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.
Once EarthBound gets you into its zombie fly paper, it does not let go easy. After all, this is a game that has transcended the humble bounds of a SNES cartridge and, without the benefit of having spawned an illustrious franchise in its wake, become a landmark in the lives of those who’ve played it and come to love it (a coterie that now spans at least two full generations of gamers). More than that, it travels. It has been represented in every edition of Super Smash Bros. It influenced South Park. Its soundtrack shows up in unlikely places.
It’s a game that gets under your skin. But how does it do so? Its story and setting? Its gameplay? Its soundtrack? The aspirational pre-teen apparel sported by our heroes? They all have their part to play. But the single most decisive element conjuring that lingering, haunting effect may well be the least noticeable: its flavor.
Flavor is anything in a video game that is superfluous: it is not vital to the forward progress of a game’s plot, but helps to generate or consolidate the game’s atmosphere. Standard-issue NPC responses, in-battle effect responses, item descriptions; status afflictions, naming conventions; all of it can fall under that banner of text that is not there for any reason other than to deepen a player’s impression of the world they are in.
In fact, it may be accurate enough to say that:
This sounds like the precise kind of antitruism that would find a welcoming place in the sort of game that was marketed with a pungent peel-patch in a magazine captioned “This game stinks.” But it holds considerable weight upon analysis.
What is Flavor Text?
Flavor is most often generated in video games through textual means—ergo, you most often find flavor referenced not discretely, but rather in relation to flavor text. There is an argument to be made that many more aspects of game design often considered under their own umbrellas—including such fundamentals as graphics and music—are all components of flavor, but aside from the fact that this spoils the argument, graphics and music, while certainly blessed with the means to be flavorful, are essential components of a game. They are pillars of the sensory experience: if they are not there, the game, to some extent, does not exist. Thus they do not enjoy the same superfluity that flavor text does.
Flavor text, on the other hand, does not have to exist at all. So long as a game has some sort of rubric for indicating functions—it doesn’t even have to use text for this—and for providing gamers with some instinct for how to progress, it has all the text it needs. Some of the most moving of all experiences in gaming need none whatsoever.
Nevertheless, many of the best games establish a similar impression of their own worlds through flavor text—and EarthBound may well have taken fuller advantage of this superfluous mechanic than any game ever had before.
What is Flavor Text in EarthBound?
Though some might argue that an NPC’s flavor text, being dialogic, merits its own discrete category in a game’s textual arsenal, we’re going to include it in our considerations of flavor, given that the dialogue is by-and-large not event-triggering. EarthBound’s NPCs are almost invariably picaresque, evocative, and pathos-laden.
There are the simply astonishing sesame seeds of the desert, who clearly have a saga of stoicism and heartbreak of their own going on between them when we meet them in the sands.
There’s the truly Ovidian flavor of Brick Road, a character once-a-man-now-a-dungeon whom we’ve examined at length already.
There’s the flavorful pathos of the fact that Ness’ only communication with his father is through a telephone.
And, in one of the game’s most inspired (and on-the-nose) innovations in flavor, there’s the Saturn dialect: flavor expressed not only dialogically, but also through the textual formatting of that dialogue.
If we step outside of the bounds of strictly dialogic flavor, there are more EarthBound flavors to be sampled. There’s the fairly straightforward RPG flavor affair of Ness’ Psi attack roster, slightly subverted (though with uncertain aim) by those evocative Greek letters that denote each move’s degree.
There’s the post-battle flavor, wherein we are informed that a given enemy did not die, but “became tame,” suddenly reorienting the player in a world where unearthly aberrations exhibit plausibly lifelike characteristics (or is that the other way around?). It’s also one of the most equivocal “battle triumph” flavors in 90s RPGing.
More than a little of EarthBound’s flavor is deeply poignant, as when we find out that death in EarthBound’s world is, somewhat uniquely in the RPG canon, a phenomenon with permanent ramifications.
And of course, there’s Eagleland’s all-seasons pizza delivery service. Now that’s a flavor—deadpan, familiar, and zany to the core; profoundly EarthBound—we should all be able to agree on.
But there’s another strand of flavor in EarthBound; one that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. And it might just be this flavor that points us most clearly towards the purpose of flavor in the game.
The Flavor of Being
The flavor text that accompanies certain basic actions—actions undertaken specifically by the player, given expression through Ness, their avatar—in EarthBound is one of its most intriguing deployments of flavor. The flavor text “voice” we’re talking about encompasses a few different notional registers and occurs at different times during the game, so to keep things tidy we’ll call it the flavor voice of the narrator.
