As an artist designing a character is one of the most difficult but satisfying things to do. It’s quite a challenge to define who a person is purely by their visual appearance. However when it’s done well it can really make a character resonate with an audience. One of the best examples of this is in a character beloved by thousands of gamers, Link.
Link is an extremely well designed character because every aspect that defines his character is there in his appearance. Who is Link? He’s a grand hero of legend, chosen by the Goddesses to vanquish evil in all its forms. Yeah, we know that but who is LINK? What type of person is he? He’s a boy. He’s a teenager in the oldest incarnations. He’s humble. He’s brave. He’s an explorer, constantly uncovering new things, both in the world around him and about the spirit within him. It’s a simple story repeated in many forms, the person from humble beginnings who grows into a great hero. Since that story is at the very core of Link’s character every version of that character that stays true to that story is just as valid. If there was a Link who was an old grizzled war veteran taking up arms it wouldn’t feel right. Link is, at heart, a boy growing into a hero. This is why the pink-haired bunny Link from A Link to the Past is just as genuine as the stern cowboy Link from Twilight Princess.
This might also be why Link seems to do well in his various crossover appearances. He’s always visiting new worlds and rather than be afraid he’s either willing to accept the rules of a new land immediately or is so consumed in his quest it doesn’t matter where it takes him. This can bring him to battle against Ganon, Master Hand, or the wielder of Soulcalibur and in no instance does he seem out of place. Link is a hero who wants to save the innocent. Link has a sense of understanding about any surrounding because after leaving his comfort zone he’s not sure what there will be. Scaling the heights of Death Mountain is very different from napping in his humble home, but then so is fighting an armored warrior in Isle Delfino. In a crossover appearance many would question why the characters aren’t curious about their new place. It breaks the illusion when Phoenix Wright fights Wolverine because Phoenix Wright is not a fighter. Why isn’t he running scared? For Link, he meets such varied and different foes and friends that nothing would change him. He would feel right at home in any number of settings because he’s already been to so many different settings. He is just exploring a new land, nothing more.
The true genius of Link’s design lie in his appearance. He’s always shown in simple clothes, with or without his green tunic. He’s a simple boy thrust into a changing world. He doesn’t wear heavy armor or regal robes because that’s not what he has. Some games have tried to give a rational explanation for Link’s signature green tunic. The reason isn’t important because in every version they represent the same thing, plain clothing. Nothing fancy or ornate, but an outfit that’s practical and simple. Link is known to carry a personal armory of weapons and equipment but he’s always shown with just his sword and shield. Sure he still has his Hookshot, Ice Arrows, Bombchus, and other items but he’s always seen with the sword and shield. Those are the two most vital tools to conquer evil and defend the innocent. Many swordsmen exist but Link always has his shield ready. It’s not just about attacking. It’s about protecting. No matter what he’s always willing to fight to protect those around him.
There is a guiding rule in character design that says a character should be identifiable from their silhouette. Link follows this rule fairly well, depending on the Link in question. Take, for example, one of the most beloved versions of the character.
Standing against similar young men of gaming, Link is recognizable from his pointed ears and his big floppy hat. Aside from that though, notice how his gloves and boots are slightly larger. This makes his hands and feet appear slightly bigger in silhouette, a common trait of making a character appear younger. This subconsciously makes the player think “young boy” playing in to Link’s character of a boy discovering adventure. Also you can notice the way his tunic is wrapped to his middle and fans out at the bottom. This gives him a distinctive look. As opposed to the unifying clothing of Mario or any number of armored space marine Link has a break in his look at the mid section and a lower half not characterized by pants or shorts. It’s interesting to consider that these small changes to his look are more prevalent in the “serious” designs of Link. In the stylized “cartoon” look of Wind Waker or Four Swords these details are barely noticeable, but then those versions already have a very distinctive look.
Color is key to any character and the color choices really work in Link’s favor. There are essentially three colors at work. Green, red, and yellow. Obviously green is the most important color as it occupies roughly half of Link’s model. Red may be harder to see but the boots, gloves, and belt of Link is almost always a reddish brown. Granted sometimes it seems like a more straight leather color, but brown is actually just a darker shade of orange so in many ways these pieces are red or a reddish orange. Finally there is Link’s blond hair. Again, it hasn’t ALWAYS been blond but in most versions it is. What’s so special about these colors? Not much individually but altogether they make a solid palette. Every color has a natural complimentary color. When paired they tend to “pop.” Green is complimented by red. Having those two together brings a visual balance. It’s not just limited to plain red and green however. IF you look at the versions of Link that use a more orangish red color his tunic is a much deeper forest green. The shade of green has much more of a blue tint, blue being the compliment to orange. Whereas Link’s outfits that are a lighter green, as if it was tinted with yellow, tend to be paired with a deeper red. This red seems darker and closer to a maroon or purple tint, purple being yellow’s compliment. In each outfit the colors are matched, not just in basic compliments but also in specific hue. Now what does this have to do with yellow? Well yellow is an analogous color to green. They blend together and this blend adds the emphasis on the green. The primary color of green is both emphasized with the compliment of red and supported using the analog of yellow. Using only three colors the visual design of Link is given a sense of balance and cohesion.
Link has more than his fair share of fans. People are drawn to the simple boy who can overcome any evil force that befalls him. It’s a noble story that inspires us all. If he existed only in books the story would probably be enough. Video games have those interactive and visual elements. The interactive element strengthens the bond to the character. We, as players, experience his experiences and share his sense of discovery and self improvement. It’s the visual design that helps tie it all together. Analyzing Link’s visuals proves that Link is an excellent example of combining personality and visuals to create an icon. No matter what incarnation, Link is always the boy hero, because that’s exactly what he looks like.