Mother 3 and Pacing
StoryScan: Weak Point
Our newest feature, StoryScan: Weak Point, highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Mother 3 (Nintendo, 2006), the Japan-exclusive sequel to the cult classic Earthbound (Nintendo, 1995). This essay will cover content from the entire plot of Mother 3, while also making reference to Earthbound. Players who have not completed those games may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for their main storylines.
In 1994, Nintendo released EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan), the quirky role-playing game that eschewed the traditional swords and sorcery of the genre in favor of a modern suburban setting. Due in part to its simple graphics and unflattering marketing campaign (based around the slogan: ‘This game stinks!’), players rejected the title in favor of Nintendo’s more popular offerings, and EarthBound was left to languish in relative obscurity until word of mouth and dedicated fans elevated it to cult-classic status.
Ten years later, EarthBound finally received a sequel: Mother 3 for the GameBoy Advance. While Mother 3‘s Japanese launch was met with critical and commercial success, the prior failure of EarthBound kept Mother 3 from seeing a global release. English-speaking fans who wanted to experience the story had to rely on an unofficial localization made by members of the EarthBound community. Those fans who played the localization would learn that Mother 3 represents a departure from its predecessor in both its setting and tone. While EarthBound was a lighthearted story grounded in its modern setting, Mother 3 took a darker approach by focusing on the tragedies that occur when technology comes to the remote island of Tazmily. Although some fans balked at the stylistic shifts, most fans of the series see Mother 3 as a worthy successor to previous entries. The game is not without its flaws, however, nor is its story. An imbalanced structure, sporadic perspective shifts, and multi-year temporal shifts result in an opening with a stop-and-start pace, one that regularly requires players to reorient themselves in a new place, time, and perspective. Although the pacing issues level off in the latter half of the game, the early problems create a barrier to entry for both new players and those considering a replay.
Mother 3 uses chapter markers to divide the game’s structure into distinct sections. There are eight chapters in all, plus an introductory section with a playtime of approximately ten minutes*. With the exception of the introductory section, each chapter opens with a title card and closes with a summarizing text scroll. The combined effect creates an experience akin to reading a novel, complete with the commentary of an omniscient narrator. Where Mother 3 breaks with the conventions of the typical book is in its wildly variable chapter lengths, which range from ten minutes (the prologue, Chapter 6) to over three hours (Chapters 7 and 8). The chapters are particularly back-heavy, as well; given a completion time of approximately fifteen hours, the final two chapters combined take up over half of the entire game.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with variable chapter lengths in a single work. While some writers take a very hard-line approach to the length of time between beats—notably Blake Snyder, the screenwriter who delineates page numbers for each beat—there is no ideal chapter length, nor is there an ideal length range between chapters. The reasons writers strive for consistent chapter lengths are twofold: creating, then meeting, audience expectations. If the first three chapters of a story are similar in size, this builds an expectation that subsequent chapters will conform to the standard. Mother 3 strays from conventional wisdom here, as its initial chapter lengths are not reflective of the chapters to come. While chapters one through five are relatively consistent, requiring between one and two hours of playtime, the sixth chapter defies the established rhythm with a ten-minute dream sequence devoid of gameplay. The chapter that follows further disrupts the pace, taking the opposite approach of Chapter 6 and requiring almost five hours of playtime. This one-two punch of pace changes shatters the audience’s expectations, leaving them with no frame of reference for how long the game’s final sections will take to complete. It’s a unique strategy for rewiring the audience’s thought patterns, especially on its own, but it’s not the only questionable aspect of Mother 3‘s pacing.
Mother 3‘s chapters are not only variable in length but also in perspective. When players begin the game, they’re placed in the role of Lucas, a ten-year-old boy who lives in harmony with his mother, father, and brother on the island of Tazmily. Players are given approximately ten minutes to familiarize themselves with Lucas and his world, at which point the first official chapter begins and the player’s control jumps to Lucas’s father, Flint. As Flint is already an established character by this point, the jump is not a drastic one, and it does not take players long to reorient themselves in his shoes. They aren’t in those shoes for long, however, as the next chapter opens with a jump outside the family. For Chapter 2, players control Duster, a minor character from the previous chapter who requires his own introductory scene to flesh out his motivations and backstory. Both Lucas and Flint fall into the background, de-emphasizing their importance to the story as a whole. This pattern continues in Chapter 3, when players switch away from Duster and take control of Salsa the monkey. Unlike Duster and Flint, Salsa was not previously established in prior chapters, so the player once again requires a character introduction. This pushes the previous perspective characters that much further into the background, leaving them to reconvene at the end of the chapter. It’s only when Salsa meets with the people of Tazmily that the perspective switches back to Lucas, where it remains for the rest of the game.
