What Earthbound Can Teach Us About Zombies, Aliens, and Confidence in Writing

Growing up, my brother and I loved the SNES game Earthbound. We played through it on enough Saturday mornings until eventually – finally – we arrived at the final boss: the aforementioned GIYGAS, DESTROYER OF UNIVERSES (profiled in 6 Monsters to Keep You Up at Night).

Then, during a rare moment spent not playing the game, our neighbor friend came over and pulled out the cartridge without pushing the release button.

IF YOU HAVE EVER HAD A SNES, THEN YOU REALIZE HOW BAD THIS IS.

Our entire file was deleted.

Somewhere out there, the tiniest violin played. Just ever so softly.

It looked like this

Moreover, GIYGAS, EVIL ALIEN OVERLORD AND DESTROYER OF WORLDS – he won. Won!

If this seems like a lot of fanfare, then let me assure you: Earthbound was not just any game. Earthbound was THE game.

THE game

Earthbound came out at a time where every RPG was a variation of some 15 year old  kid (um, yeah, male) being woken up in a house by his doting mother, having his high fantasy village burned by the big bad after the intro sequence (probably after a quest to fetch herbs in the woods) and setting out to overthrow the evil empire and get the girl – but only after vanquishing the villain, who was probably an effeminate man, because there is nothing more threatening to a 15 year old with a giant sword* who just underwent a series of “manly lessons” (i.e., learning to be a protector) than an effeminate man. *If you don’t know where I’m going with this, GTFO the bus.

By the way? This is still the plot of most modern day RPGS boiled down to their essence (games like the Shin Megami Tensei series being the exception and not the rule), and Earthbound is still revolutionary and ground-breaking despite the fact that it came out on the Super Nintendo 2 console generations ago.

Wherein I attempt to summarize the plot (WARNING, SLIGHTLY SPOILER-ISH):

So there’s this kid named Ness. He’s normal enough. He likes baseball.

One night, there’s a blinding flash outside his window, and being a normal baseball-loving kid, he goes out to investigate, additionally spurred by the prompting (i.e., whining) of the obnoxious neighbor kid. Of course Ness finds a crashed alien spacecraft and a time-traveling shape-shifter alien currently in the form of a bee. The bee is Ness’s Obi-Wan to his Luke Skywalker, so said bee warns him about the impending takeover of the evil alien Giygas.

Giygas has already started his conquest of Ness’s pseudo-Earth world, his clever strategy being to just fuck up a lot of shit – mainly by making people go crazy, and also by attacking random towns with random-er (totes a word) monsters. (By the way, that obnoxious neighbor kid? Totally working for the alien. Because if there is anything to take away from this post, it is to never trust the neighbor kid.)

Our destined hero Ness discovers that he’s psychic, makes some friends, and sets out to stop Giygas. Not necessarily in that order. This is a pretty reasonable move when you’re a destined hero. Ness himself is not the most original part of Earthbound, but that’s okay because a whole lot of other things are.

Here’s just a few of the wild and crazy things that Ness and company encounter while questing to stop Giygas:

  • Crazed animals
  • Violent bag ladies and hippies
  • Among many other objects that are usually stationary: anthropomorphic cars, street lamps, and toasters
  • Zombies who want your BRAINS
  • Robotic aliens
  • Adorable whiskered pink bowling ball aliens
  • Hermits obsessed with building dungeons and mazes
  • The (cheerful) Loch Ness monster
  • An alternate universe that looks like a Salvador Dali painting
  • A crazy cult obsessed with the color blue
  • Talking moles
  • Timey Wimey things
  • …admittedly, a barf monster (because this is HIGH CONCEPT right here)

Awesome art by Eiffel Art, who makes barf monsters look cute

If you’re anything like me, then your first thought upon seeing this list is probably: “Holy Batman that sounds random.” And your second thought is: “Holy Batman that sounds awesome.”

And you would be right, partially because you would be thinking the same thoughts as me, but mostly because Earthbound is random. And awesome.

I can see how someone might look at this list, and feel like this narrative is basically the equivalent of throwing paint at canvasses. If paint were zombies and canvasses were affectionate parodies of America. (Ness comes from ‘Eagleland’.)

This seemed relevant somehow

And that’s where my writing about writing tag comes into play. Because Earthbound is the most random thing to ever random, yet it completely works. The world works. I have no difficulty believing that my psychic main character can hitch a ride on the Loch Ness monster in order to get back to a mad scientist’s lab in the middle of the pseudo-Artic. This seems pretty par for the course, in fact.

Earthbound may or may not be your cup of tea, but it is utterly convincing as a fictional world. And that’s because Earthbound is a really good example of how confidence and world-building are the same thing.

There’s a good chance you might recognize this little quote from that oh-so-obscure Neil Gaiman:

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.”

~Neil Gaiman, The Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Confession time – I’m not particularly confident about my writing, but in my writing? Oh, that’s a whole different story.

I’m tempted to make a list of dead giveaways of when a writer is not confident in their writing/fictional world, except that they would all be gross generalizations. Are repetitive lines and over-extended explanations often dead giveaways of non-confident writing? Yes, but not always.

