The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Link is a silent protagonist with a flat arc, as usual for the Legend of Zelda series. How this impacts his character varies from game to game, but in Twilight Princess, the constraints of limited communication and growth stifle his potential as a character. Narrative inconsistencies hamstring his development as well, as he’s unable to focus on the people from his home town when the story drifts away from them. Fortunately, dropping the Ordon plotline makes room for Midna’s story, and Link’s changing relationship with her helps define his character after other methods fail.
To develop Link’s personality without speech, the game developers had several tools at their disposal: character animations, tooltips, NPC dialogue, and character actions. Of these four options, NPC dialogue and character actions are the only ones used with any kind of regularity. Link’s facial expressions have a limited range, which leads to several unfortunate moments where his reaction fails to match the scene. The tooltips are also straightforward, without any character flavor. With those options out, all the heavy lifting falls to dialogue and action. Dialogue is limited in its effectiveness, as NPCs can’t dictate Link’s personality for him, and because Link’s actions sometimes contradict that NPC dialogue. An example of this phenomenon occurs in the opening act when Ilia yells at Link and asks why he doesn’t reconsider his actions for a change. The fact that he consistently looks out for others makes her complaint ring false. This dissonance between action and dialogue makes it harder for players to trust the NPCs to gauge Link’s personality, and his characterization suffers as a result.
As dialogue is limited in its effectiveness, the best way to judge Link’s character is through his actions, but even those are inconsistent throughout the game. His priorities shift with the demands of the plot, leading him to frequently neglect the characters in the Ordon plotline in deference to Midna’s plotline. One example of this occurs after Link restores Kakariko Village from the twilight haze. Ilia is still missing, but instead of searching for her, Link prioritizes the Gorons and the Fused Shadow in their mines. This is inconsistent with his actions in the opening when he went out of his way to help everyone in Ordon. Such inconsistencies make it difficult to define his character in any meaningful way, and he ends up playing a secondary role to his better-developed partner, Midna. Fortunately, his relationship with Midna is one of the bright spots in his character progression, as it naturally grows with the narrative.
When Link first meets Midna in his wolf form, he’s distant and mistrustful. The more time they spend together, the more he grows to appreciate her, to the point that he’s willing to sacrifice himself to save her from Zant’s attack at Lake Hylia. He drops everything to speed her to Hyrule Castle when she’s dying, and he lets her hide in his shadow when she’s too ashamed to face her own people. After the game’s climax, her resurrection gives him an opportunity for a rare display of emotion as he races up the hill to see her. When he finds her transformed, he’s struck dumb by the change, but Midna’s teasing still elicits a smile from him. It’s no surprise that he’s visibly shocked when she breaks the Mirror of Twilight, leaving him behind. Although the game never directly states what becomes of Link after her departure, the post-credits stinger shows him riding away from Ordon Village. This suggests that his time with Midna has changed him. Before he met her, Ordon was his entire life; after she left, he too was willing to leave his home behind. These changes don’t represent a full arc, as Link’s motivations are too sparsely defined at the outset, but they’re still noteworthy examples of character growth in an otherwise flat protagonist.
With both strong motivations and a complete character arc, Midna is one of the most well-developed characters in the entire Legend of Zelda series. She has both internal and external desires, and those desires come into conflict as she develops with the narrative. In the end, she’s forced to make an impossible choice and sacrifices something she values to meet her ideals of what it means to be a leader. She also possesses a vibrant personality, one enhanced by her expressive animations and her unique character design. Together, these features combine to create a compelling, memorable character that rises above an inconsistent narrative and elevates the game as a whole.
Midna’s character arc begins before the game starts when Zant first receives Ganondorf’s power. At that point, Midna is a beautiful, statuesque princess, but Zant takes her crown, her beauty, and her height when he turns her into a hideous imp. With but a single, broken piece of the Fused Shadows to her name, Midna vows to destroy Zant and reclaim her kingdom by any means necessary. To do so, she heads to the Light World to gather the Fused Shadows, at which point she witnesses Link transform into a wolf. Twili legends once said that their Hero would appear in the form of a divine beast, so Midna resolves to use Link to reach her own goals, regardless of what happens to him.
As Midna travels with Link, she finds herself warming up to him as she witnesses his devotion to others. By the time they find the last Fused Shadow, she’s actually willing to apologize to him for putting him through so much. She doesn’t have much time for apologies, however, as Zant attacks them moments later. When Zant tries to take Midna out, Link hurls himself in front of her to absorb the blow. Midna is ultimately blasted with the light’s full energy anyway, but Link’s sacrifice still moves her, and she uses her dying words to beg Princess Zelda to help him. Instead, Zelda shares her spirit with Midna, which restores Midna’s health but costs Zelda her physical form. As Midna realizes what’s happening, she begs Link to stop her, but there’s nothing Link can do. As Zelda fades away, Midna laments: “Zelda… I’ve taken all that you had to give…though I did not want it.” That selfless act, coupled with Link’s own kindness, completely transforms the way Midna views humans and forces her to reconsider her actions.
