MOTHER 1 – a dissociative dreamland.

MOTHER 1: a dissociative dreamland.

[a banner loosely made up to look and feel like a title card from an old ’90s anime. warm blues, pinks, and yellows. the number “01” is in the upper right-hand corner. the text says, “MOTHER 1: a dissociative dreamland.”]

[content warning: mental health, hate groups, 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.

A.

Mess.

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…

Stops.

For absolutely no reason, with absolutely no closure, no wrap-up.

No nothing.

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.

Forever.

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?

Almost nothing.

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:

[a screenshot from MOTHER 1. the characters' faces are so small and so pixel-y, they're absolutely unreadable.]

[a screenshot from MOTHER 1. the characters’ faces are so small and so pixel-y, they’re absolutely unreadable.]

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

  • dog-whistle,
  • 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,
  • lies,
  • doxxing, stalking,
  • very direct threats of bodily harm, and
  • misinformation

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.

Nostalgia.

Is.

A.

Liar.

It’s poison.

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?

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.

So, MOTHER 1 is not a game for everyone.

It’s not.

It’s aimless, and it’s grind-y and repetitive, and it’s empty.

It is horribly, horribly, hopelessly, soul-crushingly empty. And it’s hard. It’s incredibly hard.

And not even hard in a good way?

Like, not hard in a way that makes you think about what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it, and how you can do it better.

Not hard in a way that makes you be creative, or think critically, or learn from your own experience, or stumble into a moment of rewarding self-discovery as you find yourself fixing a problem in a way you maybe wouldn’t have expected.

It’s not exciting.

It’s not interesting.

There’s nothing especially satisfying about it.

And you’re pretty much never going to be surprised by literally anything.

It’s mostly just mind-numbing. It’s the same thing over and over.

It’s hard in a way that can only be fixed by grinding, by the mindless, mechanical process of fighting and fighting and fighting the same two or three completely nondescript enemies for three, four, five, six, seven, ten, twelve hours at a time.

It’s tedious. It’s busywork.

You know, it’s just pointless, droning, flat, mushy, gray, unengaging busywork, and on top of all of that, it’s also relentlessly frustrating because after the first two or three mostly scripted battles in your house, the game becomes absolutely merciless.

You leave home, and you go down and to the right because that’s literally the only place you’re actually able to go?

And before you get to the first actual town, you will almost certainly be killed — very possibly in one single, mostly unavoidable shot from a seemingly meaningless random encounter with a pissed-off redneck named Wally. With a pitchfork.

So, you respawn at home, and you try, and you try, and you try, and you try, and you try, and you try, and somewhere along the line, maybe around the time you hit double-digit deaths without actually getting more than five feet away from your house, you realize that you’re not actually supposed to be progressing yet.

The game doesn’t want you to go to town.

The game doesn’t want you to, you know, actually start the story.

The game wants you to sit here.

And the game wants you to grind. For about an hour. Maybe two. Maybe three.

The first several hours of this game are absolutely going to spent running back and forth and back and forth across the one little tiny sliver of land in front of your house, dashing back in every battle or two to get a free heal from your mom.

You hit this immediate wall, and if you were actually excited to start this adventure, you hit that wall hard, and you hit it bitterly. You are going to die. It is not going to be fair. And here’s the big kicker:

It never gets better.

This is not something you need to do, an initial price you have to pay, to get to the rest of the game. This is the game. This is what you’re going to be doing the. Entire. Time. If anything, it actually only gets worse.

Every new area starts with hours of grinding.

Now, wait till you meet your first party member.

Who starts at level one.

At a time when you’re likely to be level fifteen.

And, immediately, the first thing the game asks you to do with him is take him to a massive, winding, multi-level maze of a dungeon — literally one of the biggest areas ever programmed into a NES game, featuring multiple dozens of dead ends.

Where, if he doesn’t survive way the up into the very last room, you can’t complete the dungeon, so you have to backtrack.

And the game does not tell you that ahead of time.

Or, actually, at all. Like, even when you get there, there’s no prompt that says Lloyd has to be alive to make what you find there work, so if you can’t work it out by context, there is every chance you might not even know what’s wrong.

