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! After a scintillating conversation capping the Threed, Winters, and Saturn Valley chapters from last month, it’s on to the desert!
I tried living in the desert once, or in its suburbs. I met my wife there, and we go back from time to time, by plane, not by bus, to visit our friends and see the Desert Botanic Gardens, the Superstition Mountains, the swimming pools, the old western towns crushed by sprawling developments and mister systems on the patios, the cacti standing like sentinels, Saguaros crowned with flowers, though I’ve never seen the little guys with 10,000 needles morph into a Tetra Elemental. There are no Smilin’ Sphere enemies, unless you play EarthBound (or Kirby, where their counterparts go around emitting lasers). The battle music accompanying the Smilin’ Spheres is some of the coolest in the game so far, along the lines of the Sky Runner, but suggesting more of the menacing side of technological advance, less the triumphal soaring of Icarus than his fall. The battle music medleys on the official soundtrack repay close listening, just as the canvases of Bruegel repay close attention–and also make great music for studying.
Two other curious enemies bear mentioning right up front. The Criminal Caterpillar can be found not far from the Mole Playing Rough. The latter (almost) inexplicably still attacks no matter how strong your party is; the latter breaks the game if you find him too often, turning tail and allowing your party to level up far beyond what it takes to cross the desert. For more about these oddities, I’ll direct you here.
When you first return to Threed after defeating Belch and adding the third of the eight melodies to your Sound Stone, with the encouragement of the coffee break by the hot springs–that voice different again from any other in the game, something like the people of Saturn Valley speaking in their own curious lingo, that voice of some grown-up and concerned speaker whose last words linger in your mind, like the ellipse at the end of the friendly text, like the fermata on a note of music: I wish you luck… –it’s just as Lucky of the Runaway Five let you know they believed in you when they dropped you off in the dark. He said that you’d bring your own sunshine to the place, and so it is, the sun is shining once more in Threed. Another variation on the town theme song has taken the place of the menacing Zombies Ate My Neighbors vibe from before. The townspeople are free to visit their family and friends in the graveyard once more. They greet you there with gratitude when you emerge from the still spooky, but empty now, glowing underground path. They cheer you on in the circus tent, too, where the last of the zombies are safely caged but keep blaming you as they go pacing out their quote-unquote “life” there.
There are plenty of hints that you’ll be back to fix the Sky Runner at some point, but instead, for now, it’s another bus that you take to leave Threed. Reading the bus stop sign, it turns out it’s a schedule, and in lieu of actually reporting the times, if you read it from out of the road, the game tells you it looks like the bus is arriving. It’s yet another small way in which reading causes something to happen in this game. This bus may say Gray Hand, but it looks like Easy Hand–the lettering is hard to discern. It barrels eastward with you, jangling jazz music in the ghost-free tunnels and the little patch of valley colored like Threed in the daytime, before emerging in the glare of the desert and drawing to a halt.
The driver lets you off at the end of the world’s longest traffic jam and peels out backwards. Someone else stuck in traffic thinks there’s a herd of buffalo crossing ahead, but gradually the crescendo of traffic noises gives way to the Dusty Dunes music, upbeat harmonica in place of honking horns. It’s not unlike the way the game on booting up transitions from a catastrophic overture, a scene of UFOs death-raying gas stations, to the confident horns of the title: EarthBound. The game, too, is a respite from life’s traffic jams, the daily grind, in the form of a roundabout adventure. Recall Itoi’s Easter-egg story of the speeding driver getting pulled over, found in the seaside property in Onett, or the strange delight of riding the bike, or the Sky Runner which showed you glimpses of the desert and the city beyond, or the bus rides with the Runaway Five and the one stuck in traffic, and it begins to look like there’s legs to this metaphor of travel, especially unorthodox travel, driving the game. The strategy guide is a travel guidebook, for as Egeus and Chaucer remind us: our life is a pilgrimage.
On the road of our life’s way, EarthBound takes an ordinary gripe, traffic, and makes it the impetus for an exodus through the desert. In this, it represents the curious paradox whereby something good in itself becomes terribly disfigured by attracting too much popularity, when beautiful or desirable places are destroyed by the masses of people attracted to their life-changing potential. And clearly the solution is to see how much more of the place there is all around, including where you already are. That’s the message of Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist, another good book about a journey through the desert: that you need to walk around in the place, and not just look at it from the car or the tour bus as you stop and go to your next destination, the big city of Fourside. In the desert, EarthBound, for all its modernity, takes the step of forcing you out of the vehicle, and instead of waiting for the traffic to clear up like everyone else, it sends you out into the dusty dunes (though all the parts you can reach seem pretty flat). The religious traditions of the West agree, the desert, literal and spiritual, is where you go for visions, literal mirages and metaphorical ladders, for instance, or dry bones. Rather than Abrahamic scripture or new-agey inspiration, though, I thought I’d go for more classic 20th-century literature this week: Antoine de St-Exupery, he of The Little Prince. Stay hydrated; we’ll see if we get there.
