Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz
Please enjoy listening to this accompanying piece referenced in this article.
“The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”
Welcome to the third installment of our series on EarthBound and its philosophical ramifications. This is truly the third-strongest episode, in which we’ll look at three mighty individuals: Lier X. Agerate, Frank, and the Beak Point trumpet player.
Before we begin, a big thanks this week goes to Pat Ward of AmPatCorp, sole corporate (and so-far-imaginary) sponsor of Bookwarm Games. Pat was one of my co-writers on those Zelda: A Link to the Past-inspired stories I mentioned last time, and ever since then his insights about education and practicing what you preach have been an inspiration. Indeed he’s been a main impetus for getting this project realized. He’s been a loyal listener since those days we used to ride the bus to school and back, spinning yarns, and he follows the podcast even though he’s never actually played EarthBound. He’s got his first kid now to think about, though, so who knows, once he’s a little older maybe they’ll play through some of the old classics together.
Being a teacher in public schools for about a decade and now also online, I’ve been thinking that video games might someday soon be taught the way books are taught, but I recognize the devil’s in the details of the way books are taught. Anyone who’s gone to school and had reading ruined for them simply by it being assigned, because that compulsion in itself and the association of reading books with assignments and sitting through boring classes and unpleasant teachers and all the cliché trappings of school-related misery are enough to do it, even if the book in itself might be good or even great. There’s been a regrettable attempt to ‘engage’ kids with books that are supposedly more ‘relevant’ to their lives, so great books, and the very concept of a great book, are being culled from reading lists, and from our thinking about teaching–but, contrariwise, this could be the very thing that fuels a renaissance in people actually then reading them, you know, because most students won’t read what’s assigned anyway, but kids do get intrigued by whatever they’re told they’re not supposed to do. So if they’re told reading these books is not good for them, or if reading them is taken as actually good by someone whose values they admire more than they dislike reading, either way, there’s hope.
So it’s a delicate balance, this art of getting people to read great stuff and think about it, but I have seen it work, both in schools where there’s a healthy culture and, by that kind of reverse psychology, in ones where there isn’t; and certainly after people get free of school, later on in life their interest in actually learning, not just rebelling or doing desultory work for a grade, can really become reborn. I believe there’s an audience of people like this out there, and so I hope these words of encouragement find their way to them in a good hour!
As with reading great books, playing the best games ultimately speaks for itself. And maybe the same ones won’t say the same things to everyone, but what schools could be are places for people to share whatever good they have been able to take from books and games, and certainly places to learn the language in which to do this, to begin to see patterns in them, and to benefit from a kind of cultural inheritance free for the taking: the wealth of what people before us and in other places and times have gained.
The Fool on the Hill
Picking up the thread from the last couple of weeks, then, with Buzz Buzz’s words ringing in your ears and their unexpected echoes in Hamlet in your mind, the Sound Stone in your pocket, or down at the bottom of your yellow backpack, and a taste of Proust’s petite madeleine–or whatever you named your favorite food, since that’s many letters too long–lingering in your nostrils, on your breath, on your tongue, you set out from home once more, in the daytime now, to find the first Your Sanctuary location, Giant Step, and to explore your hometown, Onett.
First, you may recall that Lier X. Agerate, the strange and slightly creepy guy who lives up the hill, asked for you to visit him so he could show you something. You don’t need to go pay that visit–the story will progress just the same whether you do or not–but if you choose to retrace your steps to his door, you’ll find him waiting eagerly for you, one of those people one hardly has the heart to let down, hard as it is to take pity on or feel curiosity towards him. For me Lier X. Agerate represents the limits of imaginative sympathy: he’s just sort of sad and gross. And yet if you do follow him down the hole he’s dug through the floorboards of his house and through the winding tunnel he’s excavated into the hill, his face turned eagerly to see if you’re following all the way, at the end you’ll come to a small chamber lit by the eerie sheen of a golden statue. As he rambles on about his garlic diet and his hopes for further discoveries, you may notice the statue’s horns, its sword, the way its eyes seem to follow you, the surreal sparkles emanating from it, which if you inspect with the check command–or the L button, for convenience–are accompanied by a synesthetically twinkly sound effect, seeming to echo in some space larger or otherwise-dimensioned than the little dead-end room. You learn later–after you leave Lier X. down there, climbing back toward the light and fresh air of your adventure and leaving him to his spades and wheelbarrows of dirt and his meretricious promise of a further hoard–that this one treasure will be taken from him, betraying and abandoning him soon enough, so that despondent he’ll dig no more for the rest of the game.