We hear it for the first time when we mistakenly hit the ‘Talk’ command when standing too far away from an NPC to interact with them. In doing so, we receive one of EarthBound’s most famous flavor cues. You know the one we’re talking about.
“Who Are You Talking To?”
It’s one of the funniest, most characteristic, and, when you get down to it, starkest of all of EarthBound’s textual flavors. It is most likely the first flavor article the player has seen since making it out of that flavor-setting ‘New Game’ screen (more on that to come). It signals that an action that the player has attempted is superfluous and has triggered no event. It is therefore the epitome of flavor text: not just superfluous but also about superfluity. It is moreover the epitome of EarthBound’s particular approach to flavor, trying to provoke thought in its player quite literally out of thin air.
At first glance, it seems as though there’s a rakish sense of humor afoot in this bit of flavor text. Sure, the game devs are taunting you for your imprecision when trying to ‘Check’ an object. But this flavor has other effects, too: the player is obliged to confront the void. This is not a spatial void, nor even an emotional one—this void is the much more quotidian void of intention and action. The void of intention is why you can sit in a room full of books, views, and devices, and still feel bored. The void of intention is why it’s possible to feel lonely while walking in a crowd of thousands of people along a packed city street: not because there’s no one else there, but because you have no commonality of purpose with those whom you are among. You are going about unnoticed.
Of course, if we unpack this flavor cue further, we arrive at a realization that comes to powerfully underpin our understanding of the intended effect of flavor in EarthBound. Yes, this line is intended to make us feel alone in this zany-yet-foreboding gaming universe; however, it’s also proof that we are, in fact, always being noticed—that something, or someone, somewhere, is watching us do nothing, and remarking on us when we’re doing nothing. It suggests there is some meaning even behind a meaningless action; perhaps something within the game is trying to bring us closer to it.
“Rockin’, Steak, and King”
Let’s wind it back a little further. We get just as clear a signal of EarthBound’s commitment to flavor—and, moreover, to flavor as an empathic tool that can bind a player to a game—right after we hit ‘New Game’. Naming an avatar is perhaps the most cursory nod to custom flavor that a game can offer, and it’s pretty much universal across the RPG galaxy; given its ubiquity, and how token it feels as a device to try to weld the player to their avatar, it understandably holds little effect on its own.
But we are invited to customize more about Ness than just his name: we’re asked to specify his favorite thing to do, his favorite food, and the name of his beloved pet dog as well.
These are not idle requests. The thing that we tell the game is our favorite thing to do comes to function as the name of Ness’ signature PSI move, adding a further layer of implication to the game’s metaphysical interest in the motivational powers of memory and sentiment. Whatever we decide is our favorite food is exactly what Ness’ mom will cook for us as a replenishing meal whenever we visit home in Onett. Or is she our mom?
I ask because, during this heartwarming invitation for the player to invest just that bit more of themselves into the game, EarthBound takes the time to deliberately blur the lines of player and avatar by asking us not “What is [Ness’/his] favorite thing/food,” but “What is your favorite…”
Missing Your Mom?
This apparently deliberate obscuring of registers extends to some of EarthBound’s famous in-battle flavor cues, as well. In other RPGs, we expect our characters, when not taking damage in battle, to have to deal with status afflictions like being poisoned, dazzled, or put to sleep. EarthBound dips into this conventional gamut, sure—there’s some classic flavor in there, when one of our heroes is indeed poisoned, paralyzed, asleep, or even possessed.
But this seam of flavor runs much richer and more allusively than that. Sometimes, our avatars are subjected to cartoonish fates, like being mushroomized or turned into a diamond. Elsewhere, we might find that Ness and co. have been given a cold. They start to feel nauseous. They suffer from sunstroke. They begin to feel homesick. They begin to cry. In real trouble, they fall unconscious.
The flavor cues for these afflictions—not to mention the fact of the afflictions themselves—are extraordinary. “You felt sad and empty,” the game tells us. We are made aware that “Ness really [misses] his mom.” It’s peculiarly haunting when you and your party are facing down a pile of vomit or a gang of predatory nooses and you are informed that Ness, Jeff, Paula, or Poo “couldn’t stop crying” and thus cannot defend themselves. We realize anew that for all their PK and gadget mastery and pluck, these kids are still just that: kids.
