I finished Earthbound last night. It took a bit longer than expected, since I wound up spending way too long in an area near the end because I was being too conservative with my resources. I was trying to get to the final boss while spending as little as possible, alternating between using the Switch’s state saving method to find a path foward with only a few encounters between the last save/healing spot and the final boss and grinding against the enemies in the same area so I’d be strong enough to easily blast through them. It was only a few hours, but that was spread across a couple nights and really cut into the building tension between the rather confusing lead up to this final area and the nightmarish final boss.
As I played through, I thought about the post I wrote a while back, about the neglect and selfishness of the adults in the world that the protagonists are saving. To be honest, it prompted me to start working through some stuff I’ve been avoiding about my own childhood and parents (to be fair to myself, I’ve had a lot of other stuff that was a higher priority until replaying Earthbound brought it all front-and-center again) so it’s been a difficult few weeks for me, for that and other reasons. But now I’ve reached the end, of both my deliberations and the game, wrapping up the former the weekend before I wrapped up the latter, and I have to say the game left me feeling a bit off-put.
I know that most games of that era don’t have much of a conclusion, given that the developers were trying to do so much with the little they had at the time, but Earthbound’s end is much larger than that of many modern games. After the final battle, you say farewell to everyone who helped you, your allies depart one at a time, and you eventually return home to share the details of your journey with your mother who has, until that point, constantly told you not to talk about it now since it seems like you’re so busy. But, between those points, you can tour the world again. You can talk to people you helped in the past, visit various locations that have been rendered safe now that the force driving everything that once attacked you is gone, and discover that every medium to major NPC has new dialogue. It’s almost worth it to take the time to talk to everyone again, just to see how they react now that you’ve saved the world.
I don’t know if it was the lateness of the hour when I beat the boss, my generally low mood lately, or the sort of jarring shift in the demeanor of the NPCs I talked to, but the game left me feeling unfulfilled. It felt so strange to wander around the mostly empty world I’d just finished exploring, talking to random NPCs and realizing just how much of what occupied the world was put there for me to fight. Most of the map is only occupied by enemies for you to fight, all of whom are just gone now, and even the few people you fought who remain, who weren’t truly driven to violence by the villain but who fought you in order to measure your capapbilities, act like you were old friends. It feels almost like I imagined the violence and danger, or like I’m in some kind of afterlife version of the world, where every problem has mysteriously been fixed and now everyone knows who I am. It is almost as surreal and nightmarish as the final battle itself.
Given the relative incomprehensibility of the rest of the game, the meta nature of the humor in the game, and the various changes made to the translation of the game to make it acceptable for publication in the US, it makes a certain amount of sense that the end would feel strange. There’s nothing “normal” about the game, given how different it is from most games in the same genre, and it makes a certain amount of sense to be able to tour the world you’ve saved, now that people aren’t having the evil parts of them pushed and enhanced by the game’s villain. I want to say the reason the game has such an open ending is to give the player a chance to understand how relatively normal people can be driven to extremes by tough times, but I feel a bit too bitter to be that charitable to a population that let children fight all its battles. After all, it makes sense that everyone would have time for the protagonists at that point. All their problems have been solved, their needs have been met. They’re free to spend their time on lower priorities, like the children in front of them and whatever it is they want.
I know I’m probably putting too much on this video game. The whole thing is only a few megabytes, so it should be understood that the NPCs in the world are fairly limited and one-dimensional. Their simple things, with very specific thoughts and feelings that you can entirely uncover by talking to them once or twice. But when you grew up with parents who had the same level of emotional nuance, who spoke to you the same way these bits and bytes speak to the protagonists, it can be difficult not to think they should be capable of more.