Lately, I’ve been reading a book by George Saunders called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. The premise of this book is that George Saunders, America’s (arguably, and probably) best short story writer breaks down seven Russian short stories, explaining why he likes them, and what he thinks writers can learn from them. Along the way, Saunders also elaborates on what he thinks these stories teach us about life, about being a better person, and about living more fully.
I didn’t expect to like this book, to be honest. Writing craft books can be very hit-or-miss with me, and Saunders himself is someone who I typically prefer to limit myself to his fiction–he can feel a little preachy sometimes when given a large non-fiction space (in my opinion). That said, I have been loving the book so far, and it has come into my life at the perfect time. As you’ll probably remember if you’ve been keeping up with the blog for a while, I started Frog by Frog to encourage myself to write more, to establish a consistent practice, and to push myself as a writer.
So far, it has worked! I’ve written (almost) every day for nearly a year, which is something I haven’t done in a very long time. The only problem is, I love Mother 3, and I love writing about it and the Mother series… but I’m a fiction writer at heart. Or at least, writing fiction was my first love. So even as I write more and more for Frog by Frog, I sometimes can’t help but feel like I’m floating farther and farther away from my first love and my main aspiration: fiction.
However, like Salsa and Duster colliding in the Tazmily town square, George Saunders and I have collided at just the right time. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is helping me to feel inspired again, and capable again, as a fiction writer. As any creative person knows, sometimes just feeling capable is all you need, after a long bout of difficulty. But why am I bringing this up? I typically try to avoid talking about myself on the blog when possible, especially when it feels like it is encroaching upon vanity (talking at length about my creative life, i.e.).
Well, I wanted to look at how Mother 3 escalates its plot, since George Saunders writes a lot about escalation, and how it’s something a writer always needs to be doing in the background. I thought Mother 3 would be fun to look at since it begins with such an escalation: a fire, in the Sunshine Forest! How do you escalate from there? It’s already a forest fire, so do we begin the narrative already cornered?
No way! Because then we find out our protagonist’s family might have been in that fire (escalation), and Itoi makes sure we know those stakes aren’t just for show: our protagonist’s wife was killed in the chaos (escalation), and in a twist of expectation, she was killed by something else entirely, something our main characters think to be peaceful–a Drago! (Escalation!) This event alone is responsible for all of the stakes for rest of the chapter: Flint’s breakdown and imprisonment; Claus’s venture into the mountains; Flint and Alec’s pursuit of Claus in the mountains, leading to the confrontation with the Mecha Drago.
The important thing is, though, that the forest fire didn’t just happen one night, then Hinawa died the next night from a flash flood. And Claus didn’t venture into the mountains to find some good candy; he went to find his mother. And his mother was only dead because of the Drago, and she was only stuck with the Drago because of the chaos of forest fire.
This all might seem simple to us now. In fact, you might be reading this thinking, “Duh, Frog by Frog! This is how stories work. Did you not notice this before?” And honestly, no. I didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t know how to express the idea called Rising Action. I didn’t play the game thinking, “Ah, a new escalation! How engaging!” Because good writing is invisible. When a story becomes truly polished, you don’t pause to think about it; you just let it happen to you. One action logically causes the next.
For me, reading George Saunders explain causality in plot structure was like Bugs Bunny discovering carrots. I knew what a story was supposed to look like, but it had been so long in my writing career since I had truly reset to the basics. Voice, style, flare, technique, structure–I had become obsessed with these things, instead of writing stories where things happen, because other things happened. I mean, Chapter 2 also plays out with increasing stakes, but in this case its a Comedy of Errors plot. Duster goes to the castle to get the thing… but gets the wrong thing. So Duster and Wess have to go back to the castle, but because of Duster’s error, they’ve lost precious time, and the castle is under attack. And because the castle is under attack, Kumatora acts hastily and triggers the trap. And because Kumatora triggers the trap, the gang fights the Osohe Snake, which leads to the loss of Duster and the Hummingbird Egg.
And etc., etc. Over the years, my friends have always given me shit for talking about fiction in plain terms like this, telling me I’m overcomplicating something we’re not supposed to talk about. So, if you didn’t like reading this little section, I don’t care! I was having some fun and thinking about fiction! And as anyone who writes, or does any creative hobby, knows, sometimes you need space away from the thing to remember how the thing is done. So, this is all basically just to say: I recently read a fiction craft book, and it made me think about Chapter 1 of Mother 3.
Which, speaking of, we should get back to the story, shouldn’t we?
Crash Into Me
Within seconds of leaving last week’s frog, Salsa and Fassad crash (!) right into someone we recognize: Duster! A thief in the night! Running to Osohe to find (say it with me) something shiny. And if a player had any doubts after meeting Butch that this chapter takes place concurrently with Chapter 2, here’s your proof: we’ve been here before! We’ve been that Duster!
