“Essay Eleven: Best Friend – On EarthBound, Winters, and Montaigne”

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



bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

The School and the Store

Sometimes, in trying to say too many things in these essays, I worry I don’t say anything as clearly as I would like to. For this unspeakable error I beg your pardon! So I’d like to thank this week my old students who’ve found my work online, and who put up with my long stories and silences in class. Soon enough it will be the time of year again when another round of them are graduating high school or even college at this point, or moving up a grade, making summer plans, which, I hope, will include lots of reading and maybe even playing EarthBound. I hope you all will be well that fine spring-summer day, but we turn now to Winters.

A small country in the North, where snow carpets the forest ridges and frost coats the windows of the boarding school; where gruff goats frisk and Tessie Watchers watch Lake Tess; a dungeon maker toils in obscurity, and Stonehenge looms over a famed scientist’s lab; a sanctuary spot waits, only steps away yet utterly inaccessible even with the buoyancy of bubble gum and the lake monster’s friendship. Fortunately a faithful following monkey secures you both of those things, bobbing up to drop a rope, and to steer the dinosaur over the lake. And that’s where I think we should begin, with the hint provided by the gift shop just over the iron-wrought fence, called Best Friend. With that crucial moment of leaping over the gate and leaving Snow Wood thanks to your best friend, Tony, giving you a boost then going back inside. In the moment that Jeff, or whatever name you gave him back at the start of your game file, jumps the fence, there is a sort of bewildering realization of freedom and of finality. You can’t go back into the boarding school, not ever. An unknown expanse of a snow-covered England-like place extends before you. All you know is that you’re heading south, following the call of a friend you’ve never met, leaving the friend you have.

When those words heard in a dream wake Jeff, Tony wakes, too. He was dreaming of the two of them taking a walk, he says, and though he doesn’t understand, he’ll do everything he can to help his friend. His mixture of sentiment and stiff upper lip is touching, and has suggested to many players a romantic attraction. Itoi has confirmed as much in statements translated on EarthBound Central. The portrayal of a gay character in a video game has been a great solace to many people figuring out their own identity, no doubt. Also touching is Tony’s warning to be careful about leaving the dorm room at night, only to find a group of boys out in the hall chatting casually, and next door kids up and wrapping presents, and downstairs in the lab one of the teachers or at any rate an older student, Maxwell, who, far from sending you back to bed, actively helps you prepare for your journey. Rule-breaking, it turns out, may not be so catastrophic–but far be it for me to advocate rule-breaking! When you can’t open the lockers with the bent key he gives you, Maxwell fashions a Bad Key Machine on the spot, and reminds you that this is a skill you too possess, of taking damaged or unassuming objects and applying your ingenuity to repair or modify them for use. He also reminds you about your father, the famous scientist Dr Andonuts. So Jeff is the only character in the game who we’re sure has a last name. 

Besides this nighttime escapade and your visit to the dorm room next door, where in all likelihood you’ll automatically start opening a number of the presents scattered around before realizing they were specially wrapped for a party, the next act of daring, ditching school for good, helps to solidify Jeff’s character as bold, even reckless, oblivious to the consequences of what he’s doing. He’s at once practical and hardy, staying up all night fixing things, but also highly idealistic, following a call heard in a dream in the middle of the night. Some hints of an explanation for the development of such a personality are given, too, with the allusion to a brilliant yet, as we’ll see, standoffish father, and no mother in sight. In this way Jeff is a reflection of Ness. Taken together with Jeff’s whole aesthetic, a kind of geek-schoolboy James Bond, Tony’s puppy love for him makes sense, and whether Tony feels any jealousy or resentment at being left behind or not, his fast affection and abiding friendship clearly overcomes any negative emotion, as he physically lifts Jeff over the boundary to set him on his adventure. Yet Tony bids Jeff always remember, they are best friends.