If you’re playing the game without a guide, the way the game is technically meant to played, there is every chance you’re going to

  • run in,
  • waste all your items trying to stay alive,
  • spend multiple hours trying to figure out where the fuck you’re even supposed to go,
  • finally make it to the end without Lloyd,
  • have no idea what’s happening,
  • keep plodding around, trying to work it out,
  • get slaughtered,
  • maybe try some more, and ultimately
  • still end up having to spend more hours training him up to at least a semi-decent level
  • before doing it all again. Or at least trying to. And
  • maybe having to repeat the process.

It is… A lot.

It’s just… It’s a lot.

So, your next character also starts at level one.

And so does the one after that.

If you meet them, by the way. Because, by the way, after that one big dungeon —

— the game says, “FUCK. YOU” to even mere, meager illusion of direction or structure and becomes a non-linear nightmare wonderland where you don’t even technically have to see most of the rest of it if you don’t happen to stumble into it.

You don’t have to meet half your potential party members.

You don’t have to visit half the cities.

And the critical path doesn’t even point you to half the MacGuffins that would be driving the main plot if the main plot ever actually directly referred to them. Which it really doesn’t.

Like, you literally don’t even know what your core quest is.

If you don’t happen to notice the screen that pops up when you press “select” —

— which you may never actually do because you never actually have to —

— is actively tracking how many “melodies” you’ve found, which it doesn’t do for anything else, you could be forgiving for thinking they’re just, like, Easter eggs or a side quest or fun background content.

This is maybe a little bit lost on players now because, now, the eight melodies are one of the most famous things about the game, but within the game itself, it’s actually kind of a genuine surprise when these tiny, little  broken fragments of a tune you’ve been learning in the background, in these mostly insignificant-looking incidental moments, come back around to become the Plot.

It’s not like the sequel, Earthbound, where every melody is guarded by a boss fight that marks the melody an Important, Landmark Collectible within the structure of the game. Here, learning the melodies is divorced from literally everything else.

The game doesn’t even mark its final dungeon as the final dungeon.

No one directs you to it.

You just have to find it and wander in completely of your own volition, without even having all the melodies first because two of the melodies are only found within the dungeon, so even if you can intuit that it is the final dungeon, you’re still never going to be sure whether or not you should actually be there until you’re literally about one screen away from the ending.

It is absolutely wild — and conjures up a real, foreboding, tingly sense of tangible risk and danger. It feels like you’re getting away with something. But for how much longer?

And when I said the grinding never gets better, I really did mean it never gets better. The space outside your house is crushingly brutal, and the final dungeon only more so.

The developers literally ran out of time to play-test the enemies in this area, which means the slow climb up Holy Roly Mountain is a desperate, agonizing crawl on your hands and knees up a forking path of shattered glass that will leave you fucking aching, body, mind, and soul, by the end of it — grueling in a way that no game ever is or ever would be intentionally.

A mess.

It’s a mess.

MOTHER 1 is a very, very messy game, not just rough around the edges, but rough in every single atom of it, mechanically unrefined in almost every way it possibly could be, loose and meandering, aimless and rambling, every last bit of it broken, bizarre, and surreal, and lots of parts of that are intentional, but even the intentional parts aren’t always necessarily “good” ideas.

It is an almost indescribably inaccessible game.

But, then, that honestly makes sense when you remember that the driving force behind the game, writer and director Shigesato Itoi, was not a professional game designer.

He had no experience.

He was an advertiser. And a lyricist.

He just happened to be in the same building the Nintendo offices were using at the time for a completely unrelated project, and one day, in the hall, he cornered Miyamoto, and he pitched him a game.

He didn’t know what he was doing.

And that’s not even a judgment. That’s just, like, a fact.

To quote the main himself:

No matter how amazing an idea seems, it’s meaningless if someone isn’t able to make it.

And Miyamoto told me that flat out.

I was in the advertising industry, so I was used to starting with a concept, forming an idea, and finishing it once I had a sense of completion. There’d be a cameraman, a designer, a model, a scene, and a filming style.

We always had at least a certain point we could get to, even if it wasn’t all the way.

But with games, a plan to create something is worth nothing if it’s impossible to pull off.

