The following is a chapter in “A Comprehensive Theory of EarthBound,” a series that aims to better understand the storytelling of Shigesato Itoi’s landmark video game. Find the full series here.
“Does it not invite the question of whether the change from a reasoning being to a beast is not preferable after all?” 
At the heart of all that’s worth playing and writing about in EarthBound is the concept of change: the work’s theme of subversion, of disturbance and dualism, all resort from uneven ground and constant proneness to an unexpected change. It’s no surprise: the illusory, the disguise, the meta, and the real are all fundamental human preoccupations, enforced by our sensory limits. And they’re a heck of a lot of fun as guiding themes.
EarthBound often gives off a feeling of unbridled creativity, almost of a certain unplannedness; the changes through which it proceeds seem to run on whim and caprice, which, as we’ve seen earlier, lend it a certain sense of foreboding, even of realism, as well as whimsical wonder. And yet the shifting shapes of EarthBound are prone to ask deeper questions as well, particularly with regard to a handful of its most prominent instances of metamorphosis.
A Brief History of Metamorphosis
A suspicion or wariness of change roots within the deepest recesses of our instinct, its initial function to warn us about conditional changes that might threaten our survival. As humans grew ontologically self-aware, the idea of a changing of state became an antagonistic yet essential force relative to the abstract concept that otherwise organizes and governs pretty much all human action: identity.
The history of metamorphosis as a creative device, then, is the study of the ways in which individual identities can shift, or else be made to shift. Tales of metamorphosis can often depict tremendous violence in the transition – as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tales of conflict between humanity and the gods of the Latin Pantheon, in which the violence of the tales, particularly those that depict rape or cannibalism, is meant to reflect the loss of control that accompanies such a shift. Our feeling for the characters’ awareness of both the change that has beset them and their powerlessness to stop it brokers their pathos.
Having said that, metamorphosis in fiction can have a far richer function than simply implying or exorcising a moral dread of the beast within us, as in Ovid or in Marie de France’s classic Medieval werewolf tale Bisclavret. The changing of body can be “for punishment, escape or apotheosis, for seduction or betrayal, for discovery or revelation.”
The sublimity of change in Ovid, in Marie De France, in Kafka’s immortal short story “The Metamorphosis”—in which already-alienated salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself inexplicably transformed into a giant vermin—tends nevertheless to make the metamorphosis the subject of a character’s despair, where the grief posed towards a life and innocence lost is at least implied.
And while we have plentiful means by which to understand how EarthBound bemoans lost innocence for itself, the game bucks a historical narrative trope by depicting such changes as these as a consequence of the character’s will, not something that happens irrespective of it.
My Fair Dungeon
Let’s take for our first example one of this incorrigibly eccentric game’s most incorrigible eccentrics: Brick Road. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of his in-game acquaintance, Mr. Road is Winters’ own “dungeon developer,” a kindly and industrious eccentric vying to one day become a “dungeon master.” When first we meet him, he is as much a dungeon master as I am a Huguenot (and I am a Huguenot not), creating as simple a puzzle for Jeff to navigate as gaming has seen.
When we encounter him again, past the Pyramid in Scaraba, things are different. Brick Road has not merely attained his wish, he has surpassed himself as few figures in games can be said to have done before. He has not merely created a true dungeon: he has, quite literally, become one, standing a homunculus to the sky as the figure of “Dungeon Man”: partly man, mostly dungeon.
A little further down the line in our theory of EarthBound, we will begin to make our mind up about the work’s allegiance to surrealism, or realism, or postmodernism; whether or not it bears any such loyalty, or a combination of them. But Brick Road must be EarthBound’s surest argument in favour of surreality, a surreality that is so ornate with self-reference it becomes almost baroque in feeling.
A man obsessed with dungeons? A man who designs them with abject limitations of imagination? A man who loves dungeons so much he wants literally to be one, to give up on his own humanity to satisfy a rampant (mal)function of his will towards metamorphosis? C’mon.