There’s a mixture of irony and slapstick, then, when the shop just outside the gate is called Best Friend. They push into your possession the Bubble Monkey, so called because he lightly floats over obstacles when he chews pieces of gum from the apparently bottomless clearance pack. This too, elation and lightness, easy come, easy go, is how friendship feels, along with a mysterious voice in the night, or that person who’s always there, that helping one another to set out on life’s adventures even if it means that your paths should diverge, still establishing a bond living in memory–all this is part of friendship.

Because he was he…

This brings us back to Montaigne again. I tried to talk about his Apology for Raymond Sebond a few weeks ago because that’s where the playful cat quote appears, but this time I’ll read a bit from one of the essays I’ve actually read, one of the first ones I remember really liking and one I’ve been sent back to repeatedly by other authors, such as Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian, who prizes it so highly: On Friendship. It begins:

As I was observing the way in which a painter in my employment goes about his work, I felt tempted to imitate him. He chooses the best spot, in the middle of each wall, as the place for a picture, which he elaborates with all his skill; and the empty space all round he fills with grotesques; which are fantastic paintings with no other charm than their variety and strangeness. And what are these things of mine, indeed, but grotesques and monstrous bodies, pieced together from sundry limbs, with no definite shape, and with no order, sequence, or proportion except by chance?


Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne [‘A beautiful woman that tails off into a fish.’ Horace, Ars Poetica 4]


I am at one with my painter in this second point, but I fall short of him in the other and better part. For my skill is not such that I dare undertake a fine, finished picture that follows the rules of art. It has occurred to me, therefore, to borrow one from Etienne de la Boetie, which will grace all the rest of this work. It is a treatise to which he gave the name of The Voluntary Servitude; but others who did not know this have since very fitly renamed it The Protest. [Montaigne would have included it in his Essays if the Protestants had not printed it under this title in a collection of pamphlets published in 1576.] He wrote this as an essay in his early youth, in praise of liberty and against tyrants. It has for a long time been circulating among men of understanding, not without singular and well-deserved commendation, for it is as fine and perfect as it could be. Yet it is far short of the best that he could do; and if in his maturer years, when I knew him, he had conceived a plan, like this of mine, of committing his thoughts to writing, we should now see many rare things which would make our age almost as famous as antiquity. For, in natural gifts particularly, I know of no one who could compare with him. But he left nothing behind him except this treatise. […]To me he bequeathed in a will made when he was in the very grip of death his library and his papers, with a most loving message; and I owe a particular debt to this treatise because it was the means of our first acquaintance. For it was shown to me a long time before I met him, and gave me my first knowledge of his name, thus preparing the way for that friendship which we preserved as long as God willed, a friendship so complete and perfect that its like has seldom been read of, and nothing comparable is to be seen among the men of our day. So many circumstances are needed to build it up that it is something if fate achieves it once in three centuries. (Cohen trans, p. 91)

In that passage we get a sense of Montaigne’s typical self-effacing mixture of awe, moved by all that he observes, and despair at his inability to express it. He refers there to the library he inherits from La Boetie, which gives him such solace in his retirement and provides him such inexhaustible fund of quotations and fodder for reflections in his own writing. He goes on:

There is nothing for which nature seems to have given us such a bent as for society. And Aristotle says that good lawgivers have paid more attention to friendship than to justice. Of a perfect society friendship is the peak. For, generally speaking, all those relationships that are created and fostered by pleasure and profit, by public or private interest, are so much the less fine and noble, and so much the less friendships in so far as they mix some cause, or aim, or advantage with friendship other than friendship itself. Nor do the four kinds recognized by the ancients–natural, social, hospitable, and sexual–separately or in combination, come up to it.

What Montaigne is calling friendship here is something that is special, not like what he reads about in books, not like anything else he’s seen, and he claims that it won’t happen again in three centuries–so I guess we’re about due for one.

The next several pages comprise his reflections on all kinds of other important relationships, as between children and parents, brothers, sexual love and marriage and even homosexuality, and winds up with:

Therefore, the ancients call it [ie. homosexual love] sacred and divine and, to their thinking, only the violence of tyrants and the baseness of the people are opposed to it. In brief, all that can be said in favor of the Academy’s conception is that it is a love which terminates in friendship, a definition which does not disagree with that of the Stoics, ‘that love is an attempt to gain the friendship of someone whose beauty has attracted us’ (Cicero, Tusculans, IV, 34).


