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
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.