Messianism & Earthbound 1

This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: reli­gion and/or the­ol­o­gy in games. We have a great bunch of arti­cles lined up, from the very per­son­al to the deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, from both reg­u­lar OntoGeek con­trib­u­tors and sev­er­al guest writ­ers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on spe­cif­ic arti­cles and the month as a whole – com­ment freely and e‑mail us at!

Ness is the child fated to defeat Giygas and deliv­er humankind from the alien force’s unknown evil. The Mani Mani stat­ue appears in city after city, wor­shiped by its tem­po­rary own­ers, a cat­a­lyst for their dark­er ambi­tions, until the boy won­der con­fronts it and puts an end to its power. And Pokey, Ness’s neigh­bor and rival, pur­sues Giygas like an apos­tle, try­ing to help the alien take over the world, lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ing for the crea­ture when Ness & co. face him in the game’s final moments.

Few games have obtained the com­mit­ted fol­low­ing in North America as Shigesato Itoi’s sec­ond game. Released in-between Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, Earthbound was an ugly duck­ling of the bunch. It wasn’t as sophis­ti­cat­ed or sprawl­ing­ly epic as Square’s two leg­endary RPGs, and appeared exces­sive­ly child­ish by com­par­i­son. Locked with­in its car­toon­ish sprites and brazen pop cul­tur­al par­o­dy, how­ev­er, was a tale of sub­ur­ban des­per­a­tion and mes­sian­ic hero­ism that, for many play­ers, struck clos­er to home than any­thing else that had yet been released on the SNES.

The world is deeply flawed–beyond repair, even. Only a new power can destroy the sta­tus quo and save it, redeem it. That’s mes­sian­ism. That’s Earthbound’s story, and that’s what Earthbound has been for so many video game play­ers. Fan sites like Starman​.net and Fangamer​.net are more than just, well, fan sites. They marry fan­dom and com­mu­ni­ty in a way that’s more rem­i­nis­cent of a church than a url address. Earthbound isn’t just a beloved clas­sic; for many it’s a dig­i­tal sav­ior.

It spoke to the youth­ful ennui kept tepid­ly at bay by a resur­gence in con­spic­u­ous mid­dle­class con­sump­tion. Walking around back­wa­ter towns in search of plush teddy bears and a bicy­cle close­ly mir­rored the direc­tion­less mean­der­ings of so many of us. Earthbound pre­sent­ed an assem­blage of base­ball caps, cheesy alien designs, and idi­ot­ic adult char­ac­ters that felt tailor-made for our lives, at once inti­mate but hope­less­ly exot­ic; a panacea for the mid-90s malaise which accom­pa­nied mil­len­ni­al ado­les­cence. The story of a boy and his friends trav­el­ing the expanse of late American cap­i­tal­ism in the year “199X” offered an instant­ly relat­able adven­ture, one in which the wan­der­ers don’t dis­cov­er a way just to pro­tect the world, but to save it, and them­selves.

The game hit Western shores in the mid­dle of 1995. This remix of the for­eign and the famil­iar even appeared in a spe­cial deluxe box set, fur­ther solid­i­fy­ing the game’s sta­tus as exot­ic relic. Twice the size of a nor­mal SNES box, the deluxe ver­sion includ­ed a strat­e­gy guide, scratch’n’sniff cards, and other bizarre para­pher­na­lia. I still have the rem­nants of mine: a spare front page from the “Onett Times,” some maps and boss expla­na­tions, and the back of the box (which for a long time had been mount­ed on the wall next to my bed as a…trophy, piece of art­work, reli­gious cross?)

My par­ents bought it for me for Christmas that same year. It was on sale at Best’s, a local depart­ment store that was going out of busi­ness. The clear­ance stick­er price, which they unin­ten­tion­al­ly left append­ed to the box, read some­thing like $19.95. A steal bor­der­ing on sac­ri­lege in hind­sight. And yet how fit­ting that a tri­umph of pop-cultural pas­tiche should be dis­cov­ered lan­guish­ing in a sales bin next to sharply dis­count­ed Power Rangers action fig­ures and Thomas Kinkade jig­saw puz­zles.

For a gen­er­a­tion of video game play­ers, Earthbound has reached a posi­tion of myth­ic unas­sail­abil­i­ty. Like all micro-religions (a term I just made up), Earthbound’s tran­scen­dent qual­i­ties rely on a devot­ed fol­low­ing of unequiv­o­cal believ­ers. Those of us who have had its beau­ty and truth revealed to us first­hand encour­age oth­ers to seek it out for them­selves. For every­one else, the would-be believ­ers and those oth­er­wise too far removed—they must take our word for it.

