EarthBound: A Bildungsroman Across No
Fewer Than Two Planes
Author: Mike Craig
[All images on this page provided by the Classic Review Archive.]
[Ed. Note: I wrote this article for RPGamer -- a very much in-the-now forum. That
is why I explain my preservationist sympathies, and make multiple references to
that site. (My description of the NES fandom IS NOT disparaging.) Gwendolyn
Snope (mentioned in the conclusion) wrote a rather angry, dogmatic letter to
RPGamer in which she baselessly accused the site of seducing children into
"heathen" belief systems. This, of course, sparked several rebuttals from people
who, in addition to defending their love of RPGs, felt it necessary to invoke
their "devout" Christianity. Why is it that the irreligious never stick up for
Before I attempt to explain exactly how Itoi’s* EarthBound propounds a philosophy of conscious and unconscious maturation, let me elucidate the point of view from which I am writing -- for I cannot, like the apostle Paul, articulate my views with such inspired universality that diverse audiences will accept those ways of thinking out of hand. Nor is my theory remotely apostolic, so I do not enjoy the benefits of a divine and widely shared revelation.** My “revelation”, if it can be so termed without inviting the presumption of egotism and/or sacrilege, has nothing to do with the beyond -- at least in the sense that I don’t think it came from higher consciousness. It is merely something that occurred to me as I watched Ness’ thoughts scroll by marquee-style in the Lumine Hole.***
Anyway, my standpoint. I voice this only because I believe it impacts the way in which I will present my belief, and should probably not be considered objective.
I am what is known on the ‘net as an “NES Preservationist.” That is, I belong to an alternately embittered and romantic community that subsists on group solidarity, the aestheticism of “archaic” video games, and sentiment. I may be considered a throwback to a time when gore and sexual titillation (emphasis on the first syllable) were almost exclusively the bells and whistles of gaming.**** That is not to propose that I or anyone else of my position endorses pseudo-pious censorship -- only that we feel “visual jollies”, when they exist for no greater artistic purpose than their own popularity, siphon the grandeur of videogaming itself. It is likewise not to say that I am incontrovertibly right, or consider myself superior to people who believe otherwise. An argument could be made that gaming is better as it presently stands, or is not the way I consider it to be. Except to say that I accept that viewpoint without espousing it, I’ll not pursue the matter any further. It is not relevant to what I am doing.
The point -- rather, the implication -- of those statements is two-fold. First, I meant to convey that I am not a participant in the contemporary RPG scene. I once was, before my preference for the NES came back to the fore. I even wrote an editorial proclaiming the beauty of Final Fantasy VII -- of whose sleepy, saccharine writing style I am now so ashamed that I would ask that it be removed from RPGamer’s archives, if I believed anybody still read it (I don’t regret how blithering it was, though -- as this work will probably suggest.) Still, I have not earnestly visited RPGamer since the departure of Andrew Vestal. It no longer holds an immense interest for me, and this momentary reunion does not conceal a deeper intent for my reconciliation with modern gaming. I’ve simply had a thought that is pertinent to the genre, and fancied, in the rapture of my own self-importance, that more avid/exclusive “RPGamers” might care to hear it.
Secondly, while fans of modern gaming might consider my pondering a game released in 1995 hindsight (no contempt intended or harbored), it is from my perspective a small step forward. As a result I tend not to recognize the questionable relevancy of my interpretations. They are not, I concede, very timely. However, since the idea strikes me as being somewhat germane, I am willing to be untimely, even at the risk of seeming to speak out of turn.
* Author’s full name: Shigesato Itoi
** This is not to imply intense Christianity on my part -- rather an understanding that the idea I propagate here is neither moral nor communitarian.
*** I do not honestly remember whether the seventh “Your Sanctuary” is known as the Lumine Hall or the Lumine Hole. As I recall, the name appears both ways in the game.
**** RPGs barely perpetuate that anyway, so there is no cause for any exclusive lover of said genre to take up arms against me.
I: Preliminary Justification and Explanation of Purpose
Somebody hoping to disprove the necessity of what I introduce might state that almost all RPGs since Final Fantasy IV have dealt in one way or another with personal growth, and I would be unable to refute them. I don’t deny that the majority of Role-Playing games in some way purport the rise of their characters to understandings of life less nihilistic, brooding, or melancholy than their previous ways of thought -- this was particularly evident in Final Fantasy VI. But what I detect in EarthBound is nearer in nature to a “coming of age.” That is the case not only because of Ness’ youth -- that simply makes the allegory more palatable, and was likely invoked to allure young players to the game -- but because of the multifaceted nature of his maturity by the story’s end. In most other RPGs, the grand realizations and elevations of spirit attained by the characters are singular, specific, and occasionally somewhat vapid (e.g. “I have a special granddaughter.”) The heroes tend to develop an appreciation for life without ever fully understanding it. Ness, contrarily, reaches a comprehension of existence on no fewer than two levels, and comes to observe an ideal method of existing. Whereas, for example, Cecil achieved gallancy by overcoming what he once was, Ness achieves it by making peace with what he is and has been, understanding the nature of the Self (not only himself), and not uttering a word.
As to the possibility that I am over-interpreting the game, I cannot be sure. It is conceivable that a game seeming, on the surface, as utterly ludicrous and childish as does EarthBound -- and that has never, to my knowledge, been taken seriously -- is designed only to be silly. The former description, however, could be applied to Gulliver’s Travels. Itoi may not have intended what I infer, but if one can deduce from the objective plot a continuously supported chain of underlying symbolism and meaning, the resulting interpretation, to my way of thinking, is valid. The author’s messages, if he intended any, are, of course, significant, but art oftentimes supports for each viewer/reader/listener a meaning unique to that individual. So long as it can be justified within the work itself, the deduction is viable.
This, then, is my goal -- to, by relying upon my obsoletely pretentious way of writing and somewhat complicated personal history with the game (when I first reached it in 1995, the way in which the last battle was presented, in all literality, terrified me more than anything else I have ever seen, and it wasn’t until four years later that I could bring myself to finish the game), present a continuous string of textual evidence to support my interpretations, including the message to which they ultimately lead. It is, I admit, a self-righteous undertaking, but I do not mean to suggest by these pursuits that mine is the only credible way of understanding the game. That would, in addition to being self-righteous, be aesthetically perverted. But I digress.
I suspect that nearly everything in the game not inserted for a reason related to the play mechanics -- and perhaps even some of those things that were -- can be explained in relation to Ness’ journey toward paramount maturity. That is the principal reason I am doing this. If I did not believe such an unbroken justification were possible, I would not have begun writing this editorial at all. I do not want my name associated with a half-baked explication -- overcooked, sure; but half-baked, no.
My request, other than that you continue reading if you have gotten this far, is for your patience during my exploration of the game’s initial stages. Very few of the preeminent themes I will discuss reach fruition there, and thus it may seem, for a while, that I am producing these inferences from between my buttocks.
II: Phase One -- The Number Towns and Their Respective Tangents
”Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small,
And life flows on within you and without you.”
-George Harrison; Within You Without You
One of the most frequently noted traits of the game is the sequence of the first four major locales -- ONEtt, TWOson, THREEd, and FOURside. So, in that spirit, I will venture to explain what I think they symbolize. My essential conclusion is that these four towns represent the four years of American high school. Four realities, humorously enough, justify that belief -- first, the everyday, suburban/urban quality of those areas; second, the fact that their experience includes and is succeeded by adventures in “Winters” and “Summers”, respectively*; third, Ness’ age (13); and fourth, the nature of the sequence itself.
The first three of those justifications speak for themselves, so I will skip over them and extrapolate on the fourth. In reality, the experience may not be as high school-esque for Ness as it is for the player; and since Ness never speaks, one cannot know what Itoi intended him to feel during this time (though the comments of certain NPCs are of some help in this area.)
Anyway, the first point which I believe supports my theory is the fact that Ness’ exploit in Onett is preceded by a playful effort to “go see the meteorite.” No global or personal betterment is suggested as his goal. He only wants to go outside at night and see something unusual -- be more adventurous, and thus “older” than he is, if you will. Moreover, his efforts are thwarted by the police -- an everyday, non-enigmatic authority which Ness obeys simply because he is asked to. He has no righteous motivation to pursue his desire, only youthful curiosity. The question of morality does not enter into his consideration, the result being that he gives up his flight of fancy at the first indication that it might displease somebody.