Miyamoto calmly and gently explained that to me, but I was overcome with a sense of powerlessness.

I was really convinced I had something incredible, but once I realized it was going to require an actual ability to bring it to fruition, I felt a deep loneliness as if I was turning back at the base of this incredibly enormous mountain.

I cried in the bullet train on the way home. I didn’t mean to, but it just came out.

And I realized what it felt like to be completely helpless. (x)

On some level, I’m honestly a little bit disgusted about that —

— the idea that a grown man’s concept of crushing, inescapable helplessness is just not being immediately amazing at something he has no experience in, no training, no knowledge, no reason to think he would be amazing at it.

On the other hand, though, same.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Itoi was used to a certain amount of bullshit, and when I say “bullshit,” what I really mean is a certain amount of artistic improv, a certain degree of spontaneous technical and creative ingenuity.

A subject, a backdrop, a concept, a camera.

Put those things together, and unless you truly, truly, truly fuck up in a way that a seasoned professional like Itoi probably wouldn’t, you can almost always get something, even if that something isn’t necessarily what you had in mind to begin with.

But a game?

A game is complex, interlocking system of complex, interlocking systems, moving parts piling on moving parts, and it’s completely possible to make a game that literally doesn’t even start, or a game that breaks down and eats itself halfway through.

A game can fail to be a game in ways that a photo generally can’t fail to be a photo.

And that’s before you even get into the almost unspeakable complexity of weaving together a coherent, complete, and compelling thirty- or forty-hour narrative, mechanical, and artistic experience.

It takes a special kind of arrogance to assume your pitch for a game is going to wow Miyamoto upfront.

And a special kind of fuck-you attitude to assume you have the right to write, direct, and design your own game at the biggest and most successful gaming company in the world right off the bat, first thing —

— effectively catapulting your way past all the people who’ve actually put in the work in this field. For. Years.

Some of them probably for their entire working lives.

Most of whom probably had spent and will spend their entire working lives without ever even glimpsing the kind of power, fame, influence, or opportunity people like him take for granted.

In a very real sense, this game wouldn’t exist if Itoi hadn’t had vastly more skilled people than himself working both above and below him. But I have to be fair: It also wouldn’t exist without him.

Most specifically, it wouldn’t exist without his moment of epiphany, the moment that night, on the train home, when the dam broke, and the tears came pouring out, and he realized he was deeply, desperately, and inexorably in over his head.

Helpless.

It would be easy, and also very tempting, to call that moment of sudden, deep, and abiding vulnerability the moment he stopped being an arrogant, self-aggrandizing, presumptive, privileged piece of shit —

— and started working, for real, as a cooperative piece of innovative outside talent, a visionary voice with a particular set of skills who became authentically dedicated to working with the actual experts in the medium he wanted to experiment with —

— to produce a piece of art, a piece of joy and spiritual tenderness, that the kids of the world could experience and hopefully pull something kind of emotionally edifying  from.

But, of course, the truth is that both those points of view are just broad caricatures, handy, maybe, as rhetorical shorthand, but neither of them actually captures the full truth of a living human person with a very complex legacy.

Even having produced only three games in one franchise, Shigesato Itoi has personally helped give birth to some of the most enlightening, rich, and amazingly, delightfully hard-to-swallow moments of growth and self-reflection I’ve ever personally had with a video game. He also personally wrote a very large amount of pointlessly cruel, dismissive, cheap and hurtful, irredeemable shit.

He made a lot of messes.

Some of them have interesting stuff inside, some of them don’t, and some of them  are just fundamentally indefensible.

And that, like so many other things about this game, about this series, about the entire concept of consuming and assimilating commercial art made and sold by fallible human people, is not easy to reckon with.

Auteur theory — the idea that the director is the one “true author” of a massive, collaborative work like a movie or a game, the idea that the meaning of that work can be engineered by looking solely at the life and lens and point of view of that director —

— is, at best, a very limiting lie with only very limited practical uses. But when one man is literally the writer, director, and co-designer of a game he personally pitched, it’s safe to say his fingerprint is on that work somewhere.

And knowing who he is and where he comes from does help put everything about this game into context.

