Video games are kind of known for having pretty bland or shallow main characters. From the perspective of the video game developer it makes sense: you want to allow your audience to easily ‘slide into’ the character they control with as little resistance as possible. It makes for pretty bland story meant to foreground the often-simplistic plot and as long as the gameplay is good, the puzzles are intriguing, and the aesthetic is polished and beautiful me and many others are pretty content. It’s a successful model.

For example, in The Legend of Zelda series, the main player-character Link has, in his thirty-five years of appearances in the franchise, had no spoken dialogue whatsoever. So, suffice it to say, you don’t expect to get a lot of emotionality out of this character. This is part of the reason that I chose to finally play Breath of the Wild, the latest installment of the Zelda franchise, during the time after my father-in-law’s passing this year. It’s a safe game—escapist in a way—especially in that the player character Link has no heavy backstory.

I saw a similar setup beginning in this game but noticed it was different in a few significant ways. Link, instead of being a teenager who has lived his life in some small village, is instead a young man awakening out of some kind of hibernation vessel in an old ruin. He has no memories whatsoever. Like us, he has no knowledge of any kind of back story, no idea where he is, and must re-learn the basics from fighting to cooking. It makes sense, we as the audience don’t know how to fight in this game. We don’t know the mechanics of cooking. We don’t even know the physics, tools, or geography of this place that Link is supposedly from. So, it’s helpful to learn alongside the character and see his joy in cooking a simple dish for the first time or figuring out a puzzle that in hindsight was incredibly easy.

But, as I wandered through the game a bit blithely and ignorantly, enjoying the light music, the beautiful vistas, and the engaging puzzle-dungeons—I reveled in knowing as much as Link, which is nothing. Everything was a sublime and beautiful discovery! As I moved along the main plotline, I encountered one of the important, secondary missions: find Link’s missing memories—locations only given by a certain picture of a vague landmark.

It’s a challenge to figure out where things are in relation to a distant mountain peak and a lone tree—rather like being told that a needle is on the left side of the haystack—but it’s quite fun to wander within this nearly empty landscape of old ruins, small enclaves of civilization, and monster camps dotting the plains and forests. But, as I recovered these memories, the feeling of freedom in this game begins to take on a more emotive depth and motivation. I began to learn about Link and Zelda’s deep friendship and his relationships with the other Champions … All of whom are… by the events of this story you discover… dead (Well, Zelda isn’t technically dead but in a magical battle keeping the monstrous Ganon locked in the castle itself).

Instead of being this free hero wandering the land, you’re now burdened with memories of a lost community and traumas that you… or Link… didn’t realize you were carrying or having to carry. The shadow of Ganon, the ultimate villain of the game that continually haunts the horizon, is not so much a boring baddie but the source of your grief. You see, to me, Breath of the Wild is a story about grief, told through the most ostensibly shallow of player characters.

The proximity of my own grief, I think, colored my vision. But, Nintendo plays with the expectations of this blank player-character to force the audience to connect with Link on a more personal level and consider the possibilities for this series to exist on a deeper emotive level than had ever happened previously. In a sense, Link’s amnesia is a kind of denial of loss itself that, to win the game, you must confront. Link, like myself, might be considering: Why do I need to think about this, why do I need to recall these memories? It doesn’t help to think. And, for the game and for my own life: that’s true, to a certain extent.

You can technically beat the game without recalling any memories, but it’s certainly much easier to do once you engage with them. More allies become available to help you in your quests. You get more heart containers, helpful items, and fighting techniques; you meet more cool characters and explore more of the absolutely gorgeous map. You don’t need to remember… but in a way, the game tells you that you need to remember. I too can go through my life without remembering my father-in-law—repressing the thoughts of loss that emerge in moments of abstract and difficult to trace anger or sadness. I don’t need to remember… but I do need to remember.

As the game concludes and Link avenges his friends by finally defeating the main villain Ganon, their spirits appear before him one last time before disappearing into the sky. They don’t return or reincarnate, they leave. I think in this scenario, Link can move on with some degree of peace not because he’s avenged them or forgotten them but because he remembers. What does it mean for me to remember? I’m not sure yet. I won’t get a moment where some disembodied spirit will give me a nod before disappearing. I do need to remember.

– Cameron Lee Winter (Ph.D. Candidate)