This childish “sneaking around” is quickly supplanted, though, when Buzz Buzz informs Ness that he is chosen -- that an immense responsibility is placed uniquely upon him. The individual seeking to stop his efforts is no longer a police officer, but the Starman Junior -- which beams down from the sky, as opposed to erecting painted barricades that one could step over if one so desired, and tells him that he “must” be stopped, rather than dismissively saying “get out of my way.”
So Ness’ final nighttime escapade gives way to the daylight of responsibility -- much in the fashion that high school is, in the United States, an ascent from middle school as responsible endeavors are concerned. Granted, this transition could just as easily manifest that from high school to college -- thereby making the Dusty Dunes Desert tthe equivalent of a “semester abroad” (side comment: why are those never in the Caribbean?) Ness does, after all, leave his home indefinitely, but I consider his age an indication that high school was the sequence Itoi sought to suggest. As to the argument that his age was simply a ploy to attract youthful audiences, and college is the true implication, I have no rebuttal. His being thirteen, in combination with the university motif, could be a reiteration of just how prodigious we are to consider him. The progression suggested by the towns is no different applying the theory that they symbolize college than if one operates on my assumption.
That progression is as follows. In Onett, Ness is uncertain of how his adventure is to be conducted -- indeed, one townsperson comments that he “look[s] so helpless.” Also, among his first acquisitions is a map -- a not uncommon resource given to high school and/or college students at the dawn of their freshman years. His first task -- ridding Onett of the Sharks -- is simply fallen into as he and the player let the sobering reality of what must be done take hold (the fact that it leads Ness to the objective to which Buzz Buzz directed him is, at least in the story, an afterthought.) Passage to Twoson (sophomore year) is obtained only when Ness defeats the same police force that compelled him to return home on the evening of the story’s beginning. Deference to authority becomes something to be filtered through a prudent consideration of all matters at stake, where previously it had been an obligation. This conflict of law and right is a rather common intellectual consideration that is put upon people as they reach a “higher rung” on the educational/developmental ladder. Just as Ness is told that he “looks helpless”, it is suggested by one of his friends that he is “beginning to look like a man.” Beginning to think in that fashion obligatorily follows suit.
Although Ness earns the respect of the citizens of Onett, the experience of that town cannot escape its freshman-year-esque fundamentalism, nor is it truly at a level of relevancy equal to that of the other three towns. Ness was still, ultimately, doing what Buzz Buzz instructed him to do, and Captain Strong boasts, at the game’s end, that Ness probably never encountered an entity more powerful than he -- intimating beneath the text that Onett, like most freshman years, is separate in nature from what succeeds it. Ness’ endeavors in his hometown seem ultimately to be a prologue. That he encounters no long-term companions there is not coincidental.
Twoson, though Ness is slightly more sure-footed as he enters it, is not easy-going. Though Ness and the player seem, by this point, to have gotten a sense of what will be expected of them, the experience and the manner in which it must be negotiated is not entirely predictable. As is common of sophomore years (or at least, as was characteristic of mine), the things our hero is put upon to do are somewhat more significant, and noticeably more abstruse -- a haunted tunnel and the rescue of a kidnap victim from a mad cult are, I would say, respectively more uncommon and difficult than dealing with a quasi-Happy Days street gang wherein everybody dresses alike. A sign in the village illuminates the heart of the matter plainly -- “Twoson is different from Onett. We have Burglin’ Park.”
Burglin’ Park serves to lift the veil of one of Ness’ initial prejudices -- or, rather, his sheltered presuppositions. The thieves there do not wear any identifying sign beyond being in the park, nor are they offensive in their mannerisms. They are, in fact, pleasant individuals who have no qualms about conversing on equal terms with one younger than they are -- unlike the many advice-giving Onettians. Indeed, Everdred is genuinely concerned that Paula be rescued. Whereas the Sharks cared only for the satisfaction of their own whims, these criminals strike one as good-natured human beings who happen also to break the law. Thus “We have Burglin’ Park” translates to mean “in Twoson (i.e. “to the mature mind”), legality is not cordiality, youth is not inferiority, and evil is not rebellion.” The last of those statements likely also explains why Everdred looks like an overweight John Lennon, and why the perverse individuals encountered in this stage of the game are the Happy Happyists -- brainwashed conformists to an established yet nonsensical dogma.
Junior years are ordinarily continuations of the Sophomore year with slightly heavier material, and Threed may be said to convey that concept. Further defining that theory, the “heavy” quality is suggested by the darkness that plagues the town, and the continuation by the nature of the tasks -- trapping zombies, and traveling to a base to do away with a ubiquitous, if rather uncommonly crude, monster. Though things of that specific ilk are not undertaken prior to Ness’ arrival in Threed, they are common occurrences in science fiction/horror media -- even, in the case of the Boogey Tent, satirically so. Likewise, Ness discovers at this time the solution to the only problem he was unable to solve during his proverbial Sophomore year -- the haunted tunnel. By continuing in sllightly more sophisticated endeavors than those previous, Ness succeeds where he had previously failed.
This initial series of locations culminates in Fourside. In that spirit, it is there that Ness becomes a “big man on campus” (i.e. “senior”), and operates deftly in an environment essentially similar to yet markedly larger in scale than those that preceded it. Fourside is still, in essence, to be considered an American (rather, Eaglelandian) town -- whereas all locations thereafter are distinguished by some seasonal or ethnic quality. Notwithstanding, it is a “big city” in comparison to its suburban predecessors. Everything that occurs there operates on an immense level. By inference, those events presage through their own heightened relevance the rising importance of what Ness will be forced to achieve after he leaves Fourside. The mayor of a metropolitan area, after all, carries with him both more influence and more fame than that of a suburban town.
Continuing with that image, the regard evident in Ness’ actions toward the two mayors he encounters palpably assesses his development hitherto. By reforming the Sharks, Ness earned the praise of B.H. Pirkle. But, as previously established, the Sharks had no ethical modus operandi beyond general knavery. That, not a refusal to adhere to preexisting statutes, was their failure. Ness contested them for upsetting human, not legal, society -- though at that moment he was truly just killing time, and may not have recognized why he found the gang objectionable. Likewise, Pirkle’s comments did not imply an upright, genuinely concerned official. He bore many of the qualities of a sadist, rambling on about the pain Ness inflicted on the Sharks to what may be considered orgasm.** But because of his small global influence, his office was no threat to human community -- as was the gang. More importantly, though, Ness was not in a position to criticize Pirkle. Had he attempted to do so, he would likely not have been taken seriously -- the incessant advisory comments of Onett’s citizens,*** in addition to the fact that he is said to have seemed “helpless”, proves that. And even if he were considered, Pirkle’s guard would have removed him. (Ness never talked, either, so that would have precluded such a diatribe.)
By the time he deals with Geldegarde Monotoli, however, Ness has established a competency that demands his serious consideration. At that point in the game, very few of the NPCs refer to him as a “kid”, nor do they behave toward him in the demeaning manner in which noticeably young people are regarded in adult settings. Instead, he is spoken to as an equal. Additionally, he has cultivated an aptitude for reaching the truth of matters (that ability is of huge importance later on.) This acquired skill enables Ness to discover the “deal” Monotoli has made for power -- meaning that he is not only taken seriously in an adult matter, but brings about its ultimate solution.
Again -- to veer off on a tangent within a tangent -- the relativity of “evil” enters into the situation. Those who rebelled against Monotoli are proven right, which extends to its ultimate literary breadth the chasm between legality and morality. The more compelling suggestion, however, is evident in Monotoli himself. After the destruction of the Mani Mani Statue, the mayor’s demeanor is not only penitent, but frail. His power-mad conduct was not the by-product of a self-generated perversity, but of something entirely beyond him.
One may be tempted, at this point, to invoke the “power corrupts” interpretation of the event. Because Monotoli’s ultimate goal in harnessing the statue was the acquisition of power, such an induction is valid. But it was by embracing evil that he developed power -- not by gaining power that he became evil. Itoi’s literary concern here seems, and later proves, to rest with the concept of “evil” or “evil power”, as opposed to authoritative influence; and it is in the Mani Mani Statue that this somewhat peculiar presentation of the idea is first seen. For Itoi, evil seems to be something separate from the individual. Yet at this point in the game the philosophy has not been fully developed, so I will withhold analysis until it is.
