An Overflowing Lack of Purpose

Written for Ontolgical Geek, recreated with permission.

Eagleland is some­thing of an idyl­lic, sub­ur­ban par­adise. Small towns, beau­ti­fully kept grass and wood­lands, tourist vis­tas, burger shops, and drug­stores galore. Every town has a won­der­ful hotel, plenty of access to fee-free ATMs, and its own suite of strange char­ac­ters and faces.

For Ness and his friends, Eagleland is a won­der­ful place to go on a city-hopping adven­ture. The cities’ char­ac­ters are all friendly enough, uncrit­i­cally flawed, fool­ish, ener­getic, and pro­foundly impor­tant parts of the jour­ney. Without the aid of a caus­tic and toxic neigh­bor, for instance, Ness would never dis­cover what he needs to begin his jour­ney. Without the aid of a knife-wielding bully, Ness couldn’t even reach the first goal. A police force that breeds a healthy dis­trust of author­ity leads to com­fort later when pock­et­ing a questionably-legal wad of money to get a good band out of a bad con­tract. All of these take place within a few min­utes and miles from Ness’s child­hood home. Each of these faces are an impor­tant part of how Ness does what he does. Without them, the jour­ney couldn’t con­tinue.

Earthbound is a well-designed game. All of these details paint beau­ti­ful pic­tures of the prac­tices and pol­i­tics of Onett, Twoson, and the rest of Eagleland as the jour­ney con­tin­ues. The quirky char­ac­ters Ness meets over this time are all very prag­matic. They offer fights for expe­ri­ence, insights to goings-on around town, and infor­ma­tion about equip­ment, and drug stores, and hotels, and pizza deliv­ery, and every­thing in between. None of these char­ac­ters are really wasted. Most of any­thing Ness will encoun­ter can point him in a good direc­tion, or at least provide the dialog equiv­a­lent of a tooltip. Every town has a phone and an ATM. Almost every town has a hotel, a few shops, items to find, and NPCs that offer cryp­tic or bla­tant hints about where one should go to pro­gress the story. The NPCs that don’t offer that ser­vice often provide play tips, or express abstract ideas about the town or area that serve as both fla­vor and semi-hinting infor­ma­tion. There is, how­ever, one very strange out­lier.

Fuzzy Pickles, pho­tog­ra­pher extra­or­di­naire, is a spo­rad­i­cally appear­ing char­ac­ter who descends from the sky in a helicopter’s spi­ral. Through his fan­fare, he announces, “Pictures taken instan­ta­neously! I’m a pho­to­graphic genius, if I do say so myself! Okay, get ready for an instant mem­ory! Look at the cam­era… Ready… Say, ‘fuzzy pick­les.’” And like that, the world pauses for a snap­shot. The shut­ter snaps in from the edges of the screen, cap­tur­ing that moment through the photographer’s lens. Then away he goes again, spi­ral­ing back into the air.

This sequence is repeated sev­eral times over the course of the game. Whether it’s sen­si­ble or not for the sit­u­a­tion, Fuzzy Pickles can and often does elect to appear when there’s good oppor­tu­nity for pho­to­graphic genius to be indulged. Whether that means light­ing gen­tly on a rock in the mid­dle of a lake that would be unreach­able oth­er­wise, or spi­ral­ing into a deep, under­ground sewer just prior to a bom­bas­tic fight with anthro­po­mor­phic slime. As if he were a drill to pierce the heav­ens, through cav­erns, sew­ers, down moun­tains, open fields, val­leys, or into dreams, Fuzzy Pickles arrives to take pic­tures. And noth­ing else.

As a mat­ter of design, the rest of Earthbound sits some­what sep­a­rately from the aerial cam­era­man. Under the mad­cap aes­thetic style and absurd cir­cum­stances, just about every­thing that calls atten­tion to itself, from myth­i­cal lake mon­sters to named fig­ures around town, is in ser­vice of some prac­ti­cal goal. Good design expects that things that hap­pen are mean­ing­ful; Fuzzy Pickles’ time-freezing arrivals are almost every­thing but. He offers noth­ing to the hero’s jour­ney, nor does he really impact it in any way save giv­ing it brief pauses. Fuzzy Pickles is, nar­ra­tively and mechan­i­cally, point­less. By con­ven­tional stan­dards, Fuzzy Pickles should be a poorly designed and log­i­cally dis­tract­ing inclu­sion, but he isn’t.