Possibly Lier has an analogue in the old man in the cave in Mother–though my Mother lore is rusty, I seem to remember a character who lives deep in a cave–or in the Beatles song “Fool on the Hill.” He certainly has a parallel in Carpainter, the cult leader whom we next see in the company of what we’ll learn is known as the Mani Mani statue, two weeks or so from now, then later in Monotoli, still some months away, and at last in Ness–or whatever name you’ve chosen–after you’ve completed the Sound Stone melody and must confront your shadow, the form of your inner demon which is none other than the golden figure idolized by Lier and his greedy ilk.
But just as tantalizing as that sparkly sound effect or these foreshadowings is the connection between Lier X. Agerate and the creator of EarthBound, Shigesato Itoi, who also made his name in advertising (like Lier, he’s a billboard guy. Also like Brickroad, a dungeon designer you meet later in Winters, one of my favorite characters in the game). For this week’s commentary, and as we go along, too, I’ll begin availing myself of a few secondary sources. The best I know of is Legends of Localization, by a localizer named Clyde Mandelin, who has also been instrumental in the online community surrounding EarthBound on starmen.net, under the handle Tomato, where you’ll find an incredible profusion of fan-made materials and resources about the game. In the second book in that series, some amazing material on Itoi is brought to light. Part of the reason I talk about this now is because Itoi’s real-world writing is highlighted in the form of the magazine stuffed behind the couch in the house on Beak Point overlooking the sea. When later in the game you’re able to afford this property, you go in not only to find that magazine story but also to find that the entire back wall has been missing the whole time. It’s a kind of visual pun on breaking the fourth wall.
Often I like to imagine, in a Flatland-esque sort of way, what it would be like to see the other sides of things in the game, to which you only ever have the top-down view. What would it be like to explore the background of that broken wall, to jump down onto the beach? It is something like the way that you get to pass through the hole in the back of the traveling entertainers’ shack to access the caves leading to Giant Step. I especially like to imagine what it would be like to go on over the other side of the hill where the meteorite landed. I wrote a story about that once, too, with Picky as the protagonist. As the online community at starmen.net amply attests, many who played the game have felt drawn, in a similar way, to explore it and add onto it imaginatively.
The story itself–Itoi’s, I mean, the one you find in the house–is about getting pulled over for speeding and the narrator giving the excuse that his wife is giving birth–to a demon baby! It’s a kind of twisted spoof, a tabloid version of the Mother games’ central themes of home, of family, or of every classic video game’s monomaniacal goal-orientation. I’ll turn here in a moment to the Legends of Localization summary about Itoi’s inspiration for the game’s final boss fight with Giygas for another angle on these themes, but first, on page 50, we read about…
The Man Behind the Games
EarthBound is known for its unconventional ideas and creative gameplay mechanics, yet the game wasn’t designed by a normal game designer at all!
The Mother series was created by Shigesato Itoi. Itoi has participated in so many different professions throughout his career that it’s hard to even begin to describe him. He’s primarily known for his famous copywriting work — his catchy slogans and inventive marketing phrases rocketed him to the top of the industry during Japan’s “copywriting boom” in the 1990s.
Itoi’s creative success led to a wealth of other opportunities, including:
- Composing lyrics for hit musicians
- Writing articles for culture magazines
- Hosting educational television shows for children
- Acting in films with popular celebrities
- Holding annual fishing tournaments with popular comedians
- Co-hosting radio programs
- Searching for legendary lost gold on national television
- Voice-acting characters in popular animated films
- Starring in famous commercials
- Writing and compiling short stories
- Localizing American children’s books into Japanese
This is just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t even cover all of the awards he’s won in different industries. Basically, Shigesato Itoi has the knack for seeing things in interesting new ways, so it’s no wonder that his game-related side projects were filled with unique inventiveness, too.
I don’t normally give too much credence to contextualizing works by looking at their authors’ lives outside the work itself; I think it’s a bit ad hominem and not always that productive. But I feel like in that last paragraph Mandelin does a good job answering the most important question: ‘OK, so what?’ In this case, it is an interesting reflection as we’re looking at a few memorable individuals in the game to see the incredible individuality of the guy who is primarily responsible for creating the game.
Now not to go into this too much, because it comes much later in the game, and has to do with the final boss fight against Giygas, but a couple of memories from Itoi’s life in particular give us some important perspective on these central themes of family, home, and self.
