Home > Losing the Plot > Losing the Plot: EarthBound and The Loss of Innocence

Losing the Plot: EarthBound and The Loss of Innocence

November 5, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Losing the Plot aims to be a series where I analyse the storylines of video games and find out what makes them effective or not effective. And to start, let’s take a look at EarthBound.

It might seem weird to randomly bring up EarthBound again. It’s been a few weeks since I played it for the first time, but in all honesty, it’s never really left my mind. EarthBound was a wonderful game that enthralled me and entertained me in ways I never expected a SNES game to do.

It got me thinking though. It’s been mentioned many a time in gaming circles that the major villain Giygas, a horrific alien monstrosity from beyond space, is one of the creepiest villains in gaming. The final battle, where it initially shows up by mirroring Ness’ face, only to be set free and revealed as a swirling mass of…something, has sparked fear in many a gamer. The music that accompanies it is tuneless noise, you cannot grasp the true form of its attack, and as you weaken it, it begins to say things to you that imply it’s enjoying the pain.

The game’s director, Shigesato Itoi, has gone on record to state that this boss fight was inspired by some childhood trauma. He’d snuck into a cinema as a child, and ended up watching a graphic sex scene which ends in the woman’s murder. Years later, he misremembered it as a rape scene, and elements of this made its way into the final boss. Not directly, but in a way that Itoi wanted to conjure up discomfort in players similar to what he felt after thinking he watched a woman being raped on film.

And perhaps there’s something to this. While the story of EarthBound is silly for the most part, it felt like a reflection of the world around us. It felt like it had a message.

That’s not the message

Initially, I thought that everything in EarthBound represented growing up, and that Giygas was tied in with that somehow. After all, a lot of the game shows parallels with growing up and finding your place in the world. Ness stands up to the town bullies. He leaves home with his mom accepting that her boy needs to leave. He makes new friends and discoveries and sees new places. He learns the hard way not to follow strangers into hotel rooms. He discovers young love through Paula.

But I couldn’t quite figure out how Giygas fit into all of this, nor could I fit in the police brutality or the Happy-Happy Cult or the man that fuses with his dungeon and stomps around to the drumbeat of The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise“. But then I realised, while there is a story about growing up and discovering the world here, Giygas represents something else. And only a child could truly defeat this. While Ness matures through the story, he beats Giygas through friendship and compassion and by retaining some aspects of childhood innocence.

Throughout the game’s story we discover that Giygas has been influencing the people around Ness. A mysterious statue gets shipped around and those who come into contact with it become hardened and evil because of it. But despite the obvious sorcery happening here, the “evils” of the world are decidedly real.

Ness trusts the authority of his local police, and goes along with them to the station when he feels like he might be in trouble. He perhaps expects a lecture, a slap on the wrist and being sent home to his mother for further reprimanding. Instead, he’s locked in a room with a squad of officers, who proceed to try and beat the shit out of him. It’s a moment that would shake anyone to their core if it happened to them in the real world.

Ness later encounters a cult infected by Giygas’ influence. They want to “paint the world blue”, and while this was silly, the parallels to cults such as the Aum Shinrikyo were alarming. This cult was led by a man who wanted to control people, manipulate people, and was almost the case with Paula, sacrifice people, all to show loyalty to a grand mysterious cause.

Ness later encounters a corrupt corporate executive who wields his power with an iron fist. He instructs local police to rough up anyone who disagrees with him, and orders the capture of a child because she’s associated with those who dare question him. He sides with Pokey, a neighbour of Ness’ who is the very definition of a spoiled brat, albeit one taken to unusual extremes.

What binds all of these things together is a lack of innocence, a lack of childlike wonder, and perhaps a deep-seated fear that everything will crumble around them. And I can’t help but wonder, is this the intention? That Giygas is representative of what happens when we let growing up get to us too much that we let go of the better parts of childhood – namely the imagination and love of the world around us.

The police have gotten to the point where everything is a danger that must be stamped out, even if it’s only a 10-year-old boy wandering somewhere he arbitrarily shouldn’t. The cult leader becomes so fixated on how damaged the world is that he wants to paint it blue (and inspired the first draft of a Rolling Stones song?). A businessman becomes obsessed with profit and power that he loses sight of the good in the world. A child is so spoiled that they are unable to wonder and imagine at all.

Based on this, for me, EarthBound is about more than just growing up. It’s about maturing while never locking away your inner child. The source of darkness and evil is forgetting the wonder of play. It shows in the adults we meet who aren’t evil too. Jeff’s dad is absent-minded but good at heart, due to his scientific curiosity and desire to play and explore. The Dungeon Man is eccentric but helpful, and he’s defined by a bizarre, seemingly-impossible and, of course, childlike dream (he wants to be a dungeon when he grows up). The Runaway Five are your biggest allies, and they’re all big children who just want to play music. These adults grew up, but they didn’t lose their childlike wonder or imagination, and they’re helpful.

And since Giygas was based on the moment where Itoi lost his childhood innocence, it all seems likely that this might be the case. I feel like he didn’t just want the player to feel like their innocence has been taken away, he wanted to suggest that Giygas was taking away the innocence of the characters as well.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I feel EarthBound makes a strong case for growing up but never growing old, to avoid being taken over by an Eldritch abomination. Probably.

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