Tony's letter

Published 20 Jul 2020, last modified 19 Sep 2020

A screenshot from Earthbound: Jeff says, "That Tony has a heart of gold..."

I just finished playing EarthBound, the Super Nintendo role-playing game originally released as Mother 2 Japan in 1994, for the first time. I’m pretty late to the party, having already played its Game Boy Advance sequel Mother 3 during that awkward time around when I dropped out of college ca. 2012–2013. Both of these entries in the Mother series are very much unlike any other video game I’ve played. In their basic gameplay mechanics they don’t vary too far from the RPG formula popularized by the Final Fantasy series, but in their narrative and aesthetics they deal very subtly with an unusual set of themes—the perils of masculinity, magic and miracles in seemingly ordinary lives and places, and the violent closing of the commons that accompanies capitalist industrialization—all while maintaining a bright, zany, musical, mostly upbeat, always offbeat style that is more than the sum of its elements. All in all, these games are great fun, and full of surprises, and take a lot of risks that would be unthinkable in a big commercial video game production for the North American market today, though they have inspired some breakout indie successes like Undertale. Everything about them is what I love in video games and also exactly what the industry isn’t looking for right now. They’re RPGs in a market that is now thoroughly dominated by first-person shooters. They’re gloriously and self-consciously cartoonish where the North American video game market has long favored gritty, open-world realism. And they encourage casual play requiring comparatively little manual dexterity in a market that has come to be dominated by e-sports.

But what I want to focus on right now is a single non-playable character from EarthBound. His name is Tony, and he’s not onscreen for most of the game, but he’s super-important. The game’s main playable characters, whose names are all customizable but default to Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, are four kids drawn together from different parts of the game to defeat the interplanetary invasion of a mysterious alien force called Giygas, which has begun to secretly inspire violence and greed among ordinary people and will eventually consume and destroy the world. Jeff is a boarding school student from a country called Winters, who has inherited an extraordinary gift for creating, fixing, and operating machines from his father, the famous inventor Dr. Andonuts. Tony is ostensibly Jeff’s roommate, but he’s also basically Jeff’s boyfriend.

When the player first takes control of Jeff he’s in bed at his boarding school, having just been telepathically contacted in his dreams by Ness and Paula, who need help elsewhere in the game. He shares the room with Tony, who appears to still be asleep in his own bed. If you have Jeff talk to him before leaving the room, he admits he’s just been dreaming about Jeff:

Ah, Jeff, I just dreamt that you and I were taking a walk.

…What’s wrong?

Whether or not you choose to make Jeff wake Tony on his way out of the room, Tony will see that Jeff is sneaking out, accept without explanation that Jeff has something important to do, and go out of his way to make sure that he can escape with any equipment he might need. This culminates with Tony giving Jeff a boost over the school’s gate—he lies down and you need to have Jeff step on him just to get out to the next area of the game.

Tony next appears about midway through the game, some time after Jeff has joined Ness and Paula in their adventure; the group receive a letter from Tony, imploring them to take good care of Jeff. And then Tony becomes the only character in the game (apart from the narrator) to address the character directly, breaking the fourth wall. He says he needs your name for a school project; this is how the game collects your name to use it later on. But he doesn’t appear on screen again until the player characters infiltrate an underground Giygas base, where Tony is among several unrelated characters who have been abducted and are held in what look like enormous beakers of water until you can liberate them. At first, Tony only addresses Jeff, although by this point the player controls a party of four characters; he had complete faith that Jeff would come to his rescue and eventually explains to the others that Jeff is his “best friend,” and that they “go way back.” But from that point forward the player characters have to continue their quest without Tony again.

Tony appears during the game’s final battle, as one of several characters Paula telepathically recruits to help the protagonists stop Giygas, and this is the last time he’s on screen apart from the end credits. But he gets a final word in after this last big battle. When Poo leaves the party and returns to his distant home country of Dalaam, he leaves behind three letters from the characters who miss Ness, Paula, and Jeff the most. Ness gets a letter from his mother, who has been waiting for him at home. Paula gets a letter from kids at the daycare center she helps her parents run. And Jeff gets this letter from Tony:

Dear Jeff,

Everything’s really going great here. I wish I could have gone with you on your adventure, even just part of the way, but instead I’m sitting here, waiting for you in Winters. I want to see you again as soon as possible. I can’t wait to see your cheerful face. I bet your glasses are dirty… If you come back, I’ll clean them for you!

Like I said, I’m waiting for you.

Yours truly,
Tony

P.S. Don’t show this letter to anyone!

At this point Jeff has left the party and is already preparing to go home to Winters… to see Tony, he says. If you have Ness read the letter before presenting it to Jeff, he says:

Ah, Ness, you’ve read it already…

…That Tony has a heart of gold…

So that’s it. That’s the whole story of Tony. He’s passionately devoted to Jeff throughout the game, does everything a non-player character can do to help him out, and in it’s own small way the game celebrates this as something special and important. It’s just one of many small interwoven stories that make up the narrative arcs of the Mother games, and it’s certainly not the most bizarre or head-turning. But it’s significant to me, and I wanted to say a few words about why. Mainly that’s because it’s still kinda rare to have male character in a piece of pop media care for another male character in this way without narrative going out of its way to pull a “no homo,” whether through jokes or through some variation on “Don’t worry, he has a girlfriend…” EarthBound does neither, and that’s especially surprising in

The game never specifically uses a word like gay or boyfriend in the context of Tony’s relationship with Jeff. And, as a player character, Jeff doesn’t have many opportunities in the game to demonstrate the degree to which he does or does not reciprocate Tony’s devotion. But you’d have to be pretty obstinate not to see something significant in Tony’s behavior toward him. In an interview partially translated by EarthBound Central, EarthBound writer-director Itoi Shigesato explains:

I designed him to be a gay child. In a normal, real-life society, there are gay children, and I have many gay friends as well. So I thought it would be nice to add one in the game, too.

I’m pretty cynical about the drive to seek improved media representation of minority groups, not because I don’t think it’s worthwhile, but because I’m sometimes concerned that people could get caught up on trying to achieve that when there might be more practical or more urgent opportunities for meaningful structural change, and because I feel that commercial media in a capitalist society is fundamentally limited in its ability to represent the human experience. But the fact is that, while I was drawn into various fictional worlds growing up, I really struggled to find characters that I really related to, as someone who didn’t have the words to describe any of this yet but was autistic and not straight. Being white, I did see a lot of fictional characters who superficially looked at me, but I could hardly ever relate to the way they moved through the world, as it were, without imagining experiences that were fundamentally different from mine.

So it’s a little thing that still gets to me, just to see male characters caring for each other in this way without it having to be a joke or something the narrative has to excuse in order to protect someone’s masculinity. I’m disproportionately excited when I see it, like someone who has walked just a little too long without water finally coming home to the kitchen tap.


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