EarthBound, by Ken Baumann

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EarthBound, by Ken Baumann. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books. 191 pages. $14.95, paper.

EarthBound—and I mean the videogame here, not the store—was released stateside for the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1995. On front of the packaging, an imposing gold Starman stood with its hands … or tentacles … planted on its hips against a psychedelic backdrop. Reflected in its visor was a small boy wearing a red baseball cap and a yellow shirt with blue stripes. Included inside, and perhaps contributing to the game’s financial under-performance, was a strategy guide detailing EarthBound‘s intricacies, contextualizing its bizarre world for an American audience, and marketing the game based on the then-popularity of armpit-fart cartoons and toys like Ren & Stimpy. The guide infamously contained a sheet of repulsive scratch-n-sniff stickers. Before all the hand-wringing over the death of JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games), before the criticism of JRPGs as glorified spreadsheets papered over with large swords and even larger hair, before we deepened our acquaintance with affects like “grody” through “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” EarthBound was defiantly oddball in a niche genre in a medium years away from a debate over its worthiness as art. As a player, I found myself rummaging through trashcans for hamburgers just in case I needed health after beating a hippie, a cultist wearing blue klan robes or a pile of puke into submission with a baseball bat.

Where paraphrase is heresy in literature, all the moreso here. A videogame is not merely a compound of game and video. Game players receive the underlying instructions for operation and co-create the aesthetic of the game in their performance. As Tom Armitage points out in “Things Rules Do,” videogame players build a model of the game’s rules piecemeal by observing feedback from the aesthesis to their performance. Even if I could delineate in words the mechanical ecosystem EarthBound sets in motion, even if I could fully synopsize the designed and linear narrative (rather than the immanent and unscripted narrative players create for themselves), even if I could play the soundtrack for you or include screenshots with this text, I would not be able to recapture EarthBound. Let’s pause here to dance about architecture—and let’s make no mistake, this is architecture I’m talking here, both in the sense that players navigate virtual spaces and in the sense that mechanics create functional structures which yield strange and surprising ornaments—right, where was I? Oh yes, so this is why in my opinion longform critiques and appreciations of any one videogame are less established, and more difficult, than say those of cinema (say, Geoff Dyer) or music (say, 33 1/3). And also why, concurrent with this paucity of extended writing, lets-plays proliferate on Twitch and Youtube while fan communities thrive on forums. Lets-plays at least convey the “video” half of a videogame, letting you see EarthBound unfolding; forums have adapted to a “text” which may require skill to even “complete” by distributing (crowdsourcing, if you prefer) the labor of insight across several posts rather than waiting for a sensitive tour guide to write the definitive baedeker.

Even so, literary authors are beginning on workarounds to these difficulties, notably Tom Bissell in his collection of essays Extra Lives. I won’t get into the bassackwardness of niche literature’s noblesse oblige to legitimize and popularize videogames for a naïve or skeptical audience when all indications show that a great number among the audience already value videogames and play intelligently. Instead, and before we get into Boss Fight Book’s first and mostly successful attempt to write EarthBound, I’ll list some preliminary categories of techniques literati have used on videogames to reach the audience they’ve imagined:

(1) The Testimonial – Memoir softens the edges. The videogame is legitimized through its centrality to the author’s development and self-reflection. For example, Tom Bissell’s essay on the Grand Theft Auto franchise is also about his escape from a coke habit. This approach seems to arise from the idea that virtuality is no longer an escape from reality but is overlaid upon or interwoven with it (Google Glass, not Lawnmower man). The biography of the player colors how they inhabit the avatar.

(2) Another Artifact – Move along folks, nothing to see here. Videogames are just one more commodity culled from the cultural reticulum and curated by the author. Hidden among references to Big Bang Theory, Trix cereal boxes, TMNT action figures and The Butthole Surfers is a videogame in a haze of nostalgia and/or ironic distance. Indifference to media is equality among media. Players as fans, as subculture.