Seeing Brick Road’s face in the wall of the Dungeon Man—with him mounted inwards in the colonic depths of his creation rather than out towards the sandy paradise on which the Dungeon Man towers, his humanity reduced to a sort of grotesque, eviscerated decoration—must beckon a whole host of those aforementioned potential reactions towards the sight of a nature changed: outright pathos for the humanity that Brick Road has seemingly lost, laughter at the extremity of the transformation, or EarthBound’s specialty reaction: the wonky smile of confusion.
We may well feel a combination of all of these emotions and more, because Brick Road’s transformation is not in that classical lineage we mentioned. His face is turned inwards, so that he always faces his (self-)creation; this is no man who has been cursed by the caprice of a god or a sorceress, doomed to an involuntary fate of inhumanness. This is a man who has made himself this way, who has metamorphosed willingly.
So, we could interpret Mr. Road as the bearer of a soppy cautionary tale about nursing obsessions, and how we mustn’t allow ourselves to be consumed by them. Consumption by human vice is, after all, a recurring theme in EarthBound, and it is true regardless of our interpretation that Brick Road is obsessed with puzzles and the act of solving them, to the exclusion of other forms of meaning-making. But we needn’t view it in that way only.
Those of us perhaps more cynical about the value of analyzing games as we analyze them now might choose to view Brickie as a pure in-universe counterpoint to Dr. Andonuts: while the Doctor’s moral groundedness eventually sees him purpose the wonder of his creative abilities to worthy ends, Brick Road, for all his own undoubted genius, does not. His abilities instead go towards something that is entirely self-indulgent.
Nevertheless, we could, were we so minded, also invite the question of whether the change from a reasoning being to an unthinking labyrinth is not preferable after all. Brick Road knows what he wants; Brick Road manifests it for himself; Brick Road shares his creation, which is his recreation of self, with us; Brick Road is happy. Are his efforts not given at least some form of worthiness thereby?
Brick Road shifts in shape pretty abominably through EarthBound, but he therefore functions as a shorthand for how EarthBound itself shapeshifts, its total package of tropes still legible when viewed through all manner of lenses of understanding:
- If you are a Classicist or a Christian, you may read Brick Road’s saga as a cautionary tale.
- If you are a Realist, you may see Brick Road’s story as an allegory for depression, in which a personality displaying a social dysfunction retreats into obsessive activity and remakes itself in the image of the activity that gives it refuge from its despair and sense of alienation (Rather like an otaku might).
- For those of you who are straightforward fans of the work itself, or if you are a Funist (someone who thinks such intellectualizing as this isn’t becoming of the medium of gaming), then Brick Road is a pure soul, one who NPCs for Our Sins and is appropriately transfigured.
- If you are a Humanist who tends to kneel at the altar of the will, you may choose to interpret the tale as Brick Road the Blessed. He is now visibly something else, but he is at least in essence the something else he always has been.
What at first seems inexplicable proves to be beholden to a twisted logic, but beholden to logic all the same. As is Brick Road, so is his parent game.
Regardless of where you individually might sit on the analytical spectrum, the potential for the player to connect with some “version” of Brick Road is high, and distinctly so. It leads us to recall the question that resounds in contrast with the metamorphosis concept; one that is well within the scope of humanity’s innate teleological curiosity; and one that has gotten us to this point, both writer and reader, in our theory of EarthBound: “Why was this game made this way?”
Through Brick Road, through his inscrutable interior reasoning and the abominable and presumably permanent ways he changes his body, we confront a more refined version of this question; “Why is this thing that should never have been?” This ontological question asked by the narrative could very easily be applied to our quest to find meaning within the game itself.
