Th-th-the Sunshine Fire… It’s on forest!Nichol
(This post is also available as a video, here).
And we’re off!
Though Chapter 1 has finally begun in earnest, we still have a thing or two to do before running into the towering inferno otherwise known as the Sunshine Forest. It’s a funny feeling–in a weird way, playing the game frog by frog actually removes some of the tension from the story. A forest is on fire; animals are being terrorized by men in pig masks; Lucas, Claus, and Hinawa are somewhere out there… and I’m controlling Flint and Thomas as they mosey about town square and chat with fellow villagers. For as much as I can bask in details while playing this way, I can also put the plot on the backburner and get around to it whenever I want.
Maybe we can learn a lesson in patience: no matter how crazy things get, there’s always a moment to take a breath.
So, what is there to do before all the heroics?
Well, first things first, we can kick around some rocks and listen to this track, which is accentuated by the clanging of Leder’s bell in the background (I actually wish the track itself included this sound effect). I think this song captures the feeling of Tazmily perfectly: yes, the forest is on fire, but there’s also a tentative, inquisitive quality to the arrangement. “What’s going on? What’s about to happen?” This is a town that doesn’t know strife, or danger, on a level like this. Sure, when you finally walk into the town square, most characters urge you to head to the forest as soon as possible, but that doesn’t stop three women from casually gossiping and telling Thomas to not bother Flint too much. We’re in a hurry, but this is Tazmily. We’re not really in a hurry.
I also think this song fits in with the game’s detective origins. Early on in Mother 3’s conception, Itoi was playing around with the idea of a detective character living in a village; as events would occur around town, the player would gather information and attempt to solve mysteries. I’m not positing this song is a reference to that idea, but more of a happy coincidence.
You know, one of the funniest things about playing frog by frog is that I can actually think, “I’m finally heading to Tazmily village,” when heading into Tazmily village is one of the first things you do in the entire game. If we consider that basically all RPGs are broken into two parts of main gameplay, with one part being combat, and the other part being exploration, we’re four posts into this blogging experiment and we have yet to see much combat at all. Luckily, the Mother series, in my opinion (and I’m sure in your opinion, too, seeing as we’re both here), handles the non-combative portions of its gameplay better than most other games of its kind. In these games, it’s fun to talk to people.
It’s also around this point that if you’re more familiar with EarthBound, you might finally start to feel Mother 3 is going to be a little different. While EarthBound’s opening sequence is confined to the mountain side around Ness’s home, the player is soon left to explore the entire town at their will, talking to any NPC and doing pretty much anything they want. The player cannot continue south toward the next town because of a police blockade, but Onett is big enough that a first-timer might not even notice this before having naturally come across other objectives.
In Mother 3’s opening (even though we’ve already had a prologue) it seems every resident urges me toward the Sunshine Forest: head north, head north, head toward the flames! Pusher, the richest man in town, actually gives such an over-the-top diatribe that I wish I could take Flint’s stick and knock him over the head with it, but I guess the future mayor isn’t saying anything that the game isn’t explicitly telling us already. Try to go anywhere but north, and:
But if I were to head directly north, the next save frog could be encountered fewer than thirty seconds after the previous one, and, on this blog, we like to take things slow. I do want to talk about Mother 3’s linearity in comparison to EarthBound’s meandering, and I’d like to talk about some of these new NPCs as well, but with the encroaching flames, the background clanging of the siren bell, and the constant telling-me-what-to-do from everyone, I’m starting to feel a little stressed out.
I think that means it’s time to stop, take a walk, and smell the gerberas.
Little Flowers Everywhere
One of my favorite details I encountered in this short session is that Hinawa planted flowers all over town, gifting them to other villagers and to the village at large. I had actually never noticed this before, and I’ve played Chapter 1 more times than I’d like to share (I’ll tell the tale some day soon). I mean, yes, I had remembered the times in the story when other characters remarked on Hinawa’s favorite sunflowers or recalled something nice Hinawa did for them, but I had never actually encountered this little dialogue option with the beds of flowers themselves.
