Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz
“The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”
Welcome one and all! I am Wesley Schantz, and I will be discussing EarthBound and Hamlet today, as what I hope will be the first of a myriad of games, books, and works of art; works of technology and works of nature–of human nature as it relates to the world, and of the world of nature generally–which I’ll bring together in what I hope, again, will be an interesting, somewhat new and also somewhat old-fashioned way.
I’ll be looking at EarthBound from the standpoint of one who is pursuing truth, which I take to be the most worthwhile possible thing to aim for in any discussion, in any walk of life, however small a matter it may seem we are discussing in taking up this video game for the Super Nintendo. I first played EarthBound when it first came out in the US in the 90s, when I was a little under ten years old, so just growing up, in the DC suburbs, playing video games with my friends… I do think that even then we were pursuing the truth in our own way, though of course we wouldn’t have put it like that then–to us playing video games and playing tag and hide-and-seek, or Legos, was just that: playing and having fun; it was just what we liked to do, and so it seemed good to us to get to do it when we got done with school or came back from soccer practice. Reflecting on all this now, I think the truth is big enough to include play, and stories, certainly, even down to the level of one’s personal story, and though I don’t want to spend too much time on this in my own case on this program, it will of course influence what I have to say.
Among the many other people who have had their say about EarthBound and similar games, people on YouTube like MatthewMatosis or Clan of the Gray Wolf, whose videos have gained enough popularity to have come to my attention–thanks to my friend Steven, who keeps me in the loop about those things and whom I will be having on this program to chat and help me think through these matters–I think they, too, are getting at the truth through these games we all love, after their own way. But I think my own work will be a bit different in the avowedly philosophical approach I’m trying to take here. I just hope it will still be entertaining enough for people to get interested.
Essentially I’ll be approaching EarthBound with the presupposition that if we immerse ourselves in it and treat it with respect on its own terms, what it is will turn out to be something quite astonishing, able to teach us, as does an immersion experience in a foreign language; or as does an apprenticeship to a master teacher in any field of human striving, technology, or practice; or as does seeking the truth in the natural world as a scientist; or as does speaking with one’s neighbors as Socrates would do–treating the game as if it had something important to say, we will not be disappointed.
Thus I’ll approach EarthBound just how I approach a great book. While I don’t want to get into the discussion right now of the canon and its influence on culture and so on–I think it’s an important discussion, and these are topics worth talking about–I take it as a given that there are such things as great books, great works of art, that they are actually great, universally recognizable, because they have effectively infinite depth, and are inexhaustibly able to teach us and enrich our lives. It’s my contention, then, that EarthBound does present itself as having an important story to tell, although it is not a game which takes itself too seriously, of course, and part of its charm comes from the gentle undercutting of the stereotypical mythic fantasy video games of that time and place, such as the Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy series. I say this mostly because of the overarching story of EarthBound, which is openly mythic in scale, and because of its themes of wisdom, courage, and friendship, which I don’t think it is any way holding up to ridicule or trying to do anything but to celebrate and cultivate in the people playing the game, who are willing to invest their time and energy and emotions in the characters and the world so lovingly crafted by the game developers, writers, translators, etc. And in this interplay of mutual gratitude between the creators and the players, well, I see nothing but an earnest beauty–albeit one with a sense of humor, that is right in not taking itself too seriously; and that humility is itself part of its greatness.
Do you hear a buzzing that sounds like a bee flying around?
To get into the beginning of the game, the way I like to describe it is: it opens with a crash and with a transformation. There is something that has landed on a hilltop behind your house, that wakes you out of your sleep. Is it an earthquake? Is it a monster? You go and investigate. It’s a meteorite.
The glowing meteorite at the top of the hill turns out to have coincided with the arrival from the future of Buzz Buzz, who introduces himself by saying ‘A bee I am not…’ His consciousness has been placed into the bee-like mechanism to be able to travel back in time to make contact with you, Ness–or whatever you’ve named yourself–and to deliver this important message: in the prophecy of something called the Apple of Enlightenment, it is said that four young friends, three boys and a girl, will stand against Giygas, the universal cosmic destroyer, and will prevail. Immediately you choose to accept the quest, and your neighbor who has also come to investigate, Pokey, backs out. But as we’ll see, his cowardice does not prevent him from trying to take advantage of the situation using his knowledge of the future, his knowledge of what’s going on, and throughout the game he’ll serve as a kind of counterpart to Ness, a foil to your own quest.
