The Art that Takes Captives (Part 1 of 2) – Background to a Discussion of “Mu Training” in Earthbound
[SPOILER ALERT/ANOTHER GUY TALKING ABOUT EARTHBOUND ALERT]
Yeah, yeah. Another hipster gushing about Earthbound.
Yes, I’m going to talk to you guys about Earthbound. But don’t worry, this isn’t another review. I want to talk about a specific scene in Earthbound: namely, the Mu Training scene. This is gonna really get things started on the right note around here, because we’re gonna start with the absolute most basic point that can be made about video games as an art form:
Video games are set apart from other art forms in that video games are interactive.
What we’re really going to explore here, however, is a little more subtle than it seems. Interactivity in video games opens up unique expressive and artistic possibilities that allow video games to surpass limitations that other storytelling art forms cannot. So, what I want to do with this little micro-series is unpack exactly what kind of unique artistic possibilities come with interactivity. We are exploring the Mu Training scene in order to clearly demonstrate one realization of these possibilities.
In any case, this first post will provide background. I’ll explain the Zen concept of Mu, which is central to understanding the communicative goals of the scene, and then I’ll introduce the core of the point I want to make about the possibilities of interactivity. The second post will dissect the scene piece by piece and examine how the scene accomplishes its artistic goal through interactivity, and therefore, how it illustrates the unique possibilities of video games as art.
As far as spoilers go, the Mu Training scene contains no crucial plot twists. Furthermore, part one of this discussion will not be describing the scene in detail. So, the text of this post is completely spoiler-free. However, if you have not played Earthbound, or you are currently playing Earthbound and have not yet experienced Poo’s Mu Training scene, I strongly advise you against watching the embedded video–it is complete footage of the scene in question. Like I said, no major plot twists will be revealed, but if you watch the footage of the scene before having experienced it in game, you will ruin your chances of experiencing this scene for yourself on the same level that you would if you played through it with no prior knowledge of its contents.
I’m not completely sure how to start this post, which is funny. It’s funny mostly because I’ve given this damn lecture I don’t know how many times to captive friends and acquaintances (and, tragically, even on a first date last week) who may or may not have been entirely happy to hear me totally freak out for fifteen minutes about a video game most of them had never played. In any case, it’s easier in discussion than in text.
This scene completely changed the way I look at what video games are capable of. I had always been inclined to think of video games as art, but I’d never really been inclined to dissect or validate the notion. This segment of Earthbound is the first time I can remember ever being truly struck speechless by a video game. I remember where and when it was that I experienced it for the first time, even. I was sitting on my (then) girlfriend’s shitty vintage couch, in our ancient little duplex.
The wooden floors in that place were pushing one-hundred years old. That’s not to say it was a classy place, though. In the six-or-so months I lived there, at least one meth lab on our block exploded. Anyways, this was about a year-and-a-half ago. It was the time of year when autumn is finally getting ready to die down into winter. Still sunny and bright but getting colder every night, you know? I was alone in the house–maybe she was at work, or school or something. I must have had the day off; it was early afternoon and I was still at home. The sun was beaming through the blinds directly behind the couch and glaring off my little TV.
Now, this may not have been the first time this had happened to me, but it is absolutely the first time that I can remember. After the scene came to a close, the color and music of Dalaam returned, and the most indescribable feeling washed over me. I was frozen still for a second, shocked that the color and music had come back–as if what had just happened, had never happened at all.
What had just happened, anyways?
Like I said, it was an indescribable feeling, but if I had to take a shot at putting words to it, the first word I would reach for is violated. In an eerie sort of way, for a minute, I didn’t feel like I was alone in our drafty little duplex. It was like this haunting, sudden sort of realization that the game I was playing knew that I existed. And furthermore, that it had just reached out and shown me something. So yeah, I guess “violated” is about as close as I’m gonna get to how it felt.
How is that possible?
Let’s begin the discussion by establishing that the designers of the game crafted this scene for a specific artistic reason. The scene was designed with a conscious goal in mind: to illustrate the Zen Buddhist concept of Mu for the player. The scene illustrates the concept in a way that, of all art forms, only video games are truly capable of.
Forgive me for this part, because I’m gonna have to go ahead and make a woefully inadequate attempt to describe the concept of Mu. I have no direct experience with Buddhism, so I hope you’ll forgive any inadequacies in this little summary. Simply put, “Mu” is nothingness. More specifically, as it applies to Zen Buddhism Mu is a state of mind. The idea is that we ought to simply let go of all that we are. We need to abandon desires, worries, comforts, and everything else that composes our sense of self. In doing so, we will embrace a state of absolute, tranquil nothingness. If you are at all familiar with Chinese concepts of “nonaction,” this should ring a few bells. When a person embraces nothingness, they have walked through the “gateless gate,” they have let go of all preconceptions, all points of reference, and have accomplished a state of pure, unimpeded being.
