Jul. 29, 2009 - Issue #719: Parched Prairie
Infinite Lives: Earthbound
Game over, player one: Zenko runs out of quarters, says goodbye to Infinite Lives
[SPOILER ALERT: This is the final installment of Infinite
I started writing about games in 1998, entirely by accident. Working as a proofreader at the Edmonton Journal, one evening I spied a brightly coloured packet on the entertainment editor's desk. It was promotional material from Nintendo, flogging the upcoming North American launch of Pokemon, nestled in the Oblivion Pile along with the direct-to-DVD thrillers and dinner-theatre press releases. Having informants just returned from Japan with tales of that entire nation eaten alive by the adorable technicolor mutants, I knew this was going be A Thing and that some newspaper had to be first to go big with it.
"Wayne," I said to the editor, "this is going to be A Thing. We should go big with it."
He was skeptical, and I pitched hard. Eventually, I had to go all the way up through the managing editor and beyond before they gave the go-ahead to a feature, probably just to get this kid shouting, "Lineups! Larceny! Epileptic seizures!" out of their quiet beige offices. And so "Here Comes Pokemon," my first broadsheet byline, dropped on the front page of that Friday's section. By Tuesday parents, papers and cable networks across the continent were WTFing about this insane new kiddie fad from the mysterious East. I looked real smart and was given a column (I had to borrow money to get a PlayStation from the pawnshop); a few years later I expanded my little empire into this newspaper, where I could freely use the curse-words that form the fiery heart of the videogaming vernacular.
Games journalism in the last decade-and-a-bit has grown along with games themselves, moving from a pure product-review stance (featuring that weird convention, the "rent or buy" recommendation) and into something more like art criticism; as games have developed a canon and a critical vocabulary, as the industry has continued to grow its share of the world's entertainment dollar (or yen, or peso, or drachma) by double digits every year, as the unstoppable mathematics of time and demographics have implacably moved the median age of the video-game player into rough congruence with the median age of the population as a whole, games writers have been increasingly able to talk about videogames not as toys and novelties but as artworks existing within a tradition, to talk about games as social spaces, to discuss game culture as a legitimate sphere with real meaning that extends offscreen.
But still, in the final accounting, a lot of what we do boils down to a single exhortation; that is, as veteran designer/thinker Greg Costikyan has titled his excellent blog, "Play this thing!" So here I go, one last time ...
If you've never played Earthbound, Shigesato Itoi's surreal, iconoclastic
1995 Super Nintendo RPG, you've been missing out. I know this because I
myself have been missing out; only in this past weekend did I get around to
playing it, via the sweet magic of emulation.
I know! A games critic who hasn't played Earthbound is like one of those people who try to talk to you about movies and they've never seen Ghostbusters. Earthbound is not a perfect game (it's close), but it perfectly expresses everything I've ever figured games should be about.
It comes down to details and differentiation. Earthbound's basic plot—young boy turns out to be some kind of chosen one, must have fantastic adventures and save the world—is a stock chassis; everything beyond that is an exercise in taking conventions, thinking about them consciously and deploying them without cliché. From its pastel colour palette, including the use of charcoal rather than black for the linework in its cheerfully cartoonish backgrounds and sprites, through the beeps and boops of the menu sound effects, everything in Earthbound—even at 15 years old, and games age in dog-years—feels fresh and new and above all intentional. Nothing in Earthbound is done by rote or reflex.
As an example, there's no "death" in Earthbound. Not just for your little-kid characters, who respawn by sheer force of will should the perils of the trail overwhelm them, but for the various weird foes they'll face. Enemies go away, but they don't die. Far from being a G-rated pussification of the "realities" of mortal combat, this lack of death serves to deepen, enrich and characterize the game world. In most games, unconsciously stuck as they are in the metaphor of violence, all enemies would be "killed," or perhaps simply "defeated"; in Earthbound, they "stop moving" (in the case of diabolically animated plants), "become tame" (rogue animals) or "return to normal" (freakified humans)—all inverse expressions of the ways in which they have been made aberrant and hostile. Your dude in Earthbound isn't a killer; he's a force of order, a healer, a righter of wrongness. It feels good. It feels intelligent.
Earthbound represents everything I've looked for, longed for and occasionally despaired of in games: a refutation of reflex, a suspicion of cliché, a conscious artistic will taking everything from menu screens to dialogue and putting it all in the service of the creation of new experience. It's a wonderfully blessed serendipity that this happened to be the last game I played before wrapping up this column; pick it up however you can—eBay, pawnshop, download—and play, and understand.
Good morning, friends. May your thumbs callous before they blister, may your saves be uncorrupted, may all your drops be Epic. V
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