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Mother 3 and the Power of Good Writing in Video Games
I recently finished another playthrough of Mother 3, a game which holds a lot of significance to me. That significance, oddly enough, starts long before Mother 3 ever came out, back when I was only a few years into grade school.
Mother 2, or as it’s known in the west, Earthbound, was sort of an accidental rental for me on one of my typical Saturday morning trips to a local game store. As a kid, you don’t tend to have a lot of complex reasons behind what you rent, and for me, box art was always a key factor.
Not only does Earthbound have interesting box art, but it also has a gigantic box. My child self was sold on the game from the start. I rented it, brought it home, and played it all weekend. It wouldn’t be the last time.
To keep this part of the story short, Earthbound ended up being the most played and certainly most important game of my childhood, and it continues to influence the way I look at video games. Earthbound isn’t just a great Japanese role-playing game, it’s an entertaining piece of fiction.
However, Mother 3 is more than just that. Not only does it polish a variety of gameplay concepts that Earthbound introduced, but it tells you a much more complex and emotional story. In my opinion, Mother 3 is possibly the best written video game of all time – one with a storied history of delay, disappearance, and mystery before its eventual release in 2006 for the Game Boy Advance.
I’ll throw out the warning now – there will be spoilers all throughout this article, so if you’re the touchy sort, I’d avoid reading onwards. If you want to experience Mother 3 for yourself, you can find the fan translation here (the other things you’ll need for that, well, you’re on your own!).
Anyways, let’s dive in.
Mother 3 could possibly end up being the final video game conceived by Japanese cultural icon Shigesato Itoi. Outside of the other two Mother games, Itoi is responsible for only one other video game: a bass fishing game for the Super Famicom.
He’s clearly not the kind of man who thinks about video games all the time, but when he has let his fascination take hold, the results have been quite splendid. Earthbound is odd and hilarious, and one of the best Dragon Quest like games ever made. It’s a semi-serious game with enough humour and self-awareness to stay relevant even 20 years after its release.
Mother 3 is a completely serious game, to the point where it still surprises me with how it pulls no punches. Yet the game remains humorous and full of charming moments. It’s beautifully balanced, capable of drawing out a wide variety of responses from the player as it progresses. A consistent running gag involves a missing doorknob, and the various times it’ll be mentioned will make you laugh, even in the midst of darkness.
Mother 3, even from the very beginning, doesn’t stray from tragedy – whether it’s the death which frames the first chapter, or the sad, slow transformation of Tazmily Village into a lifeless ghost town over the course of the game.
The game is great at drawing your attention to more than just the main cast. Other villagers are more than just side characters – they’ve got personalities and seeing how they change over the game is worth paying attention to. One example which I picked up on during this playthrough was the tale of Isaac, who infuriated me beyond belief. As one of the four villagers who accepts the promise of happiness from the antagonists (in the form of the TV-like Happy Boxes) in chapter three, Isaac stood out by showing his hesitation and scepticism.
Isaac let me down by turning into a stern supporter of the Pig Masks, eventually becoming a soldier in their army himself. He’s a classic example of a character torn between the two sides of the story, and it amazes me how the writing makes me pay attention to a character without any real importance.
Speaking of the writing, a special mention needs to go out to the world in which Mother 3 takes place, as it’s as active a participant as any of the game’s characters. The Nowhere Islands provide many great locations to visit, and they’re all more than just dungeons or your typical RPG locations. They’re set pieces that exist with reason. Events happen in and around them, and they play their part in how the story moves and grows.
Mother 3 is around a 25 to 30 hour game, with very little downtime or optional sidequests. Outside of your own curiosity for exploring the Nowhere Islands (and I recommend chatting with NPCs frequently, as their dialogue is great and prone to changing after major events), Mother 3 keeps you constantly moving along with the plot, and its pacing is superb.
Mother 3 is a game with plenty of themes running in parallel, and how they clash against each other shapes the plot severely. Love and loyalty are incredibly important, given the deep connections that form between the main characters. These two things are up against an incredibly deceptive and charismatic enemy – it’s good versus evil, but not as simple as it may always be.
The other major clash of themes is obvious from the game’s logo – nature versus technology. It’s very clear that Tazmily Village is the kind of a society that hasn’t embraced technology, and in fact, doesn’t even practice one of technology’s related tenants: capitalism. Yes, Tazmily Village operates on a simple system without money – everyone contributes what they can to help the village get by.
In fact, money is one of the first things introduced by the villainous Fassad to start destroying the balance of the Nowhere Islands. Along with the scientific re-imagining of various animals, and the eventual move towards a more modern society, money is one of the ways the Pig Mask army changes the Nowhere Islands.
Itoi isn’t just throwing out allegories for the sake of being deep – rather, he’s using them to help make distinctive character traits that go beyond just themselves – characters are a piece of the environment, and they change as their world changes.
Let’s talk a bit on how Mother 3 structures its plots, because it goes about it in a particularly literary way. Dividing the game into eight chapters, each chapter is essentially an act in a play, with the first three chapters serving as the introduction to the rest of the game. The first three chapters overlap, each taking place from a different character’s perspective. In the fourth chapter, the main cast assembles and Lucas takes over as the main protagonist.
Another neat twist of the game’s changing protagonists is that it always keeps a character silent while they’re the focus of the chapter, allowing the player to put themselves into the character’s mindset. However, in the chapter they’re not in your control, they speak and put a new perspective on scenes you’ve already witnessed.
There’s so much more that can be said about Mother 3, but I’m hoping to save some more in-depth discussion for a potential Tales From the Game Shelf podcast, so I’ll wrap this up shortly.
Mother 3 is an amazing game with the kind of intelligent writing that may only come from outside the realm of video games itself – Itoi is only a seldom creator of games, lending his considerable talents on the rarest of occasions. You see very little of the kind of normal video game writing in a game of Mother 3 – as I’ve described it, Itoi structures Mother 3 in a very literary way (one that does take advantage of its medium, however).
If you’ve never played and experienced Mother 3, please play it – it’s a game I will always recommend to people, and one of the few games I will defend to the death. Like I said, it’s significant to me, and hopefully, it’ll become significant to you.