Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz
“The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”
Gratitude and Gifts
Welcome one and all, and welcome back to the world of EarthBound! Thanks for reading and listening, and thanks especially to everyone who has sent me comments, queries, likes, favorites, and words of encouragement. It all means a lot! I hope you continue to enjoy.
A special thanks this week to Alexander Schmid, who has invited me to talk about all sorts of stuff with him on a number of projects: on Potter’s Pockets, where we’re gleaning insights about schools and teaching from Harry Potter with our friend Sarah Miller; on Side Quests, where we’ve been discussing Final Fantasy VII from a mythological perspective, having completing a similar series on the films of Hayao Miyazaki; and most recently on a little project called Night School, where we read aloud and unpack essential American poems. All of this can be found on YouTube, or you can find out more about these projects on his Facebook page. Alex also introduced me to the Anchor platform where I started the original Bookwarm Games podcast. Through Anchor, he’s been creating prodigious lectures on Homer’s Iliad, among other topics, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in myth, psychology, and all things epic! Be warned, however: you may be inspired to create podcasts or videos of your own!
As promised this week we return to the opening sequence of EarthBound, to what one might call the overture. In the sudden stillness after Larnda Minch’s Smaaash attack sucker-punch of a slap, as the brave Buzz Buzz–this mysterious hero who has travelled from the dystopian future to call upon you to redirect the course of history through trust in wisdom, courage, and friendship, to change the world for the better–as a new day is dawning after this late and extraordinary night sometime in 199X, Buzz Buzz the revenant, the initiator of adventure, is on the brink of giving up the ghost, when fortunately he remembers to give you the Sound Stone first, and tells you what it is for.
Every game has to have its rules, whether you want to think of social conventions or dramatic unities, or how to pick who will be ‘it’ for hide-and-seek tag and where the boundaries will be set, and whether ‘olly-olly-oxen free’ will be the signal to begin a new round if someone hides too well to be found, and what to count up to. No game without rules, no poem without a form, no sense without some set of limits–no transcendence either, and perhaps no communication would be possible at all. Anyhow, these 90’s role-playing video games are of course beholden to their own characteristic rules, conventions, unities, and to the expectations of their players, and in most respects EarthBound is no exception. It’s a classic of the genre, while with any slightly closer inspection it reveals itself at the same time to be, like any great work, perfectly uncategorizable, sui generis.
As Buzz Buzz helpfully explains, your goal is to visit the eight Your Sanctuary locations, where the Sound Stone will record the precious melodies–actually bars of a single melody–which, when it is complete, when it’s integrated with your self, will open the pathway to defeating Giygas. So, as in most video games like this, and most comic books and fantasy stories, movies and anime or other cartoons, and in the kinds of imaginative play I would get into with my friends when we were running around at recess or in our backyards, or playing with Legos, or writing our own perfectly derivative stories on the old WordPerfect program that saved to actual floppy disks–in all of them, the story is basically the same: go on an adventure, defeat the bad guy, save the world. All too easy to dismiss, isn’t it?
But, again, when you attend to what’s going on in EarthBound even a little, the full force of what’s at stake there comes home with absolutely imperative urgency: to go out and find a handful of particular and infinitely significant locations scattered across the whole world, accompanied by not one but by three true friends (and Montaigne points out just how improbable it is to make even one true friend, as we’ll have to consider one of these weeks quite soon); to defeat the ultimate manifestation of evil, which is at once the most mysterious and most immediately obvious fact of existence: that there is good and evil in potential in each of us, as Solzhenitsyn maintains and as any one of the many great authors who endured the Holocaust could attest as well, that there’s the line between good and evil running through the heart of every individual and that it can, depending on the circumstances, explode in an outbreak of war and suffering, or resolve into unwavering righteousness, it could turn towards banality or transcendence; to save the world, to incarnate the promise of a prophecy that is always buzzing at our ear, visiting us in the stillness of the night with a crash or a soft voice, accompanying and protecting us whether we understand it or not, as many times as we hear those words over and over again in every generation, in every iteration–at any moment it could happen, the world could be saved, you just never know!
