One of the first costumes you can acquire for Link in The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is the Legendary Dress. It's Zelda's traditional dress, a white gown overlaid with a pink tabard and trimmed with ornate jewels and golden detailing.
The Legendary Dress comprises just one of more than a dozen different outfits Link can don in the game, but it stands out from the likes of the Kokiri tunic or the shell-like Bomb Suit because, well, it's a dress. Traditionally a woman's outfit, but for Link, a traditionally male character. If nothing else, I was curious to see how the game would handle it. Would it become some sort of extended joke like the Honeybee Manor portion of Final Fantasy VII? Broad, sexual comedy of that sort would be a bit out of character for the Zelda series, but Link's wardrobe has been something of a running gag in many of the games, mostly notably The Wind Waker. Fashion sits at the heart of Tri Force Heroes in particular, and the game paints your initial outfit as something truly deserving of pity. (It legitimately is a hideous bit of wardrobe abuse.)
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Tri Force Heroes plays the Legendary Dress straight. When Link dons his Zelda-style dress in the hub town's tailor shop, the proprietor simply calls him stylish, and the store's most loyal customer enthuses over his appearance. And that's it. Everyone in the game treats the Legendary Dress the same as they would any other outfit available for Link. It's a thing Link wears while tackling dungeons, and it grants him a special attribute—in this case, it increases the drop rate of health-restoring hearts while in battle, which can be invaluable in multiplayer mode, in which everyone shares a single life meter. No one remarks on the fact that Link is a boy wearing a dress... which made me wonder: Is this Link a boy?
Thinking back, I don't recall anyone in the game referring to Link as "he" or "him," or with any indications of the character's gender. Maybe I've overlooked something, but I don't feel I have. Furthermore, Bob pointed out to me the fact that the "real" Link—that is, a pink-haired, green-clad young man who looks exactly like the protagonist's sprite design from A Link to the Past—appears as an abrasive non-playable character outside the castle that serves as the game's multiplayer lobby. This game's playable Link has a sharp, high-timbre voice, a shaggy mop of blonde hair, and no real markers or traits to indicate gender.
Link's always been a somewhat androgynous character, ever since 1998's Ocarina of Time (a game that, incidentally, gave Princess Zelda a male disguise), and of late the character's gender has become a small point of contention for some fans. Well, not so much contention as questioning: Why does Link have to be a boy? Why does the story almost invariably boil down to an elven hero (rather than heroine) rescuing a captive princess? Many people were convinced that the blue-clad Link who stars in the impressive trailer for the upcoming Wii U Zelda adventure was a girl—a notion Nintendo officially debunked—and last year's Hyrule Warriors even included official concept art for Link as a playable young woman.
Clearly, the idea of an alternate, female version of the iconic hero has been on the minds of both fans and developers alike, and Tri Force Heroes seems to be the next step in this trend. While this new Link isn't explicitly female, neither is he (or she) explicitly male, either. Instead, the game presents a truly androgynous persona that affords players the opportuntiy to project themselves onto the character, whether male or female. Male players who just can't deal with the idea of their beloved hero dressed up as Zelda aren't required to use the Legendary Dress at any point; costumes are totally left to the player's discretion, and you can even venture forth in Link's hideous, default outfit (an orange sweatshirt with a cartoon bear emblem on the best) if you like. But if you'd rather take a different reading on this Link, you certainly have that option as well; the character can be a girl, or a boy who's comfortable wearing dresses, or whatever. Tri Force Heroes appears to take great pains not to be too specific, and I suspect that's deliberate—if not on the part of the developers, then at least on behalf of the localizers.
With the Legendary Dress, Tri Force Heroes becomes the latest of Nintendo's recent tentpole releases to shrug off the macho standards of video games. The game's entire premise hinges not on saving the world but rather on fashion: Your quest isn't to prevent Ganon from acquiring the power of the Goddesses to reshape Hyrule in his evil image but rather to break a witch's curse so Hytopia's princess can wear stylish clothes again. This follows directly on the heels of Yoshi's Woolly World, a traditional platformer whose stunning visuals appear to have been produced via knitting needles. That, in turn, came in the wake of Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, a stress-free game with almost no concrete objectives, whose mechanics centered around interior design.
What these three titles share in common has been a similar willingness to abandon the standard themes that define most major video game releases. Nintendo's games have often sidestepped the seemingly obligatory beats of big game releases, but never quite so conspicuously as this fall. 2015 offers no shortage of role-playing games, shooters, and combat-centric action titles, and the benign concepts behind the past month's worth of Nintendo-published games stands in contrast to games like Halo 5, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid V—which isn't to say those other games are bad or flawed, simply that they've been constructed with a different audience in mind than that of something like Happy Home Designer. If we truly are entering the twilight days of 3DS and Wii U, as seems to be the case, it seems only fitting for Nintendo to make a gambit for the "blue ocean" audiences it attracted with breakout games of a decade ago such as Nintendogs and Brain Age. This time, those themes and aspirations have folded back into Nintendo's core franchises (or in the case of Animal Crossing, doubled down). I have little doubt the next Zelda game will more closely resemble a classic action RPG, and that the next Mario game will wear a more standard visual style; but for now, the Wii U and 3DS lineups represent an important statement of inclusivity.
That has significance, too; the question of whether or not Link could ever be a girl has been closely tied into the broader debate over inclusivity that hovers over gaming—and, really, over popular culture and society in general—as angry white men draw possessive battle lines while the rest of the world asks, "Well, why can't games be more inviting for everyone else?" No doubt the idea of Link wearing a dress will be greeted with the usual hostility by the small, embittered knot of gamers who use terms like "social justice warrior" unironically—as if fostering a culture of positivity and friendliness to all people could somehow be a negative thing!—but it's hard to find fault in Nintendo's Rorschach-test approach to the game.
The blank-slate presentation of Tri Force Heroes' Link feels like another in a line of even-handed (not to mention unobtrusively neutral) solutions to the criticism that Nintendo has absorbed for what some perceive as missteps in recent releases. From the lack of character racial options in Animal Crossing: New Leaf to the absence of gay relationships in Tomodachi Life, the company has been a bit of a magnet for social controversy.
This trend, and the advent of player-level solutions such as hacking NES ROMs to allow players to take control of damsels in distress or just hanging out on Animal Crossing's tropical island to get a skin-darkening tan, doesn't indicate some massive failing by Nintendo or represent some sort of collective hysteria on the part of fans. Rather, it speaks well of the company: It offers a bastion for gamers of all ages, races, and genders, people who project themselves into their games through the connection they feel; it's only natural for them to want to see themselves represented even more directly. And Nintendo's designers, to their credit, are paying attention. Link can wear any clothing he likes. Your Happy Home Designer avatar can appear as any number of races. Nothing has been lost in the process as Nintendo quietly breaks down these barriers, but for fans who finally have a chance to see a little more of themselves in their favorite series, I have trouble seeing anything but a net gain.