So, uh, hi. My name is Mike. Today I’m going to talk about the most moving experience I’ve ever had with a video game.
On June 5, 1995, a game called EarthBound was released in the US. It was a Super NES role playing game (RPG) that immediately stood out for its unusual setting: while most RPGs took place in fantasy worlds with princesses, dragons, and the occasional magic-powered WarMech, EarthBound took place in an off-kilter version of the contemporary US. Instead of villages, EarthBound had cities. Instead of sword-wielding warriors, it had children with baseball bats and yoyos. Instead of healing your characters with magic potions, you fed them pizza and French fries. And instead of earning cash by killing monsters and rifling through their pockets, you got an allowance, which you could withdraw from any ATM. You saved your progress by calling your father and telling him about your day. You still did fight monsters, of course, and the game’s hero had psychic powers. It was a fun, silly little game with a surprisingly moving ending. The game sold poorly in the US (and with the sort of brilliant marketing team that thought “This game stinks!” would be a good slogan, I wonder how that happened), but the people who liked it tended to really like it. A little too much, maybe.
There was enough enthusiasm in Japan to warrant a sequel, and enough enthusiasm here to warrant a lot of people spending maybe too much time talking and dreaming about the sequel. They talked and dreamed about it while it was being developed for the SNES, and then some more while it was being developed for the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive, and then when said Nintendo 64 Disk Drive was a flop they talked and dreamed about it while it was being developed for the Nintendo 64. A few cute little character designs leaked into the world. Eventually word got out that the game had been canceled more or less because making it on the Nintendo 64 was a pain in the ass. Everybody figured that was probably the end of it, although the US fans went on to translate the game Mother, which was an NES game, and which was in fact the first game in the Mother series, which is what EarthBound was called in Japan. The fans kept hoping for more Mother games to come out. Then one day it turned out that another one really was coming. The fans were overjoyed, until it became clear that Nintendo had no plans to release it in the US.
The fans did their best to persuade Nintendo that Mother 3 (which would have been called EarthBound 2 in the US, I suppose) would make money if they released it here. They promised to buy lots of copies and to tell their friends to buy copies, and I’m sure they would have done so. Nintendo ignored the fans. The fans begged, cajoled, threatened, gnashed their teeth, and writhed on the floor. Nintendo still ignored them. Some of the fans knew Japanese. They decided to translate the game for themselves. It wasn’t strictly legal. (It was, strictly speaking, completely illegal.) You can get the translation here, and you should. The game was a GameBoy Advance game, so your computer will be able to run it.
Playing Mother 3, it’s not hard to imagine why Nintendo chose not to release it stateside. Though the graphics are, like EarthBound‘s, bright and friendly, with characters reminiscent of Bob the Builder, the game has one of the most emotionally devastating opening sequences in the history of the medium. It starts out pleasant enough, with the introduction of a genuinely loving family, but soon men in pig helmets arrive bearing strange technology. People die. Lives are destroyed. Your family is torn apart. Instead of elves, the game has magypsies — hermaphroditic immortals in fetish gear who love everyone they meet. Nintendo is extremely protective of its image as a family-friendly company, which means never taking the risk that American children would play such a weird and heartbreaking game, which means the rest of us almost didn’t get to play it either. Here is an actually-frightening sequence wherein the characters explore a dungeon while high on mushrooms.
I’m resistant to the idea that great writing is what games need to succeed as an artform. Two of the most successful games ever made, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, are great in part because they eschew language wherever possible, forcing the player to inhabit silence. Even when the characters in Ico do speak, we can’t understand what they’re saying. I’ve always felt that games should be great games if they want to be beautiful. Mother 3 is a good reason to think I’m at least half-wrong about this, because honestly it’s not that good as a game. It’s an RPG in the 16-bit style. It’s pretty simple. You explore little dungeons. There are monsters in the dungeons. You fight the monsters by choosing attacks and spells. The monsters die. You do it again. The best thing about it is it goes pretty quickly. You’re in it for the writing.
The Japanese script was written by Shigesato Itoi, a sort of Japanese intellectual celebrity known for copywriting, voice acting (he was the father in My Neighbor Totoro), essays, interviews, and other assorted whatevers. It isn’t uncommon in Japan for one person to take responsibility for most of the story decisions in a game, but it’s more or less unprecedented for a game to be so wholly defined by its story, and by the vision of the writer who conceived it. Most game writers are working in the dark, post-hoc, to rationalize how the characters got from point A to point B. (“Okay, they’re in the fire level next. Figure out what they say on the way there to make that make sense, and write some dialogue for the level boss.”) Itoi’s descriptions of his writing process sound a lot more like writing a novel. As a game, Mother 3 is a satire of RPG conventions at least as much as it is a legitimate entry into the genre. It exists primarily to deliver a narrative.
Unlike most narrative-driven games, however, Mother 3 isn’t exceedingly heavy on language or cinema. All of the story sequences take place in the game engine, using the chubby little sprites that populate the world. These sequences have a sort of theatrical feeling to them — because you can see the entire bodies of the characters, and because the characters are “acting” with enough force to communicate their emotions through a tiny screen held at arm’s length, the experience is much more like watching a play than it is like watching a film. Mother 3 sets itself apart through its animation. In most 2D games, the characters barely move, because doing proper animation is so time-consuming and expensive. Well, the people behind Mother 3 had a little bit of time and money: the characters move constantly, fluidly, and expressively. There is just enough dialogue to support the drama of their actions, and there are long periods where no one speaks at all.
It’s hard to describe the plot of Mother 3 without screwing up the best surprises, so I’ll have to be vague: it is a heartbreaking allegorical story about what greed (or capitalism specifically, if you like) does to human beings. It is a story about how to love people better. It is totally ridiculous. It is one of the most legitimately sad and frightening stories, interactive or otherwise, I have ever experienced. The ending made me cry. The emotional power of the game comes partly from its willingness to be ridiculous. It has a disarming ability to speak to a childish place inside the player, sneaking past barriers of cynicism and self-consciousness.
Maybe the most beautiful thing about Mother 3 is that I had a chance to play it in the first place. The fan translation is, as best I can tell, very good. The translators have always said they wouldn’t make the English version if Nintendo asked them not to. Apparently Nintendo never did. Good for Nintendo. Good for the fans.
Why am I talking about this at HTMLGIANT? Well, because I love the game. Because it is an uncommonly literary game that I think would benefit our community to consider and discuss. (Would anyone participate in a Mother 3 “book club”?) Because I have a dream where I write a book that someone loves so much, they translate it without my permission, to share it with their friends. Most of all, because I want you to play it.