Videogame Girls: Volume Wind Waker, Book Zelda, Chapter Medli
I was writing recently on how much I love the Legend of Zelda games. I’ve played them since the 2D days, tho I really didn’t truly fall full in love until I got my N64 (secondhand) and fired up Ocarina of Time. I fell into that little world and didn’t come up for air for a while! And while Majora’s Mask threw me for a loop with the three-day time circuit, once I came to understand that one, my admiration for Nintendo’s genius only deepened. Just the fact that almost every game they dare to break the mold (and receive their share of criticism for it) is admirable in a world where so many find a formula for success and dare not muss one element from place after that.
The Zelda games are amazingly thought out, the artwork is rich and inviting, the use of symbols and themes complex and satisfying, the depth of the games astounding, and most of all they are a lot of fun.
What is most important to me with games like this—and today I mean games that I let my daughters play, or teach them to play—are the themes that the game communicates. I am very big on reading the themes and symbols and messaging that movies, games, and other media sends our way as listeners and participants. Because in that, there is a massive amount of power that is wielded on young minds.
I remember, now, arguing (a friendly discussion) with one woman I am friends with about the film Finding Nemo. She thought it was fantastic, while I cared not at all for the role of the female fish, given the entire cast and story. (However, I love the art, and do enjoy the story in other ways.) We both have children (she has two boys, while my two current youngest ones are girls) so we both have interest in what messaging they soak up. I will admit that I think much more about it, and perhaps “too much” to some. But I can’t really help that. Not only does my personal experience lead me to think it is very important, very very important, but my training in media, film, and the narratives communicated by cinema (even subtly), makes finding these elements in media instinctive at this point. No real effort required anymore.
In Finding Nemo, I felt the female fish was made silly, forgetful, ditzy and secondary to the assertive, take-charge (tho foolish) male (lead) fish. The male fish barks at her constantly and demeans her with his tone. I’ll make an important point: Depending on what age group you are talking about, the focus will shift as will the importance of how you frame messages. Us older people understand Albert Brooks’ very Jewishy kvetching humor (and I love him) but to a child, what is shown? What is taught? What message is contained only in that box, in that frame, in that two hours, without the benefit of addendum, backstory, or larger context? Us older folk (and this was my friend’s argument in favor of the film) realize in the end that the male fish is a clinging, fearful, arrogant, buffoon, and that the female—though stricken with amnesiac tendencies—was wiser all the while. That’s a good message for young women and adolescent girls to be given (as well as males). Especially given that they will face the domineering and dismissive tone that the male fish exudes during Finding Nemo. But with younger children, that ability to contextualize is less likely to exist, and instead, another message is transmitted by hours of realtime experience wherein the female component of the story is seen to be annoying, spoken to as if stupid, ignored, and forgetful.
Why do I love Zelda games? Many reasons. I must mention first the lush art environment and deeply engaging gaming dynamics. Further, the scoring is amazing. Unique, filled with interesting instruments (many I’d guess are from Japan, where Nintendo is based), and variations on themes adapted for smaller subgames, and the many different temples and locations within the game. The music made such an impression on me, I own and sometimes play the soundtrack for Majora’s Mask, though I cannot read the disc or the liner notes! I could write an entire blog post just on the scoring, and another just on the art.
In those senses, the 64 bit and up games are masterpieces. But equally (and sometimes more) rewarding is the messaging in many cases. I could write for a long time on how I love a game that for once does not pose the East as the Source of All Things Evil. The Eurocentric model of geographic morality is ubiquitous, from the Tolkien trilogy to just about any other fable that splashes on our screens or stacks up on our bookracks. Even so, the Japanese company is selling very much to a market that obviously prefers that blonde still equals Hero. Yet, while it relies on typical “light” vs “dark” for overall Good vs. Evil terminology and storytelling (e.g., “the hero wielded the golden power against the dark forces of Evil” etc), the game will break with that and have powerful, Good, dark-skinned (female) faeries, or otherwise upset such stereotypes.