It is also worth noting that it is in Fourside that the bond between Ness and Pokey is plainly shattered, assuming any ever existed. At this time, Pokey is used only as an indicator of diverse development (a more involved literary purpose comes into play later). The two individuals who entered this metaphorical high school/college together have since gone their separate ways -- Pokey toward fulfilling his self-interest, Ness toward fulfilling his destiny. When they met in the Happy Happy Village neither had come fully into his own -- hence Pokey’s confusedly volatile but duplicitous behavior upon leaving, and Ness’ uncertain but ultimately valiant “heroism.” In the same sense, as Pokey departs in his helicopter from the roof of the Monotoli building, both have firmly and competently established themselves in the roles they are pursuing.
I should probably also discuss Talah Rama’s discussion with the heroes as a symbolic commencement; but unfortunately, I have little memory of what he says. To be honest, my recollection of the entire Dusty Dunes Desert episode is sketchy at best, leaving me with no choice but to skip over it.
Now, having chased one allegorical concept for more time than I originally intended, I should, for the sake of completeness, touch upon other important events in this early period.
First, to avoid a glaring omission, I acknowledge the fact that Carpainter was under the influence of the Mani Mani when he founded Happy-Happyism. As previously stated, his followers are the preeminent villains during Ness’ exploits in Twoson; and as previously stated, they are so because of their unthinking conformity. Yet it is by the Mani Mani that this faith is begun, and by the defeat of the individual it hypnotized that it is brought to a close.
The reason I bring this into play now is because, if one forms an interpretation of the statue from Fourside backwards, one is led to believe that it’s influence is not as important as the fact that it symbolizes evil -- that it is “an evil entity.” By establishing a seemingly inanimate object as a conductor of pure evil, Itoi further defines his take on the concept. Evil, in EarthBound, is not a conglomeration of certain modes of conduct, but a consciousness that drives people to such modes of conduct as if in a trance. Witness Carpainter’s initiation of the cult. What strikes the player -- speaking from my own experience, anyway -- is not merely the fact that he founded it, but why he did so.
This “evil consciousness” may not seem lucid to those who are not possessed of it -- the player is supposed to regard Carpainter as strange, and likely does -- so it is not consciousness in the sense of exclusive mental and physical concern for this earthly realm. It is, instead, a sort of meditative higher consciousness (i.e. “totality”) to which the statue brings its subjects. Therefore, it should not be considered separate from the individual, as I earlier suggested. Rather, it should be considered available to the individual on a more metaphysical level of the self -- neither present in the sense of direct availability, nor separate in the sense of unattainability. But, like the innately positive “higher spiritual plane” to which the Transcendalists of early-mid 19th Century New England aspired, it has to be reached. It does not sit latent in the individual only to bear itself in certain commonly-considered immoral acts any more than it is the immoral acts themselves; those are simply manifestations of one’s potential to attain it. It must be realized -- or rather, one must allow oneself to be enveloped by it -- in order for it to become fully present in an individual. After all, neither Carpainter nor Monotoli are reputed as having been airily covetous before their introduction to the Mani Mani. That is why the statue exists -- to emphasize that this level of awareness is not surmounted in everyday existence. Yet when it is surmounted, it envelops everyday behavior, as is suggested by the fact that those under the influence of the Mani Mani fall into a stupor of greed.
Just as it becomes clear through Burglin’ Park that rebellion is not the equivalent of “evil”, so does it become clear through the Mani Mani Statue that perverse behavior is not “evil” -- that evil, in this game, is presented chiefly as a noun and secondarily, if at all, as an adjective. Once again, the inanity of the Sharks is made plain. One might be led in a moment of rage to call the Sharks “evil.” However, they are not; they are only unwise. As perversity is concerned, they stand several rungs below the Happy-Happyists. They conform to the morays -- not to mention the dress code -- of an organization, but with no pious intent. Not even they believe they serve any grandeur. So, by applying this broad definition of evil as consciousness, the Sharks seem to be equal in corruption (i.e. “ascendance to evil consciousness”) to Ness. Indeed, the only difference between the two parties at the game’s beginning is their behavior.
Going back to the statue, one must not overlook the point of its discovery. That is intended to be one of the first happenings after the first daybreak (whether it actually is depends on how the player approaches Onett.) The moment Lier X. Agerate shows Ness his find, it is mentioned that the statue “is glowing strangely.” Ness is exposed to a conduit of evil itself, but at the beginning of the story he does not yet comprehend its magnitude. Even remote understanding comes only after Ness sees its capabilities represented in other people.
Still, the statue does not subjugate Ness to “evil power.” Inclination or personal vulnerability might therefore be seen as having some bearing on who the statue can corrupt and who it cannot. Yet, once again, the philosophical notion of evil as conveyed both independently and through the statue is not consummated during this period in the game, so one can only interpret the subject to a certain extent.
One should also recognize, however, that wherever one encounters the statue (neglecting the realms of Ness’ mind -- a category in which I include Moonside), Pokey can also be found. Likewise, he does not seem to be enveloped by it. His behavior is indeed malevolent, but it is presented as somewhat more concrete and genuine than is the airy self-abandonment of Monotoli and Carpainter. Pokey, additionally, knows when to escape, which is probably due during this phase to the fact that he is, if not intellectually beyond the Mani Mani, at least free from of it. Still, his function, like that of “evil”, is not finalized until late in the game. So I will, once again, not draw any conclusions on the subject.
As to Ness’ growth, I will discuss two principal things that are cultivated within him throughout nearly the entire game -- namely, perspective and tolerance. The first of these is evident in countless ways -- the growing respect of adult communities for him and the fact that he battles “Titanic Ants” and “Mondo Moles”, among others But, for my own purposes, the two salient reflections of his growing perspective are so mostly because of their polarity in relation to one another -- that is, the Giant Step and the Lilliput Steps. At the Giant Step, Ness begins to “see [he’s] really only very small” (ha, I bet you thought I just looked at the a lyrics sheet from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and pointed at a random line -- that the epigraph for this section could just as easily have been “Henry the horse dances the waltz.”) Moreover, this “sanctuary” symbolizes the vastness of the universe -- and later, the vastness of the comprehensible. Likewise, the Lilliput steps reveal to Ness his own vastness. That is to say, he develops a comprehension of his own importance, and, by inference, the importance of all people in the realm whose vastness had not long ago been established.
The latter of those two understandings makes it possible for Ness to appreciate all the individuals he comes across. He swiftly develops this capacity for tolerance -- which, we are to believe, is partially innate, for he forgave Frank once the quasi-playboy realized the error of his ways -- as a result of which he becomes the type of individual respectful enough of life to “take the time to talk to dogs.” That is to say nothing of the many monkeys, capitalistic miners, Mr. Saturns, and later, toucan phones and Tenda he encounters.
* Granted, each individual town does not contain excursions in Winters and Summers. An attempt to reflect the idea that consistently would lead to a disjointed plot.
** It might also be interpreted, perhaps more to my point, that Pirkle was simply patronizing Ness -- talking to him on what he believed to be the level of a thirteen year-old.
*** Okay, so this was necessary as an in-game instruction manual. It still fits into my interpretation, though.
III: Phase Two -- Summers through the Lost Underworld
”I have always preferred free, perhaps therefore also rather indefinite, studies to the offerings at private dining clubs where one knows beforehand who the guests will be and what food will be served each day of the week.”
Notwithstanding their importance to the story, the first four towns are approached in a markedly linear fashion. Ness does not, until the very end of what I term “phase one”, acquire PSI Teleport; the result being that each of the initial towns can at first only be accessed by way of their two neighbors (one in the case of Onett and Fourside). The intellectual concepts presented and, for all practical purposes, completed there -- the difference between goodness and leggalism, rudimentary notions of tolerance -- are likewise quite universal. That period seems to be mundane in all capacities -- “mundane” meaning “common”, not necessarily “boring.” However, after completing it, Ness “graduates.” Thus, as he enters the metaphorical adult life, he becomes free to cultivate himself in a more personal and, as Kierkegaard put it, indefinite fashion. (If the four towns symbolize high school, he may be said to, like many creative minds, wave the opportunity of going to college......... Ah, screw it. What good has constantly covering both sides of the net brought me? I’m through with this ambiguous symbol.) His epiphanies from Summers on are therefore less formulaic and ubiquitous -- the ideas less blatant and occasionally more playful. As a result, it is difficult to analyze this portion of the game through a continuous, ordered analysis of every setting. I must, instead, refer to specific occasions, putting them in chronological order more for my own convenience than because each observation flows seamlessly into the next.
