Finding the Plot: EarthBound
I’ve gone through that discussion between Itoi and Iwata that was in the BRUTUS magazine the other day. Here’s a rough translation of it, as usual it’s sometimes kind of hard to pin Itoi’s thoughts down into something that makes sense, but it should get his basic ideas across.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 7
A Discussion with Nintendo President Satoru Iwata at Nintendo Headquarters in Kyoto
THE FEELING OF, “I WANT MOTHER 4 TO BE RELEASED!” IS INSIDE ME, TOO.
To make a long story short, when development on Shigesato Itoi’s “MOTHER 2″ ran into severe setbacks, it was Satoru Iwata of HAL Labs who showed up to save the day. The two became close friends, and Mr. Iwata eventually went on to become the president of Nintendo. I, Yasuhiro Nagata, a huge fan of the MOTHER series and a member of Hobonichi (translation note: Hobonichi is Shigesato Itoi’s company website) was in charge of this discussion.
ITOI: Mr. Nagata said that since I was going to meet with you anyway, perhaps we could discuss MOTHER 4 a bit as well.
ITOI: So I of course told him, “No, you already know I’m not going to make a MOTHER 4.” To which he replied, “Fans will be glad just to hear you say it again, after all this time.”
IWATA: So you suggested this as a fan?
ITOI: Honestly, now! Snatching away TWO busy CEOs and forcing them to talk about what YOU want…!
ITOI: This displeases me! I’m leaving!
NAGATA: But you just got here.
ITOI: Anyway, in all seriousness, when he gave me that reply, I thought, “You know what? He’s right.” Actually, lately I’ve started to feel very glad that I released the MOTHER games.
ITOI: I’m not going to release a MOTHER 4; MOTHER is over now. But lately I’ve started to really appreciate having released three MOTHER games. That’s why I thought I’d come see you, Mr. Iwata, so I could talk about those feelings with you.
Of course, you’re in a position where you’re responsible for what games are and aren’t released, so don’t feel pressured to answer anything you don’t want to. I just felt that discussing our current feelings about the games might help answer the fans’ straightforward question of, “You really aren’t going to release a MOTHER 4?”
IWATA: Sounds good to me. Could you go into more detail about these feelings of yours and how they’ve changed?
ITOI: Sure. As you can imagine, there are a lot of people out there who say, “I grew up with MOTHER!”
IWATA: Yes, very many.
ITOI: Yeah. I feel appreciative of them, but recently I’ve begun to feel more than that; I’ve started to realize I feel very fond of them too.
IWATA: Ah, that IS interesting. “Appreciative” and “fond of” are similar, but there IS a difference.
ITOI: There is. I’m sure it’s the same with any product or work of creativity – in the very end, it’s the customer or end user who finishes it for you. Even with toothpaste, for example, the product only reaches its conclusion when a customer chooses to use your particular toothpaste to brush his or her teeth. In that same way, people playing through a game you’ve made makes you feel very appreciative of them.
IWATA: I agree. Playing through a game actually takes a lot of work, so you feel really grateful to people who’ve gone through all the trouble and all the work to play through one you’ve made.
ITOI: Yes, exactly. That’s why, in my eyes, I see them as unfinished works that I’ve left sitting there for someone…
IWATA: For someone to come and finish.
ITOI: Yes. For someone to take the baton and run with it. And, unlike a long-distance relay race, with a game you can take that baton and run in any number of directions. That makes things all the more interesting. You can run through the mountains, or you can go all the way to the lake if you want. You can cry out, “I love running!” as you run, or you can run quietly and savor the thrill of running deep down inside. Whatever it is, it’s something the guy who handed you the baton couldn’t have done. What’s more, sometimes the runners just keep running and running…
IWATA: Even after so much time has passed, too. When you think about it, it’s probably normal to forget most everything you experienced at the time. Yet, people still look back and discuss these particular games. That makes you feel more than just appreciation for them – you start to feel a real fondness for them too.
ITOI: Yes. Also, imagining if the MOTHER games had been someone else’s creation instead of mine, I think I would’ve really liked them.
IWATA: Yes. (laughs)
ITOI: I think I would’ve loved it as a player, and would’ve wanted to meet other people who liked it too.
IWATA: Ah, I see. When you brought your idea for a game called MOTHER to Nintendo, was it that you wanted to try your hand at creating it, or was it that you wanted it to be created so you could play it?
ITOI: I just wanted to play it, of course.
IWATA: That’s a very Shigesato Itoi-like starting point for sure! (laughs) If I had asked Mr. Miyamoto (Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario) the same thing, for example, he would never have answered, “I just wanted to play the final version.” I’m almost certain of it.