This time, I’m the dummy who wasn’t playing around enough in the world of Mother 3! This is a lesson: check every flower in the entire game to see if it says something cute.
Anyway, the flowers can be found right outside Flint’s door and all throughout the town. I love how the game makes room for details like this, because we’ve already been acquainted with Hinawa and can assume she’s a good person, but it’s nice to see her generosity instead of being told about it. In the same way Hinawa surpasses the simple description “loving mother” with her sense of humor and town-wide generosity, I wonder if we’ll see Flint subvert any expectations of the calm, dependable cowboy.
Another little present that’s right outside your door is the Mother series staple of a gift box. Whereas other RPGs will hide treasure chests all around, Mother games opt for gift boxes, complete with a little bow.
(Side note: did anyone else download that desktop background of Boney, a bench, and a gift box from a Mother 3 website back in the day and have it totally mess with your parents’ Windows XP computer for some unexplained reason, forcing you to explain to your parents that the reason the background was no longer Stonehenge was because you had downloaded a background from a Japanese website and now couldn’t change it back, even though you were 12 years old and quickly becoming the family “tech whiz” for no real discernible reason? Or was that just me?)
I’ve always loved the gift boxes. They stick out in the landscape so they’re easy to see, when you open them they make the most satisfying *pop* sound, I love their simple color scheme of a red ribbon on a light blue box, and they barely make any sense in the most perfect way. Why would there be a wrapped gift box in the middle of nowhere? In the depths of a cave? Behind a tree? Well, why would there be a treasure chest in those locations? Imagine, for a moment, that instead of gift boxes, Mother 3 did use generic RPG treasure chests, and that one was sitting right here. Would it make any more sense for a treasure chest to be here than a gift box?
There’s a part of me that imagines Itoi’s reasoning on the gift boxes being something like, “Well, we’re going to be giving the player a piece of Nut Bread, or a new piece of equipment, and that’s a gift, right? Put it in a gift box!” Or maybe he was following the wisdom of a detective who once said, “Every day, once a day, give yourself a gift. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it, just let it happen.” In fact, that line sounds like something a Mother NPC might tell you out of the blue. Who said it, anyway?
Well, none other than Special Agent Dale Cooper, of the television show Twin Peaks, offered that salient advice. Itoi was a big fan of Twin Peaks, so there’s a part of me that’s going to believe that, even though the first Mother game came out before Twin Peaks ever aired, Itoi was inspired by Cooper’s idea and kept the gift boxes in the games. There’s really a bunch of things I’d like to talk about that involve both Twin Peaks and Mother 3, but consider this a shy introduction. For now, the most obvious link between the two stories is that a small town gets turned upside down when unexpected strife leads to untimely death.
Did I say death? I think I’m getting ahead of myself again… Actually, this seems like the perfect time to jump into…
Small Town Gossip
You know, it really does feel good to be in the Tazmily town square again, even if this isn’t its liveliest night. If you try to walk in to any of the buildings, the game tells you it’s not a good time. If you try to walk east or west, Thomas tells you not to go that way. If you talk to Jackie and ask for his help, he seems willing, but quickly chickens out. Other than Nichol sputtering his interpretation of events, the only real fun people to talk to are the town square’s gossiping trio, who huddle around a well.
First, there’s Jill, the woman on the left, who tells Flint that he should probably take whatever Thomas says with a grain of salt, because that’s just the kind of person he is. Then, there’s Brenda in the middle, who posits that, if it’s true that the forest is on fire, they should all probably get their butts out of there. Lastly, there’s Lisa, Thomas’s wife, who tells him to quit following Flint around and acting like a siren.
As Mother 3 progresses, these three women will always have something to say, and I just get such a kick out of this. I think this trio is perfectly funny, funnily skeptical, and skeptically ambiguous as they chat for chatting’s sake. They crack me up! Even in the face of a fire, which they should really be able to see from their vantage, two of them find it more important to talk some smack on Thomas right to his face. This is the Tazmilian gossip I came here for. Yes, even innocent little Tazmily harbors an undercurrent of gossip, and as the opinions of these women change, so, too, do the opinions of the other villagers.
