Earthbound

What does Earthbound mean to you?

In Itoi’s interview regarding Earthbound’s U.S. re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console, he describes Earthbound as a playground he threw stuff in for everybody “to play in”, and that he let other people throw in as much stuff as they pleased too. His description expresses that the experience of the game is intended to be something that anybody can take away their ideas, impressions, and beliefs from. A communal sort-of game, in which children make up stories and ideas as they go along and put it right in with the rest of the make-believe.

A lot of that spirit can be found in the game’s stories themselves, as each town is going through some crazy problem, and as the heroes continue their adventure, each new scenario adds something completely separate to the mix of fictional situations, drawing from all sorts of American cultural iconography and imagery.

This is another reason the game is so interesting, it as an adventure through a self-parody of the American youth, the landscape of American suburban adventure (or as it is referred to in the game: “Eagleland”) with the coming-of-age spirit so prevalent in American fiction. But it is told through the mechanics, systems, and interface of classically Japanese role-playing games, namely Dragon Quest. The inclusion of (pseudo) first person battles (albeit influenced by psychedelic visuals, as they take over the background of each fight), a command menu, stat growth, and equipment/inventory all pulled from the Dragon Quest system. This combination of simultaneous parody of Japanese systems and American culture and iconography makes it a truly unique international cultural creation.

In addition to this, the localization of the game lends itself very much to the identity of Earthbound. Much of the Japanese humor that would have been lost in translation is rewritten, but still preserves the wit and verbal/deadpan tone of the original. The octopus statue blocking your way in a valley is replaced with a pencil, to allow for the invention of the iconic “Pencil Eraser” (Just don’t use it in a pencil store!), a now staple joke of the game, with which the identity of the American version of the game just wouldn’t be the same without. Of course, the “Eraser Eraser” continuation of the joke found later in the game acts as an even better secondary punchline to the same joke.

Much of the game often feels like a rambling collection of jokes, ideas, and views on the world. Nothing is quite told boringly or without clear authorial perspective. It brings to mind the sort of writing that books like Cat’s Cradle used, in which Vonnegut described as each chapter being a small chip of the whole book, and each chip is a little joke in and of its own.

The U.S. release, in specific, is the Earthbound I think of so fondly when I think of the game. And I find that name so fitting as opposed to its Japanese name.

Earthbound.

Despite all the adventuring, all the crazy, wacky, surreal stories you learn and experience, even with the threat and exposure to extraterrestrial life within the game, your characters, your experiences, everything you do is very much bound to the planet Earth. Every idea in the game, every character you meet, makes up one grand image of the world that the game, in essence, is presenting to you as you explore it with your d-pad.

The NPC’s of the game are some of the most iconic in any, and the reason for that is that their dialogue is written so unpredictably and humorously, but yet so truthful to their representations of their roles as humans. A businessman in Earthbound will not sound like a businessman you meet on the street. He will sound like a caricature of what a businessman would sound like, knowing that he’s a businessman in this world of hundreds of other people and hundreds of other types of people. And in knowing that, he has found joy and laughter understanding his place. Each character is a figment of themselves in the eyes of a child innocently wandering around.

There is a famous English saying, “it takes all sorts (to make a world)”, that is often used to understand strangeness or foreignness in the world and in people. People often use it when they find something difficult to understand, because of how strange and foreign it might be, so they make the claim that the world must be so big, that it must require all sorts of strangeness and foreignness and things of all sorts of manners hard to understand, for it to exist as big as it does.

Earthbound, to me at least, is like a literal, humorous depiction of that phrase. Every character, every strange, surreal person that appears so plain, has to be there to make up this world. This Earth that we are all bound to.

Games and Love

Chulip is a surreal adventure game on the Playstation 2 in which you play as a boy who has a daydream where he and a girl he dreams up kiss under a tree with a man’s face, in a wedding-like ceremony. He then wakes up and it is revealed that he is moving to a new home in Long Life Town with his single father. After a walk around town to familiarize himself with the new environment, he meets the girl he dreamed of in real life, who taunts him into confessing his love for her with a kiss. After his attempt to kiss her, the girl rejects him for his poor economic status and family reputation.

