Opinion

“Essay Sixteen: Bigger Inside Than Out — Moonside and the Magic Circle”

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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.”

Welcome back, and thank you again for reading. Hope, that ‘wisp of straw in the stable’–I hope that you’ll continue to stick with me and have fun playing and discussing EarthBound, that you’ll somehow hear whatever it is you’re hoping to hear here. Hear, hear! We’ve come to one of the more bizarre stages of the game. I know I’ve said something similar before, back in Saturn Valley, and I intend to say so again at least a couple more times before the end of this journey. But to continue the discussion of Fourside this week under the aspect of Moonside poses some special difficulties, which I hope will not prove insurmountable. In preparation, we gathered poems and practiced our philosophical language last week–I trust that’s all fresh in your mind–remember the bulldozer, the bridge between the labyrinth in the desert and the diamond-layout city. And I’ve moved the Franklin badge, the platinum band, and the coin of defense over to Ness’ stuff from Paula’s, and I suggest you do the same.

First, to pick up where we left off plot-wise, we’re in the dark. All the lights in the department store have gone out, just like the mouse said. This is why you always trust a mouse’s sixth sense–or your own, for that matter. A fortiori. Fortunately this is not just a book we’re reading, though: it’s a game that glows with its own illumination. Even in the darkness, the spaces between floors where the escalators carry you (the escalators are still working though the lights are out) you can see by the light of the words over the intercom calling you to the fourth floor, which surely recall those of your friend who’s just been kidnapped, whisked away from between you and your other friend whom she also called to help when you both were in danger like this before, back in the deranged hotel-room ambush and the locked room under the graveyard. You can see, too, by the bright gift box-disguised commodities crowding around your successive ascents. The hot coffees and electric guitars can be some of the toughest enemies to this point in the game, and the spook at the top is vicious. A big bottle rocket later, though, the smarmy kidnapper behind the desk is defeated, appealing to Giygas, lest you forget. As is ever the way with these stories, the obstacles, the taunts, the dangers make you stronger, shedding new light on your wisdom, courage, and friendship, those qualities at once the means and the end of your quest. Even, also, dimming the lights for such words and gifts to shine out the clearer. But where is Paula?

I was a little mixed up at the end of the last essay, addled by poems and continental philosophy–this is not Moonside just yet. You can even leave the store before going upstairs, and you’ll find everything outside is the same as ever. After beating the boss, the lights come back on, the stores are populated once more. Following the trail of clues about Monotoli’s whereabouts back to Jackie’s Cafe, talking to people you’ve already talked to in there, one of them, the broadly smiling lady by the bar, says something different, something about the seventh inning stretch and the fans singing ‘take me out to the ballgame’ at the stadium. Only there’s no stadium in Fourside. It’s supposed to mean there was a noise out front, maybe even a singing, collective kind of noise, but it also suggests that what’s about to happen will be a game within the game. When you go back out, a crowd of townspeople is gathered around the shallow alley, all appalled and unable to look, or move, away from the figure in the Hawaiian shirt and black bowler lying prone, face up on the pavement. Once more you bribe someone with any item you can spare to get him to move aside, to allow you to move the game forward by your generosity or impetuousness. Everdred tells you his version of the story–how he learned about Carpainter’s secret, the glittering Mani Mani statue, and stole it, bringing it to the city to sell on the black market, only to have it stolen in turn. And it’s this indignity, this reversal of fortune as much as his grievous hurts which seems to have brought the gangster low. The boss of Burglin Park doesn’t even remark on Paula’s absence from your party, so set on dying is he. He leaves you with a hint to check behind the bar. If you did so before, there was nothing, but now that you hear it from Everdred, it will be there, the way forward. And he leaves you also with his final haiku:

When on your way out

Be sure that you say goodbye

then lock the door tight.

With a last leer at the women gawkers, causing them to back away, and his self-image restored–does he actually pick their pocket? Is dispelling pity what he means by locking the door tight?–Everdred stumbles off, zigzagging out to be alone, like an animal about to die. On his own terms.

