Naming the Otherwise Unnamable: Mother 3 as Art
Herbert Marcuse states in One-Dimensional Man that "[t]he aesthetic dimension still retains a freedom of expression which enables the writer and artist to call men and things by their name – to name the otherwise unnamable"(247). All established artistic media all contain this quality. Architecture, the novel, dance, music, sculpture, theater, and film have historically all been used to preach specific philosophical messages, whether political or abstract, and all have resulted in critically praised masterpieces. The novel could not be artistic without such harrowing political works as Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, exposing the horrors of Soviet Russia under Stalin or without García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, an exploration of man’s relationship with technology.
In 2006, such video games as Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, Heroes of Annihilated Empires, and Ninety-Nine Nights were released, all of which were utterly forgettable. However in the same year, Nintendo released Mother 3, a sequel to the cult hit Earthbound released eleven years earlier that, if it had received more publicity outside of Japan could easily have been viewed as Nintendo’s Casablanca. Mother 3 is notable because it tells a story of the gradual corruption of a pure, utopian society into one increasingly reliant on technology and greed via exploiting reactions caused by players’ interactivity.
It takes advantage of this interactivity in the form of a video game, the only current medium entirely based on interactivity, which allows it to act as support towards the notion that video games can “name the otherwise unnamable”, and thus establish themselves as a legitimate form of art. Their inherent interactivity allows for, as McDougall and O’Brien claim, “the avatar [as] the visual representation / embodiment of the player”(14) and the notion that “…narrative is, if not replaced, then at least displaced, by navigation”(15).
The unusually upbeat game of Mother 3 initially takes place in Tazmily Village, a utopian village in which Flint, his wife Hinawa, and their two children Claus and Lucas reside. After a forest fire, Hinawa is impaled by a Drago, a normally peaceful creature, shocking the villagers and driving Flint almost insane and traumatizing his children. After this, Duster, a thief is sent by his father to a castle to find an “Egg of Light”, which leads to the recruitment of Kumatora, a tomboyish princess and the loss of Duster’s memory. Simultaneously with Duster’s narrative, Salsa, a monkey is traveling with his abusive master Fassad, who gradually corrupts Tazmily Village into a consumerist society increasingly reliant on technology. After Salsa is rescued, the narrative shifts to Lucas, who searches for Duster with Kumatora and Boney, his dog. They find him playing bass in a band, then immediately move to shut down Thunder Tower, built to electrocute those who do not conform to Fassad’s attempts at modernization. The party falls from the top of the tower, and all survive, with Lucas wandering through a patch of sunflowers being guided by his dead mother to bales of hay, which allows the party to survive the fall. Lucas eventually learns of the existence of the “Seven Needles”, which can destroy or save the world depending on who finds them and learns that a Masked Man who is under the control of Porky, leader of the Pigmasks is also pulling them. After traveling to New Pork City and defeating Porky, Lucas is forced to fight the Masked Man, revealed to be his brother Claus. Hinawa chastises both boys for fighting and Claus commits suicide. Lucas pulls the final needle and the world is saved, as revealed by a secret ending where the characters thank you for saving their world.
Like many Japanese role-playing games, Mother 3 uses a turn-based battle system, but it includes a few extra quirks, like enemies having specific “beats” and attacking them in time with the beats allows for extra hits. The other quirk is that when the player’s HP runs out, it does so on a rolling meter, so acting fast can save a character from death. It also was made in two dimensions, allowing it to graphically resemble Earthbound, its predecessor.
One of Mother 3’s most important scenes is Hinawa’s death. It is considered by fans to be among the most depressing scenes in the game, eliciting strong emotional reactions due to the shock of the scene. An idyllic village previously established as an uncorrupted natural utopia has experienced its first tragedy – that of the death of its matriarch at the hands of a chimeric dragon/machine hybrid.
The death could not have been presented via other media because its lead-up relies on immersing the player in the search for her. The player is sent by various characters to search frantically. Finding a piece of her clothing on a tree is the first sign that something terrible has happened. In a film or even a comic book, the cloth would be seen, but the narrative nature of video games allows it to be experienced. You, the player experience a sense of dread because you find the cloth on a two-dimensional pixelated mountain in a world that has forced you to experience it. And the eventual discovery of Hinawa’s death is only that much more impactful because Bronson tells you. Not an actor or a character or in a novel or any other of a myriad of possible different disconnected entities. You. Narrative is replaced by navigation because it is you that frantically rush around looking for your wife in the form of an avatar, but simply inhabiting an avatar is enough to immerse you into the game and its philosophy.
