Screenshot: EarthBound

Special Topics In Gameology explores a specific corner of the gaming world in a miniseries of articles. In this edition—The Unseen—we examine the things video games leave up to our imaginations.

Homesickness is a real malady in EarthBound. From time to time, it creeps up on Ness, the game’s plucky kid protagonist, making him distracted, easily lost in thought, and prone to missing turns in battle as he fantasizes about a few bites of delicious home-cooked steak. While EarthBound is full of esoteric ways to restore status effects—from refreshing cups of tea to the guy who hangs out in the hospital waiting room buying mushrooms that grow on the heads of confused grade-schoolers—the only cure for the wayward blues is to pick up the phone and dial home. But even though Ness carries phone numbers for both his mom and dad in his personal Rolodex, only a call to Mom can fix those pangs, which makes sense, because in EarthBound’s vision of childhood, Dad and “home” rarely intersect.

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The unseen nature of Ness’ dad is one of the more clever expressions of EarthBound’s cartoon depiction of middle-class life in the United States: a literal absent father who props up his lousy relationship with his son using platitudes and cold, hard cash. Away on business and reachable only over the phone, Dad never once shows up in the game itself. Even in the end credits, he’s represented by a ringing phone, the ideal avatar of a workaholic pop who leaves the practical raising of his kids to their mom. He throws copious piles of money at his son and keeps tabs on his growth, but it’s a spreadsheet version of parental love, full of easy expressions of pride and light on practical guidance for the kid on the go.

Screenshot: EarthBound

Here’s the thing: For all his flaws and almost non-corporeal existence, Ness’ dad is one of the best fathers in EarthBound and the other games in its series, which slowly reveals itself to be a playground for raging man-children with no idea how to take care of their kids. By rendering its dads so useless, the series also quietly unveils a strangely stereotypical idealization of motherhood, too, one that’s deeply rooted in the childish viewpoint from which it takes place.

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Take Ness’ fellow party members. Paula, a frequently kidnapped tomboy with devastating psychic powers, has a dad who’s well-meaning enough but spends all his time running off in random directions and fruitlessly trying to bring her home. Her mom, meanwhile, offers practical support, giving you one of the best healing items in the game. The mystic martial artist Poo doesn’t seem to have a dad, even though his status as the Crown Prince Of Dalaam would certainly imply one. The closest thing he has to a male parent is the “spirit of his ancient lineage,” who subjects him to a terrifying bout of tough-love training.

Paula and Poo are lucky compared to their nerdy inventor friend Jeff. His father, Dr. Andonuts, is a major character in the series, but he’s so absentminded and self-involved that when his son busts himself out of boarding school to go rescue the game’s heroes, Andonuts barely recognizes the kid. Even when the good doctor actively throws himself behind supporting the party’s quest, it’s less about his familial connection with Jeff and more about saving the world. (Toby Fox, who’d later go on to make Undertale, released an EarthBound hack about the guilt and neuroses hiding under Dr. Andonuts’ stoic glasses and awful parenting decisions.)

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The heroes of the series’ other two games, Mother and Mother 3, don’t fare much better. Mother—or EarthBound Beginnings, as its now known in the U.S.—carries a number of similarities to its Super NES successor, including a main character with a father who’s only reachable via phone and a nerdy party member whose dad won’t give him the time of day.

Mother 3, which still hasn’t been released outside Japan, breaks series precedent by giving Lucas, the main character, an actual onscreen dad. Although the cowboy-esque Flint seems present enough at first, once he loses his angelic wife and older son in the game’s opening chapter, he freaks out and takes off, abandoning his youngest son to embark on a pointless quest to rescue his brother. It’s saying something when temporary party member Wess, who constantly refers to his son as a moron, is one of the most affectionate parents in the entire game. At least he sticks around.

This epidemic of useless fathers and helpful, loving mothers is at one with the series’ intentionally childlike fixation on stereotypical Americana, where moms exist to cook you dinner, welcome you home, and soothe your spirit when you’re feeling down. Dads, at best, are there to toss you some pocket money and shoo you out of their way.

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While the heroes of EarthBound have fathers whose contributions sum up to a sort of well-meaning neglect, the series’ villains get it worse. We’ve been dancing around Freudian theory for most of this essay—mostly because “Kill Daddy, Sleep With Mommy” has been played out for at least 50 years as a tool of critical analysis—but the oedipal patterns of the series’ core villain, Giygas, are too clear to ignore. And not just because the monster’s EarthBound appearance was famously influenced by a cinematic scene of sex and violence that series creator Shigesato Itoi accidentally viewed when he was a young boy.

In EarthBound, Giygas is a mindless, omnipotent force. In the original Mother, where he went by either Giegue or Gyiyg, depending on the translation, he’s far easier to understand: a kid whose dad violently betrayed his trust. Giegue was an alien child placed in the care of two abducted humans, Maria and George, by extraterrestrials interested in learning more about their earthling captives. As with most EarthBound mothers, Maria was kindness incarnate, lavishing the child with love and care. But George outwitted his alien captors and stole the secrets of their psionic powers for himself, a betrayal that led to Giegue being tasked with leading an invasion of Earth generations later. And it’s that disconnect—between the mother who cared for him and the father who abandoned him—that leaves the otherwise unstoppable, but still sympathetic, alien vulnerable. In the end, George’s heroic great-grandson Ninten uses Maria’s old lullaby to defeat her surrogate son.

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The series’ other recurring villain, Pokey/Porky Minch, has a home life that’s even worse, in its own way. His father, Aloysius Minch, is a money-grubbing jerk—who may or may not hit his kids, depending on whether you’re playing the Japanese version—but his mother is just as bad. Mrs. Minch might be the only bad mom in the entire series, urging on her husband’s brutality, spending extravagantly, and swatting the heroic Buzz Buzz to death. In essence, the Minches violate the rigidly enforced nuclear structure of the EarthBound family—missing or neglectful dad, loving mom—which might explain why Pokey grows into the most malevolent man-child of them all, a permanent corrupting adolescent who refuses to become an adult, even when he’s thousands of years old. It reinforces the repeated message that Pokey lacks the one thing EarthBound kids—heroes and villains alike—need in order to have some semblance of sympathetic goodness in their lives: a loving mom.

In a series in which mom can almost always be relied upon for kindness and comfort, the devastating knock-on effects of Pokey’s maternal neglect serve as a subtle reinforcement of the idea that the EarthBound games take place from a skewed and childlike view of the American family. Because isn’t that the ideal society used to aggressively offer up in the Leave It To Beaver era from which Earthbound’s endless summer vacation takes so many of its cues? Dad’s perfectly fine, but mom is the one who takes care of you. It’s right there in the series’ Japanese titles: Who cares if Dad is incompetent, absent, or unseen, when Mother is all you need?

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Previously in the Unseen series

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