When you go back into Jackie’s and check behind the bar, three slow ?s ensue, and with a white-out you find yourself in Moonside. As a representation of the Dionysian element underlying everyday life, the energy with which existence is shot through, Moonside in EarthBound is like Where the Wild Things Are, or Calvin and Hobbes’ photo-negative comics, or like Hobbes himself and the rest of Calvin’s imaginations careening through the door to greet him; like the Upside Down in Stranger Things, like Coco‘s lavish world of the dead, or the impossibly lovely Art Deco Slumberland of Little Nemo. All this is just to say we need not go all the way back to depictions in classical epic and drama, nor even to Nietzsche’s essay on the Apollonian and Dionysian, to get a feel for the underworld, the bizarro world of Moonside. And I resort to/ indulge in references like this because I do hope you might be interested enough to want to look these things up, if you don’t know them already. I know it would be far-fetched to assign all this as reading, but to expose people to it, and encourage them… well, it’s like the footnotes in Hamlet again, these allusions. The root of that word, in fact, is the same as that in ludic, gamelike. If what’s being said in the play or the essay is interesting enough, maybe you’ll go then and read the notes and sources and think about them, and see the world anew, if not lit up quite like Moonside. Or, if nothing else, please accept these distillations of some good things I’ve managed to come by, and share them around, like the moonshine whiskey jug in Jayber Crow, saying good, good, good… It’s the drinks you’re inspecting, after all, when you’re transported there.  

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Here’s Ian Bogost, in his recent book Play Anything, from which I took my title for this episode:

Suddenly silly forgettable activity of reciting words in order becomes a compelling experience that warrants serious attention. The experience becomes much larger than the constraints that create it. By embracing more limitations, a seemingly meaningless idea becomes a more meaningful experience. This paradox of play–the idea that fun arises from limiting freedoms rather than enhancing them–isn’t only true of board games or card games or playground games or video games. It can be found in any kind of material whatsoever. If the imposition of external restraint hasn’t been effective, why not embrace its opposite, constraint, the opposite adoption of controls of and limitations from inside rather than outside a situation. Constraint has the possibility to cover all forms of construction across all forms of media. Rules describe the internal logic of a system, but constraint delineates its edges, the membrane that contains these machines and separates them from other beings, creatures, and devices in the world. Constraints are the features that delimit both the system’s characteristics and the user’s possible actions. (140)

In this passage he takes the going-on-a-picnic word game as an example of his thesis, how when you add challenge by adding constraints you make a game (or any activity) more interesting.  Bogost’s “reciting words in order” might well make you think of poetry, and that’s just one of the other chapters in here which is really interesting.

His main concept of the world as a potential playground is anchored from the start in his love for his daughter. He tells the story of walking hand in hand with her at the mall, pulling her through from store to store:

Years ago, when I lived near an upscale shopping mall near Atlanta, I was in a hurry rushing from one store to another in order to meet up with my wife. The mall was crowded and bleak and I wanted to leave. I had my young daughter in tow. She was four years old or so. She clutched my hand as I steered us through the throngs of weekend shoppers. I was moving too fast for her small legs, and she was struggling to keep up. But even as I felt her skipping between steps to keep up with me, I also felt her tugging back, intentionally resisting my forward momentum, pulling me in another direction. When I looked down I saw why. She was staring straight at her shoes, timing her footfalls to ensure she stepped within the boundaries of the square white tiles lining the mall floor. Sensations I had taken for pulls and tugs had been caused by shifts in her weight as she attempted to avoid transgressing the ground blocks while I pulled her forward and sideways around crowds.

Everyone will recognize my daughter’s improvisation as a variant of ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back,’ a superstition of the late nineteenth century that developed into a children’s game on sidewalks. But my daughter’s version adds intrigue and complexity. Rather than resisting and griping about the unreasonable speed of my cadence, she had chosen to submit herself to it. Since I was driving, so to speak, she didn’t have to choose where she was going. This freedom allowed her to focus on her feet rather than on obstacles, but in so doing she also surrendered control over her own forward motion. Ordinarily ‘step on a crack’ makes no assumptions about its player’s motion. You could … stand still while plotting your next step or whatever, but for my daughter, my rapid and haphazard motion acted as a propulsion system, as if she was being conveyed on a carnival ride instead of by her own locomotion. She had to make quicker and more definitive decisions than she might have done otherwise. There was also pleasurable vertiginous challenging and interesting. She made up a game, she was playing, as we say often dismissively. She made the most of a mundane situation. She turned misery into fun.