The Traumatic Inspiration Behind Giygas’ Dialogue
Shigesato Itoi has stated that the mixture of pain and joy that Giygas speaks about was inspired by a traumatic childhood memory. As a young boy in the 1950s, Itoi visited a movie theater but accidentally went into the wrong screening room. He saw a scene from Kempei to Barabara Shibijin (“The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty”), a mystery film with elements that were considered dark and appalling at the time.
The scene in question involved a woman being murdered while making love to her fiance. The sickening mixture of pain and pleasure greatly disturbed the young Itoi, who ran home and barely spoke a word that night. Itoi wanted players to experience that same feeling during the final battle of Mother 2, so he wrote Giygas’ text to include a combination of pain, pleasure, and more.
Itoi recalls another incident that inspired Giygas’ dialogue:
Gyiyg snaps and loses his mind, as you know. Well, this probably isn’t the nicest topic to bring up, but a long time ago I happened to witness a traffic accident. A young woman was lying on the ground, but instead of saying “I can’t breathe!” or “Help!”, she cried out, “It hurts!” That really disturbed me. I felt that having Gyiyg say this same line would make you reluctant to attack him, even though he’s the enemy. He’s even calling your name the entire time. As for the line “It’s not right”, it means “What you’re doing isn’t right, and what I’m doing isn’t right.” I have to say, a chill went through me when I was coming up with all of these lines.
A chill goes through me, too, but again it’s warmed somewhat with the story, the funny tabloid story in the house by the beach, which connects it all back to motherhood and the drive towards the goal.
Outside the seaside real estate with its easter egg, out there on the point, accessible right from the start of the game, is the second of our triumvirate, the trumpet player. Like any other townsperson, he walks in place, but he always faces west (you know, the opposite of east; east, where the sun rises) unless he turns briefly to face you when you talk to him. Talking to him, like checking the statue did, triggers a sound effect, only this time it is a recognizable melody: the opening of the second movement, Largo, from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, ‘From the New World.’ Both names, ‘largo’ and ‘new world,’ are actually descriptions. The one tells you how to play the music, and thus read is part of its form: largo meaning slow, literally long, pulling out the notes, or if you like lingering over each one. The melody itself somehow expresses longing, whether it is because Dvorak wrote it in America inspired by the musical ideas he encountered here, Native American songs or African American spirituals (that other venerable secondary source, Wikipedia, and notes I’ve seen in programs when it’s performed will tell these sort of stories)–so either it is the longing of people in America (their spiritual strivings, as W.E.B. DuBois would put it), or it comes out of Dvorak’s longing for his own homeland. The musical motif seems to be cognate in many cultural traditions, rooted in the pentatonic scale. Simple and moving as initially stated, it is developed in the full symphony into something very complex, one of the great compositions of any time or place.
I don’t have more words to say about it; to describe the music in words seems, again, to represent an imaginative limit, not of sympathy this time but of what I can articulate. But listen to the piece, if you have time, and it will take you on a journey well worth taking. If it is a description of the American land and its peoples, as grasped by this visitor from the old world, we are honored by the depiction; if it is a love letter from Dvorak to his own homeland, we can take credit for the separation which gave rise to it–but most likely it is both at once, and in a more abstract sense it conjures the very idea of homeland, universal, innate, shining through the particulars because of the sort of beings we humans are. It’s an interesting choice of melody for the trumpeter to play because of the way that its largo cuts across the allegro, upbeat Onett theme. It reminds us of the underlying similarity of the notes which make up the home and town themes, how it is only the style and tempo or rhythm which are different. Between these songs for your home and hometown and, by the most abstract extension of the same principle, all songs from all places and times, subject to all subjective interpretations, the same notes underlie them all. Everything is in how they are arranged, into what apparent chaos or cosmos they resolve themselves, how the notes are related and how they are played, for that form will become indissoluble from their meaning for us.
I think that’s what is meant by the trumpeter calling it ‘My haunting melody’. Being only the opening, too, that first part of the largo especially parallels the first your sanctuary melody, which you’re ready to pick up soon: it breaks off without resolution, and so haunts in that sense until you reconnect it to the rest of the whole from which it is taken, to its context in the reality of you as the player. And this I take to be part of EarthBound’s insistence on calling attention to itself as a game throughout, to remind you to integrate playing it within a much fuller, real life outside of and including the game.
