Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz
“The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”
As an epigraph for a book about philosophy, you can’t do much better than the lines of Chaucer’s Prologue that Jacob Klein cites in his Commentary on Plato’s Meno:
Eek Plato seith, who-so that can him rede,
The wordes mote be cosin to the dede.
[And Plato says (whoever knows how to interpret him) that words must be closely related to actions.]
As an epigraph for this essay, another of my attempts at a philosophical commentary on EarthBound, I like the Magicant innkeeper’s text:
The dream you’ll have here is a dream within a dream.
Your heart knows things you aren’t aware of.
Do you want to sleep?
Okay. If you walk outside, beware of the monsters.
Welcome back. The last of the conversational interludes having taken place, this brings us to the final three or four interpretive episodes here in the Bookwarm series on EarthBound. We pick up on the threshold of Magicant. First, in connection with Essay 28’s focus on musical and narrative structure, I’ve just started catching up on Northrop Frye (only a couple generations late to the party) starting with his Anatomy of Criticism. I’d definitely recommend that if you’re looking for a challenge. As I read more, and continue devising my own theoretical framework for understanding narrative in games, I’d be interested in hearing what you think! Because, as you can see from the sheet music image that goes with the Fire Spring essay, there’s more than one way to notate the song, so to speak.
(If Northrop Frye gave you the Sound Stone, it might look like this.)
Now, on to Magicant, this place opened up within Ness’ mind, perhaps preexisting there and unlocked, or perhaps created by the Sound Stone and the eight Your Sanctuary locations. The Star Master who trained Poo is there to tell you:
Ness, you’ve stood on the eight power spots of the earth.
From these, you created Magicant, the realm of your mind.
In Magicant, there’s beauty, kindness, sorrow, and hatred.
Of course, there’s an evil and violent side of you.
The Sea of Eden sits at the center of those feelings.
It takes you to the truth about yourself.
So is this Ness’ unconscious talking to him through the guise of the Star Master, or is it the intelligence of the Star Master communicating with him to help orient him? Is this an image Ness has of him, or his actual astral projection into Ness’ mind? This sort of question is endemic throughout Magicant, where talking to people changes the color of the world like a filter. It pulses with a surreal waltz rhythm, taking familiar notes and stretching or skewing them to give an aural funhouse effect, and with each footfall, Ness makes a cute squeaky-hoppy sound effect. The colors and shapes are intense and strident, contributing to the childishness and oddity of the surroundings, and Ness himself is in his jammies. In the Japanese original, Mother 2, he is naked. According to Legends of Localization this is a fairly common thing in RPGs and other media in Japan, connoting purity. The name Magicant, apparently a combination of English “magic” and Japanese “country,” appears in each of the Mother games, playing an important role connected with gathering the pieces of a melody, but here we’ll continue to concentrate on EarthBound. What is this place?
First, let’s relate this to our previous discussion: Magicant is where Ness finds himself after the extended sequence at his memory or imagination of his house, overhearing the dialogue between his parents, seeing himself in the crib. It will be the scene for an inner journey delving into himself, now that he has completed the eight stages of his journey to all the corners of the world. Until Ness completes this journey, too, he is going to remain trapped within Magicant; once he accomplishes whatever adventure awaits him here, Magicant will be no more, as inaccessible after the fact as Moonside, which in many respects it resembles, or Snow Wood Boarding School. And although Ness is alone without Paula, Jeff, or Poo, Magicant is inhabited by many other people. Some of the first characters you encounter there are Tracy and Ness’ Mom, who perform much the same functions as in what for lack of a better term we’ll call “real life,” the game outside of Magicant. Tracy holds onto or disburses items for you, and Mom offers your favorite food and restores you to full strength.