So that’s one main fount of Bogost’s argument. He goes back to that anecdote time and again throughout the book. On the other hand, Play Anything is also anchored in his study of play, not as a father at the mall, but as a professional game developer and professor. His scholarly basis goes back to a text I mentioned before, Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. It’s a seminal one for all of the games writers and analysts in the MIT Humble Bundle edited by Bogost, but Ludens doesn’t actually appear in the Bundle, though it’s cited by practically every one of them. Fortunately, an online version is available from Yale. Here, early in the book, Huizinga explores some general comments about play, delineating a framework that every games scholar after him will have to contend with, or ignore at their peril:

More striking even than the limitation as to time is the limitation as to space. All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart. Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.

If that doesn’t make you want to read that book, I don’t know what to say! I found it so interesting. Now Bogost in Play Anything, as the tile implies, takes this rather far, laying himself open at times to the charge of arbitrariness. He doesn’t seem to admit of any hierarchy between games, but as Huizinga points out, beauty might be a good category to start from, aesthetics. But Bogost does a good job updating the argument in that he  forcefully argues against ironical arm’s-length hipsterism on the one extreme and over-passionate angsty self-defeating attempts at sympathetic engagement on the other (Bogost’s foil here being his lookalike, David Foster Wallace).

Still, once we start paying attention to things, how easy it becomes to go all philosophizer on them: Plato’s forms and Aristotle’s causes rush in; Maritain’s bound, buried significance of things, which he comes to via Aquinas and the Medievals, who in their sophisticated naivete took philosophy just about as far as it was possible to go; just as the likes of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and their successors have done in the last century, which opened in revolutions, passed through the dark conflagrations of world wars, and closed in anti-terror crusades. Small wonder if we’ve exchanged a coherent if un-analyzable, ineffable cosmos for that scientific and technological congeries of mystery we were looking at last time.

But Bogost’s book is lucid and focused, offering a helpful way through contemporary overheated intellectual and sociopolitical life. He even pokes fun at himself, joking about how you can count the pages in books like his until you come to the concept of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow (67, in his case). I think the same thing applies as well to Huizinga’s magic circle, cited almost without exception approvingly and almost always quite early on in books about games. In Play Anything I think it’s around p11 that we get the first mention of the magic circle.

Huizinga, in turn, directs us back to his own magisters ludi: Jaeger, Schiller, Plato:

We are hovering over spheres of thought barely accessible either to psychology or to philosophy. Such questions as these plumb the depths of our consciousness. Ritual is seriousness at its highest and holiest. Can it nevertheless be play? We began by saying that all play, both of children and of grown-ups, can be performed in the most perfect seriousness. Does this go so far as to imply that play is still bound up with the sacred emotion of the sacramental act? Our conclusions are to some extent impeded by the rigidity of our accepted ideas. We are accustomed to think of play and seriousness as an absolute antithesis. It would seem, however, that this does not go to the heart of the matter. Let us consider for a moment the following argument. The child plays in complete–we can well say, in sacred–earnest. But it plays and knows that it plays. The sportsman, too, plays with all the fervour of a man enraptured, but he still knows that he is playing. The actor on the stage is wholly absorbed in his playing, but is all the time conscious of “the play”. The same holds good of the violinist, though he may soar to realms beyond this world. The play-character, therefore, may attach to the sublimest forms of action. Can we now extend the line to ritual and say that the priest performing the rites of sacrifice is only playing? At first sight it seems preposterous, for if you grant it for one religion you must grant it for all. Hence our ideas of ritual, magic, liturgy, sacrament and mystery would all fall within the play-concept. In dealing with abstractions we must always guard against overstraining their significance. We would merely be playing with words were we to stretch the play-concept unduly. But, all things considered, I do not think we are falling into that error when we characterize ritual as play. The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play which we enumerated above, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world. This identity of ritual and play was unreservedly recognized by Plato as a given fact. He had no hesitation in comprising the sacra in the category of play. “I say that a man must be serious with the serious,” he says (Laws, vii, 803). “God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present. … For they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name, which are the things we deem most serious. Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can. What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.”

