Earlier this week, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma denied what many fans had been speculating: that the character of Link in the franchise's new game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, would be female.
A trailer featuring a somewhat androgynous-looking Link set the game's fandom abuzz with the possibility that the traditionally male character might be gender-flipped. But their suspicions turned out to be unfounded.
"The Triforce [of Zelda characters] is made up of Princess Zelda, Ganon, and Link," Mr. Aonuma told the website Kotaku on Tuesday. "Princess Zelda is obviously female. If we made Link a female we thought that would mess with the balance of the Triforce. That's why we decided not to do it."
The announcement that the new game would not feature a female character in the lead role, or at least the option to play as a female version of Link, garnered criticism from many disappointed fans.
But other fans have questioned whether Link's gender even matters. The significance of Link's gender is dependent on how you view the broader role of characters in the video game experience, says blogger Nathanial Rumphol-Janc.
"If you stand on the side that Link is a vessel – essentially that we are Link ... a gender option doesn't seem like such a big deal," writes Mr. Rumphol-Janc on the blog Zelda Informer. "If you stand on the premise that Link is his own character, not a vessel for us but his own character with a personality and fully fleshed out story ... then a gender option is absurd."
Some say that simply changing Link to a female character wouldn't have been enough, anyway.
"Female leads should be developed with specific intent and care, not have their look and personality be forcibly grafted from an established male character," writes tech blogger Paul Tassi in a Forbes opinion piece titled "Yes, A Woman Should Lead a 'Zelda' Game, No, It Shouldn't be Link." "They deserve better than that."
Aonuma and his team had reportedly at one point considered giving Princess Zelda the lead role in the game, a move that might have been more satisfactory to Mr. Tassi and those with similar stances. But they ultimately decided against it, and Aonuma asked GameSpot, "if we have Princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?"
The debate over the role of women in Zelda reflects greater questions of gender diversity that have existed since the dawn of video games. In a 2009 study conducted by the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, researchers found that only 10 percent of playable characters were female, despite the fact that nearly half of video game players were women. Another study published around the same time found that while the proportion of female characters in video games was increasing, those characters typically were hypersexualized and had only supporting roles.
Rhianna Pratchett, who was lead writer for the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, says the lack of strong female characters may be the result of male video game writers being "a little bit nervous about getting female characters wrong."
"I think that old phrase 'write what you know' unnerves people sometimes," Ms. Pratchett tells The Guardian. "It’s more a case of 'write what you understand.' You understand a thing or two about living on this pale blue dot with other complicated, wonderful, maddening Homo sapiens? Great, that's half the battle. Go forth and write interesting humans."
However, some female gamers argue that in order to achieve true diversity in gaming, the changes will need to go beyond simply inserting strong female characters into popular games.
In a post for The Guardian, one anonymous contributor laments the fact that the majority of mainstream big-budget games today are centered around either violence or sports. Adding token female characters isn't likely to attract a more diverse player demographic, the author says. Rather, the industry needs to start producing a more diverse array of game genres to appeal to minority groups.
"You can't put a pink bow on a tank and assume different audiences are going flock to it because you gave them some token aesthetic validation," the article reads. "Adding representational diversity to those kinds of games is important, but how often do we consider diversity of genre; diversity of experience?"