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 back, one and all. More so than usual, this essay will constitute a companion piece to the previous one, filling in some more of the social framework of Onett behind the peculiarly individual characters we looked at there, and contextualizing their interactions with Ness and with you–yes you, the one holding the controller and playing the game.
But first today I resume my acknowledgments with a word of thanks to another old friend, Ryan O’Connor. I think it was Ryan who first showed me the virtue of the L-button, not a negative but an efficient embrace of laziness, like an elegant-negligent forehand slice of his in ping-pong. He sent in some great comments which you can find posted on the bookwarm blog. Here’s an excerpt:
I’m really glad that you opened up your podcast with Buzz Buzz! Every time I replay EB, I gain a greater appreciation for Buzz Buzz, what he has to say, and what he represents in the grander scheme of the game. I used to think that Pokey’s foil is Ness, as maybe would be fitting, for they are peers of a sort. But after hearing your thoughts and chewing on things more, I think Buzz Buzz is Pokey’s foil. They are introduced together (practically), and their characters stand so diametrically opposed to one another’s. Where Pokey is shallow, banal, selfish, Buzz Buzz is wise, selfless, courageous. And I can’t help but think that after Pokey’s mom smacks Buzz Buzz, and he is thrusting the Soundstone upon you, that in that moment there isn’t also somewhat of a choice. Which road will you walk? The Pokey road or the Buzz Buzz one. Now, since it is a game, you don’t really have a choice after all, but maybe that is just another, more meta message; that even in life, there isn’t really a choice between the Pokey road and the Buzz Buzz road.
I never knew any of that about Shigesato Itoi, sounds like a really interesting dude. It all reminded me of an interview or something that I read a long long time ago, maybe middle school, about EB, in which the interviewee specifically mentioned they had decided that you wouldn’t “kill” your enemies, but instead bring them back to their senses and lift Giygas’s harmful influence on their minds and actions. I think this dovetails nicely with what you brought up, about the fighting both being a trope from video games generally and RPGs at the time, but also about the existence of conflict in our world more broadly. That we will fight throughout our lives with a variety of foes (so to speak) is a given, be they gruff goats, whirling robos, or cranky ladys. And that’s okay, as we learn something from our conflicts (level up) when we win, or dust ourselves off and try again when we lose. But even back then, in our youth, I think something struck me as profound thinking about the lack of killing in EB being deliberate, something that for all the game’s weirdness already, makes it stand out a from the rest of the pack, then and now. I think it is to EB’s great credit that it embraces the inevitability of conflict, but rejects the “easy” solution killing your enemies offers. And sure, I think with the maturity a couple decades brings, I can’t help but think the Japanese response in the aftermath of WW2 to not just our actions (the a-bomb certainly being the most psychologically scarring), but to their own actions as well explains a great deal of that philosophy.
Giant Step ALWAYS brings to mind for me Neil Armstrong’s quote from the moon landing. But to step a year back in time, I think it (the quote and perhaps, Giant Step) also echos Bill Anders’s famous Earthrise photo he took during Apollo 8. I’m sure you’ve both seen it, even if you’ve not necessarily seen it called Earthrise. If you’ve never seen the documentary series From the Earth to the Moon, I highly recommend it. It really gives you an appreciation for the men and women who made the whole space program a reality, and their struggles and loss. But anyways, in the episode involving Apollo 8, Bill Anders gives an interview where he describes that prior to that photograph, no one had ever really seen, like, the whole Earth all in one instant like that. How that was the start of something new, a new journey for humanity, one where more people had an appreciation that we are in this together and that we are really just tiny in the grand scheme of things. Anyways, to tie this back to EB… Giant Step is really the beginning of a journey for Ness. But not just a journey for Ness, but really the whole world, as it struggles against the forces of evil (embodied by Giygas). We are all in it together, and Ness needs everyone at the end of things to pull through the final battle.
Thanks, Ryan, and to everyone reading: your thoughts and questions are deeply appreciated. I’ve also been working on bringing people on the show as guests to help keep me honest and help me think through these topics better. Suggestions are welcome!
