The new Zelda-inspired comic is more than it seems, and one of the smartest pieces of media criticism you'll read this year.
This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week – find more here.
Whenever I see the opening screen of the first The Legend of Zelda – the green pixelated rock formations jutting out around you, the three branching paths, and the strange cave with a mysterious old man and a sword – I can't help but think of the millions of other people who have looked at it. I think of my mother, who introduced me to The Legend of Zelda when I was far too young to understand it. Gaming can be a pretty solitary hobby, and shared experiences like this can form a sense of community. Even if I'm alone, I know that there's probably someone else, somewhere in the world, looking at Hyrule with me. There's some comfort in that.
That sense of communal attachment is, I think, part of why The Legend of Zelda is such a long-lasting and at times contentious series. So many people fell in love with it that it created an indelible impression on the medium, a massive star exerting a gravitational pull that everything after has had to reckon with.
This is not necessarily a good thing. Communal devotion can be as dangerous as it can be liberating. Our beliefs about things we love can calcify, or turn cancerous, and communities ostensibly built around a shared love can rapidly become venues for intense hatred. To put it another way: us all loving video games didn't do a damn thing to stop Gamergate from happening. From continuing to happen.
Which is, in an important way, what Second Quest is about. A recently published graphic novel with words by Tevis Thompson and art by David Hellman, Second Quest is a flirtation with the mythology of Zelda and the mythology we've built around it. It's a meditation on the dangerous toxicity of insular communities, and particularly how hostile and oppressive they can be to women. Most of all, it's a story of a young girl trying to find somewhere where she can be free.
In 2012, Tevis Thompson, who was a game critic before he was a comics writer, wrote an essay called "Saving Zelda". It was an outpouring of his frustration with the way Zelda series has become mired in tradition and structure, the way it's lost its way by trying to imitate its own past. He wrote:
Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks. A lock is not only something opened with a silver key. A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key. A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key. That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager's jangly keyring.
Almost everything in Zelda has a discrete purpose, a tedious teleology. When it all snaps into place, some call this good design. I call it brittle, over determined, pale. It's the work of a single-minded god, a world bled of wonder.
Second Quest offers something of a revision of that essay in narrative form. In that way, it's a graphic novel doing the work of games criticism. And it does it better than most straight-up games criticism could ever hope to. It's a beautiful, poetic allegory of a world with no room for creation and no place for imagination.
The story follows a young girl named Azalea in a world suspended in the sky. After the invasion of foreign "barbarians", a magic ritual tore her world from the ground and thrust it up into the stratosphere, where her cloistered civilization now lives, ignorant of what – if anything – exists below. The abbesses and rulers insist that nothing remains, but Azalea thinks otherwise, and she spends her time sneaking out of the city walls, exploring the ruins at the very edge of the land, peering jaggedly out over the clouds. Early on in the story, we see the collection Azalea has amassed from the ruins. For a Zelda fan, they'll be instantly familiar: ocarinas, boomerangs, bottles. The lens of truth from the N64 outings, the last time many felt the series marshalled any true creativity.
The trinkets Azalea has found give her visions, images of another world, or perhaps the past. Another girl, like her, walking where she has walked, poking at the same ruins of the old world that she is. These visions represent the same feeling I get looking at the opening of that first game on the NES – the sense that others like me have walked here, have done these things; that I'm a part of a community, even if I don't see one. It's a lovely statement of how games (and art in general) can capture us, can liberate us. A fantasy can be a place to find freedom, and games, like Azalea's magic dream visions, can pull us out of ourselves, connect us to a sense of a breathing world outside the walls.
It's this beauty, this power, that Thompson sees in Zelda, and that he gives to Azalea. But it's a power that is beset on all sides by the world she lives in. When the abbess that leads the city's religion learns of Azalea's visions, she tells her that she must channel her magic, "make herself useful," use it to maintain the order of the city by literally keeping it from falling back to earth.
The abbess, the society of the city, and even the city itself function as a symbolic representation of everything Thompson loathes about the Zelda franchise and, presumably, about the insular and slow-moving "gamer" world in general. In broad, panoramic images, we see that the city is built on a hill as a Matryoshka doll of gated structures, a literal "giant nest of interlocked keys". At the centre is a magic sword embedded in a rock, Link's trusty Master Sword re-envisioned here as the ultimate symbol of control. Fairy-like clockwork birds roam the city, following around boys dressed in familiar hooded elf garb, pointing out any transgression like Ocarina of Time's Navi does in your nightmares.
These re-imaginings paint the portrait of a society built around stories used for the purpose of oppression and social control, stories that have become so powerful and so widely believed that even questioning them is a dangerous political act. This is the fear Second Quest has: that when stories lose their wonder, their sense of imagination and humanity, and become frozen in place, they simply become tools of control, crushing ideologies instead of freeing fantasies.
And when Azalea tries to pull away from that ideology, the city proves crueller than she could have imagined. The last part of the book is a struggle against the city's repressive fury. Boys dressed as Link try to murder Azalea, ostracising and isolating her as they sling fire. And if that reminds you of anything, well, it should. Azalea is struggling against the patriarchal power of an oppressive society, but in the allusive logic of Second Quest this society is a clear stand-in for "gamer culture", worshipping its own fictions to the exclusion of compassion for the outsider. How dare you be different? How dare you try to change things? It feels like Thompson's warning to his readers: stagnant art, and the cults built around it, can have real consequences. Group dynamics can be a way to enact violence on outsiders, on minorities and women and anyone who tries to change things, and that's true whether you're talking about politics or games.
Second Quest connects those dots deftly, using its fantasy world to present the power of ideology and fantasy to us in a way that doesn't undersell the real influence they can have on the world. It's easy to say, "Well, I mean, they're only video games," but Thompson and Hellman have crafted a story that suggests that even the most harmless loves can become dangerous if left uncritiqued, unchanged. A story that suggests that maybe the worst thing we can do to something we love is to leave it as it is. In the process, it manages to be both a brilliant graphic novel and one of the smartest pieces of media criticism I've read in a long time.
Second Quest believes that we need to see the things we love the way they are, and that by doing this we can encourage them to grow and change and discover the freeing truths that drew us to them in the first place. To not do so, it argues, would be disastrous. As Azalea puts it, as the city threatens to hem her in permanently: "The world did not disappear just because we stopped looking."
Find more information on Second Quest at the book's official website
More from VICE Gaming: