PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Games

Taking Inventory in 'Earthbound'

Any traveler can relate to Earthbound's emphasis on mundane items and limited space, especially those with sinus infections.

Tragedy struck early this week. Afflicted by a particularly annoying cold, I willed myself out of bed and towards a day at work. My calendar was a solid stripe of back to back meetings, my email inbox a teetering tower of Monday-morning emergencies. As I settled into my seat on the train and tried to pretend the screeching metal noises were soothing violins, my itchy throat grew sore. I reached into my bag and my heart sank. I had left my cough drops at home.

After a few wistful moments of starting at the emergency door release lever, I decided to think about Earthbound. I was in the middle of an inventory crisis, something with which Ness and his friends were also very familiar.

Jorge Albor and I have been playing Earthbound. It’s his first time, but I’ve played it before. However, it has probably been a good 15 years since my last playthorugh, so I’m seeing it with a different perspective. It’s somehow more fanciful and melancholy than I remember it, but that’s a column for another day. I’m continually impressed by how carefully you have to manage your inventory.

Ness’ backpack looks small and it is; you can carry 14 things. And if you have multiple things, there’s no stacking them in the same slot (wouldn’t want to squish those two hamburgers together, right?). Four of those slots get taken up by your weapons and clothing. You burn a few more with quest specific items and your ATM card. You’re looking at eight viable slots in which to cram everything else you need to go on an adventure.

But how are you supposed to know what you’ll need? Maybe you’ll find yourself hungry (i.e., low on health) and need a tasty croissant. If you’re “feeling strange,” bust out that “refreshing herb” (no comment). If you get sunstroke, you’ll definitely want a wet towel at your disposal. Perhaps you’re like me, and you’ve come down with a cold. Don’t you wish you had that cold remedy they were selling at the drug store? Now you’ll just be sneezing and slowly losing HP in battle.

Earthbound does very little to hold your hand when you’re first starting. It’s one of those unusual games that seems to get easier the further you get. You start off relatively weak from a traditional RPG perspective. Enemies can easily over power you. You also lack an understanding of how the game’s systems work. Enemies often afflict you with status effects that you’re not sure how to cure. How does one remedy “uncontrollable crying?” You will most definitely come down with a cold when you’re a long way from home, and you’ll have to endure a long, sniffly walk back to town.

Eventually you get more party members, which means you get more pockets, but this also introduces another layer of organizational challenges. Your friends have their set of 14 precious slots, but each person’s inventory is distinct. If Paula wants to give Ness some french fries, that takes up a turn. If Ness is holding an incredibly strong weapon that only Jeff can use, they have to swap items until the right person has the right thing. If someone gets taken out by an enemy, their inventory is lost along with them. Because of this, it pays to think about specialization as well as redundancy. It’s the same reason I put at least a few pairs of my underwear in my wife’s suitcase.

The fact that so many crucial items are ordinary gives makes their significance more tangible. It’s one thing to think about how much a mystical energy potion costs in some high-fantasy game. However, mournfully wishing you had waited just a bit longer before eating your last strip of beef jerky in the middle of a long hike is a more widely-shared feeling. Trashing a perfectly good sandwich feels way riskier than dumping a bunch of unused phoenix downs. The items are more banal, but they have the same meaning in our lives as they do in Earthbound’s world. This connects us to the characters.

The bag I carry to work has a very limited amount of space, probably enough for about 14 items now that I think about it, and I pack it very carefully. Even though they are fairly mundane objects, my bag of cough drops would have made a big difference to me this Monday in much the same way that an extra caramel can mean the difference between an easy success and painful failure in Earthbound. The game makes you think not only about objects themselves, but about the space they inhabit and who possesses them. The pang of regret I felt as I imagined my lozenges sitting on my kitchen counter was the same that I felt after discovering that Ness had used the last of the cold medicine. I thought I had packed more, but instead Paula would have to sneeze her way to the next town.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.