ITOI: Yeah, you’re probably right. He and I DO come from different professions.
IWATA: It was probably for that exact reason that Mr. Miyamoto was deeply moved when your brought your original idea for MOTHER to him, but also why he felt it was severely lacking. (translation note: see here and here for more details about this original meeting)
ITOI: I agree. I was floored when he gave his harsh criticisms of my idea. I was certain I had filtered out everything until the game was filled with a concentrated extract of what I, as a player, wanted out of the game, but it turns out I had been blind to everything else. But looking back, I think it would have been the wrong decision if he had agreed and said, “Okay, we’ll do it. You handle the dialogue, but that’s it.”
ITOI: Some people consider MOTHER entries to be big scenario scripts rather than games. But that’s not quite right; they wouldn’t have been interesting at all if they hadn’t been in game form. That’s what they were made to be from the very start, after all. They wouldn’t have been much fun in text form only. In game form, they’re an amalgamation of the ridiculous ideas I sometimes have as a player.
For example, in the Lost Underworld area of MOTHER 2, I portray the large size of the world by making the main characters very tiny. I would give these kinds of ideas to people at the workplace, and after a while of this, other people would start chiming in with other similar ideas of their own. Those links of reckless wildness are what the MOTHER games are built on.
IWATA: I agree. E-mailing game scripts from home wouldn’t have produced those kinds of results.
ITOI: Definitely not. It was because we were always saying, “Boy, this part is bland…” at the workplace that things like the underwater oxygen machines in MOTHER 3 came about.
IWATA: Oxygen machines…?
NAGATA: There’s a section in the game where you travel along the ocean floor. Your breath slowly runs out, so you have to use oxygen machines to replenish your air supply. And, for whatever reason, those oxygen machines are crossdressing mermen who use mouth-to-mouth to give you their air.
IWATA: Ah, I see.
ITOI: After trying to come up with so many ideas and rejecting them all, it’s a real treat when you hit upon such a “far out there” solution.
IWATA: The more you struggle with something, the more unique and memorable it becomes.
ITOI: It does. It always does. Struggling through difficulty is the only way to hit upon big ideas. Having a player who will take those ideas and smile at them is nice; I see them almost as a mirror. As a player, their joy becomes my own joy. Seeing that makes me think, “You know what? You’re a great guy! I like you!”
IWATA: I see.
NAGATA: I’d like to ask you this, Mr. Iwata. Why do you suppose it’s generally so difficult for unique game ideas to come about in the workplace?
IWATA: Well, someone who’s made games for a very long time will have naturally devised a standard set of solutions to problems that pop up during the game creation process. The more experience they’ve had, the larger their set of solutions is. So, when there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, the first thing they’ll go to is their standard response; “This problem calls for this solution.” They can see their own solution clearly, but have difficulty coming up with any others.
NAGATA: Yes, I see.
IWATA: For example, there are “double pictures” that are optical illusions drawn in such a way that you can see two different things depending on how you look at them. This is like those; once you see one image, you lose sight of the other one. In that sense, your results will never be out of the ordinary if all you can see is the one half-hearted solution.
NAGATA: So it’s not because of laziness or holding back or anything like that.
IWATA: Right. Once you find an answer, that pathway inside your mind activates, meaning you lose sight of any other solutions that might be interesting or unusual.
The more you’ve grown up with games, know about games, and work with games, the easier it is to fall into that trap, I think. The more standard your solutions are, the less punch they have with the audience. In other words, your solution may fix things, but it also makes them bland and ordinary.
ITOI: Yes, because it’s something they’ve seen done before.
NAGATA: I see. I think that’s one reason why it’s difficult for other MOTHER-like games to come about.
IWATA: I mean, a full-time game creator would never think up something like the Octopus Eraser. (translator note: this was localized in EarthBound as the “Pencil Eraser” item)
ITOI: Yes. (laughs) The Octopus Eraser is an often-cited example.
IWATA: Well, it does pretty much drive the point home.
NAGATA: For those not familiar with the game, there’s a point in one of the games where an octopus blocks your path. You have to get past it to continue to the next location in the game.
ITOI: The idea to block the path with an octopus was born from desperation and struggling. Normally you’d just block a path with a rock, you know?
NAGATA: Yeah. (laughs)
IWATA: Yeah. (laughs)
ITOI: But a rock wouldn’t have been any fun, so I blocked the path with an octopus instead. But then that brought up the question of…
IWATA: The question of how you get the octopus out of the way. (laughs)
NAGATA: How DO you get rid of that octopus?