MOTHER is a series, and MOTHER 1, especially, is a game made up of almost nothing but the tiniest, most disconnected, almost inexplicable little moments, most of them only five seconds, ten seconds, twenty seconds long.

Tiny and fleeting, seemingly disposable at a glance, they come and they go, and they don’t make a fuss, but they’re so weirdly, improbably emotionally intense, they bury into your brain, and they haunt you. For weeks, they stay with you.

They are so specific, so deliberately chosen, so finely crafted  but so casual, so mundane, so beautifully ordinary, catchy without being intrusive or insistent, but then also so unique and so weird at the same time.

They’re like bite-sized bits of poetry, images driven like stakes into your heart.

They linger in the corners of your consciousness, and every time you think about them again — one month, two months, three months later — they tug at you at a gut level, in ways you can never really articulate.

But whatever you’re feeling, you know it’s fucking powerful.

They speak to something very deep-seated.

They leave you longing.

Because of course they do.

He’s an advertiser.

This is what he does.

And these moments — these intense, evocative, heartrending little vignettes — are almost never connected. Almost nothing in this game is ever connected. It’s a game with almost no overt storytelling, even by the standards of its time.

Text — both “text” in the sense of narrative text and “text” in the literal sense of letters on a screen — is already typically kind of sparse in Famicom and NES games as a matter of physical, technical practicality.

But other Famicom RPGs, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, MOTHER‘s spiritual peers and predecessors, do not let you get to the screen before the final boss before cluing you into the fact that, oh, yeah, there was a quest this entire time.

Other Famicom RPGs do not build themselves so specifically around isolated, unrelated twenty- and thirty-second emotional flash-fiction events that the critical path of the game mostly does not even point you to.

Like, that is fucking flabbergasting.

But it works so fucking well.

Visually, the game shamelessly cribs most of its characters from Charlie Brown and most of its core combat mechanics from Dragon Quest, but, emotionally, the game MOTHER 1 actually reminds me of the most is The Legend of Zelda. The first one.

It’s a matter of size and tone, for the most part.

It reminds me of how that game is mostly built around a feeling —

— this aimless, yearning, existential, empty, hungry, tired sort of feeling —

— the feeling of being very small and very insignificant, helpless, lost, and powerless in a world that is just unfathomably old and massive and sprawling and storied, like you’re just a gnat wandering around on the scalp of a groaning, lumbering, tortured, musty, creaky, dying old beast of a thing, like the world itself could just open up and swallow you whole.

It’s built around that feeling.

You’re hot, and you’re cold, and you’re scared and randomly poking and picking at bushes and rocks, fighting your for life in this vast and endless, directionless, pained and painful wasteland environment.

It was a world that had already ended a long, long time ago, a world that was already bleeding out and waiting for its own final breath. There was almost no mercy. There were almost no people.

Everything you had, you had because you just kind of stumbled upon it.

MOTHER 1 is a lot like that.

The maps are huge in MOTHER 1, actually so much bigger than Zelda‘s, and without the screen-by-screen scrolling effect that made that world vaguely comprehensible, easily plotted on a map.

In fact, the maps are so big that even if you’re playing on an emulator with a turbo button, even if you’re playing the game at something like 2500% speed, you can still retain pretty fucking decent control of your character.

Most games become unplayable like that, or close to it.

Not MOTHER 1. MOTHER 1 is ludicrously, almost pointlessly huge, a world so much bigger than it technically needs to be, a world you can truly get lost in. But where Zelda took place in a fantasy world, MOTHER 1 takes place in America.

Like, literally, canonically, it is America.

It’s not some dying, imaginary, fantasy dreamworld. It’s here. It’s us. It’s now. It’s home.

It just feels like a dying fantasy dreamworld.

It’s a whole world that feels like the inside of a Wal-Mart at 4am, or the bathroom in someone else’s house.

Tender but alien.

Familiar, but “off” in a way that makes you doubt yourself, a way that makes you suddenly very conscious of the sound of your own breathing, and the weight of your tongue in your mouth, but at the same time, not really conscious of anything at all.

Just gone, checked out.

Lights are on, but no one’s home.

