Some guy named Heraclitus once said something to the effect that a person never steps into the same river twice. Perhaps he meant it in a literal sense, in that the exact subatomic components which once comprised both the river and the person no longer remain, replaced by water from another cycle of rain or new skin cells in the epidermis. Perhaps, as I believe most people would see it, he was speaking figuratively; the notion of self or identity could be thought to be constantly in flux, especially if you consider the possibility that what makes us who we are is merely an accumulation of experiences. Or, much less likely, he was like me in that he wasn't exactly the outdoorsy type, and thus the very notion that he would find himself in a river even once was so improbable that the odds of plunging into any river for a second time, let alone the same river as before, were so low as to be negligible.
Despite having mangled that idiom, I do believe it serves a person well to periodically reflect on the person they've become, analyze how it is they've arrived at their present location, and estimate where they might be headed. That's where I find myself at the moment. In this instance, I found it useful to dig into these questions using one game as a point of reference. That game is none other than Earthbound.
Briefly Characterizing Earthbound
Earthbound is a game that would need to be described along several different dimensions to fully capture the experience. But if I had to generally describe the ethos of the game, I would say that Earthbound is equal parts heartfelt and juvenile. You take on the role of a kid named Ness (or a name of your choosing). On your journey, you recruit several other kids to help you defeat the evil force known as Giygas. In order to do so successfully, you must travel to eight locations across the world to fill the sound stone. Upon having gathered all of these melodies, Ness travels to a magical realm where he is forced to reflect meaningfully on his journey. Then you face off against the ultimate foe and prevail. The end: world saved! A coming-of-age story about good versus evil and the power of friendship.
But you're also fighting enemies such as Master Belch, a pile of vomit who, well, belches. He mysteriously comes back later under the moniker Master Barf. Most adults throughout the game are effectively caricatures, often demonstrated by either their incompetence or hostility (usually both). Earthbound was even marketed in the US under the tagline "This game stinks", complete with the foul scratch-and-sniff odors of the 90s.
Earthbound takes its message seriously, but never takes itself too seriously. The stakes could never be higher, as Ness is just a kid who's had this quest thrust upon him. He may get homesick and need to call his Mom or else risk becoming a liability in combat. There's a certain gravity to the plot, but the game is also very on-the-nose, offering the occasional meta-commentary. For instance, you'll find a billboard posted by the Parents Opposing Obsession Plan (note the capitalization) telling kids not to play video games too much. I think this is an important reminder for all of us. We live in a world riddled with maladies that we inherited, and we should endeavor to sort out whether the roles we assume in society contribute to or alleviate these issues. But we also live in a world with whoopie cushions and funny cat videos, so we should remember to take a step back from time to time and take in even the tiniest of joys.
How My Life Shaped My Experience With Earthbound
Sometimes a game, song, book, or even a meme finds you in a distinct moment within one of the narrative arcs we use to subdivide chapters in our lives. In light of these circumstances, we may experience that form of media differently than we otherwise would have. I've found that true of my experiences with Earthbound as well. I've played the game several times, roughly once every five years. Each time that I play, I remember the game slightly differently. I draw upon new experiences each time and I'm more attuned to different facets of the game than others.
In my first playthrough, I went in with almost no experience. Earthbound was one of the first games I ever played when I was about six. That barely fits within the realm of experience that I can credibly claim to remember. But the one thing I distinctly remember is the character creation process. I chose lasagna as my favorite food, slime as my favorite thing, and, after a painstaking debate, selected the peanut color for the text box borders (just barely edging out banana and mint).
Playing the game for the first time at such a young age was definitely a limiting factor. I never got further than the tunnel to Threed before getting turned away by ghosts. It wasn't a complete loss though. This inability to overcome an obstacle served as an important roadmap for my next major attempt to beat the game.
My early childhood was largely, if not solely, built around the idea of education and growing up. In fact, I legitimately looked forward to going to school so that I could learn (nerd alert). As a kid who was always eager to learn, Earthbound was both a game I enjoyed but also one whose story progression eluded me for my lack of fully comprehending what was going on.
