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MOTHER 3, A Literary Video Game

Mother 3 Sunflower fields

MOTHER 3 tells a story most would not expect a videogame to tell. Written by Shigesato Itoi, an essayist, slogan maker, copyeditor, voice actor, famed blogger, short fiction collaborator (with Haruki Murakami), Iron Chef judge and fishing fan, MOTHER 3 is a deeply intimate tale that engages on both an intellectual and emotional level. Games journalist and developer Tim Rogers believes that it represents the closest a videogame has yet come to modern literature. For me, MOTHER 3 is art.

The Short Gist

MOTHER 3 begins in Tazmily Village, a utopian paradise where humans and nature live in harmony. One day, an army of Pig-like soldiers invades the area and transforms the local wildlife into mechanical abominations, setting off a chain of events that eventually changes the tranquil lives of the town’s inhabitants forever. As the player, you play as multiple characters through eight distinct chapters to make sense of this strange and changing world.

3 Readings of MOTHER 3: Nature, Culture, Self

MOTHER 3 is about many things.

It is about the chief villain Porky and his Pigmask Army’s utter contempt for life. Early on, the player comes across their scattered mission notes:

“All of the creatures around here suck. We need to make them cooler. We’ll mix and match this and that to create whole new things no one’s ever seen before!”

– Memo from Porky

As a result, many of the game’s enemies are floral and faunal chimeras, ranging from cybernetic caribou and mechanical dragons to bizarre hybrids of familiar creatures: dogs mixed with mushrooms, snakish cattle, pig-headed petunias, ostriches with grinning elephantine bodies, just to list a few. Towards the end of the game, these creations grow even more perverse as living beings are turned into literal weapons – hippos shoots missiles out of their mouths; and rhinos exist as rockets (in Mark I and II versions) with the sole purpose of tracking your party down.

This childish disregard and active malevolence towards nature drives much of the game’s conflict. In the prologue, the Pigmask Army sets fire to the forest for no discernible reason. Chapter 3 has Fassad, Porky’s chief underling, blackmail and torture the player’s avatar, a monkey named Salsa. Throughout Chapter 5, 7, and 8, the player journeys through a host of laboratories where scientists brainwash and experiment on various creatures. The very logo of the game sports this motif of unnatural melding – a mix of wood and metal, the organic and inorganic rammed together to elicit feelings of unease.

Mother 3 Logo

“I feel like these are all things of modern times – these feelings of uneasiness and discomfort. But I understand that they make up the world I’m in. The logo is a symbol of that.” (Translated Mother 3 interview from mother3.fobby.net)

***

MOTHER 3 is about the corruption of utopia. The arrival of the Porky and his Army sets off a family tragedy and a chain of events that forever transforms Tazmily village. Over the span of three short years, rapid modernization of the town sends people to work at factories, creates a caste of disposable slaves, and transforms authentic happiness into a manufactured commodity. Those marginalized by or opposed to such radical change are exiled to the town’s margins or struck down by lightning bolts generated from a distant tower of judgement.

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The isolation and dehumanization of modernity; the homogenization of individual thought and desire; the emptiness and ennui associated with consumerism – these are all elements expressed in MOTHER 3. By the end of the game, Tazmily becomes a ghost town, with its inhabitants relocated to the glamorous but ultimately shallow metropolis of New Pork City.

***

MOTHER 3 is also a bildungsroman, a tale of a child who matures into adulthood. Lucas, one of the main protagonists, is forced to grow up too fast in the wake of his mother’s sudden death, his brother’s lingering disappearance, and his father’s ensuing depression. From Chapter 4 on, the player guides Lucas and his friends to overcome enemies and challenges, eventually becoming strong enough to face Fassad and Porky.

MOTHER 3 is all of these things. Yet it is not only them.

A Unique Literary Telling

What I love about MOTHER 3 is that the entire package exists as a contradiction. Itoi’s insistence to use the videogame medium to tell a story that is structured like a play, complete with multiple acts and protagonists. The insertion of surreal and bizarre humour into serious moments. The fearless reliance of musical motifs or wordless silence to carry the emotional weight of pivotal scenes.  The choice of child-like visuals to convey a narrative steeped in adult matters of grief, loss, and the inevitability of change.

