Opinion

“Essay Twenty-Seven: Not All Who Wander Are Lost Underworld — EarthBound and Aristophanes”

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. I’m still working on the transcription of the conversation with my final conversation guest, which will set us up for the finale. For now, please join me in falling into the Lost Underworld for this week’s episode.

This is the earth’s belly button, declares one of the Talking Rocks in Lumine Hall. It’s a small thing, but you might notice that it’s almost verbatim what one of Brick Road’s signs back in Dungeon Man says: You are standing right around my belly button… Brick Road. Thus we are prompted to connect the two and ask, what gives? It seems these Talking Rocks approach that same goal of Brick Road, the fusion of human and dungeon, or work of art, from the other direction: the inorganic stone somehow become sentient and speaking, the earth itself akin to the human form and tickled by this kinship. Before the end of the game, Ness and his friends will likewise undergo such a transformation. But it’s been touched upon throughout the game, as places speak to you. At Your Sanctuary, the earth is not only a belly for navel-gazing, but a heart and memory. The dungeons and other locations, too, communicate information, whether literally in signs and message boards or implicitly through their design: puzzles, mazes, atmospheric and aesthetic choices convey above all the message that the world is the sort of place that can and should be explored. But something interesting happens at this point.

The ambiguous message of Lumine Hall, as we looked at last time, serves at once to draw this parallel between people and things, and yet to increase the distance between Ness and the player. It highlights the strangeness of seeing Ness’ thoughts articulated, the articulation taking place not in speech but in the telepathic bioluminescent growth on the rock wall, presumably of the same kind of rock which arises as Talking Rocks elsewhere. So that our attention is drawn to the ambiguity of the spoken language of the game’s text throughout, how it is never actually spoken aloud (with a few musical exceptions–the okdesuka and yow sound effects at the start, and the I miss you in the song at the very end.) Instead, it is all a matter of the light and the words which can bridge that distance. The game itself, being electronic, is just such a mixture of inorganic elements and information meant for human play and meaning-making. We know little enough about ourselves to leave it an open question to what extent we are, too.

The content of Ness’ thoughts has to do with a doubt which might be creeping up on the player at this point. Soon, I’ll be… Soon, I’ll be… Soon, I’ll be… What will happen to us? He’s concerned with the imminent end of the adventure. Which, let’s not forget, has constituted his whole relationship with these great friends. It’s like the end of summer, and the start of the school year approaching. Or to look at it another way, he could be thinking about it like the final exams approaching at the end of the school year: facing the final boss, Giygas. We don’t get any more specifics because Ness’ thoughts along these lines are interrupted at this point by his noticing the writing the player has been reading.

What this player is thinking about is whether I’ll be able to see the game through. This is the seventh of eight Sanctuary Spots. When I played a lot of video games as a kid, I nevertheless rarely beat the game, that is, completed its final challenges and got to see a screen that said The End. And a part of it was that I was frustrated by how difficult and demanding they got towards the end, but a big part of my not finishing games was also just like Ness’ question–for then I’d have to ask, what next? And if it was just another game, wouldn’t that be disappointing after EarthBound? Players of this game waited years for a sequel, which is a whole epic story in itself.

Image result for fourside earthbound developers sign

Upon the darkness lifting at the bottom of the drop-down-the-hole sound effect, jolly dinosauric music picks up and you find your party reduced to a few diminutive colorful pixels at the center of a pastel verdant world, suddenly much larger, which surrounds you. Once more, the game emphases the distance between the player and Ness, visually. It’s a bit like during the brief sea journey from Toto to Scaraba, only this time you can control the party as normal. The Lost Underworld is a jungle enclosed, and a veldt flowing with glittering lakes and erupting with geysers, encircled by a wall of mountains whose inroads across the map form the contours of a maze for you to follow on your way. And outside of those mountains lies a darkness absolutely impossible to illuminate now that the Hawk Eye has been used, impossible to reach anyhow. It might make you wonder, if you are underground and everything around these mountains is some still deeper abyss, where is the source of light, such that it lights your area but not that other? Possibly it comes from Lumine Hall, or through some larger aperture far beyond the Deep Darkness and Tenda Village? Possibly it is an after-effect of having used the Hawk Eye, but probably not, since no one down here mentions the light suddenly breaking in recently.

Image result for lost underworld earthbound

In terms of historical and literary precursors here, EarthBound’s Lost Underworld clearly owes something to conventions established in the Hollow Earth sci-fi subgenre, starting back with Jules Verne again, his Journey to the Center of the Earth, and to Arthur Conan Doyle, with his Up-esque plateau of un-extinct dinosaurs in The Lost World. But the journey-to-the-underworld motif goes back way further, if you think of the myths of Persephone and Hercules, the epics of Homer, Vergil, Dante, Milton, or, more to the point here perhaps, the comedic treatment of Aristophanes’ Frogs:

Dionysus
And while I was on board, reading
the Andromeda, suddenly a craving
smote my heart, you’ll never guess how strong.

