Words About Video Games

41 Games: Earthbound

Earthbound is a game about social connection set against a alternate reality backdrop where the idyllic 1950s and 60s childhood (complete with UFO threat) is juxtaposed with the malaise of modern life.

What keeps it from being Mad Men with turn-based battles is that the central characters are the kids, who use their supernatural connection to do battle with, yes, aliens and robots, but also greed, ennui, loneliness, fear, obsession, and ultimately the embodiment of evil itself.

It's like a more accomplished Persona 5, in many ways. For one, it doesn't hide the supernatural source of its ills behind a third-act reveal, but surprises you by showing again and again that the work of this evil in the world isn't to make people into powerful murderous maniacs (at least, not exclusively.) It also makes the susceptible to cults. It strikes at their insecurities. It tempts their greed. It turns them into neglectful parents and bad friends. It makes them search for connection in all the wrong ways.

One of the greatest personal obstacles your party faces is that your main (and most powerful) character can fall prey to homesickness, causing him to become distracted and miss attacks. You can remedy this by calling your mom. (You call your dad regularly, to save your game and get money deposited in your bank account. A whole article could be written about the parental dynamics in this game.)

There's more to say: how the game's structure becomes looser, its setting wilder and more surprising the closer you get to the end and the further from home you travel. How it's the rare video game that pits you against your own inner demons and earns that encounter narratively and thematically. How it remains a singular experience, some 23 years after its US release.