Something is immediately a little off, though: Your mom asks if you’re tired, and if you assent, she offers the creepy choice of staying there to rest forever. Your dog is there too. He whines, saying how he used to live at your house before you were born, and how you used to be small and weak. Then you might ask, how can Tracy give you things here, within Ness’ mind, which exist out there in the world? If we take that to be Ness just imagining that continuity, if we’re comfortable recognizing this not as the actual Pencil Eraser, say, but as his image of it, just as this is not his actual sister, and mother, etc. but a kind of dream or idea he has of them, very well, but then when Ness gives her things here to store for him later, like the Earth Pendants you can buy at the shop in Magicant, she–the real Tracy–will still actually have them once you wake up! And things you take and use, like Magic Truffles, Brain Food Lunches, and Bags of Dragonite you might have been stocking up on, will all actually be gone when you awake. So will any money you spend, subtracted from what you earn. And of course you can still call your dad on the phone from within Magicant to save the game. How can this be?
I think we either just go with it and not worry about explaining it–which would be totally fine–or we are forced to see this subjective experience as objectively efficacious, as in having real, objectively verifiable effects. Whether this is magical, as the name implies, or psychic in nature, as PSI power has been a thing throughout the game, it has interesting ramifications for the reality of Ness’ experience here, and by analogy, for us playing the game. What do we actually give to the game? Certainly a few measurable things: the money to buy it, the electricity to operate it, control inputs, our time, our attention, our interest and emotional involvement, which shades off into what it gives us: memories, ideas, meaning. In this give and take it becomes a part of us, a part of that which we still call by the almost magical name, our psyche, our soul or self. It’s an inner landscape, with its evil and violent side, and with it comes that loaded name, Sea of Eden. How can we possibly confront and integrate such a place?
Remember, before we go any further in Magicant, that all the Sanctuary spots’ visions, conveyed in text upon recording each one’s melody, connect to that moment Ness sees in full before coming to Magicant. The small cute puppy, the baby in a baseball cap, his mother’s voice saying be a thoughtful, strong boy, a whiff of steak, a baby’s bottle, his mother, when she was young, his father holding him, and the feeling he was being watched by himself as a baby–in the full vision these elements are all present, and so I think this is that overlap in time and space spoken of by the Talking Rock and alluded to by Talah Rama, when the fragments of that original memory or dream of complete happiness come together; when Ness is named, loved; when his potential is imagined and his present being delighted in. And unbeknownst to his parents, in that moment of nascent consciousness Ness has the feeling of watching himself. Simultaneously infant and youth, he is witness and participant at once. It is also the moment when Ness’ psychic powers first manifest. How do these two things relate: the movement of the bottle at a distance in the past, and the awareness of his own invisible presence watching in the future/present? It suggests that memory and awareness, freshly perceived information and felt self-knowledge, are the heart of psychic ability, in some paradoxical way overlapping outside of our normal experience of time, capable of effecting things outside ourselves and in ways our physics cannot explain. Further: that our reason is ever-growing, yet it serves and arises from the irrational, and must not presume too much to control it.
The nature of this world of the Sound Stone vision is as a dream. The game presents it as a drama, a kind of scene from a play, from which Magicant itself then emerges to allow further gameplay. In Magicant we get a kind of microcosm of what the whole adventure has been: the dramatization of thoughtful strength. It begins to answer the question Ness has been asking himself at least since Lumine Hall: What will happen next? This. After completing the quest to find the Sanctuaries, the inner quest remains. It is a question we’ll return to again after defeating Giygas, but we see the answer prefigured here in the return to that moment of critical importance around which the Sound Stone revolves, and the unfolding of Magicant which follows. This is what prepares Ness for, and leads him to, the deepest place he can go, the Sea of Eden.
In this way, Magicant reprises those short, un-replayable parts of the game when you guide your new party members individually: Poo in Dalaam, Jeff in Winters, the missing chapter with Paula; it is again like Moonside, like Threed with zombies, and the meteorite night. But there’s also this: as the player, we also were responsible for naming Ness and the others, just as his parents name him here, along with his dog, his favorite food and favorite thing. Recall the default for that is Rockin’, and how this vision takes place while the crib rocks in the center. A small and probably tenuous wordplay, I guess. But there is something visually analogous, too, between the checkerboard pattern in the background of the file select screen and the new game dialogues, and the pattern making up the walls of the buildings in Magicant.
