Fright-Bound in Earthbound

Oh man, you know what I haven’t fangirled about in a long time?

(Whaddya mean it hasn’t even been a full year? Shaddup.)

We are in that season where the horrific, grotesque, and frightening wrest center stage from every other genre style born of the imagination. In some expressions of the Halloween spirit, there’s very little nuance. The image of an ax buried in someone’s head, blood-soaked skin and clothes, malformations presented to shock the audience, or worst of all – CLOWNS. Yes, the doors open to the most extreme degree of unpleasantness this time of year, and I have to give some creative endeavors credit just for shock value.

But anything in large doses will soon create desensitization, or just plain old “squick” – not true unsettling terror. If that’s what you hope to achieve for your audience, more power to you. If you want to create an honest-to-goodness, scare, however, might I suggest…mixing your genres?

You see, Earthbound isn’t a horror game. In no fashion is it even advertised that way. But good gravy n’ biscuits, it will leave you scarred. Y’all fellow fans know what I’m talking about. But wait, others may say. It’s a game of silly word play, goofy enemies and bosses, and quirky NPC’s. This doesn’t compute. And I answer – EXACTLY. The majority of Earthbound plays out in light-hearted tones, several ludicrous premises strung together for maximum absurdity. It’s a story of boyhood adventure, coupled with comedy, coupled with HOLY FRIED BEANS WHAT PARALLEL REALM OF DISTURBING RANDOMNESS HAVE I STUMBLED INTO?

See, this game never lets you settle down. As soon as you think you understand its mood it breaks free and gleefully screws with your expectations. Were you enjoying that escapade in the mines fighting silly moles? Well, now get ready for melting Dali clocks, weird NPC speech patterns, and completely disorienting map mechanics. And an eerie gold statue will absolutely destroy you in your attempts to escape.

Moonside is more surreal than frightening, you might say, but the unsettling moments continue to ratchet up over time, giving the slightest uncertainty to where this game will take you in the end. Slogging through the swamp hazards of Deep Darkness, then delving into the enemy’s secret base as the whirring of their machinery grows louder…

We’re gettin’ all Stranger Things before Stranger Things was a thing up in here.

Still, there’s been enough light-hearted humor to keep your expectations in balance, right? But every moment of unease serves as a hint – this game ain’t playin’ the “get out scar-free” card. Our final boss Giygas is nightmare fuel from start to finish.

Were you expecting this the first time you played? (And if you haven’t played…sorry for the spoiler. #ruinseverything) There was always lead-up and these moments of discomfort sprinkled into a mostly whimsical story so you were never quiiiiite ready for what would make your stomach clench. Mixing your genres. It’ll throw your audience around like rag dolls.

Naturally, there ARE other methods to properly give your audience a scare; this is but one of several options available to the storyteller. How do you think your scare tactics would come across best?

 

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.

Relatable Characters – Earthbound Series

Storytellers try a number of methods to help endear characters to their audience: tragic backstory to tug at heartstrings, diversifying the cast to appeal to a wider range of experience, creating quirks and tics to make a character as immediately unique as possible. Sometimes the attempts can go a little overboard.

Did I mention “radical costuming”?
(I’ve never played this game. Does this dude just really love pizza, or…?)

Here’s a pro tip: if your characters express a sense of humanity, triumph, and fallibility, the audience will relate regardless of other influencing factors.

Still, there’s something to be said for character attributes that quickly grab the audience’s attention. Sometimes they can be the gateway to a deeper emotional bond. But how do you create such quirks in a way that doesn’t seem forced or against the natural flow of the story?

I know EXACTLY the games that can help us solve that question:

*obsession intensifies*

The Mother/Earthbound series’ goal, from the beginning, was to experiment telling a story through the video game medium. For me to compare Mother 1 Earthbound Beginnings to other RPG stories released around the same time would be a little above my pay grade (because yo, I don’t get paid for this), but whatever the case, Itoi knew how to endear his characters to players in an environment that complimented the quirks.