The effect is not just decorative, either, but empathic. An emotional attachment to the status affliction is established. Many players will not have direct experience of being poisoned or burned or temporarily paralyzed. But we can all, to some degree of clarity, remember a time, perhaps in childhood or perhaps after, when panic overtook us and sent us into fits of sobs. Often this would happen when we were forced to countenance some truth of adult reality we were not old enough to understand: an argument between parents, passing an accident on the highway, or accidentally seeing something (perhaps a movie) we shouldn’t have.
In that way, these empathic flavor cues reestablish the heroic pathos of EarthBound. We are frequently reminded that these are children in a world that, when it’s not slapping scary faces on circus tents or appointing pools of vomit as bosses, positively revels in its adultness and mines all kinds of value from the dialectic between that adultness and its obvious childish whimsy.
“You felt sad and empty…”
Then there’s that second person again. In the context of the way most flavor cues in EarthBound are explicitly character- (or at least action-) tied, the fact that these ones conspicuously are not gives us the sense that they form something like a curated internal monologue; a voice of passive experience of EarthBound’s world, not unlike the unspoken monologue that resounds in our own head, sorting out the objects that come into our field of sensory awareness, when we are silently going about our daily business. The fact that these flavor cues appear to put us directly into empathic connection with our heroes is important because, particularly in Ness’ case, they function as a window into the emotional state of a silent protagonist.
It is interesting that the narrator dispensing such flavor cues should refer both directly to Ness and to the player through the second-person register. While we have thus far been entreated to this “narrative flavor” as though we were actually getting the impressions in question direct from Ness’ own sensory registers, there is also a detached, impersonal perspective to flavor cues like “You felt sad and empty.” On one level, it could be read simply as some rather on-the-nose conditioning, an attempt to force empathy between the player and the clean slate of their otherwise voiceless avatar.
But moreover, these flavor cues are also a vehicle to establish pathos in the mind of the player, to remind them of the disciplines of EarthBound’s universe. “Yes, these are children on a cross-country jaunt to save the world. But they’re not impervious works of fantastical engineering. They long for home, feel nauseous, catch colds, and sometimes just feel sad for no particular reason, like real kids do.”
Because these emotional reactions are deeply embedded in any player with memory of their childhood, the temptation given by all these flavor cues to interpolate ourselves directly into the in-game circumstances triggering those cues is all but irresistible.
The more often a game obliges us to ask the question ‘What would happen if I really were in this situation?’, the closer we as players come to internalizing that same question. Once it has been internalized, the matter is no longer ‘What if I were in these circumstances?’, but the tacit, if unspoken, presumption ‘I am in these circumstances’.
That’s when, and how, this game gets you.
Of course, EarthBound being EarthBound, giving us pangs of heroic pathos, and reminding us of the time when getting separated from mom in the mall with nothing but a big spiral lollipop for comfort felt like an emotional apocalypse, are not the game’s only intended use of these sharp empathic flavor cues. It also wants to do something crueller with them, and in many ways braver: it wants us to turn our empathic capabilities not just to our heroes, but also to our villain.
Not just any villain: the villain, at least as far as flavor is concerned. There are few boss battles that have the substantive shock value, the sheer exhilarating wrongness of Giygas. The beast at the end of time pushes the envelope even for an eldritch abomination; it is something that operates so far removed from any plane of sensibility that even its attempts to harm our heroes ordains one of the most chilling flavor cues ever seen in gaming:
This flavor cue is ingenious in and of itself because, in a way very much consistent with EarthBound’s sweet-and-sour, surreal-and-realistic approach to flavor thus far, it actually beds realism into the unimaginable context of confronting something like Giygas. Screw laser eye beams, freeze rays, falling star attacks: if you did battle a Giygas-like monstrosity, it’s highly probable that, yes, its attacks probably would be too sensorily overwhelming or laws-of-physics-defying to be intelligible. It’s also a great bit of additional flavor curation when we consider that, in order to fight Giygas, Ness and co. have had to voluntarily surrender human form and place their minds in robotic shells. Given that Giygas’ attacks are presumably at least partly emotional or psychological in nature, it makes sense that Giygas’ attacks might not present themselves in intelligible form. Thus, our impression of the fight and its disciplines is made both deeper and murkier; it also gives subtle justification, at least as far as in-universe physics are concerned, to the very human and very emotional technique eventually used to defeat Giygas, which is thus transformed from potential deus ex machina to yet another astonishing flavor cue (but more on that at a later date).
