Full Circle in 16 Bits
In 1994, when I was 12 years old, I went into a Fry's Electronics for the first time. I got a chance to demo the 3DO video game system, discover the peculiar satisfaction of seeing an entire shelving unit full of video cards, and buy (well, have bought for me) a huge cardboard box containing my very own copy of EarthBound. I can actually remember the exact smell and taste and feel of industrial-strength air conditioning as I picked up that copy of EarthBound and brought it home.
The following year was a major year in my life. I graduated eighth grade, and promptly moved 500 miles from Los Angeles to Fort Bragg, a town .01% the size of the one I'd gone to middle school in. I started high school, a lonely endeavor at first -- Mendocino is a tight-knit place, and while no-one was unfriendly, I was not exactly designed to intrude on decades-old bonds and social constructs. Three things stick out from the start of my freshman year: corned beef sandwiches made out of leftovers from the Redwood Cookhouse; reading Snow Crash for the first time; and playing through the ending of EarthBound. Tonight, as part of a night in together, I showed Sonya EarthBound, and something finally clicked -- playing EarthBound again felt like an affirmation of who I am and what I care about.
I've watched a lot of TV, and I've read a lot of books, but the first place I remember engaging with story deeply and personally, the first place I remember thinking "I could see doing this," was when I got into roleplaying games. When I thought about writing as a kid, I thought about writing for games as the most logical outlet for my creative energies, and EarthBound is where I really found the beginnings of the internal landscape I'm inhabiting today. Its pseudo-modern-day, pseudo-American setting full of eccentric people and bizarre supernatural phenomena; a plot mixed up in time travel and the fate of the world whose side quests run the gamut of oddities modern living and urban fantasy could provide; protagonists who were children, with all the wonder and horror that implies; a certain relentless optimism and empathy; these things are apparent in so much of what I write and so much of what I love, across all media. Twin Peaks; Steven Universe; Lucha Underground; The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl; McGuire's Wayward Children series; even, in a weird way, my old friend The Dark Tower roots in my heart at the same place as the story of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo.
Tonight, I started to share that story with Sonya, and it threw so much about my life into perspective. Partway through the night, I tweeted out that if someone were to tell my little 13-year-old self that in 20 years I'd be playing Final Fantasy 6 and EarthBound on a Friday night, I'd respond "You mean nothing changes?" Except so much has changed, a lot of it for the better -- and yet, who I am has remained, in some essential and exciting ways, constant. I am still a person who kind of wishes he could have the gonzo hero's journey experienced by Ness, who likes the idea of hanging out with the Mr. Saturns and their confusing shared typeface and helping Apple Kid build his inventions, but unlike so many years of my life, it isn't something I feel I have to be alone in.
I wasn't always cool with my own love for EarthBound. Other JRPGs were more popular, more lauded, more accepted. I could talk to people about Final Fantasy 6. I could gush at people over Chrono Trigger. But EarthBound...EarthBound was the unloved other child of the SNES generation, quirky and cute but something I felt I had to justify to people. So I just didn't discuss it. Why did I need to, when I could instead talk about how utterly amazing something like Chrono Trigger was without having to worry about how people reacted?
Coincidentally, after college I went through a very...angry period of my life. Also a very performative period. I was anxious to the gills and didn't know why, but approval made me feel better, so I performed being the person I thought would get the most approval. That's nothing new. It's not even anything surprising. But tonight, I got to boot EarthBound back up, and show it to someone I love, whose opinion I treasure, and I realized two things:
1. I am married to a person who does not balk in the slightest about being upset when Buzz Buzz dies, even though he is a small mass of pixels full of stilted dialogue, because he is just so cute and so good.
2. I didn't feel the slightest hesitation in admitting it was sad for me, too, nor in admitting that to all of you on here.
I'm not saying EarthBound made me stop feeling guilty about who I am; I'm not even saying that all my damage is healed. But I am saying that sitting here, playing these games, I realize that I actually enjoy them more now than I did as a kid, with more of the unhesitating wonder that is supposed to be the hallmark of our youth. My enjoyment of things is often more technical, more focused on the nuts and bolts of the storytelling and the engineering of the experience; but it's a lot less guarded than it was in my twenties, and it's even less guarded than it was in my pre-teen years. I'm making progress; all that mindfulness, all those meds, all that learning how to live, is actually showing in how much happier I am.
But also, it makes me feel capable. There are so many terrifying, dangerous things happening in the world, things I tweet about often and rant about slightly less so. There is a lot left to perfect about the world, about my life, about myself. But tonight, as I steered Ness into his first fateful encounter with a Runaway Dog, I saw that I can take on twenty long, sometimes painful, often laborious years, and come out of them not just a better person, but a person who will still think there is something irresistibly charming about a villain called Master Barf, and a person who now has no reservations about telling someone that he feels that way. EarthBound is here for me; and maybe some day, if I'm lucky, I can be EarthBound for some other lonely kid, just trying to find something and someone with a weird that matches theirs.
My favorite books are old friends; my favorite TV shows are a font of comfort; but EarthBound is a mirror, reflecting, in all its weirdness, just how far I've come without ever completely losing sight of who I am.