With gratitude to the friends who’ve made this project a conversation, rather than a monologue, I’ll recur again to the model of Socratic inquiry. Socratic is a term which gets thrown around a lot in education circles, but I still think it can be a helpful one for distinguishing a kind of philosophical ideal–a community of learners pursuing truth in honesty, sincerely, in friendship and with courage–from a competing ideal of the guru, the sage, the one with all the answers. It’s a distinction with respect to one’s stance towards the truth. And it’s ironic, because in some sense Socrates would like nothing more than to find a guru like that, someone who could give him the answers to all his questions–but his daemon always tells him no, and so he continues questioning, following up on the implications of what has been said to unmask those who would set themselves up as wise. Rather than knowing everything, in Plato’s account, they are left revealing themselves instead as sophists, salesmen of rhetorical skills, tricks, and techniques, rather than philosophers, lovers of wisdom. On looking closer it becomes plain to the reader, and perhaps the speakers themselves, that they really don’t know what they’re talking about! I have certainly felt that way at many times in the course of this project. And of course, Socrates, like so many thinkers, questioners, scientists, dissenters, is persecuted for his efforts, eventually being cast into prison and executed by his city-state of Athens, which has tired of him stinging it like a gadfly out of its complacency.
So I hope it won’t come to that, but anyhow we had better get moving! In EarthBound, as in most role-playing games, you’re able to find out what to do next in a couple of different ways. You can proceed by trial and error, exploring and trying stuff, seeing what happens; or like Socrates you can go around talking to people, actually listening to what they say and piecing it together logically. If you get stuck in EarthBound you can also ask the Hint Man for help. If he’s a sophist, he’s at least an unassuming one; his little hint stand seems intentionally reminiscent of Lucy’s psychology stand from Peanuts. You’ll find him behind his board set up somewhere in each town, and when you do, the location will be added to your town map, which you can access with the X button–you know, near the top. The map, which automatically updates to show whichever town you’re currently in, as you’ll see when you make it Twoson, is another staple of RPGs that EarthBound thus puts its own flavor on, like the window color you get to choose or the condiment packets for sale in Burglin Park.
You’re given the map in the Onett Library, which is the first building you come to on your way downtown from Ness’ house. Here you’ll also find helpful information about magic butterflies and our convenient society, as well as a funny old gentleman who wonders aloud if the monster occupying Giant Step is stronger than his wife. Beside this Socratic old buffoon (Socrates’ wife Xanthippe was a proverbial terror, and his sophrosyne in the face of her assaults contributed in no small part to his reputation for wisdom), a young man of few words stands still, wearing a hockey mask. You’ll just have to check back in with him later, it seems.
But back to those magic butterflies: you’ll soon find, when you’re back outside strolling about, they not only make you relax with a soothing lavender blink of the eyes, restoring some PP, but they might also help you realize something even more useful, namely, the predictability of finding them again in the same spot. So they’re sort of like mini-Your Sanctuary spots, oases of recovery tucked away here and there around the world. Having noticed this much, you can see an important corollary: that enemies, too, appear not entirely randomly but according to certain patterns in certain places. Don’t feel like tangling with the crows there? By walking away and back again they’ll either multiply or be wiped away by the scrolling of the screen, that is, by the world around you as you perceive it. Simply noticing this and beginning to utilize it to either avoid or to stack up battles and butterflies as will be most advantageous to you–all this is right up there with realizing the power of the L-button, or PSI Rockin’, or whatever you named your favorite thing. In short, your perception shapes reality, and the more adept your perception grows, there at the very edges of what you can see, the more patterns you can notice about the world around you, and the more adept you’ll be in moving through it.
So although there is a library in town, there’s no school, not even a training room of the sort you’d find in Final Fantasy games and other RPGs. Instead, the world itself is your classroom, and it teaches you what it behooves you to know. Terry Pratchett, in his masterful miniseries of Discworld books which feature the young shepherd-witch Tiffany Aching, makes a similar point. I’m not sure how directly it’s intended to be a gentle satire of the JK Rowling phenomenon, celebrating the boarding school magic of Hogwarts, but Pratchett’s outlook seems rather EarthBoundy in passages like this, from page 34 in The Wee Free Men:
“There really is a school for witches?” said Tiffany.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said Miss Tick.