The Laws is one of Plato’s late works which I’ve never read, so I’ll have to make my way to that, but we can make our way back to EarthBound in the meantime.

Besides the place itself looking surreal, like a chalkboard scrawled with neon, the rules in Moonside are different. No means yes and yes means no: opposite day–or night–reigns there. Rules are best thought of as the constraints within which freedom, fun, meaning become possible, fun being the exploration of those latent possibilities in things. As for meaning, when making sense of things from within versus imposing a read onto them from without, we might borrow an example from the Tolkien Professor. Olsen’s read of Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, is focused on how a great book gives you the words with which to understand it. We need not bring to it theories equating vampirism with Victorian prudery, etc. Jordan Peterson, to cite a better-known public intellectual, frequently goes back to Piaget’s Moral Judgment of the Child, putting it together with biological data on play in animals, and extrapolating from there to make a point in the culture wars against the thoroughgoing relativistic social constructionism which can impose any read on any text, of a sort Bogost seems willing to leave himself open to, citing Foucault approvingly as he does. Peterson frequently argues for games as a model for freedom and order in some kind of hierarchy, and that those which people actually want to play, are first and foremost ones which are fair and fun and iterable. His Bible lectures draw freely on Jung and all the rest, and while not staying as close to the text itself, I enjoy learning from them as much as I do from Olsen’s close reads. The Tolkien Professor, it must be said, brings to bear a knowledge of the Bible in approaching most other works, including Dracula, since the books themselves invite it. As Van Helsing says in ch 16 of ‘Dr Sewer’s Diary, cont.’:

As to Van Helsing, he was employed in a definite way. First he took from his bag a mass of what looked like thin, wafer-like biscuit, which was carefully rolled up in a white napkin; next he took out a double-handful of some whitish stuff, like dough or putty. He crumbled the wafer up fine and worked it into the mass between his hands. This he then took, and rolling it into thin strips, began to lay them into the crevices between the door and its setting in the tomb. I was somewhat puzzled at this, and being close, asked him what it was that he was doing. Arthur and Quincey drew near also, as they too were curious. He answered:—

“I am closing the tomb, so that the Un-Dead may not enter.”

“And is that stuff you have put there going to do it?” asked Quincey. “Great Scott! Is this a game?”

“It is.”

“What is that which you are using?” This time the question was by Arthur. Van Helsing reverently lifted his hat as he answered:—

“The Host. I brought it from Amsterdam. I have an Indulgence.” It was an answer that appalled the most sceptical of us, and we felt individually that in the presence of such earnest purpose as the Professor’s, a purpose which could thus use the to him most sacred of things, it was impossible to distrust. In respectful silence we took the places assigned to us close round the tomb…

So there I think we have some evidence of the near relation between games and the sacred, as well as some evidence of the hierarchy of some books’ importance over others.

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Besides playing with language (and there are more examples we’ll look at momentarily, once I say one more thing about reading) Moonside confronts you with a host of new baddies, including Dali’s Clocks and Abstract Art, along with hydrants and the fuel pumps. So you fight against post-modernity in its most tangible guises, artistic and technological. What should we make of that?

The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist’s summa, makes the comparison between art and game in post-modernity and underlines what’s at stake. Among other works, he alludes to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland as “something of a dead end, an interesting culturohistorial document, like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, rather than powerful poetry– although its borrowings make it gleam in places like a magpie’s nest,” just what the lens did in the desert and the gold tooth does, or for that matter the Mani Mani statue does. People imitating machines, like the slot machine Sanchez brothers, are a variation on the classic image of Descartes, wondering if the people outside his window might be automata, and apparently this is a hallmark symptom of schizophrenia.