Let me trumpet at the top of my arrogant lungs that I firmly believe there is a difference between academic thought and intellectualism. For one thing, intellectualism is voluntary; and for another, it’s more ambiguous. I state this here in order to introduce the Stoic Club. After being freed from the run-of-the-mill, academic underpinnings of the opening phase, Ness is free to explore himself, realms of thought, and the world on his own terms (PSI Teleport being the salient indicator of that.) Granted, he must still follow the sequence of the world’s locations (i.e. a path from sketchy to deep understanding), but nobody MAKES him go to Scaraba; it’s one of those “Yes/No” scenarios, if I recall correctly. These realities, to me, all symbolize freedom of thought. It is fitting, then, that he encounters the Stoic Club -- a place of distinctly intellectual flavor -- soon after being cognitively freed.
But what is revealed there is not in the least intellectual. Ness discovers a group of people -- one of whom talks above him (I’d be doing that less fumblingly now, but my vocabulary isn’t big enough) -- who attempt to probe deeply into the meaning of a rock. They do not, like Hesse’s Siddhartha,* love the rock because it is a rock. Instead, they pedantically assume that profundity must imply some deeper meaning pertinent to life and/or social awareness.** Nothing, to them, can be profound simply by being what it is. As a result, one gets the sense that they never escaped the academic, dissection-heavy method of pondering -- or, at the very least, that they never tempered it with genuine appreciation for what they studied. They pursue intellectualism because it is fashionable, and in so doing destroy the truth-pursuing meaning of the word. Also, whereas the Sharks were considered basely rooted in the realm of id-motivated whims, the Stoicists (I like that term, even though it never appears in the game) are caught up entirely in airy ways of thought. They have rejected practical considerations altogether.
The importance of this encounter for Ness is that he is shown a false form of intellectualism just as his journey of discovery rises to the “next level.” Pretending to think fervently, even if it does lead him to a meaningful epiphany, will not aid him in realizing his full potential -- in “unit[ing] his power with the earth’s.” All of his intentions, and his fervor, must be tied up in attaining deep understanding. He must believe his epiphanies, and simply having them cannot guarantee that. Thought, in his case, must be combined with feeling, not fashion.
The sailor Ness aids in Summers describes the goings-on at the Stoic Club as “serious crap”, which is exactly what the player is to believe they are. This is where the name of the club comes into play, for the sailor uses “serious” in the sense of “stoic” (and/or “stuffy”), not “intent.” Indifference predominates at the Stoic Club -- as does a belief that sternness and pomposity are the secrets of comprehension -- that “acting lofty” is the same as “being lofty” (and I know from my own Sam-the-Eagle conceit, it ain’t.) The “serious thought” Ness will eventually have to apply takes him to a markedly ridiculous looking place; so, obviously, staring fake-pensively at a rock is not Itoi’s idea of “intellectual consideration.”
Moving on, I’d like to touch on the finalization of one of the topics I brought up earlier -- namely, tolerance.
First off, it is worth mentioning that, although the Tenda resemble bugs, Ness does not dismiss their needs. Commonplace “human arrogance”*** forbids respect for insects -- that is, killing a human warrants imprisonment and possibly death, whereas killing an insect is regarded not only as acceptable, but necessary in the case of fumigation. Keeping that in mind, one realizes the immense respect for the living Ness has cultivated by the time he reaches the Tenda Village. Where humans have oftentimes sought to stamp out things not of their species, Ness actually helps the tribe in their effort to “overcome shyness.” Granted, the intelligence of the species makes tolerating them seem of greater necessity than it would if they were not communicative. However, that is employed more for the convenience of the player -- much in the same sense that every culture in the game speaks the same language (although the Mr. Saturns do have their sub-idiom of Dings and Zooms.)
Equally important in this matter is the juxtaposition of the two Tenda villages. It would have been a consummate stereotype to make every Tenda in the game shy. Indeed, Itoi attempts to lead the player to that assumption by populating a village with Tenda of such a disposition (excluding the one exception). As a result, when one encounters the second Tenda tribe, the presupposition that “all Tenda are shy” is shattered. I admit, this literary tactic may seem like cheap entrapment, but a wall must first be built before it can be torn down. One might also note that the Tenda are segregated in hoping to discredit my theory; but that was by mutual choice, and, as previously implied, abets the effectiveness of Itoi’s method.
Then there is the talking rock. For one thing, it reiterates to Ness the necessity of unity with the world -- which he establishes through his acceptance of various cultures and species. Yet, the predominant impression it gives stems less from anything it says as what it is. This rock conveys profound suggestions in a plain, aurally tangible fashion. It does not need to be pondered spacily to be understood, as the patrons of the Stoic Club do with their rock. This occasion expands the game’s philosophical definition of “tolerance” to include “genuine appreciation” -- the emphasis being on “genuine.” As I argued before, the Club did not appreciate its rock because of what it was, but what they deludedly assumed it to signify (imagine that...) Ness, on the other hand, accepts the message of the Tenda’s rock for what it is.
The Lost Underworld is also the culmination of perspective. There, Ness is graphically rendered as “only very small” to insure that everything can be seen. Doing battle with gigantic creatures reiterates for the final time the notion presented at the Giant Step. However, if the player has developed his/her skill to an adequate level, Ness is able to defeat those creatures. Thus the message of the first two Your Sanctuaries is retold in a different fashion -- stating that Ness is truly quite small, but that his own lack of size does not connote irrelevance.
Even more intriguing is the structure of the Tenda Village. Its residents believe they have built a cage in which they contain the dinosaurs. Now, to the typical ear, “cage” implies a small, cell-like enclosure that does not encompass the majority of its area. By that inference, the player should believe that the Tenda village is actually the “cage” -- even though the tribe does not see it that way. This difference in perspective comes down to a difference in nature. The communal attitude of the Tenda does not command that they dominate the Underwold. Comfort is sufficient. Thus the concept of perspective, in this case, comes down to a simple moral: “It’s all in how you look at things.” Yet, that understanding has been at the base of Ness’ development hitherto, for his inborn understanding of that truth has enabled him to accept how others “look at things.” As a result, the interrelatedness of the concepts of tolerance and perspective becomes clear to the player.
Once again, practicality enters into the situation. Ness appears, at this point, to be a consummate realist and altruist. He aids others with marital disputes, and appreciates everything he sees simply because it exists. Of course, this sort of grounded, innate philosophy is soon uprooted.
As to the sequence of events, one notes a progression very much like the following: From the implied personal freedom of Summers, the player travels to Scaraba; from the cultural understanding required in Scaraba, the player travels to Deep Darkness; from the probing examination required in Deep Darkness (symbolically, a need to think intently about certain relevant matters), the player reaches the Tenda Village, wherein he/she puts to use the myriad of personal/interpersonal skills that have been cultivated up to that point; and from the Tenda Village, one travels to the Lost Underworld -- a locale so vast as to symbolically encompass every ability Ness has cultivated.
The Lumine Hole presages what becomes of great importance later in the game -- an evolution of thought and consciousness. Here, Ness’ thoughts scroll by on an illuminated wall. He is not initially aware of this, but soon he recognizes what is happening.**** Symbolically, this moment marks his intellectual ascension from thought to “awareness.” But sadly, the quick way in which this moment elapses tends to undermine its subtext. The ability to be objectively aware of one’s own thoughts suggests that one has risen above them -- and the vast majority of people are ceaselessly enveloped by what they are thinking. This newly-acquired skill proposes that Ness is capable of ascending to even higher levels of comprehension -- which quickly follow suit, unsurprisingly.
* Looking back on some of my previous writings, it occurs to me that I have referred the daylights out of that book.
** Well... yes that... is very much like what I’m doing here. So what?.....
*** I have borrowed the term from Star Trek IV.
**** Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact quote, so unless you happen to be playing through that part at the moment, you will have to settle for my inadequately vague descriptions.