“Is it magical?”
“A wonderful place?”
“There’s nowhere quite like it.”
“Can I go there by magic? Does, like, a unicorn turn up to carry me there or something?”
“Why should it? A unicorn is nothing more than a big horse that comes to a point, anyway. Nothing to get so excited about,” said Miss Tick. “And that will be one egg, please.”
“Exactly where can I find the school?” said Tiffany, handing over the egg.
“Aha. A root vegetable question, I think,” said Miss Tick. “Two carrots, please.”
Tiffany handed them over.
“Thank you. Ready? To find the school for witches, go to a high place near here, climb to the top, open your eyes…” Miss Tick hesitated.
“…and then open your eyes again.”
Anyhow, there is a boarding school in far-off Winters, but it is the task of your new friend there, who you’ve never met, to leave it, and once out in the world not to go back in, but to go meet up with his destined friends in their hour of greatest need where they’re imprisoned, buried alive… we’ll get to say more about that in another month or two! There’s also the preschool in Twoson, but that is part of Paula’s house, and she is not there, either, as we’ll see shortly.
Learning to Play
In lieu of a school, I’ll keep trying to say a few straightforward things here about the role games can play in teaching. First of all, games like EarthBound teach you how to read, and why; they help you push yourself to read text quickly and assimilate it effectively; they show you how to learn new words from context.
Speaking of new words: when you talk to Captain Strong in the police station, you might learn the word chortle, evidently the sort of laugh which someone like Captain Strong will laugh when he tells a kid like Ness to follow him. That word chortle actually comes from “The Jabberwocky,” a poem in Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. You might have studied it at school or come across it in popular culture somewhere. Here’s a sample:
One, two! One, two! And through and throughThe vorpal blade went snicker-snack!He left it dead, and with its headHe went galumphing back.“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?Come to my arms, my beamish boy!O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”He chortled in his joy.’Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesDid gyre and gimble in the wabe:All mimsy were the borogoves,And the mome raths outgrabe.
So Captain Strong’s chortle turns out to be a recently coined word, which has passed into everyday speech and become so common that people might not realize its provenance. Anyhow, this is where I learned it, just one fun one among the many other words I’ve picked up from playing games.
Along with specific vocabulary and better reading skills, in playing EarthBound we get the opportunity to learn also how to talk about and articulate our experience, since we’ll be wanting to talk about these sorts of games with friends. We’ll learn, insofar as is possible, or at least practice critical thinking and problem solving; gain resilience, seeking out resources; develop our creativity (another much-watered down word, alas), playing out imaginatively and filling in more of the story, all of which helps make reading more fun. There’s even a bit of math, too, in looking at characters’ stats and comparing items, etc. And in Clyde Mandelin’s work, again, he suggests playing MOTHER 2 as a way into learning a new language. Once you already know what’s going on from playing EarthBound, then playing through the Japanese original provides a neat variation. He offers a little handbook of Japanese to help you learn; you can get it bundled with the EarthBound Legends of Localization book. Aside from actually going to another country, what more immersive experience could there be? I’m still going to do it one day, the way I started learning to read in other languages with translations of familiar stories: The Little Prince in French, Platero in Spanish, The Alchemist in Portuguese. And for many people, playing games drives an interest in learning programming, of course. Who knows? It could help get you through middle school, making games on your graphing calculator; it could take you quite far, like Toby Fox, the creator of Undertale. The essential thing, though, is that it’s voluntary. It’s fun.
We’ll find the building in Fourside where the programmers are working on “EarthBound 2”. We also hear from people throughout the game that they’re playing EarthBound, or know about its existence. There’s the dog possessed by the spirit of the game developer here in Onett. Then after defeating Captain Strong you’ll hear that he’s been playing EarthBound and having a tough time. Which makes sense–imagine what it would be like to play as Captain Strong. Aside from being beaten by Ness, though, he’s got a piece of technology that should make the game much easier for him: his radio, so he could save anywhere. It’s a luxury those who play emulators get to enjoy, but it wasn’t possible on the original cartridge.