McGilchrist cites 20th century poetry as a bright spot among the arts, and alludes to the potential for film: “Tarkovsky being one of the few artists of whom one can genuinely use the term Shakespearean.” But he does not address video games specifically. 

With post-modernism, meaning drains away. Art becomes a game in which the emptiness of a wholly insubstantial world, in which there is nothing beyond the set of terms we have in vain used to ‘construct’ meaning, is allowed to speak for its own vacuity… Where the author thought he was doing something important, even profound–was, in Wordsworth’s phrase, ‘a man speaking to men’–the critic can reveal that he was really playing a word game, the rules of which reflected socially constructed norms of which the author was unaware. The author becomes a sort of puppet, whose strings are pulled by social forces behind the scenes. He is ‘placed’. Meanwhile the work of art gets to be ‘decoded’, as if the value of the work lay in some message of which the author was once more unaware, but which we in our superiority can now reveal…..Separating words from their referents in the real world, as post-modernism does, turns everything into a nothing, life itself into a game. But the coupling of emotionally evocative material with a detached, ironic stance is in fact a power game, one that is being played out by the artist with his or her audience. It is not so much a matter of playfulness, with its misplaced suggestion of innocence, as a grim parody of play. It is familiar to psychiatrists because of the way that psychopaths use displays of lack of feeling–a jokey, gamesy, but chilling, indifference to subjects that spontaneously call forth strong human emotions–to gain control of others and make them feel vulnerable.

McGilchrist’s Master is a brilliant book, a curriculum in itself. But I think it’s woefully incomplete in that he seems unaware of the power of video games here, and it actually does a disservice to his argument that he speaks of life being a game, or a parody of a game, as if that were necessarily lessening its value and beauty. Cf. Plato above, and Huizinga passim.

Another language game comes in the Moonside museum. “Whose bones are these? Bones’ bones. Bone bone bone.” Repeating a word until it changes to become just sounds, and in so doing, makes our everyday language sound different, is a game endlessly generative of wonder. And then consciously rejoining the word-sound to its meaning, to some context of surrounding words or images, it means differently than it did before, by that consciousness that we apply to it. It’s like the dinosaur bones in the abbreviated museum, only a torso, making us aware again of the real thing. The same goes for the way the sections of the city in Moonside are carved up, jumbled around, and invisibly separated by walls or by an abyss into which you stop short of disappearing. When property becomes real estate, stacks of escrow and investments, places are divorced from the people and culture meant to flourish there. And Monotoli, we’re told, made his money in real estate, and now owns the government. But you can be translated from one portion of the dismembered geography to another by talking to people. Mostly the ones who look like lifeguards make the leap. Their “hello and… goodbye” slides you away in the direction of the map in which you’ll next appear. There’s a flame pendant to be found to go with your night pendant, and an unusual item, a handbag strap, which can paralyze the foe. The denizens have prophetic visions of you burned and being fine, of a silver ball blasting into the beach; make a creepy offer to sharpen you, or a frightening identification of you with the enemies, walking parking meters, laughed at; intone a chilling narration of losing HP to 0, or a poem about knives getting dull and soup getting cold, a hymn to the Mani Mani statue. Many play with the letters of “Welcome to Moonside,” jumbling them to suggest the demonic possession embodied in the gold statue. The question is how much to make of these words, or how far their nonsense speaks for itself.

It’s always the middle of the night in Hotel Dark Moon, where the phone rings like it did on that first night of your adventure when your dad called, and here everything glows in outline much the way the meteorite did then. Once you complete the Moonside chapter there is no coming back here, like the police-car-lit night on the hillside, or Threed under threat of the zombies and ghosts, or Snow Wood Boarding School. Elsewhere, the game allows and even requires retracing steps, returning to places, though the times have changed them, and your experience leads you to see them anew. What does this make you think about?