IV: Phase Three -- Magicant and the Exploration of the Self
“’Personality is what you thought you were... [It] is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on... But while a personality is active, it over-rides ‘the next thing.’ Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never thought of apart from what he’s done. He’s a bar on which a thousand things have been hung -- glittering things sometimes.’”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald; This Side of Paradise
Just as, until the second phase, Ness had not operated outside the sphere of the mundane, he has to this point been almost entirely absorbed in himself* -- the momentary exception being the Lumine Hall. Granted, being tied up in concerns pertinent to oneself is not uncommon, but Ness must, in order to confront Giygas, fully comprehend the nature of the self. This cannot be achieved unless he is able to take a proverbial step back and survey his entirety -- in the same sense that a complete understanding of a song cannot be achieved by listening to the chorus over and over.
Two things must be recognized about Magicant before analyzing it. First, as previously intimated, it cannot be reached without first visiting the Lumine Hole.** Ness must see his thoughts -- arguably one of the most palpable reflections of oneself -- from an objective standpoint before he can see himself in such a fashion. Secondly, though it seems logical to refer to Magicant as a dream sequence, that term does not describe it in whole. If thoughts tangibly reflect the self, dreams may be considered even more profound reflections -- this theory follows the belief that dreams are the thoughts of the “subconscious”, which understands things in a different and, as regards philosophical exploration, deeper fashion than the conscious mind. Yet dreams are believed to reflect oneself in a specific, often subtle manner. Magicant is far more blatant -- in fact, one character encountered there refers to it as “the realm of your mind.” However, there is also the comment that the area will disappear when Ness wakes up. The implication of those two statements is simply that the mind cannot be made clear to a conscious person. Only the subconscious -- which, if it truly does possess a deepeer understanding than the conscious, may be said to encompass the conscious mind itself -- can convey the entirety of the mind. Likewise, because of the way Ness’ mind is presented, it can also be identified as the self -- something deeply personal yet also intrinsically universal -- symbolically manifested.
As to the specifics of the presentation, they can be summed up as a repository of countless personal things, wherein time does not exist, and no one thing is more important than another. Magicant is populated by countless beings Ness has encountered -- ranging from one of the rabbits that guarded the cave in Dalaam to a snowman he presumably made as a child. Yet, of equal importance as the presence of those things is the fact that the majority of them change the color of the locale. Each of these palettes enables the player to see things (e.g. the smiley faces hidden in the coloration of the carrots) that are not visible with other schemes. Thus one is led to believe that Itoi defines “oneself” as a synthesis of everything one has to a given point encountered -- rather, as a combination of all the influences of those things; what Fitzgerald would call a “personage.”
Still, time is not entirely escapable. Even though the presence of countless things from different times suggests that this realm of the mind/self transcends time, nothing appears that has not already been met in the physical world. Magicant, therefore, may not be said to be beyond time. Instead, it is a place where time is not something looming that passes constantly -- rather, it is a parameter. Every experience prior to entry into the self is present regardless of when it occurred, but nothing beyond that point can be seen. The personal self, thus, robs time of its multidimensionality because it is equal to it. Whereas in conscious existence time is an infinitude of barriers separating 3:00 from 3:01, and so on, on the level of the mind it is the single barrier of “the present”, separating past from future.
A comparable image can be found in SaGa Fronteir. When BlackX warriors ascend to the fourth dimension (aka “Magisphere”), the figures appear as trailing off infinitely into the background. That is because, from a three-dimensional perspective, the fourth dimension cannot be processed as anything but infinity. Much in the same sense is the conscious mind -- for which, as previously established, time separates every moment from those surrounding it. So, within the self, present and future are unchanging entities and time is simply the border that distinguishes them from one another.
One observes, in the initial stage of Magicant, two distinct parts -- the friendly, town-like world, and the enemy-populated road to the “Sea of Eden.” Since one is peopled entirely by things Ness has met and the other almost exclusively by hostile things that appear as question marks, I can only assume that the former is the past and the latter the future. After all, the town contains distinctive, worldly things such as vegetables, grass, flowers, and billboards; whereas the road consists of an indistinct substance, strange rounded hills, and perhaps most sellingly (of my theory, that is), a miniature version of the tentacle that appears on the road to Giygas. Yet, many of the enemies actually turn out to be Loaded Dice -- implying that there will be fixed results in the future, but that we have no way of knowing what they will be.
It should also be pointed out that Ness can take his courage across the border with him. This may be thought to imply that emotion is the fifth dimension. In Magicant, it can be on either side of time without changing, just as time is everywhere in our three-dimensional world. Nonetheless, this courage is malleable. It can be defeated in the uncertain “future” realm. As a result, “potential” (in this case, the potential to be defeated) can be considered Itoi’s vision of the sixth dimension, because it gives moments their distinctiveness, and can conquer emotion. Thereagain, it may well simply be a facet of time, which implies that time has power over emotion. Of course, it may be presumptuous to assume that each dimension has absolute power over those below it in the echelon. Their relationship could be more like chemical interaction.
One thing is certain, though: If Magicant is thought to be the self, one can’t help but notice that it envelops all the dimensions about which I previously theorized. One might therefore discern that, to Itoi, this self -- this universal “personage”; this conglomeration of everything on every level, as opposed to the “personality” of one individual -- is the ultimate dimension.
Okay, that’s enough of that. I don’t have any business postulating on higher dimensions when I can’t even commit myself to one coherent subject. Back to Ness...
The only other thing of note on the path (aka “the future”) is Ness’ brief encounter with himself. That Ness only offers the player a baseball cap -- the consummate symbol of the hero’s identity. However, that may also be thought of as a gesture by which Ness can retain the distinctiveness of his own self in the realm of the self. (After all, just like Ness’ mind, the self is a personage, and on its metaphorical bar hangs all that exists.)
Chiefly though, this encounter offers Ness the opportunity to see beyond himself -- or, at the very least, his entirely physical “personality.” He realizes that a portion of himself helps define the self (Hades, I’m getting redundant), and thus that he is more than his interests, his body, and his verbal thoughts.**
The Sea of Eden is essentially more personal. After all, it contains something unique to Ness. This assumption, however, leads to the seemingly paradoxical interpretation that Ness must venture through the self to reach himself. It is supported, though, by previous inductions that the self contains individual selves. Perhaps one could think of the self as a sort of satellite. It contains every person’s self, and thus can impart that specific portion to the individual as needed (and it is needed for, at the very least, all of corporeal life.)
If we are to believe the whirlwind man standing in front of the border between the two initial portions of Magicant, “universal truth” is at the center of the Sea of Eden. Of course, since that universal truth is within something unique to Ness, it must therefore be a universal truth for him alone. And, being a tiny bit Socratic, we can infer that this universal truth is whatever Ness does not know, or does not want to know. Following that, it is unsurprising that, at more or less the center of the ocean, is the self-proclaimed “evil part of [Ness’] brain.” We are supposed to consider Ness to be “good”, so it is somewhat surprising to find that his universal truth is the fact that his brain (i.e. “mind”) has an evil component.
It could be argued that Ness’ triumph over this evil, in addition to the fact that it looks like the Mani Mani Statue, undermines the theories I have established about Itoi’s image of the concept. However, this battle was waged in Ness’ own mind, meaning that he did not destroy the evil consciousness itself -- what Buzz Buzz called “the nightmare rock.” He only defeated its influence over him, and even that is not entirely true. Prior to the battle, “Ness’ Nightmare” states that Ness cannot defeat it, “because [he’s] the one who forced [it] into being.” One might interpret those statements as standard-issue evil-dude pontifications, but I think of them as statements of fact. It is noticeable, after all, that only the Kraken and the Nightmare have any physical presence in the sea, even though we are supposed to associate Ness with “goodness.” So it seems that, contrary to what is stated, Ness does not “defeat” this evil portion of himself in the sense of destruction. Rather, he defeats it in the sense of forcing it from a position of preeminence (that little shoal it was standing on.) The evil consciousness is still intact, as is the potential for evil in Ness’ mind, but neither is uppermost. Ness supplants the evil, and occupies the rocky throne himself. Symbolically speaking, he now focuses upon not the existence of evil, which he perfervidly sought to eliminate, but his own completeness -- that is, his potential for all things, and his newfound comprehension of the relationship between himself and the self. The latter connection is also the source of his ability to “KNOW” where he must next go.