Learning to Read
So one other point about hints and maps: nowadays you can find just about any answer online in a matter of minutes, but back when these classic SNES games came out, it was all word of mouth. Some kid at the pool ahead of you in line for the waterslide would hear you and your friend talking about Super Mario RPG and casually clue you in to finding the Shy Guy’s fertilizer up in the sky. Or you could call Nintendo of America’s hotline–though I never used it, somehow this felt like giving up, like using the Hint Guy–or, in many cases, and this one I did often like to do, you could get a strategy guide. Some of these guides, like EarthBound’s which came bundled with the cartridge, are little works of art in their own right. The EarthBound player’s guide, taking a cue from the scrapbook at the end of the game, arranges information in the form of a travel booklet, complete with expanded versions of the morning headlines the bellhops read to you when you stay at the hotels in each town.
Here’s an excerpt from the Onett Times, page 16 of the guide:
No one actually admitted to seeing aliens coming from the meteor, but with some of the strange happenings around here lately, it’s certainly possible that extraterrestrial beings are at work. Some of them may even be people you talk to on the street today! Be sure to pass along a friendly Onettian welcome to the visitors, no matter what they look like.
And there are lots of other fun bonuses. Most famous is the page of scratch ‘n sniff cards in the back of the guide. Mine have all been scratched away–Carbon Dog with his barbecue, the Bubble Monkey with his banana, Shrooom!, Mondo Mole, Ness, and a mystery card. These were tied in with the infamous ‘This Game Stinks’ ad campaign, sometimes cited as part of the reason for EarthBound’s relative lack of popularity when it came out in the US: for all the effort put into its marketing, maybe people took it a little too literally? As much as I scratched those cards, I never got the secret smell, but those who did guess it and who mailed in their answers are now the proud owners of a Mach Pizza air freshener, and boy am I jealous of you all. Alas, there was no strategy guide for the strategy guide!
So back to Onett. There’s no school in town, and no books at the library–at least none for you to check out yet, just that map–and perhaps this is part of the set-up for the elaborate joke that’s triggered when you step out again from the cave behind the Traveling Entertainers Shack. Having successfully defeated the Titanic Ant–oops, I did ant mean to spoil it for you–and having reclaimed the first melody at Giant Step, you find a cop waiting for you. He demands, ‘Hey you, the board says “Do Not Enter”. Couldn’t you read it?’ It sounds like a rhetorical question, but you actually have to answer, yes or no. Either way, your very presence on this side of the sign proves you’ve broken that most revered of Onett laws, trespassing beyond the limits of roadblocks, and dared to explore terra incognita.
Noticing the feature on this in Legends of Localization page 123, I went back and checked it in the player’s guide. Mandelin explains:
In both MOTHER 2 and EarthBound, there’s a sign outside a shack in Onett with “DON’T ENTER” written on it in English. Even so, using the “Check” command on the sign in EarthBound will produce a text box that says “Do Not Enter” instead. MOTHER 2 players didn’t get to enjoy this amusing inconsistency, though – it simply gives the Japanese equivalent of “DON’T ENTER.”
At one point, a police officer yells at Ness for not being able to read this sign. In MOHER 2, it makes a little sense – it’s possible the Japanese player couldn’t read “DON’T ENTER” in English and didn’t think to check the sign beforehand. In EarthBound though, English-speaking players have less of an excuse for not being able to read the sign. This is a nifty example of the audience itself changing the significance of a line of text.
An accompanying picture lends yet another layer to the mayhem. Mandelin’s caption reads, ‘It’s such a rare treat to see a game mid-localization like this. These pre-release images are also great for playing the “Spot the Typos” game.’
Games upon games… Sure enough, if you look back at the screenshot on page 24 of the player’s guide, under the heading, ‘Policeman on guard,’ the text reads, “Hey you. The board says Do No Enter.” Couldn’t you read it?’
So consider: in the process of presenting what it means to be able to read as a civic duty, giving it a kind of moral dimension, the policeman stumbles over his words; the programmers themselves made a mistake there. They caught it (or caught part of it?) before the game’s release, allowing the policeman to come down on Ness for not reading the sign–by misreading the sign! Ness has no local school, and the library won’t let him check out any books, and so he may well not know how to read; what’s the cop’s/programmers’ excuse?
