I want to talk about Earthbound a little! Earthbound is an RPG from the 90s about kids who travel around the world and fight aliens with household weapons. It might sound kind of familiar, and that’s ok to me, because I love Earthbound. It’s a game that had a really profound impact on me in my formative years, and when I’m being honest I’d say that it isn’t an “influence” or “inspiration” so much as just a part of who I am now, that can’t help but materialize in my work one way or another.
And this has worked to our advantage, because a lot of people look at our game and see Earthbound in it, and they’ll take the time to look at us because of that connection. I think that’s awesome. But I also want to draw some distinction between us and Earthbound, because I think the differences are important. People see the superficial similarities between us and assume that this is the same game, but there’s actually quite a big difference. And this would be a good chance for me to talk about this game as an RPG in the context of another RPG, to try and get at what makes us fundamentally different.
The thing about the gameplay in Earthbound is very cookie-cutter. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but playing Earthbound is mostly mechanically identical to playing an old Dragon Quest game, with some innovations in small corners (rolling HP meters, condiments). What makes Earthbound truly exceptional in my eyes–why it’s a perfect, ideal example of what an RPG can be–is that it has such great ideas and strength of concept and writing that it’s still incredibly fun to play and feels like you’re not playing “just another RPG.” Everything you do gets such great context! I think this is why many first-time game creators want to make RPGs; while they present a technical challenge, most people see them as a simple framework which are there to fill in story details, and expect that their wonderful and original ideas will hold up a game which they’ve put no thought into the gameplay of.
This is what I’m getting at with RPGs and what makes Phantasmaburbia different from most, including Earthbound. There’s a lot of common elements in RPGs which enter into a game unnoticed, these days. To say you’re making an RPG is no different from saying you’re making a game that’s going to have NPCs, currency and shops, towns and adventures and monsters and experience points and levels and all of that. I think people confuse these little tools for the game and genre itself, and don’t even consider that their RPG could exist without one or more of them. That, to me, sounds kind of nuts! This is why RPGs aren’t really seen as a “game designer”‘s game within the industry’s inner circle, I think. This is why I always feel the need to defend myself when I say that the game I’m working on fits into the RPG genre.
Phantasmaburbia was approached from the beginning as a game designer’s game. It retains some common RPG elements, but it drops many others. This is because some of those things simly didn’t make sense for the game. This is why there is no currency and no shops, no NPCs, and a bunch of other things. It’s not intentionally subversive, but it was definitely made in the context of most RPGs I’ve seen which seem compelled to go in the opposite direction.
In general, this is emblematic of the larger fundamental difference between Phantasmaburbia and Earthbound. Earthbound is an epic game. You start in humble beginnings and then travel the world, visiting a variety of places and meeting a variety of people, finding all sorts of crazy items and plundering secrets of the Earth. It is, like most RPGs, a very macroscopic game–it examines, especially at its end, your relationship with the entire world and the human condition in a very broad context. It’s perfectly wonderful, but this is the opposite of Phantasmaburbia, which is at its core a very microscopic game.
Phantasmaburbia takes place entirely in one town. It’s not as if there was an epic adventure which was cut down to one town; we’re exploring the idea the an entire adventure could happen there. Phantasmaburbia focuses on the relationships between its main characters and doesn’t introduce many more. Phantasmaburbia doesn’t deal out currency and have you buying items; it doles out items gradually through secrets and treasure chests. Any given equipment item is the only copy of that item in the whole game, and they each have unique effects that are meant to change the way you play, if only a little. And each character can only hold one item.
The mentality here is to appreciate these little worlds, to squeeze the most out of focused and streamlined ideas. Earthbound is essentially a story you can play through; Phantasmaburbia is essentially a game that tells a story. I’m not saying the story in Phantasmaburbia is irrelevant, far from it. But it has a more meaningful relationship with the actual gameplay.
I hope this clarifies some things! It was fun to consider for a little. Earthbound really is a wonderful game, and if you care about video games and haven’t actually given it a try I would compel you to do so. And I hope you’re looking forward to Phantasmaburbia as we approach the release day!