The state of the gaming industry these days is very interesting - in many ways, I daresay it is pretty good. I would stop short of referring to it as some kind of golden age of enlightenment, thanks to a lot of negative underlying issues, but one thing I do believe it is improving on greatly is that games are no longer simply bright and shiny sources of shallow entertainment. Especially within the ‘indie’ scene, many games these days seem to be very thought-provoking; they’re stories, heart-wrenching, soul-searching stories that take you away from your own life and insert you into situations that force you to see things from an entirely different perspective. Sometimes the material is sad, sometimes it is a little odd, and sometimes it is downright bizarre, but the depth is there, and it does a lot to enrich the lives of the gaming community, as opposed to simply providing a little flash and no substance. It might very well be my own limited perspective, but I honestly don’t remember too many of those growing up; that’s why I’m so refreshed to see so many now.
One of those games from my earlier experiences is Earthbound. I love this game - even though I would say it is responsible for inflicting some very serious damage on my poor, yet-developing psyche as a lad.
Yes, ‘love’ would be the word I would use to describe my feelings. I don’t think I would marry it, though, because if this game were a person, it would very likely have some personal issues that would make any solid relationship difficult. Honestly, Earthbound is more than a little screwy at times, and I could spend hours discussing some of the most twisted parts of this game. Just the same, because of its humor, the striking visuals, and the unique material, Earthbound is a game that has a lot of very strong emotional attachments for me ranging back into my late childhood. It’s a game that, while I first began to explore and develop my personal identity, hit me with a lot of very new subjects that forced me to think about myself and my place in the world.
If you caught the title of this little post, and you’ve played the game yourself, you’ll know exactly what part of this game I plan on talking about here and its significance: Mu Training. Some of you might even shudder when thinking about it - it is fairly infamous, after all, for being rather twisted, second only to the last boss of the game. But for those of you who aren’t familiar, I’m going to break down a small section of Earthbound, provide some visuals, and talk about why it warped me so badly. As I relate this material to you, please try to consider experiencing this as a young teen. Think back to your own early experiences in gaming, and how this might have made you feel.
To begin, Mu Training is a portion every player experiences about halfway through Earthbound, to deal with the introduction of the final member of the main cast of characters, ‘Poo’ (but because I honestly hate that name, I’m going to refer to him here by his official title, ‘the Prince’). The Prince is, obviously, the prince of a small country called ‘Dalaam’, a place with a cultural theme mixed together from India, China, and Japan. The location within the game has only limited significance, as it is very small and only has a few locales of real interest. You will never have to visit it more than twice, and could easily avoid it for the rest of the game with zero consequence. It is really only upon your first visit, when The Prince is first brought onto the stage, that will make for a memorable encounter.
The Prince is one of the ‘chosen four’, a group of youths that will save the world from an evil entity. This is his destiny, and he has been diligently training to embrace it long before he ever appears in the storyline. When it is finally time to join the other three of this group, he must first finish his ‘Mu Training’, a path of emptiness and discipline that awakens physical and psychic strength. You, the player, are instructed by your master to travel down to the Place of Nothingness to begin your trials. You must empty yourself there, dedicating yourself fully to your destiny and nothing else, or you will fail.
(Because the full effect is hard to capture in still, silent images, here is a link to a video of the scene itself. Continue to read further for my own pictures and commentary. Many thanks to the provider of this content.)
Once you arrive, climbing up a series of cliffs, you settle at the top to begin meditating.
Fluffy pink clouds drift idly by as you close your eyes and begin to focus your thoughts. Chanting, dark and ominous, fills the air around you. It isn’t long before your first trial arrives: a young girl hastily arrives on the scene, pleading to The Prince.
Sent by your master, she begs you to return to the palace immediately. You are needed at once. Stop what you’re doing and come now, she says. This, my friends, is the first time in my personal history that a game has ever done this to me: tried to trick me. If you move, The Prince is rise from his seated position, and you can return to the palace. When you arrive, your master will scold you for failing the trial. Perhaps you thought it was part of the game - some scripted event that interrupts his training. No, you just weren’t listening. Your master told you, after all, that you must empty yourself entirely and dedicate yourself to this training. Nothing else matters.
But hopefully you remembered that much and did not rise, because that is the only way to continue in the game. Ignoring the girl, you continue to focus, while the deep humming of the air around you grows more intense. Soon, The Prince enters a blank state, immobilized as he descends into a dark, shapeless realm, and is visited by an ancient spirit.
He will be the one to finish your trials. And in order to do so, he says, he must first break your legs. This is stated in no uncertain terms: giving you a choice to continue and succeed, you must either respond ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ when he threatens to break your legs. Playing through this for the first time, I was shocked by this idea - let him break my legs? How could I possibly?
You accept, and immediately, The Prince suffers the consequences. Even if this trial is simply taking place in his mind, the pain is very real, and his health begins to tick downward. The sight of his HP rolling away makes this scene much more visually effective for players. Why? Because you are dying - if this keeps up, this spirit is going to kill you, and you have no idea what will happen. Are you supposed to continue? Should you have said ‘no’?
There’s no time to think about it now, though, because the next choice is upon you.
Your arms are next. Can you accept this happening to you? The spirit is going to rip off your arms, and feed them to the crows. I began to panic at this point. Why is this happening? Can I go back to Ness now? What should I do?
Funny enough, you are given a choice, but truly have none. If you do not accept these things, you can’t continue in the game.
Your ears come next. Then your sight, as your eyes are removed. This, don’t forget, is the destiny of this poor young man. When your ears are cut off, the music is cut off as well, providing you with a very eerie silence. The game goes dark when your sight is gone. Then, when you are completely cast into a void of darkness, the Spirit actually taunts you.
All you have is your mind, and in the end, that will be taken as well. You will be Nothing. Empty. Gone.
Congratulations. You have completed your training.
You can’t compare this kind of game to others in its time. This wasn’t another Super Mario Bros. game, and it wasn’t like other RPG’s either like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Despite all of its amazing wit, Earthbound is a game that discusses the cruel fate of four kids - teens they may be, but still kids. Try and imagine that, after everything they experience, they could ever go back to a normal, innocent life. Subjected to every horror imaginable and then some. The Prince, in this example, I feel goes through the very worst of it.
As a young teen myself, I didn’t fully comprehend most of this. I was only beginning to understand concepts of strength and discipline. A warrior must dedicate themselves to obtaining these qualities, or they will be lacking - your own level of commitment determines your results. I didn’t know all this back then. All I saw here was a rather gruesome spectacle of a young man being, essentially, mutilated. But it made me think. It haunted me for quite some time, and every time I revisited this game, I would realize something new. Eventually, I began to see The Prince as my favorite of these characters, and this scene was precisely why I grew to admire him.
The Prince must undergo this training. In order to obtain the strength and powers he requires to save the world, he must subject himself to great pain. It is a cruel fate indeed, but there, in its most basic shape, is the essence of strength. That is one thing that I learned from Earthbound - one thing among many.