Earthbound: Picking up the Pieces Before Leaving it all Behind
And so we arrive at the end of our journey. The Pixels or Death RPG Club has completed its first game. The road was long, not everybody made it, and even those of us who did are still left reeling from the game’s non-traditional conclusion.
For the month of September the group will be moving on to 1998′s Parasite Eve for the Playstation. You can find our first discussion of that game’s opening hours posted here, but meanwhile, here are our concluding thoughts on Shigesato Itoi’s Earthbound for the SNES.
Reid McCarter: Giygas never seemed like much of a threat throughout Earthbound. For all of the game’s talk of the alien creature . . . thing‘s ability to destroy the world the player is never given a glimpse of Giygas or any concrete example of how terrible its arrival on the planet would be. Its presence is only really felt through the appearance of enemy Starmen and they’re hardly very frightening. This makes it a bit surprising when the main characters end up confronting an end boss that is actually one of most frightening opponents in videogames to date.
I haven’t played Mother 1 or 3 and have kept myself from reading any analysis of the game, so my interpretation of Giygas has been formed entirely based on how it appears in Earthbound. Even free of outside context, the game succeeds entirely in creating a villain that embodies irrational hatred, anger, and (maybe most surprising of all) total sadness. Considering that Giygas speaks very few lines and takes the form of nothing more than an egg-like orb and a swirl of reds and blacks its effect on the player is profound. The creature is left primarily to the imagination, the splashes of crimson and darkness that constitute its body providing an abstract hell with room enough for the eyes to fill in whatever forms they find (I made out the outline of a fetus toward the end of the battle). Couple this with Giygas’ sparse dialogue (like when it groans out, “It . . . hurts . . .” after receiving damage — and the ultimate impression is fairly disturbing.
Earthbound is full of vague suggestions of danger, a few seemingly nonsensical NPC conversations and the surrealist bent of places like Moonside offering little glimpses into the impossibly strange and unknowable pockets of existence that seem to lurk around every corner of the game’s world. As we get older, being afraid of the unknown becomes less of an issue. Although there are artists (David Lynch for example) who are able to help us remember that all of the logic and knowledge we accrue throughout our lives can be tossed on its head by the appearance of truly alien phenomena, it is kids who are most deeply affected by the kind of fear that true mystery creates. This type of terror is what Giygas seems to represent.
If Earthbound is a portrayal of the world through a child’s eyes then Giygas is the embodiment of every time we wake up from a nightmare, heart pounding and frozen in bed, as a kid. It’s a villain that evokes the dark shadows of the basements that our moms made us fetch freezer food out of; the helplessness of witnessing a furious adult screaming at someone; the deep, deep sadness of realizing that a dead pet or relative has simply ceased to exist. So much of Earthbound is filled with the joy of childhood, but its ultimate villain reminds us that the same naivety that made out birthdays so inexplicably wondrous and our sunny days so impossibly beautiful also made the our fears so momentously awful.
Chris Waldron: After hours of battling, travelling, text scrolling and innumerable PSI Freeze blasts it’s all come down to this: Giygas, the unknowable evil from the wrong side of the cosmic tracks. Reid has already covered Giygas’ overbearing creepiness so I have little to add in that respect. Instead, I’ll address something else; something I didn’t expect after Ness proved triumphant. The prayers rang out, the beast evaporated and I was whisked off to what I thought would be a concluding cutscene followed by a hasty roll of the credits, but to my surprise, control was returned to me, and the world opened up once again. Earthbound wasn’t over, not quite yet.
The finer details of Earthbound’s end-game are rather easy to miss. The only instructions you have is to return Paula home before heading back to your own. For all you know little has changed in Earthbound’s world, so what reason would you have to continue exploring? But if you set aside those feelings and take one last look across the land, you’ll notice that news of your victory is spreading, and things are moving on as a result.
The first thing you’ll likely notice is that enemies no longer stalk the streets. Following Giygas’ defeat the world is now at peace and what was once a veritable death-march through the swamps of the Deep Darkness is now a (very soggy) walk in the park. If Giygas was an embodiment of childhood nightmares then Earthbound’s post-game is a soothing motherly voice assuring us that the worst is finally over.
With the threat of annihilation a thing of the past a great deal of NPCs take the opportunity to move on with their lives. Mr. Carpainter, figurehead of the Happy Happyists, now ruminates on the value of freedom from the serene setting of a cow pasture. While somewhat tragically, Pokey’s father becomes a barfly in Jackie’s Cafe, and drowns his sorrows in a wash of ‘cappuccinos’. But perhaps the change that had the biggest impact on me was that of Frank, slick leader of the Onett Sharks. As the first real boss, Frank (and that fucking switchblade) posed a major threat to an early-game Ness, especially in the hands of a pathetic JRPG scrub such as myself. And now here he stands in the Onett Burger shack, flipping a patty for the kid who saved the universe. My how far we’ve come.
Now it could be argued that there’s little point to any of this. After all, they serve no practical purpose. In fact, the experience is typified by a rather subversive sidequest involving some formerly shy Tendas and an overdue library book. The reward for completion? Nothing but a kiss from an over-familiar librarian. Just another of Earthbound’s non-to-subtle jabs at RPG convention. But regardless, it serves as a neat little bonus for the committed and as I sunk deeper and deeper into Earthbound, the NPCs and their environments proved themselves the stars of the show. I wanted to know what became of them, and the closure gained from finding out evoked both a sense of accomplishment and a certain degree of sadness to be leaving them behind.