The other irony is that you probably did read the sign. If like me you like to chew on all the EarthBound text you can find, you read them all. There’s the one about treating the flowers nice, which in order to read it requires you to walk across the flowers; or the one with a girl in front of it who says there’s someone going around reading all the billboards, and that after each one he says, ‘Checkaroonie!’ You’ll also read about the Fresh Breeze Movement: ‘Don’t break the wind of change.’ It fits right into that long and storied tradition of fart jokes dating back at least as far as Shakespeare (“Ripeness is all…” Maybe that’s not what he meant by that, but well). The Movement’s goal seems to be to get kids to go outside and play, which of course is what they were left to do while the Sharks ran the arcade, but once you tame them, the kids are able to go back to their arcade games.
Learning to Live
You’re told by Mayor Pirkle in Town Hall that, much as he appreciates you dealing with Frank and the Sharks, he can’t be held responsible for you actually using the key he gives you to the Traveling Entertainers’ Shack on the threshold of Giant Step. You have to agree to this legalistic deception in order for him to hand it over. In the corruption of Town Hall–besides this interaction, there’s the bureaucrat who says it may take him a few hours to sign some paperwork, and snickers–taken together with the self-aggrandizing righteousness of the police, who, when you already defeated the Sharks for them, haul you in simply for breaking the one law that they seem to care about–in all this I thought I saw a parallel to another great work well worth exploring in this week’s episode: the film Ikiru (To Live) by Kurosawa. It seems to be loosely based on The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the great short story by Tolstoy, starting from the way it plays on its source in the change right there in the title: from noun to verb, from death to life.
Ikiru is one of those classic black and white films that you’ll find by chance if you go browse in that section of your local library–that’s how I found it, anyway, when I came upon it a while ago, never having heard of it. I was trusting to such serendipity to find it again so I could rewatch it in preparation for this project, but someone else must have checked it out–good for them. So briefly, from memory and filling in a few things with the help of a summary by Lewis Saul on The Best American Poetry website: the movie tells the story of a lifetime bureaucrat, Mr. Watanabe, who realizes he is dying, and how he spends the time that remains. Unable to bear to be at home with his grown son and daughter-in-law, he goes out on the town. He meets a writer, who pledges himself as Watanabe’s Mephistopheles, an homage to the devil summoned by Faust in the tale retold by Goethe and Christopher Marlowe, among others, but as we’ll see, this writer is more of a general carpe diem figure than a demonic spirit. Watanabe seems to keep his soul intact, or even gets it back, if he had sold it long ago to the specter of the bureaucracy, the town hall for which he works. His other main escapade is with a younger coworker who comes to make up for the lost relationship with his son, in a way, but his friendship with her gives rise to all sorts of scandalous gossip.
There are a few recurring songs, and many brilliantly crafted shots of black and white still life: the play of light over characters’ faces, the turn of their bodies, the texture of their clothes. There are little visual jokes, like the brief about efficiency which is buried in a stack of thirty years of old paperwork. The context, we see, has a personality, too, or it can’t help be shaped by the individual personalities inhabiting it: banked low as they might be, hope like a fire springs eternal.
Where the story really diverges from Ivan Ilyich, which has that same initial trope of the main character learning he’s going to die, is in the attention paid to Watanabe’s dogged activity, not only his psychological or spiritual state, once his end is in sight. And that goes back to the classic definition Montaigne repeats on strength of a long classical pedigree: that to do philosophy is to learn how to die–but again, the point Ikiru makes is that learning by hook or by crook how to live is included in that. To live means everything up to the end, and beyond the end, too, for it’s how one is remembered. So that after Watanabe’s death, we find out the truth: he worked behind the scenes to get through, over, and around the bureaucracy he’d given so much of his life to, in order to get a playground built for the suppliant women of the neighborhood. Way back at the start of the film they were the butt of a cruel visual run-around, petitioning desk after indifferent desk in a vicious circle–but not giving up. Here at the end a corresponding montage shows us how Watanabe worked with the poor people, stood up to the mobsters and the politicians at last, until, a bit like in Citizen Kane with the sled Rosebud, there’s this iconic image of Watanabe on the swing set he helped bring to the neighborhood, singing in the night…
It’s a sort of reverse or flip-side of nostalgia. This movie is all about making up for, in the time that remains, all that one might not have done, all that one left unsaid, unaccomplished–Ikiru’s theme, like Proust’s, is of lost time, recovered–and so much of that turns out to be whatever has to do with other people. That’s certainly the case for me personally when I think of what I can identify as my sins of omission; it’s certainly not, as in nostalgia, for books and video games and smells and melodies, but for time I might have spent with other people, experiences we might have had together. I don’t know what the word is for it, but it’s at least as powerful as nostalgia.