ITOI: Why, with an Octopus Eraser, of course!
ITOI: The Octopus Eraser would actually erase all the octopuses in the world. So after using it to erase the octopus blocking the path, I could also imagine the octopus inside takoyaki everywhere (translation note: fried octopus dumplings) suddenly vanishing, and people being like, “Hey, there’s no octopus in this!” That wasn’t something I put in the game, but thinking about that sort of stuff is a hobby of mine.
IWATA: I understand that feeling very well.
ITOI: Being weird or goofy isn’t my only aim, though. It might not be something game creators these days go for, but more than anything I have this strong desire to make people feel distraught. I want to give them laughter and joy too, of course, but I’m always filled with the desire to make people feel ever-so slightly heartbroken. Not just in games, but all sorts of things I work on.
IWATA: You aim for that, rather than try to deeply move them or make them cry?
ITOI: Right. I feel, “I want to make them feel distraught.”
IWATA: I can’t really think of any other things that are made with that mindset.
NAGATA: Neither can I.
ITOI: It’s almost kind of like my personal “theme”. I would say every line of dialog in the MOTHER games out loud when I came up with them. Someone would type them in for me, and then I would go over the words visually after having said them.
For MOTHER 3, I had Mr. Nagata and Mr. Toda stay with me and act as my very first audience members. I would lay traps to try to make them feel distraught. I’d come up with dialog that made them laugh, I’d come up with ridiculous lines, and lines to which they would say, “Wow, that’s cool.” Amid all that, for maybe every 48 lines of text, I’d stick in a “heartrending” line of dialog. Then I’d stop and ask the two of them, “What do you think?”
IWATA: Ah. (laughs)
NAGATA: I remember that feeling. We had a hard time answering whenever that happened. So we’d just give blunt replies of, “Just keep going.”
ITOI: Yes. So whenever that “heartrending” feeling REALLY hit them hard, they’d always turn around and be harsh with me.
IWATA: It sounds like you were so immersed in the story that you had started to forget your respect for Shigesato Itoi outside of it.
NAGATA: Yes, yes. (laughs)
ITOI: After all, you could even say I only added the funny and ridiculous lines into the mix so that I could include one heartrending line with them. It’s more than just the scenarios or the things like the Octopus Eraser; I really felt there needed to be dash of “heartbreak” mixed in, even if it just happened to be in simple lines said by side characters.
IWATA: It wouldn’t be MOTHER otherwise.
ITOI: Right. It might not be very common in ordinary games. There’s a touch of it in Pixar movies, though.
IWATA: Yes, Pixar movies definitely have that heartrending feeling to them.
NAGATA: The essence of Porky (translation note: Porky was localized into Pokey in EarthBound) exists in Pixar films.
ITOI: Yes. As another example, when you see a villain character in professional wrestling, you see that there’s more wistfulness to their personalities – and more creativity. Hero characters lack wit. With them, it’s nothing much beyond, “And now the cowboy character has taken off his cowboy hat.”
ITOI: In comparison, the villain character will do one crazy thing after the other. Maybe he’ll blow poison smoke, or maybe he’ll lick a sword. THEY’RE the reason you go to see the shows. That same thing is what has garnered the love of MOTHER fans, without them really realizing it at first. I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, though. That’s why I’m always in seventh heaven whenever an extremely ordinary girl tells me, “I loved Porky, he was great!”
IWATA: So, again, why do you think the MOTHER games have left such strong impressions on so many people?
ITOI: I guess because I’m serious about my work?
NAGATA: But so is everyone else.
ITOI: Oh, I don’t mean “serious” in that way. (laugh)
IWATA: But there ARE lots of people out there pour their all into creating games. Not everyone does, but there are plenty of other people who are serious about their own games. So what is it about your games that give them this special profoundness, this special staying power? I think one major factor is that they’re unusual games that portray that “wistfulness” you mentioned earlier, but I feel like that isn’t enough to explain it. In fact, we could probably talk forever, analyzing what gives the MOTHER games their charm.
ITOI: Ah. What’s quietly flowing beneath the surface is a child. My daughter never did play through the games in the end, but they were a clear letter to her. They were a letter to my own daughter who I couldn’t see for a while due to divorce issues.
IWATA: Why is the father always connected to the main character by phone? This was an era before cellphones existed…
NAGATA: Because he’s always watching the main character on his adventure from afar.
ITOI: That’s exactly it. (laughs)
IWATA: Also, there’s the “Two-hour Dad”.
ITOI: Yes, yes, there was that too.
