Link has never been a complicated man/boy/elf. As far as characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, Link is as transparent as they come, even without the use of speech. Sure, he’s capable of the occasional satisfying guffaw or agonized growl, but he’s largely just a bundle of emotions for the player to adopt and personify.
Though he regularly tops online lists of the all time greatest characters in all of gaming (see GameFAQs regular polls in that regard), this fact alone is amusing in a lot of ways. The character he usually finds himself battling for the crown with is Final Fantasy VII‘s Cloud Strife, a carefully crafted, and deliberately written character who has a clear arc, and a definitive role in only a single game. In this way you couldn’t find two more diametrically opposed characters, and, one supposes, that’s likely why (among other reasons) the two often wind up sizing up against one another in these kinds of things.
But whereas the characterization of Cloud only succeeds because of it’s place in the narrative of FFVII (see the various spin-offs and guest appearances for a bit of evidence) Link is a character as elastic as he is relatable. This is because he’s essentially an empty vessel with a job to do. Like Samus Aran or Mario in the Nintendo camp, Link doesn’t succeed because of how he’s written or the role he plays in a journey, but because of what players are able to project upon the blank canvas of his character.
There is, however, one exception to that rule, and that is his portrayal in the The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Somehow, in Wind Waker Link is able to tell you more in the first hour about who he is and how he operates then other Links have been able to communicate in the entirety of their adventures. From the dazed look on his face when he first awakens to the solemn countenance he adopts when he waves goodbye to his grandmother, Wind Waker‘s Link is the most personable and emotive in the entire series.
Take another moment in that same opening hour when Link finds himself unwittingly strapped to a catapult in an effort to rescue his sister. The look on his face changes three times as the countdown commences, from abject terror, to steely resilience, to accepting readiness. When the counter strikes one, he looks less afraid then when it was at three, but more afraid then when it was at two. This level of idiosyncrasy speaks to the talent of the animation behind Wind Waker, something that makes itself even more apparent in the HD rendering released a few years back for the Wii U.
Seriously, if you can find any other iteration of Link (outside of the later portable titles, which adopted a similar, though less effective, persona for Link) that could get away with both making a silly cat noise to get out of a jam, and doing a plunging sword attack into the skull of his enemies, I’d love to see it.
In this way, the natural approach to animating and designing the Link of Wind Waker is animalistic in a lot of ways. Like a dog, or a cat (mrowwwwww…) or a bevy of other animals, Link can appear adorable and approachable during moments of dormant idleness or playful eccentricity, while still being allowed to turn on a dime into a vicious force of indomitable rage and violence when he is threatened.
The onion-like layers of this Link are revealed further in the series staple of opening a treasure chest. While Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were able to animate this regular sequence with a bit of personality, it is only in Wind Waker that Link absolutely HAS to know what is inside each chest. Seriously, Link can get excited like it’s Christmas morning for every single piece of treasure in the game, and the simple fact that you believe it every time is no small feat.
A fact like this just goes to show how easy it is to underestimate the smallest of contributions to a game. Anyone who has sat through the credits of a video game knows that it’s really about just watching the scrawl and hoping for a stinger scene (suck it Marvel, video games have been doing this for over 20 years). This time, though, I’m going to actually be scanning the credits as I replay one of Link’s most memorable adventures.
Facial animation technician? Emotional response animator? Like a lot of people, I don’t know what I’m looking for but I’ll know it when I see it.