Link: Theories on the Protagonist and Emergent Narrative

GaroXiconDecember 14th, 2012 by GaroXicon

We’ve previously discussed Robert McKee’s theories of the archplot, miniplot, and antiplot, and how they apply to the Zelda series. Today, we’re going to continue delving into McKee’s theories with a discussion of our perennial protagonist, Link. He’s been the player character in every canon Zelda game to date, and though we’ve seen many incarnations of him throughout the years, he’s still been the same character at his core.

McKee’s theories of the protagonist are, at their base, about desire. He sums up the foundation of a good protagonist with five statements.

1. The protagonist has a conscious desire.

This is fairly simple: Every protagonist is going to want something, is fully aware that they want that something, and shows that they want that something through their actions. This desire can be a physical object or action — for example, the police chief in Jaws desires the destruction of the shark — or it can be an internal, abstract desire, such as the desire for maturity of the main character in Big. The protagonist’s actions are going to quite explicitly exhibit this desire.

2. The protagonist has the capacities to pursue the object of desire convincingly.

This is a bit less obvious, but it makes sense: The protagonist must be characterized in such a way that the audience believes them capable of pursuing their desire. For example, a character with a desire to walk on the moon must be, if not an astronaut already, an engineer or a scientist working in that field. A mild-mannered office worker in a small town in New England could not convincingly pursue the desire to walk on the moon. The character’s personality and traits must work in the service of pursuing the object of desire (the thing they want), otherwise the audience will be less willing to believe the story.

In some cases, the protagonist may not be in possession of skills or abilities that directly contribute to their ability to convincingly pursue their desire. In these cases, a tremendous amount of will or determination will suffice; the audience will respond well to characters with hope. But it’s a fine balance, as a protagonist with no skills that directly contribute to their pursuit of desire runs the risk of being unable to attain their desire at all. Which brings us to…

3. The protagonist must have at least a chance to attain his desire.

An audience has no interest in the story of a character trying to reach a desire they have no chance of reaching. If our astronaut that wants to walk on the moon is working for a company that has no plans to run manned missions, the audience won’t want to hear this story. There must be a chance — however miniscule — that the protagonist can reach the desire. Hope is an incredibly strong emotion, and audiences will quickly latch onto hope. Hopelessness, on the other hand, is alienating, and will detach the audience from the story.

Likewise, while a character with no directly applicable skills may be able to convincingly pursue his desire, if that lack of skill makes him completely unable to attain his desire, then the audience will reject him on the grounds of hopelessness. Will and determination only work if the character has a chance even without directly useful skills.

4. The protagonist has the will and the capacity to pursue his object of desire to the end of the line, to the human limit established by the setting and the genre.

This is a very wordy way of saying that the protagonist will stop at nothing to reach his goal, and will be able to pursue it all the way until he has reached the very limit of human ability. As I said previously, hopelessness is alienating; a protagonist who gives up will send the audience running for the hills. A protagonist who continues to try against impossible odds? Audiences love it. Our astronaut isn’t going to stop trying, no matter how many times a mission fails to make landfall.

5. Conflict arises from the gap that exists between the protagonist’s expectations and the actual result of his actions.

This is the key statement, as it is the “mechanism of conflict”: The protagonist is going to take actions to attain his desire. When the results of his actions are more extreme than his expectations were, the gap between expectation and result creates conflict. Our astronaut and his team are set to fly a mission to the moon, but a technical problem results in them overshooting their landing zone and having to circle back around the moon, carefully monitoring all of their instruments to ensure their survival. They expected to land on the moon, but their action had more extreme consequences than they foresaw, and thus the conflict arose. The gap between the two gives rise to this conflict, which then fuels the rest of the story. There can be — and are, in most cases — multiple gaps of this nature within the course of a story.

These statements of KcKee’s form a very basic picture of the protagonist as a character with a strong force of will who will stop at nothing to achieve the object of his desire, and create conflict through the actions he takes to do so.

This is a model that can be applied to almost every protagonist in any medium, but applying the model to Link is a rather interesting case. Though Link is almost universally considered a good protagonist (and rightfully so), there are two clear problems with applying the model to Link. Let’s examine these problems, and determine why Link is considered a good protagonist despite them.

