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. With the eighth sanctuary, Fire Spring, today we’ll complete the final note in the Sound Stone’s melody. Thus today’s will be a highly musical episode, so I could wish I were more knowledgeable on that subject, but at least I can play some clips of the songs under discussion and you can decide for yourself how far to go with my amateur musicology.
I’ve recently got back into playing piano and guitar, mostly just practicing scales, but working on the Sound Stone melodies, too, and the first prelude in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Just as writing makes you a more attentive reader, or trying to teach something tests just how well you know it, practicing a piece of music gives you a whole new understanding and appreciation of how it works, and what accounts for its effects when you listen to it. It’s like learning a language, when you realize that certain meanings are translatable, while the sound patterns and connotations, what you might call the poetic echoes to them, that accompany them are not. It’s also like learning mathematics, since it’s a lot of counting intervals and noticing relationships. For thinking through this material, I’ve also used more visual helps for myself than usual, writing out the Sound Stone melodies from each sanctuary as a list, to more easily see the patterns and overlaps between them, and next to that sketching out the wheel formed by the sound stone as it appears when you use as an inventory item in the game. If you’re playing along, you can do so at any time to see what I’m talking about, from when Buzz Buzz gives you the Sound Stone, to each of Your Sanctuaries which fill in a bit more of the song, to “Your World,” as the Talking Rock calls it, Magicant, revealed once the melody is complete. I’ve included some visuals and diagrams with the video for this episode, but I’ll do my best as usual to describe everything in words, so you can use your imagination–or just look up other Sound Stone videos and sheet music if you’re curious. With all that said, we’ll include some classic literature, too, so it shouldn’t be all bad.
Upon entering the cave in the bottom corner of the Lost Underworld which holds the Fire Spring, the music here initially sounds like a reprise of Stonehenge, the same drumming rhythms, imitating the bubbling lava and subterranean rumblings which underlie the geysers in the vicinity. As you proceed, if you can stay out of battles long enough for the development, shivers and wails are introduced to the melody line, technological whoops and chimes filling in the syncopation, tones reminiscent of the ones played during your brief dialogue with each of the sanctuary bosses. As for the enemies, appearing as wandering, circling fires first encountered in Moonside, any one of them would have been a match for the most difficult sanctuary bosses up to this point. These enemies in the cave are not dinosaurs like those outside but spirits of fire and Psychic Psychos–a paronomasia or word-play familiar from M. Bison’s psycho crusher attack in Street Fighter II, which envelops the attacker in psychic energy and the opponent in flames.
As noted from the start, EarthBound does not proceed according to an elemental rubric like most RPGs–locations like Giant Step and Lilliput steps, the first two sanctuaries, make it clear that whatever structure is at work, it is not the classic fire-water-wind-earth, or variations on yin-yang and the four humors, etc– but there has been a practical distinction throughout in the battle system between physical and psychic, and within the psychic, between Rockin’ (or whatever you named your favorite thing) and Flash for Ness, and for Paula, Poo, and most opponents, between fire, ice and lightning. Obviously here in Fire Spring, Paula and Poo’s Freeze PSI will be your friend. You’ll want to equip any pendants which can protect you from fire damage, and if your levels are low, against the Psychic Psychos you may need to do what Buzz Buzz did for you against Starman Jr at the start of the game, casting a PSI Shield to make the enemies’ fire disappear. In its pyramid form with the sanctuary boss shining at the top, the Fire Spring seems like a recapitulation of that first extraordinary night climbing up and down the hill to the meteorite behind your house. The Psychic Psychos recall fiery reiterations of Carpainter, who kidnapped Paula, as much as tortured souls wreathed in fire from classical depictions of Hell. The Evil Elemental is an outline of a ghost like the one that tested Poo at the place of Mu (he’ll try to possess you like the ghosts back in Threed cemetery and Fourside sewers and, tricky devil, he’s actually weaker against fire than freeze), and Jeff, not to be left out, will find a Moon Beam Gun in one of the gift boxes to use against the Soul Consuming Flame, living puddles of lava reminiscent of the Slimy Little Piles from Belch’s Grapefruit Falls Base.