Don’t get me wrong: I love all the NPCs, mostly, equally. I wouldn’t have screencapped them and quoted them if I didn’t. Every Tazmilian will have their time to shine in their own way, and I’m not faulting any of the non-gossipers for not having something interesting to say in the chapter’s opening sequence. But really, as far as this next frog has taken us, these ladies have stolen the show.
But, to throw bones where bones are due, I love how, in characters like Nichol, we see how truly unfamiliar Tazmily is with strife—he can barely speak! I love how, in characters like Jackie, or Pusher, we are already seeing some of the flaws that will come to define the Tazmilians later on–namely, Jackie’s cowardice and Pusher’s greed.
Sure, Jackie wants to help, and he’s probably being genuine, but he does chicken out. Pusher, who could be opening the doors of his expansive home to scared or injured villagers, is more worried about his estate literally or metaphorically going up into flames if Flint doesn’t save the day—and he doesn’t speak lightly about this at all (I was actually surprised at how much of an asshole Pusher was right off the bat). Tazmilians may be simple people who seem to default to kindness, but, just like real people, none of them is perfect, and as the game goes on, more and more of them reveal that behind their pleasant smiles and good intentions sit just that: smiles and good intentions. Not much else.
To be fair to both Jackie and Pusher, they’re mostly providing some comic relief. I don’t want to position them as prime examples of Tazmily’s flaws when they’re both bringing a smile to my face. Whether you say “Yes” or “No” to Jackie when he asks if you need help, he’ll still chicken out either way. Not everyone can be a hero in every story! And while Pusher is definitely an asshole, his speech to Flint is so ridiculous, aggressive, and over the top that you can’t help but laugh. I can imagine Flint raising his arms in conciliation and saying, “Okay, okay. We’re going, we’re going!” What use does a town like Tazmily have for wealthy families, anyway?
Am I being a bit of a gossip? Of course I am! But that’s the fun of it! Tazmilians wouldn’t be so fun to talk about if they weren’t so interesting and alive.
See, sometimes I believe that all good stories, and all good casts of characters, have to have an element of gossip. It’s rewarding for a reader, a player, or a viewer to receive information as if it’s on the down-low. People like secrets. What I mean by this is, for example, in a novel, when characters talk about other characters before we’ve met them; or in a video game, when we hear about that cool item, that dangerous enemy, or that powerful party member long before we ever see them. Exposition is an overly-simplified, complicated beast, and, in my opinion, any examples of organic exposition are a win.
I know it sounds pretty simple, almost obvious: people talk about people all the time. But the outcome is much more effective than it initially appears. When characters let us into their world in this way, especially in RPGs, it is that much more effortless to truly become a part of it. In a more traditional RPG, you might approach a character in a town who says, “Swords can be purchased in the armory!” In Mother 3, you might approach a character who says, “Hinawa has always been so kind to me—she planted the flowers right over there.” Or, if it’s Pusher, “North! North I say!”
I’m bringing this up because Itoi once said he wanted to develop a game where a single place would change over time, where an NPC’s daily routine could be observed day-to-day, where a player could listen to town gossip and track the developments and lives of a side character—of any character! (By the way, if you’ve never read this interview, it’s a conversation between Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata, and Shigesato Itoi, an incredible “meeting of the minds” as the trio discusses Mother 3’s original cancellation). Itoi called RPGs “road movies,” because of their town-to-town nature: once you completed story elements in a certain area, you’d move to the next, and if you went back to visit a previous town, it would be as if nothing had changed.
Like nearly every convention in RPGs, Itoi hoped to approach this idea differently in Mother games.
Ironically, the difficulties that came with making this kind of design work on the scale that Itoi wanted ended up being one of the nails in Mother 3’s coffin when it was being developed for the Nintendo 64. I’ll talk about this more in a later post, but I think it’s easy to forget that, in the 90s and early 2000s, not all video game series successfully made the jump to 3D, no matter what the developers tried. The Mother series, in a way, is one of those cases.