Now, intentionally or–almost certainly–not, Buzz Buzz’s name, and even that first speech he has, ‘a bee I am not,’ alludes to Hamlet. I’m going to go on a digression here on this word, Buzz, so bear with me. In Hamlet–this is Act II, scene 2, line 393–Hamlet says “Buzz, buzz!” There’s a comma in between and an exclamation point at the end, but this is clearly Buzz Buzz’s name. Now this line is usually glossed something like this–this is in the Riverside Shakespeare–it says ‘Buzz: exclamation of impatience at someone who tells news already known.’ So it’s a kind of expression of disdain for his pompous advisor, Polonius, who’s come to tell him news that he already knows, which is actually about a group of actors–players, as they’re called in the play–who’ve come to the castle. I’ve also heard it explained as a sound for basically the way we might today boo a bad performance or a wicked action.
With this footnote and with Buzz Buzz from EarthBound in mind–just like by playing games, you can learn a lot by looking at the footnotes!–you might look back at the previous exchange with Hamlet’s treacherous friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where they have already told Hamlet the news about the actors, and see there is probably a longer note there on the use of the word ‘innovation’–that it means something closer to revolt or disturbance, referring either to some political unrest or to the vogue of children actors, to explain why these grown-up actors are forced to travel to the castle of Elsinore. Apparently (this is Rosencrantz speaking) they’ve been driven out by an ‘aery of children, little eyases’ (339). That’s glossed as meaning basically a nest of unfledged hawks, which I find interesting, because just before Polonius enters, Hamlet will say basically that he knows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are themselves only acting, having been sent by the King, his ‘uncle-father,’ and Queen, his ‘aunt-mother.’ He says, ‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’ This makes me think he is already making the association between the actors and tools–he’s picking up on Rosencrantz’ words about the children, comparing to hawks, and he’s picking up on his friends acting as the tools of the King and Queen, and he’s already making his plan, which he’ll have in place by the end of the scene, to have a play performed to dramatize the killing of his father, the regicide his father’s Ghost has told him of, and to observe its effect on his uncle, identified by the Ghost as the murdering usurper. That’s where Hamlet will have his famous lines, ‘The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.’
Looking just a little further back, Hamlet has used the bird imagery himself already in line 293. This is where he’s telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, essentially, that he knows that they’ve been sent. ‘I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.’ The note there says this means it will not be impaired in the least, but of course it’s another bird image, another flight image, and Hamlet goes on to describe his state: ‘I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me–nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so’ (293-310).
That last part there about ‘nor woman neither’ seems to be a sexual joke. This is Polonius’ theory about Hamlet’s madness, namely that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter. When he noticed that, as he says, ‘When I had seen this hot love on the wing…” That’s his metaphor–not to get too English professor-y here, but this metaphor of flight is very insistent in these lines, and it’s there in EarthBound, too. Buzz Buzz, of course, although not a bee, is in the body of what seems to be a mechanical bee–to be or not to be?–and he flies around you in circles once he joins you, once you’ve accepted your quest, your destiny. In that flight, he’s representing something that’s connected to the earth but in a different way than you are, in a freer way, and in that circular motion he’s performing a kind of dance constantly, representing how this connection and this freedom are in contact.
Now in Hamlet, Polonius is basically saying that he intervenes to try to cut short the romance between Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius goes on (line 139):
No, I went round to work,
And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
‘Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:’ and then I prescripts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;
And he repelled–a short tale to make–
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for.
So, Polonius’ reading of Hamlet’s madness is that it’s a result of his own intervention to stop his daughter from showing any affection and returning Hamlet’s signs of love.
The connection to EarthBound is very tentative, admittedly! And maybe it would be more accurate after all to say that it’s only because I’m looking for it that I’m seeing it, like all this imagery about birds, feathers, wings, work. But from when I first read Hamlet in high school to when I used to teach it, the ‘Buzz, buzz!’ line always stood out to me because it reminded me of the beginning of EarthBound, and then once I’d read Hamlet, whenever I would go back and play EarthBound again, the character Buzz Buzz would remind me of Hamlet. This is another way in which games and books and works of art and even play enrich us: they set up these associations, so that they give us a framework, a vocabulary, an imaginative well from which to draw when we face difficulties in our life. This is what Hamlet resolves to do, even in his irresolution: to use the play as a thing, so it’s not just ‘words, words, words,’ not just entertainment: it’s an effective tool to begin to set things right.
