Saturday, July 28, 2012

Earthbound and Getting the Girl

System: SNES
Developers: HAL Laboratory, Ape, Nintendo
NA Release: June 1995

[CAUTION: This post contains mild spoilers to the endings of EarthBound and the movie The Big Year. One you should really play if you haven’t. The other is just wasting time that could be spent playing the first.]

I sat down recently to watch The Big Year and came to some surprising revelations:

1. If you want to make a stale, plodding movie about birdwatching, then by gosh you can! It doesn’t even matter what fantastic comedic talent those evil Hollywood executives will try to foist upon you, you have the God-given right to underutilize them and ride your anemic, beige starmobile all the way to the Dullard Nebula. Yeah, America!

2. Even boring bird movies will make me think of EarthBound.  

Admittedly, though, even I’m surprised how this thought train circled around. Enduring The Big Year not only called me back once again to the most iconic game of my childhood, but it finally brought into focus this one tiny part that always stuck in my mind.

Upon defeating the final enemy in EarthBound, the credits don’t start rolling. You actually get the chance to walk around and explore the whole world to see what changes have happened as a result of your journey. Your other two companions, Jeff and Poo, go off on their own, leaving you to escort Paula, your first teammate and the only girl, home.

So the game is winding down, it’s just you and her, and you finally bring her back to her doorstep. The pixellated air is dripping with the potential of a big scene, and she says this:

Thank you for escorting me home.
...There was something I wanted to tell you, but I’ve forgotten it.
I’m sure I’ll remember by the time I see you again.
Well, I guess this is it...
...So long
...See ya

And of course Ness just stands there like a dummy in true RPG main character form, but it further adds to the awkwardness. Even my naive, 12-year-old self felt something was off about the whole thing, so when Ruffini the Dog, possessed by the spirit of the game designer, provided an address to send questions and comments (have I told you I love this game?), I actually wrote in asking what it was Paula had meant to say, thinking I might’ve missed some sort of plot point. Things aren’t supposed to just drop off in these sorts of situations, right?

Sixteen years later, I’m watching Jack Black’s character in The Big Year going on his own quest to spot the most species of bird. Stuck in a job he hates and with little money, he makes sacrifices and maxes out credit cards to pursue his dream.

He falls just short of being the top birdwatcher in the end, but still tells his friend Steve Martin that they came out winners. And indeed he did. He became a seasoned traveler, visiting sites many will never even know existed. Not only that, but he finally earned the respect of his father, who initially thought he was wasting his life by not pursuing a lucrative career. It’s a very touching scene--or it would have been if they had made any allusion that this is what Black’s character was talking about.

No, this entire time he’s making eyes at his new girlfriend, played by That Woman from Parks and Recreation. She’s introduced and developed for about 5 minutes of the movie, then conveniently dumped out of the plot by the revelation she already has a boyfriend. We see nothing of her until 10 minutes before the movie ends, when she calls Black to say she and Nameless Other Guy broke up.

I am aware this sort of thing happens in many other movies, but perhaps it was my desperate attempt to suck whatever marrow of significance I could from this movie that made it strike a chord with me this time. What a crock! There was so much else Black’s character could have emphasized, his father being arguably the most important, yet they employed some arbitrary love interest as if all his other accomplishments weren’t enough--as though we can’t completely accept happy endings otherwise.

And that’s when it all came into focus. In EarthBound, a relationship between Ness and Paula was never really developed. Really, there was little more than the occasional NPC saying they looked like a cute couple and Paula’s parents keeping an eye on you. It just feels like they should be together because we’ve come to believe that has to happen; that to completely find oneself means finding love too, and that’s just not right. Ideally, that should come after one is confident and set in who they are. It can be a side effect of the process, perhaps, but it is not the necessity we want it to be.

Shigesato Itoi, writer and director of EarthBound, opened the entire world at the end as though he wanted players to realize the breadth of Ness’s influence and the effects those places had on him. It’s cool to think that Ness and Paula could end up together, but to have emphasized a relationship in the end would have detracted from so much more that the game and its characters were about.

So thank you, Mr. Itoi, for not taking the easy road. Because of your thoughtfulness, I remember more of your story after nearly two decades than that of a movie I watched less than a week ago.