Wallpaper courtesy Pet-Shop on DeviantArt
Ruminations on video games as an art form – this could very well become a Mother 3 review. There will be spoilers here. Seriously, don’t read it if you want to play Mother 3 and not have the plot spoiled.
There’s a trite comparison that floats around the internet almost every month that always gets my eyes rolling. Inevitably, someone will call such-and-such the Citizen Kane of video games or ask what the Citizen Kane is or claim that the medium is immature because we’ve yet to hit our Citizen Kane. It’s exhausting and, quite frankly, futile and stupid. To begin with, Citizen Kane opened with good reviews and was generally well-received, but it didn’t start to gain notoriety for ten years. It didn’t even make #1 on a top movies list until twenty years had passed. When the Citizen Kane of gaming hits (god I hate that phrase), we probably won’t know it for quite some time. The more important point is that movies and games are apples and oranges.
The day that we stop worrying about whether books or movies are better than games at expressing a particular artist’s point of view is probably the day that we’ll realize that we’ve already got fine examples of games that are reflections of authorial control already. Brütal Legend was not a great game, but Tim Schafer’s hands are clearly evident all over it. Anyone who’s ever played one of Fumito Ueda’s games knows precisely how a game can effectively be used to bring out your emotions through simple mechanics. Goichi Suda (AKA Suda 51) has been making games that show clear, artistic direction through his use of bizarre symbols and incomprehensible plots for years. My point is, we’ve been here for a while.
You may have heard of Shigesato Itoi, but chances are, you have no clue that he’s one of the most famous and respected men in Japan to such a degree that his dog was probably the most recognizable animal in the entire country for a few years. In America, we know him as a video game designer, specifically the man behind Earthbound, but not much else. Interestingly enough, Itoi is actually more famous for being an essayist, interviewer, and slogan generator than his work for Nintendo. His association with Hayao Miyazaki is well known enough that he’s famous for the Kiki’s Delivery Service slogan (“Ochikondari mo shita kedo, watashi wa genki desu” — “I was a little depressed for a bit; I’m okay now”) and he even voiced Mei’s father in My Neighbor Totoro (a role that went to Phil Hartman (rest in peace) when the movie was dubbed in English).
In his younger days, Itoi found himself sick and unable to do much but play Nintendo as he recovered. It was in this state that he discovered Dragon Quest, which set the wheels turning in his head. This experience was the impetus behind the Mother series and led to Itoi’s long, fruitful relationship with Nintendo. In case you were wondering (protip: you probably weren’t), Shigesato Itoi is the guy who came up with the name for the Game Boy. True fact.
It’s not surprising to me that most of the names I’ve mentioned were not always video game designers. The most bizarre of the bunch, Suda, was an undertaker before he tried his luck in the video game industry while Ueda was an artist and the aforementioned Itoi was a…well there’s no easy word to describe someone like Itoi. He was (and is) a cultural personality.
“If you immerse yourself too single-mindedly in your chosen art form, whether it’s video games, movies, comics or whatever,” he continues, “your work can easily become just a reflection of what others are doing in that field, rather than breaking new ground.”
Now, Schafer is, himself, a product of the industry, having held no other jobs, but he’s the exception, a true creative mind that is not crippled by his feedback loop of doom. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts, and Brütal Legend could not be more different from each other, but just think of how rare this is. For every Schafer or Ken Levine out there trying to bring new influences into the industry, there are tons of Star Wars- and Lord of the Rings-inspired games produced each year retreading on the same, tired stories game in and game out. How many World War II games do we really need?
In 1989 Shigesato Itoi looked at the video game industry and said “How many sword and sorcery RPGs do we really need?” 2009 just passed us by and I’d say we’re still mostly mired in these medieval locales in 95% of all RPGs. Mother, Itoi’s freshman attempt at a video game, was set in “modern day” America. Earthbound (Mother 2) wasn’t exactly breaking with Itoi’s norm by being set in America yet again (in 1994), but it’s still a light among the sameness that pervaded the industry. Mother 3 is ambiguous about its timeline, but it feels like a scaled back modern day. In any case, like in the other games of the series, the weapons aren’t swords and bows, but sticks, yo-yos, and baseball bats. It’s really only a cosmetic and tonal shift, but it makes all the difference.
