I remember, in incredible detail, the street I grew up on. I remember the driveway of the house directly across from us where we'd occasionally play basketball with our neighbors. I remember my brother jamming his pinky there after I threw him an errant pass. I remember sledding down the driveway of the house on our left. I remember going over to Eddie's house to play Jet Moto 2. I remember the dogwood tree that used to be on our lawn.
I remember the lullabies, the smells of the foods my parents used to cook for me, and the places in my neighborhood and house I would go when I was feeling down. I remember my world back then, with crystal clarity. And I miss it.
Last night, I stayed up until 2am playing an eighteen year old video game, and all of these memories came flooding back in full force, overwhelming me.
(WARNING, HEAVY SPOILERS FOR EARTHBOUND FOLLOW)
Playing through Earthbound, right up until the last couple of hours, I was really enjoying myself. The characters were colorful and memorable, the world made sense, and the overall story arc was gripping and intense in all the right places.
Then I got to the Fire Spring.
For those of you who don't know, the Fire Spring is the last dungeon you visit in Earthbound before you gear up for your last battle. After you beat the boss there, Ness collapses. You enter the world of Magicant, a realm that exists inside Ness's mind. You meet old friends and enemies, people you spoke with in Onett before you set out on your big adventure. You see your mom and your sister. You see the bully who pushed you around as a kid— who you know you're stronger than now. You come face to face with your courage, and use it to help you face the scary, dark desires that Ness has held in his heart, in one of the toughest battles in the entire game.
Afterwards, Ness sees a scene of himself as a baby, and flashes of all the locations he has called "home" across the whole game. Each of these locations gives you power, as a nostalgic tune plays from Ness's Sound Stone. And when Ness awakens, his friends are all gathered around him concerned, even after Ness has gained this great power.
It's no accident that right after you get this full picture of Ness's life, that his soul is ripped from his body and put into a robot.
Think about this for a second.
As a player, you have been fostering this uniquely human relationship with these characters in the game— Paula, Jeff, Poo, and all the others— and suddenly, your humanity is ripped from you for the greater good. I was horrified. The robots weren't even cute. The red cap lovingly draped over the Ness robot's head was the only distinguishing feature on any of them, a sad reminder of a world the player isn't ever sure Ness and his friends will return to.
After all, the final battle is coming up. Who is to say we're not just greeted with a cutscene telling of Giygas' defeat, calling us all heroes, and segueing into the credits, followed by "The End"? I sure as hell didn't know what to expect.
The lead up to the final battle is similarly un-human. Until you get to Giygas' lair, everything is gray, shiny, and soulless. It's stark and deeply unsettling. I remember really wanting to get out of there.
When you finally approach Giygas, his lair is, in contrast, overly human. The lair itself is biological—veiny strands crossing paths as you clank up to face this great universal evil. It's a collection of blood and flesh that undulates in a way that makes you wish for the soulless area that preceded it.
Then you fight him.
And anyone who has played the game knows how the fight goes. You're utterly powerless. Your only hope is to call on help from your friends. You do so, seeing snippets of friends, family, former rivals... they all get struck with anxiety thinking of the great adventure their loved ones are having, and start praying for your success. One by one, Paula's family, Jeff's best friend, Poo's kingdom, Ness's family, they all come together in support of the party.
But it's not enough.
And here's where the game really started hitting home.
The next time you call for help, the prayer gets swallowed by the darkness. Pray once more, however, and an unknown character lends his or her support. Little by little, it's revealed that the character is you. The one holding the controller. And just like that, you're included. You are a part of this world— not just any part, but an integral one. The thing is, it's not just a cheap 4th wall break here. Throughout the game, Ness is told that Giygas is threatening the universe. The entire universe. Including the player.
Upon your victory, the party's souls happily return to their bodies from the busted robots, and you receive letters from friends and family. You walk Paula home. Everyone seems happy, and everything is...normal. You look at photos with your mom. You talk to your sister, and your dad wishes you a happy early birthday. You visit your old clubhouse, and the only thing that has changed is that you're more mature, that you're older— maybe not in age, but in mind.
And as the credits rolled, that's all I could think about.
I'm 24 years old, but there's a large part of me that remembers all those elements of my childhood, that reaches out to them even as I know I can't return to that state of mind. It's a part of growing up, and everyone does it. That doesn't make it easy.
But now I'm thinking about what the message of the game is.
That old dogwood tree, that driveway you played basketball in, your favorite sledding hill, old friends, acquaintances, bullies, everyone you meet carries you with them.
Our adventure is Life.
Do you ever think of that friend from grade school that you haven't seen since? I do. His name is Pablo Ruiz. We were best friends. We used to play Donkey Kong Country, then he moved away. It was sad, and even though I haven't seen the guy in 15 years, I still remember hanging out. I wonder how he's doing.
The last name that appears in Earthbound's credits is the name of the player, as if to thank them for playing. But it made me realize how universal this game is— everything it's saying about Life-with-a-capital-L, family, love, and sacrifice. You can't stagnate even when things are comfortable. You are pushed on even as you feel unsure or unready. And those places you knew as a child, your own sanctuaries— even if they are destroyed, will always be with you reminding you where you have been and where you have yet to go.
We all have our own World.