“Essay Seven: The Pursuit of Happy-Happiness — On EarthBound and Satire”

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz



bookwarmThe following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

Welcome back. This week we’ll look at Twoson and Happy Happy Village, thinking about the themes of wisdom, courage, and friendship we’ve begun to develop so far, as well as a few new spins–cats and cults and a few other interesting parallels between these towns, and between both of them and us.

First, thanks to Steph for always being willing to listen to me read my scripts through aloud before I publish them. Giving talks, I find it helps to have an audience, just as writing, it helps to have a reasonable deadline. I’ve been pushing it these past few weeks, so thanks also to Moses for his patience and generosity with editing and posting these essays for me.

The thoughtful community here has been very exciting to become a part of. And I wonder if we might try some live classes on EarthBound or other games someday, with questions and interaction. If people seem interested I’d love to try that. For an idea what that might look like, leave a comment or question below!

I want to start the exploration of Twoson by thinking a little more about the bike-riding element of the game. This opportunity Ness has just briefly, to ride a bike, seems to make him really happy, but in a different way than having Paula around ought to make him happy. It might make you think about how as far as games and free time and growing up, inevitably there’s things you can only do alone, like reading a book or playing a one-player game, and those can be deeply rewarding, but somehow there’s always the wish to be able to share them. As George MacDonald puts it, in At the Back of the North Wind, “A poet is a man who is glad of something, and tries to make other people glad of it too.” Then there’s other moods where one wants nothing more than to be left alone to get to do those things: to contemplate by oneself, to practice an instrument, or to compose a poem; and there also has to be room for that, too.

There are things that a lack of privacy destroys or at least deforms, prevents from reaching their true potential, and in our own haste to enjoy them anyway we surely run the risk of distorting our own selves, and casting those around us into doubt. I bring this up because I’m hoping that these transmissions and these works-in-progress–these essays on a game I love–are of a kind that will be conducive to the sanctuary of thought, for myself and others, and not distractions from it. In my intro here I’ve gone ahead and invited it, so I’ll just spell it out–the comparison between video games and pornography, playing and intellectual or, as the Dude says, manual masturbation. It’s a glaring but little-discussed–and understandably so–fact that a good deal of what we use the internet for, when we’re left to ourselves, is not to go in search of enlightening things to read or listen to, though the great works of the past and present are all pretty much freely available on here, and there are a whole lot of people out there are ready to talk about them, but instead to go looking for erotic images. And that’s a shame, to make oneself not the town bike but the world-wide bike, ridden by the succubus. The parallel there to video games, and to the discussion about video games, must be made.

Sorry if that’s a cringe-worthy beginning to this episode, but I think it’s a natural counterpart to last week’s, which dealt with the ideal as symbolized by the star, as embodied in Paula, and so we need to consider this week how the potential for good can go mightily astray. Also, it’s brought to mind because of an article I remember but which I haven’t been able to find again, despite sending the author, Tim Rogers, a message on Twitter asking for it. If anyone can dig up a copy, I’d be very grateful. It’s where Itoi is quoted as describing the video game as a kind of prostitute. I never knew what to make of the comparison, so I wanted to try to think through these matters, some of the ways in which the potential for good goes wrong.

After all, we learn not just when things go well, from ideals and role models, but also from how they go wrong: that badness is instructive not only for us to see what not to do, but to learn about ourselves, our own responses, our own capacity for reflection. Sooner or later we learn to step out of the situation enough to learn from it, to grin and bear it if that’s the best we can do, or else to speak up and try to improve it, to help make it better, if possible. For example, a great deal of the boredom I always felt as a student in school was mitigated once I realized the power of PSI Reflection on what my teachers or school system were doing badly. But first, a certain innocence has to be lost. For one looks up to role models or despises negative models either naively, on the one hand, or with self-awareness, and once there’s self-awareness, there’s responsibility. Trying to recapture innocent unreflectiveness might be part of the appeal of playing video games just for fun, playing at arcade bars while drinking, as we did Turtles in Time and four-player Pac Man with some friends last week, but the transformation that comes when the ideal betrays you, somehow it’s irreversible. Playing as you did when a kid is not something that can be recaptured, exactly; you can’t step in the same river twice.

