What Earthbound's Soundtrack Says

This is something i wrote up about EarthBound.  It's definitely not the best thing I've ever written, but I certainly think it hits on some interesting things about the game.  It has an accompanying soundtrack.

UnBound

             At NYU’s Practice 2013, Warren Spector took the stage and presented an argument that to many of the conference’s attendees seemed to be an attack on what has become the traditional “narrative game.”  His perspective: that games that do not deliver their story procedurally – that is to say, games with stories that are inherently linear – may as well be movies or novels.

            It can be difficult to extrapolate Mr. Spector’s claims beyond the past fifteen years or so – the games he mentioned, from Deus Ex to Heavy Rain, were mostly contemporary representations of the type of games he supports or admonishes.  Mr. Spector’s argument, however, is based on an assumption – that the stories ‘narrative’ games tell would work in any other medium.  He is incorrect in this assumption.  Most game stories are unique to their medium, and there are few better examples than 1995’s EarthBound. 

            The era of video games in which EarthBound was released should not be known for its subtlety.  Games on the Super Nintendo (and competing consoles) were generally very obvious and very ‘gamey’ – Splatterhouse was a game about murdering people, Final Fight was about punching people, Mortal Kombat 3 was about fighting to the death.  This isn’t a fault in the medium – the world of video games wasn’t at a point that they felt the need to subvert the medium yet.  Although there are certainly games that were ‘weird’ in the nineties and earlier, games generally were not as self-aware as other forms of artistic expression.  For the mainstream, this changed with the release of EarthBound.

            If one were to look at EarthBound for a moment and sample its unique brand of weirdness the way a wine taster might swirl around a mouthful of Sherry, one might in both cases decide that the sample is nutty and dry and move on.  Much of EarthBound appears, at first glance, to be constructed as imitation of other mediums.  The very first things players see as they turn on the game is a 1980s-style movie poster paired with the unsettling track, “Giegue Strikes Back!”  After entering their name and other information about themselves, players are treated to an opening cutscene, which begins, “The year is 199x.”  In a 2013 article, Game Informer magazine cited cut scenes as one of the five main ways in which EarthBound was ahead of its time; now, however, players view cut scenes as lazy imitations of other cinematic mediums.  (1, Game Informer)

            Earthbound’s music also presents itself as imitation, on multiple levels.  Tracks consistently contain ambient sounds meant to imitate the presence of crickets or police sirens.  Other tracks are chip-tuned approximations of jazz standards, such as “The Tonzura Brothers’ Second Concert”, which is one of multiple jazz concerts that players are treated to in the game, including one that is presented as a full cut scene. (2, YouTube, Tork110) As the game pairs MIDI jazz with the sound of birds chirping and guitar strumming, a player might begin to feel that EarthBound is simply trying to use the SNES hardware to pretend it is something it’s not – that EarthBound is trying to be a movie; EarthBound is trying to have jazz; EarthBound is trying to do all these things that a SNES game can’t really do.

            The player’s opinion of the game changes, however, as EarthBound’s imitation gets more spot-on and bizarre.  Soon, EarthBound is reenacting a dramatic death one might see in a Hollywood blockbuster with the death of a fly (3, YouTube, Johnperu21) and mixing its jazz themes with country hee-haw and new-age techno.  An hour or two into the game, when one reaches the first boss, Frank, the leader of the Sharks, and hears “Frank Comes Out Swingin’”, one comes to a realization – this game knows exactly what it’s doing.  EarthBound is gathering and remixing genres, styles, and ideas in such a clever way that it creates a new, coherent brand.

            For the tremendous number of styles that make up EarthBound’s soundtrack, no track sounds particularly out of place.  There is some level of ineffable charm that comes from the game’s eagerness and joy that brings the styles together – from the aforementioned to Christmas jingle, Carribean groove, hard rock, and ambient horror.  EarthBound, it turns out, is not trying to imitate other forms of entertainment.  In its inherent coherency as a story and style, EarthBound makes a case for the absurdity of differentiation in any medium – why should bossa nova be separated from punk music?  Why should an RPG not also be an explicit comedy?

