Greetings! We are wrapping up our week here with my favorite game of all time, Earthbound, and to conclude what many may consider to be far too many words on the subject (yet not nearly as many as I’ve got), I’ve decided to share the one large yet often-overlooked aspect of Earthbound that propelled the game early on from a quirky, humorous game that I love into something entirely other: its heart.
And its old timey movie poster style intro screen
At the core of Earthbound’s writing is Shigesato Itoi, who is no slouch when it comes to that sort of thing; he started in the 80′s as a copywriter, ad-writer (to enormous success, apparently), and went into lyrics and full-on essays by the time he started creating video games.
And he was on Iron Chef a couple of times! Imagine my surprise!
Judging by many of his interviews and writings, one can tell that he has a fascination, if not obsession, with philosophy and human existence, and certainly that’s one of the things I get out of Earthbound’s writing. Again, I feel the need to kind of categorize what I’m talking about in order to organize my thoughts, so let’s see how the game takes on various facets of human life, and how the player is rewarded with revelations in those realms:
Possibly the only game to feature homesickness as a legitimate gameplay mechanic
Earthbound, like its predecessor and successor, is really into the concept of “family”. Ness’ family is the first one you encounter, and his mom is one of my favorite moms in gaming (article idea!) for how motherly and yet somewhat sarcastic she is. If you didn’t know, she’s either the first or second person you ever talk to in the game, and in the end-game sequence, you can’t end the game without talking to her and telling her it’s all over.
You don't see Cecil's mom reminding him to change out of his jammies before slaying the summoners of Mist.
Ness’ dad is a little bit more of an enigma. Clearly a working man with no time to hang out with his family, I’ve often wondered if he’s even really part of the family. Have you ever noticed that it’s not really explicitly stated whether Ness’ dad is even married to Ness’ mom? Anyway, his absence is somewhat important as more than a gag, though, because it kind of removes the ”mentor”, as most games do, but instead of offing him or something, the game just puts him at a distance.
The thing that put this theory in my mind in the first place is that the end-game has Ness’ dad explaining that he’ll be “home for Ness’ birthday next week”, which again might be a joke, but maybe not. Of course, this is just my little unpopular theory, the much more popular theory also makes a bit more sense. Either way, Ness’ dad is endlessly supportive and apparently wealthy, at least enough to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into Ness’ account over the course of the game, despite the complaints from Pokey’s dad about Ness’ dad apparently owing him money.
Speaking of, an interesting dichotomy in the family structures of the game is the Minch household, where Buzz Buzz meets his unfortunate end at the hands of Pokey’s really awful mother.
- Lardna Minch, committing the only act of murder in the entire game
Both of Pokey/Picky’s parents are cretins, and even the music in their house (as I pointed out before), is this really odd, uncomfortable collection of sounds that I still think is pretty cool. It was censored out of the American release, by the way, but Pokey’s dad actually beats his kids as well (I prefer the localization joke that Pokey gets no ice cream for a decade).
So bad families produce evil characters, is what the game seems to be telling us!
Paula also has a strong, loving household, and in fact she’s even a bit of a “mother” figure herself, what with the Polestar Preschool kids, who are all far more mature at handling her disappearance than her own father, by the way (strengthening my earlier point about the age/maturity reversal between the kids and adults of the game). The scene where she has to tell her own dad to “man up” and his promise that he “won’t cry anymore” I always felt was really touching, and shows Paula to be a very strong character.
Poo was actually more of an example of “the village raising the child”, since he’s the prince of a town, yet it seems that everyone is teaching him something, rather than the other way around. Plus, his “Mu training” apparently calls upon actual Eastern spiritual transcendentalism, which is pretty heavy for a video game, but I so do not know enough about that to say much more.
Jeff’s story is one that’s entirely unique in video games up to that point; not only is he part of a boarding school and definitely the son of a deadbeat scientist dad (as much as I like the gag, upon their first meeting in 10 years, of his father saying “let’s meet again in about 10 years or so!”), but Jeff is also roommates with a rather obviously gay boy named Tony.
Now, before you go thinking I’m reading character sexuality way deeper than I should, I should go ahead and let you know Itoi has confirmed Tony’s homosexuality and the evidence in the actual game is palpable. Naturally, the topic is not really explicitly discussed in-game for two very good reasons… one, Tony is technically a child, so it wouldn’t be cool for him to have any kind of overt sexuality, and two, who’s to know what Nintendo of America would have censored out if it WAS stated.