There’s a reason this is the story we like best to repeat, to replay, to compose songs for and comment upon ad nauseum–it’s the story that best tells us who we are, who we want to be, what it looks like to become that, what it costs–and what it means is up to us. In short, it is true for us–or not, but we certainly act as if it is. Which is just another way of saying that the story continually needs to be retold, re-experienced, just as we are here setting out to continue to tell it and enjoy it and interpret it. It is always narrowly overcoming the Starman Jr sent by Giygas to stifle it before it can begin, that Starman Jr with its own chrome-plated, narrow, destructive account of the truth, seeking to replace it. The story is always being slapped down by the rictus smile and banal hatred–hatred above all of the transcendent–represented by Pokey’s mom; it is always being fled from by cowards like Pokey, who after all is the product of such abusive parents; the wonder of it is all the time being tragically extinguished even in an adventurous little kid like Picky, still so innocent; and it is always being embraced by a determined young soul like Ness, or whatever you choose to name him.
A new day dawns, the overture concludes. The story begins again.
We’re in the suburbs of a town cheerful, bustling, evidently back to normal after the rough and extraordinary night. The cops have the Sharks, the local ruffians, contained around their turf at the arcade. Their boss, Frank, is in the back lot awaiting your challenge. The police also have the road to the next town blocked, of course–they’re going for the world record for road blocks. The crank who lives alone on the top of the hill has something marvellous to show you, he insists, but then his name is Lier X. Agerate, and he’s in advertising, so take that with a big grain of salt. The trumpet player is practicing over by the water on Beak Point, playing a melody that’s found its way into this game from yet another great work, Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World, and that will be, I think, a fitting place to pick up from next week: to look at these three solitary ones, to begin to triangulate on what Onett, your hometown, is all about.
But in the rest of this week’s session, as promised, I want to try to say something about your home, your house, where it all starts, and your family: your sister, your mom, your dad–who you only talk to on the phone, of course–and your dog, loyal yet not overly zealous, especially when you take him to the spooky hilltop with the meteorite still smouldering under the starlight. It seems like he knows, just like your mom and dad seem to know, that your adventure has begun, and they both accept this and want to support you in it, and yet know that it is yours to go on. Your dog runs back home, not to venture out again, and your mom sends you off now proudly, now wryly: ‘Yeah, sure, you’re cool! Whatever…’ runs one of her more memorable lines. Your dad gives you practical advice about saving the game and taking breaks from playing, as well as keeping you posted on your experience before gaining a level and the additions to your bank account, but also he gives very dad-type words of encouragement about working hard, ‘just like your mother.’ Indeed, she seems to always be there, ready with a homemade dish of your favorite food to replenish your health fully, and she never lets you leave the house without reminding you to change out of your jammies. Your dad never appears in the game, but he always answers your calls, saves your data and your money, and crucially reminds you that it’s a game. Your sister, Tracy, for her part, helps you by holding any extra items, if your inventory fills up (and the tiny inventory is certainly one of the logistical elements of the game which can be most vexing until you get used to it–but after all, ‘What a cute, yellow backpack’ you have). She’s also the first character you meet if you explore the hall door before going downstairs at the start of the game, setting the tone with her dialogue, at once informative and spunky, for the rest of the game. The first item you find is in a present in her room, a gift. The cracked bat is something you can use as a weapon, again reinforcing what’s different about EarthBound: in the midst of following conventions of weapon-equipping, it gives you a humble baseball bat rather than a sword.
In all, the family surrounds you and one another with love and support, each one doing their part, their role if you like, yet each one revealing flashes of individuality, genuineness, and humor, which are the hallmark of this game. Without subverting the traditional roles, your mom, dad, sister, and dog fulfill and go beyond them, giving the impression of a further story in the background, under the surface. Where is your dad all the time, for one thing? There are numerous theories, one of my favorite of which is that he is actually the photographer who drops, twirling, from the top of the screen to snap pictures of you saying ‘fuzzy pickles,’ which are then put into a scrapbook at the end credits.