Sharks and Minnows
Before you either go on with your quest for the Sound Stone or save the game and turn it off, however, there’s one more stop to make here in town, this time in the heart of Onett, not on its outskirts, and this time an encounter with a clear foil for Ness, not a kind of imaginative limit or extreme–except in this respect: that Frank is your first real challenge of the game. It is at those limits that one faces such challenges, which hold out the possibility of significant growth and of failure, too. You can see Frank, with his red suit and his blond mullet and angular shades, strolling around the backyard of the arcade, and some sort of contraption–I used to think it looked like a doghouse, but it turns out to be a tank, a battle-robot, Frankystein Mark II–crouched behind a tree. Of course you can’t just jump the fence as you could easily do in real life if you learned how at a young age so as to avoid fiddling with pesky latches on gates, and for the sheer exuberance of it, because you saw an older friend do it once and conceived the determination that you should be able to as well… Instead you have to fight your way through the streets on the block circumscribing the arcade and the (coming soon) Mach Pizza parlor–great location for it!–and it’s good for you that you do, for without the experience you gain trouncing his cronies, you would have little hope of overcoming ‘Fail-proof Frank’.
Quite possibly, like me you’ll even lose against a gang of Sharks or under Frank’s brandishing a knife one too many times. But if this happens don’t despair, you can return after summoning all your courage and energy to try again–or just reset the game to avoid losing half of any cash you had on you and all your PP (Psychic Points). Losing, as everyone knows, is part of the game, and a good game teaches you how to deal with it: to learn from it, to reset, and then to fix what went wrong or at least to prepare better first the next time, so that if it was just bad luck, you won’t be as susceptible to it. Buy a couple more hamburgers or dig them out of the garbage cans, gain another level or two picking off Sharks by ones and twos rather than fighting them en masse–like their real world corollaries, ignorant and faceless yes-men, fierce young rebels on wheels, hip-gyrating youths with or without hula-hoops to cloak their lechery, the Sharks all seek attention by blending in with one another, which suggests they mostly crave belonging, and are harmless when dealt with individually, or in twos and threes, but can overwhelm you in crowds.
Just try volunteering or subbing in some of the public school classrooms where you live to feel what that’s like 🙂
Or better yet, to see the contrast, make your way to the treehouse hideout where Ness’ friends are playing. Each of them is a distinct personality, though they aren’t given names. And needless to say, they don’t attack you, not even as Everdred in Burglin Park will do later, in a spirit of roughhousing competition rather than the rudderless aggression of the Sharks–or so he’ll claim. Instead, one tells you about a dream he had, about you traveling with a girl, and asks you to tell her hi from him; one gives you his Mr Baseball cap, a sturdy protection for the head, a kingly gift; and one confesses bashfully, bravely, how much he likes you, which, if anything will, should give you renewed heart to take on Frank. A few of the Sharks, too, it must be said, forebear jumping you and show flashes of individuality and differentiation. One is coming to accept his love of fresh veggies, seeing whether he can reconcile this with his super-cool persona or not. One claims Frank is not building a mechanized weapon out back, but meditating on peace and love. One recites a poem–incorporating onomatopoetic saliva–about chewing gum.
When you do reach Frank himself he loses his patience quickly when you are silent in response to his asking your name. Presumably this represents not fear clamming you up but your unwillingness to compromise, even to bandy words with the laissez-faire leader of the town hooligans. It suggests also, for me, another of the great limitations of this game, though, and one brilliantly picked up on by the strongly EarthBound-influenced and surprisingly wildly popular recent work, Undertale: that the story only progresses through RPG-style battles, and the only way to win them is by RPG-style fighting, leveling up, with some very small room for luck or guts or strategy–except in the Giygas fight, unforgettably breaking out of this formula to adumbrate the sort of thing Undertale would develop in a much more thoroughgoing way and integrate into its thematic material, which will certainly merit discussion in its own right.
All I can say in EarthBound’s defense is that its violence is highly stylized, only ever taking the form of light- and sound effects based on text commands and numerical calculations of costs, damage, etc. It comes to represent in a fairly straightforward way the struggle in pursuit of your goal; the obstacles that in overcoming them make you more capable to deal with future ones; the accumulation of experience and the gradation of levels; plateau after plateau of further development; measurable improvement; a kind of upward spiral that feeds on itself. The psychic powers which are unlocked seem clearly representative of new knowledge, new understanding, wisdom. You are not only responsible for dealing out damage, of course, you take it, too: your health scrolls down with each blow. Each choice you make to attack leaves you open to being attacked in turn, and you never know when the smaaash will go against you (fairly consistently, as it turns out, when fighting those Rowdy Mouse denizens of Giant Step). You suffer, not physically, of course, but in sympathy with Ness and his friends when they fall. You certainly feel frustration when you’re knocked out and have to restart or quit, which is galling.