But grow up I did, and eventually, I discovered how to make it to Threed. Turns out I had the right idea that I needed to give the stack of cash to the club manager on the Runaway Five's behalf; the problem was that I had to use the item from my inventory while facing the manager because apparently pressing the talk button while the cash was in my inventory was insufficient to complete the objective. My logic was sound, I just didn't recognize at the time the differences between observed real-world logic and in-game logic.
It was relatively smooth sailing from there. I got to experience a wealth of new content, including finding the two final characters who would join my party. All the areas foreshadowed during the in-game trailer (which plays from the start menu if you don't start the game for a period of time) finally started to crop up. The game had so much more to offer than I had envisioned. I got as far as the final game boss before I hit one last impediment: I couldn't beat it for the life of me!
It was a little disappointing not being able to reach a satisfying conclusion in the game, but it didn't diminish my experience in the slightest. Just as I had overcome my challenge from the previous playthrough, I knew that someday I would figure out how to beat Giygas. And I did (sort of). I had to figure this one out years later from an online walkthrough. My internet access prior to this point was practically non-existent (I'm still salty that I missed out on all those web flash games).
Once I discovered how to beat the game (turns out I had to use one character's ability that I never used seriously for any amount of time prior), I was encouraged to give Earthbound one more playthrough so I could reach the long-awaited conclusion. By this point, I was about 15 years old. Since the game no longer presented any challenges to my abilities, and because I was already intimately familiar with the game, I was able to observe qualities of the game that I hadn't quite taken note of before. It was at this point that I began to enjoy what the game was seeking to accomplish.
In my early youth, it never occurred to me to think that the game was in any way strange; it simply existed. But now, it was becoming more apparent to me just how surreal Earthbound was. My background in video games was now much more developed and varied, and most of the games I played were clearly delineated in the realm of fiction. But Earthbound was a weird game even in this context.
Sure, it seems rather obvious by the end of the game when Ness is fighting dinosaurs and putting his brain in a time-travelling robot. But even within the quaint façade of the early game, there's something truly bizarre about a kid running around fighting gangs, cops, and assorted wildlife with a yo-yo and baseball bat. Plus, that's to say nothing about the psychedelic backdrop animations encountered during combat. How many kids at that age are running away from school to hitch a ride atop the loch ness monster, who helps you get to Stonehenge so you can borrow a UFO to rescue two people you've never met from their supernatural captors? It's utterly ludicrous in the best way imaginable. Only once the unfiltered lens of my youth had gone was I able to recognize it as such.
Before I get to my most recent playthrough, I have but one more stop along the way. It was in the second semester of my freshman year of college when I decided to download a ROM of Earthbound to my laptop (don't worry, I do still own the original copy of the game). University was, to put it mildly, wildly different than I had come to expect. Whereas I breezed through primary and secondary education, I struggled to keep up with both the rigor and pace of university study. Not only that but I was tasked with taking care of all the responsibilities that being an adult entails. Add on top of that the fact that I decided to attend college in a completely different geographic region than where I grew up. All that to say, I was not exactly thriving in my own lane.
I don't think I fully acknowledged it at the time, but it's obvious now that, in starting up Earthbound again at that moment, I was looking for something familiar in uncertain times. Earthbound was a game that had been in my life in some capacity for my entire remembered existence. It was natural that another playthrough might help put me at ease. It didn't make my problems go away, but it made them, if not exactly manageable, at least tolerable. Having this game to fall back on in that moment cemented in the foreground of my mind what I had subconsciously known all along: Earthbound, and gaming generally, was a fundamental experience for me growing up.