Heracles
A craving? How big?

Dionysus
Small, like Molon.

Heracles
For a woman?

Dionysus
Oh no.

Heracles
A boy?

Dionysus
Not at all!

Heracles
A man?

Dionysus
Argh!

Heracles
You did it with Cleisthenes?

Dionysus
Don’t make fun, brother, I’ve really got it bad,
Such passionate desire torments me so.

Heracles
What is it, little brother?

Dionysus
I can’t explain.
But still I’ll try to tell you in a riddle.
Did you ever feel a sudden urge for soup?

Heracles
Soup! Yowee! Ten thousand times so far.

Dionysus
Have I made it clear, or should I try again?

Heracles
Not about the soup, I fully comprehend.

Dionysus
Well, just so great a wish gnaws at me now—
For my Euripides.

Heracles
And dead, at that!

Dionysus
And now no mortal shall persuade me not to
Go after him.

Heracles
What, down to hell?

Dionysus
That’s right, and lower still if possible.

Heracles
With what intent?

Dionysus
I want a clever poet, for the race
is now extinct—all who survive are bad.

Video games, too, early made use of the vertical orientation, getting from up to down or down to up, to give the player a clear goal. Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong and all the subterranean levels in later Mario games come to mind; the Final Fantasies and most RPGs also make use of the underworld motif. One interesting take on it is the EarthBound-inspired Undertale, which concerns a human child fallen safely on a bed of flowers in the underground world of monsters. Like an Attic mask, it can turn either to comedy or tragedy. 

Related image

But within EarthBound, we’ve heard about the Lost Underworld ever since Fourside, with its replica dinosaur bones at the museum, and the old museum-goer wishing he might see real dinosaurs. They’ve been sighted in Southern Scaraba, we’re told, and someone in Toto claims to have seen one. The hieroglyphs direct your steps thither. The Tessie Watchers, of course, are similarly enthralled by the possibility. A lot of kids go through a phase of being interested in dinosaurs; I know I dug a big hole looking for bones and gems in my backyard year after year. There must be something about finding not just treasure but life from underground, reviving or discovering yet alive the past which was thought to have died. That’s what the motto for this series, taken from Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, is about:

O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

To get where you need to go in the Lost Underworld is tricky, since everything here is so big that each individual thing is so small you can hardly see it. It’s hard to recognize the present boxes, at first they look like white villas, but they encourage your exploration anyhow, getting through the hash-marks and blobs that might be trees and tall grasses and running into others you wouldn’t expect could block your path. One box holds a Cloak of Kings, which rounds out Poo’s equipment at last. If it hasn’t arisen yet, the question might be asked at this point: who is leaving these gift boxes for you? Some game designer as far beyond Dungeon Man as Dungeon Man is from Brick Road, we might hypothesize. And sometimes, like the Sword of Kings back in Stonehenge, the presents are behind enemies, and behind mathematics. Here, the Chomposaur holds an equally improbable chance of dropping Paula’s ultimate weapon, the Magic Fry Pan, as Starman Super did of dropping Poo’s Sword of Kings, 1/128. So happy hunting!

Small as Ness and his friends look, they zip around the screen at the same rate as ever, so much faster relative to their size. Teleportation Beta is a good option if you need a break from the dizzying perspective or are running low on multi-bottle rockets.

Soon you’ll see the whole screen shake and hear the earth rumble, followed by the gushing of geysers, red and blue. By standing over them your party can ride the refreshing springs of water for HP and PP replenishments, a good idea since the inn down here is quite pricey and the dinosaur enemies are ferocious. So you do encounter dinosaurs at last, and they are some of the most powerful enemies in the game. Considering the shift in scale that takes place in the Lost Underworld, ultimately it is for them, to the point that you can see them better than you can see your own party, and so they don’t take up the whole screen outside of battle. Dinosaurs don’t mass and attack, but even one at a time they can feel like a mini-boss battle if your party has skimmed through Lumine Hall–to which you can return to level up easily against the Fobbies who are the dinos’ opposite in all ways.

The little wooden stake structures you’ll notice around the Lost Underworld hold signs which suggest that you are inside the cage as long as you’re outside of them. So remark the Tendas who live down here, following the lead of The Boss. This business of being inside and outside the cage is just one more potshot the game takes at government lies and corruption, connecting back to Mayor Pirkle in Onett and to Monotoli in Fourside; and Pokey, who seems to have learned from and far surpassed each of them in smarm and ambition, has been sighted around the enclosures. Within a cave, most of which consists of that abyssal background darkness around the places one can go in RPGs, you see a smashed up machine which might recall a cross between a Mr Saturn and the helicopter or sky runner last seen wrecked in Summers and Deep Darkness, respectively. So your neighbor can’t be far, as all the story-lines draw to their close.