* That is, even though he has aspired to aid others, he has not been able to look at himself as though he were an outside viewer.
** The thoughts that appear in Magicant, if they can be considered “thoughts”, are more conceptual than verbal. Those in the Lumine Hole were, conversely, more verbal.
V: Phase Four -- Giygas, Annihilation of the Personal Self, and Resolution
”When you’ve seen beyond yourself--
then you may find, peace of mind, is waiting there--
And the time will come when you see
we’re all one and life flows on within you and without you.”
-George Harrison; Within You Without You
Getting directly to the quotation, I’m going to try to explain the nature of Ness’ “peace of mind” in the latest portions of the game. It is first called to action when Dr. Andonuts states that the party must transfer their “Brain Program[s]” into robots if they are to travel back in time. Now, certainly anyone confronted with such a demand would be led to think that they were being asked to deface themselves -- to part with what most noticeably makes them who they are. Ness, however, has already been exposed to multiple levels of himself (and of the self, to beat that concept’s dead horse), and so he recognizes that he is only abandoning a shell wherein he resides. Certainly, his physical appearance is unique to him, but Ness has already seen his immensely relevant yet proportionally small role in the communal self (and he takes the hat with him as an indicator of his identity.) Additionally, he recognizes that he will not be forswearing what Itoi has defined as his connection to the universal -- only transferring that “Brain Program”* into another vessel for practical purposes.**
One noteworthy facet of the game is that every personal realization hitherto attained fulfills some practical function. The cultivation of tolerance, for example, leads Ness to aid the Tenda, thereby bringing him closer to the talking rock which reiterates his purpose. His level of perspective leads him to Magicant, where he discovers his relationship to the universal self; and that understanding enables him to consent to becoming a robot. Nearly everything he discovers leads to something else, or fulfills some function in his journey -- suggesting that transcendental epiphaniies are not pure awe, but rather a combination of awe and utility.***
This brings me to Giygas. Pokey comments before the final battle that Giygas has become “Evil Power” -- that is, that he has transcended. That, in turn, finalizes Itoi’s concept of evil. As previously explored, evil is not defined as the inborn potential of people to commit depraved acts. Instead, it is a level of consciousness. Yet, it is only a fragment of total consciousness. Ness achieved in Magicant as complete a comprehension of higher consciousness as can be obtained by a three-dimensional being. Giygas, on the other hand, covetously pursued the one facet of higher consciousness essential to his endeavor. Nothing, not even himself or his existence, was equal in his view to the goal -- that is why, by the time Ness encounters him, he “cannot think rationally.”
The failure of Giygas, then, comes down ultimately to the failure of anybody who pursues transcendentalism out of contempt for the world as it is: He is unable to retain his bearing in the practical, corporeal realm, and as such loses control of himself. He was not incapable or misdirected. In fact, he knew exactly what he was doing. Giygas believed that by attaining higher consciousness he could multiply his power -- and in a way, he did, for Ness and company “cannot comprehend the true form of [his] attack.” He did not, however, care if he fully understood evil consciousness. He wanted to attain it because it seemed relevant to his goal. Yet, by pursuing the consciousness -- whereas Ness pursued an understanding of it -- Giygas destroyed himself. He became the evil power, and in so doing lost his identity in it. It is for that reason that his face often appears many times in the same background.**** Giygas the creature only exists as an incoherent voice trapped in one chamber of total consciousness, unable to explore the surrounding rooms. Like the patrons of the Stoic Club, he cared nothing for truth or practicality -- only for soaring up to the airy levels of thought, as opposed to staying on the ground, pulling things down to his level, and deciding objectively whether or not they made sense. The only conceivable difference between Giygas and the Stoicists is that he was better at it.
The progression of the battle itself further reiterates many of Itoi’s mores. I will forego its first stage, except to say that the Devil’s Machine employs a rather cheap scare tactic by revealing Ness’ face at the center of the “eye.” It is as if the vision is telling Ness, “You’re as evil as Giygas.” But Ness, having examined the deepest levels of his own being, already knows that. That is, he already knows that evil is as present in his mind as it is in that of Giygas -- at least until the villain became evil itself -- and he understands himself to be far more than a face, its importance notwithstanding. As a result, that endeavor has no effect on him.
As to the battles with Giygas himself, one should notice that, immediately after the end of the second stage, the face in the background takes on a more concrete, looming, and singular form. It is as if he is attempting to concentrate the evil power in order to ruin his opposition; and through those attempts, the energy takes on a more monolithic form. Still, portions of the head continue to slip away from each other -- meaning that Giygas has annihilated himself to the point that, although his vocal (telepathic?) presence makes it possible for him to be harmed by outside forces, he cannot assume a distinct form to defend himself. Additionally, after the first prayer, the flitting strips of his head come together for a moment. Yet that moment is followed by a loud crash -- as if, continuing an earlier metaphor, Giygas attempted to smash through the walls of the part of “the self” that he occupies, but could not do so. As a result, his physiognomy becomes permanently divided, for he, unlike Ness, forsook his practical self to become a “higher being.” Moreover, he did not commune with higher consciousness; he conquered it. Solidarity was not Giygas’ goal. He thought that by becoming a higher entity -- evil, in this case -- he would be without peers. Instead, he found many other forms of consciousness that functioned as his peers -- a reality that made him lose heart on the transcendental tier, and his mind on the existential one. His essential foolishness can be explained like this: He believed he could rule over mankind by transcending to a spiritual plane -- the same way, as Machiavelli has discussed, so many foolish kings thought they could control hostile vassal states without living in them.
These realities are further intimated by his comments during the battle, which alternate between “I feel g... o... o... d...”, “I’m so sad”, “It’s not right”, and “It hurts.” Giygas feels “g... o... o... d...” because he has achieved his goal -- he has elevated himself to a level more of consciousness than of form. But simultaneously, he is “sad” and “hurt” because he realizes he has made an irreparable mistake. If he wanted to rule over the biologically living, he would, by necessity, have had to remain one of them.***** Instead, he self-righteously set himself above them, ruining his toe-hold in the mortal world.
Giygas’ statement that “it’s not right” is less clear. The principal reason for this is that one can’t be certain of what “it” is. He could be bewailing the fact that he is being beaten not by another form of consciousness, but by people -- which would support the theory that he thought he could, by escaping the trappings of three-dimensional mortality, rule over it. On the other hand, “it” could be the fact that his identity is shattered -- that he is bewailing the fact that, on that level, he no longer knows who he is. Or perhaps my theories that Giygas has transcended are not entirely true. Perhaps he became evil power on one level, only to discover that the higher veil of the self was trying to force him out of that consciousness. In that case, “it’s not right” would mean that Giygas believes the self is victimizing him -- like a king being overthrown by the collective indignation of his people. All of these theories are possibilities, but I cannot conclusively select any one of them above the others, so I’ll leave that bit of text alone.
Finishing this particular discussion, I would like to touch upon the manner of Giygas’ defeat. Throughout the game, Ness had been told that he shared his destiny (the destruction of Giygas) with the rest of the world -- that “[his] power must unite with the Earth’s******”, and that “the Earth will then channel [his] power and multiply it.” That reality is the reason Ness does not bring other people into the battle -- rather, Paula does. Ness is not intended to do everything himself, though the growth process in this game is almost exclusively his (more on that later.)
Anyway, Paula’s prayers are not “prayer” in the sense of an acknowledgment of one being’s superiority. Rather, she taps into a consciousness to which all the world is privy, and brings those not in battle to recognize that consciousness. Thereafter, the people utilize the consciousness to channel their energy to the point of conflict. Reusing my description of the collective self as a satellite, the process can be explained metaphorically -- Paula tells (programs) the satellite to send a signal to the people on earth; those who receive the signal fire laser beams (their positive energy) up at the beacon; the laser beams converge at a single point; by melding, their power is amplified; and the satellite reflects coagulated beam down at Giygas. (I’m sorry about that. I thought some visual imagery would speed my explanation, and I did not expect it to be that hokie.)
When Giygas is destroyed, he, to use my friend’s description, “turns into snow.” (Mind you, this is not to be taken in the literal sense. Giygas ain’t no Mana Beast, after all. He turns into TV static.) Static, however, is television’s equivalent of disruption -- the closest thing to “nothingness” these perpetual transmissions can render. As a result, Giygas can be said to melt into nothingness -- just in a slightly funkier way than the disintegration popularized by the Final Fantasy series.