That’s exactly what makes Shigesato Itoi so great as a game designer. Perhaps it’s his outside status or maybe it’s just his brilliance, but Itoi understands video games to a scary degree for a man who only undertook them on a whim. I applaud him most for understanding that a game is an interactive piece of art and reflecting that with his systems. To wit, every Mother game revolves around music. The first game had the character searching for the Eight Melodies while the second repeated that idea with Eight Sanctuaries (each with a musical theme associated with it). Earthbound’s instruction manual (in Japanese) contained a little song that Itoi wrote for the player to sing as the main melody played on the overworld. Every line of text in the Mother series is written in kana (katakana or hiragana), so that the person has to vocalize Itoi’s often lyrical writing style. Mother 3′s focus on musical themes and leifmotifs (from the Masked Man to the Magypsies) is also emphasized through every character’s attacks in the battle system.
From Lucas to Salsa the Monkey, every character has a musical instrument associated with his attacks. So does every enemy. Each enemy also has a musical theme that plays in the background. Once you attack, you can continue to press the ‘A’ button to extend your combo to 16 hits if you can keep time with the (sometimes fiendishly difficult) beat. Just like that, something Itoi has always wanted the player to do (become musically involved with his world) becomes integrated into the activity the player does most in the game, battling.
Itoi also loves to toy with player perception to a hilarious degree. In an early sequence in the first chapter of the game, Flint becomes covered with soot after saving a friend’s kid from a fire. Why? Because that’s what would happen if you were running around in a fire. As he makes his way back out of the woods, you can bet that every person you talk to will question why you are covered from head to toe in black soot. Even better, if you hop into a hot spring to recover, the soot will wash off of your character from the neck down, since the Mother 3 hot spring animation always leaves the head exposed. It’s not until much later when it starts to rain that the soot washes off Flint’s face, this time to emphasize that we’re not joking around anymore, Flint’s family was still missing after the fire and they were almost certainly in danger.
An even more brilliant sequence comes much later in the game when the player is washed upon a tropical island with 1 HP and no equipment. The only way to progress through the jungle without dying is to eat one of the psychotropic mushrooms growing on the island. A bizarre sequence of events follows as you make your way to the next Magypsy with your perceptions completely torn asunder. Replicas of your family and friends attack you, which isn’t that unique for an RPG, but the way the narrative is presented and the visuals are warped, it becomes seriously unsettling. The one moment of calm comes when you arrive at another hot spring and recover, only to continue back into the horrors of the jungle.
Once you get to the Magypsy’s house, you’re constantly bombarded with insults about how bad you smell. It makes no sense though, because the player has done nothing different that would cause such a foul smell. Still, when your perception is returned to normal, there is a visible stench rising from Lucas and his compatriots. A quick dip in the bath follows and you’re no longer “smelly”, but, as a curious player, I wondered what had happened in the first place. Instead of continuing forward, I dove right back into the jungle to get to the bottom of it. halfway through, I was feeling a bit fatigued, so I popped on over to the hot springs and it all made sense. In my hallucinogenic state, I was unable to recognize that the pond I dove into for recovery was a festering, toxic-looking garbage dump of a pond. Off to the side, where no conceivable player would ever go, was a door into the real hot spring.
I couldn’t believe that some players would never find out the mystery behind why they were so smelly. Returning to that hot spring is hardly mandatory. Maybe that’s why it felt so amazing to see these little narrative games played with my perception of what was going on in the Mother 3 world at the time. It’s also interesting to look at from a player trust perspective, because when I saw that disgusting pond, rendered in all its GBA, low-fi glory, I felt nauseous and I know it was partly due to a feeling of betrayal. I have a feeling that this was exactly how Itoi wanted me to feel at that point.
Shigesato Itoi admits that the original draft for Mother 3 was way darker than it already is. It was written shortly after his divorce was finalized, which I think has a lot to do with the emotional betrayals of even the finalized version of this game. However this game was very nearly vaporware that was never released. Its development started for the SNES in 1994, but was quickly shifted to the N64 and the ill-fated 64DD not long after. Anyone familiar with the 64DD peripheral knows that this was going to prove troublesome for Itoi and his team. The game was even canceled at one point, but it was eventually decided to put it on the Gameboy Advance and announced around the re-release of Mother 1 + 2, no doubt to help drum up sales.
No one but the team knows just how dark the original narrative was, but Itoi claims that the story that eventually made it to print was the result of him finally becoming a good person. It boggles the mind to realize that it could have been any more dramatic, especially for a game that looks as friendly and cute as this one. In fact, this is the reason why Nintendo of America claims it will not localize the game. They claim the narrative is too mature and depressing for the way it looks and, really, the tone and the subject matter are alternatively irrelevant and deathly serious, so I kind of get what they mean. At one point you have a guy telling Flint that he’s got good news and bad news. The good news is something irrelevant and stupid while the bad news is that Flint’s wife, Hinawa, is dead. What follows is a scene that is so emotionally gripping that my little brother was affected even without hearing the music and sound associated with the scene. Flint completely flips out and starts beating on the guy who gave him bad news and even starts lashing out at the townspeople who are trying to calm him down. He is knocked out by a friend and put in a jail cell that has never before been used in the town’s existence.