Don’t they look similar? When starting a new game or selecting a file, it’s something like Ness’ parents discussing his future, circumscribing it and yet knowing nothing of his destiny. How much had he known of his powers up until that night the meteorite landed? Presumably nothing consciously, the first PSI learned, Lifeup, being realized after gaining experience in battle. To give more life, to go out rockin’, whether by telekinesis or spirit projection, or in memory or imagination–is this anything other than the deepest desire of creative intuition creatively portrayed by the game? As a last note, I’ll point out again that Ness’ parents are invisible, too, during the vision, left up to the players imagination, perhaps to imaginative participation. May we all have such a true memory to recover or create in our lives. To give us the power we somehow have to find, to face the sea within and its demons.
Dostoevsky’s Alyosha puts it like this:
“You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home. You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.” (The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky trans. p. 774; cf. p. 18)
Or here’s Hamlet–remember him from our very first essay?–
O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet’s friends think his bad dream is ambition, just like what makes his country feel to him like a prison. To which he replies:
A dream itself is but a shadow.
Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.
Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows.
The same question that confronts us in Magicant is being bandied about here: what is real, what mere appearance? What is worth striving for, dying and killing and procreating and living for? Talking about ultimate reality. And these questions beckon us on from the vision of complete happiness to face Ness’ bad dream, his Nightmare. So much for this dream within the dream, as the Magicant hotelier says, this crucial scene of vision corresponding to the irruption of the meteorite in its importance to the plot of the game. If I’ve belabored it to the detriment of talking much about the rest of Magicant and the Sea of Eden–if, like Gertrude says to Polonius, you’d prefer “More matter, less art”–I’ll try to make up some ground now. But I would also recommend the popular youtuber Angry Video Game Nerd’s episode on EarthBound, where he devotes a considerable time to Magicant and makes some interesting comments–including through his very way of making the comments. As Flannery O’Connor says, the form is integral to the meaning.
I’ve heard that the great author Flannery O’Connor was once asked to put the meaning of one of her short stories “in a nutshell.” She responded tartly that, if she could have put the meaning into a nutshell, she wouldn’t have had to write the story. (p. 205 in Keller, The Reason for God.)
I think that’s fair. What role ambition plays in making and responding to stories, also, I think is implied there. We aspire to perfection, and that laudable aspiration contains the seed of its own disaster.
So little by little Ness makes his way past the snowmen, the clock which looks like a stop sign, the faint memories like little birds hopping, and the bogeys of recently defeated bad guys he might still feel guilty about defeating. The line of characters there like the queue at the Chaos Theater box office, like bystanders at a parade, like an emblem for the chain of necessary conversations throughout the game. “Fresh,” one says to him, apparently a translation for cheeky, a punny vestige of the naked Ness (whom you can still catch sight of in a screenshot in the player’s guide, p. 111). There’s someone making the request to take your time there, knowing it won’t last, and there’s the Nico Easter egg, put in by a translator who’d just had a daughter born, getting a single day off in the race to finish the game for its American release and naming this kid after her. That was allowed to stay in, as were the crosses on the top of the graves, which were either missed or just escaped removal due to time constraints.
(With the un-bowdlerized religious symbols here, which multiply the more of your courage, manifested as Flying Man, you lose in battle, the original nakedness Ness is supposed to revel in, and the overall profusion of invitations to psychological analysis, this part of the game points ahead strongly to Xenogears, a game about which I hope to give a future series of discussions within the next year or two. The nakedness there comes at the end of the game, but, like in EarthBound, it alludes to a regained Paradise. In cutscenes throughout Xenogears a cruciform necklace features prominently; and one character is straight up named Id. To give just a few examples. So that’s something I’m looking forward to.)
Back to Magicant. Besides that erroneous screenshot, the player’s guide makes another mistake here, a much bigger false claim, in reporting that the Kraken in the Sea of Eden drop Ness’ ultimate weapon, the Gutsy Bat. In fact, it’s dropped by 1 in 128 of the Bionic Kraken near the very end of the game. For anyone who actually tried to find the rare items, back before the widespread help of the internet, this must have been unimaginably frustrating.