I return to my description of a more right and proper kind of friendship: ‘In general you cannot judge a relationship until the partners have attained strength and stability in mind and in years’ (Cicero, De amicitia, XX). For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships are no more than acquaintanceships and familiarities, contracted either by chance or for advantage, which have brought our minds together. In the friendship I speak of they mix and blend one into the other in so perfect a union that the seam which has joined them is effaced and disappears. If I were pressed to say why I love him, I feel that my only reply could be: ‘Because it was he, because it was I.’

If that celebrated line sounds at first like it’s not a reason at all, it should. That’s the point. Montaigne goes on to give a very passionate explanation–or excuse for why he can’t give an explanation–of the friendship he would highlight by its uniqueness and difference from all other forms of relationship:

There is, beyond all my reasoning, and beyond all that I can specifically say, some inexplicable power of destiny that brought about our union. We were looking for each other before we met, by reason of the reports we had heard of each other, which made a greater impression on our emotions than mere reports reasonably should. I believe that this was brought about by some decree of Heaven. […] Such a friendship has no model but itself, and can only be compared to itself. It was not one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand; it was some mysterious quintessence of all this mixture which possessed itself of my will, and led it to plunge and lose itself in his; which possessed itself of his whole will, and led it, with a similar hunger and a like impulse, to plunge and lose itself in mine. I may truly say lose, for it left us with nothing that was our own, nothing that was either his or mine.

With his description of the fusion of wills mutually lost in one another we might recall Montaigne’s point of departure for the essay, which was to be a fanciful, grotesque setting for the perfect, finished centerpiece which is La Boetie’s Voluntary Servitude. This treatise represents an alternative to those social contract theorists–Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau–who so influenced the American founders, and the French Revolution and subsequent western liberal politics. Instead of a democratic framework, La Boetie argues for voluntary submission to the monarch, short of tyranny, of course. In the language of will used here,  the mutual interpenetration of wills, we might recall Aristotle’s connection between friendship and government, which Montaigne cites early in the essay, but also the Christian language of which he is skeptical at times. For instance, in John’s gospel account of the Last Supper:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.

As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.

10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.

11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.

17 These things I command you, that ye love one another.

Pages of red-letter ink there to contemplate, especially those difficult verses about the vine and the branches… Irrational perhaps it may be, but we continue to believe in friendship, and it seems we want to believe in elements of it which are inexplicable, not reducible to utilitarianism or logical determinism.

Mystery of Love

I think it’s no accident, then, that this theme of friendship is so strongly emphasized at this part of the game where so many mysteries are thrown together to lend depth to Jeff’s adventure. You immediately come upon Lake Tess and shortly after to Stonehenge. Many lonely characters are introduced to lend contrast: Maxwell and Brickroad and Dr Andonuts, and even Jeff and Tony in a way now that they are apart. In traveling through these mysteries, going from one friend who helps you to two others who need your help, going from the bright, shiny, frosty Snow Wood Boarding School where everything is safe and cozy and friendly, into a town of darkness and despair, all the while meeting the lone characters along the way, Jeff offers a way to think about the trade-offs between solitude and companionship. On the one hand, his journey suggests that great works and wonders can be accomplished all on one’s own (not counting the Bubble Monkey who’s following you). Tessie and Stonehenge are unique; Dr Andonuts in isolation has created an instant revitalizing device that replaces a good night’s sleep and a sky runner, a kind of low-flying UFO which homes in on Paula’s psychic beacon. Though Brickroad all by himself has built an adorable little dungeon by the side of Lake Tess, he does realize that he’ll need Dr Andounts’ help to become Dungeon Man–about which more another time when we meet him again. Dr Andonuts himself will need help from a mysterious source to complete his Phase Distorter, to fulfill the dream to move freely through space and time. Thus for the greatest works of self-transformation and conceptual and actual breakthroughs, it seems fellowship is indispensable. To save your game, of course, you call Maxwell, and to progress, as mentioned, you need the Bubble Monkey’s lightness.

