Two years ago, I wrote about nuclear families in video games. In case you don’t remember the conclusions or want to read some 10,000 words on the subject, I went through every game I owned and asked a simple question: does this video game have a nuclear family? A nuclear family was defined as a father, mother, son, and daughter all living together under one roof. Of the 125 games I examined, there were 7 nuclear families, and only two of them were “normal” nuclear families (the other 5 were brought together via time travel).
I’ve played more games since, and none of them have had nuclear families, until I started EarthBound. EarthBound is a game for the SNES published by Nintendo, initially released in Japan in 1994, and then came out in 1995 in America. Literal books have been written about the localization of the game which is a pretty incredible tale. To cut it short, most video games back then were very self-contained. As in, all you needed to know in order to understand the dialogue, plot, themes, or any text/subtext in a game was in the game inherently. EarthBound was unlike any other game at its time in that it was set in the “real world” (America known as “Eagleland”), during a real time period (199X), and full of jokes and puns that referenced that real time and place. And even though the game was a commercial failure, EarthBound resonated with people who played it. Many indie game developers credit it as a main inspiration, kind of like The Velvet Underground for video games. I think the importance of family in EarthBound is a big reason for why it touched so many hearts.
The game was initially written mainly by a famous Japanese writer, Shigesato Itoi, and, despite the extreme amount of changes the head localizer, Marcus Lindblom, had made to Itoi’s original script, certain things about Itoi’s initial script were kept as unchanged as possible. Namely, the family dynamics in EarthBound are the same in the Japanese and English versions of the game. As an outsider writing about American culture, Itoi latched onto America’s idealization about the nuclear family, and used that iconic American dream as a major thematic element in the game.
EarthBound is about a young boy named Ness saving the world from an alien named Giygas who is attempting to invade and conquer the planet. Ness lives in the suburbs of the town Onett in his nuclear family with his mom, dad, and younger sister (Tracy). The mom is the homemaker while the dad is the breadwinner, and Ness and Tracy are both in school–you know, the perfect idyllic nuclear family in roles. And in practice? This is an idyllic nuclear family that loves and supports one another strongly.
I say idyllic, but the father never shows up in EarthBound. You never see Ness’s dad in person. Every time you call, he says how much he’s deposited in your bank account and then asks you if you want to take a break. If you don’t turn off the game for a while, he’ll call you and ask if you want to take a break–if you say no to this offer, he says “It doesn’t make me happy, but I understand your point that the fate of the world is at stake”. He is a very caring father that is stuck at work the entire time, as a parody of Japanese fathers in the 1990s who would never be able to get off work.
The mother seems a little aloof when you start the game. She’s obviously cranky that the meteorite crashes just by Ness’s family’s house, waking her and everyone else up, and it comes across in her early dialogue. But as soon as Ness gets the mission from Buzz Buzz to stop Giygas, she is instantly supportive of him going off to save the world. She covers for Ness when his school asks where he is. She answers every time Ness calls. She even prepares Ness’s favorite food and his bed whenever he visits home after leaving the house. Just look at this quote before she sends Ness off on the fateful night: “
No matter what anyone says, you're a courageous, strong boy. 'You're my very own natural born fighter...You'll go far... 'Remember to "Go for it!" 'But, I think you should change out of your jammies before you leave.
She does some quirky things, but she is an immensely supportive mother, and a great testament to the series titled “Mother”. Tracy is a supportive younger sister, but she definitely gets the least amount of dialogue. She is also an eleven year-old, so her support is the classic sarcastic sibling support where you know your sibling loves you but says things that are annoying as heck. She’s mostly supportive gameplay-wise rather than dialogue-wise.
Speaking of gameplay, well before cell phones were a major part of our daily lives (even in Japan where cell phones were ubiquitous by 2000 or so), EarthBound made phone calls a major gameplay mechanic. You can call your father, mother, or sister at any regular or payphone, and doing so is important! Calling your dad lets you save your game. Calling your mom cures you of homesickness (a very annoying status effect that causes Ness to waste turns in battle). Calling your sister who is working at a storage company called the Escargot Express lets you store and take back items. Ness’s nuclear family is a great support network for Ness as he goes all over in his quest to save the world, and the gameplay mechanics reinforce how important and valuable a family that can provide said support network can be. Without his family, Ness could not fulfill his mission. But even though Ness’s nuclear family shows how perfect the ideal can be, EarthBound does not shy away from the potential darkness in a nuclear family gone wrong.
