The young girl in Second Quest will seem familiar to most video game lovers. Azalea explores ruins, collects artefacts and tries to uncover the mysterious hidden history of her floating fantasy homeland. But, halfway through the story, she throws away the ocarina, boomerang and slingshot she's found. She needs to save her world but gets told that it needs to happen without the adventuring her souls calls out for. It's heartbreaking.
Successfully crowdfunded in 2012, Second Quest is a new graphic novel out from games critic Tevis Thompson and artist David Hellman. Its existence comes, in part, from a dissatisfaction with the way that The Legend of Zelda series has changed but the hardcover carves out its own niche away from the famous Nintendo series while invoking familiar Zelda elements.
First discovered while venturing into the forbidden ruins at the outskirts of town, Azalea's special gift lets her view echoes of her world's past.
However, those visions contradict the glorious history that she's being taught about, which paints her people as celestially chosen defenders of a virtuous way of life.
The actual past is much darker though, and Azalea's big crisis is choosing to follow her heart or suppressing her desires and playing along for the greater good.
There's a quiet irony in the scenes where she's watching boys train to be pretend warriors when she's already proven herself to be braver than most anyone in her social circle. The tension between propaganda and suppressed truths changes the relationship between Azalea and her best friend Cale in a poignant way, as he seizes a chance to go from mocked outsider to "one of the guys".
Second Quest uses the familiarity of the Legend of Zelda series as a springboard for a leap into a world that feels more nuanced and mature, complicating matters by folding in xenophobia, sexism and the big-lie compromises that society tells itself it has to swallow. Azalea's hunger for adventure is presented as tied to a thirst for meaning in a broken world whose intolerance, ethnic cleansing and jingoistic state rituals gets sold as the Age of Harmony. She knows something's wrong deep down inside but is scared off by the idea that digging deeper may unravel the only world she's ever known. It's weighty stuff, a contemplation on how the sadness of, say, Majora's Mask is made manifest in the real world by stereotypes, bullying and harassment.
Hellman's art — familiar to anyone who's played Braid — is rendered in thick wavy lines that reminded me of medieval illumination drawings and 15th Century woodcuts. He also makes great use of contrast, splashing neon colours and jewel tones over inky panels to invoke a sort of video game aesthetic. The odd-sized, off-grid panels and unconventional balloon placement in Second Quest force readers to work a little harder than they should when it comes to finding its way across the page, but something about this idiosyncrasy gives Second Quest a rough-hewn charm. It feels like your eyes are going on an adventure. The setting's familiar but the exact path to get to the next page is unknown. It ends on a beautiful double-page spread where Azalea reckons with the gap between what she's been told and what she can feel. Hellman and Thompson's work in Second Quest comes across as a smart allegory on where gaming culture has been and where it is now.