We all love the open-world feeling of Zelda games. Going out into the world, that first big reveal of the field, and the feeling of not knowing where to go next, but all the more excited for it. Here you have this character who is the representation of you, and you go out to save the world, at your own pace, in your own way. You're going to find so many secrets along the way... this is going to be great.
But here's the real truth: Zelda games are linear as all hell. They are good at the illusion of offering an open-ended experience, but ultimately, they restrict where you can go so tightly that they pretty much are leading you on a set path. And on that set path, everything will happen a specific way. You solve puzzles a specific way. The story unfolds in a specific way. Characters act in a specific way. I bet 9/10 of everyone on this board plays Zelda games the exact same way (with varying levels of OCD to do every sidequest... assuming there are any.... stupid Twilight Princess...). The whole idea of Link's name is supposed to connect the player to the character represented on-screen. We grow with him, and we experience everything the way he does. In all of this, he's always remained silent, leaving only the implication that he's replying to villagers when they ask "So how was Death Mountain?.... Oh that's interesting!" In our heads, we can imagine his heroic and noble response, or instead, think of him being a sarcastic tosser and everyone around him being incredibly thick to the concept. In 1985, this was pretty extraordinary. In 2010... not so much.
When Chrono Trigger first came out in the early 90's, it is one of the earliest and most-popular examples of the player's own decisions affecting how the game played out, featuring multiple alternate endings. This concept has been explored further. Star Wars: Jedi Knight was one of my first experiences with the idea. Throughout a good two thirds of the game, if you saved civilians, and used your level-ups to power up your light force powers, you were rewarded with an ending in which the game's protagonist, Kyle Katarn, defeats the villainous Jerec and his dark jedi pupils, saves his girl, and frees the spirits of thousands of trapped jedi. If you expressed apathy towards the lives of civilians, or powered up your dark force powers instead, you were featured with the non-canonical ending of Kyle striking down his girlfriend, battling Jerec for power, and ultimately becoming the new Imperial Emperor. This was the first time I saw the player's own actions influence how the game would ultimately turn out. Instantly, upon seeing the repercussions of my actions, I became more connected with the protagonist. His actions and mine were one and the same, and choosing in how I spent more upgrade points became a more conscious decision, not only from a gameplay side, but now from a morality side as well.
User-defined experiences in a morality sense were still new to me. But having played PC adventure games like Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness, I was used to a game allowing you to play games a different way. In Shadows of Darkness, the player can begin with either importing your character from a previous Quest for Glory game, or choosing their class of either Warrior, Mage, or Thief, although interestingly, none of these changed the character's appearance. The class system wasn't a new concept in RPGs, and even when this game came out (1993), these classes were very much a staple of the genre. But rather than specifically having each class just offer a variant skill-set, the game's constant requirements for puzzle-solving offered different solutions depending on your specialization. Near the very beginning, you are stuck over a large chasm in a cave with a single rope going across. As a thief, your skill allowed you to simply tight-rope-walk across with ease. As a warrior, your upper-body strength would let you simply swing across on the rope, hand-over-hand. And as a mage... well I don't really remember the solution, but it was something very mage-like. While none of these solutions resulted in an alternate ending or anything, they did require you to think about what your character was capable of in each situation, demanding that you tackle each problem with the mindset of whatever class you had picked at the game's opening. This sort of fulfilled the namesake of the RPG genre, demanding that you really think like a warrior, mage, or a thief. A thief could just climb in through a window when trying to get into a locked building. A warrior could just find something big and bludgeon the door open. Whereas a mage could maybe just levitate the city guard's keys from his belt and walk right in.
One of my most recent (and favorite) examples of the concept of player morality has been Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins. Unlike Mass Effect with a similar concept of Jedi Knight's light jedi/dark jedi system having been updated in the forms of becoming a paragon/renegade, Dragon Age focused less on blatant good vs. evil morality systems, but instead focused on the character-specific relationships you build with the people in your party. Depending on your actions, each party member will view and judge what you do on their own scale. By returning a fugitive (but ultimately good-hearted) blood mage to the strict and disciplinary Circle of Magi who will more than likely execute him, you may gain favor with Alastair who has been raised to believe blood mages are the scum of the earth. However, in doing so, Morrigan, a bit of a dark sorceress herself, will resent you for your willingness to fold to the dogmatic and self-righteous will of the Chantry. These decisions, coupled with how you act and talk with your party members would continue to affect the game. Talking with Leliana, learning about her past, and then giving her a bouquet of her favorite flowers, or showing Sten that you are indeed a logical, strong warrior, will continue to win you favor, and as these relationships continue to grow, their approval will mean better things for their performance in battle, as well as maybe open romantic possibilities for a select few of your team. Losing favor however, or sleeping with someone else in the group after building a relationship with one person, could result in a party-member full-on leaving your group permanently. This isn't even counting the actual major decisions you make in the game, affecting whether kingdoms thrive or fall, which armies you are allied with for the final battle, and who will live and who will die. Though your character never really speaks with a voice (you are given PLENTY of dialogue options though), there is a huge connection with this main avatar, and not just because you can get them to resemble you. Your actions, your willingness to build relationships, and your moral compass are all affecting the game. The player is defining who the main character really is, and the game rewards you by showing the repercussions of that, positive or negative. But there were ultimately very few easy choices in the game, due to the great writing showing the good and evil nature of any choice.
Games now offer you the choice of just what you do. Choose how you fight, what decisions you make, who you side with. Whereas Zelda offered an illusion of connecting the player to the experience, modern RPGs ARE connecting the player to the experience. Thus every player's experience is unique, and their own.
I know Zelda isn't an RPG (officially, anyways), but it's a genre that is burrowing its way into all genres to give each player something to define their own experience with. Shooters have begun implementing it in the multiplayer in the form of persistence in leveling, perks, etc. This allows each competitor a chance to define their own strategy in how to distribute their bonuses/buffs, and how they will play the game as a result. Action games implement it in offering various weapons, upgrades, and combo trees. In its own weird way, Super Mario Bros. 2 has an element of this. By letting the player choose what character to play as, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, they are defining the way they experience the game. And even RTS' like Warcraft III had the whole idea of heroes, and having a key character that is your primary unit, and that you can develop and outfit in your own way. Zelda has borrowed from RPGs before in Capcom's two Oracle games. The ring system allowed you to equip your own unique ability for quick access. Whether it be disguising yourself as a moblin, doubling your sword power, increasing your health, the player is getting an option in how to strengthen themselves for any confrontations in the near-future.
Bringing a more developed RPG-style system to the franchise to create a more user-defined experience could seriously open a world of possibilities. I'm not talking about blatant morality systems. Hell, Bioware ditched that very idea for Dragon Age, realizing that how your individual party members themselves view you, favorably or unfavorably, is FAR more interesting than just a general good/evil meter. And I don't mean in just experience, leveling up, and useless stats and arbitrary numbers applied to attributes like Strength, Agility, etc. But simply allowing you to outfit Link in your own way, developing his skills uniquely, and allowing you to make your own choices in what Link does would do a FAR greater job in this day and age of connecting the player to Link and having them define who Link is as opposed the franchise's old way of just keeping him silent but progressing the game in the EXACT SAME WAY regardless of what you do.
I don't mean force the player to grind. That's not what Zelda is about. But instead of a leveling system, how about have specific enemies that drop a special item. If Link presents these items to a swordmaster, he'll offer you choices to learn various techniques in a skill-tree sort of fashion. But you can't master everything, so you have to pick something that works for you. Actually, this isn't too far off from something Zelda has done before. I'm simply suggesting that they develop it. And why leave it at sword techniques? Why not have Link be able to learn various spells in a certain fashion, and if he chooses to master more in a specific area (let's say, shooting fireballs), he can. Why not allow Link to carry and equip numerous items that can be bought from shops, or found in dungeons? I know many of you are probably readying your torches and pitchforks, but I don't mean force Zelda to become a dungeon-crawling grindfest. It never should go that far. Well... not for a long time atleast. But allow the player to really think about what they're doing, and how they ready themselves for the fight ahead.
Link's silent nature, or even the fact that we can rename him, implies that we as a player can project ourselves onto him. That we define who he is. But that's not really true. Link always just does as he's told by various NPC's and arbitrary story developments. I know I'd want to question what's going on. If I didn't like what was going on, I wouldn't stick around. Link goes where the story forces him to go. There is no choice in the matter. He fights in a very specific way. There is a very straight-forward way to how to fight effectively in Zelda games. Link operates on his own moral compass, the player can't define anything about who he really is.
Okay, so we can't choose what Link really does, says, or how he really handles situations. But atleast we are left with an interesting protagonist who can carry a strong, developed sto.... oh wait. That's right. We can't. So then what the hell is the point of leaving this blank slate for us to define a character, but then give us no way of ACTUALLY defining the character? Yeah, we can pretend Link has a personality, but that doesn't really work when he's emoting and acting on his own will. I can pretend that Link has a total thing for a cute girl in the Castle Market, but he doesn't really. That will never come up, and that completely has no affect on anything at any point. It won't lead to a thrilling climax (no double-meaning intended..), it won't lead to a side-quest. It won't even leave me with 5 rupees. Link is instead just a boring character, shows very static emotions with little meaning or depth behind any of them, he never questions anything and never LETS you question anything, and instead forces you to do everything by his strict guideline of how to play the game rather than letting you really grow in your own way.
Yeah, the franchise's way of letting the player define who Link is by leaving it up to your imagination is a very charming idea, and it absolutely was part of experiencing the old 2D games when Link was just an abstract collection of pixels. But games have moved past the meaningless nature of that. Coming up with your own definition of who Link is and having the game pan out the same way doesn't really compete against ACTUALLY defining who Link is and seeing how that changes things. If people are SO DEAD SET against having Link talk, then let the player define who Link is by their actions, choices, and style in which they play the game. Otherwise, not doing so is then completely pointless, and you're left with a boring, mute protagonist with no actual emotion or drive.
Miyamoto was once quoted saying that the Zelda series is special in the way that it allows the player to experience the feeling of growing up. From a small boy, Link gets stronger and grows into a hero who can save a kingdom, get the girl, and defeat evil once again, no matter how grave the threat. But Miyamoto left out one crucial detail. Growing up is about facing consequences as well. It's about learning who you are, and letting that define what you do. There aren't always easy answers, and after making a choice, we may always wonder "what if?" (that's what the 'New Game' option is for...) But the real reward in growing up isn't when the solutions have been handed to us, but when the skills we've learned and our own choices get us through any challenge.