Conspicuous by its absence is the earth elemental, which is actually pretty commonly the case in RPGs, even when earth plays its elemental-as-one-of-four-crystals role, rather than the all-encompassing thematic place it occupies in EarthBound. We’ll see in Magicant that you can buy an Earth Pendant, encompassing the defenses against all fire, freeze, and flash, which leaves lightning covered by your Franklin Badge. You did give Ness back the Franklin Badge before heading to Magicant, right? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
At the top of the Fire Spring, having navigated the flowing pools and streams of magma to find that Moon Beam Gun and a Cherub’s Band to go with your Pixie’s Bracelet from Stonehenge, more dragonite, a speed capsule and a horn of life, and if you’re the absurdly lucky 1 in 128, winning a Star Pendant from a Major Psychic Psycho, which is like an Earth Pendant only better; having overcome waves of the fiery fiends, embodying the violent potential of madness and mental breakdown, and the creative energy flowing ceaselessly under the seemingly stable surface we all stand on, Ness and his friends will confront the last of the eight bosses guarding Your Sanctuary.
This one, intriguingly, has two distinct forms, meaning that you take on effectively two enemies in one continuous battle. It’s almost like Frank and Frankystein or the series of cops back in Onett, without the dialogue interludes and fresh start between them. First you face Carbon Dog, as expected weak against freeze attacks and susceptible to bottle rockets. If you’re not careful, though, you might deliver the final blow which will compress the carbon into diamond while one of those bottle rockets whizzes through the air, and on landing, it will be reflected back by the power shield Diamond Dog wears to devastate your party. Diamond Dog can diamondize with its bite and emits the same glorious light that sometimes comes when Paula prays, equivalent to Flash Omega, which can confuse you into sending attacks against your own party or KO you instantly. It has high HP and defense and no weaknesses. Somehow, by luck or patience or sudden guts, Smash attacks, dragonfire and bottle rockets once the shield is down, Healing and Lifeup to gain a little breathing room, and Starstorm or PSI Rockin if you can afford it, you have to prevail through the dogfight.
In the dog’s transformation from fiery carbon to bright diamond, we have a kind of alchemical illustration of the transformation Ness and his friends, and perhaps the player, have undergone on their adventure. As the coffee and tea breaks, the words of Poo’s master, the cryptic words Monotoli reads in Moonside and the hieroglyphs Poo can read, Talah Rama and Buzz Buzz and the mysterious Apple of Enlightenment all attest, their struggles and the dangers they have faced have brought Ness and his friends together and made them better, grown them in wisdom, courage, and friendship. All the while they have restored peace to the places they’ve visited, rescued the kidnapped and freed the deluded; like the dog in its moment of transformation shining with all the colors of the rainbow, their light has been a diverse and many-splendored thing, lent something of the sun in Summers and the moon in Moonside, the patches of light in the wind blowing leaves over lake Tess and the twilight silhouetting the trees in the southern jungle. The Sound Stone, you might have noticed, contains a pair of spinning lights which change color with each new Sanctuary Spot’s melody recorded as they go around playing them. The colors don’t proceed in any obvious pattern, but they do make up a kind of kaleidoscopic rainbow. Your dog, too, King or whatever you named him, was your first companion back at the start of the game, and a vision of him as a puppy was the first visual accompaniment to the song at Giant Step.