It’s a shame that the strong cultural resonance Zen concepts have in Japan is lost on most American players, who largely seem to remember the scene as something shocking and morbid. I’ve seen gory fan art based on this scene depicting a dismembered Poo, bleeding from empty eye-sockets–it seems a lot of people are under the impression that the scene was just darkness for darkness’ sake. But, in light of the context, the scene is not even really all that dark in the first place. The goal here was not horror or shock value. The goal was to illustrate this act of “letting go.” Imagine a state of mind so tranquil that you could lose your limbs and not miss them–this is Mu. To walk through the gateless gate involves simply releasing things that are just as fundamental to our mental wholeness as our limbs and senses are to our physical wholeness. So, in a way, to empty out your mind and let these things slip away is a passive act of mental dismemberment.
So, keeping this in mind, let’s turn our discussion back to the subject of art. How does this video game go about illustrating the concept of Mu? What unique possibilities are created by interactivity, as far as expressing this concept goes?
In the broadest sense, Earthbound illustrates Mu by directly involving the player in the act of letting go. This scene is an important representation of exactly what kind of expressive and illustrative possibilities come with interactivity. On a truly personal level, the game forces the player to experience, first-hand, the feelings it seeks to illustrate. This is something that only video games are capable of. This may seem a bit unclear, so let me illustrate exactly what this difference really means–in terms of artistic possibilities–by contrasting it with the limitations of other storytelling art forms. For this specific example, we will use literature.
Imagine you are writing a novel. You are a Zen Buddhist, and you want to communicate the concept of Mu to your readers. How will you bring this into your work? You decide to write your story about a young man who has experienced a great loss in his life. You decide that his wife and his young child were killed in a tragic accident. In your attempt to highlight the importance of Mu, you write it so that the novel’s story will follow this character’s internal struggle–namely, a hopeless clinging to the things he has lost, and an addiction to a self-destructive cycle of grief. You write it so that the character withdraws from the world and goes into the wilderness, where he intends to starve himself so that he can go on to the next life to be with his family. The character sits down to meditate in a mountain stream, where he intends to stay until he finally starves to death. However, after a drawn-out internal battle the novel reaches its climax when the character opens his eyes to find that a fish has somehow gotten caught in his pocket. Taking the fish in his hands, he finally realizes the pointlessness of holding on. He lets the fish slip through his fingers and into the water, and with it, his grief and his bitterness also slip downstream.
The limitation of other story-telling art forms is that they can only go so far in communicating the emotional aspects of their stories. We would certainly come away from reading the above novel with a better understanding of Mu. But the reality is that, in reading the book, we were only able to watch as the character struggled with the concept. There is an immensely wide gap between the experiences of the character and the heart of the reader. We, as readers, were only able to passively observe as the central theme played out in the novel. While we may have been touched or impacted emotionally by the work, it is necessarily an empathetic sort of emotion in which we are only touched insofar as we relate to the experiences of the character. We are touched by his loss, rather than experiencing loss ourselves, and we are inspired by his struggle, rather than experiencing any struggle ourselves. Excluding video games, all story-telling art forms are essentially limited to inducing second-hand emotions.
This point is anything but intuitive, so step back and think about it. Think back to any time you have been moved to tears by a movie, or any time a novel has induced an emotional epiphany in you. Think about how exactly that happened. Can you think of a single time that your situation was not one of an observer? You were being moved by stories and events that did not include you. Disclaimer: I’m not making a value judgment about the expressive worth of other storytelling art forms–I’m not arguing that this limitation is a flaw. Clearly, literature and film are equally capable of things that are not remotely possible in video games. I’m just highlighting a simple fact about their limitations that we often take for granted.
And this is where I’m going to abruptly end our introduction. In the next post, we’ll get down to dissecting the scene piece by piece. In doing so, we’ll get a good, close look at exactly what it means in practice when video games are “surpassing limitations.” Heads up: because we will be picking the scene apart piece by piece, if you haven’t played this scene yet, part two is going to be one huge spoiler. If you learn the contents of this scene before playing it yourself, you will have ruined your chances at ever honestly experiencing one of the greatest feats of game design that will ever exist (at least in my opinion, anyways). Just go fucking play Earthbound, okay?
Thank you so much for reading,