The second set of characters you meet are the Minch family. They live right next door to Ness’s family, and are also a nuclear family with the father (breadwinner), mother (homemaker), and two brothers, Pokey and Picky. Pokey is the classic annoying kid in elementary school. The one that pretends to be your best friend and nice, but not-so-secretly stabs you in the back all the time. EarthBound gives a look behind the scenes as to how kids turn out that way. Obviously, naming your kids Pokey and Picky means you don’t actually care about your kids, but EarthBound is very unsubtle when it comes to what the Minch parents do to their children. On the night the meteorite crashes, Pokey forces Ness to go look for his brother Picky outside–though he knows that regardless of if he finds Picky or not, “when my dad comes back, we’re really going to get it!”
Ness and Pokey find Picky and bring him home to the Minches, which is right when Pokey’s father gets home. His mother was always there, but didn’t bother going to find her son Picky, and instead complains about her sons if you have Ness speak to her before this. Instead of letting either of them talk, Pokey’s father immediately says to his kids “both of you are really going to get it!” and Picky and Pokey run right upstairs knowing what’ll happen. Pokey’s father then blames all his troubles on Ness’s family by saying:
'By the way, I would be happy if you left sometime soon. 'I'm tired of your family living next door. 'We've loaned your father a lot of money. 'It may have been a hundred thousand dollars or more... 'Well, I guess it really could have been less, 'but because of the loan, my family and I now live in poverty!
Pretty awful guy, right? And the mom isn’t just passively letting her husband abuse her children–she encourages it. “My husband is too lenient with the children. Oh well, nice guys finish last! The story of our life…” she says. If you go upstairs after the incident and talk to Picky and Pokey, they both talk about how much pain they’re in. Picky seems to have “accepted” his situation while Pokey seems to have this bubbling ambition to get out of this awful family. Soon enough, he is able to, but is drawn to the absolute worst replacements for families because he grew up in the absolute worst family.
The first time Ness sees Pokey after beginning his quest in earnest is when he is attempting to rescue Paula from becoming a sacrifice to the Happy Happyist cult (a pretty obvious Ku Klux Klan “parody”–child abuse and the KKK in the first few hours of a Nintendo game rated Kids-to-Adults, wouldn’t expect that (though of course they changed the bar to a coffee shop with no alcohol)). Pokey taunts Ness by telling Ness to call him “Master Pokey” and that the leader of Happy Happyism has made him an important person. Pokey is clearly drawn to power, but specifically the power to “make” your own family in a sense.
After the cult, you next see Pokey in Fourside, the game’s equivalent to New York City, where he gets cozy with the richest man in town–Geldegarde Monotoli. Pokey again wants to be called “Master Pokey” and becomes the second-richest man in town. He has bodyguards and all sorts of money with which he uses on a power trip to “make” his own family. He even uses the money to give his father a neighboring solid gold office where his father never has to work again, presumably out of some hope that his father will love him for it. But if you talk to his father, all he has to say is that he finally got what he deserved as “every dog has its day”. He doesn’t care that Pokey gave him the wealth.
Ruining Pokey’s plans in Fourside has him turn to the final available alternative family in EarthBound: Giygas’s. Pokey becomes Giygas’s direct right-hand man. You don’t see what he does directly to hinder Ness’s quest until Ness confronts Pokey and Giygas at the end of the game, and Pokey explains everything he did. He explains “I only assist the strong and able” but that’s not true. He was so traumatized by the abuse he suffered from his parents and his lack of a true family bond he could trust that he flocked to even bigger bullies than his parents. And when Ness’s gang confronts him, he gives a very telling taunt that belies all his insecurities about family and trust:
'Do you want to scream for help here in the dark?! 'Ha ha ha ha ha! 'Why not call your mommy, Ness! 'Say, "Mommy! Daddy! I'm so frightened! I think I'm gonna wet my pants!" 'I know you have telepathy, or something, so just try and call for help, 'you pathetically weak heroes of so-called justice! 'No one will help you now!