(3) New Analysand, Same Old Analyst – If the Adorno, Agamben, Baudrillard, Benjamin, Deleuze et al. theory mills have successfully processed all other previous phenomena, why not videogames, too? A limitation to this approach arises when theory and criticism are not merely descriptive or interpretive but also predictive or evaluative. Hard to believe that cinema, which only a century ago struggled against the aesthetic standard of theater and photography to become its own artform (see Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography), is now the standard imposed on videogames, for better and for worse (see Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls). But don’t worry whether a videogame is art or entertainment; in either case it is a symptom of philosophy and philosophy is the cure.

(4) Episode IV: A New Canon – New theories to describe videogames emerge from positive and educational psychology and cultural anthropology, and with them exotic and fun-to-pronounce names: Huizinga, Callois, Csikszentmihalyi, McGonigal, Steinkuehler. I’m most sympathetic to this approach, despite its inevitable erosion into technique number three. And maybe there’s an opportunity for new insights and theories to emerge from, you know, players and game designers and fan fiction writers and modders and rule-benders, too.

TLDR: either you’ve used a game controller to more deliberately waste your life in play (one hundred hours minimum), or you haven’t. If you haven’t, I can’t help you. Videogames don’t really need me as a writer, so as a formality I’ll attempt a gloss on EarthBound‘s mechanics and narrative. Typical of a JRPG, EarthBound positions the camera in a bird’s-eye-view over fieldmaps through which the player guides the protagonist, Ness. Ness can chat with NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), open gift packages, pick fights with enemies, and purchase equipment and consumable goods. With a press of a button, the player can open a menu to manage inventory, health and the stats of Ness and other playable characters. Once a fight happens, however, the camera switches to first-person perspective. Instead of fighting an enemy in real time, which would emphasize execution over strategy, Ness’s party and the enemy take turns. On Ness’s behalf, the player selects various options from a menu, such as running away, using Ness’s psychic powers, attacking, and so on. Using psychic powers depletes Ness’s reservoir of Psychic Points; receiving damage depletes Ness’s health. Once the enemy is defeated, Ness receives money and experience points (exp.); after enough exp. Ness levels up, increasing his powers and thus his ability to tackle more powerful enemies. Each new level requires more exp. to reach, so battling the same enemies repeatedly yields diminishing returns. Battle strategy becomes more intricat as Ness is joined by three other heroes – Paula, Jeff and Poo. If resource management constitutes a spectrum wherein survival horror games such as Resident Evil fall on the end of extreme scarcity and Western RPG hybrids such as Skyrim fall on the end of extreme abundance, EarthBound is unique in its moderation. Ness’s backpack is quite limited, so although items abound, he cannot carry ninety-nine Tents or ninety-nine X-Potions. Also unique for the time, Ness can see and also potentially outmaneuver enemies on the fieldmap before engaging them.

The story of EarthBound begins in the year 199X. At night, a meteor crashes into Ness’s hometown of Onett. After exploring the crash site, Ness meets an alien in the form of a fly, Buzz Buzz, who informs him he is destined to destroy Giygas, an intergalactic evil. Ness must accomplish this task by harnessing eight melodies from eight locations in the world. Along the way he travels to Twoson, where he rescues the psychic Paula from a cult that enjoys painting everything blue; to Threed, where he stops a zombie infestation using sticky paper and meets up with boarding school runaway and wunderkind Jeff; to Fourside, a monument to urban capital with a surreal neon anti-city hiding behind it; to Summers, where he meets Poo, a warrior prince.[1] After traveling through pyramid-scattered deserts, a swamp, Jurassic Park and a volcano, Ness must confront his own inner consciousness. Having collected all the melodies and matured, the party then transfers their consciousnesses into robots so they can travel back in time to confront Giygas.

My account does no justice to the wonderful minutiae: you’ll defend yourself against police brutality; you’ll discover that waiting behind a waterfall for three minutes is the secret password to entering a secret base; you’ll catch The Runaway Five (parodying Blues Brothers) live; you’ll grow a mushroom out of your head; as an initiation rite you’ll be dismembered and blinded by a spirit; you’ll travel by yellow submarine, the Loch Ness Monster, bicycle, golem; a snowman will ask you to remember him and when you meet him again in your unconscious he will thank you.