            It is this line of questioning that elicit EarthBound’s most spectacular asset – its self-awareness.  Early in the game, players enter a hotel and are treated to “Enjoy Your Stay” – a very gamey, Latin-influenced theme that plays in every hotel in the game. Later, as players enter a hotel in which something bad is about to happen, they hear “I Smell A Trap,” a remix of “Enjoy Your Stay” that bends its pitch and changes tempos to create an unsettling, otherworldly sound.  The player’s realization, once they enter a hotel room and are then threatened and kidnapped by an antagonist, is a tremendous one – the game used its own soundtrack to say something bad was going to happen

            In an era where almost every game has audio cues and foreshadowing, and entering an area with enemies almost inevitably triggers a guitar riff, it is not entirely apparent why this fact is so impactful.  But in 1995, for a game to use a subtle audio cue – a perversion of its own audio, no less – to indicate something to the player was incredible.  The game is reaching out to the player. This audio design is indicative of a greater design in EarthBound – the game wants the player to be explicitly aware of its existence. EarthBound is an exercise in Brechtian theater, in an era where no major game had considered reaching out of the screen and touching the player.

            EarthBound’s subversion of the media is exemplified perfectly in a number of places throughout the game.  Occasionally, while making their way through the games many towns and dungeons, a player’s screen will freeze, and they will hear “Say, Fuzzy Pickles!”  And, appropriately, a man with a large camera will drop from the sky and offer to take a picture of the player and his party so that they can remember the journey.  At the conclusion of the game, the player is then shown these screenshots – and they are accurate, showing which party members were dead at the time, which way the player was facing, and where the player was.  The fuzzy pickles man is taking a picture of the player and their progress.  As a player in the ‘90’s, this was mind-blowingly strange.

Later, in the town of Summers, the player character gets a call from a friend named Tony:

            “Hi, it’s me… Tony.  I’m collecting Player’s names for a school project.  You know, players just like you! That’s right, you—the one holding the controller!  Would you register your name, please?  Don’t spell your name wrong!  [Player enters name.]  Thanks, game player!  Thank you very much!  Is this correct?  [Player confirms name.]  I apologize for any trouble this may have caused you.  Don’t put my friend Jeff in any dangerous situations, okay?  I worry about him.  I really do…”

Tony (a character confirmed to be gay and in love with player character Jeff, which is a whole other level on which EarthBound was ahead-of-the-curve (GayGamer, 4)) goes on to say goodbye for another five minutes or so before finally hanging up.  Later in the game, in order to get into an exclusive club, the player must tell a bouncer their name to prove they are on ‘the list’.  Only if players claim they are the same person as the name they gave Tony are they allowed in. 

EarthBound is beloved in part because of this willful acknowledgment of the player’s existence, one of countless things EarthBound does that other games at the time simply did not.  EarthBound even subverted its own genre, the traditional Japanese Role-Playing Game.  In-battle, players could choose “autofight”, allowing the game to take care of the grinding for you.  If a player was powerful enough, then approaching an enemy would simply destroy it immediately, without necessitating a battle screen. EarthBound was poking fun at the boring parts of RPGs.  One could talk nearly infinitely about the ways in which EarthBound’s story was strange in a way that made it incredibly unique – fighting the Blue Happy Happy cultists; enemies like Pogo Punk, abstract art, Annoying Old Party Man, a Big Pile of Puke, Dali’s Clock, and Manly Fish’s Brother; a building for the design team of the game inside the game.  EarthBound even goes so far as to break the fourth wall by referring to the fourth wall – early in the game, the player enters a building in which the back wall has been torn down and the sky is exposed.  A sign then says – “this game only has two walls now.”

This manor in which EarthBound’s story and style unfolds is the exact reason I cannot abide by Warren Spector’s proclamation that narrative, non-procedural games could just be movies or novels.  EarthBound would not work if it was a novel.  A novel that blasts an Indiana-Jones-parodying song as the main character enters a jungle would not have nearly the same impact as it does when the player is experiencing that strangeness for him or herself. 

In his article, “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String”, Greg Costikyan claims that “it’s not merely that games aren’t stories, and vice versa; rather they are, in a sense, opposites.”  (Electronic Book Review, 5)  With such a huge breadth of gaming available to him, including EarthBound and other counter-examples like Portal 2 and Gone Home, it is hard to agree with this position.  It is true that stories are linear once they have been told – once a story exists, it cannot un-exist.  A game, however, does not need to change this fact.  A game simply needs to allow the player to feel that they are the cause of the outcome; that without participation, the story would not have existed at all.  More importantly, a game needs to be aware that the player exists; otherwise the story would go on without them.  In both of these ways, Earthbound succeeds as both story and game.  The narrative is linear, but the player never feels as though it is happening regardless of his or her interaction.  EarthBound tells players that it is watching, whether by directly asking for your name or modulating a song to give them a clue.