For over a quarter of a century, The Legend of Zelda masterminds Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma have proclaimed that Link is simply an avatar that represents the player. With the release of Hyrule Historia, Miyamoto has remained firmly behind that sentiment, writing “Link is the player himself . . . the player saves the world.”
The notion that you are Link has been used to explain why the hero never talks and why he is such a largely bland and unresponsive character. Now while that is mostly accurate for the earliest titles in the franchise, as soon as the series became 3D in Ocarina of Time, Link begun showcasing his own emotions and could never truly just be you or me.
While we are given choices as the player they are extremely limited. We can decide in Spirit Tracks whether to be a warrior, an engineer, or remain undecided for three slightly different endings. In other titles such as Ocarina of Time our choices are redundant. Do we want to hear what Kaepora Gaebora said again or not?
We can choose to respond to Nabooru as an enemy or a follower of Ganondorf, but both options lead to the same end. If we tell the Deku Tree that we don’t want to hear his story he tells it anyway. The choices we are given as a player hold no significance as Link is his own character on his own path.
Beyond that factor of choice, Link himself is actually quite the emotional guy. We may attribute blandness to him but in actuality he showcases a personality of his own regardless of whether we feel the same as the player.
In Ocarina of Time Link scoffs at Ruto calling him her fiancée and responds flirtatiously to Twinrova’s wink. In Twilight Princess he responds warmly to Telma and always smiles towards Ilia to show his affection and comfort around her. Most players find Telma to be rather unbearable—as Renado does—and dislike Ilia, but that does not change Link’s feelings.
Twilight Princess begins as a personal quest to save Ilia, just as Majora’s Mask begins as a quest to find Navi. While Navi remains the Zelda fanbase’s most-hated companion, that doesn’t change how attached to her Link was. To him she was a “beloved and invaluable friend,” but to many players she was just an annoyance.
The Wind Waker is similar in that the journey begins as a personal quest to save Link’s sister Aryll and the game is built around these feelings conveyed through Link’s facial expressions. Generally speaking the player wouldn’t necessarily have run right off a cliff after Aryll, but Link’s emotions cause him to do that. You don’t do that.
Similar emotions drive the story in more recent titles. It is Link’s attachment to Zelda in Skyward Sword that drives him to the land below the clouds. It is the emotional friendship and romance between them that has been developing for years before us players arrive on the scene. Just like Link’s friendship with Saria in Ocarina of Time, when we’re not controlling him, Link still manages to live his life.
Spirit Tracks is full of emotional displays, smiles and blushes from Link in his interactions with his companion Zelda. Skyward Sword’s ending sequence is also a highly emotional scene as Fi departs and Link doesn’t just stand there completely expressionless.
What begun as the occasional facial expression in Ocarina of Time became so much more by The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. Nowadays Link isn’t really known for being completely blank but rather has come to be known for his trademark-contented smile and grunt. That same one he gives Ilia in Twilight Princess and Zelda in Skyward Sword.
With all of the glances and all of the emotions Link has become too complex to simply be you or me. To drive the stories of more recent installments he has his own personality. At most we simply share in his life for the span of the adventure.
Miyamoto was at one stage considering making Ocarina of Time a first-person perspective title and that would fit if we were Link. That direction was decided against and so it is that we watch Link from a distance in a third-person perspective. The lens flare of the sun rising in Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker reminds us that we are watching on from afar. We are not truly Link.
Some analysts of the series claim that broad generalizations cannot be made about Link's feelings, but that simply is not true. If we are Link then we are the supreme authority of how he is feeling, and yet, he has feelings of his own regardless of whether or not we feel them too.
The whole message of Majora’s Mask—of Link struggling with being an adult trapped inside of a child’s body—is apparent within the game regardless of how we as the players feel while playing the title. It is apparent that Link has his own emotions and as we watch the lives of his incarnations unfold we also observe their personalities.
In The Minish Cap and Ocarina of Time Link is lazy, but in The Wind Waker he is hasty and runs off a cliff. All of this is in spite of you and me as the players. The various Links have emotions and they have personalities.
Link has a lot going on is his life and perhaps we do fill in some blanks as the players but the series these days is far beyond the simple statement that Link is you and you are Link. Link has been showcasing his own personality for well over a decade now and despite how much the developers want to keep clinging to the sentiment that Link is the player, the hero is simply too complex to be you or me anymore.