Heavy and clumsy, weightless and light-headed.

Dizzy. Giddy.

Anxious.

Numb.

A creepy, desolate, beautiful mess.

Alienating.

“Alienating” would be the word for it. The main way to play this game without being actively turned off or angry at it is to give in to the flow of the game itself and let yourself be washed away in it, to give in to the alienation, to roll with it.

The grinding is the game, remember, so don’t play it when you need a sense of adventure, a tangible feeling of progress, or a steady stream of new and novel challenges. No. Play it when you want to be carried away.

Play it when you want to lose yourself.

Play it when.

You want.

To wander.

If you can tune in on that level, and, again, I understand that not everyone can, I think there’s something very compelling about it. It’s an uncanny space to be in, but I don’t think it’s a bad one.

And it’s funny — ’cause the core game does take place in a very droning ’80s American suburban wasteland world, but there is another secondary space, a more fantastical place, another dimension you can retreat to.

A world that is literally made of love.

And clouds.

And spiral seashells.

With a magic castle. And a fairy queen.

All floating around in this endless fucking sea of hot pink and soft green neon nothingness.

But that place is so much easier to wrap your head around. You know, it’s trope-y and wholesome enough it it feels so much warmer, so much more “real” and comprehensible, so much more natural and approachable, than the game’s “real world” does.

Before long, it becomes your home, your base, the place you go when the world outside becomes too big, too loud, too much, too hard. It’s the only place where you can easily buy most of the best items.

It’s one of the only places where you can heal for free, and the only one you can get to on a moment’s notice.

And it’s far and away the best and safest, most productive place to level-up a new character.

Making it the place you bring all your new friends.

It’s not “safe.”

It’s not “normal.”

The level layout is confusing, and the logic is twisted.

But it’s better than what’s out there, a secret space made by people who love you to share with people you love, this weird inexplicable, intimate head space that very quietly becomes an irreplaceable key to your survival in the bigger, wider world.

[a screenshot from MOTHER 1. inside the emerald castle, Queen Mary's attendant says, "Don't hesitate to come visit us again whenever you're heaving a hard time. Everyone here loves you."]

[a screenshot from MOTHER 1. inside the emerald castle, Queen Mary’s attendant says, “Don’t hesitate to come visit us again whenever you’re heaving a hard time. Everyone here loves you.”]

So, in a way,  the core rhythm of the game becomes slipping and sliding between “reality,” which feels like a dream, and a dream that feels like reality, your head quietly swimming in two different worlds at once.

And that is just the neatest shit.

And I’m sure literally everyone here can probably see where this is going, but give me the chance to go through the motions of wrapping this up, anyway, because the act of that, the physical act of speaking this stuff into explicit, unquestionable existence, means something to me. This game mean something to me. Listen.

I’m a borderline.

I’m autistic.

I’m agoraphobic.

I have C-PTSD and chronic pain.

I feel dysphoria that I don’t really know how to put into words yet.

I am.

A.

Mess.

My brain is shit stew, and as a result, I spend most of my day, most of my time on this planet, drifting between head spaces that, frankly, don’t have a lot to do with what most people — especially most cis, allistic, or neurotypical people —

— would consider a “normal,” “well-adjusted,” “reasonable” experience of the world around me.

I live in the broken, uncanny, hard-to-process in-betweens.

I live in dizzying unreality.

There is too much happening in the world for me process, and too much happening in me for me to wrap my own fractured consciousness around. Everything happens so much. And nothing is ever really okay.

Sensory processing issues.

Masking.

Passing, performing a gender that’s not mine.

A lifetime legacy of abusive and negligent parents that I’m still struggling to unpack bit by bit.

Devastating dissociative symptoms.

Deep and abiding loneliness on a scale I still don’t know how to convey.

A body that’s constantly finding new ways to fail me.

Everything. Happens.

So.

Much.

And everything compounds.

And MOTHER 1, to me, feels like a rare example of a piece of pop art or commercial media that, somehow, actually kind of jibes on the same level. There is a noticeable theme of beautiful brokenness running from start to finish.

The eight melodies you find, shattered pieces of a broken child’s broken lullaby, are, themselves, found in broken, overlooked, incomplete, and forgotten things. A kid’s dusty old, naked doll. A piano with no player.