My favorite thing about this interaction that I didn’t notice the first time was that Fassad says, “Oh, pardon me. I wasn’t paying attention.” Look at him! Fassad, always the charmer! He makes sure Duster feels no fault for running into him–I wasn’t paying attention, he says. Pardon me.
I love this detail because it’s a perfect example of the Grifter Fassad in action. The Fassad we know is evil, selfish, and snide; the Fassad the Tazmilians meet is kind, reassuring, and modest. What an actor you are, Fassad! What a silver-tongued, mustache-twirling, banana-eating, monkey-stealing villain you are, too. You haven’t fooled me!
I also enjoy the little moment where Salsa and Duster look at each other, as if two agents for the forces of good can identify when another of their kind is near. Personally, I think Duster and Salsa would have been an excellent team combination. Duster is already a walking utility closet of status affecting items, so it could be cool to throw Salsa into that mix, with his Monkey Mimic especially. I also see Duster as the type of guy who doesn’t need to talk much to bond with someone. Salsa could perch on Duster’s shoulder, get cozy, and the two could become lifelong friends.
Anyway, after that exchange,we get to see a little replay of Duster conversation with Butch, and I actually wasn’t sure if we got different dialogue this time? I guess I could compare the screenshots I have, but you already know the deal: Butch is excited about money, though now we’ve gained a bit more information. In the previous frog, we saw that Butch wasn’t quite sold on money (ha), and expressed some doubt to Fassad. However, it seems that Fassad’s words were enough to influence Butch, at least when he’s talking about money with other people (that’s what I think is the important part–Butch himself still might not be, like, into it into it, but the greed has begun to settle in, so he’s into money insofar as he has more than other people do).
And we can’t forget: Butch sold some of his pigs for that money!
Then, in one of the sillier but also more interesting alternative versions of a scene we’ve already seen, Fassad and Salsa crouch behind the well as Butch tosses his money inside. And now we know how all of this really played out: Fassad heard Butch tell Duster that it was a secret between the two of them, so that later, when Butch’s money is gone, there’s only one man to blame.
Though in a way, Butch set himself up for failure in every possible direction. Hiding money in the middle of a town square, in a well that someone might use anyway… it’s a pretty terrible idea. Tazmily isn’t used to complex emotions, and it also isn’t a place where the average person is very good at hiding something valuable. No one has really ever had a reason to hide anything before this night.
Obviously this is a scene that would probably look a little better in 3D, but I still like the intent behind it. I like seeing how sneaky Fassad is. Who knows how many conversations he’s dropped eaves on around this town? Was he ever spying on Duster and Wess, while they talked about thiefly duties? Did he overhear someone describing what has happened to Flint’s family? Did he hear them describe Claus as tough and brave? Lucas as timid and weak, a crybaby?
I just feel bad for the Tazmilians. Despite their flaws, and what some of them become, their greatest flaw is just that they trust people too much. They have no reason not to. And it’s not really that they see, or don’t see, the good in someone; it’s more that they assume the good in someone, so they’re not even able to notice Fassad’s manipulations. Except for some of our main characters. Flint may be a sheep farmer, but no one’s pulling the wool over his eyes yet, and though Duster was swept away by the waves of fate… well, Kumatora and Wess will carry the torch in his stead.
Running into Duster is fun and all, but after that you’re forced to go straight to the Yado Inn. And while I understand that Fassad and Salsa have to be certain places at certain times of the story, I wish it wasn’t so set in stone! I wish we had some some leeway! I mean, Duster had to be certain places too, but we were still allowed to walk around a little more. Furthermore, Salsa and Fassad can go back to the Sunset Cemetery right now… but that’s where Duster should be, fighting zombies, right? So if obeying the chronology is so important, why isn’t Duster there right now? If anything, the Sunset Cemetery should be the one place the duo can’t go, and maybe there could be a dialogue box like, “You hear the sounds of fighting and monsters ahead,” or Fassad could chicken out, or just shock Salsa again. I mean I’m just saying: if Fassad and Salsa can’t go anywhere because they aren’t supposed to “be there,” then why can they go to the one place they really shouldn’t be able to go, for story reasons?
Obviously this is just a nitpick, and it’s not a game breaker or anything, but what if Fassad and Salsa could, for example, bypass the ants and walk around in the Sunshine Forest at night? What if they could fight a miniboss out there, an animal fighting back against the attack on its habitat? It could be cool for Salsa and Fassad to face off against not a chimera, but just an animal defending its home, like a really tough mountain lion or something. Sure, much of the combat would be left to Fassad anyway, so there might not really be a point, and the more I think about it, it does make sense to keep Fassad and Salsa so tightly on the track of narrative rails: their party configuration does mainly serve narrative functions, even in its combat dynamics (as we discussed a few frogs ago). When I really think about it, it wouldn’t be very engaging for Salsa and Fassad to fight a boss again. We’ve already seen what they can do, and it’s limited for a reason.
