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Interview: Tony Smith, the Parent Behind the Gender-Neutral Patch for Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Comic Strip

Earlier this week, we shared the story of a dad who hacked gender-neutral language into The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for his young daughter. Tony Smith, the man behind the Echo Park Mac & PC blog, has since released the hacked version online for any who wish to download it, though you’ll have to figure out your own ahem means of playing it.

As well, he’s released a patch for the original Legend of Zelda for NES that does the same thing. In addition to that, he’s started to work on a brand new project: patching what he calls one of the most highly underrated Zelda games: The Minish Cap.

We got to chat with Smith via e-mail about the whys and wherefores behind his project, storytelling, folklore, monomyths, and what else might be coming down the line for him and his work.

*****

Jessica Lachenal (TMS): First off—again, thank you for the work you put into the gender-neutral patch. It seems like one of those things that feels obvious to have in retrospect, but it never would have occurred to me that it should be created until it was.

On that: why was it so important to you that something like this be shared? I understand that you made this for your daughter, but what made you want to put it on the internet for everyone to see?

Tony Smith: I created the gender-neutral patch for A Link to the Past about four months ago when I couldn’t find anything quite like it online. When I showed it to my family and friends, they thought it was awesome. They encouraged me to share it and release it online. A lot of gamers my age are now parents and many of us are hoping to share our love of the classics with our little ones. This just seemed like a natural thing to do. When the 30th birthday of the original Zelda game rolled around earlier this week, I thought the timing was perfect for it. I didn’t have any kind of grand plan for it, I just lobbed it out there and thought either a few folks would appreciate it or it would just land in a dusty corner of the internet.

TMS: What has the response been like? You mentioned that you’ve gotten a lot of impassioned responses and things, and I saw the comments on your blog were… less than receptive, but I’m curious what the makeup of most of those responses looks like.

Smith: The response has been incredible. I had no idea it would go viral and generate such intense debate. From high praise to vehement rage, I’ve found it all utterly fascinating. It’s a very interesting window into how people form and shape their identities and their worldviews, the power of myths, the power of words (or in this case, pronouns), the power of narratives and the psychology and politics of gender. The reaction to my patch has now become part of the story and seems to reinforce the need for this patch. I’ve been trying and failing to keep up with the comments sections on all the blogs covering this thing. Thankfully, the discussions have a refreshingly different tone on each website; hopping from one to the next is like barhopping across town and getting a feel for the locals. I loved how somebody posted a clip of Homer Simpson walking into a bar in the middle of a huge bar fight and instantly spins around to the exit without missing a beat.

The lines of arguments were going in so many different directions. I think the one I found most amusing was the debate over my usage of the word “ye” and whether that was Old English, Middle English, King’s English or Kanye’s English, which kind of begs the question of whether any flavor of English is more or less “appropriately authentic” than Japanese (the original language in which the game was created) or Hylian (the fictional language of the game’s world). There’s also the fact that the majority of the real world’s languages don’t even have gendered pronouns.

There is a strong argument to be made that Nintendo intended for Link to be an avatar to be played and experienced from a first-person point of view rather than a defined character. First and foremost is the “name registration” system that has been a notable part of the series since the original game. Some of the games default the player’s name to Link, and players can choose to simply play as Link, but inputting your own name (or an 8-letter abbreviation) opens up a more personal experience, whether it’s just seeing your name next to Link’s sprite in the original game’s startup screen or when the characters in later games directly address you by your name. Nintendo has been able to continue this Zelda tradition into the modern era by foregoing voice acting altogether in favor of the traditional text-based dialogue which also adds to the magical storybook feel of the game.

Second, Link is famously a blank slate with minimal backstory, no discernible romantic interests, and not a single line of scripted or spoken dialogue save for a few grunts when swinging the sword, rolling on the ground or moving heavy objects. In an interview at E3 following the reveal of a new trailer for the upcoming Zelda U title, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma said, “ultimately Link represents the player in the game. I don’t want to define him so much that it becomes limiting to the players. I want players to focus on other parts… and not specifically on the character because the character Link represents, again, is the player.”

