[content warning: mental health, hate, harassment, suicide mentions]
MOTHER 1 is a 1989 Famicom game written and directed by Shigesato Itoi, designed by Itoi and Miyuki Kure.
And it’s a mess.
All of it.
Every bit of it, every tiniest piece and every incrementally bigger whole you could ever possibly build from anything this game has to give you, It’s.
You know, from the character sprites so clearly, gleefully ripped off from Charlie Brown cartoon characters, Nintendo actually felt the need to change them for the international release of the game, to the ending, which just suddenly fucking…
For absolutely no reason, with absolutely no closure, no wrap-up.
After the final boss fight, the characters literally just stop and turn and, one by one, look at the camera — like even they have absolutely no idea what they’re supposed to be doing now, like they’re at a loss for words.
And the credits just start to roll by in the background so quietly, so devoid of presence or fanfare, it feels like they’re trying not to be noticed, like they’re ashamed to be there, like they’re sorry for existing.
And the characters just stare at you.
They sit there, and they just stare at you.
And this is clearly not what the developers originally meant to do, which you can tell because literally as soon as they got the chance to patch this ending out, they did. In every single translation, port, and re-release, this moment is removed completely — not just amended, but actually erased — and replaced with the kind of ending that games back then usually tended to have.
“CONGRATULATIONS. THANKS FOR PLAYING. Happy happy happy. Cute cute cute. Good-bye. See ya later. Play again.” There’s even a little sequel hook, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual sequel they would eventually make.
But the original Japanese release didn’t have any of that.
You know, it’s just very nakedly a case of, “Holy shit, you guys, get something packaged up and on the shelves right fucking now ’cause this thing is fucking way past due. Oh, my GOd.” And the ending isn’t even the biggest thing they sacrificed.
But fuck if it doesn’t work, though.
Like, fuck if it doesn’t make me cry every single time it fucking happens.
It puts something on the player when the characters do that because, now, all of a sudden, you have to decide what all this means. To you.
You have to decide how they feel, and how you feel, and what just happened, and why it matters, or if it matters at all to begin with or if you’re just pissed off or confused, which…happens. You have to put a piece of yourself in the game to get anything back out of it, and there’s no way to avoid that. You can’t look this up on a wiki and figure out how you’re supposed to feel.
There’s no “objective,” factual anything happening here.
It’s a very quiet moment where a piece of interactive art specifically goes out of its way to specifically ask you to read it as a piece of art, and I think that’s kind of special.
Of course, player interpretation is not, by itself, unique or even really worth remarking on.
Like, every part of every game works by asking the player to read it, and every part of every story only has any meaning because it has your brain and your experience to filter through. Meaning only exists where the reader meets the text.
But I do think something special happens when a moment is served up that is not neatly or immediately digestible.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say there’s a difference between you hearing a particular piece of dialogue and saying, “Well, that resonates with me because [whatever]” —
– and a game going out of its way to create a you-shaped hole, inscrutable, that beckons you to recklessly hurl a piece of yourself inside it without ever even really giving you a concrete, tangible prompt.
Like, even the question is only what you make of it.
Dollars to donuts, the main reason the ending eventually got erased and extended, the reason they didn’t just roll with the one they made in the first place, is because players had no idea what to make of it.
They worked their asses off to get through the game’s final levels, which we’ll talk about later, and they got what?
A very awkward silence.
No new art. No little jingle. No happy ending. It just stops.
And they just stare.
It’s the kind of moment that doesn’t really happen very often in games like this.
And it’s the kind of moment that really almost can’t exist anymore, outside of very specific indie circles.
Not because desperate, frenzied development crunch time doesn’t exist anymore, and not because games don’t still get slapped-together endings — they do. They absolutely do, and crunch time is basically ubiquitous in the industry. It’s a fucking craven labor abuse that literally carries a fucking body count, and it’s basically the industry standard. No.