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Out of these deliberate clashes emerges MOTHER 3’s ability to provoke and evoke. MOTHER 3 can make you laugh out loud one moment and then tear up the next. It is completely self-aware but is strong on warmth and whimsy. Its world is strange but is never weird for the sake of weird (well, almost never.) The story revolves around mature themes but never takes itself too seriously. The game constantly subverts expectations, and it is out of these acts of subversion that the game’s depth and nuances of thought shines through. Tragic, absurd, maddening, funny, poignant – MOTHER 3 can be all of these things for a player. It resists being distilled into the neat simple summaries like the ones above – a key characteristic of literary work.

3 Deconstructions of MOTHER 3 Readings

MOTHER 3 may come across as a lament for a time and place where nature and people existed in harmony. But in the last chapter during what is the longest exposition dump in memory (another hilarious subversion of what is generally considered good writing and pacing), the player learns that the utopian world of Tazmily is and always was a lie, an artificial construction by survivors of a destroyed world who chose to wipe their memories and begin anew. Because they denied their history, neglected to cultivate deep mythologies, and ignored the darker aspects of human nature, Tazmily became an exceedingly fragile society: Its innocence offered no strength against outside influences. Porky’s Pigmask Army was able to destroy it through the use of fear, greed, and violence.

In the end, the utopian vision of Tazmily is just as unsustainable as the shallow grandeur of New Pork City – both exist only as shiny facades that crumble upon closer inspection.

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Thomas More coined the word “utopia” in 1516 from the Greek phrase ou-topos, meaning “no place” or “nowhere”. MOTHER 3 takes place on the Nowhere Islands, a not-so-subtle foreshadowing hint that Tazmily is the ultimate illusion.

***

It would be easy to portray MOTHER 3 as an indictment against modernization and consumerism. Yet Itoi meticulously creates a world where people struggle with these huge forces in very human ways. One of my favourite scenes occurs in Chapter 3, when Fassad arrives in Tazmily to ask the townspeople if they are happy:

Notice how each person responds. Some walk away immediately. Others stay for a while and laugh before rejecting his sermon. Still others are genuinely curious, raising their hands when asked if they would like to become more happy. The first to raise her hand, Abbey, is enthusiastic and naïve, believing there can never be too much happiness. Abbott follows his wife in all things, hinting at his own tendencies. Biff has no idea what Fassad is talking about but is eager to take advantage of any opportunity. Isaac, the most hesitant of the bunch, is curious to see if happiness can really be so easy to attain.

It’s a cute, weird, and fascinating scene that illustrates the level of characterization in MOTHER 3. To acknowledge that humans have various and multiple motivations, and to show subtle and contrasting reactions on bit characters the player can ignore without consequence is rare in the medium of videogames. If the player chooses to interact with Itoi’s minor creations, he/she will discover that the world of MOTHER 3 is not so black and white, that he/she may empathize with the journeys of each townsperson with their own circumstance, being caught up in something much greater than themselves.

By the last chapter, Isaac becomes a brainwashed member of the Pigmask Army (oh gullible Isaac!). Biff still seems ill at ease, following others to New Pork City simply because no one else is left in Tazmily. Abbott and Abbey remain relatively unchanged, as if to suggest that their bond is sufficient to shelter them even through to the world’s end. Hardcore Gaming 101’s essay succinctly summarizes the subtlety and impact of MOTHER 3’s writing:

“This path [MOTHER 3] has chosen to walk is that of reflection and analysis. The adventure takes place in a world caught up in a bizarre yet very real mutation. At the start of chapter 4, after the scene has been successfully set, an ellipse brings the player three years later, to an unrecognizable Tazmily that once was a small utopian rural village and now has gone through a radical transformation process. Of course, there already exists a whole bunch of “anti-consumerist” works, and the like in every medium, most of which really aren’t all that subtle. But that is not where Mother 3 stands. This contributes to a most welcomed absence of phony black-and-white morality-tainted “sides” in the story, and it helps in reasserting every last NPC’s humanity in this open-minded yet unsettling atmosphere where you are to expect anything coming from the disorientated citizens of the new Tazmily, from desperate bravery to aggressive conformism.”

– Hardcore Gaming 101

Itoi’s script, rooted in delicate observations of human nature and a lack of moral judgement, provides the layered complexity necessary for MOTHER 3’s power and resonance. As I revisit MOTHER 3, I’m reminded of the work and attraction of an artist in another medium:

“By doing his best not to preach or moralize through his art, Burtynsky seems to speak on a more subtle and accessible level: ‘Like it or not, this is how things are.’ The landscapes are allowed to exist without judgment or justification. How we interpret and react to their existence is left to us.”

