Eagleland is something of an idyllic, suburban paradise. Small towns, beautifully kept grass and woodlands, tourist vistas, burger shops, and drugstores galore. Every town has a wonderful hotel, plenty of access to fee-free ATMs, and its own suite of strange characters and faces.
For Ness and his friends, Eagleland is a wonderful place to go on a city-hopping adventure. The cities’ characters are all friendly enough, uncritically flawed, foolish, energetic, and profoundly important parts of the journey. Without the aid of a caustic and toxic neighbor, for instance, Ness would never discover what he needs to begin his journey. Without the aid of a knife-wielding bully, Ness couldn’t even reach the first goal. A police force that breeds a healthy distrust of authority leads to comfort later when pocketing a questionably-legal wad of money to get a good band out of a bad contract. All of these take place within a few minutes and miles from Ness’s childhood home. Each of these faces are an important part of how Ness does what he does. Without them, the journey couldn’t continue.
Earthbound is a well-designed game. All of these details paint beautiful pictures of the practices and politics of Onett, Twoson, and the rest of Eagleland as the journey continues. The quirky characters Ness meets over this time are all very pragmatic. They offer fights for experience, insights to goings-on around town, and information about equipment, and drug stores, and hotels, and pizza delivery, and everything in between. None of these characters are really wasted. Most of anything Ness will encounter can point him in a good direction, or at least provide the dialog equivalent of a tooltip. Every town has a phone and an ATM. Almost every town has a hotel, a few shops, items to find, and NPCs that offer cryptic or blatant hints about where one should go to progress the story. The NPCs that don’t offer that service often provide play tips, or express abstract ideas about the town or area that serve as both flavor and semi-hinting information. There is, however, one very strange outlier.
Fuzzy Pickles, photographer extraordinaire, is a sporadically appearing character who descends from the sky in a helicopter’s spiral. Through his fanfare, he announces, “Pictures taken instantaneously! I’m a photographic genius, if I do say so myself! Okay, get ready for an instant memory! Look at the camera… Ready… Say, ‘fuzzy pickles.’” And like that, the world pauses for a snapshot. The shutter snaps in from the edges of the screen, capturing that moment through the photographer’s lens. Then away he goes again, spiraling back into the air.
This sequence is repeated several times over the course of the game. Whether it’s sensible or not for the situation, Fuzzy Pickles can and often does elect to appear when there’s good opportunity for photographic genius to be indulged. Whether that means lighting gently on a rock in the middle of a lake that would be unreachable otherwise, or spiraling into a deep, underground sewer just prior to a bombastic fight with anthropomorphic slime. As if he were a drill to pierce the heavens, through caverns, sewers, down mountains, open fields, valleys, or into dreams, Fuzzy Pickles arrives to take pictures. And nothing else.
As a matter of design, the rest of Earthbound sits somewhat separately from the aerial cameraman. Under the madcap aesthetic style and absurd circumstances, just about everything that calls attention to itself, from mythical lake monsters to named figures around town, is in service of some practical goal. Good design expects that things that happen are meaningful; Fuzzy Pickles’ time-freezing arrivals are almost everything but. He offers nothing to the hero’s journey, nor does he really impact it in any way save giving it brief pauses. Fuzzy Pickles is, narratively and mechanically, pointless. By conventional standards, Fuzzy Pickles should be a poorly designed and logically distracting inclusion, but he isn’t.
Fuzzy Pickles calls significant attention to himself in order to pursue his photography the way he wants to. In terms of his ability to influence the game how he likes, he has at least as much agency as the player does, though he expresses that agency only to do something enjoyable. Fuzzy Pickles takes pictures because he loves to take pictures, and he loves that journeys aren’t just feats of adventuring, but also memories. Fuzzy Pickles expresses his opinion on the adventure by making himself a part of it, but not in a way that helps the player. He’s mostly just helping himself.
However, even though he should just be a diversion from the main story events, Fuzzy Pickles installs himself into the aesthetic of the game. Fuzzy Pickles isn’t mechanically or narratively necessary, but he is integral to how Earthbound feels. Without the ambushing cameraman, Earthbound would feel lesser. Even with the rest of the game going at a blistering pace of oddity and silliness, Fuzzy Pickles feels important.
Fuzzy Pickles grows to become something more than his enthusiasm or his charm. He endears himself to the player the same way going back and viewing his photos might. He becomes a beacon for the memories of the moment. The calm, relative quiet of the snapshot is all the time he needs to implant himself in Ness’s journey. Without him, the journey would still be exactly as significant, exactly as urgent, and exactly as it is, but not nearly as memorable.
These photographs, when they come, rarely leave as large an impression in their moments as they do afterward. Their subdued weight is signaled by a simple sentence at that follows the snapshot. “Wow, what a great photograph! It will always bring back the fondest of memories…” They are a quiet, pivotal aspect of the adventure.
In part, because adventures are transient, always in motion. The adventure today will look different from the adventure tomorrow. A small, sleepy suburban town teeming with police barricades will melt away and be replaced with a town bordering a cult of blue-enthusiasts. Then a small city full of zombies. Then a bustling urban sprawl. Between them all, bands and buses and bikes and business. Every passing day is a change of scenery, a change of tone, or just a drastic change of expectation. Conflicts cede to new conflicts, and everything is changing as quickly as Ness can travel. Much of it could very well be forgotten for the next problem. Players who don’t make time for a bit of reflection won’t otherwise have time to reflect on it all. Except for Fuzzy Pickles.
A rotating, dapper, bearded photography enthusiast who installs himself in passing moments, takes a photo, makes them permanent, and disappears back into the sky. A beat panel in the comic of Ness and his party’s life, just enough for a moment of exhalation, a peace sign, and a snapshot. A photojournalist of sorts that almost, but not quite, removes himself from the life and trials Ness faces. Then, when it’s all said and done, there are still photos. Little mementos of some moments of the adventure, each with their own brief moment of reflection, left for those who want to revisit.
Without Fuzzy Pickles, it wouldn’t be Earthbound. It would be profoundly similar, certainly, but remarkably less too. Like going out to dinner with friends without eating, none of the conversation changes, no one is missing, but it still feels off. There’s a sense of uncanny that something should be there, but isn’t. The aesthetic of Earthbound hinges, to a degree, on Fuzzy Pickles being a part of the scenery, a moment in the adventures, an important and pointless part of the experience.