This compartmentalized disjunction between people, only Ness and Jeff bouncing around taking with them all, was just what one of the cultists had observed you doing back in Carpainter’s church. Each of the Moonsideans is in their own dream, collective only in its illusory, delusive nature. They’re manipulated by the statue directly now, without mediation of a cult leader, for Monotoli himself is clearly a thrall, too. Mani Mani: the name itself rings like money; echoes mana, the promise of bread in the desert; connotes multiplicity, mammon, more and better, the greed for more for its own sake. It  reminds you of the lonesome strength of Lier X Agerate who first dug it up beneath the meteorite, besides the defeat of Carpainter and the death of Everdred. Like the Emmy award in form, but horned, Mani Mani is the Luciferean counterpart to the humble messenger Buzz Buzz.

A sailor blocks your way to where you can see Monotoli at the foot of his tower kowtowing before the golden idol. He moves aside as promised once you arrive with the invisible man from Mr T’s cul de sac of a room, the shade whose eyebrows are connected Frida Kahloesque and who grins to show off his gold tooth–or so you must believe, being unable to see what the sailor evidently can, except as a kind of ghostly shadow following behind you. At which point they elope together. Like the bubble monkey and his girlfriend before, or the Urim and Thummim of the black and white sesame seeds in the desert, you bring these two together as part of your story; unlike the lovers in the lobbies of the theaters and on the way out of Threed, their meeting seems to be a happy one.

When the Mani Mani statue has been destroyed at last, whether by big bottle rocket quickly or with painstaking turn-taking strategically–and with some luck avoiding its killer moves–you see that its evil is still subordinate. It was actually an illusion-making machine, broken now, but Paula is still missing, Fourside still under the thumb of Monotoli. He goes on denying his weakness, visiting the cafe to dwell in and worship illusions, himself the pawn of Pokey, and in turn of Giygas if we recall the Dept. store spook. Another mouse–or is it the same one from the ground floor of the mall?–explains that you’ve been wandering around the back room of Jackie’s, mistaking its stacks of boxes for those bulwarks of chaos and old night which separated the habitable sections of Moonside from one another. (And I still worry that we might be doing the same thing here, making much of things, commodities, which are quite without the meaning we ascribe to them. But if so, it’s a pretty fun game.)

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Stepping outside once more triggers a series of events. In quick succession you hear about the invention, and the mistaken delivery neglected class of, the trout-flavored yogurt machine, as well as Apple Kid’s journey to work on the Phase Distorter with Dr Andonuts, the wandering scientist; the maid, who overhears about the yogurt machine,  requests you bring it to the Monotoli building. First you have to retrieve it from the cave of the levitating guru whose headgear looks sort of like the swirl of soft-serve frozen yogurt. While down there don’t miss the bag of dragonite, the broken tube which will become a bazooka, and the further jokes about language perpetrated by the monkeys. The music in their home, a paradise under the desert, is a distorted version of the same Pollyanna theme, and though it’s been a while now since you’ve visited a sanctuary, the silence in Talah Rama’s chamber swells to the tune of cosmic harmony as if you’ve found such a place. And in a sense you have, because he’s a kindred spirit. Here are his prophetic-scientific words:

The truth of space and time moves through the universe like a wave…

 

Truth speaks through space and matter and makes itself known to human beings.

 

I was waiting for you, and you came. This was destined to happen.

 

In truth, all is pre-determined…

 

Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, when these four powers gather, twisted space will bring back peace to the world.

Everdred, like Buzz Buzz, will repeat his dying words, but he keeps count if you make him do so. Talah Rama won’t repeat those words, and if you chose no, when he asks his question following them, he laughs, for you’ve said no not to listening to his story again, but to his offer of learning a useful new skill, knowing full well you’ll need it to complete your destiny. In a transparent bit of reverse psychology, he tells you not to talk to the monkey standing there, in line with your evident contrarian streak. In the golden chests beside him you find a brain food lunch and a cup of lifenoodles as wages for your patient trading with monkeys all the way through the cave. Outside, a pantomime of teaching ensues: demonstration, brief explanation, and trying it out, under optimal circumstances, of teleportation. You run down the long clear straightaway of desert highway to build up speed, until you eventually learn how to do it in a spiral, and with optimal motivation for learning, having been cooped up for quite a while going through that cave, and still wanting to find Paula.