As long as you’re carrying the Tendakraut delicacy conferred upon you by the chief of the Tendas up above, the Tendas here will allow you into their village and take it from you as a gift, with reference to yet another stinky smell that the original gross-out advertising campaign made so much of. Besides The Boss, you’ll meet the entrepreneur Ay-go Stikke, whose name is apparently another pun on English language learning in Japanese, but in a further irony, it’s one that the translators must have missed, transliterating his name as it stands. Which, in passing, reminds me of a wonderful internet thing: Backstroke of the West. Stop reading and watch it immediately if you’ve never heard of it, with kudos to my friend Brian for sharing and to his friend I’ve never met for helped in making it. 

Ay-go Stikke has been to visit that same economic power referred to by the enterprising businessman by the entrance to Deep Darkness, presumably, and is willing to share his knowledge. He’ll act as an ATM, with the catch that his handling fee will be equal to the amount withdrawn, much like the snorkler in Deep Darkness. Ay-go has done one better, though, by getting his friend to play shop with him and to talk up Ay-go’s friendly service to you when you shop there, too. The history between these Tendas and those above seems clear enough, that the outgoing ones left their shy brethren behind peacefully and went on to explore the Lost Underworld, as well as the world’s economic powers. As we saw, the long arm and invisible hand of globalization are reaching out to the fringes of the innocent Tendas’ territory above, whether they’re ready or not, so it’s a good thing Ness and his friends got to them with the Overcoming Shyness book first. In the difference between Ay-go’s service of essentially selling you your own money and the Tenda shopkeeper above who uses Horn of Life as currency because he likes it, we get a concise image of the whimsical march of the market. It is a small glimpse of history, one of the few in the game, along with remarks about Monotoli’s rise by the townspeople in Fourside, and the periodic epochal invasions of evil recorded in the hieroglyphs, but even that is more than most games even gesture at.

The most important person here, though, is neither the cagey Boss nor the world-wise Ay-go, but the big Talking Rock, the one you’ve heard so much about. And as it explains, the importance of history lies in its overlap with Ness’ destiny. To quote at more length:

You finally came, Ness.

Finally, you talk to me.

Listen Ness.

I’m going to tell you something very important.

You may want to take notes.

Ready?

 

You’re the chosen one.

Your destiny is not only yours…

It’s the destiny of the whole universe.

There will be a time in which all of you in the universe will overlap each other.

…It’s not necessary to understand now.

Do you remember Giant Step in Onett?

That is one of Your Sanctuary

It is a spot which gives you power

and allows you to realize all your skills.

There was a monster that protected it.

The monster was influenced by the power of the place.

You must have beaten those monsters.

You must reach all of the eight power spots in the world…

When the Sound Stone records the melodies of all eight power spots,

you can finally see “Your World”

I’ll tell you all of the power spots.

 

1. Giant Step in Onett.

2. Lilliput Steps in Peaceful Rest Valley near Twoson.

3.Milky Well in Grapefruit Falls in Saturn Valley.

4. Rainy Circle found by Jeff in Winters.

5. Magnet Hill at the edge of the city of Fourside.

6. Pink Cloud which Poo knows.

7. and… Lumine Hole where the shining lichen lives in the cave.

8. A new place is now going to be opened up to you.

 Fire Spring, located southwest of here.

Listen to the melodies of all eight power spots.

If you do not fail, you may upset Giygas’ plans…

Understand, Ness?

The time will come.

The time when the destiny of you and the whole universe will overlap…

It is fast approaching.

Number Seven, Lumine Hole, as the Rock says it, is apparently an alternative translation for Lumine Hall, so there’s some inconsistency there, but thematically it fits with the Rock’s message–the overlap is at hand. And plainly it is perfectly correct: you don’t need to understand your destiny in order to accomplish it. By its nature, destiny seems to be the sort of thing that escapes logical comprehension. Most likely, players don’t need the Rock’s list of Sanctuary Spots, either. It is helpful to have them numbered out like that. Though it looks like it is possible to reach this point in the game having completed only two of them, Giant Step and Lumine Hall, in practice most are not far off the path you take progressing through the game’s different areas. Still, it’s interesting that you can complete them in almost any order, that this aspect of the game runs largely parallel to and separate from your geographical progress through the adventure.

We’ll consider this in more detail next time, in Fire Spring and on the threshold of Magicant.

 

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Categories: Opinion

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