Knowing Me, Knowing Poo
Being consumed by something is one of the game’s themes, but so too is the act of consumption a recurring image in EarthBound: we can repair the wounds of mortal combat by munching on a pizza (what an image that is of the consumerist ethos); we can fill ourselves back full of magical powers by huffing one of the landscape’s many “magic butterflies” (one of EarthBound’s many nods to the theme of subversion); and, when out at the resort city of Summers, with its Lonnie-Liston-Smith-quoting music theme and extortionate prices for food and board, we are offered some “cake” down by the beach by a member of the city’s Stoic Club (more on that later) as she seeks greater self-knowledge. In only EarthBound’s first narratively-incorporated drug trip, the very meat of our game experience itself shapeshifts along with Ness, Jeff, and Paula. Three briefly become one, and we are introduced to our fourth party member, the enigmatic Poo.
We remarked on the enigma of Poo earlier in our analysis. With this change of shape, EarthBound has something else to tell us about the nature of guise. There is a running joke in EarthBound that Ness and Poo, despite their being born continents apart, are dead ringers for one another; the process of change from one into another deepens this joke to uncover a slightly meatier suggestion, one in keeping with EarthBound’s hearty embrace of dualisms.
We get to see from behind the eyes of each boy, not bound by sensory constraints as are the other characters in-universe (like Ness’ dad, who, each time Poo dials a Dalaam phone, believes he’s speaking to his boy, not to Poo). We see by this change that the two characters we are controlling are identical, and are yet not: same in purpose, capabilities yes; in appearance, perhaps; but in point of origin, certainly not. The more change is embraced—the further we move through Poo’s private quest—the deeper the realization of self by extension—when we unite him with the remaining heroes, and their capabilities subsequently enlarge.
Someone should tell the cake-dispensing self-improver of Summers this. Perhaps she already knows. Yet again, it leads us to a confrontation of that question: “Why is this as it is?” Beyond that, it probes further: “Can it be otherwise?”
As ever, EarthBound does almost everything it does with pure characterization with space as well. Threed, one of the game’s daffiest and most immaculate set-pieces, conceives of change through setting: not so much that we must return the town to normal from the state of zombie-infestation we find it in, which is both thematically and narratively obvious. Rather, it is the fact that we find it in a situation that is so self-evidently wrong that is meaningfully suggestive. Subversion, already noted as one of EarthBound’s preoccupations through its every dimension, can most clearly be manifested and analyzed at social scale, in a milieu large enough that a self-contained status quo can be clearly established and a subversive element then introduced distinctively; a town environment is just the ticket. Threed has it bad: what should otherwise be a bustling burgh enjoying the circus is stranded in perpetual night, its citizens in a state of psychological breakdown where they are not violently deranged. The episode of Threed, dressed up in Halloween aesthetics though it is (and therefore metamorphosed, though not in the most permanent and tragic and truest of senses), stages most relatably the story of the instinct to change.
It is another “Why is this as it is?” moment, given horrible apex by the episode involving Ness’ encounter with the prostitute at the Threed hotel. As he pursues her through the building, our sense of her is transformed, from an iteration that is impossibly dreadful (a sex worker willing to solicit a minor) to another (a baiting agent used by a crew of zombies) that, while still awful, seems a relative mercy. The sense of a scene whose meaning is in permanent flux is given added by the distortions of the game’s soundtrack that attend it.
Through the general course of the narrative, the will again comes into play; our thinking is led to the resolution that “This cannot stand [as it is]” and subsequently to the questions of “How can this be changed?” and “How can we force the metamorphosis of circumstance?” In this case, the answer is manifested through the appearance of our favorite boy wonder of Winters, Jeff, who shortly thereafter rides to our rescue.
Two Spirits in Two Machines
And then, of course, there is EarthBound’s most profound instance of transformation; well, “transformation” is perhaps not the right word. Transposition would be more accurate. Ness and the gang have pushed further and harder than any should have to in the name of heroism in their effort to rebuke the looming threat of Giygas; and yet, having pushed to their limits, they find quite simply that a being so abstracted, so beyond time and space, cannot be assailed or even confronted by regular means, no matter how much mortal effort they expend in the attempt. Dr. Andonuts has a solution, one that even he finds unspeakable; he turns his back, as if wishing to flee from the reality of it all, as he reveals the plan to the four children at the Cliff That Time Forgot.
