I started replaying Earthbound recently. The game has been released in the collection of Super Nintendo games included in a Nintendo Online subscription and easy access to this old favorite has overcome the bright shine and unexplored appeal of newer games. It has been a long time since I last played the game, perhaps a decade, though I watched a friend play it a mere six years ago so the story is still fresh in my mind. After all, how could you forget a tale of a child who leaves home to make new friends and overcome a great evil that all of the adults in their life either fail to acknowledge or are actively serving? Forget the basic appeal of a JRPG, who could not be moved by a compelling story about overcoming a malignant evil with the power of love, strength born of friendship, and the sheer tenacity of heroes?
Still, though, I find myself reacting anew to the story. The beats are so familiar, the locations as well known to me as the neighborhood I grew up in and left behind nearly half a lifetime ago. But something about the moments that come and pass, the words that appear around those beats and locations, strikes me as new and foreign. I thought for a while that perhaps the translation was different. After all, how could I not have noticed the way the hero’s mother abdicates responsibility for protecting her children? How could I not have noticed the way that both the hero’s parents provide the basics–shelter, food, and clothing–but almost nothing else other than empty affirmations? Frequently the hero doesn’t even get those basics from his parents. Instead, he is given money to acquire those things for himself.
The second hero, the only girl in a cast of four, is clearly loved by her parents, but they look to her for guidance and protection. When she disappears, they do nothing but ask another child for help. They stay safe in their homes, trying to manage the business that relied so heavily on their daughter without her. When the hero rescues her and returns, she insists that she has been called by some higher power to continue on a journey with the hero. Her parents shrug and wish her well, which is more than the third hero gets from the only parent he has. This third hero, sent away to boarding school, eventually reunites with his father who lives close by but can’t be bothered to raise his son because he is too busy pursuing his passion for invention. All this third hero gets from his father is a flying saucer that quickly breaks and an inherited talent for invention and repairing broken technology. He gets more emotional warmth and concern from the person who watches over the school he lived in than his own father.
The only adults who actively help the heroes on their journey seem to do so out of a sense of obligation. After all, they only help once the heroes have bailed them out of some sticky situation. There’s one particular group of adults, painted as a bright spot in a dreary world, who show up repeatedly, but each time they’ve made terrible choices and wound up buried in debt that you must dig them out of before they can help you. You’re a collection of children fighting to save the universe from evil that seeks to sink the world into a rotten morass of greed and self-interest, but contracts must be honored! Norms must be observed! No adult can help until these heroes resolve whatever thing is on their mind, whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into, so these children must always be the first to offer aid and consideration. Even then, all they are doing is arming the heroes so they can continue their lonely quest to save the world.
When you call the first hero’s father, a necessary step to save the game, he offers words of support and congratulations for the progress the hero made since the last call. The hero’s mother offers words of comfort, favorite food, and the chance to rest in your bed again should you ever return home. As the mother stays home, wandering around her kitchen, or as the father is never seen on screen, ostensibly working to support the hero, their son wanders the world, shouldering the responsibility for solving problems adults are ignoring or actively encouraging. The nature of a game this old dictates that any dialog is short. That words, important as they are, must be kept to a bare minimum. There’s so much required to make a game happen and space is so incredibly limited, so it is not surprising the words offered by the hero’s parents fall flat. That they sound hollow in the face of the parents’ inaction against the dangers of the world the hero and his companions must face.
As I play through this game again, I finally understand the reason it holds so prominent a place in my heart. All the reasons I might have offered before, about quick-paced combat or bright, cheerful music or the nature of what it means to shoulder responsibility when no one else is as capable as you are, fall away as I acknowledge that this was the first time I ever saw myself represented. I may not have been tasked with saving the world, but my parents handed me a responsibility beyond my years. I was not sent into the world to save it by myself, but I was abandoned to face a problem they were actively making worse or, at best, ignoring. I see my parents’ affirmations in the way the heroes’ parents speak to them. Just as empty, just as useless for anything but base survival, because, like a video game cartridge from almost thirty years ago, they lack the capacity to give me any more than that.
Now, as I play this game almost exactly two years my junior, I find myself too full of thoughts to do anything but listen to the 32-bit soundtrack and effects. I wonder if the heroes feel the way I felt back then, that this situation was normal. It seems like that would be the case. After all, they have each other. There are four of them, each reinforcing the idea that this is a normal part of childhood. One of the reocurring villains reinforces it as well, as he rises to oppose the heroes and rule over adults despite being the same age as the heroes. The game ends before the heroes have a chance to grow up and I find myself wondering what they think of this experience, this life, when they look back at it as adults. The conclusion to the game heavily implies that their lives returned to “normal,” but I can’t help but wonder how the heroes feel knowing the adults in their life stood by, doing nothing, as they sacrificed their childhood, mental health, and physical well-being. What can be “normal” in their life when they know that?
Ostensibly, if you take the game at face value, it is about the responsibility of the capable to help those around them. It is about the strength of children who need to be allowed to grow and experience the world away from hovering parents. It is about growing older and making compromises with a difficult world until you find yourself lost with no way back. After you pick past this surface layer, though, you start to see that the game is making a statement about the assumed responsibility of the younger generations to the world at large. You can see parallels in the world around us, as adults congratulate children on their heroic activism, as children fight battles against adults who have given themselves over to greed and corruption while the adults who should be protecting them stand back and congratulate themselves on raising such strong children. “This generation is alright” they graciously offer. “Children will save the world” they affirm to each other, each them watching from the sidelines as a child, steel spine forged in trauma or the unceasing strain of a world that seems to be decaying around them, shoulders a burden that these same voices ignored or minimized.
I think that this game was meant as a lesson. After all, it was created at a time when video games were largely seen as entertainment for children alone. Like most good lessons, it teaches it subtly. It slips in the ideas meant to change how you think between the ones you think it is trying to instill in you. It teaches not by telling you what you need to know, but by giving you a chance to develop your own thoughts and feelings on the matter. I’m sure there are people out there who have played this game and found only the message that children will save the world, that the newest generation is most capable of bringing change to pass. I think that, instead, it was a warning against that very idea. It makes it clear, if you pay attention to the timeline, that a world in which children must fight against adults who have adicated their responsibilities is one that has all but fallen to ruin.
So as I watch the bright collection of pixels representing the only heroes capable of saving their world march around my TV as the adults around them seem stuck in place, I can’t help but think of my own parents. I wish I could say that this story inspired me to give them a break, that it showed me they are products of their world as much as I am so that I might grant them some measure of forgiveness, but that’s not true. Instead, it reinforced my decisions. It hardened me against their efforts to errode my resolve and carefully built boundaries. If I can fight against the world that made me, if I can end a cycle of neglect, abuse, and apathy, shouldn’t they have been capable of doing the same? If I can find it in me to stand against everything I experienced and decide it will end with me, why should I not hold them to the same standards I hold myself? After all, unlike the heroes of Earthbound, I can’t travel back in time to rip out evil at its root. I just have to make the best of the world I live in.