This realistic proximity to the terror of Giygas’ power then foregrounds the even crueller sprinklings of flavor to come in the fight. It is one thing, scary enough in prospect, to be asked to empathize with the emotional state of children who, having taken responsibility for the fate of the world, are tasked with keeping their nerve when dealing with abusive parents, murderous thugs, a vale of cultist, the honeytraps of the undead, and Geppu. It is another thing entirely to be asked to empathize with a being so entirely consumed by pain, hatred, and isolation that it has lost physical form, having instead degenerated into a cloud of chaotic matter capable of extending its virulent behavioral instability to other lifeforms.
Yet that is what we are tasked with doing during the Giygas fight. That is why the fight itself is so disturbing. And how is it done? Through flavor, of course.
There is no doubt that the effect of Giygas is complete and multi-sensory—it’s not just about flavor. Hirokazu Tanaka’s score for the battle could not be bettered; it’s neither a cloud of errant dissonance nor a grandly orchestrated gesture that would betray the formlessness that is so vital to the terror of Giygas. It is fractured enough to be thoroughly eerie, but with occasional bursts of rhythmic ostinato that suggest something humanly intelligible in the darkness.
There is the image itself: no sprite, just a background, a swirl of red in a void, forming the merest approximation of an alien face and, in the battle’s later stage, a human fetus.
But all of that would be a mere much of a muchness, merely great craftsmanship, something with which no gamer would or need connect beyond the imperative to battle and defeat it, without those flavor cues.
The being calls you by name. It seems, as much as anything else, to be appealing to Ness’—and, by extension, the player’s own—humanity. Whatever Giygas is, all we are really permitted to understand is its agony. Perhaps it’s the writer’s own prejudice coming through, but it has never struck me that Giygas’ appeals that “It hurts…” could resort from something so banal as complaint about the pain inflicted on it from Ness’ own attacks. Rather, it seems to speak from a heart of darkness that has been so starved of love—the universal extension of the unmothered anomie afflicting Giygas’ bearkeeper, Pokey, whose main role in the fight is to humanize the abomination he stands before—that nothing remains except hurt.
It is again the erection of a dialectic, the skillful counterposition of something unrecognizably inhuman with emotional appeals to the player’s heart that are nothing if not nakedly human, that allows EarthBound’s flavor to take on such insidious power in this final stage. Shigesato Itoi intended for the battle to be a festival of emotional manipulation, the approximation of the murder scene from the film Kenpei to Barabara Shibijin whose traumatic effect—which he described as simultaneously ‘erotic and atrocious’—first seeded Giygas in the EarthBound creator’s mind when he accidentally saw it as a boy.
Because the flavor requests that we understand Giygas emotionally, not physically or even combatively, the utterly incomprehensible gains purchase with us. It is why, whereupon all hope for conquest seems lost and Paula is reduced to merely crying for help, we are provided with the most despairing of all flavors. Rarely, if ever, is a manufactured sense of futility and impending doom in a video game carried through so believably as it is with this last flavor cue before the end.
The Value of Taste
At first, it might seem easy to take EarthBound’s maniacal pursuit of flavor as simple creative fancy, but it has something important to tell us about the thing people are talking about when they refer to the “worldbuilding” of a game.
As the science of videogaming has developed in the two-and-a-half decades since EarthBound, a great deal of focus has been placed on a very generalized quality that might be called “immersion”; in many cases, this can be read as a short-hand for “making graphics better.” The pursuit of improved graphics was perhaps the industry as a whole’s prevailing driver through the fifth, sixth, and seventh generations of consoles.
However, there is an argument that, among these efforts towards immersion, many modern games have assumed a more solipsistic character. It’s not as a direct result of the focus on graphical improvements; rather, because that focus on graphical improvements has prevented many game studios from focusing on developing a more sophisticated understanding of the role of player-avatar empathy in entrenching a player in the context of a gaming world, and how that can be achieved, among other ways, via the cultivation of flavor. Instead of giving us means to be a character, we are simply given a more beautiful avatar and set of surroundings to look at. This preference would appear to resort from a limited understanding of the possibilities latent within the player’s avatar, and an overestimation of how truly “immersive” a game can be made simply by the improvement of its graphical presentation, with relatively little attention given to the possibilities of player-avatar empathy.