And it must be said, you suffer a certain amount of tedium, fighting all these battles and leveling up, though EarthBound addresses this in a few novel ways. Not only is there an autofight command so you can zone out during battles, read something else if you want, but, as the friendly mole explains, if you sneak up behind enemies you can surprise them and frequently, if you catch them on their own, you win without a fight. In this respect we get a glimpse of the ideal toward which you strive, another kind of limit: victory, not effortless exactly but in an ultimate sense at times actualized in these glimpses of wu wei, action without action, in the eastern conception, or something like grace in the western. All your sufferings, the stylized violence, is for a purpose. It’s not that your might makes you right, but that you must make the sacrifice of doing hurt as well as being hurt so as to get to a place of peace which actually means something. A mixture of pleasure and pain, which maybe is not so pleasant, but that’s the rules of the game. One other little detail I always appreciated about EarthBound’s approach to violence: enemies are always defeated or tamed; you’re not actually killing things.
As was touched on at the end of the last episode, the obsession with violence and strength dramatized in all these games from the 90s, and in most video games and mass media, actually, seems to me to be a response to the violence of the 20th century as much as it is aligned with far older myths of monster-slaying heroes. For a proud country like Japan, having been not only defeated but devastated, exposed to the unimaginable catastrophe of nuclear annihilation, then to put itself back together in close cooperation with the former enemy, the US, with the vast shifts in economy and culture and society that go with such a transformation, the portrayal of these three solitary individuals, and of Eagleland/Onett as a whole, begins to brim with significance.
Lier X. Agerate highlights the loneliness, the temptation to dig inward when all that is there to be found is specious refuge, specious strength, gilded resentment, delusions of grandeur, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Frank, on the other hand, seems to have the right idea, going to Giant Step, as we’re told by one of the townspeople, and trying to meditate on peace and love, but the place doesn’t speak to him, as you refuse to speak to him, for he’s surrounded himself with flunkies given over to their basest desires, rather than to gather to himself true friends like yours in the treehouse, or those you’ll meet on your adventure. He relies on his own strength and, when that fails, on that of his contraption, but only after failure does he begin to see where he went wrong and what he was missing, that which Ness and his friends possess, but none of their foes do: the capacity to grow stronger–apparently limitless potential. To Frank’s credit he realizes this, and visiting him thereafter he’ll offer the same effect of recovery as visiting home.
The arcade is once more made safe for everyone and not just those who wear the right outfit and project the right persona. The image of people gathered together to play, yet each separate on his or her own arcade game, is so interesting symbolically as to almost but not quite make up for the fact that the games are not actually playable as mini-games. But again, perhaps this should indicate Ness’ purity, the kind of strength he is after–not going to waste his time playing video games, is he! We’ll look more at the social and political and economic dimensions of Eagleland next time.
The last of our three individuals, the trumpet player on the point overlooking the sea, calls himself the happiest man in the world, yet plays a haunting melody. ‘My haunting melody’ he calls it, having made it his own the way you make Your Sanctuary your own, and sharing that insight, that inspiration, with the whole town, if only they can hear, as you go out to save the whole world, the earth which lends its power to your own. The westernmost figure in the town, most representative of the conquering western culture, he plays a song from another reality altogether, from our own, hearkening back to another homeland, Dvorak’s Bohemia–and yet in facing west, looking over the ocean, he is in fact oriented toward the far east, the homeland of the game developers who are irrevocably permeated with the same globalizing forces which allow us, in our living rooms in the US, to play this work created in Japan.
As if that weren’t enough, I’ll just note in passing the two allusions made by Giant Step, the footprint of some incredibly powerful yet apparently absent being–he was heading up over the mountain, to judge by his footprint there, to that inaccessible other side. First there’s the Giant Steps jazz album of John Coltrane, for music something like what Proust was for literature, and those who’ve followed in the spaces he opened up–jazz and the blues led to rock ‘n roll, another big influence on EarthBound. Second, there’s a connection to the astronaut Neil Armstrong’s phrase, conflating the small step and the giant leap. Walking on the moon and seeing the whole round earth from a new perspective, that of a traveler who has left it and hopes to return, is like what games and other great works of art do metaphorically, showing everyday things in their true light again when they’re too often taken for granted.
We’ll return next week to speak about the arcade, the library, the town hall and the police station, these social settings, wrapping up for the moment our discussion of our hometown, and reflecting on the social critique EarthBound shares with the film Ikiru (To Live) by Kurosawa, in turn replete with allusions to classic literature. Until then, take care.
Legends of Localization: https://legendsoflocalization.com/earthbound/
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