Since the games take place in the “real world”, there’s already some familiarity when we recruit and interact with the cast. This helps set the stage for when we meet what might be considered underwhelming characters, compared to the epic casts of other JRPGs. Your first teammate in Earthbound Beginnings wasn’t some noble warrior sporting a sweet set of armor; it was a nerd with thick glasses hiding in a trash can at his school.

But this is great, because we immediately have a reason to root for this kid: I mean, who HASN’T dealt with bullies in their life? And instead of just getting fed a character bio, we connect with Lloyd through quirks related to his current struggles.

(Remember when we covered character introductions in detail? Man, that was such a great time.)

The trend continues into Earthbound, where your party diversifies beyond the confines of America Eagleland and includes individuals from overseas. (Jeff is totally British, and you can’t convince me otherwise.) A foreign character like Poo, for example, brings a cool, mystical (and highly stereotyped – Earthbound is shameless) dynamic to the cast, which may not necessarily make him relatable, but he nevertheless garners audience interest.

Sometimes the enigmatic draws our emotions through a desire to know more, eh? Poo could also be perceived as a foil to the rest of the party, who – while boss in their own right – don’t exactly exude the same mysterious dignity.

This in particular brings out Ness’s more relatable aspects, such as his tendency toward homesickness. Despite being the game’s hero, he has this childlike fallibility set in stark contrast to Poo’s calm aloofness. While the game doesn’t reveal much through character dialogue, it does an excellent job allowing the player to project their own feelings through the cast. I’d wager more of us know what it’s like to be the homesick little boy than what it’s like to be the serious, dashing prince.

These character traits never feel forced, either. Many are in fact subtly integrated into the battle system itself (Ness thinking of his mom’s steak and missing a turn; Ninten from Beginnings seizing up with an asthma attack). Mixed with the inherent weirdness of the games’ world, the quirks fit seamlessly and allow the audience to connect on their own terms.

…But wait, you might be saying (or not saying, if you’re absolutely lost by this point): What about the cast of Mother 3? Well, have I got a TREAT for you! That party will be receiving an entire post devoted to them in two weeks’ time! Aren’t you EXCITED? (Pretend to be excited.)

…I seem to be developing a trend of dedicating whole months to this series. It’s like they’re my favorite games, or something.

 

The Mother/Earthbound series is the property of Nintendo & Shigesato Itoi. You can purchase both Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound to play via the Wii U Virtual Console.

The Complex Villain (Part I) – Porky from Earthbound

[Currently listening to: Starbound OST]

Villains1

There’s plenty to love about the stereotypical villain. Baddies like Final Fantasy VI‘s Kefka or Super Mario‘s Bowser are so memorable because of their over-the-top power-mongering. They’ve got no reason to cause our heroes trouble other than for the “evulz”.  Motive isn’t really in focus here; we just want them to cause a little mayhem – the hammier the better.

Think about Disney’s typical villain recipe:

  1. Must want power/control/revenge.
  2. Does not necessarily require backstory.
  3. An eccentric personality certainly helps.

With this perfect fusion of attitude and wickedness we’re guaranteed to love the antagonist, but not so much that we want them to win. I love Maleficent and Hades, but I’m too attached to those movies’ protagonists to root for the opposing team with their barely-developed motivations.

The system works in fiction, especially when the point – or moral – of the story doesn’t require more than a two-dimensional villain. But, of course, in the real world cruelty isn’t born in a bubble. Circumstances and choices (of both the individual and outside influences) can shape the sinful nature of man into someone more complex than a power-monger. Maybe your story’s villain needs that sort of development.

He may not be our grittiest example of a complex baddie, but in this post we’re going to look at:

Porky1

Porky Minch.

(Pokey? Porky? Dangit, localization, why must you make things so confusing?)

Here’s a bully with two games in a trilogy focused on his motives. Even though in Earthbound our “big bad” is Giygas, it quickly becomes clear that Po(r)k(e)y is the antagonist to watch (partly because Giygas is just nebulously “out there” controlling the evil in people). And in Mother 3, even though the main party doesn’t even meet him until the last hour of the game, his actions behind the scenes make it clear what sort of person he is.

There’s just too much to cover about Porky (whatever, I’ll just go with that form of his name) in one post, so you know what that means…

…IT’S A PORKY-PALOOZA ALL MONTH LONG!