The Problem of Link’s Desire

We’re going to look at Ocarina of Time as an example, since I’d call its story the typical Zelda story. What is Link’s desire during the game? What exactly does he want to accomplish? Does he want to fulfill his destiny and become the legendary Hero of Time? Does he want to carry out the Deku Tree’s dying wish out of loyalty to the guardian spirit? Does he want to fulfill Zelda’s wish and end Ganondorf’s tyrannical influence? Does he simply want to return to an idyllic life of peace and calm? Does he want to explore Hyrule, regardless of the situation that compels him to do so?

The answer is none of these… and all of these. In fact, Link himself has no desire. It has been said throughout the series’ life that Link is so named because he is intended as a “link” to the player, a way for the player to connect on a deeper level with the game. Because of this intention, in most every case, Link is not branded with a particular identity or character; he is very much a blank slate. Link has no inherent desire, which defies the portrait of the protagonist that we just defined. So why, then, is Link such an effective protagonist?

Quite simply, he is an effective protagonist because he allows you, the player, to inject him with your own personality and your own desires. And because each player will play the game differently and with different desires, Link is an incredibly versatile protagonist, able to play out any number of narratives simply through the way people choose to play the game. He is the perfect protagonist for a storytelling device known as “emergent narrative”: a story that arises out of the way players interact with the game world.

For example, let’s say that we have three players all playing Ocarina of Time. These players have all drawn the Master Sword and acquired the Hookshot from Dampe’s Tomb in the Graveyard, and are turned completely loose into the world. Player A decides to proceed straight to the Forest Temple. Player B decides to instead rescue Epona from Lon Lon Ranch. Player C opts to simply roam the world, exploring Hyrule Field and surveying the changes that Ganondorf’s reign has brought to the region. Now think about the different desires and stories at play here. Player A is motivated by a desire to finish the game, or to end Ganondorf’s reign, and thus his story displays a sense of immediacy and urgency. Player B is motivated more by personal desires, such as the desire to rescue the horse that he befriended as a child, and thus his story is less urgent. Player C wants to go sightseeing, and his story is the least urgent and completely ignores the main story of the game in favor of just exploring the new landscape.

These are all different stories that can emerge from the game, all because Link’s blank slate nature enables players to inject their own desires into him. What enables these different emergent narratives to take shape is the presence of abnegation. Abnegation is a term that refers to the ability of a player to ignore the main story or object of the game and instead focus on smaller, side efforts. Sidequests are an obvious and ubiquitous source of abnegation, but the very presence of an open world that can be explored, with things like hidden holes and concealed treasure chests, offers abnegation as well. Allowing a player to both instill their own desires in the game’s character by not developing the character as an individual, and to ignore the main story set before them, provides numerous opportunities for an emergent narrative to take shape.

If we turn to other games in the series, this same format appears numerous times. In Majora’s Mask, the game turns the player loose very early on, allowing them to either proceed onward to Woodfall, pursuing the desire to fulfill the promise to Tael by summoning the “four who are there”, or to explore Clock Town and interact with its many citizens, pursuing the desire to better understand Termina. In The Wind Waker, players are free to explore the sea during much of the game, fulfilling the desire to explore, or they can proceed with the main story, work toward stopping Ganon’s plans, and fulfill the desire to rescue Aryll and, later, Tetra. The Zelda series provides so many avenues for the player to pursue their desires, and in so doing gives rise to a near endless number of emergent narratives. Replaying the games can often feel like an entirely different experience if you allow yourself to consider different avenues at different times, creating new narratives in the process.

The Problem of Link’s Expectations

The gap, or the mechanism of conflict, is created by the difference between the protagonist’s expectations of his action and the actual result of the action. As we have established, Link is, for the most part, a blank slate; he may show emotions from time to time, but he has no clearly expressed desires and no clearly conveyed expectations. So from what expectations does the gap form?

As with the problem of desire, the answer is quite simple: Your expectations. Rather than create conflict through Link’s expectations as he pursues his desire, the series creates conflict through your own expectations as you perform actions to pursue your desire. You directly control Link; your actions and your expectations of them are what create the conflict.