To illustrate how strange EarthBound is, how it is an unrealized path for JRPGs, compare it to Final Fantasy III, released for the SNES in 1994 by the genre-defining Squaresoft.[2] As the series title suggests, Final Fantasy chronicles the last hurrah of the mythical before magic disappears and the world is plunged into The Age of Reason. You often play as a wanderer, usually with amnesia, freed to travel while NPCs remain stationary or in strict patrol, dependent on you to resolve their problems and fetch their macguffins for them. An evil empire or corporation often uses proto-industrial technology to harness magic from the Earth, damaging Gaia. The true nemesis, power-mad and aiming to destroy rather than rule the world, emerges from the the organization’s destruction. FF III‘s in-game artwork uses a muted, gritty color palette; the out-of-game concept art by Yoshitaka Amano consists of ornate watercolor. By contrast, EarthBound takes place after modernity has happened. Ness must call his mother lest he get homesick, talk to his absentee father on the phone about money. The videogame winks at you about the ridiculousness of its fetch-quests and key items. Rather than one monolithic empire, you see a world governed by several interlocking institutions (cults, gangs, city halls, corporate executives). Clay figurines are used as concept art.

More to the point, to take the imprint which occasions this review—Boss Fight Books—seriously, I have to ask what distinguishes a boss battle from a regular battle in a videogame, and how a final boss differs from a boss. Boss battles may ask a player to use in concert skills which the player may have only used singly; they may ask the player to perform those skills under a singular constraint or pressure (for example, within a time-limit or while under fire); bosses may disable resources the player had excessively relied upon; bosses may introduce nonce problems. The final boss battle is a moment of high intensity not only for the player, but for the game designer as well, since a videogame must conclude both as story and as game. If Barbara Herrnstein Smith theorized in Poetic Closure on how several approaches to satisfying structural closure could be achieved, for example the compression the ABAB rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet’s quatrain into the GG rhyme of the couplet, then I believe in a ludic closure. Videogames must either resolve game mechanics semi-independently of narrative closure or leave them unresolved with a tantalizing significance.[3] Nothing’s more disappointing than how in Bioshock SPOILER ALERT the “Would you kindly?” revelation leads to a quotidian final battle with a roid-raged off-brand Dr. Manhattan.

Final Fantasy III‘s final battle with Kefka is a marathon, multi-stage affair which calls for preparation in advance and using the same skills and strategies with—depending on your level—slightly higher urgency. In the ending, the heroes escape the final dungeon and return to their lives and to the rest of the world. EarthBound‘s final battle with Giygas is much richer structurally. In his initial form, Giygas is a reflection of Ness’s face. In his second form, contra to all the routine battles in which EarthBound depicted an enemy as figure in the foreground with a psychedelic shifting background, Giygas is the background, metaphorically the ground and the evil which makes it possible for all other enemies to stand. (Moby Dick‘s Ahab: “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”) As the battle progresses, Giygas’s face divides from one into two into several demonic faces into red static, the same static which preceded the game’s open. But is it a face? Some have theorized that the image is actually a kind of Rubin vase. If you choose to make red the negative space rather than black, you see a fetus.[4] How then is Giygas aborted? Not through the usual tactics. Instead, Paula’s prayer skill, which hitherto has been a roll-of-the-dice, is crucial. Recapitulating the fact that Ness had to harness eight melodies of the world to his aid, now Paula must ask the people of the world to pray for and along with the party as they confront Giygas. The NPCs of EarthBound are co-saviors. Lastly, beautiful as FF III‘s denouement was, it was a cinematic out of the player’s control. EarthBound‘s denouement is unique in that it is playable. You get to choose where to visit and who to talk to you as you return home.