In the desert, you’ll recall from that flyover from Winters, there’s a monkey hanging out by an oasis. And when you meet her, she explains that as there are sea monkeys in the sea, desert monkeys live in the dessert–I mean, desert. But there’s something going on with that monkey’s slip, since it’s dessert in the unexpected form of the trout-flavored yogurt machine–if trout-flavored yogurt is a dessert–which brings you back to the desert later. Close to the drugstore (helpfully labeled with a sign reading DRUGS) is a cave of forking paths, each covered by a monkey with a specific craving. Often enough they are guarding the very item desired by one of the other guards, some of which cannot be found any other way. For now, the way in is blocked by Talah Rama, who is also at the end of the maze later, once you need the yogurt machine and he’ll be holding onto it for you. At that point, he’ll throw in a stumper of a discourse on predetermination and offer you the power of teleportation, as well. For now, he’s deep in meditation, and won’t respond. Some luck, so far–first a traffic jam, now this stonewalling, deterministic guru floating in the way…
Everyday foodstuffs, picnic lunches and bread rolls, rather than the bare cipher that equates to a round amount of HP, labeled Tonic or Potion–this is the sort of thing the monkey cave may make you think about, along with the strangeness of food represented by the yogurt dispenser. And somehow it seems like caramels would restore psychic points! Ketchup on the burger would boost its effectiveness! There are double burgers scattered around in gift boxes when you initially stop for the traffic jam, like manna in the desert.
The first thing you notice in stepping off the road into the sand, though, is the sweat springing from your party’s faces. But there’s life in the desert, it turns out. Besides the monkeys and the levitating sage, the couple suntanning and the bones which tell you that they don’t talk, a whole drama unfolds with what is normally not alive, what is normally not important, either: a black sesame seed, a white sesame seed, and a lost contact lens. As you trek up and down the wasteland, searching for treasure, you’re rewarded with unexpected finds: specks of pixels which speak to you if you investigate, and tell you their stories. You, in turn, become their messenger, carrying the news from the black sesame seed to the white one and back again. It’s a familiar story: though they are apart, they still love one another. Certainly, if there is anything in the game that cues us not to make too much of it, this is up there with the Insignificant item from the hospital drawer. Just a maudlin romance between sesame seeds lost in the sand, with nothing aside from its absurd humor to show for your efforts, certainly no allusions to Romeo and Juliet or Othello here. Finding the shiny contact lens, at least, promises a tangible reward from the delightfully named Giovanni Pennetella, living on the 2F of the Fourside Bakery. We’ll have to wait and see what that could be. One thing such events certainly conspire against, however, is the sense of necessity. Instead, with the implication of incredible odds against finding two seeds and a single contact lens in the desert, these events point towards luck, or even something miraculous.
Of course, in another sense Talah Rama is literally correct: the whole game is predetermined, namely by that voice which speaks directly to you in the coffee break, and possesses that dog back in Onett where his short story is hidden–by the game developer. And yet there is someone else determining what takes place in the game, too–you, the player. It is practically impossible to imagine ever playing the game through quite the same way twice–there are too many contingencies, effectively infinite paths through the desert or any other terrain of the game, and so despite being in one way wholly determined, there is in another sense always room for what it is natural to call chance, or luck, if you’re lucky.
Balancing out Talah Rama and the monkeys’ cave on the far side of the desert, and similarly concealing a treasure, is another cave, this one belonging to a miner. He, like Apple Kid, has so devoted himself to his work that he is famished. Will you feed him? Of course you will. This is one of those choices which you can only choose one way, in order to continue to play the game. In return for your generosity, the miner promises to give you whatever he finds. For now, there’s nothing more to do in the cave. Later, of course, you’ll have to clear out the third strongest moles, all five of them, in what has become a tedious maze full of monsters. The two caves, taken together, might suggest two opposing alternatives to the desert of boredom, angst, anomie: meditation on the one hand, and mammon on the other. Each element here, the traffic and the desert, the caves and the space between them, the apparent randomness of the seeds and the lens, could all also point our attention to the modern predicament which is responsible for the game’s existence: to tedium itself. Though the game exists to allay it, it can’t at times help but propagate it. At times the jokes fall flat, the enemies are too repetitive, and there’s a pencil-shaped statue down here, are you kidding me? So I have to go all the way back out and call on the phone to get the pencil eraser! And so on… Or is it that these jokes and the boredom and tedium they inspire can hit all too close to home? The sesame seeds, like us, black and white, loving despite being disconnected from community, seeking connection. Or like Giovanni Penetella, hoping someone will restore what we’ve lost, against all odds; though it’s only something material, it lets us see, and it has sentimental value besides, being handed down in the family.
