girl’s awkward crush were enough to prompt theories about Nintendo’s sudden onset of thirstiness, the gif that emerged several days later cinched the deal. Spurred on by an unseen companion, Link bashfully dons a headdress, revealing the top and rounded shorts worn by the all-female Gerudo. I watched the gif several times, consulting my friends “are you sure that’s Link?” before erupting with joy. Link once tried on Zelda’s dress for Tri-Force Heroes, but this was different. That Nintendo made the outfit part of of the main quest felt like validation from a source I never expected. Trans women, denied any significant representation in blockbuster games, repurpose existing heroes for ourselves: even if Link was simply crossdressing for one short scene, his shy acceptance recalls the moment when I first strode out into the world empowered by an outfit that once felt forbidden. Inspired by this brief scene in Breath of the Wild, I was determined to find the outfit and dominate Hyrule as the first feminized Hero of Time.
The first 15 hours in Breath of the Wild exceeded nearly every expectation. The same open world scale that felt impenetrable in The Witcher 3 presented itself here with a calm, unassuming grin: Calamity Ganon may be an imminent threat, but sprinting to the finish line will only result in a Link-shaped pile of ash. For once, the nagging voice compelling me to finish as quickly as possible faded into the background. As I strode off the beaten path and wandered from shrine to shrine, my strength grew, and the first real boss I encountered fell within minutes. My trepidation for the game was soon replaced with admiration, and I sprinted toward the sand, eager to have Link wear something that spoke to me more than any suit of armor.
The euphoria, however, was short lived. The first warning sign was a merchant hiding near Gerudo Town’s gates, determined to find “the man” who managed to sneak in undetected. Sure enough, “the man” was a svelte Gerudo woman perched on the roof of a nearby hotel who spoke with an exaggerated, husky tone. Link confirms Vilia’s identity by scrutinizing her body, and is then prompted to either exclaim she’s a man or compliment her beauty. The latter convinces Vilia to sell you a convincing outfit before the wind hits her veil, revealing her beard to a shocked Link.
It left me sick to my stomach. Unlike the opportunistic businessman at the town gates who wants in at any cost, this Gerudo didn’t seem to have any ulterior motive. Like other trans women, Vilia was comfortable with her chosen presentation, even shutting Link down if he decided to rudely misgender her. Yet the rest of the world saw her as “the man,” the conniving genius that put together her disguise to enter a women-only village as an impostor. It didn’t matter if she disagreed. The people of Hyrule had decided her identity for her.
As Link strolled into Gerudo Town without a second glance, the outfit I had previously coveted now felt wrong to wear. The clothes Vilia used to blend in with other Gerudo women were now being worn by a brat looking to circumvent his way into an exclusive society. By making our hero grimace at the sight of a trans woman’s face in a consequence-free scenario, Nintendo makes it clear that they find my identity both illegitimate and humorous.
Looking back on it now, I should have expected this from Nintendo. This is the same company that created Birdo, a caricatured, trans Yoshi still considered male in Japan. This was the studio who introduced Tingle, a flamboyant oddball in a green onesie described as a man who thinks he’s a fairy (really subtle, guys). As late as 2015, they even wrote a sidequest for Fire Emblem Fates where you could “cure” a lesbian girl in your party, echoing the same conversion therapy nonsense responsible for countless queer deaths. While people rightfully chastise Nintendo for taking few chances with their venerated franchises, their outdated characterizations of queerness need more attention.
I don’t fault critics for falling in love with Breath of the Wild. The game’s willingness to throw out series staples and chart a new course is commendable. But I can’t help feeling bitter when I read the glowing acclaim, or eyeball its perfect review scores. Surely these same critics saw Link’s horror at Vilia’s face? When they praised the developers for showing progress, or Tweet about “thirsty Nintendo,” did the game’s blatantly transphobic joke not count as a step backward? The game’s disdainful stance toward my existence stings even worse when no one else acknowledges it as a problem. Should I let this slide as a small misstep and move on, or address a hurtful joke others ignored and risk looking oversensitive?
When it’s my identity on the line, maybe oversensitive is the only way to be.
Jennifer Unkle is a co—editor of Scanline Media, and has freelanced for Waypoint. You can find her on Twitter at @jbu3.