We had played the mes­si­ah, and need­ed to com­mu­ni­cate the incom­mu­ni­ca­bil­i­ty of that holi­est com­mu­nion as best we could: hand-made trin­kets on Etsy, T‑shirts and hood­ies at Fangamer, and the mil­lions of mes­sage board threads which, like the back­room bars of Fourside and Farside, served as points of entry for any­one else who sub­con­scious­ly un at ease in today’s world, and need­ed a place to go where their anx­i­ety can be poured out until the glass is half full, and its con­tents are trans­fig­ured into the blood, body, and hope of a new age; a place to talk about that con­tact lens you found in the desert and why the dirty socks you got from the man above the bak­ery held a deep, inex­press­ible truth buried in its sim­ple joy.

But the sad irony is that the game itself seeks in so many ways to eschew the idol­a­try which accom­pa­nies these expe­ri­ences, and put the full effects of its unin­hib­it­ed embrace on dis­play. From Happy Happyism to the Mani Mani stat­ue, and cul­mi­nat­ing in Pokey’s destruc­tive rev­er­ence for that which he can­not under­stand, exam­ples of messianism’s tor­tured con­se­quences are present through­out Earthbound.

After a futur­is­tic bee informs Ness that he is, for all intents and pur­pos­es, “the one,” the game imme­di­ate­ly explores the more prob­lem­at­ic side of this ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive. The first obsta­cle the play­er encoun­ters is a gang of “Sharks” who loi­ter around the local arcade and take orders from the knife-wielding Frank. They employ his name with self-justifying rev­er­ence. He’s lib­er­at­ed them from the con­straints of society’s expec­ta­tions and empow­ered them by mak­ing pos­si­ble a group iden­ti­ty.

This is no dif­fer­ent from what the play­er and Ness encounter in Peaceful Rest Valley. There, Mr. Carpainter has formed a cult of sim­i­lar­ly hood­ed mal­con­tents. The aging beat is inspired by the Mani Mani stat­ue to paint the world blue. Blue, blue, blue—that’s the mantra Happy Happyists repeat over and over again, as if spir­i­tu­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal sal­va­tion can be found in the deaf­en­ing silence between syl­la­bles. They run around town with paint cans and brush­es to re-pigment the world because it’s a plan and a pur­pose that goes beyond cashier­ing a check-out line or recit­ing pre-programmed lines for real-life play­ers.

The Happyist cult’s sim­i­lar­i­ties to the Ku Klux Klan and Aum Shinrikyo have been explored else­where, but grow­ing up in Pennsylvania anoth­er com­par­i­son comes to mind: Nittany Lions. On most week­ends in the autumn, Happy Valley, PA swells to become the third largest city in the state. Parents, alum­ni, and near­by fans flock to the col­lege town not just to watch Penn State foot­ball games, but to take part in a manic rit­u­al which sur­pass­es the zeal of any non-denominational mega church.

When it was revealed that sev­er­al chil­dren had been raped by long­time assis­tant coach Jerry Sandusky, the fail­ure of school lead­ers to act was matched only by the fer­vor of those who couldn’t bear to see the leg­endary Joe Paterno besmirched in the process. He was the face of a phe­nom­e­non which so many peo­ple had invest­ed so much of them­selves in. To con­demn him would be an attack on the dream he had been inte­gral to cre­at­ing, and which had given new mean­ing and life to a local town and aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty that stretch­es across one of the most exten­sive alum­ni net­works.

Joe Pa saved the school from region­al anonymi­ty and medi­oc­rity. In build­ing up Penn State’s foot­ball pro­gram he also helped increase fund­ing for the rest of the school, estab­lish­ing the uni­ver­si­ty as both an aca­d­e­m­ic and ath­let­ic insti­tu­tion of nation­al recog­ni­tion. He was involved in the school’s char­i­ty events, found­ed schol­ar ships, and donat­ed mil­lions.

But most impor­tant­ly he cre­at­ed an iden­ti­ty and nar­ra­tive for Penn State and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty, ele­vat­ing it from the provin­cial­i­ty of dairy farm coun­try to a pil­lar of mod­ern col­lege foot­ball. Read the tes­ti­mo­ni­als from stu­dents, the feel­ings of Happy Valley res­i­dents, and the argu­ments of those who fought adamant­ly to pro­tect the man’s lega­cy, and an aura of cultish divin­i­ty emerges around the coach; in the riots sur­round­ing his dis­missal: more than a tinge of mes­sian­ic delir­i­um.

Following the long inves­ti­ga­tion into exact­ly who knew what when, Penn State removed Paterno’s stat­ue. Few exam­ples so clear­ly show how blind­ing the search for a hero and a sav­ior can be, and how dan­ger­ous it can be to con­tin­ue indulging the malign influ­ence of idols.