But what about Mother 3 on the Gameboy Advance? Did Itoi succeed? Does a player get to experience a single place undergoing significant change over a period of time?
To answer that question, we’ll have to pay close attention to how NPCs grow and change throughout Mother 3. I’ll say off the bat that while I don’t think Itoi’s goal was necessarily realized in the sense that, for example, talking to one NPC before another could trigger a varying sequence of events, I do think that Itoi succeeded in showing a place (Tazmily) develop as if it were a character itself.
If we consider this quote, “I didn’t want the story to progress while the landscape stayed the same. I had a deep desire for the scenery to change before your very eyes,” I’d say Itoi is off to a good start. The game begins with a forest catching on fire, after all.
Before I move on, I’ll say that something I am looking forward to the most with Frog by Frog is cataloging these villagers and their changes as much as I can. I want to see events occur and opinions change; I want to mark the moment where certain Tazmilians reveal the small detail that grows into a new personality trait; I want to check in with the gossiping women whenever possible to pick up a new piece of scuttlebutt.
The time in Mother 3 doesn’t pass in an internal clock, or in a pre-programmed set of instances, like Itoi originally envisioned, but time still passes, and you’ll get much more out of any NPC in Mother 3 than you will out of most NPCs in contemporary games coming out this very year. Mother 3 ‘s NPCs are not just vehicles for side quests, hidden items, or other rewards, which might make them seem like they aren’t worth your time, but they will exist as pixelated people better than most other minor characters you’ll find in video games. I can promise you that!
Maybe except for Mapson. Is it time to talk about Mapson?
Here, I’ve Marked Your Map.
As I mentioned above, Mother 3 begins to mark itself as different from both EarthBound and Mother pretty early on. I’ve personally never minded Mother 3’s more linear approach to design. Even when NPCs are telling me where to go, and my only party member is telling me where to go, and the game itself is telling me where to go, and the richest man in town is telling me where to go, and more characters in the next section of gameplay will tell me where to go… I’m not bothered too much, because Mother 3 and its cast of characters manage to stay so consistently charming that I view it as part of the fun—a little fourth wall breaking never hurt anybody.
However, one character in Mother 3 manages to make me question the linearity just a bit, and that character, of course, is Mapson.
Let me say here: it has nothing to do with the fact that a man named Mapson gives you a map—as far as I’m concerned, that’s a stroke of genius on Itoi’s part. I also like Mapson, mostly, as a character. He’s a chill dude with sunglasses on who gives out maps. Nothing offensive there. He’s not any different than the guy in EarthBound who has a Hint Booth, where the player can buy hints about where to go next.
I guess my disappointment comes from Mapson explicitly saying, “You’re worried about Lighter’s shack deep inside the Sunshine Forest, yes? Here, I’ll mark that for you.”
Now, again, I understand that the game design of 2006 is different than the game design of 1994, but this is an on-rails decision that really is just less charming than the other stuff. Mother 3 has, in my opinion, the best opening in the entire trilogy, and the Tazmilians quickly communicate to Flint that everyone is freaking out and no one really knows what’s going on. The intro cut scene shows us a man with a piece of lumber leaving his house, but the player, as of yet, has no reason to know who Lighter is or where he lives.
In EarthBound, it makes sense for people to be talking about the gang of Sharks plaguing the town and causing trouble, urging the player toward their first objective. People in towns talk. People in towns complain about miscreants. That’s how it goes. It also makes sense in EarthBound for the player to find a map in the library. You can actually miss it entirely if you never go in there.
But how would Mapson know anything about Lighter’s house? As far as Thomas knows, or anyone knows, the Sunshine Forest is on fire. Everyone and their house-mouse is telling us to go north. The game has closed off all other directions aside from north. Do we really need Mapson telling us exactly who is in danger, and marking it on our map? This part of the game will literally not allow the player to go in any other direction than the Sunshine Forest—no matter where you go with Flint, there is a pipeline from his front door to exactly where you need to go.