Just past the line of people, the shade of Everdred and a younger version of Ness, the one looking back, the other ahead to him, dizzyingly, we find a candidate for the shadow self, Pokey, enthroned on his couch between classical pillars. But he is not your enemy here:
Ness, you’re so lucky…
I envy you.
I have no luck.
But, Ness … well, okay…
Let’s be friends forever, all right?
Even in Magicant, Pokey talks his way around to avoid the whole truth, or else Ness is not ready to accept his true nature, and still believes they can be friends. This traitor is not at the center of the Inferno, as in Dante’s conception, but well away from it. Beyond is the house where your courage dwells, manifold and exuberant. One at a time they join you, but like your dog or Dungeon Man or a teddy bear, they aren’t truly part of your party, and inevitably, since you can’t heal them, they fall in battle. If you return to get a new one, you’ll see the fresh grave of the one before–each says something a little different, if you have the heart to reveal them all. First, though, is Buzz Buzz’s tombstone, with this commentary:
He appeared earlier in the game and gave up the ghost
before he achieved his goal.
Which strikes me in the way it alliterates, in the way it refers directly to the game as a game, and in the reminder that Buzz Buzz thinks he failed. He didn’t accompany you any further than Pokey’s house, whereas he presumably intended to change history with you. But by giving you the Sound Stone and setting you on the path to fulfill the destiny foretold by the Apple of Enlightenment whose messenger he is, he nevertheless set the goal: wisdom, courage, friendship. The emphasis in Magicant, though, seems to be on the dark side of each of these. It begins gently, with twists to the love and friendship of familiar characters, and the absence of your three great friends here. You depart from a jealous mother, pass by Pokey, the false friend you still hope wishes to befriend you, and come to the house of your courage, many and one, chicken- or eagle-shaped atop two legs and carrying with them a jaunty tune. They prove themselves in falling, which seems a little overbold rather than strictly courageous, thinking in terms of Aristotelian virtues of the mean, or recalling Byrhtnoth in the Battle of Maldon, but well. Beyond Buzz Buzz’s tomb, the way to the Sea of Eden, infested with foes, promises the wisdom, and with it power, so far hidden from yourself.
The Sea of Eden is filled with ultimate intelligence.
You can’t go there unless you’re truly ready.
It’s a place where you can touch the truth of the universe.
Going there may bring sorrow.
No more singing flowers here. The last friendly face you meet is Ness himself as he looks in the present, clothed, giving himself the baseball cap you started with. Then come waves of monsters, some previously encountered and others never seen before: Loaded Dice, which summon UFOs and Fobbies, Care Free Bombs, Molecules, Kiss of Death and Electro Swoosh, and finally Kraken swimming in the Sea of Eden. Like being back at the start of the game, since you’re alone, or will be once your Flying Man courage beside you dies and you forge ahead rather than going back for another, hits and misses count for much more with only Ness. Carrying the Franklin Badge helps, but you’ve likely given it to one of the other characters to hold, unless you knew this was coming. You can rely on Lifeup and the rolling HP meter to get you through, touch the magic butterflies which appear now and then and bring some Magic Pudding for the final push. Once you pick up the Magicant Bat and other items strewn along the path, blending in with present-box-disguised enemies, the path curls in on itself and comes to a tentacular form at the cul-de-sac. Touching this warps you to the Sea of Eden proper.
At last, in a kind of inversion of the path so far, the two halves of Magicant in this way reflecting the first and second halves of the game as a whole, Ness wades through mental seawater hemmed in by jagged walls shifting from green, to blue, to purple like the unformed ingredients of the background animation to future battles, the music still more lightly ominous and humming to itself like the instruments and electronica tuning up before an unwritten symphony. Here the Kraken roam about the rings of nothingness and stalagmites, crystallized, fixed dreams stabbing up through the sea and its absence, which you can use to elude them for the most part, conserving your strength for the boss. A familiar golden statue glitters, staged upon its pedestal:
(I’m the evil part of your brain.
You can’t beat me.