I wanted to read a little from the end of Ivan Illych, by Tolstoy. A similar kind of turn to what I’m struggling to describe comes about at the end of the story. The lifelong legal worker knows the end is near:
He became attentive.
“Yes, there it is. Well, then, let there be pain.
“And death? Where is it?”
He sought his old habitual fear of death and could not find it. Where was it? What death? There was no more fear because there was no more death.
Instead of death there was light.
(Page 91 in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)
The modern day setting of 199X is one of the main things which distinguishes EarthBound from the whole slew of games with fantasy/historical/sci-fi settings. It has a fair bit of all of that too, but it’s just below the surface. In EarthBound, as in most RPGs, there’s the rough outline of a society, leaving room for the imagination to fill in, or to simply accept what is there without needing exhaustive detail or verisimilitude. There’s no bank, though ATMs are everywhere. There’s no obvious causal relationship between defeating (or taming) enemies and your dad making deposits to your account. Clearly that’s what’s going on, but in the framework of the story instead early on Pokey’s dad claims that Ness’ dad has borrowed a tremendous sum of money from him. Apparently that’s the money placed in your bank account as you go along. It also might help to explain the grudge Pokey’s whole family (minus Pickey) holds against you. All of which may or may not make more sense than picking up gold or gil or coins from random enemies–but as we’ve said, the enemies in EarthBound are not entirely random, neither in where and how they appear on the screen/the world around you, nor in the sense that their behavior is unaccountable. Buzz Buzz explains that they are affected by Giygas’ influence on the potential for evil already in their minds.
The government does provide some services, for all that: roads, albeit frequently blocked; lights, so electricity is being generated somewhere; and buses and other modes of transportation. But there are no power plants or gas stations (except in the opening screen on booting up the game, which looks a little like the posters of UFO attacks visible on the walls of the arcade, or described in that one boy’s Lovecraftian dreams). The presence of the government and society of the game world is comfortably in the background, until you start meddling, talking to people in Town Hall, tangling with the cops. This suggests that until that point, by its very absence of impinging on consciousness, the social world exists as that which is tacit, as what goes without saying. It is only when you come in from your little suburban home and start to dig into what is really going on beneath the surface that you begin to concern yourself with politics, with economics, which is practically a definition of privilege, and of the cure for it. It tells you something about Ness and the family he comes from, and probably something about yourself, whether by likeness or by contrast.
It would be a stretch to read into the game anything like police brutality, though clearly there is a send-up of the police as an oppressive arm of the government, and they are made very funny in their parallel to the Sharks. With their crushing chops, their trash talk and grudging admiration when you prevail, and with the cowardice of the fifth cop, ducking out and leaving his boss, Captain Strong, to try to deal with you–there’s something very Keystone Cops going on. Once you’ve beaten Strong, too, he still claims he has a special move he was holding back the whole time. And of course, none of them draw their guns; their calling you into the station is not under duress; you’re never thrown in jail–if you were, you could have got a glimpse of a bathroom, after narrowly missing your chance in the upstairs of the hospital…
So they’ve just been testing you, making sure you’re really ready to release into the wider world. The first house you come to beyond Onett, past the roadblock to the south, is where the Exit Mice live. The mom’s injunction here to treat the Exit Mouse as one of your items is a funny reflection of your own departure from Ness’ mom’s house. Instead of being commodified, though, or turned into a statistic, Ness must be reckoned with as an agent. For all their loss of perspective–bringing you in and not the Sharks, nor the corrupt politicians, for breaking the only law they care about enforcing–and their over-the-top reaction, the Onett police end up treating Ness’ transgression as a personal challenge, and finally accord him the respect he earns after setting them straight.