I will come back to this taunt later and explain just how perfectly it backfires in EarthBound’s gameplay, and how perfectly it reinforces the themes of family and trust that EarthBound is built on. Again, very much like a novel in how EarthBound works, rather than a normal video game’s plot where people arbitrarily do things because it makes for an interesting game to play. Here, Pokey becomes the right-hand man of the literal embodiment of evil because he never had a family he could trust, not because he simply wanted to take over the world. He wants to take over the world so that everyone is forced to be a part of his family. When that doesn’t work with the Happy Happyists or with Monotoli, Pokey decides to destroy the world instead. But, as EarthBound is a surreal coming of age story, the children at the core of it must be given the chance to come of age in a world that still exists, so they succeed. But not everyone in Ness’s group are a part of a nuclear family like Ness and Pokey.
The main three other characters are in alternative families than the idealistic nuclear family. Ness’s first companion, Paula, is from a single-child family. Her mother and father run the pre-school in Twoson, and are a little strange. The mother is too focused on her work at the pre-school to chase after Paula when she is kidnapped by the Happy Happyists, and the father is initially advertising her to the city as a curiosity because she can use magic. He doesn’t even realize she’s missing until Ness visits the house hoping to see her since Paula used her telepathy to contact Ness where Paula’s dad finally checks her room and doesn’t see her. He immediately implores Ness to help. Suffice to say, they make very bad first impressions.
However… reading into what Paula’s parents say and do puts them into a much better light. During Ness’s first visit, Paula’s father asks if Ness is a part of a TV station. If he says yes, Paula’s father shoos Ness away, not wanting media monkeys or leeches. When Ness explains he’s not, Paula’s father says Paula will only meet with Ness, showing that he does respect his daughter’s privacy. Then he realizes Ness is Ness, and is very happy and wants Paula and Ness to meet immediately. When Ness saves Paula and you bring her back home, he is proud to send his daughter off to go save the world. He is very supportive… but not perfect. But at least he is supportive. Paula’s mother doesn’t get nearly as many lines, but she is also very supportive of her daughter when Ness brings Paula home. And the other kids in the pre-school have a huge amount of respect for Paula, which wouldn’t happen if Paula’s mother was badmouthing her child to them like the Minches might. So through context clues, it is clear that the single-child family of Paula’s household is a tightknit, supportive one, even if they might not seem like it.
Jeff is the second companion of Ness and Paula. The genius inventor is contacted by Paula in his dreams to rescue the Paula and Ness from Threed. At the time he is contacted, Jeff is in a boarding school. But even though he doesn’t have his parents around, he can rely on his roommate Tony and fellow classmate Maxwell for support. Tony gives him the literal boost over the boarding school’s front gate so Jeff can sneak out as well as the metaphorical boost to have him follow what Jeff heard in a dream, and Maxwell offers Jeff the same support Ness’s father does as the person to call if you want to save the game as well as the support in preparing for Jeff’s journey by giving him a machine to get stuff out of lockers. The boarding school also has a birthday party for Tony that you can crash and take all the cookies from, which would be a horrible thing to do, but is further proof that the kids in the boarding school are close.
Jeff makes it out of the boarding school and visits his father’s laboratory. Jeff’s father, Dr. Andonuts, does not recognize his son when he first sees him. But as soon as he does, Dr. Andonuts says
'I'm so glad you're such a healthy boy. 'Uh, those glasses look good on you. 'How about a donut?
Clearly, Dr. Andonuts is not father of the year. He sent Jeff away 10 years ago because Dr. Andonuts is a famous scientist and busy man without any time, he no longer is in contact with Jeff’s mother and you never hear about nor see her in the game, and he ends their first conversation with “Let’s get together again in 10 years or so”. But Jeff still managed to find himself a family at the Snow Wood Boarding School. And Jeff does get the support from his father in that Dr. Andonuts doesn’t force Jeff back to the boarding school but instead his father fixes a UFO for Jeff to ride in to rescue Ness and Paula with the machine that gets them all out of the locked dungeon they were in.
