EarthBound Inspiration

earthbound

I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that my love of storytelling didn’t come from literature, or even film. Not originally, anyhow. It came from video games.

It bothers me to no end that I have to defend games as a medium. Truthfully, I don’t even like to call them games. I’d sooner call them interactive media or the like, but that just makes me sound like I’m calling porn “adult entertainment.”

I could go on forever about the medium. But I’m here to talk about one game in particular, and how it influenced me growing up.

It was called EarthBound

earthbound screenshot
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A cult RPG on the Super Nintendo about a thirteen-year-old kid in contemporary America (called “Eagleland” in the game) alongside his best friends, saving the world from cosmic horrors. It’s one of the goofiest, trippiest games to come out of Japan at the time, and that’s saying something.

In a time when most RPGs were sword-and-sorcery fantasy, along comes this game where the hero uses yo-yos and baseball bats, orders pizza from payphones to heal, uses the ATM to get money, sleeps in hotels, travels via buses and bicycles, gets homesick, goes backstage of concerts, and fights hippies, taxicabs, pedophiles, ramblin’ mushrooms, wild ducks, possessed tents, and more. All done to a jazzy, ‘60s-’70s Western pop music inspired soundtrack. You can practically sing the Beatles lyrics along with some of the game’s soundtrack.

All this plus themes of courage and friendship and adventure. It was about leaving home and seeing the world–and not your usual fare of dark forests and magic castles, but of suburbia and big cities and wintery private schools and beachside vacation destinations. Ness, the hero, came from a small house in a suburb with his family. He had a baseball cap and a scruffy dog. He was me. And he had best friends that he saw the world with. This was my On the Road in the 1990s.

EarthBound was the first game that I’d played that was so chock-full of text that I might as well have been reading a pile of books

EarthboundScreen2
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/14273041415/

It had a quirky, but heartfelt story that I fell in love with. And from then on, I needed my games to draw me in with the story and the setting and the characters–a fact that continues to this day. “Fun” is secondary to aesthetic and narrative. I want art and I want story. Games got me drawing and they got me reading and they inspired me to create my own stories.

When I was in grade, oh, four or five, I did one of those reading evaluation things that teachers give you. They told me I read on a college-grade level. I was a quiet kid who had little use for books, but I read more than most book-lovers. After all, the games I loved were filled with words, back before everything was voice-acted. My reading skills came from games.

And EarthBound was the start

Earthbound Screenshot 3
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It made me want to run away and have adventures. To write screenplays about psychics and mad scientists and aliens invading the suburbs. I wanted to build a house in the woods and listen to the Beatles on the radio all day long. I can think of so many beautiful, iconic moments in this goofy kids’ game that I could make this post go on and on and on.

Ultimately, EarthBound gave my mind a fictional wanderlust. Even though it was a game, it made me appreciate the beauty of the world outside my house. I look at the stars or smell the earth after it rains and I remember this dreamy feeling of wanting to put on my trusty baseball cap, leave home and save the world. Games like EarthBound provided this imaginary escape–the same kind books like Huckleberry Finn would do for readers. It was freedom. And that freedom is why I play games.

Show, Don’t Tell: Horizon: Zero Dawn vs. Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Horizon Zero Dawn Logo

Zero Dawn vs. Zelda

I’m having a lot of fun with Horizon: Zero Dawn, and I am also a big fan of game narrative, but sometimes there are just too many words. Today I’m going to compare the design styles of the new Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the aforementioned Horizon. Specifically, how they use (or don’t use) voiced narration to lead the player.

In the first few minutes of Horizon: Zero Dawn’s gameplay, the protagonist, Aloy, points out what’s going on in the environment. Verbally. Even though there’s no one around to hear her. You could argue that you’re hearing her “thoughts,” or that she’s talking to herself because she’s scared, but neither case is a good excuse.

The player simply doesn’t need to hear it

Horizon Zero Dawn game
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Aloy will describe her surroundings, talk about what she should be doing next, talk about what she just did, and ultimately treats the player like a blind person with short-term memory loss. It’s as though the writer wrote a book and adapted it verbatim for the game, cutting out the he-saids and she-saids and leaving everything else.

Again, I love game narrative. I think games are a powerful storytelling medium. But just because a game can have more words written or lines spoken, certainly doesn’t mean it should. Ideally, the player should be able to play the game with the volume and subtitles off, using only art and design cues to figure out what to do next.

Look at Breath of the Wild. While it’s a longstanding tradition for Link to not speak, many Zelda games since Ocarina of Time gave the player a talking companion who points out everything you need to know. Navi, Midna, the… blue person from Skyward Sword whose name I forget. They all helped lead the player without needing Link to speak a word.

But in Breath of the Wild, like the original Zelda games of yore, has no quest-long companion jabbering in Link’s pointy ear. The game simply trusts the player to figure things out on their own.

This is the ideal design

Image retrieved from Nintendo.com

The ironic part is that Zelda is a game for kids and adults alike on a Nintendo platform that facilitates new gamers. Horizon: Zero Dawn is rated T for teen, and requires the player to use a PS4 controller and its dual-analog configuration that new gamers struggle with.

In essence, Horizon: Zero Dawn holds the player’s hand despite there being very little chance that the player is someone new at games, while Breath of the Wild trusts the player to figure things out without someone yapping at them the whole time.

It’s easy to look at games like Horizon: Zero Dawn as the way of the future and games like Zelda to be relics of the past. But with these two game releases, both at nearly the same time, the “relic” has shown itself to be much more comfortable as a game. And future designers—especially narrative designers—should take note.