Now, I recall as a child playing this game, all of Buzz Buzz’s long speeches were kind of boring. He acknowledges this, and at a certain point he’ll tell you ‘thank you for listening to [his] long story.’ If you’re not careful, though, the game gives you the option of hearing it over again, so if you’ve just been pushing the button to get through his lines and not really reading them, when you push the button it will send you back to the start of his speech and it will play through again for you! So in thanking you for listening to it, the game, ironically, is actually forcing you to read what Buzz Buzz is saying, because it’s important.
For all Buzz Buzz’s wordiness, I thought even as a kid that he makes up for it by being very powerful in battle. The first boss is Starman Jr, who followed Buzz Buzz from the future, teleporting in and blocking your way when your house is almost in sight. He uses fire attacks which would easily wipe out your party, except for the psychic shield Buzz Buzz interposes over you, and while your attacks with the cracked bat hardly put a dent in his shiny metal armor, Buzz Buzz’s attacks do something like twenty times the damage, knocking him out within a few rounds.
Nevertheless, the aid he can give is somewhat short-lived–the battle has exhausted him, and then when Pokey’s mom swats him, saying he’s a dung beetle, she crushes him, and it is all he can do to deliver his last words–maybe several times, if you’re just clicking through– before passing away. But a brief note about the dung beetle reference there: the dung beetle, of course, is also the divine scarab of ancient Egypt, rolling the sun god through the sky–and that connection of the high and the low is as Shakespearean as anything in EarthBound. In those last words is also when Buzz Buzz gives you the Sound Stone and explains its use, which we’ll go over next week.
As you can see, I’m going to presuppose that anyone still reading or listening at this point has played the game already, or at least has a certain amount of interest in it for its own sake, and won’t mind if I don’t tell the story in a linear way, on the one hand, or if I let slip some spoilers now and then in my analysis and my attempts at synthesis. Needless to say, I strongly recommend playing EarthBound, and that goes for each of the games and books and other works I’ll be talking about here–read them for yourselves, play them for yourselves. If I bring in references that seem like a stretch, it’s because I only want to get to talk about the best works and put them into conversation with one another, rather than setting myself up as some kind of arbiter or general critic. I speak as one who loves this stuff, as an amateur in the root sense of that word, the radical sense if you like, being love; not speaking as an expert, but as one who has a fair amount of experience with the material, certainly, having studied and taught great books one way or another for about ten years, and having played video games sometimes more attentively, sometimes less so, longer than that, since childhood. I’m going on my fourth decade now, so I’m very glad to finally be sitting down to do this. I definitely hope you enjoy reading or listening as much as I’m enjoying making these. I’ll try to release new material regularly, I’m hoping once a week, and I’m looking forward to your comments and to any questions you want to post in response.
To recap: The pursuit of pleasure–having fun–the pursuit of happiness is sure to develop into the pursuit of truth, because when you come across truly great games, books, works of art, teachers and creators, as you are bound to do, who approach their work with care, gratitude, humility, there’s a depth there and enrichment of your own life which will be unmistakable. EarthBound is such a game for many reasons, the first of which is the emphasis on your actions saving the world through the qualities which Buzz Buzz sets out for you: wisdom, friendship, and courage.
With that, the adventure of EarthBound has begun, and the Bookwarm Games project is up and running! In the next episode, we’ll begin to look more closely at the concept of home and its relationship to the theme of family that is most clearly indicated by the original title of the game, Mother 2; we’ll also go on to make some more specific connections to literature, the book next week being Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, where he is talking in the opening of that book about his own room that he slept in as a child and his famous madeleine-cake-induced flood of memories. We’ll look at how that connects to the Sound Stone and the memories that are released at Your Sanctuary locations in EarthBound. So we’ve had Shakespeare in week one, we’ll have Proust in week two–not bad company so far for EB to brush elbows with. Until next time, take care!
Some inspiration from MatthewMatosis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO1ckmGe-do
An EB history by Clan of the Grey Wolf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvyb_oNybOI
The full text of Hamlet: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/
And a little about the Scarab/Dung Beetle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarab_(artifact)
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