I cannot emphasize enough that the evil consciousness is not, at this time, destroyed. If it were, the potential for perversity in people would vanish; and even though there are no enemies to be found at the game’s end, Pokey’s hostility remains intact. Evil, because it was a part of this all-encompassing self I have so arrogantly defined, is continually generated and regenerated. Giygas did not “become” the Evil Power, he became a part of it, and brought to it some minute semblance of mortal focus -- the way a disease forces one to pay attention to the infected area. So Ness, his compatriots, and all the people (and Mr. Saturns, and monkeys, etc.) are really blood cells of the Self -- important to its subsistence, and distiinct from one another in a way that seems remote when they are all surveyed at once. The defeat of Giygas is therefore more of an exorcism or a curative process than the ruination of evil itself. (AHHHHH!!!! No more metaphors!!!)
Moving on to Pokey, he is very much like a tuna sandwich. No, just kidding. I’m just trying to make it patently clear to myself that these associations I’m spouting here are starting to get downright silly. I like silliness, but I’ll never finish this thing if I keep acting that way................ WE WERE ONCE A SITCOM FAMILY, ON YOUR BLACK AND WHITE TV!!!!!!
Seriously, in addressing Pokey, I must first explain my initial reaction to the last battle; every conclusion I reach here is subjective, after all. I have already stated that it frightened me more than anything else I have ever seen, but let me explain the magnitude of that fear. I could not sleep without a light for two weeks; I could not do anything in my free time but sit in my living room and watch television for three weeks; I had to give away my copy of the game; and for five weeks I froze nervously every time the phone rang. One year later I bought another copy, thinking I was past the anxiety. I wasn’t. As a recourse, I threw that copy in the trash. The one on which I finally finished the game is the third one I have owned. (This is all true. If you don’t believe me, I’m not surprised. I don’t believe me half the time. But I can list several people who will corroborate these statements if you doubt their veracity.) But it was not Giygas -- the more likely candidate -- of whom I was frightened. Rather, it was Pokey -- buck-toothed, obese, spider-riding Pokey.
The reason I think it absurd that Pokey terrified me (other than the fact that it sounds incomparably pathetic) is that, so far as the magnitude of his understanding is concerned, he is the weakest of the three main figures in the last battle. Ness -- the ideal -- saw “beyond himself” after a sustained process of self-inquiry and examination. As a result, he was able to recognize the importance of a presence in the physical realm, and combined the transcendental with the existential for the betterment of the world. Giygas was able to transcend because of his extreme power, but did not comprehend the necessity of self-examination in that process. As a result, he became incapable of rational thought, and ruined himself. Had he stopped his pursuits just before he “became the evil power”, he would have likely been able to defeat Ness and the others, or at least fight them on equal terms. Pokey, on the other hand, never had a transcendental experience of any sort. He simply initiated himself into the service of people he thought “strong and able”, and furthered his own designs by doing so. Additionally, he always fled when his position was threatened. The acquisition of power in the sense of influence, not that of consciousness, was his goal.
Influence is indefinite. It can be had to a variety of extents. That is why Pokey continually ran away from adversity. He recognized that he could regroup, and return with even greater influence than before. Fighting to the death was fruitless, since, to his way of thinking, if he kept regrouping he would eventually outstrip Ness.
So, having pondered my fear and developed my theory to this point, I have reconciled my theory of what Pokey truly suggests. (Sure, using indistinct feelings from my past to reach an interpretative conclusion is an ego trip of the worst sort, but so may be this article.) The implication of Pokey, as juxtaposed with Giygas, is that evil, because it is exclusively a consciousness until somebody acts at its instigation, should not be feared. Rather, greed -- in that it is not impacted by the principles which compel those operating under “evil” to continue their present courses of action, and therefore harder to stop -- is the most terrifying of all motivations. Itoi’s view of evil boils down to principle; and just as all concepts in some way reflect their opposites, it is very much like good. The only principle he suggests as underlying greed is the renunciation of all other principles that interfere with one’s enterprise.
After the defeat of Giygas, several bulbs -- presumably representing the heroes’ “Brain Programs” -- return from the shattered robots to their initial bodies. Of course, the immediate implication of this is that the mind does not die with the body -- that life continues on after bodily death, if in a different form. One can also intuit from this that the mind knows its body; and because Ness, unlike Giygas, conditioned his mind to respect the body in spite of the levels of existence it had seen, he is able to lead his companions back to their original forms.
Still, one compelling thing is stated after the return of the heroes. Dr. Andonuts proclaims that “the courage” of Ness and his friends is what saved them. This comment could be taken to invoke courage in the most recognized, if perhaps also colloquial, sense -- bravado, audacity in the face of danger, etc. The resulting interpretation of the line would be that Ness boldly entered the final cave, and through various daring, self-confident maneuvers managed to get away. However, the player knows that not to have been the case. The robots lay destroyed after the final battle. Therefore, another kind of courage -- perhaps also characterized by many of the traits that define the aforementioned kind -- seems to be suggested. In this form, courage is simply Ness’ innate yet cultivated openness to possibilities -- openness to the possibilities that a creature resembling a piggy bank possesses immense scientific ability, openness to the encompassing aura of the “Your Sanctuaries”, and saliently, openness to the many deeper******* levels of existence. That openness enabled Ness to discover himself, thereby creating for him certain components of the more commonly used definition of courage.
Thus, the formula underlying Buzz Buzz’s early statement that “wisdom, courage, and friendship” would be necessary throughout the journey breaks down to something like this. Ness’ inborn wisdom created openness -- an alternative form of courage. This courage led him to personal discoveries that enhanced his wisdom. That, in turn, strengthened his capacity for friendship -- referring, of course, not to friendship as the group camaraderie between he, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, but the solidarity with all living things that brought about the end of Giygas. (NO! I’m being sappy again.)
* To reiterate Dr. Andonuts’ scientific discipline, Itoi replaces “mind” with “brain”, suggesting that Andonuts does not comprehend the universal nature of the mind as does Ness, in spite of his erudition.
** This assumes, of course, that the player answers “yes” when asked if he/she will undergo the transfer, as opposed to wandering infinitely around that strange plateau thing out of a masochistic fascination with boredom.
*** The image was drawn from one of Kierkegaard’s published journals, wherein he somewhat irritably defines the “practical life” as concerned only with “utility.” Itoi seems to disagree.
**** Or splits apart as if in a lava lamp, as the case may be.
***** This does not, in my opinion, criticize Western theology, for most religions on said side of the globe hold some belief in the intimacy or love of their God, and Giygas achieved neither with mankind.
****** “The Earth” meaning all the life forms that inhabit the earth, not the planet itself.
******* If not, by necessity, higher.
VI: Odds and Ends
”I was thinking of an unrelated thing.”
-They Might Be Giants; Unrelated Thing
Having to this point traced out my interpretations in accord with the progression of the quest, I would like to explain certain other things that, either by ignorance or my poor incorporative abilities, did not fit into that evaluation.
Why Only Ness?
Because there are three other heroes, and the defeat of Giygas is brought about by a character other than Ness, the fact that I have defined this game’s allegorical maturation process in terms only of him could be considered an oversight. I don’t deny this possibility. However, I have already established my belief of the meaning of those things. As I said, Paula’s prayers bring about the defeat of Giygas as an illumination of the fact that Ness’ demeanor is a synthesis of others he has met, as well as Buzz Buzz’s emphasis on friendship. Ness’ gifts, though conscientiously probing, are not all-encompassing. He cannot repair machines, nor is he able to use PSI Starstorm. Indeed, this realization of the relevance of others to his cause is at the heart of his development -- in the same way as his understanding of the universal self.
I have confined the process of increased understanding to Ness simply as a matter of timing. He is the only character who is present for the entire game, and therefore I believe that the metaphor rises and sets around him. If I tried to work the others into the same process, the validity of everything I developed before their entry into the game would collapse. I could present entirely unique comings-of-age for each of the other three characters, filtering the events through their perspectives. Such an effort, however, would exceed both my flighty attention span and my meager analytical capacity. Besides which, it would make this article somewhere in the vicinity of sixty-five pages* long -- far too lengthy for any ‘net forum. (I can’t imagine anybody will be able to tolerate me to the extent necessary to read this even as it is.)
