On questions within–and in conversation with–the MOTHER/EarthBound games

All images from the let’s play archive

My point of departure is a question: Where shall wisdom of the world be found?

I frame it like this, as a mashup of quotations–

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? – Job 28:12

Show me the wisdom of the world
Tell me the secrets of the heart
And the sweet mysteries of love
– “Wisdom of the World,” MOTHER arranged album. Catherine Warwick/Keiichi Suzuki. Lyrics by Linda Hennrick

–because the works cited are very dear to me. And because I believe other people might feel the same, I wanted to sit with them awhile, to share some of the ways in which these words and these games have helped me with the very deep questions they ask.

Abstract

The reader is asked to consider the role played by questions within the MOTHER/EarthBound games in an open-ended, poetic and philosophical light, both in service to replaying and wondering through the games and as a guide to related questions surrounding their significance, development, and reception. From “Which style of windows do you prefer?” to “THE END… ?” EarthBound, our principal focus, like its precursor EarthBound: Beginnings and its successor MOTHER 3, continually poses questions. Whether direct or implied, with or without affording players (to say nothing of the silent protagonists) ways to respond to them in-game, these questions present an opportunity to think more deeply about the games and what they mean for us who play them. Taken together, the games’ questions and our responses suggest a model for such thinking and meaning-seeking through play, reading, and dialogic inquiry.

Acknowledgements

The present essay expands on an article written for NES Pro Magazine, “In the EarthBound Beginnings…There was Shigesato Itoi.” That piece, in turn, augments and flows out of a long-running podcast project, Bookwarm Games: EarthBound. Illustrated transcripts from the podcast have been graciously published on The Pixels, with further course material hosted on Video Game Academy. Both online, through outlets like these, and in-person, in my video game studies courses at The Community School (Spokane, WA), my hope is that the scholarly conversation around these games should be ongoing and open to all.

I owe many of the ideas presented here, elliptically, playfully professorial and earnest, to discussions with friends and students. With thanks to them and acknowledgement that any errors or misrepresentations are my own, I invite you to join the dialogue. So much for housekeeping. Now on to a little homework, a little light reading and replaying to begin with.

Reviewing the Literature, or, Which style of windows do you prefer?

Naturally our main texts will be EarthBound Beginnings (1990-2010), EarthBound (1994), and MOTHER 3 (2008 localization patch). We should first of all and as much as possible allow the games to speak for themselves–more on that below. But besides the games themselves and the interpretations we form as we play, whose do we take to be some of the dominant voices in the conversation around EarthBound? Who are the main players in the critical discourse we are about to plunge into, around whom wavelike lines of force, whether of argument or personality, tend to concentrate?

There is Shigesato Itoi, of course. The creator and face of the franchise has gone on record many times in many contexts to share thoughts about his work. On the one hand, this makes for an invaluable source of information for fans and students of the games. Itoi is in a position to speak on his intentions, his inspirations, and tensions in the process of casting of his vision into a reality; he knows things, or can be understood to know things, no one else possibly has access to finding out definitively about these games. As I’ve argued in NES Pro despite my qualms with “the personal heresy” CS Lewis argues against in such cases, Itoi’s biography inscribes itself into his creation in unmistakable ways; as everyone who plays will discover, Itoi loves breaking the fourth wall to make us aware of his presence as writer–and of ours as player.

But on the other hand, Itoi as author, as author-insert or character, and as commentator alike must still be filtered through the same critical judgment: the player’s– “yes, you, the one holding the controller,” as Tony says. Authoritative as his statements can appear, Itoi amplifies and evolves his thinking from one interview to the next (cf. versions of the pitch to Nintendo, or meanings of the title MOTHER). He would be the first to insist upon his own human fallibility and proneness to errors of recollection, and to insist upon the importance of the players’ own memory and attention to detail (from the original MOTHER trailer to the Switch virtual console announcement). If I appeal to Itoi’s words in public pronouncements to undermine Itoi’s authorial-canonical status, let that logical tangle be the least of our worries. Instead of throwing up our hands, though, my hope is that we lend an ear to Itoi, but not so much that we close off and silence a world of other possible readings. Like the Hobonichi logo, let’s hope we have our great big ears open both ways.