You just gotta wonder, you know? See, in the Mother 3 we are playing, the Pigmasks’ initial attack is basically to make chimeras and ideologically infect the villagers (Butch being the most notable change), then the time skip happens. While we don’t know anything for sure, EarthBound 64’s (potential) slowburn approach to the Pigmask takeover is interesting to me. I mean, I still love how the game begins with a fire in the Sunshine Forest, but I’d be interested to see how the Pigmasks could more slowly influence the culture of Tazmily, turning over one villager at a time. As it stands, we see Butch lose his marbles in Chapter 2, then before we know it, three years pass and half the town are exploited laborers.
But I digress. And even though I’m bummed that I can’t explore Tazmily at night, I do like, in a way, that I’ve never felt so limited in Mother 3. No matter which direction I go, Fassad’s electrocutions await. None of the four cardinal directions are safe. I understand that most players would just bee line to the Yado Inn anyway, and I understand that Itoi clearly doesn’t mind, as he hasn’t written anything else for the player to find right now, and I understand it’s the middle of the night, so who cares, Shane? Why not keep playing and get over it?
But that’s not what I’m saying–I’m not complaining that there’s nothing to do. I’m just sayin. For the players with inquisitive hearts, for the players who imagine Salsa as adventurous, as a monkey who would walk west, would run east, there are no options. Fassad’s shadow grows stronger, or, rather, now that we’re out of the desert, we see the true extent of his vice-grip. If you thought Salsa’s leash was longer than this, you were misled. The desert was only ostensibly large; Salsa was never going anywhere, in the same way he’s not leaving the unapologetically small confines of the Tazmily town square.
Maybe it’s just Mother 3 saying, “Go to the Yado Inn; there’s nothing else out here, weirdo.” But personally, I love interpreting it as Salsa’s freedom being cut off more than ever by Fassad.
So then what are we waiting for? Let’s go to the inn.
In the Inn
Ah, the Yado Inn. It’s always nice to hear that calming music play as Bob guzzles down some bourbon and Jackie mopes behind the bar. There’s nothing quite like walking in here after stalking about on a dark, Tazmilian night. The bright light, the wooden floors, the bustling of Betsy and Tessie–this is as close to home as it gets in Tazmily, for someone who don’t got one of their own.
It’s also nice to finally have a break from “Monkey’s Love Song.” I haven’t heard the sleepy guitar of the Yado Inn in so long! I wish I could sit for hours and listen to Betsy gossip; I wish I could swap stories with Bob and smell his whiskey sweats; I wish I could walk up to Jackie and say, “Hey bartender, why the long face?’
And it’s too bad this couldn’t be home. If only Fassad couldn’t truly be a peddler arriving into town with a sweet little monkey. If only Claus and Salsa could have met, as they obviously would have been best friends. If only the two new travelers could have joined this welcoming culture without nefarious purposes, to see the truth in Betsy’s statement,”Welcome to Tazmily. Everyone is nice.” (She clearly hasn’t met Wess). If only, if only, if only a lot of things, I suppose.
Anyway, like I said, it’s nice to be in the Yado Inn again. Not that we get to enjoy it for long, as just moments after entering the building, the next phase of Fassad’s plan begins to take shape. The peddler asks the deflated Jackie for lodging, wondering how much it’ll run him. Both Jackie and Betsy softly shoot down this idea, telling Fassad that in this town, people don’t worry about things like that. Still, Fassad leaves a fat bag of dough, which Betsy thanks him for all the same, saying they’ll probably use it as a doorstop.
Of course, we see where this is headed. Soon, Butch’s money will be “stolen,” adding an all new interest, if not seduction, to the bag Fassad left here. See, Duster and Wess might be thieves in some senses of the word, but the irony is that Fassad is the true thief all along, in more ways than one. But I’m getting ahead of myself with that one…
Oh, Fassad is devious all right. It’s like he’s done this before, and maybe he has. I’m not sure how it could be accomplished, but I kind of wish the time-skip didn’t happen right at the end of Chapter 3. I think it would be cool to jump back to Flint for a short chapter 4, where we see just the slightest changes in the villagers after all they’ve seen. Most of the chapter could be spent searching for Claus, and each time Flint returns to town, we could see another few villager slowly come around to this whole money idea.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good time skip, and Mother 3’s is still great, no matter how much I’m interrogating it (what’s with me today?). The ending of Chapter 3 and the transition to Chapter 4 has always felt oddly truncated to me. Returning to Flint as a playable characters for a fourth chapter could indeed ruin the amazing ending to Chapter 1, but I’m imagining another concurrent type of thing, taking place at the same time as Chapters 2 and 3, extending a day or two past Butch’s breakdown. Flint would be out in the mountains, fighting Pigmasks guerrilla style, as Lucas stays at home and builds a quiet strength.