Third, there is the meaning behind the default name: Link. In a 2012 interview with the French blog Gamekult, Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto said that originally, “the game was to be set in both the past and the future and as the main character would travel between both and be the link between them, they called him Link.” And even more tellingly, in Nintendo’s Hyrule Historia, an encyclopedia of Zelda lore released to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, Miyamoto stated, “I’ve been involved in countless titles these past thirty years, but The Legend of Zelda is the only game series [I’ve worked on] where a player can input his or her own name. I said the name Link came from his role as a connector, but Link is you, the player. The series has been so successful because the player must solve puzzles and defeat tough enemies in order to ultimately save the world.”

I also find it interesting that Miyamoto cited Peter Pan — a famously gender-complicated character who doesn’t want to grow up to be a man and who is historically played by women on Broadway — as a direct influence and inspiration for Link, all the way from the hat and pointy ears down to the sword and green tunic. J. M. Barrie’s 1904 play broke the fourth wall by having audiences clap to revive a fairy; Nintendo’s 1986 game broke the fourth wall by having fairies revive the player.

So if a Zelda game player is not male and chooses to play one of these games using their name, and in the spirit of Link being an avatar as described by Miyamoto and Aonuma, then the game contains a grammatical error (or “bug”) when the in-game text refers to the player using male pronouns. From a purely engineering point-of-view, my gender-neutral patches of these Zelda games are nothing more than simple bug fixes.

It’s sadly true that most of the online discussion has been dominated by loud males who have been less than receptive of the idea that this patch might actually be a good and harmless thing and instead are decrying it as either pointless, stupid, lazy, immoral, or even downright evil and a form of child abuse. The internet, like the real world, is unfortunately full of loud voices who aren’t always correct. What really moved me and genuinely touched me were the heartfelt sentiments and stories that were posted in the fray by courageous, sincere voices that refused to be intimidated by the bullying. The outpouring of solidarity from young gamers, older gamers, female and LGBT gamers as well as fellow male gamers around my age with daughters of their own has been a beautiful thing to witness and I am humbled by it.

TMS: Are you worried about reprisal from Nintendo? If you had it your way, what kind of response would you hope they’d have to the patches?

Smith: No, not really. I haven’t broken any laws or infringed on any intellectual property rights. I changed a few words in my own personal copy of the game, I wrote about it on my blog and I openly published a tiny vcdiff file that simply contains the “digital recipe” for anybody else to make the same changes to their own copy of the game. I am not distributing or selling the game or a modified version of the game. Nintendo created and owns the Zelda IP and I am in no way infringing upon that or encouraging infringement. I want Nintendo to stay funded and to keep making new Zelda games!

I would hope that Nintendo would appreciate the intent behind what I’ve done and see it in a positive light. I’m a long-time customer and a 30-year fan of their game series who stumbled upon an easy way to broaden the appeal of Zelda for generations to come. Rumors have been swirling that Nintendo may have already been considering a move in this direction with the new Zelda U game. I really hope that those rumors are true, but I also hope that Nintendo takes it one step further and patches all of the Zelda games in the series to date on their digital stores and in future physical release formats. From a marketing perspective, it makes good business sense. I’m more than willing to help with that project if they’d like to hire me!

TMS: Have you heard of the new character that they’ve created, Linkle?  I’m actually curious to hear what your thoughts are on her and her place in the Legend of Zelda lore.

Smith: It’s hard to tell where Nintendo is going to take her story. There isn’t a whole lot to know about her (yet) since her only appearance and storyline is within Hyrule Warriors. I’m not sure it was a wise choice by Nintendo to ascribe her with a habit of getting lost easily and being bad at directions, despite owning a compass and a map, since that trope has been such an age-old debate between genders and stale fodder for stand-up comics. It’s probably becoming less relevant today since we’ve handed that part of our brain over to GPS apps.

