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.