Midna’s time with Link softens her to the point where she’s willing to open up about life in the Twilight Realm. She speaks of how the people were banished there for trying to conquer the Sacred Realm, but it was a peaceful place until Zant gained his power. She cares for it so deeply that when she sees the broken Mirror of Twilight, the idea that she might not be able to return there leaves her both enraged and deflated. She falls to her knees, completely hopeless. It’s only when the Sages appear and reveal that the Mirror can be reassembled that Midna’s spirits return. She approaches the task with renewed energy, ready to fight for her people once more.
The gauntlet of dungeons between the midpoint and the disaster point offers limited room for character development. Still, the dialogue at the end of the Snowpeak Ruins dungeon shows just how far Midna has come. After Link and Midna subdue Yeta, the female yeti who turned monstrous when exposed to the Mirror, Midna ruminates on how they handled the encounter.
“I feel bad about the way we treated that girl. To think the Mirror of Twilight has the power to change people like that… This world…ALL worlds…can be cruel… Let’s hurry and collect the rest of those pieces, Link! We have to, before more innocent creatures have to endure the suffering this poor girl did…”
Midna’s statement shows not only how she’s grown to accept the light world as equal to her own but also how she’s recognized her own ancestor’s power as a source of cruelty. This comes into play once she masters the Fused Shadows, but she must first come clean to Link about her true reason for coming to the Light World. This occurs when she and Link assemble the full Mirror of Twilight, and the Sages reappear to apologize for the pain they caused her world. When they address her as the Twilight Princess, she acknowledges the truth of their words and admits to Link that she originally didn’t care about his world, saying:
“I thought I could use you, Link. And I only cared about returning our world to normal… I didn’t care what happened to the world of light, not at all. But after witnessing the selfless lengths that Princess Zelda and you have gone to… Your sacrifices… I now know, in the bottom of my heart, that I must save this world, too. There is no other way.”
With this admission, Midna’s growth as a character is almost complete. She must still save her people, however, which takes her and Link to the Twilight Realm. Together, they fight their way to Zant’s throne room, where she and Zant argue over which of them has the right to rule. After they defeat him, she tells him why he could never rule, saying: “It was your eyes, Zant. All saw it, a lust for power burning in your pupils… Did you think we’d forget our ancestors lost their king to such greed?” Midna understood that the pursuit of power almost destroyed their people, so she hoped the Twili would never pursue such power again. That power is put on full display when Zant proclaims Ganondorf will revive him as many times as it takes for them to win, at which point Midna uses the Fused Shadows to rip him apart. As Zant bursts into fragments, Midna stares at her own hands, horrified at her own strength. Still, she is willing to use that terrifying power to do what she knows is right: return to the Light World, defeat Ganondorf, and restore Princess Zelda’s heart.
With the power of the Fused Shadows, Link and Midna head to Hyrule Castle. At the top, they come face-to-face with Ganondorf, the source of the Twili people’s suffering. When Ganondorf proclaims that his might makes him an ideal ruler, Midna laughs at him and promises to defy him to the last. That will is tested when Ganondorf restores and possesses Princess Zelda’s physical form. Try as she might, Midna is unable to fight the princess, and Link is forced to fight Zelda alone.
Once Link has forced Zelda back, Midna finds the strength to rip Ganondorf’s spirit out of Zelda with the Fused Shadows. The light inside Midna returns to Zelda, and the Hylian princess awakens at last. Midna attempts to speak, but Zelda quiets her. Their hearts were one, she says, so there’s no need for words to explain things. Midna, overcome with emotion, still wants to speak, but Ganondorf’s revival steals her attention. It’s at this moment that she sees an opportunity to repay both Zelda and Link for everything they’ve done for her, and she teleports them both outside the palace so she can fight Ganondorf alone.
Midna falls in the fight against Ganondorf. Were it not for the spirits of light, this would have been the end of her story, but they resurrect her after Link has triumphed. What’s more, they restore her original body, returning the last thing she lost when Zant took her kingdom from her. This transformation doesn’t change her personality, though; she still has the same mocking smile as she turns to the speechless Link and says: “What? Say something! Am I so beautiful that you’ve no words left?”
