Labyrinth of Someone Else's Memory: Mother
This article will make the most sense if you have already played Mother. No great effort was made to conceal spoilers or excessively summarize in-game events. The version played was the retranslation of the GBA port, available here.
Mother is a riff on Dragon Quest, which was a riff on a few early computer RPGs, which themselves were riffs on Dungeons and Dragons, which itself was a riff on ideas from tabletop wargaming. The seed that lineage sprouts from is simulation: creating a fake scientific model that describes a fake world. Fake physics, fake biology, fake economics, fake magic, fake anything. Mother plays with the artifice of such authored systems in ways beyond its little parodic winks. The systems do not exist, as they do in many other such games, to invisibly lend the scenario a feeling of realism.
They are more blatantly, self-evidently shaped by an author’s voice, Itoi’s in this case; in the world the game describes, all can only be as Itoi permits. Mt. Itoi looms in the distance in a crucial scene in the middle of the game. It’s the game’s final goal and a grueling dungeon that houses the end boss battle. Its name echoes the appearance of Itoi’s name in the game’s opening titles (from an era in which practically no one got a credit on a game until the end credits, if even then.) The name of the person who wrote all this keeps recurring, the point being that “someone wrote all this.” The direction of this work was guided by a single person and its content reflects a singular, human point of view.
Before a certain age, the notion that this could be true eluded me. Games seemed to be at least partially authored by a sentient, impenetrable machine consciousness. They were bewildering and allowed the opportunity to probe the limits of constructed worlds, recover from fatal trial and error, enter extreme emotional states in isolation, with impunity. Mother understands that children play games for this experience. It directly correlates the simplified, magical, nonsensical world of the computer RPG with the actual world as comprehended by a child first struggling to understand how things come to be and why adults do anything they do.
Because going for fast food is, in childhood, a fun and exciting experience, Mother transmutes Dragon Quest’s magic herbs and potions into hamburgers. Because shopping alone, like an adult, looks fun and empowering to children, Mother replaces the fantasy RPG’s gold coins with American dollars and an ATM card. People wander aimlessly around the cities or walk in place behind desks when they’re “working.” They do this in Dragon Quest too, but Dragon Quest expends more energy implying its characters have lives and duties to perform beyond the visual sketch that’s depicted. Mother’s characters’ idle wandering and somewhat detached observations on their surroundings seem more a part of the naive, patchwork world they inhabit, which can imagine nothing better for them to be doing.
Money appears in the player’s bank account because Dad deposits it, but where dad is and what he’s doing when he’s working all week is unknowable. Two large factories adjacent to a town would probably employ many of its residents. Such factories in Mother contain no workers or obvious means for performing labor of any kind. They’re huge gray boxes containing a number of huge gray rooms. They’re filled with randomly generated battles against a horde of Robbie the Robots and mad scientists. They’re anxious, alienating places made from concrete and steel, forbidden to children, and onto which are projected fictional images, pulled from movies, comics, and TV, of technology that functions like magic. An empty house in another town, its furniture covered by dropcloths, operates in a similar fashion, but different genre. Its spaces are darker, claustrophobic, emphasize fireplaces and staircases.
Its battles are against ghosts, bats, possessed suits of armor. Where are we most likely to see a suit of armor? In a house, even a large house, in 198X, or in a gothic horror film with a period setting? In the years of Itoi’s youth, the horror films that flourished in the US and Europe (those not disguised as sci-fi, anyway) were predominantly period and gothic. So, too, were the horror films period and gothic in the decades leading up to World War II, and some of these films were, at one time, able to endure in the public consciousness and engage a new generation of monster-obsessed children because television created hours of airtime to fill, demanded hours of readymade archival material with which to fill them. This is echoed again in a line of feminine androids appearing later, a visual reference to Lang’s Metropolis existing alongside the Starmen, whose sleek, inscrutable designs recall The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Gort.
Though time-shifted to present day (as of the time of its release,) it’s like a formalized representation of a child’s lucid dream somewhere in the years when the 50s were becoming the 60s. Compare to similarly nostalgic works made around the same time and from the same decades of accumulated pop compost; more than any other, the 80s were the decade in which dominant popular fictions (particularly in film) aimed to create original works in established genres by consciously recombining elements from the breadth of canonical references shared by its artists (also a priority: pushing an idealized image of white, middle class American life.) Mother fits among contemporary films by Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, and others.
Shifts between the approaches to the narrative and tone in Dragon Quest and Mother are also accompanied by shifts in methods for visual representation. Both of the games’ graphics are assembled from a bank of tiles stamped out along a grid. Mother evades the grid’s regularity by creating an isometric look that adds the illusion of depth and hides the “seams” between objects. This allows its areas to read more as complete illustrations than assemblages of icons, their minimal style deliberate rather than a consequence of working within hardware limitations. Spatial oddness the player understands as a consequence of Dragon Quest’s restrictions is still present here, but boxy, open rooms containing two pieces of furniture shoved against the walls read as just that in Mother’s style: boxy, open rooms that contain two pieces of furniture shoved against the walls. Dragon Quest is persistently spare, visually, but its geometric regularity and the uniformity of its endlessly re-used assets cue the viewer to interpret its graphics as a system of symbols, a description of a scene to be decoded rather than a literal depiction.
