I'm trying to finish up Twilight Princess so I can get more involved in Bioshock and, eventually, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. My gaming list is starting to look like my reading list. Both Zelda and Bioshock have gotten me thinking, though... transhumanism, referentiality, world-building, storytelling, the aesthetic possibilities of the medium. And just as Bioshock is going a long way towards proving the versatility and intelligence of the medium, Zelda has made its own contributions to culture, too.
Though the series' protagonist is really Link, the brave young fool you tend to control, the series gravitates around Zelda, the princess who's always the motivating factor, a critical element behind the scenes of the game. The disconnected continuity of the series has given her the opportunity to play a lot of roles... after all, every Hyrule is essentially a different universe, built on different rules and assumptions than the previous incarnations, but they all deal with three iconic characters--Zelda, Link, and Ganon--representing three fundamental forces--wisdom, courage, and power--the three parts of the triforce. Each Hyrule, and each great adventure, is a reincarnation of these themes, instantiated in these characters.
Link and Ganon have become more complex over the course of the series, but their roles haven't changed on an essential level. Link has always been a warrior-adventurer, representing the possibilities of the growth of spirit, struggling to resolve Hyrule's troubles and liberating its constituent kingdoms in the process. Ganon has always been the destructive element, breaking down the balance in the kingdom and precipitating its fall into chaos. Link versus Gannon, the eternal struggle, with Zelda always lingering, doing... what... ?
Well, in the beginning of the series, Zelda is a fairy-tale figure, usually a victim or a captive of Ganon. Her soul is the soul of Hyrule, and when Link saves Zelda, he is also saving Hyrule from collapse and ruin. In Zelda II, you start the game in a mythical castle chamber with Zelda behind you, sleeping the slumber of death. In Zelda: A Link to the Past, the Super Nintendo entry into the series, Zelda is a guide and an icon, but she still requires the rescue of the hero. Wisdom (in this case, a feminine attribute, represented by Zelda) may be the key to control of the kingdom, but the struggle to win it (her) is still between the aggressors, the forces of noble Courage and destructive Power.
It's a powerful metaphor, and it will undergo some serious reconstruction.
Zelda's true feminist evolution occurs in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This game, the N64 entry in the series, is still considered one of the greatest in the Zelda cycle, and one of the greatest adventure video games. Aside from the transition into 3D, Zelda performs her own form of transcendence: she becomes an ally of Link's, a warrior instead of a victim or a prize, a champion of her kingdom. She appears as what appears to be a ninja, though she acts as more of a spiritualist; her guidance and the power implied by her abilities and her secrecy signal a profound change in her character.
Since Ocarina, Zelda's role has been permanently changed. In Windwaker, the Zelda game for the GameCube, Zelda appears [censored censored spoilers censored]. In Twilight Princess, she is a sage trapped in Hyrule Castle, a force that antagonist Zant keeps imprisoned in order to control Hyrule; you respond to her call, and in a series of critical cut-scenes, she proves that only her power can keep Link safe on his quest.
Zelda's new status as a potent ally changes the nature of the Triforce metaphor, as well... it becomes a metaphor for control and autonomy, with Power as the unstable attractor and Wisdom and Courage working together as its counterpoint. The metaphor rings true: great power in the hands of an authority is dangerous and unstable, and without reason and virtue binding it, it tends to spiral out of control.
Consider that through all this, Zelda keeps a gender identity. She's consistently the only non-violent aspect of the triforce, and even at her most powerful, she keeps sort of a "Queen Mother" role as protector of her kingdom. Through her, Nintendo has been exploring the level of power they can attribute to their feminine archetype: how is she as a child? Can she be a violent character? How does it play out when her character becomes the rescuer, rather than the victim? Whether this is for better or for worse... whether Zelda is an emblem or a stereotype... isn't for me to decide right now. But she's still representing a feminine force.
This is worth contrasting with Samus's role in Metroid, which more or less turns masculinity and femininity inside-out. I think Samus may become the subject of another blog post coming in the near future.
At any rate, I'm eager to see where Zelda goes, as a character and as a series, and Jesus, I need to finish Twilight Princess. Argorok, here I come.