As a single guy, my opportunities for infant interaction are somewhat limited. So earlier this month, I headed to Texas to visit my brother and his year-old twins.
As I played with my niece and nephew, I thought back to my own early childhood. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t remember much — just a few images here and there.
What I can remember are the sounds.
I can still hear my mother softly sing as she tucked me in at night. The tones of my father’s rich tenor voice, searching for Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection," linger in my mind. They ring with a clarity undiminished by the passage of time.
When all else fades, I will hear those sounds. They capture something ineffable and true about this world that I’ll never be able to fully explain.
But collecting the eight melodies of Earthbound comes close.
If you examine each aspect of Earthbound by itself, you’ll find a fairly standard SNES-era role-playing game. The mechanics are nothing too special, the plot is basic child-saves-the-world fare, and psychic powers stand in for magic. But when you delve beneath those surface factors, you find a wealth of unique attributes that make the game much more than the sum of its parts. The music is a part of that.
Within the first few minutes of play, the character Ness receives an object called the Sound Stone, along with instructions to visit eight locations across the world to “unite your power with the Earth’s.” Seems like your usual cryptic RPG gibberish…but it ends up making perfect sense.
Each location, also known as “Your Sanctuary,” features a boss battle against a grotesque (often humorous) monster of some kind. But the monsters aren’t the point. The real reason for visiting these places is to use the Sound Stone to gather a snatch of a melody. And after those few notes play, Ness recalls a brief memory — a glimpse of his dog as a puppy, a whiff of his favorite food (as chosen by the player), or the sound of his mother’s voice.
That song is supposed to empower you. But it doesn’t. Not until the melody is complete.
When I first played Earthbound, I didn’t even notice each section of the song as it played after defeating the boss. My young and relatively untrained ears didn’t put the whole thing together. It wasn’t until I gathered the final tune that it all became clear.
Ness puts the Sound Stone to his forehead, and the notes you’ve collected suddenly make sense. It’s a whole song; each piece is actually one musical measure in an eight-part phrase. But it’s obscured by strangely atonal bass notes and random sixteenth-note patterns. It’s as if the melody has to fight through Ness’ own memories to be heard.
Then the screen suddenly changes to a scene in black and white as, in his mind, Ness makes his way up a winding path to his home. There, he finds himself as a baby in his own crib. He hears his parents’ voices as they look on in wonder at their creation. He even sees his trademark red cap placed on his head for the first time.
During all of this, the melody of the Sound Stone changes from obscure and strange to beautiful and clear, simple and strong.
It’s the sound of a family’s love.
Throughout Earthbound, Ness has a strange relationship with his family. His father is entirely absent; he communicates only through phone calls and ATM deposits. Ness’ mother dispenses health-replenishing food and worry-filled advice in equal measure. And his sister’s only purpose is to act as a delivery girl, taking unwanted inventory items off your hands.
Yet Ness can actually become homesick at periodic points in the game, a malady only cured by a phone call or visit home. If left unattended, Ness will involuntarily skip turns in combat as he remembers his mother. It’s a strangely powerful way to impress upon the player the strength of love and memories.
After a brief journey through the dark part of his mind, Ness awakens newly empowered by each location he visited, each melody he found. Because what greater “sanctuary” could there be than a place where memories use music to express love?
My niece and nephew won’t remember me until they’re older. And my own memories will probably continue to fade. But music will always be a means of bringing them back.
And someday I might have a song or two to pass on — no Sound Stone required.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase your ticket now to save $200!