The game’s final scene gives Midna one last opportunity to show off her growth as a character. With Link and Zelda at her side, she prepares to return to the Twilight Realm through the Mirror of Twilight. Before she leaves, she proclaims that Zelda has a kind and true heart, and Hyrule will be fine if its people are all like her. She then turns to Link and experiences a rare moment of uncertainty, saying:
“Well, the princess spoke truly: as long as that mirror’s around, we could meet again… Link… I… See you later…“
A tear rolls down her cheek. She flicks it at the Mirror of Twilight. When it lands in the center, millions of cracks form in the glass, and she races up the steps as Link and Zelda realize what she’s done. As the true leader of the Twili, she alone has the power to destroy the mirror, thus removing the bridge between their two worlds. While she doesn’t state her reasons for this act outright, it’s possible to guess at them based on her experiences and her priorities. Her profound sense of duty requires that she put her people’s needs first, and the sacrifices of the Hylians taught her how to give her all for the betterment of others. Therefore, she’s willing to put her feelings for Link and Zelda aside, however complicated they may be, and permanently seal herself off from them. It’s the ultimate sacrifice: the kind she would have never made at the story’s start. It’s through this sacrifice that she proves herself to be one of the most complex, well-developed characters in the Legend of Zelda series, worthy of a role in any novel or film.
One of the chief ironies of the Legend of Zelda series is how little screentime Princess Zelda often receives in the games that bear her name. Twilight Princess is a notable example of this phenomenon, as Zelda only receives about thirty minutes of screentime in a game that takes some twenty hours to play. However, her reduced presence doesn’t limit her impact, which can be felt throughout the game. She features prominently in both the Inciting Incident and the midpoint, and her actions in both scenes drastically alter the course of the narrative. Her surrender to Zant was what plunged Hyrule into endless twilight, and her sacrifice for Midna was what allowed Midna to rejoin Link in his search for the Mirror of Twilight. That sacrifice changes Midna’s character, forcing her to recognize the importance of a world that is not her own.
Princess Zelda may not be a fleshed-out character with wants, needs, and a completed arc, but her actions define the narrative and catalyze other characters’ growth. In a scant thirty minutes of screen time, she becomes as important to the story as the protagonists and antagonists. By spurring the characters onto greater heights through her own actions, Twilight Princess’s Zelda serves as an exemplary foil.
There are two versions of Zant in Twilight Princess. The first is the eerie, quiet king who hides beneath a sculpted helmet. The second is a screeching, manic usurper who shows his every emotion in his uncovered expression. While one character can embody both characteristics, the way Zant transitions between the former and the latter is too abrupt to work properly. The only common thread that unites Zant’s two personalities is his desire to see the Twili people freed from the shackles of the Twilight Realm, but that thread is cut short when Midna realizes that Zant has cursed his own people to hideous forms like hers. His one spoken motivation is at best a hypocrisy, and at worst a lie, making his character difficult to define.
When analyzing Zant’s dueling personalities, the main things to consider are his actions on-screen. Zant is directly shown a total of five times throughout the narrative: in Zelda’s flashback to her surrender, in Midna’s flashback to her transformation, and in three separate encounters with Midna and Link. Four of those five—all but the final encounter—show a Zant who is calm and composed. His movements are as measured as his words; he doesn’t waste either of them. The final encounter with Zant, the first in which he removes his helmet, shows him literally hopping with rage as he whirls around the room and contorts into bone-crunching poses for no real reason.
There are arguments to be made about why Zant might lose his composure during that last encounter, but they’re moot because none of the other characters acknowledge the inconsistency. For the silent Link, who has only met Zant a few times, there’s no reason to comment, but Midna claims to have known Zant a long time. If she knew him as well as she did, then she would have noticed if either one or both of his displayed personalities were off the mark. The fact that she didn’t suggests Zant always possessed a fragmented personality, but that’s the sort of thing Midna would have commented on earlier, as it would have been in Link and Zelda’s best interest to know. She also wouldn’t have been able to resist insulting him about it directly, as she was all too happy to throw the rest of his deficiencies in his face. Without any warning or acknowledgment from Midna, Zant’s abrupt transition from collected to chaotic appears to be the same kind of oversight that plagued the rest of the Twilight Princess narrative: a concept introduced in the back half without proper support in the front.
Although Ganondorf is almost always the antagonist in the Legend of Zelda series, his importance in the narrative varies greatly from game to game. In some, he is a complex character with motivations that spring from his backstory; in others, he is more force than man, a malignancy that rises to threaten Hyrule again and again. In Twilight Princess, he falls somewhere between the two extremes, which limits his ability to function as an antagonist. His only motivation—to merge the two worlds and bring endless darkness—is vague and has no basis in his backstory, but he’s still concerned with mortal concepts like ruling the combined worlds.
This leaves him in the awkward position of being too shallow to be a real character but too complex to function as a pervasive force. Consequently, Zant ends up falling into the primary antagonist’s role, as his motivations are better defined, and he has a greater connection to the narrative. The unfortunate side-effect of this role switch is that Ganondorf ends up feeling like an afterthought. Had he been established earlier in the narrative or given a greater connection later, his character might have felt more natural. Instead, his character feels as though it was shoe-horned in to make Twilight Princess a ‘proper’ entry to the series, rather than being integral to the story.
* Reference Run: SourceSpy91. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – MAIN QUEST – FULL GAME Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Script: Ashley Bakaitus, Eleanor Bennett, and Daniel Brabander. Twilight Princess Project. http://zelda.obdurodon.org, 2008.