Sorry Tony, America's not ready!
Instead, we’re given a homosexual character who, whether he’s actually in a relationship with Jeff or not, is still extremely loving, supportive, and loyal to the ol’ poindexter, and is in fact as good of a “family” as any other in the game (especially in the absence of any other “real” family in Jeff’s life). Just reading his letters at the end of the game, I can’t help but get a little choked up, because the little guy is so into Jeff that it’s adorable.
Jeff, being a nerd, seems to pay no mind to Tony’s fixation on him, which isn’t an indicator of his own sexuality one way or another, but rather his own fixation on science and machinery. It seems to be more of a trope in Japanese entertainment than ours, the “unrequited gay infatuation because the object is too fixated on something else” but it’s still touching when Jeff admits that Tony “has a heart of gold” at the end of the game. Personally, I think they’d be great together.
Anyway, just in those 3 paragraphs, I was able to infer an entire relationship out of what amounts to maybe 10 minutes of game-time, which I think is an apt demonstration of just how much Earthbound builds its characters up with a scant few sentences of dialogue.
In fact, almost more than any other game I’ve played, Earthbound is a place that feels alive to me.
I think the reason for that is that every character kind of speaks for his or herself, rather than giving you basic advice or telling you what to do next in the matter-of-fact way we’ve seen every other RPG (even unto today) do it, these smiling faces will instead wrap up advice in a rant, or an opinion, or just a silly joke.
And I pity the fool who gives me the creeps
Something else I love about the people of Earthbound is that there actually are other races, ethnicity, cultures, and religions presented, and never in a negative way. How many other RPG’s, especially in the pre-Final Fantasy VII age, can boast having characters that aren’t specifically white?
Or how about blue?
Anyway, it’s kind of hard to describe exactly why I care more about the people of Earthbound than in other games, but I think part of it has to be the humor involved. Because about 90% of the dialogue is funny or at least clever, I find myself checking every character in town for new dialogue, especially after leaving the area and completing a few more tasks. Wanting to hear more witty remarks leads to genuinely caring about these NPC’s that have maybe 2 or 3 sentences to say ever.
Even some of the rocks talk
Indeed, one of my favorite things about the ending is that you get to go through and talk to them all one last time.
One of the best examples of caring about the characters, I feel, is Mr. Saturn. Here we have a group of creatures operating under one name who are so odd, they have their own hard-to-read font (complete with poor grasp of language). Still, when you talk to one of them about the rash of kidnappings (Saturnappings?), he says:
“‘OncE UPOn a timE,
‘wE wERE many, many.
‘aRE lESS, lESS.
‘wHy? Hmmmm… BOinG!”
And while that’s kind of a silly way of putting it, it really tugs at the heart-strings, and you want to protect these guys because they have no idea that something bad is happening. Itoi mentioned that Mr. Saturn is supposed to represent pure innocence, something we want to protect from evil.
Well ok SOMETIMES they know when bad stuff happens.
Speaking of evil, man does this game know how to lay it on thick.
One thing that I love about the game is how they never quite know how to tell you about what Giygas is or what he’s doing. All you know is that he’s an evil being who is trying to throw everyone into everlasting darkness, and you have to somehow find him and stop him.
Heck, at one point, an NPC ponders if Giygas is “really a woman”, and when you start seeing a shady-looking woman soon after, you start to wonder if you’ve really just seen the big baddy of the game.
Then you actually get to the end of the game and find out he looks like this:
I’ve seen a lot of ending bosses in RPG’s, but none of them even came close to terrifying me (the wall of guts in Ninja Gaiden II did, however), but Giygas is an entire world apart from anything faced in a video game before.
As Pokey (who himself is looking discolored and awful from what Giygas is doing to him) explains, Giygas’ evil power and hate grew so immense that it shattered his mind and body, to where he’s no longer even aware of his own existence, and has the power to destroy the universe without conscience or even consciousness.
“What an almighty idiot!” taunts Pokey.
Indeed, Giygas is terrifying on the level of something H.P. Lovecraft would come up with (look up “Azathoth” and you’ll see what I mean), yet the revelation I had, upon seeing him, is actually more “interesting” than anything.
So you know, when you fight a battle, how there’s always that colorful, undulating background lending a type of psychedelic flair to things?