The Punishment Inflicted on Lemuel Gulliver, William Hogarth (British, London 1697–1764 London), Etching and engraving; first state of two

[Yep. Text reads: by applying a Lilypucian fire Engine to his Posteriors for his Urinal Profanation of the Royal Palace at Milendo which was intended as a Frontispiece to his first Volume but Omitted]

Turning to EarthBound, let’s get into some of the reversals here. The second Your Sanctuary spot, deep in the caves past Happy Happy Village, is Lilliput Steps, alluding to myths of little people, fairies and spirits, which are as universal as those of giants. These steps show you you’re on the right track, only they’re diminutive, whereas the first, at Giant Step above Onett, was enormous. You can interpret this as reflecting your own growth, or as the shrinking of the numinous, the magical. Perhaps those go hand in hand.

The specific literary reference is to Swift’s satiric masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, a work chock-full of reversals: Gulliver goes second of all to a land of giants, Brobdingnag, after first going to a land of Lilliputians. Like chortle, which we looked at courtesy of Captain Strong, lilliputian is a word that’s entered the English language thanks to its aptness, its sound and sense agreeing so nicely, and the way that it fits where we didn’t have a good word before. Wherever he goes, to all the islands with all their strange inhabitants, they stand in for the foibles of his English neighbors, however distant they may seem. Yet in every case the butt of the satire is most severely and caustically Gulliver himself. The great traveler, the sensible hero of his fantastic adventures, is revealed as petty, cruel, short-sighted, boring. But more than that, perhaps, the irony lies for us in the more general point that Swift, like Shakespeare, wrote so that his work would thrill people and rile them up. As Shakespeare wrote his plays to sell tickets, so the polemical Swift did his satire so it would fly off the shelves, and yet now they’re hardly read voluntarily, even when (or perhaps because) they’re assigned. It is enough for some people for a thing to be held up as an ideal for them to sharpen their knives, or to dismiss it out of hand.

Here’s one other funny connection to the Lilliput steps: a little-known work from Tolkien’s youth, Goblin Feet, which he later heaped scorn upon, nevertheless shows him at an early stage of his poetic, creative career. Footprints, of course, connote not only paths and journeys, and the hint of a presence now past, but the word feet is also used for the metrical units of traditional poetic forms: iambic, dactylic, etc. Here’s a taste of Goblin Feet:

I am off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flitter-mice are flying
A slender band of gray
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
And of blundery beetle-things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming!

O! the lights! O! the gleams! O! the little twinkly sounds!
O! the rustle of their noiseless little robes!
O! the echo of their feet – of their happy little feet!
O! the swinging lamps in the starlit globes.

I must follow in their train
Down the crooked fairy lane
Where the coney-rabbits long ago have gone.
And where silvery they sing
In a moving moonlit ring
All a twinkle with the jewels they have on.
They are fading round the turn
Where the glow worms palely burn
And the echo of their padding feet is dying!
O! it’s knocking at my heart-
Let me go! let me start!
For the little magic hours are all a-flying.

O! the warmth! O! the hum! O! the colours in the dark!
O! the gauzy wings of golden honey-flies!
O! the music of their feet – of their dancing goblin feet!
O! the magic! O! the sorrow when it dies.

That last line is one of the few that doesn’t have an exclamation point at the end. And I can only imagine what the Freudians would do with all of that…

In this sense, too, that we like Tolkien repudiate and perhaps repent of them, flaws are instructive–none more so than our own, if we can face them. The essence of the much-misapplied term Socratic method, as I understand it, consists in allowing people to see their mistakes in a light which is not immediately going to be catastrophic to life, limb, or reputation. This is the luxury of civilization, that we’re allowed to make mistakes and not die (usually, though not in some cases, society is kinder to the individual concerned than nature’s method, the slow and steady process of evolution). But the responsibility of the citizen, Socrates suggests, is to care about the truth enough to question whatever seems mistaken. He did it through irony; Swift did it through satire; and I think EarthBound does, too, poking fun at the whole tradition of fantasy flowing out of Tolkien and other sources and through the table-top and then video game RPGs.

Over time, Tolkien elevated his goblins and gnomes into elves, and in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings he made the last real attempt at nobility in literature. Although, who knows, I think Pullman does him one better in Lord Asriel and Lyra: just a short passage here from his new Book of Dust: 

At one point he seemed to be showing the moon to Lyra, pointing up at it and holding her so she could see, or perhaps he was showing Lyra to the moon; at any rate he looked like a lord in his own domain, with nothing to fear and all the silvery night to enjoy. (148 La Belle Sauvage)

Earlier, too, we hear that Lyra “look[ed] around with a lordly complacency” (43). Of course this is seen from our narrator’s and from the protagonist, Malcolm’s, perspective, who “was enchanted…He was her servant for life” (43-44). Quite taken with the little baby, as he doesn’t have a sibling of his own. But discussions of Pullman and Tolkien will take us too far afield, so more on that elsewhere.

