(This article is going to have numerous spoilers about EarthBound, so be wary!)
The credits have rolled, the epilogue has concluded, and it’s hard to write this article without a heavy heart in hand. EarthBound has wrapped up, my time with Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo has come to an end, and it’s sad to watch them move on. Don’t they know they’ve left me behind? Hello?
Jeez, guys. Fine. I’ll just shuffle my feet over here...
But hours and hours later, with thanks to a wonderful walkthrough from Starmen.net, it’s over. EarthBound knows it’s hard to say goodbye, so rather than immediately pulling the JRPG trick of leaving the game at a “THE END” screen and asking you to turn off the cartridge (in this case, head back to the main screen of my Wii U, a task with decidedly less finality to it), there’s an opportunity to head back into the world, sans enemies, and take one last gasp of air. The world has changed, too, with many characters acknowledging time has moved forward and change has occurred, even if they’re blissfully unaware of the very crucial role they played in your defeat of Giygas.
It’s a victory lap of sorts, an acknowledgement that while this virtual world was built for the purposes of this story, your quest was not without purpose and not without validation from the virtual citizens it impacted. It’s these moments that help make Giygas’ death so powerful.
I must confess, though, that I didn’t spend time in my own game learning what happened because Giygas was gone, and instead looked that up on the Internet later. No, it was vitally important to me to return home to my mom. After I dropped off Paula at the preschool, I returned home, and even though my mom told me it was okay to say hi to my friends, I’d been away from home for so long, and I’d already had my adventure. It was time to eat pizza and look at photos, so I pushed past the point of no return and told the game it was OK. I was done. Close the book. (To continue comparing everything in my life to LOST, it’s a bit like what happens with the church. I don’t want to say anything more, since this isn’t an article about LOST, but it fits, right?)
Let’s go back to that bit about the cartridge, though. It’s a huge event that's critically, tragically lost in emulation. I can’t remember the first game that asked me to turn it off when the story was over, and maybe I’m assuming too much when I assign that trope to JRPGs. Correct me if I’m wrong. When EarthBound says “The End..?” and sits there, I did what I’ve always done: I waited five minutes to see if it changed. (I can’t be the only one who read theories on the Internet about leaving your machine on to access a secret ending in Final Fantasy VII.) A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions there was nothing more to be done, and it was time to move on. But pulling up the interface with the “Home button” and closing the “software” is hardly as satisfying. There was real power in what these games were asking of the player. Physically pulling a switch and turning off the SNES is a game reaching into the real-world and tapping you on the shoulder, just in case you didn’t realize this was really over. You don’t get that in the Virtual Console version, and it’s a loss.
And despite already being suitably impressed, the most remarkable moments in EarthBound don't happen until the very end. It wasn’t until that point when EarthBound, a game already giggling at undermining player’s expectations, decided to pull back the curtain and reveal who was really the mastermind behind everything that was happening: you. Yeah, you. Okay, well, me, technically. At least, in the case of my playthrough.
EarthBound fans did a remarkably poor job at holding back their glee at the game’s final “trick” in the battle against Giygas. Fortunately, the trick itself ends up being pretty meaningless. For those with fuzzy memories, you travel back in time to confront Giygas, but you can’t seem to do much damage against him. Plus, he keeps tossing random attacks that randomly kill your friends, and constantly cause stressful status ailments. The deck has been stacked against you, but considering this is an all-powerful alien from another world, maybe that’s to be expected when we’re talking about four average kids trying to save the world.
We have to rewind a bit, though.
Over and over again, EarthBound tosses material your way--dialogue, characters, items, weapons, everything--that either doesn’t make sense or has no material impact on playing the game. It's stuff to color the world and poke you in the eye. Jeff, remember, starts the game with a ruler that cannot be used, existing only to take up an inventory slot. It doesn’t do anything and the game never acknowledges this. Fans were forced to dig into the game’s code to make sure there wasn’t some unnamed trick was going on, and there was nothing to be found. This happens over and over again throughout EarthBound, and it eventually becomes one of its greatest charms, a series of harmless tricks made at the player’s expense. But EarthBound was playing the longest con of all with Paula’s “pray” ability. Technically, this is a little muddled. Pray can be used to heal characters, but it doesn’t happen every time, so the randomness removes its usefulness pretty quickly. Within a few hours, especially after characters gain the ability to cast healing spells and items are more prominent, pray becomes an ignored menu option. It’s now background noise, despite pray being the only thing so that Ness and friends can gain the power to defeat Giygas.
“You know what, my heart is beating incredibly fast. ...I must be experiencing absolute terror! Do you want to scream for help here in the dark?! Hha ha ha ha ha! Why not call your mommy, Ness? Say “Mommy! Daddy! I’m so frightened! I think I’m gonna wet my pants! I know you have telepathy or something, so just try and call for help, you pathetically weak heroes of so-called justice! No one will help you now! Ha ha ha ha haaah….Don’t worry, your pitiful suffering will be over soon!”
Of course, it’s easy for me to say what happens next is obvious in retrospect, but EarthBound was hinting at the solution to Giygas in its own dialogue. What are people doing when they pray? Your religious association makes the nuance of that answer different, but in general, praying involves sending a message to others--god, friends, a deceased loved one, whatever. Paula has the ability to reach out and send a message to those who care about her, but it’s been utterly useless at this point, so why bother? Think about it again. For the non-religious among us, when might we consider praying? When we’re at our most desperate, when we have no easy answers to what’s in front of us, when praying seems like the only option, even if we don’t believe in it?
As Paula prays, her friends feel motivated to think about her, and these emotions travel through time and space to break down the defenses of Giygas. With each prayer, Giygas becomes weaker, and your attacks do more and more damage. But not every prayer is answered. After Ness' mother hears the call from beyond:
“Paula’s call was absorbed by the darkness.”
When this happens, it’s easy to think: what’s the point? Why get up? Why try again?
It’s at this moment that I died during my first fight with Giygas. I didn’t know what to do next, and a random attack from Giygas took out Ness, which resulted in my party falling apart. I was stumped. Clearly, I was on the right track, but what next? I loaded up my save, called to my friends, and decided to challenge the darkness a second time. I don’t know what it was about playing Giygas the second time, but the emotion of the moment swept me up, and I felt a profound sense of pride as everyone mentally joined hands and stood up to Giygas. It’s been an emotional year for me, though, so it doesn’t exactly take much to tip me over the edge.
The second prayer did the trick, and it’s when EarthBound went from a thankful visit to a missed 90s game to an all-time favorite gaming experiences. The final prayer reached me, the player, and I realized why the game took several moments to ask the player their name. It’s almost as though EarthBound knew the cartridge might be passed around, a save might be used by more than one person, and whoever saw the adventure through to the end needed to be the right person. But I was there to receive the prayer, and I defeated Giygas.
It's not that far off from how we actually play games, either. Most games have an element of chance, especially RPGs, where dice are being rolled behind-the-scenes, and certain information is kept from us to generate stress and make poor strategic choices. This especially happens when it's the final battle, and everything is on the line. Hell, I remember fighting Sephiroth, and literally closing my eyes and praying my latest casting of a summon would take him out. I was low on health and magic. I needed a prayer answered.
We use the phrase “I” in regards to our interactions with a video game avatar all the time, and it’s always an abstraction of our own thoughts, feelings, and exchanges with a virtual character. But in this case, I really did defeat Giygas. Not only had I carefully guided Ness, Poo, Paula, and Jeff from the beginning of the game to the end, but I was the omnipotent one that heard Paula’s prayer for help. It was a layered meta commentary on what it means to be the player of a video game, and it left a profound mark. I won't soon forget the message.