Beyond the way covered by Carbon Dog/Diamond Dog, Ness and his friends reach the tongue of flame atop a miniature volcano, surrounded by darkness, at the source of Fire Spring. The final melody, a single pure fa, plays there to complete the Sound Stone. At the previous two spots, Ness had visions of his mother and father, respectively. This time, Ness had the feeling that he was being watched by himself as a baby. Before the player has a chance to think about what that might mean, the Sound Stone screen comes up, and the whole song plays through:
As you can see, the sound stone is circular, the sanctuaries arranged in a ring, running clockwise around a central blue marble which represents either the normal appearance of the Sound Stone itself or the planet Earth where the world is being saved, or both. The background looks like more of the luminescent scales of the talking wall in Lumine Hall, rippling in concentric diamonds of expanding light and dark. Each of the eight squares around the circle is labeled with its name and comes to life in turn with a picture of the place where the Earth has lent its power to your own, as during the song those twin whirling lights leap from picture to picture, bringing each grayed out image into color, like the way the words of a song are lit up for a singalong or karaoke video. What are these lights dancing from one to another picture in orbit? Well, Ness touches it to his head, so presumably the psychic power of his attention, like the shining spots which covered each location, only subdued, harmonized, and properly channeled. At any point where your list of locations runs out, whether you’ve gone in order but not reached them all so far, or wherever you’ve skipped over one, the melody cuts off and all you hear is the background, a hazy bass rhythm that sounds at first like an old record which has reached the end of a song but keeps on turning, but which seems to be a sample from the driving beat of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. (Play it, John.)
The circle of Sanctuary locations around the Sound Stone represents EarthBound’s structuring principle in place of elemental crystals or other magical fragments reconstituting the lost whole from which the adventure sets out. Its locations and melodies are akin in terms of the game to the hours in a day or seasons in a year, to a painter’s color wheel, the geometry student’s unit circle, or the musical circle of fifths, any of which we might consider anew when we look closely at the Sound Stone and listen closely to its song. First, as we began recapping back at Pink Cloud, let’s run through the locations in order going clockwise:
At the Giant Step, Ness catches a glimpse of a small, cute puppy.
At the Lilliput Steps, Ness briefly has a vision of a baby in a red cap.
At the Milky Well, Ness thinks he hears his mother from far away… She says, “Be a thoughtful, Strong boy…”
At the Rainy Circle, Ness catches a whiff of Steak, but just for a second.
At Magnet Hill, Ness sees a baby’s bottle, but just for an instant.
At the Pink Cloud, Ness has a short vision of seeing his mother when she was young.
In Lumine Hall, Ness sees a vision of his father holding him.
At the Fire Spring, Ness has the feeling that he was being watched by himself as a baby.
We talked a bit about the order, which is largely up to the player in terms of gameplay, though it is fixed in the Sound Stone’s arrangement, and also about what relationship each spot’s vision has to the others.
Now that we have the complete picture, we might also consider relationships across this larger frame. First note what is opposite: Giant Step and Magnet Hill form one axis, with the first half of the game, Onett through Fourside, contiguous geographically (with the exception of Rainy Circle up in Winters) on one side of the circle; the second half of the game, locations found from Summers on, are on the other. Magnet Hill can only be reached after visiting Summers, and Fourside is the limit of that contiguous geography of four numbered towns beginning with Onett, so it makes sense as a midway point with one foot in either world. Teleporting along, we come next to the opposites Lilliput Steps/ Pink Cloud, then Milky Well/ Lumine Hall, then Rainy Circle/ Fire Spring. Each pair is illuminating to think about in how the two places complement one another: unseen Lilliputians beyond the utopian experiment of Happy Happy Village aligned with sinister bunny statues guarding the Pink Cloud cave beneath Dalaam; the Milky Well of the Mr Saturns naturally becomes the counterpart of the articulate wall of the shy Tendas (both villages where you take coffee and tea breaks thus linked); Rainy Circle and Fire Spring, the closest things to the classic elements, one in Winters by Stonehenge and Lake Tess, the other at the bottom of the Lost Underworld with its dinosaurs and fire spirits.