There among the Tessie Watchers’ tents, those fans brought together by their shared love and pursuit of the mystery, in the morning the wind begins to blow. It carries dead leaves from last autumn, it seems, or maybe just from the next country over, for in Winters all is evergreen trees. Then when you step on a conspicuous spot where the land tapers to the lake, the Bubble Monkey takes flight and the smiling dinosaur rises to meet him, the Bubble Monkey perched there while you climb aboard and ride along on Tessie’s back like Mario in that underground lake level in Mario 64, and the sleigh bells and woodwinds drop away for the majestic horn melody that provides your water music.





Once across Lake Tess, again, there’s no going back. Though some of the souvenirs for sale at the Best Friend shop might have hinted that you will be back at some point, as does the Sanctuary spot waiting in the cave, since Jeff by himself is not permitted to challenge its guardian. In Brick Road’s little dungeon with all those billboards scattered around–‘beware of falling objects’–the Mad Ducks in the maze draw attention to Jeff’s lack of Psychic points, as their attacks attempt to deplete or block the use of it, and good for them, but you don’t need it; similarly, the harmlessness of the Worthless Protoplasms may give you a chance to try Jeff’s Spy command without wasting a turn, to see what weaknesses enemies have, or what presents they’re hiding behind them.

Whatever you do, don’t use the big bottle rocket in Jeff’s inventory until you’re in dire need. The ruler and the protractor, once you’re done with any math homework, can be safely got rid of to free up room for baked goods dropped by enemies and found in gift boxes. Not only is there a reprise of the pencil-shaped iron statue that was last seen blocking your way through Peaceful Rest Valley, but if you check out another conspicuous patch of ground in the middle of Stonehenge, dodging the lumbering Cave Boys to reach it, you’ll find a scary glowing path blocked by an eraser statue–and lucky for you, for the enemies down there are well beyond your current prowess. Are we to understand that the future Dungeon Man placed these here? Is there some pun on writer’s block in these school supplies blocking the way? Anyway, by now the Bubble Monkey has run off after a female of the species, off into the snowy trees where you can’t follow–you’re on your own, but only briefly.

The beefy gentleman hanging out by Stonehenge insists–to ‘you kids,’ though there’s only one of you, and you are very bright, thank you very much–on its being The Stonehenge. Which is curious, since the Tessie watchers are just as clear on the difference between their lake and Loch Ness, between their beloved Tessie and the monster who happens to share the name of the hero of this particular adventure–and maybe that’s why. Of course, it’s perfectly plausible that a significant mystical location like Stonehenge could exist simultaneously in parallel dimensions, ours and that of the game, as indeed among the explanations for such rings of stones is that they delineate the gateways between worlds. In The Very Scary Almanac, by Eric Elfman, with pictures by Will Suckow, which I mentioned last time though I didn’t read from it about the zombies, since they’re too scary, it says this of Stonehenge–

What makes some places scarier than others? What forces, natural or supernatural, combine to give a patch of land, or a body of water, or an entire country an aura of foreboding and terror? Is there really something there–something unseen, yet somehow sensed? Read on, and decide for yourself….




A circle of huge stone slabs on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge dates from before written history. Stonehenge mean “hanging stones.” No one knows who put them there, or why. Some say Merlin, King Arthur’s magician, built Stonehenge during the Middle Ages. Others say it may have been used as a landing site for UFOs. Many people claim that the stones possess magical powers, and many report seeing strange lights and [hearing] unexplainable sounds around the stones. Modern-day witches and pagans come to Stonehenge for their major festivals.

And then there’s a great picture there.

As The Very Scary Almanac points out, there are numerous other Tessie-like monsters in bodies of water the world over, such as the White River Monster, a “snakelike creature the size of a railroad car,” in Arkansas; in Lake Payette, Idaho, there’s Slimy Slim; over in Willowa Lake Oregon, there’s the Willowa Lake Monster (and Sufjan, again, has a ditty about it); and in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, near my hometown, there’s Chessie. But here’s what it says about the Loch Ness Monster:

What: A long, reptilian creature with a snakelike head. The skin appears to be dark gray and smooth. Some suspect that the creature is a plesiosaur, which most scientists believe became extinct 70 million years ago.