It’s this weird juxtaposition of the inane and the deathly serious that creates the dissonant feelings I mentioned before with the hot tub scene and makes the player feel uneasy about what’s going on. When Hinawa’s father, Alec, is trying to tell stupid jokes to help Flint not be so tense about the certain danger his son is in. I wanted to tell him to shut up and let him focus, but I could also see that Flint was obsessing to a dangerous degree and that Alec was right in trying to calm him down. You also have the lighthearted love story of Salsa and Samba being ruined by the brutal and sadistic torturer Yokuba (Fassad in the fan-translation). It’s like Itoi is trying to say that the world is a screwed up place, but you can’t let it get you down.
I’ll tell you right here, I’m a huge sucker for any story about brothers. Later on in the game, it becomes fairly obvious that Mother 3 starts to center around the struggle of twin brothers Lucas and Claus as they attempt to collect more plot coupons than the other. The game series is called Mother for a reason and this one in particular focuses on the differences between each of Hinawa’s boys and how they came to deal with her untimely death. While Lucas comes out of his shell and becomes a healthier, more assertive and confident boy despite his absentee father, Claus foolishly rushes out for vengeance and finds himself enslaved by the Pig Army in its quest to end the world. The climactic final battle reunites the family once again, but the reunion is bittersweet. Claus has almost killed Flint and Lucas must face him alone to the death, even though he’s yet to realize that the Masked Man is his brother. Once the mask is knocked off and Lucas is staring into his own face (they are twins after all), the battle becomes a masterpiece. Selecting attack will cause Lucas to intentionally pull his punches or miss his attacks completely. Sometimes he’ll even refuse to comply. Claus, having lost most of his humanity, will continue to attack until Hinawa begins pleading for him to stop. Eventually, Claus comes to his senses and realizes that Lucas is his brother and that he is no longer anything close to himself. At that point, Claus commits suicide in a peculiar way. It becomes apparent that the Courage Badge that Flint gave to Lucas (via a Mr. Saturn in another example of absentee parenting) is actually a Franklin Badge, an item that repels lightning in the Mother world.
The heartbreaking thing about this whole sequence is that there’s nothing the player can do once Claus decides that he must kill himself to save the world. Lucas may not be physically (or psychically) killing his brother, but there’s nothing he can do but watch his brother kill himself using an item that he is holding. When it’s all over and Claus is dying in Lucas’ arms with Flint nearby and Hinawa’s ghost above them, the reunion is finally completed and the family is happy for a brief second before both Claus and Hinawa depart the world leaving Lucas to pull the last plot coupon. The world literally ends and it all fades to black. Everyone (who was alive before) is still alive in the finale, but the world is darkness and it’s not made clear what the true outcome of the whole battle was. We do know that the world is safe and everyone makes it, but not much else beyond that, it’s left to the player to decide, I guess.
If you want to really see a strangely tragic, chilling ending for a character, consider the fate of Porky, the antagonist in the game. The conflict in this game is motivated by his desire to see the world end. Porky’s mind was so warped by Giygas in Earthbound that he has remained in a permanent immature, childlike state even though he is now hundreds of years old. His influence corrupts and nearly destroys everything about the idyllic and peaceful Tazmily village and he is the one responsible for sapping Claus of all of his humanity. In his final encounter with Lucas, when it becomes apparent that he will not win the battle, he encases himself in the Absolutely Safe Machine, a capsule that renders him absolutely safe from all attacks both interior and exterior. Because it was just a prototype, there was no way to escape it, meaning that the ageless Porky can never die, but he can never leave the capsule nor can he communicate with anyone on the outside. For someone like Porky, an agent of entropy like the Joker in The Dark Knight, this is truly an ending worse than death. When all is dead and gone, when the universe dies of heat death, when existence is nothingness, Porky will still exist, alone in that capsule. It gives me chills just to think about it.
There’s so much about this game that just doesn’t quite add up and leaves the player feeling strange about the relationships they are seeing. Duster, the limping thief, is very clearly verbally and probably physically abused by his father, Wess, yet they seem to be a team and there does seem to be some love there. It’s unsettling on all levels because Itoi wants to take the player from comfortable and happy to uneasy and sad throughout the whole game.
Games like this, they make me appreciate things, like my family and my life, and think about things, like the nature of society and happiness. I’m being simplistic here, but my point is this, what is art? Wikipedia calls it, “…the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”
So I say yet again, why are we questioning whether or not video games are art? Wake up and smell the sunflowers.