Of course, Ness’ level of importance is reiterated by the fact only he retains a physical identifying sign after being transformed into a robot.** Moreover, he is the only character present in every scenario -- suggesting in the fashion of Cecil that the game is prevailingly about him.
* I deduce that on the basis of an estimate, factoring in the length of time each of the other characters is in the game. That is why I didn’t multiply the length of this article by four.
** This assumes, based on my memory of the end, that Poo’s antenna is not longer than those of the other three, and that Jeff’s robot does not wear glasses. I do not believe either is the case, but am not sure.
Present Apple Kid alone, and he is a cliché -- the ubiquitous un-suave technician who is misunderstood at first but becomes renowned for his scientific aptitude. Juxtapose him with Orange Kid, though, and he is the “good” paradigm of a social criticism. Orange Kid epitomizes style. He is beloved by the citizens of Twoson, and probably has some pensive talent. But like that presented at the Stoic Club, his intellectualism is false. Unlike it, however, his is caught up entirely in the realm of appearances.* He claims to have found an error in one of Einstein’s theories, but mentions nothing of the specific error or the specific theory. Ultimately, he gets nothing done beyond notifying Ness of the Apple Kid’s abduction. (And yet, I keep giving the little twit money.)
Apple Kid, on the other hand, is an ideal. He has no regard for physical matters -- hence the trash can in his house -- but is able both to achieve creative inspiration and work to bring that inspiration to some palpability. Additionally, he is not a man of pure physicality and science, as is Dr. Andonuts. Perhaps he begins that way, but by the story’s end he states that he will have to ponder the concept of courage. Of course, it is impossible to measure courage empirically,** so one must assume Apple Kid intends only to think intently about it. Thus it seems that he is both scientist and philosopher -- aware of the potential and simultaneoussly the limitations of physical data.
* Granted, the Stoicists may be said to be tied up with appearances as well -- in that they stare at a rock and consider it pedantically, if only to look intellectual. I meant to stress that they are primarily concerned with airy, totally impractical, ways of thinking.
** But there is likewise no such thing as “Zombie Paper.” I wouldn’t honestly be surprised if this kid created some sort of “Courage-O-Meter.”
It is tempting, in dealing with the eight “power spots”, to interpret the word “sanctuary” in the sense of place. Indeed, that is to a point what Itoi had in mind. Still, one must not ignore the possibility that the word describes a sensation. Some of these locations do teach lessons pertinent to the story, yet many of them (Magnet Hill and Pink Cloud, for example) are simply fronts for a feeling of security. After all, Ness is met at each of them with a sensory experience suggestive of either his home or his childhood -- two relatively universal symbols of purity and “sanctuary.” It is difficult to believe that looking at a volcano would launch any individual to a consciousness founded deeply within him/herself, unless the nature of that volcano called to mind something markedly personal.
The sound stone, likewise, is simply a tool that enables Ness to recapture the essence of these places after he has visited them. The unity of the sensations each exudes is what ultimately enables Ness to discover the self. One cannot think freely if one believes thinking in certain ways will prove dangerous, after all. Additionally, the sanctuaries rejuvenate every party member -- suggesting that, like the self, the sense of well-being encountered at these spots is in the same stroke deeply personal and strikingly universal..
One should also note that, as the sequence progresses, the background that appears when one fights the guardians gets increasingly farther away, allowing the player to survey more and more of it. All similarity between the background and a dart board aside, the successive layers may be said to represent various levels of understanding. The fact that the player can see increasingly many would in turn signify Ness’ perpetually heightened comprehension of existence. Likewise, the fact that they never stop might be suggestive of the infinitude of the self.
The guardians themselves are simply syntheses of the many outside disturbances that can disrupt one’s sense of inner peace. Philosophically, they would imply that serenity must be won from distraction. If that does not occur, the fluidity of one’s personal “sanctuary” would be so volatile as to transform itself into another disturbance.
Where One’s Steps Make Noise
This is probably the most overconsidered of my interpretations, but the specific nature of the occurrence suggests to me that there may be something to it.
Anyway, here goes: Neglecting staircases and water, the characters’ steps make sound only in two places -- which, in my view, is symbolic of importance. The first of these occasions is in Magicant, wherein each of Ness’ steps squeak slightly. That, following my view of the general symbolism of noisy steps, would imply the relevancy of each individual to the communal self.*
The second inference is a bit less defensible, as it draws from the clanking of the party in robot form. All the same, Pokey states that, in that world, the heroes are “the only people fighting for justice.” The conspicuousness of their cause, then, might be reflected by the volume of their steps.
Yeah, that is a perfectly valid deduction not at all the by-product of an overactive imagination with too much free time. I sicken me. (Let me retract this last paragraph in advance in case somebody agrees with my theories.)
* Take your annoyance with my repetitive invocation of that term, and stretch it to the end of the universe. Then you should have a decent idea of my disgust with my own redundancy. (This is also a handy way to measure how self-involved I am.)
The Mr. Saturns and the Photographer
I have joined these two recurrences because I view them as created for the common purpose of diversion, in spite of their centrality to the plot. The only glaring exceptions to this generalization would be the importance of the Saturn race to Ness’ cultivation of tolerance -- which has already been alluded to -- and the contribution “Mr. Saturn” makes to the creation of the Phase Distorter. The latter is simply a warning as to the dangers of intolerance. Had Dr. Andonuts and the Apple Kid, in their humanly arrogant ways, dismissed the Mr. Saturns as an inferior, frivolous race with an incoherent way of speaking and a love of funny sounds, Ness would not have been able to confront Giygas.
Beyond that, Saturn Valley does not seem to be intended as anything other than fun; which is not to convict Itoi of undermining his allegory. Fun is essential to any game, even, and sometimes especially, in the sense of rampant hilarity.
As to the photographer, he exists more or less for the same purpose. Granted, his alculated folksiness was probably orchestrated to attract younger players* (“say ‘fuzzy pickles’”), and his appearance at the end does provide a sense of continuity.** I must add, though, that the moment at the end where he photographs the player may parody a similar ending in The Great Muppet Caper.
* But you could say the same of the Mr. Saturns. My mind is shot at this point...
** This would also support my theory that the nighttime escapade that precedes the quest is simply a prelude, since the photographer is the first individual one encounters after dawn.
That I have, throughout most of this writing , ascribed the process of enlightenment I see in this game to its non-speaking hero is presumptuous. I may well be speaking of myself and the sense of finality I have achieved with my fear by reaching the end.
Likewise, what is presented here comprises by no means every conclusion I have drawn -- only a conglomeration of those pertinent to the quest, with a few extras added for the sake of relative completeness. I could have discussed the music of the ending, Ness’ mother, and more or less everything that is said in Magicant (yes, I took notes), among other things, but some of those beliefs were likely baseless (as may be some of what did make the cut.) Besides, it seemed prudent to leave out certain observations, if only to prevent this work from becoming even longer than it already is.
I, additionally, do not agree with every philosophy presented in this article. These are my inferences, not my beliefs. So don’t lambaste me for what I have said out of fiery disagreement. I may well not agree with it either.
(Hmm.... let’s see. I don’t want this to turn into a conclusion like that of my last RPG-based editorial -- fluff that tearily reaffirms the aesthetic value of video games. I’m assuming anybody who would read this already believes in that value, so discussing it further does not seem quite necessary.)
As a side note, I would like to bring into play this lovely Oscar Wilde quotation (I overuse him too, for those who don’t know me) as a response to Gwendolyn Snope. WOO-HOO! Digression is one of the pathways to truth, you know. (Isn’t it?......)
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
Okay, I know there is some standing dogma on RPGamer about “arguing one issue only”, but that was too befitting to pass up.
And now, before I make my overdramatic exit from this elaborately girded RPG podium, I would like to clarify one thing: Yes, I am the stiff who started this work. But after making twenty-six pages (single-spaced, mind y’allz) of something that really could have been much shorter, I find that I can stand the hanger in my shirt no longer.
So, I will get out of your faces, and recede back to obscurity to muse over how I can butcher written expression when I next write something for RPGamer. Let’s see... I’ve done maudlin and bombastic, and both were pretty ridiculous................
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