As I men­tioned ear­li­er, Earthbound has its own stat­ue in the Mani Mani stat­ue, a golden-horned human sculp­ture which brings out avarice and ambi­tion in those around it. There is pos­si­bly noth­ing else as inter­est­ing in the game as its treat­ment of this arti­fact. Dug up in the base­ment of the duly named ”Lier X. Agerate”, the eerie music which accom­pa­nies any attempt by the play­er to “check” it is matched only by the object’s eerie pres­ence through­out the rest of the game. It sur­faces here and there, but remains almost always in the back­ground; a nefar­i­ous force that acts through other men rather than inflict­ing evil explic­it­ly. It chan­nels the dis­qui­et of oth­ers and pro­vides a bot­tom­less pit into which peo­ple can pour their unre­quit­ed dreams, desires, and deep­est fears.

When Ness encoun­ters the stat­ue, once in Farside and one last time in the Sea of Eden, it uses the protagonist’s own pow­ers against him. The Mani Mani stat­ue is a mir­ror, dead­ly inso­far as it’s capa­ble of reflect­ing a person’s own destruc­tive impuls­es right back at them. The Joe Paternos are dan­ger­ous only inso­far as the rest of us invest them with an author­i­ty and mytho­log­i­cal sta­tus that no human being can come away from uncor­rupt­ed.

This could, of course, be said of most social­ly sanc­tioned forms of evil. From the group­think that allows some­thing like the Holocaust to occur, or slav­ery to endure, to less obvi­ous cases, like the blind sup­port many feel for those who serve in the military—when we vest cer­tain peo­ple, objects, or ideas with a mes­sian­ic belief in their infallibility—we make our­selves more vul­ner­a­ble rather than less.

At a less dra­mat­ic level, the search for a sav­ior can lead us far­ther from our­selves instead of clos­er. Ness’s jour­ney in Earthbound, after all, is about com­ing home. As the cred­its roll the play­er even gets to retrace their steps across each locale and see their jour­ney shown through a series of snap­shots which roll along with the cred­its.

Ultimately, it’s the human con­nec­tions Ness & co. have formed with char­ac­ters in the game that save them from Giygas. Paula doesn’t pray to an idol or a supreme being, but to friends and families—other ordi­nary indi­vid­u­als. And, of course, Giygas is not over­pow­ered, but embraced. Ness & co. give them­selves up to the alien rather than try to destroy him, and in so doing are deliv­ered from the threat posed by his hatred.

Perhaps, then, if there’s one thing Earthbound has to offer its strictest adher­ents, it’s to ignore what pre­cise­ly the game is, and focus more on the expe­ri­ence that it has given so many peo­ple, and most impor­tant­ly: how that expe­ri­ence can bring them clos­er togeth­er, not as crazy fans, but as indi­vid­ual peo­ple with some­thing in com­mon. The game saved so many from the bow­els of rote mate­ri­al­ism and the self-replicating echoes of sub­ur­bia, but its great­est gift requires let­ting it go.

For all of their gath­er­ings and insid­er hand­shakes, the Happy Happyists don’t actu­al­ly have much to say to one anoth­er. They stand in place, sway­ing side to side, or trudge slow­ly in a large cir­cle, but don’t actu­al­ly inter­act. The thing they wor­ship has brought them togeth­er with­out actu­al­ly bring­ing them clos­er togeth­er.

Copies of the orig­i­nal MOTHER pro­to­type are insane­ly expen­sive. Even the orig­i­nal boxed set of Earthbound still goes for well over $500. But in more cases than not the thing we’re pay­ing the $500 for isn’t some­thing that can be bought, or even pos­sessed. At best it’s some­thing that can be shared.

At PAX East last year I was talk­ing to some friends out­side one of the gam­ing booths while a group of four or five peo­ple kicked some­thing wild­ly back and forth. They were yelling and laugh­ing, play­ing soc­cer with an impro­vised ball—an Earthbound SNES car­tridge as it turned out. I was hor­ri­fied and aghast. My mouth hung open in bewil­dered aston­ish­ment. I want­ed to run over and say, “What the hell are you doing! Savages! Heretics!” But I didn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t. They knew exact­ly what they were doing.

Ethan Gach

About Ethan Gach

Ethan Gach spent his whole life playing video games but only broke down and started writing about them some years ago. He's working toward a Masters in sorting through bullshit while peddling his own at any place that will have him. You can call him out on Twitter at @ethangach.

One thought on “Messianism & Earthbound

  • Karl S Bonner

    The thing I remem­ber so much is that dif­fer­ent towns seemed to each cor­re­spond to dif­fer­ent parts of the world. Onett kind of felt like a quaint small town some­where in England. Twoson was very American. Threed was — ummm, don’t know while Fourside clear­ly mir­rored either New York or San Francisco. You had Winters = Canada or Scandinavia; Summers = The Mediterranean, and Scaraba = Egypt/Sahara.

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