This is when the game reveals its core mechanic, kissing. The triangle button on the controller is the kiss button, which lets you smooch any person standing in front of you. Of course, you can’t just go around smooching everyone you see. Actually, trying to do so will make people upset at you and attack you, dropping your heart points. Doing this, as well as discovering things in the game that damage your emotions, cause your heart points to fall, eventually leading you to a death caused by a broken heart.

Devastated on his return home, the boy discovers that in order to raise his reputation as an individual, he must meet and please the residents of Long Life Town by getting to know them, being involved with their lives, and kissing them when they are at their happiest, regardless of their gender, character, economic status, personality, and any other characteristics. In addition to this, the town is constantly going through strange problems involving a boulder blockading the train, inability by companies to pay their workers, runaway children, and other situations that get increasingly dark and real-world. And in nearly each one of these problems, the “poor family that just moved in” is the suspect at hand for causing the new issues.

Not only this, but nearly each citizen of Long Life Town is either depressed, unhappy with themselves, dissatisfied with their lives, unsure of how to move forward, or going through some strange situation. Half of the citizens live underground and refuse to come up all until certain moments in the day.

The game was never received particularly well, but has a cult following for being so strange, humorous, and uniquely written.In a few interviews, the director Kimura discussed the ideas he had in the making of Chulip.

Kimura states that he sees a game as a sort of poem that he is trying trying to express, and Chulip’s prime identity is that of a boy doing nothing but attempting to show everyone unconditional love.

Game design, he says, is a meticulously unrewarding and underpaying task for the designer. Designers go through hours of overtime and crunch, go under-praised by companies and reviewer magazines, become often forgotten by consumers, don’t often get secured positions at companies, and no matter how hard you work on making a game, there is always the chance of something going wrong in the process that discounts all the efforts made by the entire team, leading to a faulty score and low sales. It is logically unreasonable to be a game designer, he said, back in the 2000’s. And when you’re making a game, pouring in all your work and collaboration, there is only one thing that begins to motivate you as you do it.

Love, he says, is what makes people work on games. Love for the player they want to play the game, love for the little world they’re creating, the little playground of rules and ideas and jokes and concepts; things to poke at and laugh with and fight and compete around. This love, he says, is directed outward from the real world, from the love people should feel for real life, to be able to observe it and think about it and interpret it in a way that you can have something to say about it in the form of a game. In the end, all things fictional reflect something about the world and people, after all. So here is a game in which despite everything terrible happening to this one poor boy, despite his tiny two-person family being constantly pointed to the blame for everything in the arduousness of life in comedically-but-aptly named Long Life Town, he carries a simple yet happy face and proceeds to do nothing but show everyone uncompromising love.

Why in the form of kissing?

For one, it’s funny in an unsettling way, which serves the game’s tone extremely well. People naturally lose preconceptions of settings and situations when it unsettles them, this is why horror works so well, especially when the mystery behind the monster, so to speak, goes unexplained by logical rules. But when the unsettling is funny rather than terrifying, it produces a surreal dream-like effect to the narrative, it hits a different side of your feelings. It’s a little more whimsical than psychological, a little more emotional than suspenseful.

The actual reason they came up with the kissing mechanic was from the result of a night the studio had in America. Upon arriving in America, Kimura noticed for the first time that people in America, unlike in Japan, kiss and make romantic gestures on the street. He found it unsettling at first, but then realized it was really great that people were able to express their positive feelings for each other without the fear of societal pressure. Later that night, when the members of the team were drinking, they started making a joke about it, going “chuu chuu” with each other in drunken laughter, which is what influenced the title of the game, Chulip. That night made Kimura realize he wanted to make a game where you could kiss people like they do in America, but in a more Japanese small-town setting, almost in a way I suppose, to show people in Japan how much freer you could be without caring about how other people feel.

The two concepts in this interview, Love and World, are the two core elements that attract me to video games as a fictional medium.

World, as an idea in video game terms, is pretty self explanatory. “What kind of world are you trying to make?”

There is a quote by the director of the NYU game design department, Frank Lantz, that I rather like about this:

““…for a while, the idea that games were about social interaction got left beside, or put to one side. And they became primarily about this kind of solo engagement between you and the computer, this kind of solitaire-like experience of exploring these clockwork worlds.”