Another caveat we have to bear in mind, apropos of language and logic, is the issue of localization. Whatever the games or Itoi or any of his Japanese-speaking interlocutors might actually be saying, not only are we ultimately speaking for ourselves in hazarding our judgments on the work, we’re mostly doing so in English. We’re mediated in our readings of the games’ meaning in all the ways so far considered, but also by the choices made by a chain of official and unofficial interpreters who have rendered us the service of reproducing everything about them in a language we (presumably the majority of us reading this, anyway) can read best.

In connection with this underlying concern, one whose importance can hardly be emphasized enough, let’s not go any further without bringing on board the discussion the only person whose importance for understanding the MOTHER games and their many meanings might rival Itoi’s, at least outside Japan: Clyde Mandelin, aka Tomato. After years of active leadership within the starmen.net community, concurrently running EarthBound Central, a clearinghouse for news and history, Mandelin led the team that made MOTHER 3 available to play in English. With Fangamer, he has turned his talents to publishing books on his expertise. Legends of Localization Book 2: EarthBound painstakingly walks us through nearly every line of the game’s text, providing insight and context for each choice by the developers and translators (one of whom, Marcus Lindblom, provides the foreword. Toby Fox, creator of Undertale and Deltarune, who honed his composing and game-developing skills on ROM hacks for the same starmen/ Fangamer community, contributes a lovely blurb). Let who will keeping hoping for an official MOTHER 3 release outside Japan; I’m hoping that an official biography of Itoi and translations of his books will be forthcoming from Mandelin and his collaborators.

Inventory Management

To take stock of our (limited) inventory so far: playing and replaying the games absent any rigorous theory of either the author or the material and ideological grounds of game development; reading up on the developer and localization while lacking much understanding of the original language or firsthand knowledge of the culture, our scattered, slovenly bibliography evincing familiarity with only a handful of significant sources–we’ve yet to really dive in, and yet all these challenges, or indeed any one of them, could sink our project before we begin. That is, if we really were by profession academic writers, and not just amateurs pretending like this for the fun of it, we’d need to do a better job of shoring up our basic premises. Then we’d want to find a peer-reviewed journal or institution more or less in agreement with our presuppositions. Wherever we decided to land on these issues, and wherever we were fortunate enough to end up researching and teaching part- or full-time, publishing-or-perishing our way to tenure, we’d meanwhile read a good deal more specialized material in our chosen corner of the field. However, let’s muddle on in our own way.

Having spent some time playing through the games, researching Itoi–his biography, interviews on his games, and other works–and looking through Mandelin’s EarthBound book, what’s next? For me, it’s Shakespeare and the Bible. EarthBound’s opening sequence sends me back to Hamlet via Hamlet’s exclamation “buzz, buzz,” and his own late night visitor inspiring the questions he asks (and we ask) throughout the play. Buzz Buzz’s reference to the Apple of Enlightenment leads more directly still to the drama surrounding the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the third chapter of Genesis. From there I follow the reverberations of their language and themes through the poets, Milton and Blake, much influenced in my reading by the work of Philip Pullman. Time and again this thread leads me to the conviction, in Blake’s phrase, that “eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Apropos of time-travel and the wisdom we’re after (or is it after us?), his next Proverbs of Hell run:

The busy bee has no time for sorrow. The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure.

Undisciplined as this may seem, I tend to agree with Pullman when in homage to Muhammad Ali he says, in the afterword to His Dark Materials, “read like a butterfly, write like a bee.” Yet all this flows from and brings us back to our opening question, still unanswered and all but unformulated. We might put it like this:

Who or what is Buzz Buzz, this bee-like being inciting the beginning of EarthBound, and what is the Apple of Enlightenment whose message he bears?

