November 16, 2008
There are some moderate Mother 3 spoilers in this post.
If EarthBound’s appeal was in the novelty of its setting, Mother 3’s is in the relationships between its characters. In that regard, I think it does a fantastic job; I found Mother 3 to have an unusually strong emotional impact, and much more memorable characters than its predecessor. That said, though, I felt an uneasy disconnect between the main characters in the story and the main characters in the game.
The plot of Mother 3 is about Lucas and his immediate family: his brother Claus, his father Flint, and his late mother Hinawa. They are the emotional core of the game, the people who we relate to as the story grows increasingly grandiose. However, the “main characters” — by which I mean the characters who make up your party, and who you spend the most gameplay hours with — are Lucas, his dog Boney, and their friends Duster and Kumatora. While I enjoyed the latter two additions, I never quite warmed up to them as main characters; this is, after all, not their story.
We get to know Lucas’s family surprisingly well through a series of early vignettes. The “dash” tutorial during the prologue, for example, succinctly illustrates the dynamic between Claus and Lucas. The first scene in front of Hinawa’s grave gives some insight into how Lucas might have ended up as a coddled crybaby. Claus’s jail visit shows his singleminded determination and even foreshadows his later transformation. Flint’s breakdown gives us context for his emotional state later in the story. Perhaps it was residual goodwill from EarthBound, but an hour into the game I was already caught up in the fate of these guys.
Like EarthBound, Mother 3 tries to endear its minor characters to us by making them temporary protagonists. For the first half of the game your party is in flux pretty consistently. In the prologue you control Lucas; in Chapter 1, Flint; in Chapter 2, Duster; in Chapter 3, Salsa the monkey; and so on. At several points you control characters who are not one of the main four protagonists, and twice you even have major antagonists in your party.
(Incidentally, the early party-switching is a great twist on the “silent protagonist” tradition, as the player character who cannot speak changes from one chapter to the next. This was used for dramatic effect at the beginning of Chapter 2, where the previously mute Flint answers Duster in a conversation from earlier in the game. I wish they had done more with that idea; it could have been a novel way to gain insight into the characters.)
While I very much like the idea of controlling minor characters, their side-stories don’t reveal very much about what sort of people they are. From what the game tells us, Duster is a plain-looking man with bad breath and a limp who happens to be a thief. He is also the lead character in Chapter 2, wherein his father tasks him with retrieving “something shiny” from Osohe Castle. Despite all of that, though, I couldn’t name a single facet of his personality — the game actually goes out of its way to describe him as a forgettable, normal guy. It’s amusing, but doesn’t exactly tug at the heartstrings.
Kumatora is similarly enigmatic. She’s described as a tomboyish princess raised by the Magypsies, but after her encounter with Duster and Wess her personality is virtually nonexistent. Since we never get a good sense of what she and Duster are like, it was hard for me to form emotional attachments with them in the same way that I did with Lucas’s family. Kumatora and Duster were interesting but shallow; their surface-level characterization wasn’t enough to convince me that I should care about them.
During the second half of the game Mother 3 settles on its four-person roster, but by that point everyone besides Lucas has become largely ancillary to the plot. It’s possible to play for hours without hearing a word out of anyone in the party, and I was often left wondering about their motivations and reactions to plot events. It seemed especially awkward that Flint was missing for a huge chunk of the story while his son ran around saving the world with two strangers and the family dog. (In fact, some Mother 3 hackers have found evidence that Flint originally played a larger role, and was perhaps a main character throughout the game.)
I’m admittedly nitpicking here; these are minor complaints in context of how much I liked the game and cared for its characters. I suppose I wanted the same feeling for Duster and Kumatora that I had for Lucca and Marle in Chrono Trigger, where I found it difficult to oust them from my party because I liked them so much. Or, failing that, I wanted to spend more time with Claus and Flint to put the game’s focus where it belongs. As it stands, though, it’s still a remarkably poignant story.
More to come on that.