Link must be the loneliest guy in the world.
Unlike some video game characters who are largely empty shells for you to fill out in your own image, or others, whose backstories are revealed to you piecemeal, the Legend of Zelda hero is a bit unknowable. He doesn’t have a family, often doesn’t have a home or a companion, and because of the paralleling and redoubling and zigzagging way time works across the various games, even his personal history is easy to lose track of. Other characters you encounter often remark on how he doesn’t say much, and the fairies who occasionally come along with him are mostly rattling, redundant pains in the ass. Link is so separate from everyone else in his world (including the game’s titular princess, whom he only ever seems to connect with in passing moments) that it often feels like the only thing you can do is follow-guide him, with some tenderness and some sadness, on his journey.
Despite its strikingly solitary nature, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) was the first game my brother and sister and I played all the way through together. (Single-player games do not stay that way when there are three opinionated children tussling over the N64 controller.) That game begins among the Kokiri, a quasi-annoying tribe of elfin forest people to which a young Link has always assumed he belonged. Of course, he quickly finds out that he doesn’t, and is essentially cast out so he can go save the world. He’s catapulted through time, into the body of his 17-year-old self, a move that was echoed in the Okun family’s all-time favorite game, Majora’s Mask (2000). There, Link wanders into a universe perpetually on the brink of complete destruction, armed with a small musical instrument that propels him backward and forward through time and a series of masks that allow him to assume the shapes of others. And when he does manage to help someone, chances are that because of a shift in time, they’ll never remember meeting him. Homeboy cannot catch a break.
My siblings and I loved Link, talked about him like he was one of us. We loved unearthing increasingly nonsensical masks for him to wear and completing what were, in retrospect, incredibly moving side quests. (In one notable and complicated example, Link helps a young couple named Anju and Kafei reunite after Kafei has been robbed and turned into a child. He’s still a child when they meet again at last, but Anju doesn’t seem to mind? It’s really actually sweet and not creepy, I promise.) We would stay up way too late and wake up way too early in order to complete dungeons, and always chorused “But we need to find a saving spot!” to our mother when she tried to make us stop. (One of the many blessings/curses of Majora was how difficult it was to save when you were in the middle of something.) Link was like this pleasant, puzzling Greek myth of a family friend who gave the three of us something in common even with our seven-year age spread.
I played the most recent Zelda game by myself, on a Nintendo 3DS, mostly underground on the subway. It was the exact opposite of my parents’ cozy sunroom. In A Link Between Worlds (get it?), Link is now unstuck in space as well as time. He’s given the ability to merge with flat surfaces and slip in and out of different worlds through tiny cracks, totally upending the sacred inviolable Zelda wall (with the notable bomb nook exception).
Even the game’s narrative itself has been reoriented: Unlike in previous iterations, where you were required to play through dungeons and pick up crucial items in a predetermined order, here you can play however you want. All items are available for rent from an impish squatter named Ravio (who’s basically overtaken Link’s entire house) and every area is therefore open to you whenever you feel like facing it. This lack of linear forward motion is three parts liberating and two parts unsettling. You can’t help but feel a little like Link, fumbling through time without a sense of direction, at frustrating moments in the game’s action (although the beauty of its totally laid-out structure is that you can always abandon a tough spot and go work on another). I found myself wishing that my brother, with his single-minded teenage boy perseverance, or my sister, with her insane sense of humor and instinct for where to go next, were playing with me.
This game in particular highlights just how similar Link is to so many iconic young adult characters, which is clearly why he was so appealing to us. His lack of a real family or a home gives him freedom of motion (The Boxcar Children, Superman); he’s a seemingly normal kid until he’s summoned to action (Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time); the weight of the world is all of a sudden solely on him, and he’s got to follow that through to its natural conclusion (His Dark Materials). (Plus, he’s nonthreateningly cute; in the words of a friend over Gchat one recent day, “I have a huge crush on Link. And you know that I NEVER like blonde guys.”)
The difference, of course, is that my siblings and I passively witnessed these characters and their lives, whereas with Link it always felt like we were somehow involved. It’s not like we could have suddenly veered off course and made him run away with the sassy milkmaid Romani and say fuck it to all the monsters springing out of the ground, but he was, in his way, ours, and we were therefore responsible for him. So even though Link might not have a house, or a firm foothold in the space-time continuum, or even a last name, he’s always had us.