What I mean is that moments like this one — very specifically, moments like this one — really can’t exist anymore because games just don’t look like this anymore:And I’m going to get ahead of myself here because I know there’s a very understandable urge to stop reading when a bloviating millennial starts whining about how games aren’t like they used to be.
Nostalgia, by its nature, is a liar, and inherently regressive, and “I remember when games were games” video-game nostalgia, very specifically, has been used as a
- recruiting tool,
- rallying point, and
- cover story
by hordes of abusive, reactionary Neo-Nazi terrorists who, very systematically, have tried their fucking hardest to drive members of marginalized groups to suicide with a years-long homicidal, genocidal hate-campaign using
- coordinated mass-harassment,
- doxxing, stalking,
- very direct threats of bodily harm, and
to emotionally torture and socially isolate already vulnerable people, and make their lives literally unlivable.
I make this digression because, even putting Gamergate aside, I truly don’t want to contribute to a self-limiting, backwards-looking culture moaning about how the glory days are behind us and 3D models are the devil.
The past is a nightmare, nothing was ever actually as good as you think it was, and pining for the bygone days of yore is, by itself, intrinsically self-destructive and is inherently a deeply, deeply conservative urge.
But I feel like it is also true that existing art is sometimes undervalued because we take it for granted — or, to put it another way, because corporate interests drive us to take it for granted.
And I’m going to plant my feet in the ground and die on this hill: This is one of those times. There is an art to the eight-bit sprite that does not easily translate elsewhere.
Mark my words: It does not matter how many times you remake Pokemon Red and Blue. Lavender Town will never, ever, ever be as uncanny or as viscerally off-putting as it was in 1996 because “better” graphics give us too much information.
“Better” graphics mean more visual signifiers, and more specific visual signifiers, and not every single visual signifier is not going to land and actually mean something to every single individual player.
But scale back, strip away the excess, reduce everything down to the barest, most core, most universally approachable, evocative signifiers, create a void, a space, a hole for the player to throw themselves into, and you create a palette the player can use to paint a personalized picture inside themselves.
And that’s always going to be more moving.
It’s the old Jaws situation where not seeing the monster is actually scarier than seeing it. You know, a shark puppet is a puppet, but the implication of a shark gives that shark the power to look like whatever will scare the person watching the most.
Same thing here.
An eight-bit face is not a face.
An eight-bit face is the implication of a face.
In actuality, it’s about six black dots. But the player can read those six black dots however they want, however they will, based on context. And that’s the art of making a sprite like this —
— creating something that conveys a sense of character without being too specific.
Because you don’t have animated expressions in a game like MOTHER 1, that one single face has to “work” in every scene, every level, every moment of the game, regardless of mood or tone or content.
So, in the end, when the characters slowly turn and look at you, they’re looking at you with the exact same faces you’ve seen throughout the entire game so far. Not one speck of them is different — not one iota, not one line.
And I think, for me, that’s an irreplaceable part of what makes this moment so emotionally compelling. They’re so…mundane, so unremarkable, so completely, unflinchingly familiar.
But because of the new context, they’re also, at the exact same time, incomprehensibly different.
It’s a very almost-literal case of seeing old friends in a new light.
And that’s something you could never have with a less-abstract, higher-fidelity art design.
Because that’s what’s really happening here — eight-bit sprites aren’t “worse” than 4k PS4 models. The fact that we even have the impulse to use words like “better” and “worse” is the end result of decades worth of programming, marketing contrived by companies who want you to think of high-fidelity graphics as the first and biggest indicator of quality.
Companies who want you to be wowed by flashed and glitz and glamor because those things are easier to contrive and easier to convey than heart and soul and meaning.
The truth is, it’s all just art.
And eight-bit sprites are specifically abstract art.
And abstract art has a place. Abstract art exists for a reason.
Abstract art can make us feel things more sublime than photorealism can provide.
My reading of the ending would not be able to exist if I could, for example, see that the characters were happily smiling and waving good-bye.