Because you are the one who forced me into being…)
Instead of being called Mani Mani, it is now called Ness’ Nightmare. Though without the wings, the new name recalls the monster of Fantasia’s take on Night on Bald Mountain, or Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason. In form, it is the golden idol, the cuckolded Oscar, the Minotaur in the labyrinth. More to the point, with respect to the game medium, it fits into a rich tradition of the hero fighting the hero’s shadow self, epitomized by games like Zelda II: Link’s Adventure, where Shadow or Dark Link is the final boss, or Ocarina of Time where he’s a mini-boss guarding the long-shot. Remember the fight against Dark Cecil midway through Final Fantasy II (IV in Japan) to transform from a Dark Knight to a Paladin, a fight you win by not attacking your aggressive side through the magic mirror on Mt Ordeals, but simply by surviving long enough for the fight to end? Or Ico, a magnificent, atmospheric love story of a cursed child with horns and an ethereal girl locked in a castle patrolled by shadows…
Ness’ Nightmare attacks with your own favorite thing to keep your HP tumbling down, and with the Glorious Light, which like PSI Flash can kill instantly. It periodically heals itself with Lifeup B, and also puts up a powerful reflective shield, at which point you should switch from physical attacks to psychic ones, and hope you have enough PP left to keep your health up as well. Bags of Dragonite don’t hurt, either, turning yourself into a monster to defeat the monster you potentially and partially are.
For more general description of the psychological shadow, I’d recommend delving into the works of Jung, arguably more accessible from the horse’s mouth than in the versions of his thought popularized by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, or more recently by Jordan Peterson in his books and talks. For example, in the late work Man and His Symbols, which Jung put out in collaboration with others of his school, geared towards a non-academic audience, he writes,
Myths go back to the primitive storyteller and his dreams, to men moved by the stirring of their fantasies. These people were not very different from those whom later generations have called poets or philosophers. Primitive story tellers did not concern themselves with the origin of their fantasies; it was very much later that people began to wonder where a story originated.
[…] We became aware, in the years when psychology was in its infancy, that dreams had some importance. But just as the Greeks persuaded themselves that their myths were merely elaborations of rational or “normal” history, so some of the pioneers of psychology came to the conclusion that dreams did not mean what they appeared to mean. The images or symbols that they presented were dismissed as bizarre forms in which repressed contents of the psyche appeared to the conscious mind. It thus came to be taken for granted that a dream meant something other than its obvious statement.
I have already described my disagreement with this idea–a disagreement that led me to study the form as well as the content of dreams. Why should they mean something different from their contents? Is there anything in nature that is other than it is? The dream is a normal and natural phenomenon, and it does not mean something it is not. The Talmud even says: “The dream is its own interpretation.” The confusion arises because the dream’s contents are symbolic and thus have more than one meaning. The symbols point in different directions from those we apprehend with the conscious mind; and therefore they relate to something either unconscious or at least not entirely conscious.
[…] The cross in the Christian religion, for instance, is a meaningful symbol that expresses a multitude of aspects, ideas, and emotions; but a cross after a name on a list simply indicates that the individual is dead.
[…] Such cultural symbols nevertheless retain much of their original numinosity or “spell.” One is aware that they can evoke a deep emotional response in some individuals, and this psychic charge makes them function in much the same way as prejudices. They are a factor with which the psychologist must reckon; it is folly to dismiss them because, in rational terms, they seem to be absurd or irrelevant. They are important constituents of our mental makeup and vital forces in the building up of human society; and they cannot be eradicated without serious loss. Where they are repressed or neglected, their specific energy disappears into the unconscious with unaccountable consequences. The psychic energy that appears to have been lost in this way in fact serves to revive and intensify whatever is uppermost in the unconscious–tendencies, perhaps, that have hitherto had no chance to express themselves or at least have not been allowed an uninhibited existence in our consciousness.
Such tendencies form an ever-present and potentially destructive “shadow” to our conscious mind. Even tendencies that might in some circumstances be able to exert a beneficial influence are transformed into demons when they are repressed. This is why many well-meaning people are understandably afraid of the unconscious, and incidentally of psychology. (78-83)
(Screen from the PS3 re-release of Ico.)
