Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz
“The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”
We are nearing the final stages of EarthBound, and of this first in the series of Bookwarm games. Thank you for listening to my long story.
Back to the desert tonight for another chapter I’ve been long looking forward to. We’ll investigate Dungeon Man, inquire into his whys and wherefores, intimate his secrets. It is a journey which began with the role of billboards back in Lier X Agerate’s house up the hill in Onett, alluding to the work of Shigesato Itoi, the game’s creator. It gets picked up again in the interlude of Winters, in which Jeff traipses through the piddling dungeon of an amateur dungeon maker named Brick Road, inserted it seems as a bit of levity between Lake Tess and Stonehenge, between the boarding school and the dad’s lab.
As he had aspired to so long ago, Brick Road must have made the acquaintance of Dr Andonuts and undergone the transition to his new form as Dungeon Man, the world’s first combination of human and dungeon. In this respect, he is a kind of fusion of the three characters we looked at back in Onett. Like Lier, Dungeon Man is full of billboards of manly wisdom, practical advice, couched concisely, even curtly, and fond of self-reference. Like him, he began by digging down, his original hole in Winters resembling the underground tunnels beneath Lier’s house. But instead of finding the Mani Mani statue, Brickroad found his own higher calling there, this goal of self-transformation manifesting his true identity. Like the trumpet player, he is proud in his lonesome pursuit of his art; Dungeon Man claims that the music that plays there in his sonorous innards is one of his greatest creations. Of course, rather than playing live at the edge of the sea and the town, he is well over the edge of the wilderness, out in the middle of the desert, and his music is a mechanical cacophony rather than the mellifluous largo melody of a great symphony. When he comes to follow your party around, he plays a different music altogether which samples the Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) drum beat. And like Frank, who created the Frankystein Mark II and overlooked the consequences of his minions running wild, preferring to meditate on peace and love in the backyard of the arcade, Dungeon Man has given his attention to a technological feat with dangerous consequences not so much unexpected as waved away as inconsequential beside the attainment of the dream.
When Ness and his friends do reach Brick Road himself, what’s left of him, a face in the wall, mouth rounded in childlike awe under his mustache, happy to speak to you at the top of the dungeon, it may remind you of the way that heads have stuck out of vehicles to holler at you more than once on your adventure–the Runaway Five’s drummer bidding you adieu, or Pokey from the stolen helicopter at the peak of the Monotoli Building taunting you and dive-bombing, or, more stylized, the descent of the ancestral spirit upon Poo at the place of Mu. There is, of course, a still more insidious connection we may draw later, between Brick Road ensconced in Dungeon Man and Giygas in the Devil’s Machine, but that will have to wait until we’ve come very nearly to the end. We’ll see if our courage holds, when it comes time to look squarely in that final face.
Now, to return to Dungeon Man: some more immediate context. In this section of the game, the metaphor of light and darkness which has been at play all along receives further interesting variations, approaching the literal treatment of Deep Darkness, which is already looked forward to by the Hawk Eye and its mentions in hieroglyphics and the comments of townspeople. Rather than the ancient scriptures of Poo’s enlightened Master or cryptic words that the corrupt Monotoli saw glowing at him in Moonside, both of which led you to the Pyramid, the appearance of Dungeon Man here in the desert is an unexpected detour, not a prophesied-and-ineffectually-attempting-to-thwart-the-prophecy sort of event. It is by no means without preparation, though: besides the thematic echoes, there is the fact that the rope-levitator did mention that he’d lost the key, and another desert-dweller outside the back door of the Pyramid has found it. In the shift from the dim ancientry of the Pyramid to the mellow cavern-like interior of Dungeon Man, interrupted by brief sojourns in the brilliant desert sands, there is a modulation between shadow and light which has given a rhythm to the game all along–from the first night inspecting the meteorite, the first day in Onett, to Twoson and Happy Happy Village, to Threed with and without zombies, to Fourside and Moonside–the alternation between towns and wilds, which will culminate in the Deep Darkness and Lumine Hall.