Mother series creator and designer Shigesato Itoi also notes an important other manner that the game influenced players’ reactions. “When I heard about the impressions people got from Hinawa's death, the ones that really stood out to me were from people who had named her after their own mothers.”, Itoi notes, which places you in an interesting role within the game’s narrative structure. The simple act of including a naming screen, a feature unique to video games, allows you to make a seemingly-insignificant decision that will heavily influence how you experience the world of Mother 3, taking the game out of the realm of the virtual and into the realm of reality. Your own personal life and experiences become a part of the game because you indirectly chose to do so. Flint ceases to be “Flint”, the video game character and becomes you, Flint, the son or husband, leading to an immediate emotional reaction that makes it feel as if someone had just told you that your own wife or mother had died. The navigation through the naming screen leads to the navigation through the wilderness searching for your wife, and eventually to the revelation that she was horrifically murdered protecting her two children. In this way, Mother 3 allows the aesthetic to “name the otherwise unnamable” by placing the player in a situation that would be impossible to replicate in any other manner.
The involvement of the player also allows for a much more direct realization of the game’s overall philosophical dealings with the increasing corruption of nature by man. The idyllic, utopian paradise of Tazmily Village has been invaded by an army that tampers with nature, and in the process, has taken a peaceful creature and corrupted it into a sadistic killing machine that murders your wife. This acts as a contrast to your initial navigation of Tazmily, which creates the realization that there is nothing “bad” that the villagers have ever experienced. Sunlight and food are plentiful, animals and humans are friends, and no one has ever been imprisoned, as evidenced by a sign in front of the village’s only jail.
The arrival of the Pigmasks changes everything. Their mechanical and genetical engineering is unambiguously responsible for the corruption of Tazmily, leading to Hinawa’s death and the creation of many of the enemies of the game, including the Flying Mice and Yammonsters fought in its very first fights, making it absolutely clear from the beginning that everything bad that you experience through navigating the avatar of Flint (and later Duster, Kumatora, Salsa, and Lucas) occurs because of mindless corruption of nature. The fact that it expresses this philosophy through navigation and embodiment of a virtual avatar again, allows video games to “name the otherwise unnamable” and thus establish themselves as a legitimate art form.
As most people acknowledge, the novel has been a legitimate art form for centuries, so let us compare the way in which Mother 3 presents its arguments about the nature of technology to the way in which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the most important novels of the early 19th Century delivers the same argument. As a novel told in the first person, Frankenstein is predominantly told through the perspective of Victor Frankenstein, who presents his account and views of his experience to Robert Walton, who acts as a surrogate for the reader. Frankenstein describes his “…anxiety that almost amounted to agony…” in the process of creating his monster and directly asks the reader “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?”(53). Because of the medium in which she wrote, Shelley had to use dialogue as the predominant means of narrative because by nature, novels are almost entirely an imageless medium. This lack of images creates the requirement for large amounts of narrative and descriptive text, which in the case of Frankenstein, ”names the otherwise unnamable” by providing the reader with the view of technology as corruption of the natural world by textually stating so, both directly through character dialogue and indirectly through various incidents that occur in the novel.
However when compared to Mother 3, a video game, there is one dimension that a novel like Frankenstein could never include, which is a literal immersion of the reader into the story. Mother 3 takes you, the player, the equivalent of the reader, and places you into its navigatory world and allows you to explore it by walking around, talking to its denizens, and by actually being present during cutscenes, many of which provide their own vital narrative information. Frankenstein does not allow the reader to embody Victor Frankenstein, or to walk around Geneva and discover Justine, or to be present at Elizabeth’s death after running around for an hour outside waiting in fear for a monster to come and kill him in the avatar of Frankenstein. Because it is a video game, Mother 3 allows for all of this. You experience its philosophy by navigating its world and not by having it described by an author. You embody the character of Flint, frantically searching for your missing wife through navigation, and not through descriptive text. If you as avatar and Victor Frankenstein as narrator are synonymous because both learn the dangers of technology, then you are Victor Frankenstein. But at the same time, you cannot be Victor Frankenstein because he is not a man to be embodied: He is a character in a novel; not a character in a video game. Flint is a character in a video game, and thus you, through avatar, can experience naming the otherwise unnamable, rather than having your experiences dictated by external means like Shelley had to.
While Hinawa’s death is one of the most important moments in Mother 3, an equally important one is the entirety Chapter 3, in which you navigate the entire chapter in the avatar of Salsa, a monkey who experiences constant abuse at the hands of his master, Fassad. The relationship would be quite typical or black-and-white in any other media, with Salsa clearly being a victim and Fassad clearly being a captor, but its depiction in the form of a video game allows their relationship to become significantly more complex.
When Salsa is first introduced, he is a weak, powerless victim belonging to a man who keeps him solely as a tool. When you embody him, he, and thus you have no initial fighting abilities and the lowest statistics in the game, beginning at Level 1 and being forced to fight very strong enemies. But because Fassad, your physically abusive master is present as a temporary party member, you are able to survive because his attacks are significantly more powerful and he performs most of the damage. This contradiction places you in the center of two points of view of the abuse you experience. Even though Fassad shocks you with an electric collar and verbally berates you for no reason, he is absolutely necessary for your survival, no matter how much you train and level up at the initial parts of your journey.