Since I haven’t read much more Jung than that, however, I’ll just hazard my own read of what’s going on here. It looks like the dark side of Ness is closely connected with his own powerful psychic abilities in their fully leveled-up form, just as the vision which gave birth to Magicant dealt with the very first manifestation of his psychic gift. Mercifully, Ness’ Nightmare is also a liar, whereas the vision was true. Ness can beat it, whether because he did force it into being or because it arose organically as a byproduct of his own growth in the course of gaining experience on his adventure. Either way, the ultimate form of the Mani Mani statue proves not to be a monolithic, Manichean evil after all, but just a part of Ness, over which he prevails. In this fight and its aftermath, he shows that even by himself, he is not simply alone:
(Ness heard a familiar voice at the center of the Sea of Eden.)
Giygas’ goal is
to destroy you.
Everything in the universe could be destroyed at the hands of Giygas.
But he and his followers are also in trouble.
The Apple of Enlightenment has foretold
that Giygas’ attempt will fail.
It is because of the existence of a boy named Ness.
Free your mind and KNOW what you must do!
Your destiny has already been decided.
You… I… where should we go?
You know deep within the reaches of your mind.
Saturn Valley… yes…
Go to the valley where the Mr. Saturn live.
…You’ll get something new there.
Soon, Magicant will be no more. We must be quick!
(Ness really heard his own voice.
Go to Saturn Valley!
Go to Saturn Valley now!)
The screen fades to black around Ness in the course of this text’s delivery, in which we finally hear Ness’s voice, and he does, too. Really. At the end of it, he turns around to face the player and begins to glow as the HP and PP meters scroll freely and the power of each of the eight Your Sanctuary spots flows into him. It’s a conversion in the etymological root sense, a kind of battle in reverse. Having reconnected to the Earth, Ness is integrated within himself, and now, having overheard his own voice revealing his destiny, his latent psychic power is set free. Still structured in terms of those eight locations, but correlated now to a massive level up, it increases in all statistical domains. Whereas his shadow figures, Pokey and the Mani Mani statue, his Nightmare, appeared flanked by horns and columns, static, menacing, Ness is granted Teleport B, the power to move anywhere in infinite space from the room of a nut shell. Images of the Sanctuary locations whirling backwards with music box notes jangling in reverse, Ness wakes up to his friends’ relief and questions, which are answered by teleporting straight from there to Saturn Valley. The Sound Stone he used to have is gone. Like the Nightmare, like Magicant, it has served its purpose and become part of Ness’ own.
Contrary to, say, Akira, the seminal doomsday anime film, or Meteo in the Final Fantasies, EarthBound asserts the saving power of the psyche, of psychic powers. Pokey and the Mani Mani statue, flanked by classical pagan columns and devil horns, along with the Flying Man and Buzz Buzz, topped by crosses, are buried and at rest in Ness’ mind. The voice heard saying Saturn Valley, which is his own, and his turning around to face the player and the real world, as the Earth filled him with his own as yet unrealized power–this is all a kind of Ariadne clue about his question and ours: what are we to do?
It could have been pieced together from hints so small as to be subliminally registered. Mentions by Apple Kid and Dr Andonuts, the Mr Saturn text when you knocked on the door of a house in Happy Happy Village, when the Mani Mani Statue first began violently to deceive… Ultimately, though, the voice heard within must be that of Ness’ heart, which knows things you aren’t aware of previously, and has its reasons for not speaking up till now.
To recap this maybe-not-very-clear, but anyhow very strange, dream: Through walking in the garden of Ness’ own unconscious creation, meeting everything from faint memories’ small voices to resurrected leviathans in the sea, we came face to face, in Eden, with what we might call Sin, Error, Untruth, that separation from reality, ultimate reality, which we might call God, and thus with the need for something like grace to return us to the real world. Ness is not alone in defeating this Nightmare: his own voice, the player, the game, the Earth and his three friends watch over him. Many more, as we’ll see at the end, are pulling for them. The Earth has lent its power to him more than musically. Destiny has foretold his victory. This all starts to sound rather grandiose, and I’m not sure how far to take it. But this interpretation opens a way to get all apocalyptic here at the end of the game, and I hope Frye would be proud. We’re saving the world, after all. Until next time!
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