Why I Will Never Finish Earthbound

Leaving the world unsaved

“Mother 2‘s voodoo curse is that it reflects something back at you if you put enough into it. It’s the only videogame I’ve ever known to change people.”

– Tim Rogers

I’m bad at endings, especially when it comes to video games. The games I’ve left unfinished aren’t the ones I didn’t care for, but those games I love most. The ones that have had the most powerful impact on me are also the ones I’ve never watched the ending sequences of. Leaving the world unsaved is something I am notorious for. I can open up a game again from the beginning at any time, knowing that there are mysteries left untouched, that there is a crescendo left unheard. That way, the freshness of things never quite loses its edge. I’m not here to win, I’m here to wander through vast landscapes of pixels — I’m here to learn something, to be changed. I’m here to make friends, or something I haven’t put my finger on just yet. I’m here to see something.

I keep telling myself that I’m going to finish Earthbound. I have reached the final peak of the story twice before, but both times I’ve shut the game off, unable to face what happens after the prayers begin.

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Paula Prayed From The Bottom of Her Heart

Surely, it can’t be that big a deal, right? I’m just going to give it the afternoon then it’ll be done, I tell myself, standing in the absurd landscape of Saturn Valley, having just travelled into my own psyche to confront my own nightmares in a land made of fragments of identity and memory. When I get into this machine, I’m going to move into the final set piece of the game: the gothic, bodily corridor that brings you face to face with a pixelated eldritch hell. I’ve emptied my inventory of story. Stored are my PencilEraser, my EraserEraser, all the now-arbitrary symbolic items that served only brief practical and slight narrative purpose — all I have left are healing items. Many Cups of Lifenoodles. Preparation. Not that any of it matters. I know how this story goes — we all do, surely, by now. If you’re here, you know. I’m going to survive long enough in the crush against the final boss Gigyas that Paula begins to pray.

The praying is not just a move conducted by Paula, the One Girl of this story — it is an action performed by the people who you, Ness, have met throughout your voyage through the game. This is your reward for having come this far: the faith of the people you have met along the way. The swirling cosmic gore of the battle screen fades to familiar locations, where you’re remembered. Where people are rooting for you. This is a truly emotive shift in the hero’s journey: you are carried into victory not only by courage, but by the impact your courage has had on the people you have engaged with before. Their memories of you matter. And, as if this is not enough, after this broken montage of prayer culminating in Ness’s mother sending him strength (your mother, sending you strength) — the fourth wall falls and the game addresses your will to succeed. You, actually you holding the controller, not just the you that is Ness, you are praying, too.

Until you’re not. Until you turn the machine off, and walk away.

Questions and Answers

I was six years old when Earthbound came out. I owned a Super Nintendo at the time, but even though I was a bright, emotional kid, I’m not sure I would have been able to wrap my head around the relentless surrealism Shigesato Itoi composed in this long, often difficult odyssey. I came to it later, after gleaning an understanding of the game through the internet and through games that referenced it in tone. I am not an original child of Earthbound, captivated by nostalgia for a game too complex for me once but now within the realm of my understanding. I came late to the party, and I don’t want to leave.

The sheer depth of obsession that Earthbound cultivates in those who cross the threshold into Eagle Land is slightly staggering. In some regards the game holds the same power as an urban legend. It is so full of unanswerable questions, ones that Itoi has no interest in answering, either, that most of us who pass through take those queries with us.

Some of these questions are simple, narrative curiosities — why was there a collection of vehicles in the gut of the walking dungeon? What would BuzzBuzz have told us if he’d lived past the first minutes of the game? What exactly happened to Pokey Minch under the dark wing of Gigyas that turned his skin blue, that soured his identity so badly? What in the name of Christ is a Mr. Saturn, really? All of these, somewhere, have answers. But the questions that hold me, as a player, are bigger than this. They resound like tiny pieces of a song you can hardly remember but orbit into one central query: what did this game do to me?

The Eye of a Duck

Earthbound is frequently compared to David Lynch’s television masterpiece, Twin Peaks, both because of the tonal pastiche of Americana the world presents and the moment-to-moment surrealism of the writing. I think a lot about Lynch’s Eye of The Duck theory in relation to Earthbound, too. To Lynch, the text is a duck. It needs all of these duck parts to function: feathers, a body, wings, legs, feet. But the eye is the part that matters, the part that stands out, and it is placed exactly where it needs to be. A beautiful, alive, perfect instance.

In some ways, the final sequence with Paula and the prayer and the shattering of the fourth wall is the eye in Earthbound. In others, it is the long, quiet coffee-break where the game speaks directly to you about growing up, and fear, and being far away from home. Perhaps it’s the first time you get homesick, and realize the depths of what that means: the context in which Ness is a child, afraid, who needs to speak to his mother. Perhaps it’s finding the tiny black sesame seed in the desert, who needs to be with the white sesame seed, elsewhere in the endless stretch of sand.

There are so many instances in this game that are not quite mysteries, but rather emotional, poetic moments. Sometimes cinematic, sometimes quiet and joyful, sometimes tragic. Maybe what makes Earthbound the object of such obsession is that it’s a duck with many eyes: many gleaming, bright moments, the likes of which have never been replicated in the medium, and may never be, either.

Many of these instances, these eyes in the game, are so distinctly un-game-like that they have the power to re-establish what playing a video game even can mean to a person. They are moments where Earthbound acknowledges itself as a story being told, a world being interacted with — a false universe to which we are attached by a controller. It shows us what it is and we lean closer, and we come back, different. Older, somehow.

Keeping One Eye Open

I know what happens when the prayer takes Gigyas apart. I know the outlines of the secrets of the thing: of the long walk home, of escorting Paula to her parents’ house, of walking back to your mother, ready to tell her about everything you have seen and done. I know that every person in the game has something different to say to you once you have saved the world, untethered them from the sickening chaos that had come down upon them with the presence of that great and terrible monster.

I know these secrets are reserved for those who have prayed, and gotten through it — I know this game has more eyes that I haven’t seen yet. Knowing the secrets but never having felt them for myself is part of the sting of the obsession: watching young men play through the game offering largely inane commentary, reading archived blog posts on the subject, seeking other people who have been there and have met the weird eye of the duck, too.  

And I’m here promising myself I’ll get through it, but a part of me knows I won’t. I’ll tuck the game away again, ready to start again from Onett next year, or in the winter, when stories like Earthbound always seem to feel more potent. I worry that experiencing the totality of it will shut all of its eyes at once, and void it of mystery for me. I will keep holding a gaze with one of this weird duck’s many eyes: a staring match that has no winner. I didn’t come here to win. I came to look. To see something.