Speaking of space-time, what about the distorted space in the Monotoli building, its own bland reflection of Moonside? Talah Rama’s words about the cosmic space-time wave seem mocked by the unsettling geometry of rooms and corridors connecting impossibly. Somewhere back there, beyond the sentry robots counting down from 10 to 0 every time they catch you, in the maze of empty boardrooms strangely like barren classrooms, is Electra the maid’s room. For bringing her the yogurt dispenser, she gives you a cup of trout yogurt. In Legends of Localization (from which I also took Talah Rama’s text above) you can see that this is Strawberry Tofu in the original Mother 2, which has actually become a thing in Japan, life imitating art. “After tasting actual strawberry tofu for the first time in 1994, Itoi remarked that it had a ‘profound, saddening flavor’ (228). Through the next hall is a much more dangerous sentry, the Clumsy Robot. There is no way to defeat this foe, with his agile bumbling and his bottomless supply of bologna sandwiches and rockets. The best you can hope for is to survive through enough rounds for the Runaway Five to turn up and turn off the Clumsy Robot, laughably easy once they spot the on-off switch.

At last, we’re reconnected with Paula. She’s tried to comfort the shell of a man Monotoli has become. Speaking up for him while reaffirming her trust in you, Paula rejoins the party and allows him to tell his story.  Like the king in the old tale, he saw the writing on the wall: cryptic words, glowing in the darkness, which led him out of his depth, or let him know he was long out of it already. So sorry and repentant is he, he wishes to give you his helicopter to travel to Summers, where the words did not want you to go. Hints, too, of a pyramid, sound promising, until Pokey steals the helicopter. In this moment, if not before, we see the redemption of Geldegarde Monotoli: “I hope he’s okay…” There is great pathos here, in thinking about EarthBound as an illusion-making machine itself, of the quality of those people encountered within the game, within the illusion of Moonside and of Fourside alike, who seem to have their own stories, and who certainly have their own poems. This is all a little undermined, of course–or is it reinforced?–by more bathroom humor from the Runaway Five, who take you on a trip back to Threed in the tour bus. You’re left again with this encouragement from Lucky: “Think of us singing somewhere far away…”

I always thought about that as referring to Summers, and that’s where we’re headed next week. Until then, take care!

 

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Categories: Opinion

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5 replies »

  1. I’m in love with this article! References to Calvin and Hobbs, excerpts from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and even a shout out to Plato. I’ve honestly only dabbled a bit into the lore of Earthbound, but thanks to my SNES Classic I might give it another go around. I also felt that Twin Peak’s “Black Lodge” provided a similar, if more Jungian example of the collective unconscious. Joseph Campbell always said that “Mythology is the language of the cosmos” in Power of Myth, and I feel that games like Earthbound, NiGHTS, Alundra, and Eternal Sonata help to convey the myths and legends into a more modern frame of reference.

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    • Ooh, Twin Peaks! That’s a great connection. I think the Magicant episode will touch on this, too. I’ll check out those other games you mentioned, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. After this one, I really want to ask you if you’re a modernist or a post-modernist? Maybe there’s no easy way to answer that question, but there it is.

    This really stuck out to me and I’ve been unable to put it outside of my mind, which is incredible considering there’s so much of what I love in this essay (Calvin and Hobbes, Nemo, Moonside): “Rules are best thought of as the constraints within which freedom, fun, meaning become possible, fun being the exploration of those latent possibilities in things.” Defining fun is bold and something I’ve not really seen done. I am reminded I need to read more every time I read your essays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent! Well, I think Huizinga and Bogost both do a good job of pointing the way towards a definition of fun to work from ludologically. It’s fun to try to define fun, but it’s one of those things which avoids a fixed definition. Same goes for your first question: I would prefer to split the difference. I’m modernist in my reverent anxiety towards the cultural inheritance hanging over me; I’m post-modernist from a historical standpoint, and from a recognition of the urgent demands for greater pluralism…though because of how I identify/am identified–straight white male cisgender pronouns, etc–I don’t feel I’m very well-positioned to contribute much towards said pluralism. I also don’t have much patience when it comes to trying to read the big post-modern authors, but maybe I should try again 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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