For another: Why does that song that plays in your house, starting when you visit it again after leaving Pokey’s with the Sound Stone, sound so familiar? The feeling of nostalgia that accompanies the music of EarthBound, and particularly in melodies like your home and the Twoson theme, is one of the most immediately striking things about replaying the game, or in thinking about the effect it has for people. I wrote an essay on nostalgia in games which was published in a short-lived online magazine called et al., maybe you can still find it somewhere online, or stuffed in the cushions of an old couch, maybe… For now I’ll just say that the sentimentality which nostalgia can mask with the facsimile of deeper emotion is one of the things any commentator, or creative worker, for that matter, most needs to guard against–the other thing, the Charybdis to this Scylla, being boredom, triteness, the same old story being played out, mailed in, carelessly gestured at, just as sentimentality cheaply imitates the truth without faithfully breathing new life into it, without honestly letting it flex its still vigorous old life.
Both dangers, sentimentality and boredom, are a kind of false note, where the true story, as we say, rings true–it’s a felt thing, felt in the little hairs standing up on the back of your neck or by the pricking of your thumbs, in your heart beating faster and your breath quickening, in the tears that threaten to fill the corners of your eyes–and it’s real. It is present in many unexpected places, this kind of truth. But like a wrong note in a song, the closer it is to being in tune, the more dissonant it sounds. EarthBound can come very close to the irresponsibility of cheap sentiment–like in the theme song echoed in your home, in Twoson, and in the end credits, which is partially carried over from the original Mother game released only in Japan, where the song is titled Pollyanna, a synonym for trite and unsatisfying cheerfulness. Unsatisfying because fake, hollow, where true love is thick, true happiness filling: it fills and fulfills and does not merely elate or relax. And I recur to these bodily images for my testimony here not just because the end credits song in EarthBound is called ‘Smiles and Tears,’ and is a reprise of the melody in your home, Paula’s hometown, and the Your Sanctuary melody as recorded by the Sound Stone, but because the truth I’m interested in right now is embodied, is felt as that which corrects the dissonances of pollyanna sentiment and dull ennui.
That the world-saving Your Sanctuary melody and the songs running through your home and through many of the town themes are actually just different versions of the same song reflects how your family are also individuals in their own right, with their own stories; how this saving-the-world story is at once universal and endearingly particular as it plays out in Mother 2, aka EarthBound, as in any of the honest, painstaking, inspired evocations of human art and ingenuity all around us. It reminds us that the much-maligned word nostalgia, at its root, means something like homesickness, and that it’s the indomitable desire to return home which carries Odysseus through his wonderful adventures–maybe it’s that tree whose branch he grabs onto to escape Scylla and Charybdis, those terrors of the sea, which he can’t defeat, he can only elude–and he holds onto that nostalgia, that homesickness or that desire to get home until he is finally back with his wife and their son. In the game EarthBound, homesickness is actually a status ailment. Only Ness is prone to it, and calling home to your mom is the only cure for it.
Making Up for Lost Time
And now there was one more important topic that I still meant to grab onto, to keep from getting too carried away, my tree branch here, my mom’s sweet voice on the other end of the line. It’s not Homer’s Odyssey this time, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, for that matter, though their turn to shed further light on EarthBound and human nature will perhaps come–it is, as promised, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, alluding to the Shakespeare sonnet).
I especially wanted to draw a connection between EarthBound and the opening of the first book, Swann’s Way. This goes back to the point about truth being embodied in individuals, for Proust looks profoundly in two directions, faces two opposing times, comparable in this regard perhaps only to Dante: on the one hand, he sums up the riches of the past in western culture, along with its share of depravities and corruption, up until that great disintegration, the Great War; along with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, then, he on the other hand also inaugurates the beautiful new style of memoiristic stream of consciousness which, for all its excesses, has contributed in the years since then to the astonishing outpouring of voices hitherto unimagined, let alone allowed to be heard, in the purview of great world literature. With Proust’s writing, we see the cumulative experiences of classic literature, of the enlightenment, of romanticism come to a head, and the budding and flowering of something new and still to this day captivating in its forthright honesty, whether we call it modernism or postmodernism or, as I’ve opted to, memoiristic stream of consciousness–this approach to crafting language such that everyday things and experiences are imbued with depth and beauty and significance. This process is held in tremulous balance between conscious awareness and unconscious revelling, between seriousness and play, between dream and waking. If Shakespeare and Montaigne helped to create the individual, then Dante and Proust are the great poetic invokers of the whole world of space and time which we experience–Tolkien, too, and Pullman in his way, are perhaps another such pair. But that’s another story.
