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Mother 3: A Masterful Marriage of Classic JRPG Mechanics and Story Demonstrates the Unique Power of Games as an Interactive Medium

Introductory Note and Spoiler Warning: As a lifelong Nintendo fan, Mother 3 has always felt like a glaring gap in my knowledge of Nintendo games, and as such, the game was always sitting in the back of my mind. However, as someone who has never ventured too deeply into JRPGs, Mother 3 remained lower on my list of priorities than other notable games from Nintendo's past. Recently, though, I felt a stronger pull toward Mother 3 than I ever have before, and after nearly 30 hours with the game, Mother 3 now stands tall next to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door as one of the best stories I have experienced in a Nintendo game, and in the JRPG genre at large. Below are my thoughts on how this game pushes video games as an interactive medium forward in ways that surprised me, and the points outlined below are just some of the reasons why I strongly feel Mother 3 will linger in my mind for years to come. Also, this post contains major spoilers for Mother 3, so please avoid reading this post if you want to experience the game blind, which I highly recommend.

Compared to film, and certainly literature, video games are an incredibly young medium. Because of their relative newness, games have a seemingly greater degree of untapped potential than the aforementioned storytelling avenues in the ways they can present stories and ideas wholly unique from television, movies, and books. However, perhaps the single-most distinctive offering games bring to the storytelling table is the medium’s interactivity, for the way in which the player controls a character and directly interfaces with a game’s world is a level of personal control of which only an interactive medium can offer. Indeed, one can easily imagine and understand that a great deal of, for example, Super Metroid’s success lies largely in the agency and interactivity the game offers to the player. Immersing oneself in the hostile world of Zebes by slowly piecing the layout of the world together with minimal direction and seamlessly embarking on one of the game’s multiple paths to the final boss help firmly align the player’s motives, thoughts, and feelings directly with Samus, the character they are controlling. By the time the credits roll, the player can feel tied to Zebes, Samus, and her mission in a way that’s difficult to imagine accomplishing through film or literature. This is not to say games have a monopoly on connecting people to stories and worlds, for games obviously do not. Rather, games can clearly leverage the advantage of direct control, and the immersion that naturally follows, to show instead of tell, in a much more pure sense of the term, and this “showing” can be used to great effect when the developer has a strong vision, and understanding, of how, and what, they want the player to feel.

Interestingly, a genre that might have historically encountered more hurdles to showing rather than telling is the classic JRPG genre, for that category of games relied much more heavily on traditional writing and dialogue between characters to convey stories in contrast to most any other genre of the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, the gameplay of JRPGs from this era is sometimes criticized for boiling down to “playing the menu” because, if not effectively combatted by the developer, combat systems, the primary gameplay mechanic of JRPGs from the 80s and 90s, could reduce to simply selecting options from a menu and watching predetermined animations of the characters on screen performing whatever action the player selected. An especially notorious offender of this simplistic, and more detached approach, are the mainline Pokémon games going all the way back from today to the first entries on the Game Boy in 1996. Of course, many clever developers have worked around this potential pitfall. Whether one looks at the active-time battle systems of the SNES Final Fantasy entries, or the more simplistic, yet still engaging, solutions of the first two Paper Mario games, there are countless solutions to more engaging core battles to be found in the genre. Even so, when approaching more traditional JRPGs, one would be forgiven for not expecting major surprises to emerge from the gameplay mechanics. Instead, surprises in that genre more readily manifest themselves in the form of writing and world surprises, or, in other words, surprises that happened to the characters within the story rather than both the character and the player. Ultimately, when a player starts up a traditional JRPG, there are, as with any genre, a set of expectations regarding basic mechanics and ideas that present themselves before reaching the main menu.