The vision Ness sees after Giant Step is a puppy; after Lilliput Steps, there’s a baby in a red cap. Ness is seeing himself from an outside perspective in an inner vision, like one sees oneself in dreams. For all that in many ways academic culture has turned aside from straightforward or stereotypical heroic representations since even before Tolkien’s time, we are all the hero of our own narratives, of course–maybe we’re all the villain, too. Is it simply affectation, or perhaps real despair, which leads us to claim otherwise, to say with Prufrock, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet…” in TS Eliot’s Love Song?

I normally don’t go straight to Lilliput Steps. The bears down there and the end guy at the shiny doorway are too hard. It’s much easier to come back after you’ve cleaned out Threed, on an intercity bus, or else just to wait until you can teleport. But this time I wanted to do things chronologically. I made it through the caves, leveling a bit slowly, but surely. But when I came up against Mondo Mole, slavering with toxic froth dripping from jaws and claws, I still would have lost but that I tried Pray, Paula’s move that she alone can do, and the dazzling light came to my aid on the first try, dealing a bunch of damage, miraculously enough. It was like Buzz Buzz returned from the grave!

Just to pick up briefly on that idea of wondering whether it’s the infant being shown the moon, or the moon the infant, and connecting it with this idea of prayer, which we’ll certainly talk about more at the final battle of the game: One of Montaigne’s famous turns of phrase is “When I play with my cat, who knows if she is making more a pastime of me than I of her.” I never knew which essay that came from, and I decided to look it up and delve into it in this week’s episode, because of that cat on the roof of the Polestar preschool, which I love to think about.

But it turns out that the phrase occurs in one of the essays I’ve never read, Book 2 Essay 12, Apology for Raymond Sebond. And the reason I haven’t read it, and that it’s not in either of my copies of Montaigne’s selected essays, is because it’s over a hundred pages long! It doesn’t make it into selected editions, despite being rather important, as it would have been practically as long as the rest of the selections put together. Fortunately you can find the Apology in a Hackett edition available on Google Books, though other online copies I consulted from older translations were garbled. Anyway, I thought this connected with the pros and cons of online resources, thinking about playing with cats the way you play by or with yourself.

In the context of what seems to be a long essay on faith and doubt, this apology, or defense, of the theologian Sebond, whose work Montaigne has translated at his father’s request, walks a fine line between reason and faith. Montaigne’s own skeptical nature throws in more than one possible name for that line: the concept of doubt, but also of play. From the first fifteen pages or so, it’s an extremely interesting example of human limitations and uniqueness. Our not being able to answer this question, of whether the cat is playing with us or us with it, is coupled with the reflective capacity which seems to set us apart, even as our tendency to play is shared with the beasts of the field, or of the carpet.

What if the opponent you think you’re toying with is toying with you? What if you think you’re playing alone, in whatever way you take that to mean, and there’s someone watching–and not only your own conscience or some anthropomorphic old man god in the sky or up at the North Pole, but someone actually happens to be there? You could think of them as representing the society which needs you to be better, itself being so corrupt, like the cultist peering out from behind a bush at the the egg stand in Happy Happy Village, or the boss of Burglin Park on the lookout from his shack’s roof.

In each town you come to in EarthBound, just like in most games like this, there’s someone there to greet you as you arrive. In Happy Happy Village, an exclamation point pops up above the greeter’s head. She runs over to you, eerily enthusiastic. People like that, overly cheerful, always give the impression they are hiding something, perhaps not so successfully, and perhaps from themselves. Maybe that’s why the picture postcard she gives you, if you look at it, makes you feel sad and empty.

In Twoson’s name, we get a play on Tucson, AZ, where as it happens the illustrious Fangamer team has their HQ. The number theme is continued from Onett. Rather than extending up a hill to the north like your hometown, the town clusters together except for the path leading to Peaceful Rest Valley to the East (perhaps a euphemism for Death Valley?) and then the long stretch of road diving straight to the south, to the ghost-obstructed tunnel. The latter seems to exist primarily to give you a place to ride your bike up and down, and then later to ride in the Runaway Five bus, to give them time to properly jam–their music like an augmented form of the whistling you do on your bike. More on that next week.

Along with Punk Sure, the bike shop, Twoson has the first department store and the first Mr T-looking townsperson in the game. Both will recur later on in Fourside and play a more significant role there. The hospital in the northeast corner of town will be a frequent stop as long as you find yourself getting mushroomized, and navigating to it and through the lobby with the wonky controls can be a trip.