The depths of the Pyramid were also the stronghold, we are told, of the last serious attempt to defeat the space invaders all those many years ago. The darkened spaces within Dungeon Man, too, as a kind of quintessence of video game dungeons, are not just a reprise of the labyrinth where the diamond was found back in the other desert, or of the paths to the Sanctuary Spots, but they assume something of the ambiguity inhering in all the Mario levels and tabletop RPGs, all the arcade joysticks and carnival booths, and all the smartphone block-breaking games out there for killing time, and all the massive online worlds holding the prospect of eternal simulated life, either so far existing or yet to be invented. There might be many ways to think of this ambiguity, still more variations on the light-dark, good-evil dichotomy where short-sighted critics are so happy to stop and rest with. It might be stated like this: The dungeon- or game-maker must provide enough challenge for the game to be fun, yet enough ease for it to be a game you can win; or, in Zelda, say, why are there all those treasure boxes along the way to the boss, and one of them sure enough holding the very item you need in order to defeat the boss? The game also needs enough interest for it to be iterable, flexible enough to hold out new possibilities, yet retaining enough of what is expected so that it can be grasped quickly; and perhaps it will prove deep enough for it to teach you something you can use beyond the game itself. Still, whatever that is should also be embedded in the game, so that it remains immersive while you play it, much as you might like to talk at length about it with your friends as well.
Here is how Tolkien states the matter–Tolkien, who is pigeonholed as one of the most egregious of the black and white, simplistic good-vs-evil writers (even by Philip Pullman, most problematically for one who loves both of their writing)–when, in The Hobbit, he first gets to Rivendell:
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave. Bilbo would gladly have stopped there for ever and ever — even supposing a wish would have taken him right back to his hobbit-hole without trouble. Yet there is little to tell about their stay.
In terms of story, I take it this is just the kind of thing Pullman, or, to cite another formidable critic of Tolkien, Borges cannot abide. And yet it seems to me that precisely what Tolkien longs for is a way to reconcile the beauty of his imagined worlds with the exigencies of palpitating story. Consider, the very next paragraph here will delve into Elrond, who embodies the connection between the elves and mortal men, the magic and the contingent; or again, read The Silmarillion or The Lord of the Rings with the kind of loving care lavished on those works by the Tolkien Professor, Corey Olsen, in his online seminars, and watch as time and again the peace of these speakers of invented languages widely branching down the millennia is shattered by the pursuit and attempts for possession of the very things which should have been most beautiful to share. And time and again, peace is mended by the humblest of characters. More about this, I hope to say in another place.
To pick up on the idea of iterability: coursing through Dungeon Man twice in short succession, as the game demands, helps to emphasize the two poles of exploration of the unknown and skillful manipulation of the known, to both of which games can lend themselves. In the first go-through, Ness and his friends have just been bereft of their party’s most recent addition, for at the tail end of the pyramid, Poo is whisked away by the mysterious master who will teach him an esoteric knowledge. They are healed on meeting this master, but nevertheless, you are probably desperate for a phone to save the game, or maybe to cure homesickness or trade out some items. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that one of the first billboards encountered in Dungeon Man–and by the way, let’s pass over the uncomfortable question of where the key is inserted, and where you go in–the billboard stuck in the first fork in the road there talks about Brick Road’s research on which way most people go. You’re rewarded for going against the majority in his statistics, if it is a phone, a night’s sleep for fixing items, a hospital or ATM you’re looking for. But you need to go the same way that most people go first, to the right, if you’re to proceed through the level. Which also might make you wonder: Who are these others? Are we to imagine the simultaneous experience of people like us, also playing this game? Or of dungeon enthusiasts within the world of the game, exploring before you got there?