So farewell NPCs of Earthbound. Truly, you were bunch of mad bastards. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Mike Barrett: “I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I quit Earthbound. Ness may have an infinite pool of courage and stamina that allows him to continue on no matter how many times he “gets his head handed to him,” but I don’t. Most of my waking hours are taken up by work, so getting home and turning on the game only to spend hours losing to random enemies as I stumble about trying to progress finally took its toll. My life doesn’t have room for the endless video game pursuits it did back when this title first came out.
And that’s the thing with Earthbound that makes it so hard to play these days – I’m an adult now. I’ve got bills, work, social responsibilities, and countless other things clogging up my time. Earthbound is a child’s world, as we’re so fond of reminding you. It’s not wrong, it’s just a different perspective.
It reminds me of a test of riddles I once took in a psychology class in college. The teacher asked the room, “How do you get a giraffe into a refrigerator?” And we responded with all sorts of logical, and gruesome, ways one might compress a massive animal into a normal sized fridge. Cutting it up was the most common response, but we were wrong.
“No. Open the fridge, put the giraffe inside, and close the door.”
We all immediately rolled our eyes, naturally. It was a deceptively simple answer that had eluded well over 100 people. But when young children are asked the same question, that’s the most common response (according to researchers.) And how do you get an elephant into the fridge? Open the door, take the giraffe out, put the elephant in, and close the door, duh. If the lion, king of the jungle is having a party, what animal doesn’t attend? The elephant, obviously, because he’s still in the fridge. And if I want to cross a dangerous river full of crocodiles, how should I do it? Wait until the crocodiles leave for the lion’s party.
The point of those silly riddles was to show the difference in thought processes between children and adults. What seems obvious and logical to one doesn’t necessarily come so easy to the other. Perhaps that’s why Earthbound and I don’t get along so well. Like a parent struggling with an out of control child or a rebellious tween, we just don’t understand each other. ”
Ethan Gach: Playing Earthbound for the first time when I was eight, I couldn’t grasp the true horror of the game’s last segment. Ness and his friends have been transformed into robots and hurdled thousands of years back in time to a nearly formless mountain range. Giygas fills the cave that you finally find him in, pulsing with dread, and there you are to stop him–to kill him before he ever grows into the being that threatens the galaxy later on.
Because Earhtbound was one of the first RPGs I ever played, I didn’t have much to compare it to. The last fight against Giygas somehow felt natural and obvious, despite its complete unorthodox approach to final boss fights. You don’t overpower the alien being. You can’t. Instead, you must rely on Paula praying from the bottom of her heart to friends, acquaintances, and most significantly you the player. Giygas is destroyed not by Psi Fire for multi-bottle rockets, but through the will and desire of the player alone.
Especially after so much time spent being quirky and cute, familiar but strange, the last battle is both darker and completely distinct from every other confrontation in the game. As Paula preys for your party, some resulting force is slowly degrading Giygas emotionally, mentally, ontologically. Giygas becomes evil, it feels “g o o d” and sad and starts acting out like a child who’s abandoned by its mother and now under attack by a party of beings who are literally going to erase it from existence.
All these years later I still haven’t unraveled everything that happens at the end of Earthbound, or what I think of it all, but I do know it remains special and unique, even after all this time. And this is in no small part due to how much the game drops its inhibitions in that final stretch and lays most (if not all) of it’s cards on the table.
Reading through Tim Rogers’ definitive review of the game, on passage really stuck out to me,
The scattershot method that had produced Yume de aimashou was also used in Mother 2. Itoi says that Mother was more or less based verbatim on the story of the novel. The only challenge was twisting the novel’s story so that it fit into the context of a videogame. Battles, for example, which had to exist for the game to be a worthwhile Dragon Quest clone, had to be explained in supplemental story material. Mother 2, says Itoi, was written much less like a novel or a videogame adaptation of a novel and more like a newspaper. The producer’s job in the production of the game was akin to that of a copy-editor. Rather than write stories, the copy-editor has to look at all the stories that other editors have written, and face the most difficult decisions that come with putting together a newspaper: that is, the positioning of the stories on the page. In videogames and in newspapers, the positioning of the elements is far more key, says Itoi, than the quality of the elements themselves.
The question that’s been gnawing at me throughout our play-through of Earthbound is why I find its world and journey so compelling despite the fact that both its plot and characters are paper thin. I think Rogers gets at why when he call’s out Itoi’s process for making the game.
As a copy-editor, Itoi is responsible for bring some sort of overriding narrative cogency to a number of otherwise unrelated objects and occurrences. Part of what makes the places in Earthbound continue to feel so real to me is that they are constructed with their own issues and routines in mind, rather than simply existing to reinforce the all-encompassing journey of the hero as happens in most other JRPGs. Most conversations with NPCs sound like they’re occurring mid thought, or as if they’re speaking not to you but just in generally, and each providing a small window into that character’s life that makes it feel like it’s whole even if we can never glimpse the rest of it.
Originally, I thought the fact that the Earthbound guide included the made-up front pages of newspapers from the places Ness visits was just a cool side-show. Increasingly though I see how central they were to giving the journey a sense of continuity, as well as providing insight to Itoi’s own process for creating the game. Earthbound’s sense of realness comes from the realistic amount of disjointedness that exists from one person, place, and thing to the next. Like a newspaper editor, Itoi was tasked with positioning the elements of a story around one another and subtly contextualizing them so as to make the weakly linear chain of events make some sort of intuitive sense to the reader/player. Of course, much of the beauty of Earthbound is just how little sense the game makes once you peel away that surface level coherence, much like “real” life.