You Should Have Been a Mother (Earthbound)
A Guest Post By Anna Wiggins
As any die-hard EarthBound fan will tell you, in Japan EarthBound is called Mother 2, and is the middle of the three-part Mother trilogy. As a child, I just knew that I didn’t like EarthBound very much. The game is full of unpredictable tonal shifts, genre pastiche, self-awareness, and quirky humor, and these were either things I didn’t fully grasp or just didn’t enjoy. Somehow, the game just left me feeling vaguely alienated. Possibly, I just wasn’t ready for it.
Part of this may have been the gameplay, too. The basics are familiar to any JRPG fan: wander around, get into fights, select actions from menus, pray quietly to yourself. But the game is difficult, even by the standards of the day. It falls prey to a lot of common design flaws in JRPGs that raise the difficulty without adding fun. For instance, many enemies summon ‘backup’ occasionally, but with no bounds on how frequently this happens in a single fight, fights can become increasingly resource-draining without bound. Critical hits from enemies are far too common, and respawn rates are high enough to make getting anywhere a slog.
Aesthetically, the game is very distinct. It has cartoony graphics; the character design is frequently compared to Charles Schulz. The battle sequences featured bizarre, abstract backgrounds, a style referred to by the designers as an attempt at creating a “visual drug” experience. The spell effects were likewise highly abstracted, patterns of lines and diamonds that feel almost like sigils. The music direction is some of the best of the era; the soundtrack has an amazing range of styles and moods.
Despite all of this, I didn’t remember much about the game before returning to it. There is one part of the game, though, that left a very strong impression on me, and which more than lives up to my memory: the final battle.
The source of evil and ultimate villain in EarthBound, Giygas, remains an unseen but often-named actor throughout the game. The final battle with Giygas is one of the most deeply unsettling experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game. It takes the game’s underlying “weirdness” and cranks it up until it lands squarely in “uncomfortable.” Even in the battle with him, Giygas remains unseen. Instead, you seem to be fighting reality: Giygas is the wavy, “visual drug” battle screen background itself, and the combat music, both of which are now more sinister than anywhere else in the game. As the fight goes on, and you damage Giygas, the music gets increasingly frantic, the background increasingly angry.
After a short intro sequence, though, the only way to hurt Giygas is via one of the character’s (Paula, the lone girl in the cast, incidentally) “Pray” ability. Throughout the rest of the game, this ability has random (and usually very minor) effects. But now, each invocation of prayer leads to a cutaway scene of the characters you’ve met along the way, each feeling called to pray for you, until the whole planet is praying at once, lending their psychic power to help you.
In the end, though, it’s still not enough. Eventually you are told that Paula’s prayer “is absorbed by the darkness.” The key, of course, is to keep hoping, keep praying. You pray again, and someone hears your prayers. And they are truly powerful. They pray and pray for you, and the strength of their hope and faith is enough to destroy Giygas and win the day. Ultimately, the game reveals their name – it is you, the player, sitting in your living room trying as hard as you can to defeat the final boss of EarthBound. (the intent of this scene is much clearer in the Japanese release, which has you enter *your* name separately from the *protagonist’s* name, and uses your name here)
In other words, these four fictional heroes only win the day and purge evil from their world because you, the player, want it that way. And you, in turn, only want it because it is the goal, it is how you complete the game. Or perhaps you’ve developed some empathy for these four children, and you want them to succeed on those grounds. Regardless, though, the point is clear: you are the arbiter of this reality, its controller and its intended audience. Everything here exists because you willed it: you inserted the cartridge, you pressed power. You with your technology summoned this world into being and plowed a mythic narrative through its landscape.
Giygas only exists because of us, because we demand conflict in our narratives. We demand that our heroes suffer. The reason Giygas is unseen is that he is the entire game, the narrative structure itself. In the context of a video game, then, he is the game mechanics, the battle music and the background and the text boxes themselves. Every time Giygas attacks, the game displays the message “You cannot comprehend the true form of Giygas’ attack.” Because Giygas is the narrative, and the characters within the narrative can’t perceive their fictional nature.
Collectively, the writers and developers and artists and ultimately the players are all Giygas’ Mother. And not just Giygas, but all the narrative pain and conflict that Giygas represents. We are the cultural Mother of a thousand demons, attempts to exorcise our own pain and fears, cast out into the void. If we simply allow it to happen differently, Ness and his friends get to live quiet, normal lives. Nobody kills Laura Palmer, she’s just a happy teenager loved by everyone in her weird little town. Saruman never comes to the Shire. But that would be boring, it would make for dull stories. Our creations must suffer for our amusement.
Is this ethical? Is it good or just? These are nonsensical questions, right? We’re dealing with fictional entities. They aren’t real, not in a tangible, material way. They don’t have interiority. No sentient beings were harmed in the making of this story. Stories are just mirrors we hold up to the world, just shadows cast on the wall. But once these stories exist, once we have looked into these mirrors, they are alive in our minds forever. Our stories are the substrate on which we build our material reality.
That’s the central question that EarthBound asks: why these stories, full of pain and loss? Why violence, why tragedy porn? We can choose which stories to tell, and we choose these stories, told this way. Itoi Shigesato stumbles into a violent scene from The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty as a young child, and that forms part of the ground on which he walks the rest of his life. It leads to a nagging question, never quite fully formed, in the back of his mind. Giygas is the suffering we inflict upon Ideaspace, and the idea that this suffering is necessary.
So Itoi creates Mother, a magical ritual to birth something new. Aside from the game’s title, this game-as-magical-birth is also hinted at in the final battle, where the distinct image of a fetus can be seen in the bizarre background imagery. (ironically, this has been widely assumed to be a reference to abortion, not birth) The final battle, then, is not just the battle to purge Giygas from the narrative, but also a difficult birth. The pulsing ring of Giygas’ attacks become contractions, Paula’s repeated prayers are rhythmic, forceful breaths.