 

The idea of clockwork worlds is kind of whimsical on its own, but broken down, it’s less about the fact that it’s clockwork and more about the system of delivery it uses to provide the player its information than a book or film would. Because books and films are linear mediums of transmission. You read a book line by line, and you watch a film frame by frame. While you still play a game through frames or lines or whatever other object thing-by-thing, there is the fact that you are engaging with some sort of elaborate system that gives you participation in some of the order and information you are letting the narrative become. How much freedom is up to the game director, of course, but the fact that there is the question of “how much do we limit the freedom of the player for the purpose of creating a consistent narrative?” only adds to the director auteurship of designers.

There is another quote, I’d like to take a look at, which comes from some guy I can’t remember on my newsfeed who said “video games are more art than any other art.” Of course, that’s really debatable as you can’t really measure the value of art since it’s subjective, but there is some merit to what he was saying. The fact of the matter is that video games ultimately combine mediums. These include music composition for environment and background music, visual art design for concept art and rendering and character design, film cinematography and composition for visual motion direction and cutscenes, writing for dialogue, prose, and scenarios, systems designs for game loops and mechanics, not to mention programming. It is almost an accidental splurge of writing, art, music, film, and computer technology that just so happened to be made by the turn of the end of the 20th century, an accidental discovery that could only be made by people. Because people never stop mixing ideas and patterns and feelings and everything else they understand the world by.

And It would be an incredible feeling, for a moment, to create something and give to someone else, and tell them “here is a world”, wouldn’t it?

And in that world are as many of the things you have tried to express about yourself, your life, everything you might have seen and touched or thought about, in the context of some narrative.

Why is that?

Because of the second concept, Love. It’s like that warm feeling you get after finishing a good book, or when you’re able to cry and laugh at the same time in a good movie. It’s a sense of adoration and respect for the thing you just witnessed, you have just discovered something wonderful. And some crazy madman out there spent a hell of a long time on it, making sure it’s just right, just so that you could be here at this moment to read or watch it, and understand it enough so that maybe, perhaps, some of the things they wanted to express would pop up in your brain and help you understand the world more like them, if at all.

It’s an accidental feeling, I think, but because it must feel so great, and because people have the instinctive desire to share and communicate, it’s a very popular feeling. It’s a type of love, at least in that’s the way I see it. It’s harder to understand because it’s undirected; love you feel for your family and romantic interests or teachers and peers are all directed forms of love. The love you receive from something you experienced has no direction, it comes directly out of yourself, it’s only being reminded, being brought up out by the creator(s) of the art that made you feel.

Everyone wants to feel like somebody understands them. And no matter what you’re feeling, it’s ultimately a human feeling. We can’t feel something that isn’t human since that’s just what we are, right? So when you read something that resonates with you, you feel like somebody out there felt in the same way as a human that you have or might be feeling as another human, and so on.

The relationship between the creator and consumer is then extremely intimate, and somehow social, in a way.

After you read a book with immaculate prose and technique and ideas, ideas and relationships and dialogue, you might be inspired to say something like “this is so lovingly-crafted!”, or even “there’s just so much love in this book!”

You might find yourself saying something similar if you get invested in a game that resonates with you, in the hundreds of tiny details that could possibly be in it, whether it be the character designs, the way grass might sway in wind, tiny aspects of the plot that reveal themselves in easter eggs or controller gimmicks, or the impressionability of the game’s world by the player, and so on. A good game with all of those things might make you say something like “Wow! They thought of everything!” But a great game might make you say, once again, “There’s a lot of love to be found in here, and I can feel it just by moving around and interacting with these characters and this world.”

Getting back to Chulip, Kimura was no stranger to the presence of love in video games. Before heading off to make his own studio, he was an employee of the studio Love-de-Lic, which made very experimental games that often used the concept of love and isolation, and often really asked themselves “Okay, what are we trying to convey to the player here?”