To touch on that cultural note again, I enjoy how while the game is not “Asian” per se, many voices/dialects/exclamations as well as musical strains/instruments and even facial design in some cases (Grandmother, Orca, and others) carry the flavor of the land in which they were created. And I like that. There is a terrible lot of negative messaging in the US regarding any peoples and nations in the EAST. And it is so splintered and woven into so many pieces of media and literature that it is possible to inherit an entire weave of derision that you never planned on adopting. And I will not have that happen to my children whenever possible. These games may never utter a word about real-world Japanese or Chinese (and so on), but the influence of Asia is tangible, and positive.
Again, thinking of my girls, I enjoy that the game doesn’t use blood or gore, but dramatic orchestra stings and vivid, acrobatic swordplay with flashes of light and smoke when you strike down your opponents. Also, when you are engaged in meléé with opponents and knock them to the ground, you cannot strike again until they get up and turn to face you, in almost all cases.
I deeply appreciate the nuanced typing; like many villains to be found in the Asian realms of literature and cinema, the “bad guys” in Zelda are less polar characters than the villains in most Western storytelling. Some (like the troublesome Wind God, as well as Valoo the dragon to name two off the top of my head from Wind Waker) are not necessarily “evil” beings, but frustrated, or complex characters who may be good at some other time, or can become good at another part in the story. Even the very wicked Ganendorf, when confronted in The Forsaken Fortress, has a respectful talk with the still-weaker Link, and rather than smite him outright, flings him off to learn more and grow stronger so that a fair match will one day be possible. I find these depictions of humanity rewarding and important for my children to absorb. Far more useful than a world of Deciders who can divide people into Good Guys and Baddies.
In the Princess of Zelda line of games, wisdom is valued in Elders, and so is struggle to learn craft and gain that wisdom. There are many mentors and guides who are older than Link and more learned, and often his tasks involve training, or study, or journeys though which he can evolve and learn and grow stronger. I certainly don’t think playing video games is a substitute for pursuits of craft or knowledge in the world! But at least that messaging is there.
These elements (and many more) are not background. They only appear to be background. Meanwhile, they are instructing and instilling values and messages all the while. Especially in a young mind. That is my concern. Not just as a parent, and not just as a player, but as a person involved in video game creation, as well. (I am the Creative Director for Digital Stoneworks).
I wanted to take my time to write here about all the positive feelings I have about Zelda, because my real intent today is to speak about one role in Wind Waker that I feel violates my ideas of what is positive to show my daughters. However, if I only focused on that complaint, this post would feel lopsided, and be hugely unfair to the games.
Now that I’ve written about the many elements of the games I find superior, let me slow down and focus on the role of Medli, young Rito bird-girl who later discovers her greater role as Earth Sage. I suppose the reason I’m writing about it is because of how egregiously the role stands out.
Granted, the hero is a boy in the first place. I actually push back on this when reading the legend at the beginning of Wind Waker aloud to Luna, my four year old. It is so filled with male-affirming nobility and I don’t for a second feel the writers are intentionally slighting women…but all you need to be and feel slighted and thus develop a lower image of yourself as a person is to NOT see yourself represented over—and over and over again. That gap/absence/silence sends a strong message all by itself. Dora the Explorer (with her squeaky, shrieky voice) is not enough for me to present to my daughter. I want Luna (and Paloma), too, to imagine herself as a hero wielding a mighty blade, striking at the heart of Evil in a legendary quest!
So when the text reads something like “On a certain island, it became customary to garb boys in green when they came of age,” I will edit it as I read aloud, and change it to “It became customary to garb children in green…” And so on. I will take elements like that in stride, and yes, I can’t do it forever. One day Luna will realize I had been editing the telling of these stories, of course.
The Medli character is harder to take in stride.
She actually reminds me of the girl character in the first novel I wrote (one I didn’t publish); a fantasy novel that was springing off of the characters in the my first short book, spinning them into a narrative that lasted almost 300 pages.
This was when my thinking about women and men and the roles we are prescribed by the larger society was at a more fundamental place than it is today. In one of the passes my editor made through that book, she spoke to me about how the girl was a passive character, in place to facilitate the doings of the boy hero, and with her good feelings and value dependent on him. This was the first feedback I had received of that kind, and believe it or not, it was eye-opening to me. I saw immediately what she meant. I was…shocked is a strong word. But not by much! I was very taken aback. I had no desire to write such a flimsy character and send such messages to young women (or own children one day) and yet, there it was. I found my editor’s words extremely helpful, and an important step in the path I continue to walk on living a life and making a world wherein women and girls are restored their rightful power and respect. In fact, that revelation was one of the reasons I decided to shelve the book. Ultimately, it served best as a growing exercise, though it definitely contained some fantastic imagery and characters and ideas. But that story was written before a number of truths made themselves evident to my mind. Some writers are, perhaps, not as fortunate.