The effect of mushroomization is one of the ways in which Twoson, more so than Onett, helps introduce another major theme of this game: the ordinary being revealed as extraordinary. That is, the extraordinary change in perspective concealed and latent in the ordinary activities of walking or riding a bike; what we might dismiss as ordinary–or rely on as ordinary–actually turns out to be quite extraordinary.

What I mean by this isn’t just the way that meteorites land in your backyard and magical statues turn up in your neighbor’s basement, and then there you are fighting titanic ants and seeing visions at magical locations–all this is more along the lines of modern fantasy or magical realism, or old romances and fairy tales. It’s not primarily the incursion of the mythic into the everyday, the realization that these worlds overlap and interconnect in profound ways, that I mean. Rather, things in Twoson are to all appearances quite normal–aside from a few walking plants and fungi and the odd talking mouse or psychic kid–and yet within this very normalcy you may begin to get a glimpse of the marvelous. I’m trying to say, along with walking and riding a bike, these ordinary things–people shopping and driving their cars, going to the park or waiting in line at the theater, sending their kids to preschool or visiting the hospital–are all amazing when you think about them.

And when you think about them tends to only be when you’re forced to–unless you’re some sort of mystic–and when you’re forced to is usually when they start to break down, if you’ve always been accustomed to them working. Or when you come from somewhere else where things work differently–say, a quiet seaside-hillside suburb where the local gang overruns the police briefly due to an extraterrestrial intervention in history. Or when you’re immersed in a new culture, a new language, as will happen later in the game. Noticing the differences within what is all around, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, we might also be struck by the ordinariness of the extraordinary–after all, something strange like this must happen in order for there to be a story worth telling. How some of the parents have gone to the valley and have not come back; how there’s the people with blue faces who fight you, running up like the greeter in Happy Happy Village; the strange turn of events whereby the underworld figure, Everdred, turns out to have a conscience. He even wants to offer a reward–it’s fine that cash may be the only sort he can conceive of–for bringing Paula back safely. And recall her parents, who, as we saw, carry on running the Polestar preschool despite their daughter’s disappearance. Amazing! And the kidnapper was your next door neighbor.

This idea of payment for a life, having one common coin for everything, is an old one. In the Nordic tales it’s called wergild, and it seems uncannily close to the useless bounty of the dragon’s horde, circulating along with endless cycles of bloodshed. Everdred’s wad of cash is not, like other money, depositable or spendable, somehow not actually quantifiable. It’s a more representative, less liquid currency, whose only function is to free the Runaway Five from their Groundhog Day gig, endlessly repeating at the theater they’re in debt to, called Chaos. More on that next week, and a little about the Blues Brothers, of course.

At least integrity and honor do not seem to be completely abandoned in either Twoson or Happy Happy Village. For all their flaws, the Happy Happyists do not mob you, as they could, and not all of them even attack you. ‘The insane cultist trapped you,’ it says when you encounter one in battle, but others make jokes about getting the wrong color: ‘Green green.’ Or else they are so entranced by chanting and slowly walking in circles that they don’t try to get you–they’ve moved beyond that level of insanity, and are apparently harmless again.

Nevertheless they do trap you, simply by their presence, in a human labyrinth. Combined with the music playing in there and the design of the sprites, the resemblance to a Klan meeting makes this part in the game the most unsettling so far. Even though their appearance had to be altered in the US release, removing the letters HH, which by their repetition as much as their appearance hearkened back to the KKK, and adding a pom-pom on the end of their long-hood-cum-hat dealie, the happy happyists plainly evoke the bizarre underside of the pursuit of happiness in certain parts of America, which leads otherwise normal people to don robes and mill about en masse. Of course their obsession with the color blue is not quite the same as that of skin color, which haunts our history, but the association seems clear.

The kinds of happy one can be–riding the bike smiling, painting the world blue or painting the town red–these alternatives are all false as long as they’re too narrow and exclusive, but they point towards something the game holds in store, the abiding happiness of smiles and tears, I think, encompassing them. The pursuit of happiness is a phrase that’s easy to paint with a broad brush, but it’s the natural course of action once life and liberty are reasonably secure. Clobbering Carpainter and releasing Paula, you can talk to the people in town again, and they’ll have a new take on things. The postcard-pusher will apologize. Even Paula’s kidnapper realizes he went too far, treading in his little pen with his mask on, like the cow next door at the inn. Once its blue paint job is cleaned off, along with all the houses’, everyone is grateful to you for showing them the error of their ways, starting with Carpainter, the cult leader.

