Welcome to the Character Column! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at a different character from Nintendo’s long and esteemed history, and I’ll analyze what makes them interesting, nuanced, or just plain memorable. Whether they’re heroes, villains or NPCs, I’ll explain why they deserve respect or love from the fanbase and a place in video game history.
Last week, we covered King Dedede, the morally gray monarch, who had an interesting history of deeds (whether heroic or villainous). And this week, on the heels of massive E3 news, I thought it would be nice to take a step back and examine a smaller character. The four entries to the column we’ve had so far are major players in their respective franchises, and sometimes, you have to pay your respect to the little guys, you know? Games aren’t built solely on protagonists and their nemeses – the NPCs are also instrumental in delivering a satisfying experience, and often much more instrumental in world building. And when it comes to great NPCs, no game beats EarthBound.
Let me come out and say it: EarthBound is my favorite game of all time. Admittedly, my list is a bit fickle, and occasionally another game claws to the top, but EarthBound most consistently holds the top spot. To describe my feelings toward the game would be long and difficult – its various intricacies, machinations and heartfelt moments are hard to capture in text. If it’s a game you haven’t played, I really recommend going out and trying it for yourself. It’s simply one of the most unique games I’ve ever played, one whose style hasn’t been mimicked perfectly (with the exception of the fellow games in the Mother series – and perhaps Undertale, though that’s a big perhaps).
And of all the most memorable NPCs – from the helpful Apple Kid to the enigmatic Dungeon Man to the heartfelt pair of star-crossed sesame seeds in the desert (EarthBound’s a bit of an odd game), the one that sticks out the most in my mind is the unnamed Photographer, a chubby, bearded fellow in a top hat whose presence is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Whenever you pass through a certain location, both the music and Ness’ party will stop in their tracks, as a familiar jingle plays and the Photographer descends from the heaven like some bespectacled angel. The Photographer cares not for time or location – your party could be half dead and mired in a swamp, and the Abe Lincoln wannabe would still deliver his monologue (unchanged throughout the game) and make the following remark upon snapping a pic:
“Wow! What a great photograph! It will always bring back the fondest of memories…”
And then he soars off, back to whatever divine providence he hailed from, and the game continues on. The pure oddness of the Photographer’s appearances – along with the classic line of “fuzzy pickles” (Fun Fact: In the Japanese version, he asked your party to say “cheese sandwich” instead) – solidifies his presence in a game that seems constantly fluid in its absurdity. Whether in a scorching desert, the big city, or a valley filled with weird little pink guys (ZOOM!), this mystical cameraman will swoop down and capture the moment without fail. And as weird as the Photographer is, there’s a certain nostalgic charm to his appearances – his calling for a group photo evokes memories of old family gatherings and childhood goofiness.
There are a total of 32 potential pictures the Photographer can take – most of them optional. In fact, some make it a point to collect as few as possible throughout the game. There are only three that you can’t avoid: one in front of Master Belch’s lair, one in Tenda Village, and one automatically taken at the end of the game. But among all the pictures, they cover a wide, wide selection of memorable areas and moments: the cabin where Paula was imprisoned, the Chaos Theater, Fourside’s Museum, the throne of Dalaam… even that one house in Onett with little else in it has a spot where the Photographer descends from on high to snap another slice of life. But why does this guy keep popping up? To make Ness make the peace sign untils his fingers cramp?
Well, at the end of the game (potential spoilers, though not really), as the credits pass by, you finally see them – all the photos the Photographer has taken over your journey. From Ness’ house to Threed’s tent to the final moments in Saturn Valley, the player gets to remember the rest of the game as Smiles and Tears plays in the background. It’s a heartfelt experience – not only because of what you’ve accomplished, but because of the memories that come rushing back.
The fondest of memories…
It’s here, in these photographs, that one of the core themes of EarthBound is emphasized: nostalgia. The whole game invokes the feeling – in the Sanctuary locations, in conversations with Ness’ mother, in his inward journey to Magicant… EarthBound is a game that contrasts the weirdness and whimsy of childhood with the supposed maturity of reality, resulting in a bizarre and surreal experience that is often confusing and occasionally terrifying. And the Photographer is another element in this equation, not only adding to the surrealness present but also providing another avenue of nostalgia to experience. And, like the other instruments the game uses, the player experiences this nostalgia through Ness.
EarthBound is one heck of a weird ride. It’s so jam-packed with non sequiturs, wacky characters, and dreamlike wonder that it’s simultaneously memorable and easy to lose track of. The pure density of locations, characters and details make the game look almost like a hypnagogic mess from the outside… yet, nobody forgets EarthBound. Its humor, its horror, its humanity – all are captured, however briefly, in a single instance, 32 times over. By looking back on the journey taken to defeat Giygas, Ness and the Player remember – their journey, their trials, and their youth, and reflect upon what has changed.
That’s what makes the Photographer so brilliant. At a glance, he just appears to be another odd cog in a world full of eccentricity, but in the end, he provides a final note to think upon. EarthBound is a game with a lot of different machinations and meanings at work, and there are times where you wonder just what it’s all about. But looking back upon those old photographs, you feel memories you didn’t realize you had, and realize the cameraman was right all along.
They say it’s more about the journey than the destination. But sometimes, thinking back upon the journey can be just as important.
True, the Photographer isn’t much of a character in his own right. He never says more than those few lines, he doesn’t have a fascinating backstory or an intriguing arc. But in the end, characters are tools: a means to an end, to express whatever device or message a game wishes to convey. And when it comes to that aspect, the Photographer is among the best there is.
Thank you so much for reading this week’s iteration of the Character Column! It was a surprisingly emotional experience, and I hope you enjoyed it in the wake of E3 announcements. Tune in next time, when we talk about one of my all time favorite characters, Hector of Ostia, Lord and axe-wielder extraordinaire. Until then!
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“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.”
– The Photographer, EarthBound