Where: Loch Ness, a lake in the highlands of Scotland.


First recorded sighting: In AD 565, Saint Columba saw a huge snakelike thing in Loch Ness and shouted to it, “Go back!” The creature, oddly enough, obeyed.


Modern Sightings: On July 22, 1930, three young fishermen saw a creature at least twenty feet long, with its head three feet out of the water, come rushing toward them, causing their boat to rock [it’s unclear whether they had a monkey there with a pack of bubble gum…]


Verdict of science: In 1960, the first film was taken of the monster, and it showed a dark shape swimming rapidly. Critics scoffed, saying the object could have been a boat or a log. Then England’s Royal Air Force analyzed the film. The RAF said that, without question, the object in the film was alive and could have been up to ninety feet long!

The Almanac goes on to detail Mokele-Mbembe from the Congo, and Kraken, the giant octopus, about which more another time.





Now I’ve been skimming through the Humble Bundle on MIT games studies books that my friend Ryan recommended to me recently, and practically every one of the books in it cites a work by Huizinga, Homo Ludens, about the magic circle around the game, and so maybe that is a way to understand Stonehenge here, too, as an image of mysteries which can be bounded, circumscribed, whereas Tessie would represent those which are flowing, deep, like water, moving and unexpected like wind and like music which represents motion through time and space, which may be experienced but not really at one’s choosing–for even the same song played at different moments may not have the same effect on the hearer.

All that’s left then is to meet Jeff’s father, in his lab with the cool detached music. It’s a commonplace trope to have highly abstract thinkers come to grief on the shoals of social interaction, but still it’s a bit extreme, the awkwardness of the meeting between Jeff and Dr Andonuts. It’s like Jeff’s father is trying to be polite–he offers you a donut, or rather asks if you’d like one, because he would like one, but he doesn’t have any–as if to save face when you show up unexpectedly. He’s pottering around the lab–he’s recently written E=mcon the chalkboard, so he’s got some deep thoughts going on–and he seems unable to recover from the obvious gulf of distance between himself and Jeff. He remarks on some of his work, mentioning that phase distorter that’s preoccupying him, and dismisses his son with ‘let’s get together in another ten years or so.’ For all that, it depends a lot on how you choose to read that, what tone of voice you hear it in. I prefer a dreamy, rather than a cold note, as equally in line with what we’re given for how to understand his character. Maxwell clearly looks up to him, after all, and Dr Andonuts generously gives you the Sky Runner to use, which zips you to your destination.

As you traveled through a couple mysterious territories to reach Dr Andonuts, now you’re sent on your way through another, the journey alternating between gliding among cloudscapes and swooping low over cities and deserts you’ve never seen. There’s even a monkey–maybe it’s the same one from Winters! This cut-scene is a little like a visual echo of the sorts of flashes of insight Ness gets when he reaches a Sanctuary Spot. This is what your dad can give you, this flight, this upbeat music hurtling along to your destiny. He’ll do his work, and you’ll do yours.





To recap: in Winters, we’ve seen mysteries as part and parcel of friendship: Tony’s romantic love, Montaigne’s ineffable relationship, and the awkwardness between father and son; deep lakes, stone circles; a good night’s sleep in a moment, a flight through regions with and without reason; images moving you out of the center of the screen, swooping up and down, whereas normally everything else moves around you and you stay in the center of the TV screen. Anyhow, Jeff will be displaced from that central point when he joins the line behind Ness, as next week our trio will follow the path that was previously blocked to Saturn Valley and Grapefruit falls.

Thanks for reading.


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Categories: Opinion

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1 reply »

  1. Winters is one of my favorite parts in the game, as is also coincidentally Summers. While reading this week’s essay, I thought of a CS Lewis quote you’ve undoubtedly heard yourself: “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

    Liked by 1 person

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