Like variable chapter lengths, perspective switches are neither inherently good nor bad. Both video games and novels make frequent use of them, especially in sprawling stories with ensemble casts. The issue with Mother 3’s perspective changes is once again one of consistency. For the first four chapters—half the chapters in the game—the perspective character switches with each successive chapter. These consistent changes are enough to form a pattern in the player’s mind, building expectations for future chapters. These expectations are upended in the back half of the game when players regain control of Lucas and never step away from him again. While this sometimes occurs in ensemble games once all the perspective characters have come together, Lucas’s final party only contains one other perspective character: Duster. The other two characters, Salsa and Flint, never join your party in an official capacity, and Salsa’s role in the story is over before the final act. To say they serve no importance to the narrative would diminish the impact of their scenes (especially Flint, who plays an essential role in the closing). However, their perspective chapters still build an expectation in the player’s mind that ultimately goes unfulfilled.
Mother 3‘s final pacing issue is related to the passage of time. Each chapter is marked by a distinct leap in time, but the leaps are neither consistent nor chronological. While the first two time jumps (intro to Chapter 1, Chapter 1 to Chapter 2) occur over a matter of days, the next time jump takes players back in time, setting the first half of Chapter 3’s events concurrently with the latter half of Chapter 2’s. This jump requires audiences to piece together where Chapter 3 fits into Chapter 2, which was not something previously required of them. This backward leap is counteracted by a three-year forward jump in the next chapter, leaving players in an unrecognizable world. Not only has time transformed the sleepy town of Tazmily into a modern suburb, but it has also seen the young, scared Lucas grow into a brave teenaged boy. While the seeds of his growth are sown in the background of earlier chapters, the three-year gap represents a substantial chunk of the characters’ lives that players don’t see. Instead, players must reorient themselves in the world, using context clues to bridge the gaps between past and present. It’s a level of reorientation the game never again asks of the player, as all subsequent chapters return to the short, linear timeskips from the earliest parts of the game.
Time skips are a valid tool for writers looking to play with pace, just like variable chapter lengths and perspective switches. Once again, where Mother 3 runs into trouble is with consistency. The relatively short time jumps between the earliest chapters set an expectation in the player’s mind, and that expectation is defied twice over with irregular chronological shifts that are never again repeated. These shifts break the established pattern for time jumps, leaving players without a sense of how they can expect time to progress in the game’s latter half. The three-year time skip is especially jarring, as it skims over moments of crucial character growth in favor of expediting the central conflict. While this is not a bad thing by itself, it’s yet another situation where the player must reorient themselves in a new position, even though they’re in the mind of a familiar character.
The story of Mother 3 is one of setting up and tearing down player expectations, leading to an unpredictable pace. By playing with time, place, and perspective at irregular intervals, players can never truly get comfortable with who, when, and where they are, or how long they’re going to be there. For some fans, this irregular pace is part of the game’s charm, while for others, it acts as a barrier to entry for both initial and repeated playthroughs. While there’s no telling how Mother 3‘s story would have unfolded if it had been written as a linear, singular perspective, it would have been more in line with series conventions, genre conventions, and player expectations. For a more accessible story, writers looking to emulate Mother 3‘s style in their own work should think carefully before applying all of its pacing techniques at once and instead pick and choose the methods that work best for the story they want to tell.
* Reference Footage (Timing): LazyBlue. MOTHER 3 #1 – Full Gameplay – No Commentary. YouTube, 2017.
** Additional Reference Footage (Images): NicoB. A HAPPY FAMILY – Let’s Play – Mother 3 – 1 – Walkthrough Playthrough. YouTube, 2018.