So, let’s start wrapping up our whirlwind tour of your hometown. You’ll have noticed that unlike the Exit Mice, not everyone lets you into their houses, as happens in most games where it is unremarked on for your avatar to come and go freely, as if that’s not strange in any way. Here people bring it to your attention that it is, in fact, an odd thing to do, or they bar their door outright. Knocking on some of these closed doors triggers further little jokes. One person demands that you name a Beatles song, XXXterday–what is it with X’s standing in for measures of time in EarthBound?–and you’re given those familiar choices, yes or no. At one of the apartment buildings, Ness’ innocent ears overhear what might be a couple canoodling or whispering about whatever it is they’re up to behind those closed doors. But enough said about that–it’s a little too much like explaining the joke.
So let’s say goodbye for now to the library and its patrons studying perfectly trivial topics, let’s let it go that it evidently has no books to offer you now, though one turns out to matter a great deal later. It’s enough for now that they can give you the town map, which you can only use once you’re back out in the world.
Let’s bid adieu to the arcade, where once you’ve brought Frank and the Sharks to their senses, there’s nothing further for you to do, except to muse on the strangeness of all the kids gathered in the darkness to play on their separate machines. Aren’t they one step up at least from those of our generation, proverbially living in their parents’ basements, playing online games (or writing and reading about old offline ones), together though apart? After all, the kids in the arcade are only kids and have no other responsibilities, and at least they’re out of the house and socializing to some extent. It’s not quite what the Fresh Breeze Movement wanted, but maybe it’s a start. It may well bring back fine nostalgic memories of the dawn of video games from just such settings, and make you think about how far they’ve come: to tell compelling stories, to evoke something more than simply amusement, distraction, and–on the part of anyone watching you play–bemusement. To throw out one other film reference, this line of thinking reminds me of those scenes with the Tokyo game halls, postmodern nickelodeons with their casino-lite slot machines and dance pad heroes, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson traipse through past the players, squeeze by between the pachinko seats and the walls, in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. It’s another variation on the theme of recognizing the necessity of finding a life’s meaning in the face of its suffering, again represented on film, that medium to which video games are perhaps most similar, though they partake of elements of drama, literature, and music as well, each of which we’ve touched on in the previous weeks.
It was the senseless pettiness of the bureaucracy and the corruption of the mayor in Town Hall, cynically asking you to lie and to help him get reelected, which made us think about Ikiru, and of what incredible potential there is when people gather to do good work, and of how that potential is wasted when any organization of individuals into associations is treated as something to forget or ignore or is taken for granted–of course these great organizations known as states and governments go astray, as all institutions must over time, as much as citizens might petition them for a fresh breeze, the wind of change–it is always within the power of a neighborhood group and a Watanabe to do what they can to set things right. An extreme representation of this hopeful read of Ikiru comes in Ness’ confrontation with the police, or their confrontation with him. There a sufficient sense of self-respect may have led to the conflict but led also to its peaceful resolution. Our mind’s eye is drawn to that spark of hope in seeing someone better than you, and the honor that comes in acknowledging it. We saw it before with Frank, we see it here with Captain Strong. Frankness and strength, elements of masculinity we would do well to recover, as we continue the interminable work of reforming our organizations and institutions, rather than throwing them out with whatever is toxic.
If you’ve slept lately in the game, you’ve already been having intimations, hearing the voice of the female friend who will accompany you the rest of the way, once you find her. As mentioned, though, we’ll first take a break next week from EarthBound proper–leaving Captain Strong to play it, though he’s having a tough time–to share some thoughts from a conversation with my good buddy Ben Kozlowski, bona fide philosopher, professor, writer, and sometime programmer. He’s someone I look up to–except when we’re wheelbarrow jousting, that is, as the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance and his salt-of-the-earth squire. That’s right, this coming week Don Quixote and Sancho Panza ride again! So it gives anyone playing through EarthBound with us a chance to catch up and make some headway towards Paula, and it gives me a chance to get some of my presuppositions re-examined in a most helpful way. Until then, take care!
And once more, I highly recommend Clyde Mandelin’s Legends of Localization
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