Medli, the Rito girl in Wind Waker may as well be a video game version of my never-to-see daylight female companion character. You really can’t even dream up a better example of a passive, dependent, female character than Medli. She is so perfectly demonstrative of the type, that perhaps it is good she exists, if for no other reason than to be used as a teaching tool!
Let’s take a look at how Medli presents in Wind Waker:
a) When you meet Medli (as Link) she needs your help to fly to a ledge she cannot reach on her own, and so you throw her into the air, which boosts her.
b) Later you help her discover her powers as Earth Sage. But as mighty as this role is, she cannot do it without you. She cannot even play the melody on her harp that cracks open the entrance without Link first “conducting” her with his wand.
c) In fact, Medli cannot even cross from one room to another unless you carry her over the threshold. If you forget to bring her, she stays behind, but not before exclaiming in a soft, surprised, distressed voice “Oh!”
d) The only time you can move her on her own is by using the Command Melody, which Link plays with his wand. This allows him, in a trance-like state, to control her body. The only other characters in the game Link uses this power on are stone statues.
e) The one room you cannot take Medli into is the final showdown fight in the Temple. It is “far too dangerous for her.” After you are done with the intense battle, she can step up as Earth Sage.
f) When Medli gives Link important hints as to how to best enlist her help to solve puzzles, she does so with an apologetic tone, begging forgiveness for assuming so much as to even suggest those things to Link!
g) You either summon Medli to move with you by running up close with Link and “calling” her (Link shouts “Come on!” and she follows), or you simply pick her up and carry her around. Which is what you do most of the time, as when she is following you, she can get stuck, or lost.
It may be tempting, even to assume meaning into her name: Medli. It sounds and looks like “meddle,” no? But here, I’d warn against reading too much into names. The names in Zelda games are often unfamiliar, and I’m guessing that may be due to the cross-cultural production of them.
So, you need Medli to fulfill this part of the game, but she soon becomes a hindrance to you. You end up resenting her character’s presence at times. Who wouldn’t? She cannot act for herself, she is one more thing for Link to worry about, carry around, and rescue from Floor Masters, when they grab her. She feels like a drag, a weight on your action. Obviously, this is a terrible role for a girl to emulate, or see presented. And it echoes current negative typing for women in just about the worst ways possible.
If Medli is to be the Earth Sage, why not use that part of the game to demonstrate her powers or aptitudes in All Things Earthly? Why not have Link be the one who is by her side, who aids her, who is happy to help as she ascends to her proper position? The thing is, it is just as possible to create these roles as any other.
Obviously, we can easily find signs aside from Medli that this is not the perfect game to show young girls what they are capable of—even if only in fantasy worlds—such as the most fundamental of narrative elements. After all, this began as a story about a Princess being rescued! And even in Wind Waker, the crux of the game revolves around Link rescuing or protecting various girls and women—from his younger sister, to Medli, and more. (Though to be fair, the leader of the pirate crew in Wind Waker is a firm, fierce woman not a fifth the size of her largest crewmembers. So again, the nuances exist.)
Further (and perhaps game makers might offer this as a sloppy justification for such pro-male/light-on-female-hero narratives), I doubt the target audience for these games is young girls! Then again, perhaps part of the reason girls typically do not play video games as much as boys is not due to biological wiring, or even so much to social conditioning. Perhaps it is simply for reasons such as I outline here. It’s no fun to play games where you don’t get to be the good guy. And nothing is more disappointing than seeing games or media that insist a girl’s biggest concern should be her prettiness, or other such decorative and non-heroic, non-behavioral attributes. Let the little girls draw swords, I say.
Ultimately, Wind Waker, and all the Zelda games, are breathtaking. And in many ways, they push against type—at least the typing enlisted in the USA. Medli’s character so stands out simply because she falls short—to my way of seeing things—of the very high level of art infused into so much of the Legend of Zelda games.