Ken Baumann, author of the Boss Fight appreciation on EarthBound, is far from unaware of the difficulties of videogame writing I listed earlier. He dedicates several passages to thinking about the project he is undertaking. His solution of checkering brief excurses which embody all of  the aforementioned four approaches is a decent one. For example, Baumann begins with a discussion about EarthBound between himself and his brother, with whom he has reconnected through videogames. As a credit to Baumann’s writing, that discussion becomes a gateway both to his opinions on EarthBound‘s mechanics and to his personal narrative. I won’t comment too much on Baumann’s story of growing up in Texas, becoming an actor, developing Crohn’s Disease. Memoir isn’t my thing, but for another reader, EarthBound could be a cool memoir interrupted by playthrough. As to other passages using other approaches, Baumann’s biographic sketch of Shigesato Itoi, EarthBound‘s creator, sheds interesting light on the game, yet raises all the usual problems with an auteur theory. Luckily, Baumann also talks to the localizer (translator+) and researches the fan community. Other attempts by Baumann to relate EarthBound to cultural products, such as House … or to theorize EarthBound alongside Adolf Loos or Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion … can feel arbitrary, showy and/or digressive.

One might expect Baumann to reach his highest lyric when examining EarthBound‘s end, and he does a good job. However, there’s this one moment from Baumann that I loved and wanted to highlight. It’s a moment of fatigue:

I play EarthBound now and I’m tired by its scope. I’m tired by my inability to know how deeply it is a part of me. I’m tired by the amount of life I’ve already lived, and how much is left. And I’m tired by the fact that we seem to sleep so far away from that casual, lived-in joy because we have—by living as an adult—accrued so much evidence against its use and its possibility.

Baumann offers some interesting meditations on Ness’s confrontation with his inner self, on whether analysis interferes with or enhances immersion, on whether games can tell us something about freedom of choice vs. predestination, but when his writing arises from his manner of play, it’s more organic. The new canon has installed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory as a standard by which to judge videogame design, yet what Baumann’s attempt to rush through a forty plus hour game as an adult shows is that EarthBound, and JRPGs generally, are worthwhile in their complication or outright refusal of streamlining. Players often react to difficulty spikes in JRPGs by grinding—battling mindlessly for hours in order to level up—but what happens when you grind is that you linger in a town or dungeon in a way that you don’t when you’re hurtling down a greased funnel a la CoD:BlOps. You talk to NPCs you wouldn’t have otherwise; you notice small nooks and crannies; you discover a secret passage through the woods to a treehouse. The soundtrack seeps into your bones. Boredom becomes an integral part of play rather than the point where play ceases. Grinding becomes the designer’s and player’s co-regulation of how much narrative to ingest in a sitting: grind for hours to build up momentum, then easily plow through several story sequences and enjoy character and plot without worrying about failure. As Baumann has observed, in tone EarthBound feels at times like a cup of tea. Difficulty in JRPGs is a design element which encourages the player to inhabit the virtual world. That many hours of difficulty may be hours an adolescent can afford yet which an adult cannot, which gives Baumann’s and Itoi’s and your EarthBound and mine their poignancy.

[1] Note that in the names of the first four towns, EarthBound acknowledges via humor that videogames must compromise between freedom of exploration and goal-directed sequence.

[2] Since several installments in a videogame series released in Japan do not make it to the USA, titles and numeration often change. EarthBound is Mother 2 in Japan, and is part of a trilogy; Final Fantasy III is Final Fantasy VI. I have kept the titles of these games as released in the USA in the mid-90s to suggest the historical, technological and cultural milieu they shared and which conditioned their reception. Final Fantasy VI has been re-issued in the USA several times and on several systems; EarthBound was recently re-issued for the Wii-U.

[3] For thoughts on narrative closure, see Noell Carroll’s “Narrative Closure” in Philosophical Studies 135.1 (August 2007).

[4] The idea that the eternal fetus—2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Star Child—is the enemy—not only monstrous whenever it is born and matured but is monstrous precisely because it is perpetually unborn, a consciousness which is never differentiated into id, ego and superego yet makes a claim on us as the future of (post)humanity—persists in videogames, as evidenced by the final boss battle in Mass Effect 2 and the early concept art for the human-reaper.

EarthBound at Amazon.com.
EarthBound at Boss Fight Books.

***

Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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