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 email@example.com!
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.