Haruki Murakami, Coffee Breaks, and Earthbound’s Critique of Orientalism
And here we are at week three of the RPG Club’s ongoing, off-the-wall conversation about Earthbound.
During the first week we marveled at how the game’s NPCs steal the show, while the second saw us analyzing the intersection of Earthbound‘s world with our own, and why the game’s attention to scale and scope make it feel approachable despite being so surreal overall.
This time we’re offering reactions to the game’s later acts, and with that, the beginning of the end.
Reid McCarter – One of the main bits of Earthbound that everyone comes back to is the game’s decision to feature children as its primary characters. These kids are, save one exception, from a fake setting that is obviously meant to be analogous to the America of the early to mid- 1990s.
Using the viewpoint of the most impressionable members of American society gives the game a unique perspective. It colours the portrayal of enemies — the Annoying Reveler in one town is obviously an obnoxious drunk who, to the cast, seems frightening while a group of teenaged punks hanging out in an arcade become one of the most terrifying threats of the early game — and reflects how the various regions the player visits are viewed.
One of the most striking examples is Happy Happy Village and its massive town hall full of Happy Happyist cult members, all obsessed with painting the world a single shade of blue. On the surface these cultists look a lot like hooded Ku Klux Klan members. Combine that association with their religious zealotry and it almost seems like Earthbound is using its deceptively naive viewpoint to take a look at the dangerous implications of American fundamentalists. (It’s also worth nothing that the game was in development during the ultimately horrific showdown between David Koresh’s Branch Davidian Christians and the U.S. government in Waco, Texas).
At another point the story hops over to Dalaam and the player takes control of its prince, a boy named Poo (really, I think Louis, the name I used, should be canon). The eastern town of Dalaam is depicted as the kind of incongruous mishmash of ancient Asian cultures that an uniformed Western kid may picture as a real place. The spiritual politics of Tibet are presented alongside the architecture of India and the clothing of China to form the sort of fictitious Eastern country that an uneducated American child (or, sadly, adult) may believe exists. Given the game’s Japanese development it may not be too much of a stretch to consider Dalaam’s portrayal as a dig at Western Orientalism.
Chris Waldron – Five minutes ago I was battling dinosaurs. The honest to goodness, rip you to shreds and make an hors d’oeuvre of your entrails kind of dinosaur. None of this “it’s a living” Flintstones bullshit, just teeth, claws and an evolutionary-honed desire to fuck up your day.
Thankfully, since then, things have taken a more relaxed turn. After a hasty teleport to the nearest village, a little green fellow – who presumably sensed the stress of the situation – has done the wisest thing one can do in such circumstances: forced me onto a chair and thrust a mug of tea into my willing hands. Good on you, little Tenda.
Even in a game as off-the-wall as Earthbound, the coffee/tea breaks are something of an oddity. For a few short moments we’re whisked away from the action, a spacey theme plays and an unknown entity recounts the perils we’ve faced thus far. In a clear ode to reflection and personal growth we’re treated to a rather mystical pep talk that hopes to strengthen our resolve for the looming trials. This emphasis on growth is made clear in the title to the sublime backing track: You’ve Come Far, Ness. Indeed he has.
For me, a nice cup of tea can be a welcome respite from a stressful day and I know I’m not alone. At this very moment, there are people from all corners finding a moments sanctuary within a steaming mug of tea or coffee. Much like Ness and his friends, we use these hot drinks as a small escape from the hustle and bustle. Whether you’re on a early morning commute, facing a ever closer deadline, or fighting a dinosaur with a frying pan, a hot drink can always help to grease the wheels of our daily irritations.
But sadly for Ness (and for everyone else) you can’t hide away in a teacup forever. Each time you take a break in Earthbound it’s made clear that eventually it has to end. Soon the warm and comforting liquid will dry up and you’ll have to face what lays before you. But take heart! With your newly refreshed spirit and bolstered resolve you’re ready to face whatever Giygas throws at you. And is that not why we buy coffee and tea in droves? To take a restorative break from the stresses of daily life and feel the rejuvenating boost of caffeine whirring through our systems. We may not get a otherworldly pep talk, but hey, we’re not the ones fighting unimaginable evil.
The psychedelic backgrounds and deep internal reflection of the tea/coffee scenes have provoked the inevitable drug-based comments but I really don’t think that’s what’s going on here. After all, this is a cheeky tea break in Tenda Village not ‘magic cakes’ down at the Stoic Club. Although, both cases (be it hallucination or otherwise) will probably lead to you seeing a lot more dinosaurs within the near future.
*Authors note: four cups of tea were drunk during the formation of this post. I’m genuinely surprised it wasn’t more.