Shigesato Itoi himself notes the importance of this. “During battles, there are times when Fassad appears to be a reliable ally. That evokes very complex emotions. Basically, the person who hurts you the most is the one who comes to your aid to save you from outside enemies. There's also the feeling of, ‘You probably haven't felt this feeling before, have you?’ Games are really interesting because they're able to do that. You wouldn't be able to transfer something that evokes emotions in that way into a novel, for instance.” Navigation through the avatar of Salsa places you into the position of ambivalence in an abusive relationship, forcing you to feel how Salsa feels. Itoi is correct in stating that the kind of empathy that results between player and avatar is entirely unique to video games because video games are the only medium in which a player can embody the characters a story is about. A novel is too disconnected from the reader to allow for such an experience.
This experience, by nature, requires an element of tediousness. Chapter 3 is often considered to be among the most frustrating moments of Mother 3 and many players cite it as the moment they stopped playing. GameFAQs user “mrwhoompy” notes “Its [sic] so annoying. Every 10 seconds [Fassad] interrupts the flow of the game, calls Salsa a 'stupid monkey' and electrocutes him.” Your frustration is mandatory for appropriately experiencing the chapter because it expands the embodiment of the avatar of Salsa from embodiment of his body to embodiment of his emotions. He has been kidnapped and forced to endure horrific abuse to save his girlfriend, and he is rightfully frustrated with being weak and electrocuted randomly, making it all the more satisfying when Kumatora, Wess, and Lucas free him from his chains at the end of the chapter. The way in which Mother 3 uses its narrative form as a video game to force the player into a sense of frustration is unique to video games, precisely because of the vital roles of the process of embodiment in an avatar and navigation through its virtual world. The concept of abuse is thus portrayed in the most realistic possible manner due to the player’s frustration, allowing it to “name the unnamable” with regard to what abuse entails. And even while it does this, the chapter also provides an important part of its message concerning technology, providing the layering of philosophy described by Konzach.
Salsa’s experiences with Fassad put the player into the position of being an unwilling villain, being forced to deliver “happy boxes” to the villagers of Tazmily and to dance so they desire them. Regardless of what they actually contain, the happy boxes are clearly representative of something technological and you are the unwilling Prometheus that delivers them their fire. In later sections of the game, when you watch the gradual dissolution of Tazmily and final fleeing to New Pork City, you are forced to realize that at a certain point in the game, you corrupted the town and turned its denizens into greedy consumers who neglect nature and become selfish shadows of the cheerful people they used to be. This is the point when money, a usual role-playing game construct, becomes an actual part of the game, indicating that consumerism has become an important part of society. And this is all because you, as an abused monkey, were forced by a madman to introduce and market technology to an idyllic, utopian village. With the unique position of forcing the player to frustratingly introduce technology and to later fight against it, Mother 3 forces the player to navigate through two distinct types of avatars – one a tortured soul who introduces technology and consumerism to the masses, and the other three young heroes and their dog who want to defeat those responsible for it. This experience is entirely unique to video games, as it requires you to experience. And this experience allows for “naming the unnamable” in that the type of information revealed by living Salsa’s story is the information that will influence the entire rest of the game.
“Video games can never be art.” This was the title of a Roger Ebert piece penned in 2010. He uses it to ask one notable question. “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?...Do they require validation?” I answer this question with a single word: “Yes.” Establishing video games as a legitimate art form would entitle video games to the same scholarly attention as novels, films, and every other narrative mode, and through this scholarly attention video games would finally be allowed to provide us with the kind of insight that they have shown themselves to be capable of. Mother 3 is one of many games that could potentially have thousands of pages collectively written about them by critics who take them seriously, and not who disparage them like so many critics who see the medium as consisting entirely of shooting games and oversaturation with trash. Ebert says the day will not come for a very long time because “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."
What do you think?
Itoi, Shigesato. Nintendo, Brownie Brown, HAL Laborator. Mother 3. Nintendo, 2006. Game Boy Advance.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.
Ebert, Roger. "Video Games Can Never Be Art." Roger Ebert's Journal. Chicago Sun-Times, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. <http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html>.
Lars, Konzack. "Philosophical Game Design." The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Ed. Bernard Perron and Mark J. P. Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2009. 33-44. Print.
McDougall, Julian, and Wayne O'Brien. Studying Videogames. Leighton Buzzard [England]: Auteur, 2008. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.
"Shigesato Itoi Tells All About Mother 3." Starmen.net. Nintendo Dream. Web. 05 Apr. 2012.
mrwhoopy. "Anyone Else Bored by Chapter 3? *Minor Spoilers*." Online posting.Anyone Else Bored by Chapter 3? *Minor Spoilers*. Gamefaqs.com, 26 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/914622-mother-3/61471583>.