– Manufactured Landscapes: A meditation on man-made spaces

***

Finally, MOTHER 3 also resists being a traditional tale about growing up and moving on. In the end, the player doesn’t triumph over evil by being stronger or more powerful than his/her opponent. They win because brother refuses to fight brother. They win because a mother begs her two sons to stop fighting. They win because a father sacrifices himself to protect his son. Much of MOTHER 3 is about a family being torn apart; its conclusion thus comes full circle, reuniting them in a final act of reconciliation, providing closure through familial love.

Interestingly, it is less Lucas’ courage but more his childish innocence, retained through a traumatic journey in adulthood, that proves instrumental to the story’s conclusion. In the last scene, Lucas conveys his will towards the reconstruction of a broken world. While there is no going back to the false paradise of Tazmily and the outcome is not shown as the credits roll, the player is assured that the future, guided by Lucas’ innate kindness and empathy, is a hopeful one.

MOTHER 3 as Mirror

It’s been six years since I first played through MOTHER 3. Each time I revisit the game, I seem to come across a fresh line of dialogue, a subtle musical motif, or a poignant moment that deepens my understanding and love for its story. This quality of depth is something I look for and treasure in stories, especially ones with interesting things to say about nature, culture, and self. Itoi, I suspect, would welcome such explorations:

“My personal feelings steer me to want to affirm everything the player thinks about the game. I wanted to make Mother 3 like a mirror. One that reflects the heart of the player off of the screen…Mother 3 is a playground with plenty of room for your imagination to run free. The more you think about it, the greater Mother 3 will become. The more you feel it, the deeper it will become. The more fun you have, the more you’ll grow.”

– Translated Interview with Shigesato Itoi

For those who have never played MOTHER 3 and probably never will, I hope the piece made some sense and opened your eyes to the potential of video games for telling meaningful stories. For those who are MOTHER 3 fans, thanks for reading – I hope you found something here that enriched your view of the game. I would love to hear about your experiences with the game.

My heartfelt thanks to Shigesato Itoi for crafting such a “strange, funny, and heartrending” tale, and to Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin and the fans at Starmen.net for pouring thousands of hours into developing a masterful fan-translation, without which I would have never experienced the beauty of this utterly unique story. MOTHER 3 is one of those rare games that is as rewarding to play through as it is to ponder afterwards, and I cannot envision it being told in any other medium, in any other way.

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Hardcore Gaming 101: MOTHER 3. Retrieved from http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/mother/mother3.htm

Shigesato Itoi Tells All About Mother 3 – Nindori.com Itoi Interview. Retrieved from http://mother3.fobby.net/interview/index.html.

Mother 3 © 2006, Shigesato Itoi/Nintendo.  Copyright of all images of Game/Scenario reserved by Shigesato Itoi/Nintendo.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Ashley,

    Unfortunately, the game was never released in North America, so the only way to play it in English is to use the fan-translation as a patch for an emulated version. Nintendo’s been quiet over the issue over the past six years, while Mandelin’s offered to his translation files for free if it helps with an official release. Those MOTHER 3 fans are passionate!

    If you can read Japanese, you can just import the game. No problems there!

    • Thanks, Isaac – I’ll have to use the translation I think 🙂
      I didn’t realise the game was also a follow-up to Earthbound either, wow!

      Can’t believe Nintendo didn’t jump at the chance to do an English release – very obvious the fan base is solid.

      • It is a sequel to Earthbound, and there are a few callbacks and connections in the game, but MOTHER 3 is very much its own thing, with its own themes and emotional tone.

        Unfortunately, I think MOTHER 3 came out at a time between platforms and got lost in the shuffle. I think Nintendo’s actually quite surprised by the strength of the fanbase, given the recent response to the re-release of Earthbound on their virtual console. But I wouldn’t hold out any hopes for an official release anytime soon.

  2. A great piece! I could write endlessly about the series, and I’m hoping our chapter 2 discussions can come out soon… If the rest of the podcast crew would hurry up XD.

    Earthbound was one of the first videogames I ever played – I was in primary school and played it on an emulator at a friend’s house. The sequel is perfect to me (although objectively NOT perfect, as the rest of the Action Points crew will attest, it’s just that I wouldn’t change any part of it) and reminds me of a time when I needed to see that creativity in videogames didn’t need to be filtered through many layers of finance and bureaucracy. Itoi’s masterpiece is ALWAYS the game I put forward whenever anyone asks what my favourite game of all time is.

  3. Great article. I wish Mother 3 had been released here. It would look great on the 3DS. This is the type of RPG I like.

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