Video Games With Unexpectedly Dark Themes - Part 1
When video games were first created, they were treated solely as a way to provide mindless entertainment and seen as tools through which people may derive entertainment through sportslike competition, either by competing with a machine or another person. As the games and their media evolved, developers started to see them as mediums for telling a narrative, through which the players could participate, after all, this concept already existed in tabletop Role Playing Games.
Since then, narratives have become an integral part of most video game titles, and time passed, these narratives become more and more complex, depending on the target audience. After a while, the mechanics of ordinary narratives became widely known, and thus no longer attractive to most gamers, and so developers had to become more creative, weaving intricate stories full of unexpected nuances to catch players off guard.
Sometimes, these attempts are so masterfully done that they ascend to a whole new level of storytelling. The kind that can catch pretty much anyone off guard, whether intended or not, mostly because, often times, these hidden nuances had a very dark nature.
This is the first part of my series on video games with unexpected dark themes. More to come in the future, so stay tuned!
***WARNING: HEAVY PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD***
Earthbound, also known as Mother 2 in Japan, is a SNES (Super Nintendo/Famicon) RPG game published by Nintendo and developed by affiliated companies Ape and HAL Laboratory, It is the second game in its series, the first game being Mother, which wasn't released in the US until now in 2015, under the name Earthbound Beginnings.
Earthbound is a game about Ness, a young boy from the town of Onett. In his journey, Ness finds out through the intervention of a time travelling insect named Buzz Buzz (yes, a time travelling insect) that, in the not so far future, Earth and possibly the universe will be destroyed by Giygas, a powerful alien being with a vast network of servants and soldiers.
Ness is informed that he is the only one capable of stopping Giygas, and must do so by finding allies and certain places in which he can recover pieces of a melody, which when fully heard will allow him to fully unlock his potential and take the fight to Giygas himself.
Seems like a common RPG plot so far, right? Well, get ready for a ride.
Its kind of hard to properly convey how and where things start to get weird, because believe me, its a doozy. So I'll try to resume the plot in the best way I can.
For proper perspective, I'll now refer to Ness, the protagonist, as "you".
Lets just say that, at one point the person who's your first and pretty much your only friend, and who happens to be kind of a jerk, becomes even more jerksome, runs off to join an evil cult who brainwashes its members with the help of a mysterious, golden, devil-like statue that corrupts their minds and makes them forget themselves. You later find out that this statue, called the Mani Mani statue, is one of many, and they are actually devices through which Giygas spreads his influence, causing animals and people alike to become aggressive and evil.
Oh, also, you have psychic powers. Other allies you find in your journey also have psychic powers.
That's when things start to get darker and darker.
After this point, the game starts peppering you with creepy and dark things. You go a strange swamp called "the deep darkness" in which you eat some mushrooms and have a nightmarish dream in which you fight demonic incarnations of your fears and worries, all while stumbling upon messages and implied images of your worst memories.
Things start to get worse from here on. You know that one, first friend of yours? You find out he's actually helping the main villain now. You find out that the only way to fight the main villain is by time traveling so you can fight him while he's still not all powerful.... Only that to do it you need to give up your body and have your souls inserted into robotic bodies (due to the deleterious effects of time travel on organic tissue, it seems), and that the chances of you returning to your original body is slim at best.
So you and your allies, 4 children who haven't even reached puberty yet, have your souls ripped from your bodies, put into robotic vessels and sent on a journey to a dark and kinda hellish place, with no real chance of returning, because otherwise the universe destroying abomination cannot be defeated.
Oh yea, before all that, one of your allies goes through a totally not nightmare inducing spiritual meditation/training session:
Training Montage of Nightmares
And so, seeing no way out, you go back in time to fight Giygas. After crawling your way through a very dark cave full of really strong monsters, you reach the main villain... Kind of.
You then find the device (depicted above) known as "The Devil's Machine", which your friend turned enemy (who now shows up riding on a nightmarish looking spider mech) carefully describes as a device used to empower Giygas, the main villain, and that he's now so powerful and filled with negative emotions, that he has literally lost his mind and needs this machine to control his powers.
Your ex-friend laughs gleefully at this, as the device now gruesomely squirms and creates a replica of your face, and you start to fight both the device and your ex-friend.
After your defeat him and break the machine, your friend says that Giygas is now completely insane and unable to control himself, and that he'll consume everything ever. You now have to fight the completely insane Giygas... And it kinda goes on like this:
Lovecraft Would Be Proud
Earthbound was rather well received in Japan, selling about 280.000 copies. Unfortunately, it received little critical appeal in the US, selling about half as many copies as it sold in Japan. Experts mostly attribute this result to the bogus reverse psychology based marketing campaign and the unique cartoonish aesthetics (which didn't please everyone). The reviewers who liked it, though, praised it for its interesting, emotionally charged plot and humor, describing it as a both bizarre and memorable.
Many things had to be changed from the original Japanese version so the game would be fit for American audiences. Crosses on graves and hospitals were removed, cultists from a part of the game where redesigned to look less like Ku Klux Klan members, references to "alcohol" were changed to "coffee" and the Coca-Cola logo and a part in which the protagonist shows up naked was changed to have him wear pajamas instead.
Earthbound's development was quite convoluted. Shigesato Itoi, the game's main designer, said he made the original Mother game and Earthbound using a "reckless and wild" method (as described by himself), in which he would throw ideas at his development team and they would add their own ideas to it, seeking new ways to convey plots through a video game. He said he wanted to make the game attractive to girls as well, and that he wanted the player to feel several emotions while playing, including the feeling of being "distraught".
Additionaly, he mentioned that the final battle with Giygas, specially the dialog, was inspired by a 1957's black and white japanese movie called "Kenpei to Barabara Shibijin" or "The Military Policeman And The Dismembered Beauty", in which he mistook a murder scene for a rape scene, thus explaining the eerie atmosphere of the final battle.
Here's Another Rather Creepy Classic
Well, you see, this method wasn't working out so well, and Earthbound was almost cancelled several times. Its development was simply taking too long, and after nearly 4 years in development, it still seemed like it would take another 2 years for it to be fit for release, if it were not for the heroic entrance of Satoru Iwata.
Thats right, goddamn Satoru Iwata, game programmer and business executive extraordinaire who would later become Nintendo's President and CEO. Shigesato Itoi himself said that, thanks to Iwata's help as producer, the game was completed in six months rather than 2 years. Satoru Iwata has recently died due to complications with a tumor.
This hub is dedicated to his memory.
So, to finish this hub, I'd like to say that, yea, Earthbound has some pretty disturbing things under its cartoonish, happy face, but there's far more to it than just that. Earthbound is a game I've played myself, which is charged with great humor and emotion. The plot is very interesting and the characters are all very memorable.
I've truly enjoyed playing it in my teens, and I would easily do it again. It is a game that everyone can learn to enjoy and that has something for everyone in it, It is a brilliant gem whose value was only identified years later, which spawned a strong, cult like following from a faithful fanbase, which grew to great proportions years ago, and just keeps growing.
Try it out, I swear you'll not be disappointed.
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Which Mother Series games have you played?
© 2015 Guilherme Radaeli