Did he succeed? In Japan, at least, it seems like he did. The last twenty years have seen the slow but steady growth of a genre called iyashikei, heartwarming stories designed to calm and heal, trading suspense and adrenaline for anticipation and dopamine. Stories where friendship is the most important thing. Stories to defeat Giygas.
August 22, 2016 @ 3:14 pm
Wow, this is an amazing post (and it probably helps that I’m a gigantic fan of the Mother series.)
You don’t put all your cards on the table, but what I think you’re implying – that Earthbound is a magical ritual that successfully prevented Gamergate from taking off in Japan in the same way it did in the West – is just genius.
Does this mean the SNP is back on the schedule now?
August 22, 2016 @ 8:49 pm
I don’t think it was ever going to do that anyway, Japanese media has an entirely different set of gender issues to Western media. The anime I watch is more likely to fail the reverse Bechdel test than the conventional one, but it’s hardly all enlightened stuff, (even if a few of them, looking at Utena and Princess Tutu, do a better job than any Western television I’m aware of,) this is still the product of a society where women are generally expected to give up work when they get married.
The situation is generally different. You have the narrative tradition which doesn’t make everything about conflict, as Josh Marsfelder explained somewhere or other, you have the kawaii aesthetic, you have a language which has no concept of swear words and is all about not imposing on others, and so on.
August 23, 2016 @ 1:22 pm
“Earthbound is a magical ritual that successfully prevented Gamergate from taking off in Japan in the same way it did in the West”
Interestingly, in the world of RySenkari and Nivek’s Player Two Start (whose sequel, Massively Multiplayer, is now in progress on Alternate History.com), both the NES and SNES-CD versions of Mother got US releases, and Gamergate is so much less of a thing that it doesn’t even seem to be known by that name. I doubt RyNiv did that on purpose, but given the nature of Ideaspace, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
August 22, 2016 @ 4:31 pm
This definitely sounds like it had a very strong influence on Undertale. The ultimate message of Undertale is very similar, complete with an extremely trippy ending that really threw me for a loop. (I went into it mostly spoiler-free.) I wish that this series would cover it, but it wouldn’t quite fit as a modern, non-Nintendo game.
August 22, 2016 @ 5:17 pm
If you liked Undertale, I’d strongly recommend Earthbound. The battle mechanics are more basic-RPG, but the writing and design was clearly an enormous influence on Undertale.
The Flan in the High Castle
August 23, 2016 @ 8:50 am
They’re deeply connected – Toby Fox even created an EarthBound hack when he was younger. Stylistically it’s sort of a proto-Undertale, albeit with a lot of cursing and edgelord humour. He’s since disowned it, but he did reuse part of its soundtrack for the Sans battle.
August 22, 2016 @ 7:42 pm
Love it. In comic books there’s a similar complex called “the Gentry,” the jaundiced fan eye that keeps the violence happening.
August 22, 2016 @ 8:39 pm
“That’s the central question that EarthBound asks: why these stories, full of pain and loss? Why violence, why tragedy porn? We can choose which stories to tell, and we choose these stories, told this way. […] Giygas is the suffering we inflict upon Ideaspace, and the idea that this suffering is necessary.”
Or, as Grant Morrison said to Buddy Baker: “We’ll stop at nothing, you see. All the suffering and the death and the pain in your world is entertainment for us. Why does blood and torture and anguish still excite us? We thought that by making your world more violent, we would make it more ‘realistic,’ more ‘adult.’ God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.”
August 22, 2016 @ 8:50 pm
I think the main reason stories tend to be full of pain and loss might be simply because it’s easier to do.
An observation I came across which struck me as very important is that in stories, the three categories of horror, sex and melodrama often come in pairs, if a story is doing one, it’s quite likely to be doing another too. (The sex-melodrama pair isn’t very common in Western storytelling, but I think that’s just due to Abrahamic-religion hangups about sex.) And it’s not so surprising, fear, arousal and pain/loss are the most intense and unsubtle feelings.
If you’re not making a story where horrible things happen, and you’re not making porn, you need to work with more subtle feelings. And I think they’re just more challenging to work with, they don’t have “pay attention to me!” immediacy, I think different people are more likely to have different, incompatible versions of them, you need to do more groundwork to give them importance, and you need to use quieter signals which are easier to misinterpret.
When I look at Sound Euphonium, for example, (story about a wind ensemble coming together), Kyoto Animation are hands down the best animation studio in the world at conveying subtleties of mood and emotion, and they needed to take their craft to new heights just to make this thing work, I don’t think they could have pulled it off even just five years ago. While my favourite darker story of recent times, From the New World, (spoiler-sensitive,) has nothing in it which a studio like GAINAX couldn’t have pulled off 25 years ago, if they’d had the idea. (Well, the source material.)
August 23, 2016 @ 1:18 pm
“the three categories of horror, sex and melodrama often come in pairs, if a story is doing one, it’s quite likely to be doing another too. (The sex-melodrama pair isn’t very common in Western storytelling, but I think that’s just due to Abrahamic-religion hangups about sex.)”
Or, as the Player says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “[W]e can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory.”
August 23, 2016 @ 5:29 am
Great post! Lots of earthbound fans HATE the fetus thing though. But no one ever said for something to be intended to have meaning.
August 23, 2016 @ 5:32 am
To be honest though, I think it’s the conspiratorial tone of many of the people who talk about it. Like “Itoi did that on purpose!”. Though everybody who has worked on the game says it’s a coincidence. It is still interesting either way.