I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.
— Maurice Sendak
Last week on PopMatters, Scott Juster described Earthbound as “bizarre and melancholy,” an element that he came to appreciate with new eyes playing the game now as an adult. I am playing the game for the first time myself. I have no sense of childhood nostalgia for the game, no memories of understanding its world any differently than I do today. Scott is right. Earthbound is at times sad, surreal, and deeply unsettling. I had no idea before I started playing that Earthbound would be quite so weird or would tackle some very adult themes. My perspective is, of course, that of an adult, but I think Earthbound might be the best children’s game ever made.
When I think of the best that children’s literature has to offer, I think of the classics; Peter Pan, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, etc. These works made an impact on me as a child and my fascination with them — and with the genre itself — only grew into adulthood. These works and others like them stand out as uncompromising explorations of very human concerns. At its best, children’s literature can be as troubling as it is enjoyable.
There are some terrible fathers in Earthbound.
This dichotomy seen in the classics between frivolous adventure and mature, even dark, themes is mirrored in Earthbound. Early in the game, there is a strong allusion to child abuse. It happens off camera, but the sound of the slap shook me when I first heard it. Likewise, Jeff’s father Dr. Andonuts abandoned his son at a boarding school and ignored him for a decade. It’s a comical story, but it bites. In one scene, Jeff calls Dr. Andonuts “Dad” before (presumably filled with a mix of shame and embarrassment) he corrects himself. The moment is fleeting, you could easily miss it, but if you catch it, the tone is unmistakable. The world of Earthbound is not a comforting place for children.
How is a child meant to digest the dark elements of Earthbound? I try to imagine what it might be like for a young me to play Earthbound for the first time. Growing up in an abusive environment, I think I would have picked up on the reference to child abuse. Maybe I would have seen it as normal and moved on. Maybe Jeff’s relationship with his dad would have seemed sad, but natural. Even as a kid, I knew the world had plenty of unhappiness to go around. Would reality have undermined my appreciation of actually playing the game? I don’t think so.
The dark skies of Peter Pan (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)
How do children reading Peter Pan digest the constant presence of death in J.M. Barrie’s work? Even in a book renowned for its child-like sense of magic and wonder, there is deep gloom:
The rock was very small now; soon it would be submerged. Pale rays of light tiptoed across the waters; and by and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.
Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last.
— Peter Pan
If you read Peter Pan as a child, you may not remember this line, but did it go unnoticed? When Barrie mentions that children are “the most heartless things in the world,” did it phase you as a kid? I think, more likely, you carried on, digesting what truth you could find in these words.
Ken Bauman, who literally wrote the book on Earthbound, comments on this experience as well: “I played Earthbound the first time without dwelling on the real-life tragedies that made the game’s colorful kidnappings stick in my throat, without knowing that play only has gravity because of the danger it softly mimics.” The world of adults in Earthbound with its abusive police and fanatical cultists is as dangerous as it is farcical. The kidnappings may be “colorful,” but they’re also tinged with an ominous tone. Children might not see real world kidnappings in the digital ones, but the fear and the insecurity they invoke resonates in the game.
Playing Earthbound now, it is easy to find moments of satire, when the game criticizes the strange and mysterious elements of adulthood. At the Stoic Club in Summers, Ness and his friends encounter a room full of adults who have meaningless verbose conversations with each other. One denizen exclaims, “You guys can’t envision the final collapse of capitalism? Incredible!” This isn’t just a silly in-joke for adults. This is the “kids’ table” perspective of adult conversation. Earthbound is the closest piece of fiction that I have seen to induce the feeling of being a child.
Ness would be at home with the Wild Things.
The best literary counterpart to Earthbound that I can think of is the work of Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are , In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There make up a sort of surreal coming-of-age trilogy. They walk the line between frivolity and anxiety. His work entertains very young children, but they also address real feelings of helplessness, fear, and anger that children experience in their day-to-day lives. Consider Earthbound for a moment with all its outlandish monsters and childhood anxieties come to life and then read this excerpt from a 2009 interview with Sendak regarding the “goofiness” of the wild things:
[The creatures in Where The Wild Things Are] are threatening. I mean, if Max were not in control of them, they could indeed be in control of him, and when they say oh, please don’t go, we’ll eat you up, we love you so, they mean just that, and he knows that, and I think children know that too, that the fun of that book is a perilous tightrope between him being a little boy and very vulnerable to these huge creatures and the absurdity of his having control over them by staring into their yellow eyes. It’s what every child would like, to have control over such things.
When Shigasato Itoi described “slipping in little mean things” into Earthbound in his fabulous message to Earthbound fans, he is not describing a design decision made to please adults. The game incorporates “adult elements” because childrens’ lives also contain adult elements. This is a masterpiece meant for children, complete with all the daring, joyful, and deeply unsettling shards of truth this implies. Earthbound was not made for the adult version of me, and the little boy still residing in this grown man’s body loves it for that very reason.