Let’s go back to Ocarina of Time. The largest gap occurs when Link draws the Master Sword from the Pedestal of Time, allowing Ganondorf access to the Sacred Realm. As we’ve said, Link as a character had no expressed expectations. But you, the player, did. You thought that drawing that sword was going to prevent Ganondorf from reaching the Triforce, but it had the exact opposite effect. The gap is created because your expectations of the result of your action did not align with the real results.

It’s a rather elegant solution, because it involves the player in the game’s plot more than it would if it used Link’s expectations. Because you expected a certain outcome, rather than being told that Link expected it, your actions are given more weight than they would have if you performed those actions because Link thought they were the right thing to do. Instead you thought they were right, and that difference is critical to involving the player in the story. In this situation you are an actor in the story rather than a detached observer who is operating the character like a puppet, and that elicits far stronger emotional reactions.

There’s a question here that needs to be asked, however. You had these expectations when pulling the sword from the pedestal, but why did you have these expectations? What led you to expect that pulling the sword from the pedestal would stop Ganondorf from obtaining the Triforce? The answer is that Nintendo told you, subtly. In addition to having characters throughout the game (Zelda, the Deku Tree) imply that getting the Spiritual Stones was of the utmost importance, there’s a moment right before you draw the sword that preys upon previous understanding of the Master Sword. The sudden musical silence and Navi’s reaction to the sword place a great deal of importance on the blade, and for those who had played A Link to the Past, the sword’s status as the Blade of Evil’s Bane only further amplified those expectations. Everything in the game had been set up to instill these expectations in you, the player, so that Link, the character, would have these expectations. It’s an intricate bit of sleight of hand, but it’s powerful. Rather than having Link directly express his expectations, Nintendo opted to have other characters (and even knowledge of past games) create these expectations within the player, only to contrast them with reality and pull the player into the story while also creating the gap critical to the conflict of the rest of the game.

Conclusions and a Challenge

Link is an interesting protagonist precisely because he does not fit the model. He is effective because he forces the player to take on the role of protagonist, with the desires and expectations that give rise to conflict coming directly from you rather than being conveyed to you. It’s an involving act that makes what are, at their core, very simplistic stories that don’t even approach deep character study feel like some of the most exciting stories in the medium. Is the story of Ocarina of Time as complex or multi-layered as, say, any of the Metal Gear Solid titles? Not at all, but because you’re forced to become the protagonist of your own story, if feels just as engaging.

In closing, I’d like to present you, constant reader, with a challenge. The next time you replay a Zelda game, consider throughout your playing: What is your desire? What do you want out of the game at any given moment, and are you actively pursuing that desire? How are your expectations being manipulated in preparation for the mechanism of conflict? Think on these things as you play. If you aren’t actively pursuing your desire at a given point, and the game has freed you to do so, then go pursue your desire! I guarantee you that you will find a new emergent narrative in your playing, and the experience will feel refreshingly novel. Because when you’re the protagonist of your own story, it’s best to let yourself pursue your own desires.

Try it sometime, and you’ll be sure to gain a new appreciation for the series’ storytelling.

Author: GaroXiconGaroXicon is an aspiring film student who moonlights as a freelance journalist specializing in video gaming news and editorials. Enigmatic at best, he can often be spotted lurking the Article Center, Fan Works and Theory sections of Zelda Dungeon with the occasional post offering what he hopes is sage advice.

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  • Goozman

    Definitelymade me think. I really never tried seeing it from the “what does Link want” prospective. The reason the series is so successful is because of the involvement between the game world and ourselves as the player. These games don’t make me feel like Link is saving Hyrule. They make me feel like I am which makes them very personal games with unique experiences. Great article and great flow.

    • missiongirl87

      I agree. I guess I never thought of how much I made up Link’s thoughts and emotions–and that in turn was the reason why I love this series so much.

  • toonlinkuser

    People are looking WAY to much into these things. Link is just a generic hero that’s supposed to be a “link” to the player. He fits the protagonist character model PERFECTLY. He is a silent protagonist who fights evil to save the kingdom/ princess. The same thing could be said about 90% of video game characters.