TMS: Technically speaking, how difficult was it to patch all these changes in? It seems like you’re actually churning ‘em out at a pretty decent clip, and as someone who’s not extremely technically-minded, I’m curious about what it’s like to dive into the code to hack something like this together.

Smith: That’s the beauty of it. It wasn’t actually all that difficult. It only took me maybe four or five hours and yet it created this enormous reaction. It could have taken even less time if I wanted to make all of the characters in the game gender-neutral with a few simple “find and replace” commands, but that wasn’t the point. I only wanted to make Link gender-neutral, and there’s no shortcut way to determine which pronouns refer to Link and which pronouns refer to the other in-game characters without carefully reviewing all of the text in the game and understanding the narrative context.

Game modding or “ROM hacking” is nothing new and has always been deeply entangled with the history and development of electronic games. Today’s video games have a direct lineage back to early electronic and computer games that were created by engineers and academic researchers in the labs and universities of the 1940’s and 50’s. Engineers innately like to tinker with stuff, take things apart, build things better and invent new things. Almost all of those early games were modified in various ways to create new games and to expand the scope and definition of what games could be.

Before the popularity of home video game consoles, video games were primarily played on computers and required some degree of technical know-how just to get the games loaded and launched. My local library subscribed to a few computer magazines and that was where I first learned how computers and computer games worked. Each issue of those magazines would have the complete source code for a simple game like Trampoline or a nifty program like Elisa, and I would spend hours typing thousands of lines of code into the computer, hoping that it would actually work and not crash due to a stupid typo on my behalf or on the magazine editor’s behalf. Every single word, character and punctuation mark in the code had to be perfectly transcribed or else the game simply wouldn’t run. Some would call it masochistic, but I felt like it was just another part of the game, diligently weaving together these magical incantations in coded languages like alchemy and occasionally being rewarded with a functional and somewhat entertaining new game.

With that picture in mind, you can imagine how easy it would be for a few words of text in a game to be inadvertently (or intentionally) changed. Since I was mostly “making” these games for myself and my two younger siblings, I began taking liberties with the source code by injecting our own names into the games and adding inside jokes that only my brother and sister would get. We made the games ours and we shared these wonderful and personal gaming experiences together.

I started programming my own original games from scratch, but as a young programmer still in grade school, of course I couldn’t compete against the size and scale of the burgeoning game companies like Nintendo that were filling the shelves of our local video rental store with amazing new games on a weekly basis. The graphics! The music! The story! The gameplay! If you were a boy — I’m intentionally using the word “boy” here because video games were predominantly marketed towards and made for boys in those days — that lived within biking distance to a video rental shop and had a Nintendo or a friend who did, it was a very exciting time indeed. Almost all of the money I saved up from babysitting and mowing lawns was spent on two-day game rentals and repeatedly extending those two-day rentals for the games that proved more worthwhile or tougher to beat. One of those games was The Legend of Zelda, and one of the personal ironies for me is that a game that cost me so much lawn-mowing money back then has now made the “grass cutting for rupees” gameplay element a staple of the series. Sometimes life does come full circle.

But there was one notable difference in these home console games: they could not be changed. In essence, they came etched in stone on large 4.1″ x 5.5″ tablets that hid all of their inner workings, sealed with obscure screws to prevent tampering. There were plenty of magazines dedicated to playing the games and revealing the hidden in-game secrets and “cheats,” but there was no source code to be found anywhere, no peeking behind the curtain, and no way to customize or alter the game beyond what limited personalization options that may have been originally coded into the game. If you wanted to play the game, there was only one version of that game you could play.

