by Tim Williams – A&SB Contributor
In the theater world, which is a lot like our own but with more petticoats, there is the singular phenomenon called the “problem play.” Why only plays, and not other narrative mediums, are allowed identity crises is only a mystery to those who have never taken part in one. I said in my first column (which hopefully piqued your interest enough to read several hundred more words about a video game) that Mother 3 was a Shavian tragicomedy. Specifically, it’s Heartbreak House, one you won’t find in many anthologies. Mother 3, too, is about smiling at the apocalypse.
“Willing suspension of disbelief” is easily invoked when people question why the titular character can talk on the moon in Le Petit Prince. But when you have to walk the talk yourself, the giant gaping details that come from a writer’s universe, not honed like ours to mundane absurdity over billions of years, suddenly seem infinite. It is in that infinite, however, in the irrational, that we can enjoy art as art.
We are much less lenient of papier mache coconut trees in the films we watch, perhaps because a photograph can be mistaken for life. Or perhaps because our collective conscience demands, in return for the horrific expense incurred in making a movie, at the least, consistent coffee cup levels. In Mother 3, you can ride a coffee table.
Many people mistakenly compare video games to films, because of the erroneous belief that one day video games will look “realistic” enough to suppress disbelief like film. They say, if video games could take the game out of their name and start garnering decent writers and directors, there’s no reason interactive fiction won’t eventually replace film.
This is silly in many ways, but mainly because the video game that comes closest to craft, if not art, does so by hewing strictly to the conventions of theater. The art is simple and cartoonish, but the sprite animation is Jim Henson at his best. Similarly, the broad character strokes and paper-thin, fantasy archetype plot belie the insightful dialogue and wildly creative sets (much of one of the dungeons is a series of bathrooms). Most of all, Mother 3 rarely lets you forget that you, as the audience, are playing a role, both as a character and as a player. You are at certain intervals asked for your name, not just whatever silly name you gave the character who does things when you press buttons. Frequent asides keep you at just the right distance from the action, enough to let your guard down so the game can suddenly reach out, pull your heartstrings and call you by name.
Devoted fans of this series are probably, at this very moment, vociferously defending on Internet forums their 9.2/10 rating of the game, for reasons that show they have never read a book or seen a play not required for class. For one, they shout, you can only carry 20 items for large portions of the game. Sometimes, you’ll have to drop things you might need later on. What’s an RPG without mad loot? Who made this game, Trotsky?
No, but the Marxism rings so loud in the first few chapters (which are more like really long scenes than chapters, given that each one ends with a deliberately ham-fisted monologue) that you’ll rightly question whether this a parody of social commentary. There is a town store, but you can’t buy anything, only take what’s given you. When money arrives, in a money bag, the town newcomer Fassad hides it in a well. Your proscribed town role in that chapter is the Thief. You can take the bag, but the game will make you put it back. What would you buy with it anyway?
This is both the greatest strength and failing of Mother 3: It was rewritten after its would-be incarnation 10 years ago as a Nintendo 64 game. Thus the beginning pulls no punches, but otherwise the game accepts that an entertainment software product is probably not the best format for a straight-laced treatise against mass consumption and environmental desecration.
Not that the social commentary goes away, or that more didacticism would be desirable. It’s to Itoi’s credit that he doesn’t make the characters slaves to his message; the idyllic small town easily crumbles only because it’s a place we only wish existed. To the end, the villagers are never truly corrupted by greed, only too self-absorbed to see that the world is sliding into ruin. But it is a shame that nothing past the first chapter makes you feel bad for wanting to enjoy a video game.
Why the shift in tone? When asked by the Japanese magazine Nintendo Dream, writer Shigesato Itoi said he made large portions of game funnier because, well, “I guess I became a good person.” (Read the entire interview with Itoi if you want to know more about how to be a good person.)
The remnants of Itoi’s stated initial goal to “betray the player” are about as subtle as the flamboyant hermaphrodite fairies that guide Lucas in his and your quest to stop capitalism from ruining his village. (Just wait until one of the said fairies corners you in a hot spring.)
For one thing, someone important is unceremoniously killed off in the first chapter. “Unceremoniously” is too charitable; there is a certain dialogue line and an ironic but still cheap videogamey reward for the death that makes you question if Itoi has any emotions himself, despite managing to create a profoundly empathetic video game. (Even to the player: At several points in the adventure, you may say, “Damn.” Then around the corner will be a present with exactly what you need.)
The bad taste left in your mouth is instantly washed away, though, when the next chapter shortly begins. You are introduced to your new role in a minigame you can’t win (a running theme that grows to an ingenious climax in a fixed game show you are forced to participate in)—you play a monkey someone is making dance.
This is the more typical video game subversion that awaits to delight anyone who has even a vague idea of how absurd the conventions of video games are. These moments are mostly entirely dependent on context, but I’ll try to capture the spirit. At one point you stop at an arcade. If you put 10 DP in a game, you will be unable to move for a full minute, only to watch Lucas’s back and listen to nostalgic game sound effects repeat incessantly. When he’s finished, he faces the screen, red-faced, with the text: “In one sense, you feel completely satisfied.”
The highest compliment I can give this game is you will rarely, if ever, feel embarrassed while playing Mother 3 around other people, even people who deeply mistrust anyone who could enjoy a video game that requires emotional engagement. In the Japanese television spot for this “funny, strange and heartrending” game, the first two of those qualities, which make up 90 percent of the game, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the ad shows a woman , who tries and fails to put into words the feeling the game invokes. There are tears in her eyes.
After playing Mother 3, when Itoi says she is not acting, I believe him. Find your seat, sit through the first act, and you just might, too.