    • Midnafan

      yeah, but if that was all there really was to it, it would have gotten old by now. Zelda sorta needs to be delved into like this, so we can see exactly what it is that makes it so great. if i presented your comment as a description of the series to a new player, i don’t think they’d ever want to play. :/

      • The Hylian Monolith

        Agreed, Midnafan. There’s always more to it, and if there isn’t, as Zelda fans we ave a duty to make there be more to it. JK, but I also think that if it was that simple, it would be boring. We do need to find depth in everything, Zelda or not, and–

        • Midnafan

          glad you agree, though you appear to have some issues at the end there :/ about to break into an essay? :P

          • The Hylian Monolith

            When am I not? I’m the self-declared(and otherwise confirmed) Reigning High Supreme Chief Uber of Going On and On. Not joking, I use it a lot these days.

      • toonlinkuser

        The Zelda Series is great because of the gameplay and the interesting world, not the story. If I described the Zelda series to a newcomer as an action adventure game with great dungeons and puzzles, then they may want to play it. If you described the Mario series as a fat Italian guy who murderers turtles and mushrooms, then I doubt I would want to play it either.

        If you think the Zelda series is successful because of its story, then you probably don’t understand the Zelda series at all.

        • Midnafan

          the story is anywhere between half to the ENTIRE reason why i play the game. if the game doesn’t have a good story, i don’t like it,and that counts for everything i play. besides, as great as Zelda’s gameplay is, once again, if it didn’t have good stories, it would have gotten REALLY old by now :(

          • toonlinkuser

            What exactly do you mean by story? Do you mean plot or are you referring to the game world? I think Zelda games have great worlds and interesting people, but the plot itself is usually simple and predictable (not that it needs to be incredible). And did you like the first few Zelda games? They had pretty nonexistent stories, but great gameplay.

  • Elliott Chiasson

    I’m player C :3

    • Someone

      Me too, I don’t care what Ganon does with all the extra time, exploring goes first ^^

    • Midnafan

      for me it depends. for pretty much everything but OoT, i was player A. but in OoT, i just followed a guide to make sure i got everything, so i think i’m player D. :/

  • zombie_eat_flesh

    Wow… I need to rethink about characters you play as and what they could want…

    • Midnafan

      yeah, how do think poor Link feels every time you jump into lava just to see his (usually ridiculous) reaction it it? Don’t you think Kirby gets sick after swallowing so much crap? Do Pokemon really want to fight each other all the time? ;D

      • The Hylian Monolith

        Now I feel crazily guilty. In the Goron Mines(TP), I spent half of my time in the dungeon just trying to cross those initial platforms. I used up maybe 14 bottles of milk, and died about 12 times. When I finally made it into the next room, I swore I’d never see him fall into lava again…

        It happened again maybe 30 times throughout the dungeon, not counting when I messed up Oocoo and got stuck at the entrance. I gave up for about a month.

        I had the boss key. I’d opened all the chests but that one that needs the Clawshot. I had everything, and Fyrus was jsut waiting. And. I. Got. Stuck.

        Link’s life in TP sucks when I’m at the controls.

        But hey, I only ever played Epic Yarn and Mass Attack! I ever made Kirby swallow crap except in Smash Bros. Even then I didn’t do it much.

        • Midnafan

          i was kind of referring to the cel-shaded games, especially in SS, cause there its freakin hilarious. in TP its really morbid. i think i’d either be numbed to violence or kind of sick after falling in that many times in TP o.O

          • The Hylian Monolith

            I was, and am. Both. Ughh… It was really… I’M EATING!

            It WAS really funny in SS(heck, I ROFLed all the way back to Skyloft first time I did it), then it happened–you guessed it– just as much as in TP. In the DS games I never fell as much, and I’ve yet to play WW, FS, FSA, or MC.

  • mookysam

    Interesting article that got me thinking.

    It seems to be the same for almost all protagonists in games where the lead doesn’t have a clearly defined personality (the “silent protagonist”?) They are almost extensions of the player and perhaps work as reflections of the players own thoughts and motivations. It certainly can be a useful way of increasing immersion. I guess it’s also why characters like Master Chief and Gordon Freeman are so popular and of course Link.