In terms of the colors that each takes on as the twin lights of Ness’ and the players’ attention touch them, playing the music, to me they seem to go blue, yellow, milky white, purple, white again, coral, green, and red. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than that the more distinct, colorful colors tend to be grouped in the semicircle above the horizontal axis traced between Lumine Hall and Milky Well, with less distinct, whitish colors below it. Which corresponds to me with the way in which the opening and concluding parts of a work of art (or a sentence) tend to be most distinct, memorable, and significant. Now, as the circular pattern implies, at the far end of the red of Fire Spring, we are about to swing back around to the other end of the color spectrum, the blue of Giant Step.
Before looking at the vision Ness has next, and what follows, let me share what I make of the song. I’ll call it a song or melody, and try not to use these terms for the parts played at each Sanctuary spot, which contribute the notes. Clearly, the whole is made up of musical phrases, but you’ll note how these don’t correspond to particular sanctuaries, but run across them. Giant Step’s notes comprise the first three measures of the melody, interrupted before the heavily weighted fourth beat of the third measure which is supplied by Lilliput Steps, if not already by the listener’s ear.
That note, fa, is one which five of the eight pieces of the melody start on. Though as we saw, by starting on, we really mean they supply the end of a melodic phrase, the last note in a measure. All of them, except Giant Step which opens the song and has an extra bar, do this thing where they conclude a measure and run for most of another measure before interlinking with the next part. So back to that note which tends to provide the links: In the musical scale do-re-mi it is fa, or the fourth counting up from do (counted as one) which opens the melody, as in most music. Normally songs open at do, modulate through a fourth or some other realm, develop tension with the fifth or dominant, and return to do, the tonic. This song, though, is really centered on fa. Musically, that is the subdominant, or the key of which do is the dominant. Conceptually, if the song is like a journey, setting out from home, do, then we’re moving out and back around that note fa, which to me always sounds a bit nostalgic, though the impression is contextual based on the notes around it, where it is in the song. We linger on it at times, as at the start of Lilliput Steps (and towards the end at the Lumine Hall part), but we also strain up and away from it at times, as through Milky Well to Rainy Circle:
You can hear that Rainy Circle, not Magnet Hill, contains the midpoint of the melody, that sustained higher do, the note of home we started from heard at an octave. The rising, which I hear as striving and achieving, is still more pronounced from Magnet Hill on to Pink Cloud–
–then coming to rest there with the ending phrases of Lumine Hall and the final measure of Fire Spring:
Fire Spring, just one note, corresponds to Rainy Circle which was the midpoint of the melody, closing its first half with a rhyme to the opening phrase, and to which the whole second half of the melody rhymes with an answering phrase after that reach over the octave at the heights of Pink Cloud. But besides being a single sustained note, it is shorter by a measure, namely that one used already by Giant Step to make it the biggest part of the eight. And in truth, in the fuller orchestration of the melody, we’ll see how the end at Fire Spring actually becomes just the first verse of the larger ongoing song, Smiles and Tears. Again, we begin again where we started from.
So all that overflowed from this final part of the melody, and from that last and strangest vision: Ness had the feeling that he was being watched by himself as a baby. Rather than a vision of the past, then, like the rest seem to be, it is a vision of vision. Here I’ll read just a short passage that seems appropriate. “It’s all in Plato,” he of the famous forms and recollection; or someone imitating him closely, as there is apparently some scholarly disagreement about this work’s authorship, for this is from the dialogue Alcibiades I, towards the end:
SOCRATES: But how can we have a perfect knowledge of the things of the soul?—For if we know them, then I suppose we shall know ourselves. Can we really be ignorant of the excellent meaning of the Delphian inscription [‘know thyself’], of which we were just now speaking?
ALCIBIADES: What have you in your thoughts, Socrates?
SOCRATES: I will tell you what I suspect to be the meaning and lesson of that inscription. Let me take an illustration from sight, which I imagine to be the only one suitable to my purpose.
ALCIBIADES: What do you mean?
SOCRATES: Consider; if some one were to say to the eye, ‘See thyself,’ as you might say to a man, ‘Know thyself,’ what is the nature and meaning of this precept? Would not his meaning be:—That the eye should look at that in which it would see itself?