The battered body of a broken-down robot.

Everything. All of it.

And the game itself is exactly the same way. The game itself is screaming, imperfect, amazing, and I’ll say it one more time — hard to wrap your head around. Hard to digest, to work through your system. Hard to approach to begin with.

And maybe that’s okay.

You know, I talked a lot about one guy, and what I mean to say with all that is that Itoi’s life, his career, is not a magic cipher we can use to crack this game open — partly because nothing as big as a game is ever the product of just one man’s work.

But also because art, in general, does not exist to be cracked open or conquered.

Art does not exist to be decoded.

Art just is — the same way people “just are,” and if some are a little off-kilter, a little non-normative, then, generally speaking, there should be room for that art and room for those people.

Art exists to be experienced.

And MOTHER 1 is an experience I come back to so much, and I know I’m going to keep going to.

Because I do think it’s an experience that deserves to exist, at least to the extent that the phrase “deserves to exist” even describes a meaningful metric for this kind of thing.

It’s an experience that I’m glad I have, an experience that I think more people should at least give a chance to, an experience that even within the niche of the MOTHER series’ fan base, goes unjustly unappreciated.

Even if the game is inevitably going to be a bad fit for most people, it’s worth trying at least once. It’s rough, but it’s not hurtful or damaging. It’s just weird, and sad, and it doesn’t really know what it’s doing half the time.

You can’t crack it open, but you can learn more about it. You can read with more information and more sensitivity.

For me, a really interesting thing is that there are updated ports, and fan-made patches, and codes, and all kinds of things you can use to make the game a little bit more approachable for you. You have some options.

But no matter what you do, you can’t fundamentally change the shape of the story.

You can make the game shorter, for example. But you can’t change the fact that however much time you spend playing it, about ninety percent of that time is going to be spend grinding.

Even if you give yourself max stats, or disable random encounters, you can’t work your way around the fact that most of the game is just big and long and hollow and empty. You can’t work your way around the haunting fucking drone of it all.

It’s an experience that is so baked into the fabric of what’s happening here, it demands to be experienced.

You can work with it.

But you can’t deny it. You can’t make it be something else.

One way or another, the game is long and monotonous, confusing and directionless, the world is alienating, the story is barely there, and the characters can mostly barely be said to be characters. But I see something tender in that.

Broken half-characters meandering through a broken half-story set in a couple of broken half-worlds, learning broken lines of a loving, hundred-year-old lullaby in moments of random, unselfish, bare-all human connection that come and go and disappear.

The original ending is fucking amazing, even as obviously rushed as it is. And if someone got to go home and rest a little early one day because that’s the ending they ultimately went with, then, clearly, it’s only that much more beautiful.

Brokenness works sometimes. And this is kind of how life works.

You grind and you grind and you grind and you grind, and then, suddenly, for seemingly no reason at all, you stumble upon a moment of genuine, naked love that reminds you there’s a reason you’re doing this.

And for just a second, even if only completely by accident, something happens that puts a little more good stuff out there.

[a screenshot from MOTHER 1. Ana says, "Ninten... Do you like me?" and the player can choose either yes or no.]

[a screenshot from MOTHER 1. Ana says, “Ninten… Do you like me?” and the player can choose either yes or no.]

And then you drift on to the next one.


thanks for reading.

[a banner loosely made to look and feel like the end-titles sequence from an old ’90s anime — the picture that might linger for a second just after the credits finish rolling, before the footage cuts out completely. moonlighting reflecting gently across some water. the text says, “thanks for reading.”]

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I’m uncomfortable asking you to follow me, or to give to my Patreon, but at the same time, I understand that it would be unfair for me to sit here, wishing you would, if I don’t communicate the fact that it would help me, and that I want you to.

It would help me. I do want you to.

One thought on “MOTHER 1 – a dissociative dreamland.

  1. Danny

    Wow! This piece is incredible! I’ve tried to play Mother 1 and I couldn’t do it, but I know a lot of people have a lot of love for that game, and I’m glad I was able to experience that love like you’ve shared it. Thank you.

    Reply

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