NAGATA: Your dad calls you when you play for over two hours straight. He says, “Don’t you think you should take a break now?”
IWATA: I was dumbfounded when I heard you were putting that into the game. I was like, “What are you thinking?!” Here we have a player who’s fully immersed in the game, and then we say, “Hey, why don’t you quit?”
NAGATA: But then you added a similar feature to the Wii later on.
IWATA: That’s right. (laughs) Mr. Itoi’s idea of adding a “Two-hour Dad” had at some point taken hold of me, and I wound up adding something similar to the Wii.
NAGATA: Yeah, there’s a log of what games you’ve played and how long you’ve played them. And you can’t delete it. It’s like a parent keeping watch from afar.
ITOI: Just goes to show that you’ve played a lot of MOTHER too, Mr. Iwata.
IWATA: You’re probably right. (laughs)
NAGATA: I’ve always felt that the title of “MOTHER” suggests a parent watching over their children.
ITOI: Yes, like a caregiver. Someone who doesn’t say or do anything to interfere – just watches from afar. In one sense, I think that might be the ideal image of a parent.
I absolutely love the Pippi Longstocking stories. In them, her father is gone. He’s a sailor who’s gone missing. Despite that, Pippi is really strong and full of life. Her father’s absence isn’t used as a way to give the reader sadness to indulge in; instead, it’s simply given as a fact of life as the story continues forward.
I think that might be the same thing here. That’s why, looking back at the MOTHER series, I feel like I had a reason for making MOTHER 1 through 3. But now my kid is all grown up.
NAGATA: Meaning a MOTHER 4 is…?
ITOI: The feeling of, “I want a MOTHER 4 to be released!” is inside me, too. Even if it’s not something I need to do, I still feel that way. Still, there isn’t someone for me to watch over from afar anymore. If there were a fourth game, I’d want to be the player.
NAGATA: In other words, you wouldn’t mind if someone other than yourself made it?
ITOI: Right. For example, when I watch a good stage play, that’s MOTHER 4. Even if they never intended it to be that way. When I say, “I can’t get enough of this dialog!” you could even say that I, as a “player”, am finishing the world the writer built. Just as everyone finished the MOTHER games for me. So it’d be great if there were such “games” everywhere. They don’t even need to be games, though. If someone wanted to play it in game form, then go right ahead. If someone started making something like “Chimidoro-numa Strikes Back” (translation note: MOTHER 2’s subtitle was Giygas Strikes Back) and you could basically say, “This is clearly MOTHER 4, however you look at it,” who knows, I might just say, “In that case, why don’t you stick a red cap on him and give him a backpack?”
IWATA: Or, “Why not include some people who talk funny and have huge noses too?” (laughs)
ITOI: Yes, yes. (laughs)
NAGATA: And then maybe you’ll be like, “I wouldn’t be against writing a line of dialog for it.”
ITOI: Like a single cameo line, as opposed to a cameo apperance (laughs). I think the greatest thing would be if there was a person who’d show up to say, “Here, now it’s your turn to play.”
IWATA: I get the feeling many people would take you up on that. (laughs)
NAGATA: Mr. Iwata. If you were in a position where you HAD to give an answer and someone asked you if a MOTHER 4 would ever be released, what would you say?
IWATA: If someone asked me that right now?
ITOI: Like if you were at a presentation meeting or something.
IWATA: …… I don’t believe there will be any new MOTHER games made using the same production system as before.
NAGATA: I see.
ITOI: Mr. Iwata’s words just now say it all.
ITOI: Well put. Like I said before, I’ve started to grow fond of people who like the MOTHER games, but to put that in a cooler way, I might say, “The very lives you’re living now are MOTHER 4.” I really feel that way. “Today we had lots of ridiculous thoughts, today we felt sadness, today we laughed a lot.” That’s what I had set out to do within the world of those games.
How’s that? Is that enough for your article?
NAGATA: Yes, it’s more than enough. Could you give some closing words?
NAGATA: Thank you.
Born in 1959. Helped develop many games as a programmer from the dawn of the home console era. Became the president of HAL Labs, and eventually became the CEO of Nintendo in 2002. Met Shigesato Itoi during the development of MOTHER 2. The two are now close friends.
Mr. Nagata says: I took this photo myself as well. Just as a quick personal side, I used to work for a game magazine called Famitsu. I met these two while doing research about MOTHER 3. That eventually led me to work for Mr. Itoi’s company, Hobonichi. I was fortunate to participate in MOTHER 3’s development, as well as organize this insightful discussion. I’m very grateful for this almost magical connection that I’ve had with the MOTHER series.
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