Now, to argue against my own point here, worrying about Lighter and Fuel makes the most sense; everyone in town knows they live out in the forest, so it makes sense for Mapson to assume that’s where Flint is headed–thus, it makes sense for him to bring it up and mark Flint’s map. And I don’t mean to nitpick; the reason I want to write this blog isn’t to take a critical magnifying glass to the game. I guess it just feels like overkill that isn’t as fun as the other stuff. At least in EarthBound, the Hint Booth guy seemed like some weird outcast who the rest of the characters never congregate around–he lives on the outskirts of society with his sketchy hint booth and makes a living helping out kids with video games. I liked imagining him as a schoolyard kid who never grew out of collecting video game secrets and cheats—he’s that cool neighbor you had with all the Level 99 Charizards, except now he’s 40 years old and charging money to use his Gameshark. In EarthBound’s parody of contemporary life, he makes sense.
Not that things need to make sense! Ugh! I digress! I’m just musing, here. As I’ve made pretty clear thus far, the Mother series wins my heart over about every forty seconds, but I can’t ignore some of the criticism I’ve heard about Mother 3 over the years, and I can certainly understand how the opening of Mother 3 can be a bit off-putting to someone who loved EarthBound. While I still argue that both games do what they can to feasibly keep the player on track, I understand that Mother 3’s approach lacks the same amount of verisimilitude—of realness.
Of course, plenty of things in the Mother series operate unapologetically on their own terms. There’s the Octopus (or Pencil) Eraser, which erases all octopi and nothing else. There are escape mice, which will lead you out of caves, Cups of Lifenoodles that restore you from the dead, and Duster’s Wall Staples, which allow him to climb up walls by sticking staples into the sides of mountains. As I talked about in Post #0, the heart of Mother is imagination, and the best moments of imagination never need to make sense! And they never should! So, I’m not saying Mapson is a bad idea or a bad character, or that he doesn’t fit in with the Mother series, but I just have to admit that I found him jarring this time around.
That said, I guess if I think it’s fun for Alec to tell Lucas to imagine a thing called a B button, I should give Mapson a pass when he tells Flint to do something R-Button-ish.
I hope no one think I’m being overly analytical of Mapson because I want to investigate Mother 3’s logical consistency piece by piece or something. I live and write in defense of imagination. One of my favorite things about this series is how rarely things makes sense, or exist solely as a joke. That said, I do want to investigate why some players have more aversion toward Mother 3’s approach to linearity, despite some of its aspects being similar to story progression in previous games. I’ll have to see how I feel next time I encounter Mapson. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about the character. Write to me! Tweet at me! Tell me I’m wrong!
And Finally, Finally: NorthBound
Well, the gameplay session finally winds down as I head north, much to everyone in the entire village’s relief. Though I maintain that I am heading north on my own volition and my own whims! I just happened to feel like it! I bet the fire is just a hoax, anyway!
Next time, we’ll meet even more Tazmilians, some of which will be more essential to the plot than the folks we’ve found here. We’ll get even closer to the flames! But if our current rate of frogs is anything to go by, I have a suspicion we won’t quite make it. A frog hanging around town square is sure to have friends nearby.
This post’s frog is a frog we will be revisiting a few times, actually. The way I intend to play for the blog is to avoid repeating a frog in a single chapter, so even though I’ll pass this frog many times, this is the only time I’m actually going to use it to save.
I don’t know if anyone else feels this way about Mother 3’s frogs, but over time, they actually start to feel weirdly comforting. By which I mean, I like that I’m going to see this same frog multiple times. It feels like he’ll be *hopping* around and looking out for me.
Which reminds me: how is it that a frog can feel comforting, almost parental? Especially when the frogs are replacing, as a save method, a phone call to a parent? Wasn’t I supposed to have answered by now the question: why frogs?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think now is a good time to talk about frogs when a forest is on fire! Plus, I’ve been ribbiting for a pretty long time, so we’ll get around to analyzing those frogs, eventually.
Next time, I promise!