    With protagonists like these, one could argue that supporting characters are important. In Halo we have Cortana and in Half Life 2 we have Alyx. The way they react to the player character gives them a substance and allows the player’s imagination to do the rest. I reckon the Zelda’s of the past decade have done a good job of using supporting characters to build Link as a more human character and provide him with more personal motivations. Wind Waker’s Aryll. Twilight Princess’ Ordon kids. Skyward Sword’s Zelda.

    • Midnafan

      I like how you pointed out the supporting characters. They really are important, like you said. Without them, Link wouldn’t be a character, he’d be a completely empty figure that we as the player just fill. supporting characters are great at making Link the perfect blend of intriguing character and customizable avatar. :)

  • george fulop

    i hate you so *BEEP* you!

    • Midnafan

      exactly who is that directed towards? :/

  • Midnafan

    THIS is why I love the Zelda series. That so much can be found in a video game, that a video game, which so many people claim rot your brain, can be so immersing, and be so text-book-definition novel. I love it when I can read about something in literature class and make a direct comparison to Zelda (such as the definition of a legend ;D) I find it so funny that whenever my parents or teachers complain that I don’t read enough books, I can say “Zelda is BETTER than books! Instead of reading about a protagonist and having to deal with their own development and decisions (Huck Finn anyone?) I can BE the protagonist, make my own decisions, and then maybe look into them to see how I got there.” I’m sure we’ve all had a time where there is more than one result or ending, and we wonder what our other possible actions would’ve done. There’s your character analysis right there.

    What’s been great about Zelda, is that you and Link are not completely without motive. You always have the basic underlying goal, and usually some pointers along the way to keep you on track to eventually meeting that goal.

    As for my desires, the only time I’ve really gotten a chance to observe them was in SS. In that case, it was to find out what the heck was going on. The way the story presents itself in the first 2/3s of the game, you really have no clue exactly WHY you’re even doing all of it. it’s a tricky motive, but the pure desire to simply understand what the heck was even happening was enough for me. :)

  • Kido Repre

    The problem with link is he never speaks.

    • lulles

      But if he spoke, wouldn’t that take away from the feeling that we’re the heroes? I too would love to see Link speak in future games, but this article made me think.

    • link4799

      Ah, you, my friend, have never beaten Phantom Hourglass, have you?

  • Kido Repre

    And besides his ancestors are incarnated all the time wenever th antagonists show up.
    So in short, it’s a cycle he has to do it and the player wants to do it that’s the difference

  • Midna’s Sister

    Great article!

  • The Hylian Monolith

    Tell me, GaroXicon, do you do theatre at all? I just got out of the second preformance of a show I’m in, and before the show Shane(who is the best actor ever, I really do mean ever)gave us a speech about what our character desires throughout the play. It gave me useful insight on my peviously misunderstood and incomplete character, and it sounded quite a bit like the last paragrah of this article. Maybe I’m addicted to Zelda because of this–because Link isn’t already a full person, I have to paint the face I want him to have(metaphorically, of course). It’s like acting, reading a book about myself, and solving a gazillion puzzles in a video game. A perfect combination for me. I understand now part of the reason I’m so attached to this series–it’s because it was really built for the people to not just play the game, but live it.

    Geez, I take thngs way too far. Great article, as I implied above. I’m just going to bookmark this ave and jot down this comment on my 12-Page “Remember me!” document…

    • GaroXicon

      Actually, I’m a film student! A lot of the acting advice is transferable though, and Robert McKee – though a film theorist primarily – maintains that his theories as discussed here are applicable to all stories in any media.

      • The Hylian Monolith

        Everything is applicable to everything, you just have to find the connections. :)
        It’s cool that you’re a film student, I just do shows for the fun of it, and to make good plays. But I learn a lot, like clearly you do as a film student(I mean, you had to get the above intelligence from [I]somewhere[/I], right?). I also meant to imply a coincidence–I hear this speech from Shane, then come on to ZD and you have this article up.

  • Jimbo

    I think this is what Nintendo does with most of their characters for example Link and Samus never had their own desires, while things might have changed a bit in recent games, it was all up to the player’s personal view of the protaganist.