There’s actually a moment like that in MOTHER 3. In the end, the characters in that one wish you, the player, good-bye and good luck. They thank you for helping them come this far, for leading them on this incredible adventure.
They say they want you to be happy.
And they hope, wherever you are, you’re safe.
And that’s beautiful.
I love that.
But it’s just handed to you.
That’s the problem with MOTHER 3 — I mean, that, and the incredibly, incredibly in-your-face casual transphobia. And the child molestation jokes. Everything is just handed to you.
The experience is so specifically dictated to you, you don’t really get create anything for yourself. You don’t get to synthesize your own reactions. No moment is ever allowed to just stand and be. Everything has to have the maximum amount of melodrama forcibly milked out of it by the explicit text of the game.
MOTHER 1 is very much on the opposite end of the spectrum, and the ending maybe most of all.
MOTHER 1 gives me the chance to feel emotions that even I can’t completely wrap my head around, feelings that need to be felt because I don’t understand them.
My reading of the ending, where the characters stand and look at you like they don’t know what to say, is a reading I created for myself by projecting my own feelings, my own heart, my own brain, my own life, my own fucking debilitating neuroses, too many to count, onto their fundamentally neutral, six-pixel faces.
That, and the fact that there is no more dialogue, no fireworks, no fanfare, no more explicit text.
And the credits, whose relative “low-key-ness” I read as awkward, embarrassed, ashamed, and endearing.
And those stares, which I feel in my gut, putting pressure on me, even if they don’t mean to. I feel seen. And being seen is terrible. And exciting. I want to throw up. I want to cry. I want to crawl myself, shrivel up, and shrink. I want to hug them.
I want to live.
I want to die.
I have a hard time visually processing faces. I have a harder time emotionally coping with the knowledge that I can be seen. This moment brings up both those things.
I feel things in this moment that I don’t know how to put into words, things that genuinely make me feel like a child again. Which is impressive because I truly don’t remember almost any of my childhood. Mostly, it feels like I just kind of congealed somewhere.
But the mood in this ending reminds me of a feeling, and that feeling means something to me.
It reminds me of how much I’ve lost, how much of me has been broken off or withered away. How much of what used to be good about me has shriveled and burned.
How much I never had.
How afraid I always was.
And how much I still have, too.
Readings piling on readings. Meaning piling on meaning.
You know, the name of the game is MOTHER after a semi-obscure John Lennon song, “Mother.”
Itoi said he wanted to make a game that gave people the same feeling the song gave him, a bizarre mix of irrational euphoria, shifting discomfort, and deep, deep despair.
Personally, I think the song is a grating piece of shit, but for me, it’s hard to say Itoi missed his mark. Whatever I feel, I feel like it’s pretty close to what he intended. It’s hard to process, and that’s good.
More games, more media, should be willing to give you feelings that are hard to process.
In a way, I kind of resent him for patching the original ending out.
‘Cause I’m not going to say the original ending was an accident — it wasn’t an accident that made the characters stop and turn around and look at you one by one.
It wasn’t an accident that made the credits roll by so quietly in the background, as the characters kept on looking at you, instead of cutting to black and running them over an empty screen.
That was a very crafted moment, a very deliberate attempt to say something, do something, mean something with the time they had left to make this thing. I’m never going to say that any of this was an accident.
But even if it’s an ending very shaped by circumstance, and I think it’s a good ending. And I think it’s more meaningful and vastly more unique than what we ultimately got later on.
I feel like it put something out into the world that most games just don’t.
Something that more games should.
Now, that said, I do want to go back and talk a little bit more about exactly what makes this game work the way it does.
Yeah, this was all just preamble, apparently.
Twenty-six hundred words of meandering preamble — that’s something good writers do, right?
I started with the ending because the ending, I think, to me, is an effective microcosm of everything bad and amazing about this game, the whole life cycle of the game just wrapped up in one little bit.
But there’s so much more that’s worth talking about.
So meet me beneath the “read more” cut.