This extra step, “decoding” the graphics, lends the images a greater degree of ambiguity because it’s understood that information could have been lost in any step of the process—from conception by the creator, encoding to tiles, decoding from tiles, comprehension by the viewer. A viewer is likely to understand that the boxy, open Dragon Quest room that contains two pieces of furniture shoved against the wall is not literally meant to be that; limitations have stripped details that were meant to be present.
Mother discards this ambiguity and instead embraces the sparseness. The cast resemble characters from Schulz’s Peanuts and the entire game has a look reminiscent of minimalistic comic art. There are no scratches or swoops of lines drawn by hand; there’s sterility to the game’s 1-pixel perfection and a vacuity to its large, empty rooms and its larger, emptier wilderness. The world visually dwarfs the player’s sprite, and its initially cute exterior conceals what a lonely, melancholy, and unremittingly hostile place it reveals itself to be as the player ventures past home, past the first town. That child will be murdered by monsters repeatedly, awaken back in town, and wander out to be murdered again and again.
Constant roaming and fighting through the early areas is interrupted by a (relatively) long and verbose interlude that introduces friend Lloyd, who’s been bullied at school (rather than murdered in the wilderness) and longs to find someone to connect with. The poignancy of pulling Lloyd from the trash can he’s hiding in and learning a little about him is paired with his use in combat as another body that can deal and absorb damage. Loneliness is mitigated; even if the player was unmoved by their new friend’s cutscenes, they’ll still appreciate his utility in progressing through all the game’s battles.
There’s a scene towards the end when the player encounters a town of children, mostly younger and smaller than the main characters, whose parents have been abducted. It’s a prompt to assume responsibility in authority’s absence. Friend Teddy, the last party member to join, is a nice kid who became a violent delinquent when monsters killed his parents and he was left to fend without their influence. The story of Giygas, the final boss, also echoes a motif of children faring badly without proper parental guidance. Giygas is, apparently, an alien raised partly by humans, now attempting to shrug off that heritage and launch a planetary invasion. Giygas is defeated by the characters refusing to fight and, instead, singing a song its adoptive mother used to.
The game seems instructive in its intent when it tosses its battle system away for that last fight (after an excruciatingly difficult final dungeon) and makes the mechanism for winning the repetition of Eight Melodies, the theme assembled from song fragments collected throughout the game. Eight Melodies represents the sum of the game’s journey. That the player took a journey is more important than that the player mastered fake combat in a video game. Playing the finished Eight Melodies is a cue to reflect on all that came before, and reflection is cued again at the end when the lead character sleeps and dreams of all the people he met on his adventure, their sprites parading across the top of the screen. The instruction the game imparts through all this is to repeat the journey: venture out, find friends, experience life, reflect on the experience, grow. Be nice to your mom.
This is perhaps the reasoning behind that title: the game is meant to be a nurturing, instructive, “maternal” presence for a generation of children growing up in vastly different circumstances than Itoi’s. It seems somewhat contradictory to tell a nurturing and instructive story about gaining life experience through the medium of non-stop, brutal Dragon Quest battles and compulsive RPG grinding, but that might have been a means to an end—conveying this message to children by occupying a space where they were already hunched, staring at a screen for hours every day instead of going outside. It’s unabashedly a clone—“the Dragon Quest clone by Nintendo,” and its conservatism likely helped convince its publisher that it wasn’t so unconventional it would die on the shelves.
It plays a little with ideas in combat. There are some funny enemies, some funny items, the interesting final fight, but the value and necessity of all these battles pass largely unexamined beyond their utility in creating a sense of stakes to the wandering and a sense of difficulty to overcome (which you inevitably will overcome, if you play long enough to make your levels go high enough.) There’s a constant, deliberate contrast between the violence of difficult battles and the calm of exploring safer zones. Deft tonal shifts are managed with minimal text, sound, and visuals.
A quiet moment in which Ana and the lead boy share a private dance in a cabin on Mt, Itoi is preceded by a difficult hike up an enemy-infested path and is followed immediately by the party’s annihilation by an unkillable robot boss. This sequence concludes with a surprisingly affective scene in which Teddy is discovered (injured? dead?) in bed and an echoing, minimal version of the first overworld theme, the one you only hear when you don’t have any friends, plays. When I reached this moment, I stood in the doorway without approaching the bed, feeling real apprehension. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing, because these sprites don’t have breathing animations.
