Video games are unique as a storytelling medium due to their unique capacity to give the viewer a chance to experience the story as it unfolds. Investment in the story is increased because progressing requires player action, and oftentimes the story beats surrounding a character will influence what they’re capable of, which further reinforces the narrative. Yet many games tell stories using mechanics that don’t necessarily fit. While the abilities a character possesses may be derived from who they are and what their role is, they don’t always drive the story forward in their presentation and impact on the gameplay. This is not to say that such games are “bad,” as such generic qualifiers are rarely fitting for creative works. However, some games take the extra step to unify the narrative with the feeling of the gameplay, and the example we’ll focus on today is Earthbound.
Earthbound, known as Mother 2 in Japan, is an interestingly well-known yet obscure game. Many know of the game—and by extension, the Mother series—from its representation in Super Smash Bros. However, until it started to see re-releases in 2012 with the Wii U Virtual Console service, it was difficult to find, let alone play. For those who did have that opportunity, the game’s
quirky coming-of-age narrative set in a parody of mid-nineties America held a unique charm few other games have replicated since. The mechanics that enforce the narrative tend to be relatively minor—and in some cases, even slight nuisances—but their presence is one of the things that makes Earthbound the game many know and love.
When discussing narrative, it is natural that some elements significant to the plot may come up. To the best of my ability, I’ll speak vaguely where significant plot points are concerned, but the article may discuss things that some would consider spoilers. Be ye warned, all who enter here.
Earthbound starts when a thirteen-year-old boy named Ness is called away from home on a quest to save the world. The
number of role-playing games with similar starting premises could not be counted on the collective fingers and toes of those whose knowledge of Earthbound stems from Super Smash Bros. Yet, in a departure from many such games, the young age of Earthbound’s protagonist impacts gameplay in a meaningful way. Throughout the journey, Ness may become homesick, taking turns in battle to think about his mom, his favorite food,
and other things his journey has taken him far from. Becoming homesick is a little bit more than just a random chance, however. The chance of Ness becoming homesick increases starting from when his level reaches the mid-teens—by which point he’s been away from home for a while. It starts to decline around level thirty—when he has friends to support him and has become
strong enough to make it in his own right—and vanishes completely after level seventy-five, by which point he’s had a chance to grow confident and uncover the purpose of his quest. Curing homesickness is as simple as visiting or calling home; nothing says home quite like Mom. While the impact of homesickness is disruptive—should it ever arise—it is a clear and simple gameplay representation of a kid being away from home for the first time.
Moving onward from homesickness, a couple of other minor mechanics take small steps towards supporting the feeling of the narrative. The first of these deals with the enemies visible on the overworld map. When the player’s party becomes strong enough, enemies will flee rather than approaching to attack. This happens at various times depending on the enemy, but for the main eight dungeons—those which house Sanctuaries required for Ness’ quest—all enemies will run after the boss is defeated.
This only lasts as long as the party remains in the dungeon, but it reinforces one crucial detail: the primary source of evil power in the area has fallen, and the shock is enough to sow fear into their ranks. The player can see the impact of their success on their foes when even the most powerful force they encountered runs at the sight of them.
The final point has to do with the ending of the game and how a few things come together. A couple of times during the course of the game, NPCs call or otherwise contact the player’s party to ask for the player’s name. This isn’t referenced for quite a while
afterward, but it comes back right at the end. The name entered during these prompts returns to connect the player to the quest for the final blow against the final boss. By today’s standards, it may seem silly, but it’s a touch that makes like a fitting conclusion to the quest up to that point.
The narrative mechanics utilized in Earthbound are slight, and they all fit rather snugly within the confines of console role-playing games of the mid-nineties. Yet the game has captured the hearts of many for its charm and humor, and for doing more than many games of the time to draw the player into the story. Just like the characters, the player has a place in Earthbound’s plot, and the systems at play help to make that place feel like home.