Friday, December 25, 2015

Mother 3 & Grief

This is kind of a ramble and it didn't actually start life with the intent that it'd be a blog post, so beware.

Serious spoilers for Mother 3 below the jump. Don't take that lightly; Mother 3 is probably my favorite game of all time, and it's something that everyone (everyone) should play through, unspoiled, at least once. You haven't done that, go do that. This is the part where I'd tell you to give Nintendo some money because they make good shit even if they are dicks, but the form their Mother 3 dickery takes is a staunch refusal to take your money, so whatever, fuck it; yarr, matey. But I wanted to talk about how Mother 3 uses grief as a theme, and how it reinforces narrative with mechanics and vice versa in service of that theme.

Okay, so let's start at the prologue and chapter 1. What these are obviously doing is establishing the norm of Tazmily before that's broken - but what they're less obviously doing is establishing the initial dynamic with Lucas and Flint. Lucas, a timid young boy; Flint, the Father as romanticized by that boy, powerful and noble and good. This is reinforced mechanically. When you do the tutorial fight with Lucas and Claus, you get a feel for what they can do. 40-ish HP, single-digit damage figures, combat commands limited to bashing things. And then when control transitions to Flint, he feels massively powerful by comparison to these kids. He can shrug off attacks that'd fell his sons in one blow and retaliate with powerful strikes that everything you know about the genre tells you those characters were a long time from being able to match. He has a selection of secondary commands that helps to make him seem massively versatile in comparison to his sons' "get in there and hit it," too. He can increase his offense or his defense to prepare for more dangerous foes; he can smack foes with an all-or-nothing strike that sacrifices accuracy and the chance for a rhythm combo for absolutely ludicrous damage output. It's the idealized paternal figure as expressed mechanically - you're told FLINT, HINAWA IS IN DANGER, THE BOYS ARE IN DANGER, and you get in and find that this dude is way out of the kids' league. You go into that forest and you literally beat things that would murder your children without a second thought to death with a two-by-four.

Of course, this turns out... poorly. Hinawa is dead and Claus goes MIA when he heads into the mountains and tries to avenge his mother. You retain control of Flint right up until that last sadistic camera pan revealing Claus at the cliff's bottom, and then you never get to play as him again. Because of course you don't. Flint is rooted in an idealized conception of the father as a protective figure, and he's failed so completely at that task that the ideal is shattered. Dad really can't protect you from all the scary things in the world, kids. Flint's initially-awe-inspiring stats and skillset are enough to just barely fight off the creature that killed his wife and son, and entirely too late for that to count as "protecting" anyone. Flint even fails to find Claus's body right in front of him - and this last failure as a protector is what dooms his son to wind up as the hollowed-out mechanical puppet that Porky uses to pull the Needles. And I think that it really can't be understated just how much of a failure this is; this is the stuff of a parent's nightmares. Claus isn't even allowed to die; he's gutted body and soul so that this gift, the ability to pull the Needles - something that's supposed to be a privilege, special and intrinsically his, the right to try and awaken the Dragon and pass his heart on to it to give the world a second chance - can be abused by a psychopath. Of fucking course you can't play as Flint any more. Flint isn't simply a person; Flint is an ideal of what a father is, a promise that the people he values will ever be safe from harm. And he is a miserable, wretched failure at that. Because that's an ideal that can't actually exist in reality; because that's a promise that can't be kept. Doesn't matter. That's how Flint defines himself, and he's broken by the depths of his failure even when he doesn't understand just how complete that is.

So Flint basically vanishes from Lucas's life, disappearing into the mountains for days at a time to search for Claus. Claus being alive wouldn't make sense. It's not a realistic possibility. But Flint denies that reality in favor of something that would let him reclaim a little bit of that ideal, and so Lucas basically grows up without a father. When he's in town, he spends every waking moment at Hinawa's grave - when he can't deny his grief, he allows it to devour him. I think it's important to realize that Flint stops accomplishing anything from here on out. For the rest of the game, he's a wanderer that appears briefly before vanishing again, no closer to the things he's looking for. And when he finally finds Claus and realizes what's been done to his son, that solitary success crushes whatever's left of him. So, consumed by grief, denial, and an inability to accept the way things are instead of the way they're supposed to be... Flint is destroyed. Completely and utterly.

