Exploring The Motherlike: Or, The Genre That Never Was

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Exploring The Motherlike: Or, The Genre That Never Was

The only thing that can possibly rival the mystique of the quirky Japanese RPG series Mother is the mystique of its fans. Known as Earthbound in North America, it’s only natural that, as the generations affected by the original SNES titles grew older and began making their own games, the Mother series would be a huge part of the video game developer subconscious. Recently, a genre affectionately termed “Motherlikes” has been popping up in the fan lexicon on sites such as Tumblr and TV Tropes, referring to offbeat indie games that mixed surreal humor with creepiness. Inspired by the smash success of Undertale, I set out to speak to the people behind this wonderful new creation on their Mother influences. So imagine my surprise when I found out.. they had none.

“The similarities between Ib and Mother…honestly, I have no idea.” says kouri, creator of the J-horror game Ib. ”Ib isn’t an RPG, and it’s hard to say that even the graphics look like Mother’s. It’s not even a commercial game with an ‘Itoi-like’ voice, so actually I’m the one who wants to know how our games resemble each other.”

Released in 2012, Ib was created entirely using RPG Maker 2000 and focused on the titular character Ib, a young girl who gets trapped in a world of paintings. After finding two other people in the same predicament, the three of them search for a way out. The game blew up among fanart communities and inspired similar games such as The Witch’s House and Mad Father. With its story of a young child facing an unspeakable evil, some drew connections between it and the Mother series. This likely led to its classification as a “Motherlike”. However, kouri sees no connection.

“I have played Mother. However, I do not think that they have much in common.” On the game’s child protagonist, he says “I thought it was natural to use a young girl to represent a powerless player. There are not many things that you can do. Also, by doing things that way, the game possibly has more depth when ‘an adult who can do things children can’t do’ appears in the midgame.”

In a similar vein, Stephen “thecatamites” Murphy had played the Mother games before making his psychedelic masterpiece Space Funeral, but didn’t use them as a direct inspiration. “I liked Earthbound when I emulated it as a teen but it was kind of too late by then for it to have much impression.” says Murphy.

Despite most people being able to finish it in around an hour or less, Space Funeral leaves an impact for it’s nonsensical plot, following a sad man named Philip and his companion Leg Horse on a pilgrimage to go to the City of Forms and do…something. Mix together wizards, literal crime lords, Lucy from Peanuts, a weed-smoking Dracula and a soundtrack combining 60’s psychedelic rock with 80’s Japanese electronica and you’ll have a vague idea of what Space Funeral is like.

“I think for any RPG to work you more or less have to experience it in that same fugue state that you watch movies in as a kid, where you just pick up these disconnected fragments of what’s happening without knowing or caring that you don’t follow what’s going on.” says Murphy. “The abstract idea or rumour of Earthbound as a ‘colourful, funny RPG’ probably had more of an impact in just suggesting that different approaches could and had been done.”

Meanwhile, “It was not a conscious influence at the time, I think.” says Sean Hogan, one of the developers of indie RPG Anodyne on the Mother series.

Anodyne is the story of Young, a white-haired man who awakes in a world simply known as The Land and is told by the village elder to go on a journey to save a man called The Briar from the mysterious Darkness. Despite being perceived as a Motherlike, the influence is tangential at best. “I played [Mother 3] in 2011 and [Mother 2] at some point (I think after?).” says Hogan. “However, as I thought more about M2 in the past few years, I would say that Itoi’s strong writing has definitely been an influence, on the power of good games writing, and the importance of having a wide variety of material to pull from when creating a work. That’s the biggest thing I’ve taken from the series, but not really, the ‘Mother Writing Style’, (short, punchy, clever dialogue) which I think is part of why people perceive Anodyne as M2-like, next to the off-beat settings. I’ve been doing solo work, and the same stuff applies – I don’t really aspire to imitate or use that writing style as an influence, but I do want to make good writing, or stuff that is thematically strong/interesting like the Mother series.”

Martin Georis, a.k.a. Mortis Ghost, didn’t even play any of the Mother games when his “Motherlike” OFF was developed. Released in French in 2008, OFF follows the bizarre and surreal journey of The Batter, a cold man in a batter’s uniform out to cleanse mysterious “zones” of “spectres”. The game quickly got a large and devoted fanbase on Tumblr, becoming the sixth most reblogged game of the year it came out (all the other games on the list were AAA titles). When Undertale was released, the Motherlike community drew parallels between OFF, Undertale and other Motherlikes, leading to a wealth of fanart and fanfiction. However, according to Georis, this resemblance was completely coincidental.