In order to defeat this threat that goes beyond the physical, they too must trespass this boundary: as “life is demolished” in the process of such a timewarp, the only way for our heroes to make it across would be to willingly transplant their fragile young consciousnesses into robotic form, to become “lifeless.” Narrative precedent tells us that, of course, they will accept no matter the risk; yet it is still shocking, not least of all to Andonuts himself, to witness such selfless acquiescence. The procedure of the transplant itself is grim: the sound of the process evokes a thousand nightmares of enforced lobotomy (or worse: the dentist), and Dr. Andonuts’ request shortly prior to it to “Let [him] take a good look at you now…”, taking Ness’ red cap as a memento, is shot through with the most urgent poignancy.
Dr. Andonuts, in his reaction to this gesture, displays the more usual human reaction towards the phenomenon of change: to him it is something to be dealt and grappled with. The transformation itself, though it is broached through a futuristic trope (man into machine), seems also to be in the traditional lineage of the metamorphosis, different only in a semantic sense from, for example, Daphne turning into a bay laurel tree. But, as we have noted that EarthBound is a game that essays the passions, a different passion from the ones known in Ovid illuminates the scene at the Cliff That Time Forgot: the highest passion, that of reason. Ness and co. are not passive in the transformation; they are willing participants, and they allow their transformations on the call of purpose.
While we might otherwise be brought to a sense of pathos by the act, we are instead redirected into a state of admiration of a heroic deed; we are not asked to justify what happens to Ness and the gang, for they have justified it themselves.
And the act of placing the spirit of heroes into the machine—this is how it discussed in-game—could be read as an interesting comment in and of itself on the way in which player agency, or indeed human artistic principle, acts as gaming’s own “ghost in the machine” and justifies the act of gaming. Among the particulars of tech-humanism as it has developed over the past few decades of everyday life’s progressive gadgetization, video gaming is perhaps the single medium most immune to the one specter of ontological castration anxiety that meets many in their dealings of our day: automation. There is a lingering fear—which may lie ambient in some, press on others, and even give exaltation to others still—that with the path of our advancing technological media, humanity is preparing itself for its own obsolescence.
And yet video gaming flatters the meaning of human participation: it is a technology in which the human element is inextricable from its process, without which the process has no reason for being. Gaming, therefore, cannot possibly be automated, as it relies on a delicately maintained chemistry of programmed linearity with the human player’s ability to originate motive—context-dependent, it may not allow players to originate motivation in terms of a story’s ultimate destination, but it does in a larger sense (the motivation to activate the console and realize the game itself) and in smaller ones (the player can play a game without playing along with it; if they choose, they can hang out in a level and listen to its music, or try to contrive their own challenges, sometimes with the help of a mod or two).
Regardless, the conscious action of the will is a prerequisite. As it is upon the Cliff That Time Forgot, so it is in the den of the SNES’ habitation. If you do not will it, it cannot be but a dream.
A Farewell with Change
Keeping things strictly in-universe, though, we receive the most high-impact and least theoretical of EarthBound’s comments on the act of physical change through the Transposition of the Cliff. The comment, roughly, is this: in light of how both instinctive and artistic precedent warns us of the potential traumas of change, change undertaken on the direction of the will is the preserve of the brave. Taken on with the knowledge that return may be impossible, taken on for the sake of a greater good, change is the principal vehicle of heroism. It is something that transcends the personality of the subject; whatever the outcome, agency cannot be denied in he or she who alters himself or herself. It is the truly and infinitely multifarious human answer to the recursive question, “Why?”
 The author, shortly after being assailed by Circe.