Best enemy ever
Well, if you think about it, that background actually is Giygas every time. Since all the creatures that attack you do so because of his evil influence, which simply takes what is already evil in the minds of people and amplifies it until they attack, the evil is going to look different every time, and thus the background looks different every time. When you face off against Giygas, what you’re fighting is the actual background.
Jeff is a very smart boy!
The other side to him, of course, is when you finally do some damage, and suddenly the image shifts into one of those “candle or two faces” optical illusions, and you can clearly see the silhouette of a goddamn baby surrounding Giygas’ contorted face.
For once I agree with the embodiment of pure evil
Naturally, this has led to a bunch of conclusions on the internet, the most interesting one being that you are travelling back in time to when Giygas was a monster fetus and performing an evil entity abortion with your little robot men, and that might be true, but there’s another side I see to it…
If you think about not having a mind (which, technically, you can’t) or a consciousness or any kind of awareness, there are only two parts of life where that is a perpetual truth: before you’re born and after you die. I think the contorted face represents death and the loss of consciousness and the baby represents that period before life where we don’t know what’s going on. Which leads me to the next point…
One thing that you can very easily miss in Earthbound is how it describes Ness’ experience as an exception to the rules of consciousness. The game tells you that he has psychic powers, but it’s not until late in the game, if you’ve been paying very careful attention, that you realize what’s going on with those 8 melodies you have to collect.
The first time you visit a “Your Sanctuary” location and record the sound of the Giant Steps, the game mentions that “Ness sees the image of a small puppy”. This is easy to pass off as a general statement that Ness saw something that made him relax, especially since the music underscoring it is so tranquil.
At the next location, it says “Ness sees a baby in a red hat”, which means he obviously sees himself and can remember himself as a baby. The other Your Sanctuary locations offer similar memories that Ness recalls, one of which is a bottle that he saw “for an instant”.
Once you get the 8 melodies and have witnessed those 8 memories, you get to Magicant, a place that exists in a meta-existence where Ness must fight against the evil in his own soul. In it, he’s treated to some visions of his parents talking about him before he was born, naming him Ness, wondering if the dog will get along with him, and then finally, his parents noticing that a bottle he pointed at seemed to be moving…
Hey Ness you couldn't just shake us up some more furniture or a kitchen or something could you?
So wait! All of that meant that what he was seeing at the Your Sanctuary locations were all memories of his having to do with his psychic powers, meaning that Ness was psychically aware of of his surroundings (including the dog) before he was even born! Now, while this revelation isn’t a huge surprise or anything, it gives you, in a very subtle way (I actually missed it the first several times), the entire context of Ness’ existence.
Of course, if you happened to catch on to the deep development of the silent protagonist’s character, then the scene in Lumine Hall, where you can read his thoughts being written on the wall, it’s such a beautiful moment in this way that’s kind of hard to describe.
Maybe it's just the pretty lights
The game touches on spirituality quite a few times, with Poo and his Mu training, with various other characters both important and trivial, and in the way the game treats the concepts of life and death, which leads to one of my favorite things about the game’s story.
Death, or lack thereof
Did you ever notice how, when you win a battle, you never actually kill anything? I mean sure machines get smashed into bits or explode, and trees tend to light themselves on fire, doing mortal damage to your party, but screw trees.
Look at that smug look on his face
Animals “go back to normal”, people “come to their senses”, and even inanimate objects “stop moving”, and nary a drop of blood is spilled, even implicitly.
Well ok, there is one exception to this, poor Buzz Buzz. I take solace in the fact that Buzz Buzz’s sacrifice was noble, his death ironic, and the fact that he’ll repeat this entire paragraphs-long diatribe about Ness’ “destiny” before dying is simply hilarious.
The added benefit to Buzz Buzz actually snuffing it is that a similar scene occurs with Burglin Park leader and con artist Everdred, who is seen laying on the street in Fourside, and in his final moments, gives you some more plot exposition, and just like Buzz Buzz, makes sure that he doesn’t have to repeat it. The only difference here is, once he’s done making his epic monologue, he simply gets up and leaves the scene.
What a way to go.... down the street to the cafe
This lack of death in the game’s story is super appealing and comforting to me because I don’t like to deal with the thought of death, and I consider it to be much heavier than entertainment considers it. The fact that Earthbound can tell a compelling, emotionally-stirring story about hope and love over the span of hours while only killing a single alien insect speaks volumes about the quality of its writing.