  • Kablamogroup

    Very good article. I really like how you are taking the Zelda series, and analyzing them with theories and storytelling models. It makes me think that maybe English (or Language Arts, as they call it these days) class would have been a lot more interesting if video games (Zelda, in particular) were analyzed with whatever literary subject was being discussed. But that’s old news for me, now.
    PS: Interesting how you referred to us as “constant reader”, because Stephen King refers to his audince as such in just about every introduction he writes in his books.

    • GaroXicon

      Oh man, I just read this comment this evening and am very glad to see not only that somebody picked up the King reference (I’ve always been amused and appreciative of the address “constant reader”), but also appears to be an actual constant reader! You brightened my evening, friend! :)

  • David Byrad

    My thoughts on the idea of a Zelda movie from the last blog:

    YES! YES! YES! If Nintendo made a series, hired good enough storyboard writers, hired artists who could capture the Zelda feel, and had the entire team play the game in question from start to finish in order to understand the game’s feel, WE WOULD HAVE A CAN OF AWESOME SAUCE!!!

    I suggest that Nintendo publishes the series starting with the first game in the series. Which at this time is SS. Then, they must put it into one season per arc: One for the beginning and Search for Zelda, one for the Sacred Flames, and one for the triforce with an epic movie-esque ending for the past and fight with Demise. I suggest finishing the battle with Demise with an extra leg of the battle, that way the fans who have played the game would have a little surprise.

    If the series is received well, they could continue through the timeline and add the canonoticality we’ve been searching for! (I suggest looking at what fans think of and agree on) In fact, after OoT, (They HAVE to give the OoT Link the drive from MM’s Link, (They are the same people, but the intro and actions of how he helps other’s with their problems shows his personality) otherwise the OoT one will not be good at all. (GIVE LINK A PERSONALITY! EVEN A BUNNY’S PERSONALITY! WE JUST NEED SOMETHING!!!))

    Sorry for the derail in thought, back on track: In fact, after OoT, they could make three series series instead of just one: each alternate timeline gets a series series. I mean, that would be EPIC! And if they do it right, it could be one of the best video game based TV series EVER! Maybe even one of the best TV series of all time!!!


  • Sheyne Clancy

    I personally for the sole amusement of doing so give Link a different personality with every Zelda game. I even give them different lines, most of them said in my head to not sound like a creeper though. For instance while playing Ocarina of Time, I made Link a semi-cute/annoying little kid that you had to love even after he made many annoying comments. This was an especially fun character to do after he went through the transition into an adult, imagine a little kid trapped in a grown mans body.. XD and so on and so on for the other games.. Twilight Princess: Brooding, dark link that went into deep thought quite often after the simplest of matters. the Minish Cap: An evil type link, making many comments suggesting a secret dark purpose to take down Vaati only to claim princess Zelda for himself.. Skyward Sword: A lovesick Link, breaking into many random romantic poetry rants about joyous life, and his obsession with Zelda… and one of my favorites.. Four Swords, Adventures: the best part was that they all had different personality’s, often fighting and in compition of one another..

    XD Im sorry im just ranting, I know im weird..
    Just a little something that sparks up my love for the game,
    It really is fun :)

    • Ryan

      Read the four swords Manga to see the four Links interact, it’s pretty funny.

  • lulles

    Lovely article! I’ve always thought that giving Link a personality would better the series, but this made me think. I think it’s two different ways the series can go, each with their own pros and cos. Maybe Nintendo can use the “blank slate” Link for a game, and then a Link with personality (more or less like in Skyward Sword)for the other? Because it’s hard deciding which would be the best.

  • Arkanix

    As much as I already loved Link, I now appreciate him in a new light. Gratitude!

  • Zelda is the Bomb!!!

    Geez, this deep.I never really thought of Link like that. So basically, in a way, everyone here is Link? Sweeeeeet…….

  • Ryan

    I’m player B. I get Epona as soon as I have access to Hyrule field. I don’t even wait till after the hookshot. I also set up the trading sequence before pulling the sword so I can get Biggorns Sword quickly. I get the available heart pieces quickly too.

    I have long thought that Link was the character in Zelda with the least characteristics for this exact reason. I’m happy to see someone else shares what I thought.

  • Crow Stearns

    Maybe Link Goes along with Destiny because he lives a fairly simple and under ruled life in every game and each reincarnation wishes to have something more to live for and adventure just seems to be right in front of him at the time.