SOCRATES: And what are the objects in looking at which we see ourselves?
ALCIBIADES: Clearly, Socrates, in looking at mirrors and the like.
SOCRATES: Very true; and is there not something of the nature of a mirror in our own eyes?
SOCRATES: Did you ever observe that the face of the person looking into the eye of another is reflected as in a mirror; and in the visual organ which is over against him, and which is called the pupil, there is a sort of image of the person looking?
ALCIBIADES: That is quite true.
SOCRATES: Then the eye, looking at another eye, and at that in the eye which is most perfect, and which is the instrument of vision, will there see itself?
ALCIBIADES: That is evident.
SOCRATES: But looking at anything else either in man or in the world, and not to what resembles this, it will not see itself?
ALCIBIADES: Very true.
SOCRATES: Then if the eye is to see itself, it must look at the eye, and at that part of the eye where sight which is the virtue of the eye resides?
SOCRATES: And if the soul, my dear Alcibiades, is ever to know herself, must she not look at the soul; and especially at that part of the soul in which her virtue resides, and to any other which is like this?
ALCIBIADES: I agree, Socrates.
Just so here, Ness has a vision of truth, of self-recognition conceived not as hindsight but as foresight, self-appraisal and judgment by the younger potential-laden self upon the present actual and actualizing one. Have I lived up to my potential? seems to be the implicit question, another version of the question Ness has been asking himself since Lumine Hall: What will happen to us? Everything hinges here on what tone we understand that questioning look to be asked in–is it critical and condemning, benign and merciful, or some combination? The tone of the music, I think, gives us the sense, as with all the sanctuaries, that we have come to a place familiar and yet new. The fa at the end of the song is far from the fa at the end of the opening phrase, and yet somehow it brings us close to home again, to the opening of the next verse and the unlocking of the rest of the full orchestrated song. Is Ness able to answer it? What is the tone of his mutually wondering gaze upon himself as an infant? (Infant, in its root in-fans, “one who does not speak”). The vision goes on after the Sound Stone plays–and unlike the other visions, described in brief words, this one goes on at some length in visual tableau.
The Sound Stone fades to black, then brightens to white, and we see Ness walk along a winding ridge against the sky. Everything is black and white. Ness is alone, going slowly forward as the Sound Stone melody, slowed down and with a spare melodic accompaniment now, plays in the style of a music box, with the background bright hum of the Sanctuary spots under everything. There ahead is his house. As he reaches it, the first verse ends, his body becomes invisible, and he opens the door and closes it audibly. Inside the house now, another verse begins. Everything is the same, only the dog who runs up to greet the invisible Ness is a puppy. The Ness we cannot see except as the still point in the center of the screen around which the scenery moves climbs the steps to the second floor. We hear the footfall on the stairs sound effect, we watch the hallway scroll past, again we hear the door, to Ness’ bedroom this time, open and close. In the room we can’t see them, but we see their words–Ness’ parents talking, over the rocking crib in the middle of the room. The song begins a third time, and now adds a rich piano accompaniment. They say:
I think Ness is the right name for him.
Ness… he smiled just from hearing his own name.
Do you think he likes the name?
Try putting that red cap on him.
Ha ha ha! It’s too big, but it looks good on him…
I hope King won’t be jealous of the baby.
Let’s celebrate with some Steak.
The baby will grow up to be a hard worker just like you.
I don’t think he needs to be rich or famous.
but I want him to be a thoughtful, strong boy.
That’s odd… the baby bottle that he pointed at seemed to move a little
The song, still playing, and the scene fades out to white again, and with a totally new soundscape that gives a jarring sense of infinite spiraling ascent, the player and Ness find themselves in a kind of jagged garish garden of giant vegetables and jumbled sprites from all points of the game, washed by a sparkling sea as purple as some of my prose today: Magicant, “Your World” opened by the final Sanctuary’s completion. It will have to wait until next time. We’ll have much to discuss then!
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