Their first title was a game called Moon Remix RPG Adventure, which wasn’t really at all an rpg. It starts with a boy playing a fake rpg on his super famicom about a knight that has to kill a dragon and save a village. After a while of playing, his mother tells him to go to bed and turn it off. After falling asleep, he somehow gets accidentally sucked into the world of the game, and suddenly finds that the generic non-player characters of the world to be real people, with personalities and lives and jobs. And the most ironic part, that the hero of the game is a huge asshole that doesn’t care about any of them, he runs around taking items and equipment and killing things for experience points. The members of the village are terrified of him and treat him with fake respect for his mercy on his blood-driven quest. Instead, it is up to the boy to understand them as people and make their lives better. He starts off invisible, but by helping people and learning more about relationships, he starts cleaning up after the mess the Hero character makes everywhere, and eventually gains corporeal form.

The director, Kenichi Nishi, wrote that the game was partly a statement about his love for his favorite game growing up, Dragon Quest III, and for his ideas of what games were missing, real relationships, real characters, and real love. It’s an extremely delicate blend of his understanding his own love for what games are, and for expressing what he wishes games could be.

This kind of dynamic is imperative in games right now. As it stands, games are not very good as a display of the art they could be. Even the greatest games are not nearly as great as the greatest examples of art and literature. There’s a lot of reasons for this. For starters, games are really fucking hard to make. Think back to the “games are more art than any other form of art” quote, they really are a combination of a large number of professions. Keeping that funded and organized is really hard. The games that get the most funding are the best-selling ones. And the ones that sell the best are the ones that take the least risks, since taking more risks is risky for any art. Make a movie that takes risks in its approach and you might make a movie that’s harder to understand without convenient tropes, established techniques, and established narratives. That’s harder to sell and market. Games have this problem almost three-fold.

Additionally, because games are a series of situations in which the skill of the player must constantly be tested and in a curve that is always enough to be challenging but not unrelenting, it is very difficult for a game to tell a story without violence. Violence is an extremely easy way to give players something to do while a story is being told. Fighting enemies, killing goons, destroying monsters, and so on, are really easy to set up so that the player can learn new skills that help him defeat new monsters with new skills themselves. There is nothing wrong with violence in games, but it is too unsafe in the market to have games that don’t perpetually tell stories in which a hero is killing a lot of people.

Games need more room to breath, more room to develop and become themselves. And boy oh boy, would I want to be the guy that makes a game that makes somebody go not only “this is a story and experience that pushes the boundaries of what games can do as a medium”, but also “holy hell, there is a lot of love to be found here.”

Video Games and Storytelling

A game is a series of loops that a player goes through. Each loop has multiple states. At their most basic, those states are a win-state and lose-state. A win-state progresses you to the next loop. Games are circular arrays with wires going off on tangents, while a main loop stays consistent and carries on the bulk of the game’s progression and events.

 

There are many types of games, between simulation, puzzle, and so on. The ones I want to focus on are games that tell fiction through narrative. Narrative can be hinted at or told through many ways, but the best games tell narrative in a way that meshes with the mechanics and loops of the gameplay.

 

Mechanics and loops are the language of games in the same way that mise-en-scene is the language of film, camerawork, dialogue, costumes, lighting, all the elements of visual and audio information. A film is trying to express various scenarios, emotions, and ideas through these elements, and by that same logic, a game that’s telling a story with feelings, ideas, and scenarios should too.

 

Most narrative games nowadays have three core loops, they are:
Combat/Action – The base of all rpgs, action games, and shooters. Turn-based, real-time, melee, and shooting, and so on. Taking down foes, using mechanics to overcome opponents. It is very difficult to have your game have a feeling of progression and application of skill without this. But I think there are ways to accomplish this loop while defying conventions of the norm.

 

Exploration – Walking through a world. Seeing what you find. The opposite side of the coin to combat. Combat focuses on the micro, while exploration is the macro. How much of this world have you seen? What parts of the map are highlighted for you. What amazing stories did you find, or make for yourself using the other gameplay/mechanic loops embedded into the main one of just walking around? In random battles, the exploration loop feeds right into the combat one.

 

Interaction with non-player characters and other non-player elements-

Walk up to person, hit A. Read what happens. Walk up to object, hit examine. Walk up to lever, hit pull. Hit contextual button. Hit read on the sign. And so on.

What’s a world without things to play with and touch? NPC’s are nothing more than simulated breathing and living contextual objects in the world. There are many ways to play with this notion. It is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

The rest of this blog will be dedicated to finding how specific games use gameplay loops in unique ways to express ideas, feelings, and story to tell compelling fiction.