This sequence of events is written in such a way that it requires the presence of the battle system to make sense (experiencing the despair of being crushed by the giant robot or the relief at getting off the monster-infested path for a few minutes,) but that only provides a skeleton of context for how it functions as a series of interactions and animations within the minimalistic cartoon world. The ways a player can be manipulated through these kinds of battles are fairly predictable. When the player expects it to be easy, make it hard. When the player expects it to be hard, make it easy. Sometimes it’s actually impossible (play cutscene.) There are two more games in this series and they both continue to employ these tricks, but each tries harder than its predecessor to mitigate the grind that pads the space between interesting moments with hours of monotony. Mother is all monotony, all grind.
Also briefly pondered, but not thoroughly examined in this game, is its boundless enthusiasm for participation in consumer culture, like the thrill of exiting a difficult zone to find a hotel and a shopping mall. The contrast is Magicant, where everyone gives everything away and gets all they need by transforming their garbage in the waters of a magic fountain.
One resident gives you an extremely useful item if you agree to let him hold your irreplaceable ATM card. He immediately gives it back; before that is an unnerving moment spent wondering whether he will, but the moment passes without further prompt to examine that discomfort. Three people have set up shops selling souvenirs. They let you in on a secret: they’re not from Magicant, they’re from your world. They’re concealing the fact. They know there’s something illicit about what they’re doing–selling all this stuff that was lying around, free for anyone to take. It’s not literally lying around. You can gather weeds to make the magic herbs they sell, but it’s not so with their other items. You’ll find yourself returning to these shops throughout the game. The vague suggestion of unease with capitalism means little when shopping is essential, ever present, consequence-free, exciting and fun.
Not examined at all in this game: its near deification of women. The enshrinement of women in sacred spaces–Mom in the idyllic space of home, Maria in Magicant’s throne room, Ana in church with stained glass and a giant cross on the walls. The weird gendered split between the kinds of agency granted George, who works in physical reality and can build giant robots, and Maria, who lives in an imaginary cloud castle, and writes songs. There’s the fact that Itoi chose to project all the warmth, safety, and nostalgia the game represents onto an entire gender, rather than any specific person the title “Mother” might refer to.
There’s the compulsive heterosexuality of characters in a game that’s devoid of almost anything that could be argued as sexual expression. That Ana will be my girlfriend is telegraphed before I even meet her. Nowhere Man of Magicant assures me that I’m not alone like him. There’s “a girl waiting for me.” I find her lost hat and she joins me. We don’t really interact with each other much after that until the secluded cabin on Mt. Itoi where Teddy excuses himself because we must “wanna be alone.” Alone in the bedroom, Ana says “J. . . Please stay with me.” I answer >YES, since my party members seem to understand this relationship better than I do at this point. If we’ve spoken three words to each other between the time she joined and now, I don’t recall them. She asks me to dance and we do, a twitchy little 8-bit slowdance. She asks: “J. . . Do you like me?” >YES I do, caught off guard by this sudden, intimate moment between characters I’ve mostly known as blank-faced ciphers.
Later, in the scenes after the last battle, she’s received a letter from me. She’s imagining my Charlie Brown grin. She misses me so much. She hopes we can get together again soon. She carries around a frying pan that she hits monsters with. She must like to cook. What a coincidence. Mother cooks for me whenever I return home. In fact, cooking for me is the most significant thing she ever does. In fact, I entered the name of my Favorite Food at character creation just so I could have the experience of returning home and remembering that she’s one of the only people in the world who knows me well enough to recall a string I typed in hours ago (and cook it.) They also know my favorite food in Magicant, the cloud kingdom where my great grandmother Maria rules as queen. The women love to feed me.
Existing within Mother’s world means embodying the image of someone else’s childhood, his stumbling steps into adolescence, the expectations that have been inscribed onto his brain. I’m someone for whom attempting to exist as a good heterosexual boy was rather self-destructive, and part of playing Mother made the deep inscriptions burnt into my own brain light up. It’s the promise, repeated here as I saw it repeated a thousand times elsewhere, that understanding heterosexual desire is a gateway into adulthood. It’s the absolute inevitability of and my perfect, effortless entitlement to the care and adoration of women.
Ana’s adoration is inevitable. The game grants her a fraction of the time spent on Lloyd or Teddy’s introductions. She knows she can trust you because she saw you in a dream. Nothing you did had any bearing on the decision. Her love is an acquisition. Her love is like one of the collectible song fragments: a milestone to reach, a box to check off. The treatment of this character alters the entire game; what may have started as a broadly-purposed ritual for coaxing children into adulthood becomes one focused more specifically on coaxing hetero boys into manhood, and it’s not afraid to use women as props in so doing.
None of that seems to have been on Itoi’s mind here, but later developments suggest it may have occurred to him. This is the first of three articles. An unusual arc begins here and concludes at the end of the series. Mother 2 refines what was good about Mother into something considerably denser with interesting detail. Mother 3 reflects on the accomplishments of its predecessors, voices its own problems with them, and self-destructs in a spectacularly queer fashion.