Fast-forward to today. I managed to graduate college and get a job back home, where I've been for just over four years. While college was a period of transition from my youth to adulthood, I now find myself distinctly situated on the other side of that divide. It's been a learning process with lots of growing pains. Having been forcibly tossed into what for me were uncharted waters, I've gained plenty of new perspective. I've come to realize that the world is a lot bigger than the one I remember growing up. I've come to see my lived experience from new viewpoints and now see myself in a different light as result. Many of the seemingly unconnected facets of my personality and life have started to make greater sense to me in hindsight. I know myself now in a way that I could never have known myself previously, which was the first step in a long process of learning to appreciate myself.
In the intervening time, I've only picked up Earthbound once. And this time I did something unexpected: I stopped playing midway through. I stopped exactly at the point in the game where I had gotten stuck when I was six years old. It wasn't that the game failed to bring back the same joy as it had before; on the contrary, it was exactly how I remember it, arguably even better. But I think it was an opportunity for me to take a step back and try something new. I've come to realize that I have a tendency to develop strong patterns of behavior and possess very limited life experiences. So now I'm committing myself to reach out and trying new things. I eat vegetables now, a notion that was completely inconceivable to my former self. I'm also trying to be more deliberate and intentional with my interpersonal interactions.
The Road Forward
So what role then does Earthbound play in my life if I'm branching out in new directions? As I'm sure others can attest, pursuing new experiences can be a difficult process. Over the years I've developed robust practices that help make the world easier to digest. I've got my stash of teas at the office, go-to music for the unbearable commute or typical workday drudgery, and a curated selection of television shows for unwinding at the end of the day. These, among others, serve as the bedrock for continuing to grow. The surety that these constants have to offer is enough to sustain me through any new or otherwise stressful situations.
I don't necessarily need to play Earthbound in order to seek out lessons the game has to offer. Because I am familiar enough with the game, I can leverage my experience with it to act as a "framework," as I like to call it. It functionally serves as a backdrop that I can use to help process my experiences. I've found an imagined setting can help facilitate some internal exposition to better orient myself in the moment. Take, for instance a song that, when you hear it, takes you back to a distinct moment; you can feel everything as if you were actually still there. I often struggle to put into words exactly what I'm feeling at any given moment. Instead, I tend to see foundational moments in my past and then reverse-engineer that in an attempt to categorize how I feel now based upon the nature of the memory that first came to mind.
So when I find myself thinking about Earthbound, what does that tell me about the way I'm feeling at that moment? It's my estimation that when I think of Earthbound, I'm feeling a mixture of vulnerability, earnestness, and growth. Vulnerability in that the obstacles we place in front of ourselves can be among the most difficult to overcome. Earnestness in the desire to feel a connectedness with others and bring positivity wherever I find myself. And growth in that what has gotten in my way before can be overcome with time and effort.
In that vein, it makes a lot more sense why I felt compelled to write about Earthbound now of all times. I've taken up a more prominent role in my profession than I had in previous years, a point of both stress and potential. I've been missing my university friends, who helped me get where I am today through their unwavering support. And I've been reflecting on where I want to see myself over the next year, trying to navigate what it would take to get there, and how to best go about taking my next big leap. Under the circumstances, it would seem that while I'm once again feeling a bit overwhelmed, this time I'm determined not to let that cause me to lose faith in myself. And why is that?
It all boils down to a key moment in the closing moments of Earthbound. In the final battle with Giygas, Ness and his friends have to draw upon the support of everyone who helped get him there in order to defeat the ultimate foe. A cutscene shows the people you came across who aided you in your mission, each of them sending you their best wishes from every corner of the world. It's only with this concerted effort that the team is able to prevail. And in some way, I guess I see my current situation in that light. I'm not naturally inclined to believe in myself. But the people I care about all seem to believe in me. And if all those people can see fit to believe in me, maybe I can too. They may see things that I fail to realize or take for granted, so I just have to trust that all of them are right.
That's a theory I won't be able to verify any time soon. But maybe a couple of years down the line, I'll be able to see it more clearly in hindsight. Earthbound has always helped me to contextualize my lived experience, so I know the next time I give it a whirl, I'll have a fresh perspective to draw upon and that it will give me a clearer understanding of what it means to be who I am.
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