Or maybe this is a dumb idea. Has anyone else thought about this at all? Why can’t I stay on track today?
I suppose there’s also the capitalism in the room. Should we talk about this now, or wait? I think I’ll wait, mostly because I don’t simply want to retread the same ground that others have with this topic, and because we still have much more transformation to see in Tazmily before we get down and dirty with some invisible hands.
In short, though, we’ve had a peaceful, communist village (albeit an emotionally distant communist village) that, aside from some disagreements here and there, seemed to be operating fairly well. You’ll notice that the closest thing to a store in town, Thomas’s Bazaar, isn’t even really “owned” by Thomas; a variety of villagers help him operate it, and the items inside can be taken for free. Duties are split among villagers according to ability and preference, with some relationships feeling like apprenticeships (Lighter and his crew) and others feeling more like jobs (Tessie doesn’t always love working at the Yado). And of course, many villagers seem to just do whatever they want, like Bateau, Reggie, Paul and Linda, Caroline, etc. The beautiful thing, though, is that when everyone is needed for something, mostly everyone shows up; when Hinawa was missing, you’d be hard-pressed to find an able-bodied villager who wans’t doing at least something to help out.
And also, I like that some villagers don’t do anything that resembles traditional labor. It’s very Industrial Revolution of us to see bodies only as valuable as the labor they can provide. A body can do more than work. A body should be able to live, even if it can’t work in the same ways as other bodies. Reggie’s hut full of art; Bateau’s pigeon-messaging system; Caroline’s commitment to baking–these things help society grow.
Now, I think we could go to some interesting places with communism and the emotional depth of the villagers, but, again, I think I’m gonna wait on those conversations until we have more data. For now, our peaceful communists have just been invaded by a stranger, coming to town with ideas, and capital, and consumerism, and products, and…
You know what? Now I’m really getting too far ahead of myself. All we know so far is that a few Tazmilians now own money, whether they like it or not. That’s nothing to worry about, right? Just because Butch has a little freak out about money doesn’t mean anything bad is going to happen…
All this suggestion of economic systems makes little monkeys sleepy! I think it is time for bed. So Fassad wraps up talking about money, then the player is given the chance to “perform” for Betsy, and I decided to input the wrong command, not even thinking that it would result in Fassad shocking Salsa (I didn’t think he’d do it right in front of somebody!). But alas, Salsa was electrocuted right in front of Betsy, which Fassad attributed to the monkey being tired.
Come on, Tazmily! I know you don’t know what, like, technology is, but can you not realize what’s happening when a monkey is being electrocuted in front of your faces?
After that episode, Fassad heads off to bed, leaving Salsa alone for a moment. But I wouldn’t get too excited, here. You can’t actually go anywhere. Not even into the other rooms. If you so much as approach one of the doors, Fassad shocks you, which I’ll admit is kind of funny.
I’m sorry, Salsa! I’ve got to point out humor when I see it! It’s funny in an absurdist way that Fassad would know exactly when to press the button, when Salsa is right in front of the door. Poor, Salsa!
Well, as for what else is going on in the bar… I like how Jackie just stands, staring at the bag of money in front of him for the rest of the night. I like saying hello to Tessie and Bob. Tessie offers a simple greeting, and Bob asks where your girlfriend is (if he only knew). I don’t know why, but I kind of love that Bob is the loud guy at the bar who’s like, “Where’s your girlfriend, huh?!” Every bar has one like him. Not that Bob is yelling it in Salsa’s face; I just think it’s a funny line. And don’t forget: after last time I wrote about Bob, he’s become, unexpectedly, one of my favorite NPCs.
But other than that, because you’re playing as a monkey, no one really has all that much to say to you. I think I forgot to attempt to talk to Jackie, so that’s my bad, but after hanging out with Bob at the bar I decided to retire for the evening. I was actually hoping to poke into Lighter’s room while I was at it, but the door was locked. Oh, well.
Also, I admit that I forgot to get screencaps of the Fassad and Salsa’s night-time wind-down, but you can take it from me that nothing of much important happened. Before long, Fassad was snoring, and Salsa was forced to make himself cozy on the cold, hard ground.
Go to sleep, little monkey. You’ve have a hard day.