So! To begin, let’s talk about the way he’s introduced in Earthbound. I’m referring of course to the importance of –

Origin

Who is Porky? Why is he important to the story? How is he introduced? What vibes does he give off?

A villain should make a memorable entrance; it doesn’t need to expose his villainy right away, but it should at least set up the character traits that will foretell a fall from grace. (Even a surprise villain’s motivations need to make sense.) Porky, at the start, is pushy and a bully, but by and large is no real threat. He’s the typical obnoxious kid next door. We’re guaranteed to remember him, though, partly because of his attitude.

Villains2

The other part? Well, that would be –

Relationships

Your villain needs to matter to the protagonist. Otherwise, what’s the use in them conflicting? Some stories make it immediately apparent that their baddie intends grief for the hero. In Porky’s case, it’s further into the game that we realize he means business (oh, come on, it’s funny), but the way he treats Ness at the start assures us that their relationship not only has history, but it’s also one blue-colored cult away from turning sour.

Villains3

Even the most 2D villains can have a relationship with the protagonist, though. What makes Porky more complex is the secondary relationships that have shaped him – primarily, his relationship with his parents.

This relationship is more inferred than the blatantly antagonistic one Porky shares with Ness. Aside from the abusive discipline we see his father administer at the start of the game, the rest of our information comes from inference in just a few lines of dialogue: like Mr. Minch’s constant focus on money and importance, or the fact that Mrs. Minch has a “gentleman friend” visiting the house at the game’s end while her husband is away.

Villains4

Circumstances – positive or negative – will rouse a response in the receiver. You can see this in the whole history of mankind. Since good fiction reflects this characteristic of man (again – positive and negative), it follows that in-story circumstances need to rouse a response from our characters as well. So in light of the information we’ve covered so far, let’s take a look at Porky’s –

Reactions

Porky ‘s upbringing hasn’t left much room for gracious behavior, and it’s honestly something you pity in him instead of hate. He seems to want a good friendship with Ness, but his anger and broken home life cause him to act out in other ways.

What’s he been taught to do when the world doesn’t give him what he wants? Well, it could be argued that his only reference – his father – has taught him that importance is the key to satisfaction. So he seeks it – higher and higher until finally he has it, fully corrupted by Giygas’ hatred.

Villains7

In the end, he’s a power-mongering villain like so many others, but what makes him different is his backstory of abuse and inability to foster positive relationships. He’s a reflection of many real people with real struggles and real sins. In some ways, we relate to him more than we relate to the game’s heroes.

But that’s only scraping the surface of Porky’s psyche. In our next video game post, we’ll see what makes him tick in Mother 3.

 

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.

Release Date: August 27, 1994

Earthbound logo

Happy anniversary, you crazy game, you!

I didn’t play Earthbound all the way through until probably five years ago. The main reason for that, I can tell you right now, is because it was too. Frickin’. HARD.

But now, more than twenty years after its release, it’s on my list of games I play at least once a year. It taught me the power of humor in a story, and how to evoke emotion through simplicity. It captures my imagination and brings back childhood wonder like very few stories can.

So take THAT, all you naysayers who think video games turn your brain to mush. This game has reshaped the way I view writing, and that is something not even some of my favorite BOOKS have accomplished. “Video games only teach violence” indeed.

Now let’s go beat up some New Age Retro Hippies!

Earthbound Hippie

Meeting Characters – the Dynamic Way! (Part I)

[Currently listening to: Mega Man remixes.]

I’m starting to realize the value of a dynamic introduction.

Dynamic Introductions1

Typically, I adopt the Dickensian manner of characters meeting each other: an individual bumps into another individual and discovers a memorable quirkiness about this new acquaintance. These two characters now proceed to quip about their backstory at length (or sink into a tense silence where they hide something important about themselves) and join each other for my convenience as a writer who wants people to meet because plot, that’s why.

But far better introductions are made out of need or a certain character’s motivation. It gives a better glue to the upcoming relationship between characters than if they were just to meet by happenstance.

Video games by rule must pull this off if they want to keep a good pace in gameplay. So over these summer months we’re going to have a look at the ways we can adopt a VG method of character introductions.

