Sunday, December 07, 2008

Fourteen hundred thirty-seven words about Mother 3

In chapter three of Mother 3, you control a monkey named Salsa. He has a punishment collar around his neck, and Fassad, the shady individual who is ordering him around, uses it to give him electric shocks when he does something wrong, or right, or really just for kicks. The monkey is the titular main character here, but it's really an excuse to let the player see things from Fassad's perspective. Salsa's just a pretext. He provides the player with a good reason to hate that jerk Fassad but also, in an ambiguous way, to identify with him, since he helps Salsa by killing monsters that would be way too difficult for the weak simian to take down on his own. This right here is some really smart stuff. Unfortunately, things go a bit downhill for Salsa; even if he wasn't there so much for his own sake, the fact that he IS a playable character means that you assume he's going to play some sort of pivotal role in the story--but he really doesn't. What does he do after being rescued from Fassad? How does he rescue his girlfriend? *shrug; inarticulate mumbling* He only appears briefly later on; he's the only playable character not present at the final battle, and he's only represented in the ending by a brief sound effect. It's pretty strange.

But I don't want to dwell on it too much; I merely bring this up to show that the game is not perfect--and there are other ways that it's not perfect as well (could not Duster and Kumatora have been better-developed? Could we perhaps have seen a little more of Flint before the finale?). But ultimately, this seems like petty sniping, because in spite of all this, it's still the smartest game I've ever played.

Look at the critique of the rise of capitalism that is at the center of the story. And marvel that that last sentence was written about a videogame. The villain of the piece, Porky (or Pokey, if you prefer Earthbound terminology) wants to gather everyone on the islands where the game takes place together so he can exert his will on them and use them as his playthings. How to do this? By effecting the development of capital in the utopian, pre-capitalist village that is at the center of the game world (the fact that the village is later revealed to be the relic of an advanced society probably should color this interpretation, but let's keep things simple for the time being).

For the first few chapters of the game, there is no money: everything is FREE. You can just waltz into the village trading center and take whatever you want. This is a pretty radical move, and one that is sure to cause some cognitive dissonance in players. This is NOT the way RPG grammar works. It's impossible for us to conceptualize the system, either in RPG terms or in terms of actual, real-world economics. It forces us to think about things differently. It challenges us.

But then, Fassad brings money into the world. Sure, he gets whacked around a bit, and Salsa escapes his clutches, but none of this means anything. Capital takes on a life of its own. Now there IS money and there are shops, obviously, and things become more "normal," by RPG standards. Nonetheless, there's a vague unease hanging over the whole enterprise, represented by the "happy boxes" that everyone obtains. Their precise effect remains effectively obscure, but people in general become a little less nice. The society becomes more stratified. Crime is introduced to the world where there had been none before.

And there is more to come. Capital is not static. More and more people in the village start talking about how they want to leave this one-horse berg and move to the Big City--that's where things are REALLY happening. And then, in the end, they do. The final chapter of the game takes place in New Pork City, where the entire village has emigrated. It probably goes without saying that NPC represents a new level of economic development as much as a physical place. Specifically, it represents late capital. Fred Jameson would be intrigued.

In Tazmily, even after the change has occurred, it's still partially the same place. You can see remnants of the pre-capitalist version of the village. NPC has no past; it is entirely a simulacrum. It's gaudy, vulgar, and cheap, and it's all there is. Global, post-national capitalism. It's a postmodern approximation of a city: somebody comments that everyone from the village came, but there's no place here to live. It wasn't designed with actual human beings in mind. It's a monument to mindless pleasures (as Gravity's Rainbow was originally to be entitled) from the mind of an immature, power-mad child. It's appropriate that Porky's ultimate fate is to be forever trapped in an impregnable sphere: the draining of history becomes frightfully literal.

The question is: what comes after late capital? This is a difficult question to answer, since it's where we appear to be stalled. In Mother 3, at least, it all comes crashing down--Porky's gone, the dragon is released, and...what happens next? That's not clear. Part of me thinks that at this point I might just be making excuses for a rushed ending, but I THINK it would be fair to say that the reason we never get to actually SEE anyone or anything at the end--just hear disembodied voices--is indicative of this ambiguity. We have reason to be optimistic, but we really don't know what's going on.

It should be emphasized that none of this feels even slightly didactic, and you don't even need to think about the game in this way to enjoy it. That's a large part of its genius. It would be easy to build a cumbersome, unwieldy game that tries to be deep via vast, heavy-handed symbolism and massive amounts of poorly-written sententiousness (hi, Xenogears); the fact that a game can be this smart while never forgetting that it is in fact a videogame, and that that is the most important level at which it needs to succeed, is really, really impressive. In my view, the only place where Mother 3 slips up slightly in this regard is the part where Leder--the mysterious tall dude--presents you with the island's backstory as a largish text dump. I think there might have been more graceful ways to handle some of that. It's not a major point, however.

While marveling at how smart the game is, we should also take a moment to marvel at how emotionally resonant it is. It has all the requisite Mother-style wackiness that we expect--but, although there's plenty of wackiness for wackiness's sake, even here there's still occasional unexpected poignance: isn't the Mole Cricket's grandiose ambition kind of inspiring? Aren't the Magypsies--the game's mystical drag queens--truly some of the game's best and most likable characters? And let's not forget the Rope Snake--not that I have anything profound to say about him, but I wanted to bring him up, however briefly. Because he's awesome.

When the game gets serious, however, look out. In the first chapter, Flint shows the most authentic display of grief I've ever seen in a videogame. The brief sixth chapter really is a kind of visual poetry. And the last boss fight is an absolute heartbreaker. Some might complain: hey! Where's the bigass monster to be slain?! But they are missing the point. The emotional climax here is far more powerful than any run-of-the-mill enormous creature could be.

I didn't know much about Shigesato Itoi before I looked him up while playing this game, and was really interested and edified to learn that he's something of a public intellectual (and HOW awesome is it that he was in My Neighbor Totoro?); that videogames are not his primary thing. That's probably why he was able to make such an effective game: he doesn't fall prey to videogame tropes and cliches, and in the process shows that games can do far, far more than they are usually called upon to do. He seems pretty definite that there won't be a Mother 4; I can accept that, but I sure hope that he tries his hand at gaming again, because he's exactly what the medium needs more of. I can't call Mother 3 my favorite RPG; there are too many other games with to which I have strong emotional ties for that to be a fair statement. I would be willing to call it the BEST RPG I've ever played, however. Wow.


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