However, these preconceived notions of genre tropes and staples can be incredibly valuable when a player encounters a game that effectively plays off one’s assumptions about the genre they are playing. YouTuber Matthewmatosis touches on that point in his video “Meta Microvideos” in which he explores the ideas that some games “take a penny” while others “leave a penny.” Fully elaborating on this idea, Matthewmatosis said, “Games are like pennies in the take-a-penny, leave-a-penny tray. Some developers leave a cent behind; whereas others are just grabbing whatever they can. Growing up on restrictive JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII, I had initially assumed that the ‘Roleplay’ in RPG meant that players had to take on the role of a fixed character like Cloud who, despite having dialogue options from time to time, clearly had his own backstory and personality to some degree. In other words, my goal was to think like Cloud… Often, these kinds of choices are surface-level only having the bare minimum acknowledgement before resuming the prescribed route every player will take. Western RPGs were much better in this regard; they might be the first games to leave a penny instead of taking one… It's RPGs like Fallout, or maybe even adventure games like Zork, which deserve credit for pioneering this approach to choice and consequence. That lineage continues through spiritual successors, but, nowadays, these ideas might be best represented by games like Undertale or OneShot. Wherever it happens, we all know that narrative divergences based on a player's actions can be engaging, but my penny analogy isn't really about any single game. I'm saying that these developers left a penny because their games have a positive effect on the entire medium. Without prior knowledge, it's impossible to know whether or not a game will honor decisions before playing it. Once you know that a thoughtless response to dialogue really can lead to drastic consequences, you’re more likely to be cautious next time, even if you’re playing an entirely different game. In other words, anyone who plays a game with choice and consequence ironically has no choice but to assume their decisions will matter in the next game they play, even if those two games are unrelated… Likewise, games which present the illusion of choice and consequence are simply taking pennies. They're riding on the coattails of others because if those other developers didn't go to those extra lengths, then everyone would see through the illusion. We mainly play along because we've been conditioned by those games which punish or reward certain choices, and in so doing, they leave a penny for another game to take.

Perhaps, this is, similarly, one of the key reasons why Mother 3 is so striking. Mother 3 has been highly, and rightfully, lauded for the themes presented by the razor-sharp writing, story, and world. Additionally, the quirky, memorable, and undeniably endearing characters and enemies, leave a powerfully lasting impression long after the final credits roll. However, Mother 3 rises even farther in no small part due to “leaving a penny” in a similar fashion to the choice-based RPGs in which Matthewmatosis referred, but instead of leaving a penny through presenting choices to the player throughout the story, Mother 3, instead, masterfully uses traditional JRPG tropes and mechanics to effectively show, rather than tell, the player key points about the game’s story, world, and characters, and in doing so, Mother 3 leaves much more than just a penny.

In Mother 3’s opening three chapters, the player is introduced to Tazmily Village and the quirky inhabitants of this small, seemingly rural, village. The village residents are generally happy living simple lives taking what they need and providing what they can. In fact, everyone in the village seems to get along so well that, near the end of Chapter 1, the player is informed the town has never needed to use the local jail. Furthermore, in the opening three chapters, which sees the player swapping between various characters who remain central to the game’s plot, the local store in Tazmily is less of a store and more of a supplier. If the player needs to pick up items at the store, they simply do just that. There is no currency, and there is no expectation that the player will need to pay back the shopkeeper in any tangible way. The player takes what items they need, and they continue on their way. In that same vein, one of the villagers, Caroline, bakes bread, a valuable early-game healing item, for the player free of charge, provided they bring the few materials necessary to bake the bread. Throughout chapters one through three, the player is also made intimately familiar with the area immediately surrounding Tazmily Village, especially Osohe Castle, an old castle that sits as a relic of a bygone era, directly to the north of the village. After a brief introduction that sees the player take control of Lucas, the main character of the story, as a young boy, the player controls Flint, Lucas’ father, for the entirety of the first chapter. Flint looks to be pulled right out of the Old West. Dressed as a rancher with a cowboy hat prominently placed on his head, and his style fits with most of Tazmily’s generally more rural look and feel. Indeed, the buildings of Tazmily, especially Flint’s home, which comes complete with an old loom and coal stove, look to be pulled directly from the frontier towns of the American West. Furthermore, in keeping with the feel of the shop discussed earlier, there is generally no technology, with the exception of Porky’s mysterious troops, to speak of anywhere on the game’s map in the first three chapters.