To this end, it could be argued that EarthBound is a distant and perhaps once-or-twice-removed ancestral cousin of the ‘empathy’ game. Let’s take a couple of specific titles to broker the comparison: Papers, Please, the border-paper inspection title created by Lucas Pope, in which you, as the protagonist, face a procession of refugees sporting passports and paperwork that may or may not grant them access to the fictionalized Eastern-bloc dystopia you work for; and This War of Mine, a war survival game by Polish development house 11 Bit Studios that focuses on civilian experience in a city under siege.
Papers, Please and This War of Mine have inherent in their design a focus on flavor, but their realistic aesthetics reveal flavor for what it is: detailed human interest. Papers, Please in particular may be the closest videogaming has yet come to a game wherein the player’s primary obligation is to focus on flavor cues, ingeniously encapsulated in the form of the identity paper.
Considering Papers, Please and This War of Mine, it’s easy to presume that the primary resorts of these games’ unsettling quality is that they both operate under dystopian realist premises, and to some extent, that’s true. But give a player a carbine and a multiplayer environment, and suddenly, the pseudo-Bosnian hell of This War of Mine becomes an exhilarating sandbox. Reformat EarthBound’s tropes so that they conform even slightly more to fantasy/Saturday-morning-serial cliche, remove the festival of criminals and misfits who populate it and stage Porky-in-the-Absolutely-Safe-Capsule as the final boss instead of Giygas, and the game becomes a light-hearted, vaguely satirical romp. It also becomes utterly inconsequential.
Instead, EarthBound exerts a magnetic appeal while we play and after. Why? Because, through its flavor, it offers us the antidote to solipsism: knowledge of both self and other. It’s not just that flavor allows us to ground ourselves in a sensory (or at least sensible) experience of the gaming world. It’s that it allows us to experience that world psychologically. The means by which both narrator flavor and circumstantial flavor are delivered in EarthBound enables the player to develop an independent sensibility of the game’s world while also understanding, in detail, Ness’ own psychological perspective.
Crucially, it does so without trying to collapse the two into one perspective—neither subordinating the player’s reactions to the avatar’s (though this would be interesting enough on its own), nor trying to condition all of the avatar’s reactions as the player’s own, which would both overemphasize the avatar’s lack of selfhood and seem like a rather cheap way of conjuring affect. Instead, the two correlated perspectives must coalesce, and this empathy invites the player deeper into the game’s world.
Instead of viewing the visible screen through the square matrix of the RPG veteran—i.e. “What is in my field of vision that I can use to trigger an item or story event?”—that subtle question of “Who are you talking to?” encourages us to interpret the negative space in front of our protagonist not as an event-vacant batch of pixels, but as actual space. We are suddenly not “playing” a grid of interactive squares, but are in a genuine environment. The Happy Happy Villagers, Everdred, Mr. Monotoli, the sesame seeds, Lier X. Agerate, Pokey and, of course, Giygas: through pursuit of flavor, EarthBound encourages us to re-experience the game’s own world through their feelings. And their feelings, by-and-large and evidently or not, are painful.
That is why EarthBound has such a hauntingly “immersive” feel: because we are given private access, either through verbal flavor cues or through the image we construct from a combination of verbal and visual flavor cues, to the agonies, tragedies, and abjections that form part of this world (and, again, because we are made to be aware that these privations are being exposed to, and sometimes being directly experienced by, children). Of course, in the grand and classical manner, exposure to, and ultimate triumph over, such tragedy brings exhilarating catharsis.
But it also leaves a mark on players, much in the same way as we are simultaneously chastened and fundamentally affirmed in our importance by discovering something discomfiting or personal about someone we meet. Getting to know someone means getting to know them beyond vital statistics and the cues of appearance, to embrace their superfluous aspect.
In other words, to “get to know someone” is to experience their own unique flavor, and to humanize them in doing so. EarthBound’s flavor is so fearfully rich because it insists that, if we are to experience the game at all, we must know its characters for exactly who they are—and we leave the experience not just having played, but having known.
- I mean this in the sense that Pokey is like one of those people at illegal circuses who are charged with restraining wild and/or abused show animals like bears. They’re “in control,” but only in the most notional and insecure sense. After asking you, newly confronted with Giygas, whether or not you’re “terrified,” he confesses, “I am too.” ↑
- The most evident forerunner of the ‘empathy’ game, at least in the ‘Blockbuster’ class and ‘RPG’ category, is Majora’s Mask, whose consummate blurring of event-impetus with flavorful superfluity has been amply analyzed by the vicar and head shepherd of this particular parish. ↑
- A Comprehensive Theory of EarthBound series navigation: < “’If You Change Your Mind’: Shapeshifters of EarthBound” |