“My favorite game at the time was Killer 7, and I had the desire to create a game as strange as Suda 51’s one. This was the big point.” says Georis. “I was aware of the [Mother] games, especially Earthbound – which was on my to-do list – but I don’t have the memory of me making a mental link between them and OFF at the time. I was more into an idea of making a mix between Killer 7, Final Fantasy and Myst. These were the games I was thinking the most when I made OFF, even if it looks a bit strange. I discovered the Mother series years after OFF’s release, and it was a shock. Today Mother 3 is my favorite game of all time, and I think OFF would have been really different if I played Shigesato Itoi’s game before. Like, much less dark and negative.”

Of all the creators I talked to, there was only one who claimed Mother as a conscious influence. Austin “Dingaling” Jorgensen, creator of the LISA series, was completely upfront about his love of the venerable franchise.

“Hate to be ‘that guy’ but Mother is amazing to me! Specifically Earthbound (Mother 2).” says Jorgensen. “I don’t think I was inspired by Earthbound, I was infected by it. It always lingers in all my creative projects whether consciously or subconsciously.”

Jorgensen’s LISA series is made up of three entries: LISA the First, LISA the Painful RPG, and LISA the Joyful. The First is a short RPG Maker game in the style of Yume Nikki and follows the titular Lisa through a mental landscape as she attempts to escape her abusive household. The Painful RPG is a full-length game set in a post-apocalyptic world where a “Great White Flash” has completely erased women from the earth, and the remaining men have been reduced to bands of roving perverts. The protagonist, Brad Armstrong, is a troubled martial artist living with his surrogate daughter Buddy, the last female on earth, when she is suddenly kidnapped, setting him on a quest throughout the remains of America to find her. The Joyful is a DLC add-on that follows Buddy after the events of the Painful RPG. The three games have an incredibly dark sense of humor and deal in themes such as depression, rape, abuse and addiction, leading to it’s reputation as the most “adult” Motherlike. Yet, Jorgensen says that even this was somewhat of an accident.

“At the core it’s really just my personality.” says Jorgensen. “I curse, I’m drawn to weirdness. I hate being scared, never watch scary movies, but I still find myself drawn to the ‘unknown’ that the horror genre often plays off of. So it was never a goal to make an adult Mother game, it just kinda turned out that way on it’s own.”

After going through all this information, I was at a loss. How does a subgenre get created entirely by accident, with the creators at its forefront working in bubbles isolated from each other and the category that they are allegedly a part of? The natural conclusion would be that the Motherlike was an invention entirely created by fans, not by the creators themselves. So what led to fans gravitating towards this term?

A possible explanation would be the general obsession with categorizing media. As any music fan can tell you, genres are a tangled web of main genres, subgenres, sub-subgenres, diagrams and charts interlocking with each other to form new categories that are so niche they may only be occupied by one or two artists. For the most part, games have managed to avoid ultra-compartmentalizing on the same scale. This is because, with music, the strictly aural experience lets creators fly off into parts unknown. Games and visual media in general are more of a scientific beast than music – even if you’re doing things lo-fi, certain elements always have to be in place for things to work out properly. Games are perhaps even farther right on the scale of art and science than film since they have the additional requirement of player input.

But even putting aside the nature of games themselves, the state of the games industry is another factor. The lack of subgenres in comparison to music or even film implies that developers prefer sticking to scripts, and experimenting with different genres to create something entirely new is just not feasible when devs are barely living from paycheck to paycheck on established ideas. Even when something unique is created, it’s up to other creators to play off it in order for a genre to be formed. Lightning striking once is rare enough, lightning striking several times in a row is downright impossible. The fan-driven coining of “Motherlike” could be a subconscious reaction to all this.

When taking that into consideration, the creation of the Motherlike, even though it was a complete accident, could be seen as a positive thing. It’s a hopeful sign that, with the game industry being in the state it’s in, an entirely new and unique subgenre managed to be formed. However, this is not without its adverse effects.

“I’m sort of wary on framing games too extremely as “Something-likes”, since that can influences the way we read or consume something, or how we discuss it… I mean, it’s good to contextualize something with influences and history – and it can be valuable, say in historical analysis, or a starting point for reflecting on what you played, but sometimes it can be limiting if we’re not careful.” says Hogan. “Especially in reviews… because everyone has their own experiences from a particular game, and set of expectations for what counts as a similar game, when someone frames a game as being too ‘something-like’, that can set up potential players for a tainted experience, because they’ll be looking for these symbols and things that conform to their experience with some game.”

With the gaming world still winding down from last year’s Undertale-mania, it remains to be seen whether the Motherlike will have a significant presence in the future of indie gaming. If it does, then we could be seeing several joyous and quirky experiences being released. Just don’t be surprised if you ask one of their developers about the Mother influence, and they reply “What’s that?”

Special thanks to @frog_kun for making the interview with kouri possible.

Adam Nizam is a freelance writer who covers film, music, games and anime. He has written for Exclaim! and other places that he can’t tell you about yet. You can check out more of his writing here. If you follow him on Twitter, you will immediately regret it.