In the original MOTHER 2, Bunbuun, the Japanese onomatopoeia for Buzz Buzz’s name, is “actually a rhinoceros beetle (or not),” while the Apple of Enlightenment is called a “prophecy-telling machine” and “The Apple of Wisdom” in Tomato’s literal translation. That’s seems promising. Still more helpfully, his Legends of Localization volume explains,

Throughout the game there are mentions of a prophecy given to Giygas by something called the Apple of Enlightenment. General information about the prophecy can be surmised from bits and pieces of the game’s script, but the full details are never revealed in the game. The official MOTHER 2 guide provides those details, though! Below is a translation of the discussion between Giygas and the Apple of Enlightenment, which is described as an ‘ultra-prophecy device’.

Q: PROPHESIZE FOR ME. WHEN WILL MY PLAN REACH FRUITION?

A: THAT CANNOT BE PROPHESIZED. YOUR QUESTION IS FLAWED.

Q: THEN I WILL ASK AGAIN. WHEN WILL MY PLAN TO COMPLETELY RULE THE GALAXY SUCCEED?

A: IT DOES NOT SUCCEED. THE PLAN ENDS IN FAILURE. (187)

Wisdom found, right? A whole Apple of it. And questions answered–albeit in such a way that Giygas decides to set the events of the game in motion based on what the Apple tells him. Deep Thought meets Oedipus Rex.

Q: WHAT HAPPENS IF I GO BACK IN TIME AND GET RID OF THEM?

A: THE RESULTS OF TEMPORAL INTERFERENCE CANNOT BE PROPHESIZED.

If we are like Giygas in our dealings with this Apple of Wisdom (the games themselves unfolding Itoi’s story), or if we are like Pokey’s mom with respect to Buzz Buzz (messengers like Clyde Mandelin, bringing us new knowledge about it all these years later)–that is, if we are impatiently demanding discursive answers to these questions, they will only lead, at best, to playing the game through again from the beginning (an attempt to go back to the past), and at worst, to doing a violence to the text of the game, silencing it and moving on from its words without giving it another thought. If we are like Ness, though, these questions set us on a journey here and now to grow in “wisdom, courage, and friendship,” and to find “Your Sanctuary.”

THE END… ?

I can understand how that trajectory may seem idiosyncratic. Let’s hope that wherever you turn for help answering underlying questions of this sort, besides replaying the MOTHER games you’ll try reading and revisiting for yourself some of the literary stepping-stones thrown out there above, arrayed as it were in mid-air like the platforms in ur-NES games, Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. I hope you go clambering Shadow of the Colossus-like onto the shoulders of those giants and enlist the aid, Breath of the Wild-like, of those divine beasts we’ve been citing. But it really depends on what interests you, what scholarly questions you’re pursuing.

In lieu of Shakespeare and the Bible and the rest, the student of MOTHER/EarthBound interested in canon-completionism might want to turn first to the official novelizations by Saori Kumi, recently made available in English translation, and to other paratexts accompanying the games, such as published scripts, advertising materials, trade show videos, box art and instruction booklets, and the official (and official-esque) player’s guides.

For another sort of research, what matters most is fandom and reception, so diving into decades-old forum posts, viral tweets (Terry Crews’ “localize MOTHER 3” @ Reggie Fils-Aime), fan productions, and discussions of the influence of these games on social phenomena, like online communities, and works significant in their own right, like Undertale. The secondary sources shedding light on the games and bringing more attention to them, (in much the way EarthBound, for me anyway, brings attention and light to Shakespeare and the rest), might include the likes of The Angry Video Game Nerd in one of his more heartfelt efforts; Ken Baumann’s memoiristic account of the impact EarthBound has had on him; the gonzo journalism of Tim Rogers; and other video essays, analyses, and blog posts loitering unassuming yet insightful somewhere down the lists generated by the almighty search algorithms.

More academic studies of EarthBound do exist, but the conversation on the game and its place in history remains in its infancy, for the simple reason that we’re still too close to it to really appreciate it. What we’re attempting here is a prophecy or a promise that these games will remain significant, as much as an essay seeking to explicate their possible significance.

Does a place called paradise
Wait beyond the azure skies
Bright as day?
Look into your crystal ball
Read the future in the stars
Does it say?
– “Wisdom of the World”

To paraphrase the not-bee himself, thanks for listening to my long prolegomena. On to more questions.

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