Almost through the desert and no buffalo herd in sight, just off the now-clear road you’ll find the broken slot machine and its friends the Sanchez brothers: Pincho, Pancho, and Tomas Jefferson. As many times as I’ve played this game, I’ve never won except when all the spots in my inventory were full, and then when they try to bring over a prize, they let me know unfortunately that it’s impossible to give me anything else to carry. And unlike at the end of a battle when you have the chance to pick something up, you have no option of getting rid of something first, or, say, using one of your items to free up a space. So these Sanchez brothers, what are they doing in the desert, spinning in place, whirling dervishes, casino impersonators? With their pockets full of mysterious prizes they offer only to other travelers whose backpacks may already be full? Their names allude vaguely to a huge swath of the western world long colonized politically and economically, to brotherhood, to Sancho Panza, and thus vaguely to sanctity, and also–and his name seems to be the punchline– to the founding father whose words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have resounded down through history in tension with his slave-owning and his Louisiana Purchase, which made conflict with neighboring peoples all but inevitable. They’re just another joke, I suppose.
Since we’ve sweated this far, here is St-Exupery to put things in perspective:
I have no regrets. I have gambled and lost. It was all in the day’s work. At least I have had the unforgettable taste of the sea on my lips (167).
This comes from the chapter Prisoner of the Sand, in his book Terre des hommes (literally Land of Men) translated as Wind, Sand, and Stars by Lewis Galantiere. It’s where he recounts the experience of surviving a crash-landing in the Sahara, which later would become the basis for his children’s classic, The Little Prince. He survives, it turns out, because of that wind carrying the moisture from the sea, though its atmospheric effects also caused his confusion which led to the crash:
But this northeast wind, this abnormal wind that had blown us out off our course and had marooned us on this plateau, was now prolonging our lives. What was the length of the reprieve it would grant us before our eyes began to fill with light? I went forward with the feeling of a man canoeing in mid-ocean (150).
And I don’t know if the leap makes sense, but here is the analogy I see–you tell me if it’s a mirage, or a true vision: That crash landing culminates in the vision of his fellow man, the Bedouin who rescues him, as divine, as life-giving, much as his narrator will see the Little Prince from the stars appear to him in a similar moment of desperation; those fennec foxes just down the page, “a long-eared carnivorous sand-fox the size of a rabbit,” become the unforgettable Fox of the Little Prince, the traveler who never lets go of a question, as St-Exupery does not let go of life. This is in chapter XXI of that book:
It was then that the fox appeared.
“Good morning,” said the fox.
“Good morning,” the little prince answered politely, though when he turned around he saw nothing.
“I’m here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”
“Who are you?” the little prince asked. “You’re very pretty….”
“I’m a fox,” the fox said.
“Come and play with me,” the little prince proposed. “I’m feeling so sad.”
“I can’t play with you,” the fox said. “I’m not tamed.”
“Ah! Excuse me,” said the little prince. But upon reflection, he added, “What does tamed mean?”
“You’re not from around here,” the fox said. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for people,” said the little prince. “What does tamed mean?”
“People,” said the fox, “have guns and they hunt. It’s quite troublesome. And they also raise chickens. That’s the only interesting thing about them. Are you looking for chickens?”
“No,” said the little prince, “I’m looking for friends. What does tamed mean?”
“It’s something that’s been too often neglected. It means, ‘to create ties’…”
“‘To create ties’?”
“That’s right,” the fox said. “For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…”
The 20th century, the horrors of its traffic jams and crash landings, have led to much searching in the desert, and, it looks to me at any rate, to finding much that is worth treasuring.
To recap, then: We covered what I take to be one of the more tiresome parts of the game, when all’s taken into account: the monkey cave of Talah Rama and the mine which you have to return to after making it to Fourside at last. But I think that we can turn up some interesting stuff out there in the desert, along with a few double burgers and a few living things, a few stories whose qualities seem to resist reduction to deterministic values and instead to offer a glimpse at least of something transcendent. Whether it’s a mirage or not, I suppose is up to the person who’s playing. I look forward to moving on to Fourside and Moonside, where more fantastic illusions await.
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