For our purposes now it is the way in which Proust does all this, making up the rules of a new game, if you like, or playing the same old game with novel sprezzatura–that’s a favorite art history word for you, that’s gracefully making the nigh-impossible look easy; you see it in sports the way Roger Federer plays tennis or how Pele plays soccer. The way Proust does it comes about through an insight just like the one that drives the adventure in EarthBound: in EarthBound it’s that the melody of connection to the world, the musical representation of the right relationship to things which accomplishes the saving of the world through wisdom, courage, and friendship, is the same as the song that plays in your home, in the presence of your mom and dad and sister and dog–only for Proust the metaphor is not primarily musical, at least not at first, but olfactory, carried in taste and scent, in an impression of a particular taste and smell. His Sound Stone is given to him not by a being from the future, but by his dear mom herself, who used to tuck him into bed and kiss him goodnight. It’s given to him in the form of a petite madeleine–a little cookie or cake or something–and a cup of tea. Here’s what happens (this is from the Moncrieff translation):
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
Then he tries to recover that feeling, and it’s when he stops trying to that it comes to him again. So there’s this element of the unconscious at play here, but its activated by this chance moment, a gift, which he goes on in his long book to explore quite consciously, but with a measure of chance as well, until it in turn becomes his great gift to all who read him.
(Some may be fortunate enough to be able to do so in the original French. If you listen to the podcast, at this point you can hear me try reading that same passage in French, to give the flavor of it, if not any sort of very accurate pronunciation.)
Pardon my French
One difference of course is that Proust (or his narrator, if it helps to distinguish them) is an only child, whereas Ness is not. Little Marcel seems to be quite a lonely little guy, though he has his aunt, but the parallel is clear: the flood of memories and meaning which comes through the petite madeleine for Proust, like the Sound Stone’s melody in EarthBound, is recorded in the recomposition of a whole, in the form of the book or game as a whole, including that moment or that melody. Either way, the flood of memories is triggered by something physical and expresses itself primarily in physical feelings, but it also comes accompanied by a flood of love.
This is the greatest mystery of Ness’ home and family of all, this love and its source. Where does it come from? What is its purpose? How does it work? It’s all a great mystery. And another is its representation in a character who is essentially a cipher, a kind of place-holder for the personality of the player to fill in imaginatively. Ness himself is probably one of the great mysteries of his home, along with that haunting song that plays there. Ness doesn’t speak, but in the Your Sanctuary locations where the melody plays he recovers these flashes of his past. They come in images and sensations just like the kind Proust describes, and so little by little the childhood that’s in the background of this world-saving adventure gets filled in. And then at the very end of the game–possibly–Ness speaks, in English, the only words in Smiles and Tears as it plays in the game. He says, ‘I miss you,’ stuck in towards the end of the song and thus at almost the very end of the game…
So to recap: I said a lot of stuff about games and stories in general, proposing that EarthBound is great first because it follows the basic plot and the expected ground rules for how to play a game like this, while also breathing new life into our understanding of how a story like this goes: go on an adventure to be able to defeat the evil end guy and save the world. I hinted at a few topics to be discussed further, including friendship in Montaigne and some of the political context of the 20th century, its exacerbation of the age-old human potential for good and evil in each individual, examined by the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Hannah Arendt, as well as by the luminaries and never-to-be-forgotten voices of the Holocaust, like Victor Frankl.
Thinking about nostalgia, in the sense not just of homesickness but perhaps also of a sickness in one’s homeland, we might think also of the internment camps set up during the war for Japanese Americans here in the US, for that matter, and about the victims in Japan of the only atom bombs so far used in war–all of which was, of course, the immediate historical context in which the creators of EarthBound were raised. To say these stories, too, are true, is simply to highlight the problematic social differences as well as the universal personal bases of individuality which we’re so fond of, and which together make up the picture of human nature so cherished by someone like me, a child of the freest and most diverse–socially, culturally, and intellectually–political context yet devised. It is to the representation of this particular homeland, rendered as Eagleland in EarthBound and reflected, perhaps, in more universal fashion still in Dvorak’s Symphony From the New World, which we will turn next time. Until then, take care!
Alexander Schmid’s podcast
Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s essay on Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations
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