After pressing start: Mother 3's saddest day
I’ve written about the first chapter of Mother 3 before, back when this was a proto-blog gasping for air in the cold vacuum of the internet. Quite frankly, the game stands as one of the greatest achievements in video games. As I plan to spoil it in its entirety, I would recommend you play it first, not just because it’s such a wonderful game full of video games’ best moments but because it’s an enthralling title.
Mother 3 is a comedy in the classic sense of the word. It shares absolutely nothing in common with comedic films like Anchorman, however; it’s more like one of Shakespeare’s comedies, where the humor is merely a vehicle for delivering emotion to the player’s heart. Comedy for comedy’s sake can be funny, but it will not try to do anything more. Mother 3 uses comedy to make the utter bleakness of its narrative palatable.
Mother 3 opens with a prologue: Lucas, the eventual protagonist, his brother Claus play-fighting with a dinosaur at their grandfather’s ranch. It establishes Mother 3’s first theme: childhood. You’re playing around, grandfather Alec breaks the fourth wall in a lighthearted manner, and, in the end, Hinawa, the mother, sends a letter to Flint, the father. Her letter reminds us of the past in her antiquated wording, and it establishes the second theme of the work: nostalgia
Chapter one begins with Flint, the father, assuming the playable character mantle. There’s a fire in the woods, set by men in pig masks. Flint stayed home from his family’s vacation to watch the sheep. This drives home the old thymey feeling, but it also raises another point: no one in the village was willing to watch the sheep. Despite a nostalgic setting, the people aren’t more “moral” people: they still are looking out for themselves. Thomas, a busybody who becomes your first “party member” (in Earthbound tradition, he doesn’t actually help in combat), reinforces this by breaking the family’s front door trying to get Flint to come out and help save the village.
Flint, though, is the personification of the “good guy”. He’s a devoted father, a dutiful farmer, and an old world man through and through. He is the nostalgia theme personified, just like Claus is childhood. Flint’s the kind of guy who goes running into a burning forest to save his best friend. There’s not a single thought of himself: no worry about his family, no cutscene lingering on his time with Hinawa.
That’s the thing Mother 3 does best: it doesn’t linger. It doesn’t need to explicitly spell things out for us: we know, by virtue of Flint being an old world man and Hinawa being an old world woman, that they love each other. It plays off our preconceptions of people from the turn of the last century, and we figure that, if Flint loves Lighter, his best friend, and his son fuel so much, then he has to love his wife and child. It’s a logical leap, certainly, but one we’re comfortable making because of Mother 3’s lighthearted tone so far. It’s making jokes about doorknobs, there are frogs hopping around acting as save points, and a very tall man is ringing a bell. It’s absurd, and it’s funny, and of course he loves his wife. It feels bouncy and surreal, like we remember Earthbound being.
Video games rarely tell you that failure is an option. Those that do, the Western RPGs, make sure that the player is given ample opportunity to succeed; failure is a moral imperative, not a narrative element. It is chastisement for loose morals rather than a way to tell a story. Mother 3 sends you out into the forest to save Lighter and Fuel, and you succeed without much difficulty. Then, when you return home, Flint receives the letter, and it reminds Flint of his wife and children, also out in the forest. It sends you out on a parallel quest, the townsfolk doing their best to help in half-hearted ways. They line the trails, they make light hearted cracks, and they reinforce the feeling nothing could go wrong.
Except everything does go wrong. In the end, Flint discovers that his wife, Hinawa, is dead.
This scene is one of the most powerful in video games. Without words or distractions, Mother 3 displays despair exclusively through animation. This was the scene I wrote about most in-depth, so I’m going to direct you there. Suffice it to say Flint is devastated, unsure of how to go on with his life. He’s left directionless. He feels like the player no doubt feels. Playing the game, you feel like you’ve been failed, failed by the non-playable characters, failed by everyone around you. You took on all comers, after all. You were the fastest. You saved Lighter and Fuel, so why weren’t they there to save your wife? You blame everyone else.
It’s only once the scene shifts, Flint in the Tamzily jail for assaulting one of those people, do you relent. This is the first time they’ve had to use the jail, the town’s de facto leader says. Then your son, Claus, comes, and busts you out of jail. These two actions are very purposeful: they’re designed to make you feel like a jerk, that despite your grief you’ve behaved poorly. You’ve led your son down an angry path, one you must shake him from.
The comedy that precedes them is what gives these scenes punch. By spending two hours of game time in the light, Flint’s split-second descent into darkness becomes all the more real. It delivers on the promises made by Earthbound a decade before. The casual player forgets the serious side Earthbound had. They remember the back story to the Giygas fight, the description of Shigesato Itoi walking into a movie theater, rape in progress on screen, but they forget the scene towards the end where Dr. Andonauts is forced to send his only son and three other children on a one way trip to the past. It’s the kind of moment you can’t process as a child, but the sort of sad, oblique moment that made the game great; here it is, in the modern day, writ large across Mother 3’s opening chapter.
The second half of the first chapter of Mother 3 focuses on Flint’s quest to find his son, Claus, the one who busted him out of jail. Claus is on a hunt to find the creature that killed his mother, the now cyborg dinosaur he was play-fighting with in the beginning of the game. Flint follows with the help of his father-in-law, Alec, and they go on an adventure that involves gender nondisclosed individuals called Magypsies, Alec making jokes about everything, and the game’s usual zaniness.
So it’s no surprise when you get to the end to find that Claus is dead, too.
Claus’ “death” (he comes back, corrupted by technology) drives home the themes that will be forwarded throughout the first half of the game: the corrupting influence of technology, the loss of innocence, the failure of nostalgic values to stand up to the pressures of the modern world. Like most games, Mother 3 has an ultimate evil, but technology is more obtuse, less present than other villains. It cannot monologue. Even its embodiment, Fassad, begins as just an evil man using it for his own gain, later corrupted by technological intervention into a sort of saxophone-elephant man. There are villains, but these are misguided people who have fallen sway to the corrupting influences around them. Nothing is truly evil except the world we live in, which is absurd, vicious, and destructive.
Flint spends the rest of the game searching for his son, whose death he is unaware of. His search becomes an obsession, and he leaves Lucas alone to fend for himself. Abandoned, Lucas is forced out of childhood, forced into the real world of technology, corruption (both physical and moral), and adventure, sent off to save the world from forces that a child shouldn’t be forced to contend with.
The introduction has set Lucas up to do this: we’re going into his story, and the stories of the other protagonist—Kumatora and Duster—with the correct themes in mind. More than just advancing the plot, the narrative devices of Mother 3 place emphasis on elements the story will explore in the future. We launch into the adventure not just prepared for the story it’s going to tell, but with a helpful roadmap of the features we’re supposed to look out for. This is the mark of a great introduction: where a world is created, and our eyes are focused on the title’s themes.
(After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by self-appointed narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those stories influence the arcs of video games. A variety of games he’s totally never talked about before will be featured. This might be sarcasm. Previous Entries:
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