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“Breath of the Wild,” “Piranesi,” and the Joy of a Second Start

January 20, 2023


Recently, while listening to the soundtrack of the 2017 video game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I began idly mulling over the game and why it appeals to me. Now, I don’t believe the appeal of Breath of the Wild—or any other work of art, for that matter—could ever be reduced to a single specific quality; there are a number of explanations I thought of in this case. However, one explanation particularly caught my attention: the treatment of second starts. As I considered how the game engages thematically with this topic, I realized that it shares surprising similarities with another, very different, work of art that is especially close to my heart: Susanna Clarke’s 2020 novel Piranesi.

Both Breath of the Wild and Piranesi follow a protagonist who is particularly attuned to the surrounding world. In Breath of the Wild, this is the player character, Link, who begins the game as an amnesiac on an uninhabited plateau. With no resources but those that can be scavenged, Link (and the player) are forced to pay attention to the environment to gain an understanding of the world; which rivers can safely be traversed for edible fish and which are too cold to swim through, where trees may be strategically cut down to form bridges, how foraged plants can be prepared to grant protection from hazardous climates. In Piranesi, the eponymous protagonist also lives nearly alone—in his case, in a vast and labyrinthine house containing its own ecosystem of birds and oceanic life. Despite the seeming chaos of his home, Piranesi is intimately familiar with its patterns; his study of the tides allows him to predict their cycles, and he never becomes lost even when he explores miles from his usual halls.

Notably, in both cases, the world that the protagonist inhabits is portrayed as wondrous and beautiful. Every image in Breath of the Wild—from a sunrise over snowcapped mountains to a cricket resting on a dirt road—is richly rendered with loving attention to detail, and Clarke’s gorgeously evocative prose is one of Piranesi’s great strengths.

As Breath of the Wild continues, however, it becomes clear that Link’s pre-amnesia life was far from its present harmonious state. Flashbacks consistently portray him as expressionless, often in the midst of tense meetings or surrounded by post-battle carnage. Another character’s writings reveal that, prior to his memory loss, the overwhelming weight of his responsibilities had caused Link to completely internalize his emotions and only rarely speak to others. While this is at least partly a nod to the audience (like many video game protagonists, Link is known for almost never speaking on screen), it’s also an implicit contrast to the way Link is portrayed post-amnesia. The game often gives spirited, even wry dialogue options in conversations with non-player characters, and Link is shown emoting more frequently in the present, most noticeably when celebrating good meals by literally jumping with delight. This theme is also explicitly paralleled in another character from the backstory who similarly feels crushed by responsibilities and falls into spiritual paralysis with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, Link’s past is a story of failure. Despite his efforts, he was unable to prevent a cataclysm he’d been tasked with averting, and many people died as a result. By the time the story proper begins, many years after the backstory, the world is still suffering from the same evil.

. . . as Catholics, we too receive a new start and are restored to God’s grace when absolved of our sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation.

The main story of Breath of the Wild is thus about Link putting right what went wrong in his past. With his amnesia temporarily freeing him from his former sense of burden, he develops a more authentic personality and learns how to be happy, even in trying times. He still needs to confront the threat that previously thwarted him, but this time, his newfound understanding of the world allows him to tackle problems in a more resourceful manner—the game allows and even encourages the player to fight enemies with tactics such as throwing metal spikes at them to attract lightning, setting fires in order to take advantage of the resultant updraft, and even dropping beehives on their heads. By the time Link reaches the final antagonist (who came to power as a result of people using technology they didn’t fully understand), he and the player have learned more than enough to make the fight trivial.

Like Breath of the Wild, Piranesi also follows a character who is transformed by his relationship to the world. Over the course of the book, Piranesi gradually uncovers information about a person who has come to his home. While we’re only given a few glimpses into the visitor’s personality before his arrival at Piranesi’s home, the impression they paint isn’t particularly flattering. He’s materialistic, somewhat proud, and perhaps a little more voyeuristically interested in evildoers than he should be. Upon being dealt a grievous wrong, he (understandably but regrettably) wallows in hatred and violent fantasies of revenge. He’s not necessarily a bad person, but, particularly when compared with the earnest and openhearted Piranesi, he’s obviously flawed. Yet, like Link’s amnesia, the visitor’s arrival gives him a second start on life. As time passes, he gains Piranesi’s reverent understanding of the world. He becomes humbler, more forgiving, and less concerned with material wealth. In a fantasy conceit, by the time he departs again, he has half-literally become a different man.

Two stories that infuse the world with beauty and wonder and portray living in such a world as a joy; two stories with characters whose ties to the past are severed with fantasy literalness and become better, happier people; and—in what first started me on this train of thought—two stories I like quite a bit. It seems to me that these parallels are not merely coincidental. In both stories, part of why the characters can rejoice in the world is because they’ve been freed from the burdens of their pasts. Reciprocally, attunement to the good of the world is what allows them to live their new lives more wisely. For such stories, the joy they provoke is inseparable from their reassurance of new beginnings; in turn, both are reasons why I find them so appealing.

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In fact, I would argue that stories like Piranesi and Breath of the Wild draw on a universal human desire for a second start. All of us have mistakes we’ve made in the past and bad habits we’ve fallen into that we wish to be freed of: not merely given a second chance at, but made entirely separate from. Metamorphosis and amnesia are two ways of physicalizing this desired state in a story.

Unlike the characters in these stories, we can’t give ourselves harmless amnesia or travel to a world like Piranesi’s. However, as Catholics, we too receive a new start and are restored to God’s grace when absolved of our sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation. I’ve understood the need for Reconciliation since my conversion, but I haven’t always felt an emotional appreciation for it or fully recognized the magnitude of what God does for us in this sacrament. Examining these pieces of art, whose stories reveal in mythic form what truly happens in the regular world, has given me a fresh perspective on the sacrament. Every Reconciliation celebrated should be cause for rejoicing, as we’re freed again from the burden of our past sins and given another chance to live as we should, in harmony with God and with the world as he created it. And if, as I often find, it’s disillusioning to leave the confessional and realize that the temporal consequences of my past sins are still waiting for me, my former habits still ingrained in me and difficult to break, these two stories that I cherish contain wisdom enough to show that a second start isn’t synonymous with a clean slate. Link still needs to address the crisis he failed to solve in the past. Piranesi’s visitor still has obligations to his original home and must eventually return to it. The joy of a second start comes from being absolved of the old self’s sin; it doesn’t require being absolved of future challenges.

No matter how disconnected we can feel from our lives as they should be, it’s never too late to try again. God will always give us another chance to start. To end with a quotation from Piranesi: “Be comforted.”