(These introductions will mostly include heroes meeting fellow heroes/anti-heroes. I feel like the subject of meeting the villain is a whole ‘nother topic on its own.)

COMMENCE WITH PART ONE!

Part I: Meeting Out of Need
  • Frog & Ayla: Chrono Trigger

Frog2

In an attempt to rescue Queen Leene and restore the timeline’s continuity, Crono and Lucca find themselves in a pinch when they’re assaulted by Fiends at a highly-suspect chapel. Just when they think the battle is theirs, one Fiend catches Lucca off guard and assaults her. Is it all over for Lucca? Will she die a brutal death 400 years in her world’s past??

No, because outta nowhere this frog warrior springs in and cuts that Fiend in half (at least, that’s how I interpret the flickering pixels). And he’s like, “Don’t let your guard down, fool.”

And Lucca’s like, “AAH, GROSS, A TALKING FROG.”

And Crono’s like, “…”

The party of three goes on to form a brief alliance based on their mutual search for the Queen, but already we know a great deal from Frog’s dynamic entrance with him having to explain very little:

  1. He is in some way connected to the Queen.
  2. He’s more than skilled with a blade.
  3. His physical appearance is unnatural (revealed by Lucca’s shock upon seeing him).

How would it have been different if Crono and Lucca just randomly bumped into Frog while they were exploring Guardia castle? They might spend a few dull text boxes explaining to each other why they mutually need to find the Queen, then figure out why they should join forces; and if the writer was feeling particularly verbose he could add in a dash of Frog angsting about his appearance.

Instead, since the three of them must meet in the immediacy of a search-and-rescue mission, the introductions have to be brief – and give just enough intrigue for us to wonder how this Frog fellow is going to contribute to the rest of the story.

Dynamic Introductions3

Ayla’s introduction is practically identical to Frog’s, but it drives home the same point: introductions made out of need reveal the essentials of a new character. This primal woman can mow down six imposing Reptites. BY HERSELF. Ergo, the player knows right away, “Dang, don’t mess with this chick.”

You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.
You know what this post needs? A kick-butt gif.

Her scenario also establishes the setting, as well as many of her own plot points:

  1. There’s man-dinos terrorizing the prehistoric era.
  2. Humans and man-dinos are apparently not on friendly terms.
  3. …I don’t really have a third point. I just like writing things in three’s.

In summary (wow, this went all “college thesis”, didn’t it?), Frog’s and Ayla’s intros play out brilliantly when it comes to setting up their interaction with other characters in the party – as well as drawing the players into their personal stories. We don’t need long exposition telling us who they are or why they’re intent on joining up with our heroes.

Oh, but don’t you dare think we’re done yet. We’ve got to talk about one more character from a different video game:

  • Jeff: Earthbound

Dynamic Introductions2

Who doesn’t love this nerd? And why DO we love this nerd? Is it the diverse array of firearms at his disposal? That stylin’ green slacks-and-coat combo? The fact that he can create a beam gun out of a broken harmonica?

Well…yes, actually. ‘Cause that’s all pretty boss.

But alongside all that, he’s a character that arrives out of need, which gives the player a sense of purpose as we lead him toward rescuing Ness and Paula.

Our introduction to him is far different from how we’re introduced to Frog and Ayla. We don’t get to see his interactions with the other characters immediately; instead, we’re brought into his personal world and shown what he must leave behind and face in order to help a couple of strange kids he doesn’t even know.

Dynamic Introductions5

We’re essentially drawn into his needs as he tries to respond to the needs of new friends. This is itself a genius move, because it creates empathy without requiring excessive explanation about this new character.


So now that I’ve geeked out for lines and lines on this post, here’s a question for the comments section: what makes a character introduction stick with you?

Next month we’ll look at “Meeting to Establish Motivation”. No sneak peeks at the characters I’ll pick for that topic; you’ll just have to come back to find out!

 

Chrono Trigger is the property of Square-Enix. There are many ways you can purchase and enjoy this game.

Earthbound is the property of Nintendo and Shigesato Itoi. You can play it via the Wii U virtual console.