The final main party member of the group is Poo, the prince of Dalaam. We end up knowing the least about Poo compared to the other three. But, knowing he’s the crown prince, he’s obviously got some important parents. Too important to tell Poo that he must complete his training before anything else. If you use the phone while playing as Poo in his introductory segment, he’ll call Ness’s dad, who offers normal gameplay support after convincing himself that Poo is Ness disguising his voice. What a nice dad.
As you talk to NPCs in his segment, you find that Prince Poo used to be one of those princes that did nothing but sleep around with women (though they say he simply “played around” and you can play patty-cake with one of these aforementioned women because it’s a Nintendo game) but has since started taking meditation and his life seriously. So, really, Poo swapped out one way of trying to find a supportive family (by sleeping around) with another (a monk lifestyle), probably because his blood-related family couldn’t meet his needs. In his harsh ascetic training, he is asked “Are you sad? Are you lonely?” And while his family’s riches, women, and training helped temporarily fill the void in Poo at different, it is only as part of Ness’s group that he finally feels he has his family. Well, maybe not at first. He says this upon meeting the group:
I am the servant of Ness. I will obey Ness. Ness! My life is in your hands
Poo doesn’t really see Ness’s group as anything more as a chore at first. But! Later in the game, Poo re-meets his old teacher during his monk training who says that Poo needs to go back with him to finish his training to learn the ultimate PSI. Poo doesn’t hesitate in doing so as you’ll see in the below quote:
'It is important that I study and learn the "Starstorm"... 'It will be most helpful to us. 'Once I learn it, I'll meet up with you, Ness. 'Trust me... I will see you again.
But as you can see, he doesn’t hesitate because he wants to leave the group. He goes and does it because he wants to help the group, and hopes that Ness and friends can trust him to carry this out. And because Ness’s group has felt this trust from others, they are able to confide their trust into Poo and wait for him to come back to support them. And in a dark moment, Poo returns and blows up an important bad guy with his new abilities. Poo’s final lines in the game show how much he’s grown as a person, and how fond he’s grown of his newfound family.
'Our travels together end here. 'I must return to Dalaam, and use this experience for the good of my country. 'Ness, Paula, Jeff... 'Let me demonstrate a strange power before I go. I realized this power as a child. 'PSI Farewell! Now! 'I'll see you again someday!
Poo and Pokey weren’t so different. Both of them never felt love or trust from or towards their families (Poo being shown distant from his family and they are never mentioned in-game, Pokey being physically far too close). Both of them tried to fill their emotional voids with materialistic debauchery (Poo filled it with women, Pokey filled it with money). Both of them then tried to fill their emotional voids with more substantial changes to how they live (Poo started learning asceticism, Pokey started helping the literal embodiment of evil spread that evil). And both eventually found their family (Poo had Ness’s group, Pokey had a bunch of minions and Giygas). It’s just what crowds they fell into that ultimately determined their fates.
Fortunately for the people of Eagleland, Ness’s family built on love and trust is able to defeat Giygas’s family built on fear and loathing. That, to me, is one of the big reasons why EarthBound and the Mother series as a whole resonate so much with the people who play them. There are many video games that have this as a moral, but none do anywhere near as good of a job as EarthBound does in portraying the message in a way that isn’t ham-handed, over-the-top, and ultimately kind of hollow. With EarthBound, you see the perfect ideal of a nuclear family with Ness, the absolute worst demons of a nuclear family with Pokey, the difficult-but-supportive tightknit young couple with a single child household with Paula, the boarding school raised kid that was able to make a family with those that surrounded him and not begrudge his father with Jeff, and the detached well-off kid that fell into the family he craved with Poo. All of these households are forced to literally fight because it is a video game, but ultimately the group that loves and trusts each other triumphs in the game as you wish it would in real life.