After growing extremely familiar with the general layout of the game’s map, and the overall simpler feel the game’s world gives off, the fourth chapter skips ahead three years from where the game began. The player takes control of Lucas and steps out of his home on the southern end of Tazmily Village to find the village transformed with roads that were once dirt now paved and modern buildings of both steel and artificial light in the place of the old wooden buildings that once lined those streets. While time-skips are not unique to Mother 3, having been famously used to profound affect in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the time-skip succeeds, in part, for a similar reason the mechanic worked in Ocarina of Time. Showing the player a radically different version of the map they have grown to understand so deeply remains a remarkably impactful way to show, rather than tell, the player that radical change has occurred in the game’s world, and this fundamental visual shift holds an impact that is uniquely possible through player-interaction. Furthermore, Mother 3’s time-skip recontextualizes Flint’s character model. Flint, a character who initially looked mostly at home in the rural Tazmily Village, now is known as the only man left resisting modernization in Tazmily. In this way, Flint’s lack of graphical change among all the other alterations is striking.

However, Mother 3’s time-skip also accomplishes something much more than a visual overhaul of the game’s world. When the player walks into the store in Tazmily after the town’s modernization, the player is informed the store now requires currency to purchase items, but the added benefit of this new currency means a much larger selection of items will now be available to the player at the local store. Furthermore, Caroline, who was once the neighborly baker, helping the player when they needed, now has a burgeoning small business. Instead of offering bread in exchange for the requisite materials, Caroline now only accepts the new currency in exchange for a wider variety of baked goods that offer much greater healing than previously seen by the simple bread in the preceding chapters. In this way, Mother 3 uses a standard mechanic of nearly every traditional JRPG to not only widen the player’s gameplay options through an array of new items, but, crucially, to drive home to the player the tangible impact of Tazmily’s change. Through the addition of a genre-trope, the player is shown, instead of simply told, that this new modern world is a harsher, more self-interested place than the halcyon village they knew so well.

While Mother 3 has more examples of this brilliant implementation of mechanics to show rather than tell, the final boss fight of the game is the other area worth examining to fully drive this notion home. After searching far and wide for Lucas’ twin brother, Claus, the search concludes with the revelation that Claus is the elusive Masked Man helping Porky, the game’s main antagonist, achieve his goal of destroying the world. After Porky takes the drastic step of entering his Absolutely Safe Capsule, ending the fight by default, the player is left with the final task of stopping the Masked Man, Lucas’ brother, from destroying the world, and the final showdown begins. Stepping back from recounting the fight for a moment, understanding that aligning and synchronizing the player’s motivations can be a common hurdle for game designers is important. This was alluded to earlier, but this alignment of motivations can be accomplished in a number of ways, an example of which was briefly discussed with Super Metroid prior. This synchronization is perhaps most vital in games that rely on writing and storytelling, which is, again, common in the JRPG genre, and Mother 3 is no exception here. Prior to beginning the final showdown with Claus, the player may not be as entirely unwilling to fight Claus as Lucas would be, for the player’s motivation is generally, first and foremost, going to be to uncover the optimal strategy to win the battle, ideally in the shortest amount of time. However, rather than dealing a certain amount of damage to defeat the final boss of Mother 3, the optimal, and only, strategy is, instead, to deal no damage. The player will quickly discover there is no other way forward, and the player is to focus on guarding against Claus’ attack, slowing the “rolling health” system, which is a combat mechanic unique to the Mother series involving health points literally rolling down instead of instantaneously dropping, and healing when necessary. The player’s optimal path, ultimately, lies in tanking damage and healing when necessary to outlast Claus until the fight naturally concludes. In this way, Mother 3’s final fight mechanically discourages the player from actually fighting Claus, and through this, the player’s motivations completely synchronize with the character they are controlling, Lucas. This kind of mechanical discouragement is another striking example of demonstrating a point to the player, by showing that Lucas does not want to fight Claus, rather than merely telling the player the same information.

Ultimately, Mother 3 is a shining example of the “leaving a penny” notion that Matthewmatosis proposed, but rather than leaving a penny in the choice-based way Matthewmatosis discussed, Mother 3, instead, masterfully marries traditional JRPG mechanics and story together to successfully show, rather than tell, the player crucial pieces of the game’s story, world, and characters, and through this melding of classic mechanics and story, Mother 3 demonstrates just how uniquely impactful an interactive medium can be to tell a story when a developer has a strong vision, and understanding, of how, and exactly what, they want the player to feel. In this way, and numerous others, Shigesato Itoi and his team deserve immense credit for what they have achieved in Mother 3. I know Mother 3 will stay with me for a long time, and these reasons are just one part of what makes this game so special.

Matthewmatosis' video on "Taking and Leaving a Penny" (the quoted portion is from 21:04 – 24:04):

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