Mostly, non-confident writing is a touchy-feely thing that captures a prevalent attitude:

“I need to explain/hand-hold my reader on the weird aspects of my writing, because otherwise they won’t believe it. I mean, who’s going to believe a bee sent from the future can send a psychic kid on a quest to stop an evil alien?”

Confident writing has this attitude:

“That bee from the future just gave that psychic kid a quest to stop an evil alien. DEAL WITH IT”

Because here’s the thing about writing and stories. About even the most prestigious ones, with marriages falling apart and epic generational suffering. They are all made up things. All of them.

Shocking, I know.

Therefore, you don’t have to rationalize anything in your story, because it is a made up thing. Sometimes you will have to explain. This is different than rationalizing. Good explaining establishes the internal rules of your universe, which we do need. Bad explaining tries to justify the internal rules, which is an exercise in futility because it is a made up thing and mostly it all happened because you sat down at a computer and lied.

Justify nothing.  Stories are made up things, and you can do whatever you like

By the way? This story has a happy ending, not entirely made up. When my brother and I were both in college, we spent a summer home together playing through the game AGAIN and then we got back to Gigyas AGAIN and then we whupped his little red alien butt.

Because that is what siblings do. They unearth the SNES from the attic and destroy terrifyingly evil intergalactic aliens.

I’m okay with people getting me THIS, by the way

If I posted your fanart without credit, I’m sorry. Most of these come from the recesses of my computer, and I no longer remember where I found them. If it’s yours, please let me know and I can credit you and/or take it down if you wish. Obviously, NONE of the art here is mine because I still find it amazing that dark smudges form whenever I put the lead tip of a pencil to paper.

There is an extremely awesome Earthbound fanart Tumblr here

What are some stories that you think are examples of brave and confident storytelling?

How do you define “confident storytelling” for yourself?

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11 Comments

  1. Dude. American Gods. Unabashedly bizarre and awesome. Gaiman had complete mastery over that story and all its weirdness.

    I vaguely recall playing a few minutes of Earthbound, and I liked it, so I can’t remember why I didn’t keep playing! I’ll have to check it out. 😀

    Reply
    • American Gods is on my TBR pile! Which is quite a large pile.

      Love Earthbound! Unabashedly bizarre and awesome is exactly how I would describe it.

      Reply
  2. Ah, I don’t play video game at all! Talking about missing out on something.

    Every Savage Can Reproduce

    Reply
    • There are some good ones! Some of them with quite good stories. If you have a computer, there are good computer games available too. Like Sims and Bioware stuff.

      Reply
  3. He yanked the cartridge out WITHOUT pushing the release button??? GAK!! I owned an SNES a loooooong time ago, and I cringed at that part, I have to say.

    I’m pretty much with you – confident writing is defined by explaining when needed, but NEVER justifying. Confidence in writing is about having confidence in your readers – as long as the world you create is engaging and well put-together, they will pretty much accept what you put in front of them as long as they’re fans of the genre you’re writing in.

    Argh, that reminds me of a writing course I once took. I was really, really, really into the Redwall books at the time (Google them if you don’t know what they are – that series seriously rocked my world) and so I was wrote a story about a beaver family. Well, wasn’t everyone all over me, and the teacher pointed out that he didn’t understand why they had to be beavers instead of humans, and that such stories were a hard sell. I finally I burst out: “IT’S A STORY!!!” I’m not saying that some of the comments I got weren’t valid, but for God’s sake, if I want to write a story about a family of talking beavers, I’ll write a story about talking beavers! Leamme alone!

    Ahem. Sorry for the rant. Clearly I still have issues… 😉

    Reply
    • Yes, that release button! Was ALL-IMPORTANT!! But she didn’t know, bless her heart. Her parents were hippies and they didn’t let her have ANY video games (not even cable).

      Your story about a TEACHER of all people saying a story is a hard sell makes me ragey inside. Just so ignorant and misinformed. LIke you said, Redwall. And um, that little thing called A Wind in the Willows. And Alice in Wonderland? And like a million stories that are about talking animals who are very normal humans except that they are animals?

      You’re right, IT’S A STORY.

      Reply
  4. Sounds like an awesome game- I wish my kids could play it. Confidence and making it believe in the world you create and bee’s from the future can make an army of physic kids. I thin the confidence when I talk about my story is seriously lacking, but when I’m writing I’m fine.

    Reply
    • It was awesome! And pretty PG, barf monsters aside. I would let my kids play it, if I had any.

      Yeah, I think it’s good to be a little not confident in your stories so that you can fathom revisions and take feedback – but you have to throw a whole lot of confidence in the WORLD, mostly for the reader’s benefit.

      Reply
  5. Absolutely great post!

    Also, you need to add Twitter and Facebook share buttons to your blog. It makes life so much easier for us readers who want to spread the word.

    Reply
  6. Hi Annalise,

    You were one of the winners in my blogfest. Congratulations! Let me know which prize you’d like.

    Reply
  7. I’ve owned a snes, but ‘yanking the cartridge out’ sounds horrible.
    I play games, but I hadn’t heard about Earthbound. It sounds like something I’d love. I write fantasy because I need to have bizarre things.

    That reminds me I’m in your Platform-Building Campaigner group and very happy about that.

    Reply

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