Lucas, though? Lucas is a small child that's lost everything, but he's able to move on; to, without denying his pain, look at the world as it is, find the things he needs to do, and do them in spite of everything he's lost. Even before the timeskip, Lucas quickly becomes more useful to the burgeoning resistance against the changes happening to the village than his father is, bringing the cavalry that saves Salsa and Kumatora while Dad has fucked off to the mountains to pretend Claus is alive. And when he becomes the lead character for Chapter 4 and on, he's no longer recognizable as the child you played in the tutorial. Lucas has lost his family; he's lost his innocence - and it's made him stronger. At the outset, he's the statistical match of his father - and in maybe fifteen minutes of gameplay, he gets access to his PSI and gains access to an entire dimension of techniques and strategies that dear old Dad can't even approximate.

Lucas reacts to grief and pain by trying to make the world a better place in the here and now. He can't undo what's already transpired, and he doesn't try to; he just... helps the people he can still help. The Needles are themselves a great illustration; it's established that the Needles are being pulled, and Lucas needs to pull more of them than the Masked Man does or things are going to be very very bad. Fine. There's never any attempt made to un-pull the Masked Man's Needles, because that's impossible; all Lucas can do is try to make damn sure that he's the one that pulls the next one. Hurry to the next Needle, fight what you have to, and if it turns out that you didn't make it in time... then keep moving. Because you don't have time to wallow in your despair; because there are still things that you need to do right now which you can only do if you move forward, no matter how much it hurts.

In the end, Lucas even eclipses his father as Claus's protector. Flint cracks completely when he finds out what's become of his other son; it's Lucas who confronts him before the final Needle. It's Lucas who refuses to strike his brother while the Masked Man rains down vicious blows on him. Lucas and his mother - not Flint - are the ones who manage to get through to the last vestige of Claus that exists within the Masked Man. And it's Lucas who carries the Franklin Badge that reflects the lightning strike that finally allows Claus to rest. And then Lucas pulls the last Needle, and the world ends... and despite all this pain that's just been inflicted upon him, physical and emotional, he wants to live badly enough that the world is born anew from the ashes.

And this same picture is reflected in the setting backstory. What we know from the limited, fragmentary details: the world was destroyed at some point, and only the Nowhere Islands, protected by the Dragon, continued to exist. Tazmily Village was supposed to be a utopian society that elected to forego technology and complexity, spurred by fear of the things that destroyed the world and the survivors' desire to create new "thems" that were innocent, untainted by any of those things.

But Tazmily is denial on a massive scale. It's specifically mentioned that there's no history going back more than a few generations. The oldest members of the village are still the same people that boarded the White Ship, alive and well. As far as societies go, this one lasted a pitiful length of time before everything fell apart and, ultimately, they were unable to prevent the one thing the entire experiment was intended to prevent. It's a beautiful, fleeting lie. We can't regain lost innocence, no matter how much we'd like to; an adult cannot become a child once more. Porky shows up and the survivors that were willing to sacrifice everything to prevent the destruction of this last piece of the world are completely powerless to prevent the exact same thing from happening again because they've made themselves so.

A selfish, spoiled child has the power to break any "rule" that exists in the world, and the people who had similar technology - the only people who might, once, have been willing and able to keep Porky from pulling the Needles and destroying the islands - were so terrified of living with the knowledge of what had transpired that they left themselves completely defenseless against the possibility that history would repeat itself. It's just dumb luck that Lucas and Claus were twins; that there was a "spare" to pull the Needles when Porky got his hands on Claus. It's just dumb luck that Lucas was resilient enough to persevere when he had every right to crack. In the end, the end of everything is in fact prevented - but the people of the White Ship are owed nothing for that. It's all down to Lucas - Lucas, who allows himself to grieve and be shaped by his pain without being broken. Lucas, who lets that pain spur him to action. Lucas, who defines himself not according to an ideal - not Flint's paternal ideal; not the agrarian-utopianism of the White Ship - but according to what he can do right here, right now to make the world a better place.

Lucas is never expected not to grieve when he has so much to grieve for. The game never suggests that he needs to "suck it up" or "be a man" or whatever other toxic bullshit is so frequently presented as the alternative to being lost in grief. What Lucas does is feel everything and use it to become... stronger, and kinder, and better. Not for the people who are already dead - but so that he can protect the things that still exist; so that he can fight the battles that haven't already been lost.

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