But Pokey, your neighbor, somehow, is immune to this. He pretends to apologize, backs away slowly, just like he did at the start of the game, and then turns tail, unrepentant. I don’t know if it’s his innocence, not realizing the effect that what he’s doing will have on himself and others, or if it’s intentional greed, knowing he’ll get another chance, or some combination of both. You can’t fight him–he escapes too quickly–and you can’t do anything to the Mani Mani statue, either, since Carpainter, contrite as he is, still stands in the way. I’m a little fuzzy as to its movements, since they happen off-stage, as it were, so we’ll have to keep a close eye on what people say as the game progresses. Everdred mentions he’d like a closer look at it, but how did it get from Lier’s underground room to the attic of Carpainter’s church in the first place?

How do you tell an idol from a work of art, or from a god, for that matter? How do you tell a wholesome church from a cult? ‘I know it when I see it’ may be good enough criterion for the court, but the court of conscience is a more discerning judge.

What is left to do when the ideal turns out to be just like the rest? It’s up to you, right? If you think the king is actually a tyrant, declare independence and take arms if you must. If you think the emperor wears no clothes, hand him your coat, shake the dust from your shoes. Just know that it will mean you need to frame a new constitution entirely, and then return home, through the valley of peaceful rest on the rebuilt bridge.

So much for the grown-ups who left Twoson allured by the promise of Happy Happyism. But we are all apt to be disappointed by an ideal or an idol sooner or later. To bemoan the state of things while doing nothing about it is pusillanimity, laziness, or worse, obscenity. Let’s read and let’s talk about something better. Let’s not forget our true teachers, these kinds of works, which contain so much of the good and the bad for us to learn from.

To sum up, we had a scatter plot of shorter excerpts again this week, on which I thought to draw the old box and whiskers diagram and doodle in a cat’s face curled up on the rooftop rather than crouched by the door. We covered some more of Twoson and Happy Happy Village, touched on Gulliver and Raymond Sebond and the Founding Fathers, and we’ll look forward to the Runaway Five and Blues Brothers next week. Till then, take care!

Image result for warhol skull


The Dude: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Lebowski

Where I think Tim Rogers’ article on Mother 2 used to be: http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=422

Hogarth’s etching for Swift: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392597

Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/829/829-h/829-h.htm

Tolkien, Goblin Feet: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Goblin_Feet

This text comes from TolkienGateway.net, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it’s included in Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit, for the serious scholar.

Pullman’s Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Dust-Belle-Sauvage/dp/0375815309

Tolkien’s drawing ‘Moonlight on a Wood’ https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/03/tolkien-artist-illustrator/

TS Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock

Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond: https://books.google.com/books/about/Apology_for_Raymond_Sebond.html?id=ZeMyn3msO2oC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

The ordinary-extraordinary of Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia: http://www.shauntan.net/books/suburbia.html

“I know it when I see it” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobellis_v._Ohio

Origins of the pointy hat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capirote

Warhol Skull: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/andy-warhol-1928-1987-skull-6011690-details.aspx


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4 replies »

  1. So many ways to think about this game! The Happy Happy cultists were always some of the creepiest elements in this game. Growing up in religious circles without much mind for religious ideas back then, if not downright disdain for them, this section of the game was like a dark cautionary tale. In ways, it still is. There’s a stark but slender line between church and cult, and the thing I’ve tried to make the plumbline for it is to search if the group is essentially a “cult of personality”. Certainly, the HH was.


    • Religion in games would make for a rich topic of discussion among gamers, and it opens an interesting perspective on religion, too. The game I think I’ll look at next is Xenogears, so it’s very much on my mind!

      I almost subtitled this one “EarthBound and Cults.” I felt like I didn’t do enough to weave together the apologetic thread from Montaigne with the satiric thread from Gulliver, but I do think both aspects are present here in Happy Happy Village.

      Your idea about a cult of personality seems right. I think cults are also about limiting the kinds of inquiry permitted among their members. But those things seem to go hand in hand, usually.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, absolutely spot on. It’s hard to pin the larger, widespread institutions with cult status based on limiting inquiry yet that’s precisely how the church functioned before the reformation, for instance. One of the best things about the Christian religion today is that there’s no need for that middle man cult of personality anymore, since you can inquire of the original text as much as you like, either in your own language or if you like in the Greek and Hebrew. And the church has to maintain that level of transparency to avoid any extra abuses of power.


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