Fuzzy Pickles calls sig­nif­i­cant atten­tion to him­self in order to pur­sue his pho­tog­ra­phy the way he wants to. In terms of his abil­ity to influ­ence the game how he likes, he has at least as much agency as the player does, though he expresses that agency only to do some­thing enjoy­able. Fuzzy Pickles takes pic­tures because he loves to take pic­tures, and he loves that jour­neys aren’t just feats of adven­tur­ing, but also mem­o­ries. Fuzzy Pickles expresses his opin­ion on the adven­ture by mak­ing him­self a part of it, but not in a way that helps the player. He’s mostly just help­ing him­self.

However, even though he should just be a diver­sion from the main story events, Fuzzy Pickles installs him­self into the aes­thetic of the game. Fuzzy Pickles isn’t mechan­i­cally or nar­ra­tively nec­es­sary, but he is inte­gral to how Earthbound feels. Without the ambush­ing cam­era­man, Earth­bound would feel lesser. Even with the rest of the game going at a blis­ter­ing pace of odd­ity and silli­ness, Fuzzy Pickles feels impor­tant.

Fuzzy Pickles grows to become some­thing more than his enthu­si­asm or his charm. He endears him­self to the player the same way going back and view­ing his pho­tos might. He becomes a bea­con for the mem­o­ries of the moment. The calm, rel­a­tive quiet of the snap­shot is all the time he needs to implant him­self in Ness’s jour­ney. Without him, the jour­ney would still be exactly as sig­nif­i­cant, exactly as urgent, and exactly as it is, but not nearly as mem­o­rable.

These pho­tographs, when they come, rarely leave as large an impres­sion in their moments as they do after­ward. Their sub­dued weight is sig­naled by a sim­ple sen­tence at that fol­lows the snap­shot. “Wow, what a great pho­tograph! It will always bring back the fondest of mem­o­ries…” They are a quiet, piv­otal aspect of the adven­ture.

In part, because adven­tures are tran­sient, always in motion. The adven­ture today will look dif­fer­ent from the adven­ture tomor­row. A small, sleepy sub­ur­ban town teem­ing with police bar­ri­cades will melt away and be replaced with a town bor­der­ing a cult of blue-enthusiasts. Then a small city full of zom­bies. Then a bustling urban sprawl. Between them all, bands and buses and bikes and busi­ness. Every pass­ing day is a change of scenery, a change of tone, or just a dras­tic change of expec­ta­tion. Conflicts cede to new con­flicts, and every­thing is chang­ing as quickly as Ness can travel. Much of it could very well be for­got­ten for the next prob­lem. Players who don’t make time for a bit of reflec­tion won’t oth­er­wise have time to reflect on it all. Except for Fuzzy Pickles.

A rotat­ing, dap­per, bearded pho­tog­ra­phy enthu­si­ast who installs him­self in pass­ing moments, takes a photo, makes them per­ma­nent, and dis­ap­pears back into the sky. A beat panel in the comic of Ness and his party’s life, just enough for a moment of exha­la­tion, a peace sign, and a snap­shot. A pho­to­jour­nal­ist of sorts that almost, but not quite, removes him­self from the life and tri­als Ness faces. Then, when it’s all said and done, there are still pho­tos. Little memen­tos of some moments of the adven­ture, each with their own brief moment of reflec­tion, left for those who want to revisit.

Without Fuzzy Pickles, it wouldn’t be Earthbound. It would be pro­foundly sim­i­lar, cer­tainly, but remark­ably less too. Like going out to din­ner with friends with­out eat­ing, none of the con­ver­sa­tion changes, no one is miss­ing, but it still feels off. There’s a sense of uncanny that some­thing should be there, but isn’t. The aes­thetic of Earthbound hinges, to a degree, on Fuzzy Pickles being a part of the scenery, a moment in the adven­tures, an impor­tant and point­less part of the expe­ri­ence.