The sense of many of the billboards as you go along suggests further questions along these lines. What a dungeon is, it seems, might include a kind of experiment, for the purposes of how to behave in dungeons, just as the psychologist Peterson, following Piaget, likes to say that part of what a game teaches you is how to play and improve upon games, and as the Tolkien Professor and I like to say that great books teach you how they should be read. You might note the tension here, as part of the psychologists’ and literary theorists’ MO alike is to fit any given work into a much larger interpretive framework, speaking about archetypes and mythic structures or more or less historical or biographical information not addressed by the story itself as a way to make sense of it; my own approach to EarthBound has been to freely draw connections to all sorts of other works and ideas outside the game. But when all is said and done, I think the game, the work, the text must stand on its own. The story within itself must be endlessly compelling, if it’s well made, and if it’s approached with the kind of love which our favorite works inspire, or the kind of care we might be willing to engage them with, giving them the benefit of the doubt based on tradition or recommendations, and holding ourselves open to the evidence, at least on a first read, and in most cases a second to allow things to come together in their wholeness and their specificity. Again, more on this would be better said elsewhere.
In the first go-through of Dungeon Man, though, you’re exploring, reading all the signs, letting the strange music wash over you. The signs tell you little of immediate importance, but much that is evocative to consider the questions of game or story design we’re concerned with here. Many are frankly redundant, like the good night benches on each floor, whereas there was a single magic butterfly in the whole Pyramid. The billboards seem aware they are oversharing, distractions from a traditional dungeon since they reflect upon it as you go, answering questions you’d probably been happy taking for granted: monsters move in once a dungeon is built, and these ones seem to have come straight from Brick Road’s little mock-up in Winters, and from Moonside. Not only does he provide amenities like a hospital and those benches to sleep on, but there is a bathroom, naturally occupied by one of those other right-path-choosers, and fittingly enough a philosopher after Brick Road’s own heart. “Who am I, what is life all about?” they ask, and this is Brick Road’s question seen from another angle: What is a dungeon? he asks, even as he has already become one, so this is another way of asking the question of the bathroom-goer. Or Montaigne’s, “What do I know?” or the injunction of the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself.”
Brick Road explicitly draws attention to the background music and accounts for it with pride. He signs each and every billboard with ellipses and his name. The suggestion there about his personality, I take it, is an unassuming reticence combined with an overwhelming desire to share his interests. Indeed, to an unhealthy extent: he consumes those who come close enough, though he lets them out again, guiding them playfully through. For all his warnings to you of monsters on the third floor, you soon realize they are all in pens. He strews presents near and far and comments on their usefulness, attaching moral value to those which are harder to reach and to the striving that represents. The four ropes are supposed to teach you the lesson about the grass being greener, and other billboards insist that you learn from your mistakes to succeed in EarthBound, referring to the game by name, or enjoin hard work for its own sake or seek to recruit Ness as a dungeon maker. Here I come back to the impression of loneliness, but I would point out that there is a bit of mystification at work here: in actuality, Itoi had plenty of help making Mother 2, as we’ll see in the credits, including the music, of course, but also the concept art. A number of captivating drawings can be found on the starmen.net official art page, including Ness’ House, Dalaam, Winters, and Dungeon Man, whose crown appears to be a fanciful castle, grass growing for eyebrows and vines along his shoulder, a kite flying from the turret of his ear. The mouth hanging open in a frown is like a tragic mask or a golem, and the pointy nose reminiscent of Pinocchio; the eyes are huge windows, left where the blocks of the wall are missing.
In all this, the video game seems to aspire to Wagner’s concept of the total work of art, embodied in Dungeon Man and EarthBound. As Hans Richter recalls of one of the artists featured in his book Dada: Art and Anti-art:
And so he pasted, nailed, versified, typographed, sold, printed, composed, collaged, declaimed, whistled, loved and barked, at the top of his voice, and with no respect for persons, the public, technique, traditional art or himself. He did everything, and usually he did everything at the same time.