However, when things get really heavy, and your mission is to travel to the past to defeat Giygas, the game makes you decide whether you’re going to risk losing your very soul by transferring it into a robot in order to go back in time and defeat Giygas (a really interesting move, if nothing else). In pondering this, you are forced to think about death for the first time, as if nothing you had done up to that point had been particularly dangerous. I really like how jarring and heavy this whole scene becomes, because it’s setting your characters up for an aspect of the game that, when finally revealed, becomes downright cathartic…
In the final fight against Giygas, as stated above, you are fighting against the very concept of evil. The absence of meaningful existence means that Giygas is specifically a lack of existence that threatens to spread and eliminate all of these lives that have been spared and are thus precious. Rather than fighting some terrible creature who wants to kill everything, we are fighting death itself, perhaps the first time in a video game that you have to square off against a philosophical concept and absolute truth in the abstract.
Plus did I mention? GODDAMN BABY
Perhaps the single greatest moment of Earthbound is when you find out, whether by taking Pokey’s hint to “call out to the darkness” or simply being desperate enough to try it (or having the strategy guide right there to tell you what to do), that all you need to do to win the battle is pray.
Paula has the command throughout the entire game, and it’s almost never used except as something to play with in the game’s creatively open battle system. Still, when faced against the worst thing imaginable, it becomes the only weapon that will save the day.
It just so happens to be one of the extremely rare instances of a TYPO in localization as well but that's beside the point
The game shows, in cut-scenes, that these prayers reach out to all the people you’ve helped and touched all throughout the game, and everyone’s family, and the prayers aren’t to a religious diety or some kind of supernatural psychic superpower, but to love. The team of 4 children are praying to the people that love them, who then answer the call and strike down Giygas.
The finishing blow, appropriately, comes from you, the actual player, who is called out by name (if you indeed gave them your name during one sequence in the middle of the game) to pray for the safety of the characters you’ve been controlling this whole time. In that sense, it’s almost as if you’re the otherworldly deity, and that final strike against the ultimate embodiment of evil becomes personal.
Once the game decides that you’re praying for the safety of the kids, Giygas is finally destroyed, and if I can talk about the aesthetics for just a second, he fizzles out of existence like a TV losing reception, and it’s the same exact “losing reception” image you get to see before the game even starts, which is astounding to me.
And it's noisy as hell to boot
With that, the kids’ souls are able to return across time and space to their bodies, and you get to personally thank all of those people who loved you enough to help you through the battles, including your family, all of those wonderful characters, and that spinning photographer guy even gives you a nice slide-show of your progress through the game.
All in all, what makes Earthbound my favorite game is the sense of life, of openness and humor, and of love that seems to have come straight from the heart of the creator and enhanced by the beautiful music, the delightful writing, and the enormously thoughtful pacing and cohesion that madethis game more of a life experience for me than any other game.
Unlike Crystalis or any Final Fantasy game that I keep beating over and over again just to go through the motions, I tend to play Earthbound when I feel like I have to, like talking to an old friend or even a member of the family (not literally, mind you, I’m not crazy). I talk to every person in every town and try to absorb as much of the dialogue, no matter how silly, because I am just so charmed by it all.
In that sense, Earthbound achieves this communication of one person’s soul to another that is rarely achieved in any area of art, much less the interactive art we call gaming. Sure, you might not see it that way, perhaps Earthbound doesn’t speak to you; maybe it’s just some RPG from the 90′s that is particularly clever for the time, or maybe it really is a life-changing experience, I don’t really mind either way.
Personally, I’ve always hesitated to say exactly how I feel about the game for a couple of reasons. For one, I don’t expect too many people to get that hung up about a game that came and went so many years ago, and that Nintendo has (rightfully) no interest in reviving, and for two, like with anyone else who does get that hung up on it, it’s a personal experience. Everything I’ve said in these 10,000 words this week are from my personal experience and thoughts about the game, with maybe a confirmation or two from the original authors, and I could easily say 100,000 more words if I felt it necessary.
Really though, what it boils down to is that anyone who plays this game will get out of it what they get out of it. There’s no “pro tip” for how to interpret this game or enjoy it, and there’s no reward for loving it as much as I do, except in my own head, and that’s why I love it more than any other game.
Thanks for reading!
Big thanks to Travis343 for unknowingly providing most of the screen shots: http://lparchive.org/Earthbound/