Sure, there was the Game Genie, a novelty device that provided a way to flip a few bits here and there to make a game easier by providing unlimited lives or invincible powers, but it wasn’t sophisticated enough to make the kinds of changes to the narrative gameplay experience that could be done at the source code level, the kinds of changes that could make the difference between a casual diversion or an intimate experience. It’s not only the resulting changes that can help create the sense of intimacy when playing the modified game, but also the act of making the changes to the game itself and, in some small way, becoming part of the team of artists creating the art. In an art form where one of the defining characteristics of the medium is interactivity, interacting with that interactivity is par for the course.

I would venture to guess that Nintendo greenlit the recent Mario Maker title due in part to the sheer popularity of Mario ROM hacking. Countless fan-altered versions of Mario could easily be found online and I think it was a brilliant move by Nintendo to bring all of that creative industriousness out from the “shadows” of the ROM hacking scene and to provide an officially sanctioned tool for anybody to make and share their own Mario creations. Mario Maker has been a huge success. Perhaps Zelda Maker could be next?

TMS: Are there any other series or franchises besides the Legend of Zelda that you’re interested in patching or changing?

Smith: The Zelda series was the first that came to mind because (a) it’s my personal favorite and (b) Link is such a blank slate in so many ways — graphically and narratively — that Link’s gender isn’t even necessary. King’s Quest and Zork are two of my other favorite classic game series that had a big impact on me as a kid and share some of the same adventure elements of the Zelda series. It might be interesting to take another look back at those games and see if a gender-neutral patch would make sense. If I recall correctly, I think the original Zork trilogy already had a gender-neutral player, along with about half of Infocom’s classic text adventures. Wasn’t that part of the joke in Zork: Grand Inquisitor when Dalboz names the player “AFGNCAAP,” short for “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person”?

TMS: What was it about the Legend of Zelda series that drew you to it when you were younger? What are you hoping your daughter gets out of playing the series in the future?

Smith: There are a lot of elements at work within the Zelda games and I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why I was drawn to them when I was younger and why I keep coming back to them decades later. Perhaps it’s because they can seem so epic yet so simple at the same time. Or maybe it’s just that whenever you’re going through life’s hardships and trying to navigate the turbulence of the real world, getting lost in an interactive fantasy world imbued with the orderly logic of a Japanese garden and role playing as a pre-destined hero on an archetypal Joseph Campbell journey is intoxicating, powerful and deeply satisfying medicine.

Zelda is considered by many to be one of the greatest video game series of all time. It was Nintendo’s first game to break one million in sales. It was the first home console video game with “game save” functionality that enabled the player to save their progress, a concept that has now become practically standard but at the time seemed to imply that the large scope of the game was just too immense for a single sitting. Mix in some outstanding music, superb graphics, a mythological setting and perfectly balanced gameplay mechanics that shift seamlessly between puzzle solving and arcade-style combat, and suddenly here’s a game that makes a statement and demands that console games be taken seriously. The unique and alluring gold cartridge was just icing on the cake.

Every work of art has a different impact on different individuals. I have no idea which video games will “speak” to my daughter or if she’ll even become enamored with video games at all. I just wanted to tilt the odds slightly by removing what I saw as an impediment that could possibly prevent her from experiencing my favorite video game of all time in the same deep and immersive way that I was able to experience it. I always felt like I was Link and that I was the hero going on the great adventure to battle evil and save Hyrule and its inhabitants. There wasn’t a single odd pronoun in any of the Zelda games that broke the spell for me, but that’s because I just happened to be a dude and the game’s text assumed I was a dude.

The words we use and the stories we tell in our games and books and movies are important because they not only reveal how we see our world, but they also show how our world could be. Too many of our monomyths — ancient, new and recycled — tell us that only men can be world-saving heroes. In her impressionable years, I hope that my daughter discovers and consumes so many female monomyths that she will never see a ceiling above her. And in her powerful years, I hope that she creates new monomyths of her own.

*****

(image via Nintendo Power/Shotaro Ishinomori)

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Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.