His guiding principle was not so much to create the Gesamtkunstwerk, the Total Work of Art (as in Ball’s case, or Kandinsky’s), the temporal conjunctions of all the arts, but rather to blur the distinctions between the arts and finally integrate them all with each other. He even wanted to integrate the machine into art–as an abstract representation of the human spirit–along with kitsch, chair-legs, singing and whispering.
In reality he himself was the ‘total work of art’: Kurt Schwitters. There was also one work in which he sought to integrate all his activities, and that was his beloved ‘Schwitters-Saule‘ (Schwitters Column). For all his competence as a business man and as a propagandist, this one thing was sacred to him. This, his principal work, was pure, unsaleable creation. It could not be transported or even defined. Built into a room (and rooms) of his house, this column was always in a protean state of transmutation in which a new layer constantly covered, enclosed and hid from sight yesterday’s shape.
At the end of a passage on the second floor of the house that Schwitters had inherited, a door led into a moderately large room. In the center of this room stood a plaster abstract sculpture. When I first saw it, about 1925, it filled about half the room and reached almost to the ceiling. It resembled, if anything Schwitters made ever resembled anything else at all, earlier sculptures by Domela or Vantongerloo. But this was more than a sculpture; it was a living, daily-changing document on Schwitters and his friends. He explained it to me and I saw that the whole thing was an aggregate of hollow space, a structure of concave and convex forms which hollowed and inflated the whole sculpture. (p 151-2)
In the second trip through Dungeon Man, there is, in place of open exploration, the chance to make a beeline for the top. You might stop to check if the bathroom is still occupied, or to reread a favorite billboard here or there, but otherwise it’s a much quicker, smoother ascent. In place of wondering at strangeness, there is reveling in the comfort of familiarity. Like the pleasure of reading adventurous books in comfortable surroundings, there is something of that sense of well-being accompanying playing through not-so-dangerous dungeons knowing you’re more than a match for anything there. For someone who plays lots of videogames or basement RPGs, there is that delight, that aesthetic warmth, on replaying, partly owing to the music or friendly banter, the smells, the ritual of it, which can only be seen as another kind of gesamtkunstwerk, in which life for a time obeys the rules of art. This, I take it, is where Dungeon Man wants to stay.
Briefly, in between your two visits, he walks along in Poo’s place at the back of your party, smashing the li’l UFOs and bots for you as you crisscross the desert, while that rock and roll beat rattles along. All too soon, alas, he becomes stuck in the palm trees, where the way narrows. The implication is all too plain: the kind of excellence represented by Dungeon Man’s total surrender to game-making and -playing is limiting if there is a goal beyond it. Brick Road’s narrow expertise is arrested by its own greatness. Many people are content to hang out in their basements or out in the world playing games, fusing with technologies of one sort or another, and never make it through the trees as a result.
There at the far southern end of the desert, Ness and his friends come to the banks of a river with no way to cross. Unless, as the tribesman suggests, you happen to have a submarine. He is watching the sunset over the jungle, so leave him to it and revisit Dungeon Man to see if you can reach those vehicles on the ledge. It turns out that collecting antique vehicles is Brick Road’s secret hobby, and this time he lets you pass by the final billboard which blocked the way before, which now has moved to let you drop down by another route onto that ledge where he stashes his collection. Most are junk, the sort of thing that happens with hobbies you don’t actually give enough time and attention and effort to cultivate. As Brick Road says about his bicycle, rust is the best brake. And yet, a couple of them still work: the instant revitalizing device and the submarine (the yellow color is purely coincidental) which only needs a little work to then carry you across the river, its periscope all that is visible. Until bumping into shore at the impenetrable swamp whose trees are a solid mass of black beneath the setting southern sun.
Next week we push on through the Deep Darkness. To recap, we looked into Dungeon Man and the dangers of total dedication to art, neglecting balance and movement, and considered some of the ambiguities with light and dark, good and evil, peace and strife, endemic to creative work. That’s where we’ll pick up next week, piecing together the total work of art which is EarthBound.
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