Ethan Gach – How people use coffee actually provides an interesting way to think about Earthbound. Sometimes it’s the focal point of a relaxing ritual, like the breaks at various spots in the game. You can’t even rush these slowly paced chill out sessions, let alone skip them.
We’re so impatient and demanding with our games today that forcing the player to listen to some beats and reflect on their journey in a modern title seems just about unthinkable. We don’t want to stop and think, or have to sit through some boring cutscene or conversation. If it’s not getting me further in the game, lining my avatars’ pockets with cash, or building out their XP, then what’s the point?
Then there’s the modern workplace, coupled with the new drive-thru, walk-thru coffee consuming culture. Why take a coffee break when you can drink it at your desk while emailing out solutions to problems that don’t even exist? Why take a coffee break when the coffee tastes like shit because it was brewed from efficiently produced but sub-par beans, by a cheap and efficient but inadequate drip coffee machine? Why sit in the park sipping lattes with a friend when the point is to be seen walking about town with Starbucks branded Styrofoam in your hand looking professional and important and jacked up on caffeine because that’s how you get shit done?
This goes against the very core of what Earthbound is, or at least what it asks of the player. I’m slumming it through the slow churning currents of Deep Darkness where the enemies are as brutal and relentless as they get (short of being giant dinosaurs). Prior to that I was crawling through a Fourside sewer, fighting evil hieroglyphs in a pyramid, climbing up through the caves of Dalaam, and traversing the inside of Dungeon Man. I’ve played Earthbound several times before, but I honestly forgot how brutal the dungeon crawling can get in the latter half of the game.
All of which is to say that the more I try to brute-force my way through the game in order to stay on track for these discussions and get to the moments I recall most fondly, the more I feel the game chewing me up and spitting me out. Even if you cut the game’s battle grinding in half, you’d still be left with something that punishes you for taking things too fast and refusing to play through the details.
It’s not just that the game’s best moments are found in non-descript conversations with lonely NPCs in small upstairs rooms at the farthest reaches of the map, or the rich, psychedelic backgrounds that define the spaces where battles occur.
Earthbound really wants you to talk to EVERYONE, and see what happens when you use functionless items (like handbag straps and protractors), and confront the discomfiting sense of isolation that permeates even the game’s warmest scenes and most intimate idiosyncrasies (am I the only one who feels profoundly burdened by such a life-like world in which such human acting NPCs are nevertheless bound to such narrow and confining roles? I honestly can’t remember the last time I found an NPC so interesting, so likeable, that their rehearsed script and invisible anchor felt so sinister, so criminal).
Tom Auxier — Confession: I’m not replaying Earthbound with these other guys. I’ve played it too much already, and too recently (Christmas).
More than Earthbound being the game that’s most defined my life—maybe Chrono Trigger—Earthbound deserves note because of the unlikely connection between Shigesato Itoi, the game’s designer, and Haruki Murakami, perhaps Japan’s greatest literary treasure.
I first read Murakami in college, a creative writing major who’d read a lot of genre but little else. He spoke to me because here was an author who didn’t care about labels. Sure, his most famous book is the straight-up literary romance of Norwegian Wood, but his other books featured protagonists with weird, mathematical superpowers exploring black underground caves, getting beaten up by thugs, and listening to a lot of jazz records.
In a lot of ways, his work reminded me of Earthbound: its willful disregard for prevailing styles, its embrace of the absurd, and the dreamy, magical realist style of both works. Most of my college life was waiting for someone to translate Earthbound’s sequel Mother 3, and that work bears even more similarity to Murakami.
So, it surprised me, years later, to realize that Itoi and Murakami had written a book together, back in the eighties, when Murakami wasn’t yet Japan’s greatest literary export and Itoi was still writing his famous copy.
Let’s Meet in a Dream isn’t completely in English, and few of Itoi’s segments have been translated. It’s a nonsensical book, the kind I’m amazed was ever published, where two men with huge ideas pretty much wrote down the strangest things you could think of. Murakami wrote a poem about Japanese baseball star and recently fired Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. There’s another about playing poker with turtles.
But it reminds me of Earthbound, with its residual strangeness. You’re all getting to the latter half of the game, where things go off the rails a little bit. The pacing gets a bit weird. The towns stop counting out your progress and begin going through the seasons. The second half of the game feels like summer vacation, while the first half feels like school, with its structure and order. As it progresses, it begins, to me, to feel like the second half of Murakami’s best novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, as the world becomes stranger and stranger and envelopes you in its oddness, as the world around you begins to distort into the previously hinted fantasy.
Hey, it’s just what the world does. You get older, and things get stranger. Summer becomes fall, and suddenly the world reads like a poem about the Yakult Swallows instead of like Eagleland. It happens.
Join us next week for our final thoughts on the game as a whole, including the ending, as well as a multi-media assemblage of the most interesting things said by us and the rest of the Internet about Earthbound.