Earthbound 1

Earthbound was the original game that was not a game. It never lets you escape. Just as you are settling in, finding yourself engaged, surrounded by that thin egg shell, sheltered from the outside world, Earthbound reaches over and taps you on the shoulder.

Sometimes it's explicit. You, the player, are prompted directly. Told how to play, or asked for your thoughts on some event. But more often it takes the form of small irritations. Why, for example, is the inventory system so cluttered and difficult to navigate? The reason becomes apparent as you progress through the game. It's because the developers of Earthbound weren't making a game and so were not concerned about the inventory system. Earthbound is all about translating the vision of Shigesato Itoi into some consumable format.

Ultimately this vision is about childhood and artistically it achieves this. In its small cartridge with its bright graphics it looks like a child's lunchbox. The music sounds like someone's reconstruction of a series of small tracks heard in their daily life. Music from films, or overhead in convenience stores. Soundtracks to cartoons and rock music from your older sister's CD collection, heard late at night through the walls.

The story has the same uneasiness of child's play. Why were the games we played so often about killing monsters, about being away from home, being alone, or being with friends? Like real play Earthbound has undertones of loneliness and identity that give it a rounder feel.

As children we were inside a bubble. We were constrained by our daily routine. We longed to push against those walls which constrained us. But we knew we didn't have the power, so we obsessed over them instead. Once we had explored the center we looked to the edges for cracks and oddities. The boundary became as big as the volume.

Earthbound 2

The reason Earthbound is a game is because childhood was all about games. To children the real world is largely a world which tells you what to do, and how to act. In imagination play decisions hold weight, because they provide some initial sense of self. There are also systems. Understanding and controlling these systems gives an even more powerful form of autonomy. Not just an ability to influence oneself but of influencing the world around you.

The game inside Earthbound is not the greatest game in the traditional sense. Like the imaginary games we played as children there are some interesting aspects, some little quirks and characteristics that make it stand apart, but ultimately it doesn't say anything deep. It mainly borrows from other JRPGs.

But like tag or hide and seek, this game doesn't need to be good. Earthbound uses it as a tool, not as an end product. To criticise this is criticise poor quality paints, or weak music production.

That aside, to some gamers the breaking of the fourth wall is unforgivable. It is simply too painful to be shaken back into the real world by some minor issue with inconsequential mechanics. To these gamers Earthbound will always remain a mediocre game dressed up in a nice little outfit. But I think it is more.

In my childhood one of my most distinct memories is sitting by a small tree in my primary school, picking the dark green rubbery leaves off of it. I loved that tree. I could interact with it; feel the leaves, smell them, pick them, see them. This was something I was free to do at play time - it was not part of the schedule, and wasn't exactly sanctioned. I hadn't picked this action from an option list of things to do. I was pushed up against the boundary of my agency, studying it, and although it was so small and insignificant, it was important to me.

Earthbound has the children in the middle of the playground, playing football and kiss chase. It has friends and enemies performing childhood drama. But it also has cracked paint on the walls, and cold cinder blocks behind the shed, and muddy frogs at the bottom of the old pond, and most importantly, my tree.

All sorts of people tell me about their memories,
about all the things I left in the playground called Earthbound.
From the tiny safety pins, broken pieces of colored glass to the withering leaves.
When I ask them, "how do you remember so much?"
With their eyes gleaming, they say,
"I love that world so much I remember everything about it."
I reply right away saying "me too."

Ah hah! That may be it.
Maybe I wanted to make a playground.
A playground filled with things no matter how small or unwanted,
they would all be kept dear in people's hearts.
It looks like all my friends from around the world have discovered the theme to the game as they were playing – even though I didn't think I gave it one.
That's right, that's something I also wanted to do all along.

- Shigesato Itoi