Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tony Has to Hide His Love Away

I had a thought that virtually no one who reads this blog will understand or care about one way or the other. The thought involves Earthbound. Bored yet? Confused? Yes, well, I encourage you to ignore this one, regular readers; this post, I am certain, is for the Googlers — the people who don’t know me but are somehow fascinated with the same pop culture minutiae that I am.

I’ve mentioned it several times previously on this blog: Earthbound is one of my favorite video games ever, not only because it’s fun to play but because it layers the allusions and references on thick in a way that keeps my English major brain happy. One of the major themes is the music of The Beatles. Most appear through subtle musical cues — songs that sound somewhat like Beatles songs and others that appear to take actual samples form them. (There’s a fairly extensive list of these here.) Other references are more obvious. For example, at one point, the heroes stumble upon an actual yellow submarine.

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There’s another big one that was deleted from the American version, possibly in an effort to make the Beatles references less obvious, possibly for legal reasons. In either version, when starting a new game, the player has the option to rename the four heroes, the main character’s dog, a favorite food and a favorite “thing.” The player can enter whatever he or she wants but can also cycle through several sets of predetermined options. In the Japanese version, one is distinctly Beatles-themed. Protagonist Ness can be “John,” love interested Paula can be “Yoko,” sidekick Jeff can be “Paul,” too-cool karate kid Poo can be “George,” the dog can be “Ringo,” the food can be “honey pie,” and the thing can be “Love” — as in “All You Need Is Love.” Clearly, it’s not reaching to assume that the Beatles were on the minds of Earthbound‘s creators.

I suspect that another Beatles reference may lie in an extremely minor character, Tony. He’s a strange one in a cast of oddballs. (Really, it’s too bad that the boring silent protagonist Ness is the character most people are familiar with, as a result of his appearances in the Smash Bros. games.) Tony appears briefly in the story as the unusually affectionate schoolmate and roommate of Jeff Andonuts, the science whiz kid who eventually joins the main characters in their quest to save the world. Tony’s devotion to Jeff is such that he helps Jeff break out of Snow Wood Boarding House, even crawling onto all fours to allow Jeff to use him as a stepping stool to scale the school’s main gate.

tony earthbound gay

After this point, the two separate, and Tony isn’t seen again until the game’s ending sequence. He’s heard at one point, so to speak. In one of the game’s many breaking-the-fourth-wall moments, Tony calls the heroes later in the game and asks for the player’s name. I mean, the person holding the controller can enter Gaylord Q. Tinkledink, for what it’s worth, but Tony specifically states that he’d like to get the player’s real name. The reason this happens is to allow the game’s final credits to thank the player by name, but Tony offers the reason that he needs it for a school project.

As I said earlier, Tony doesn’t behave like most video game characters do. Despite that Tony is young, his attachment to Jeff is portrayed in a way that very much so seems to suggest his feelings are more than platonic. For example, the pair are first introduced when Jeff wakes up Tony one night in their dorm room. Tony’s response is this: “Ah, Jeff, I just dreamt that you and I were taking a walk. ...What’s wrong?” Not typical schoolmate small talk.

And in the game’s ending, Jeff receives a letter from Tony that reads as follows:
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,

P.S. Don’t show this letter to anyone!
As if to beat legions of slash fiction-writing Earthbound devotees to the punch, the game’s creator and writer, Shigesato Itoi, has stated that such a reading of Tony’s character is correct: He intended Tony to be gay.

In a strange way, Tony stood out even before I learned that he was supposed to be gay. (Though, in being so, he’s even more remarkable, as video games feature very few explicitly gay characters, much less any video games that came out in the U.S. back in 1994.) First, it always seemed glaringly normal that his name was Tony. The rest of the game’s characters sport far stranger names, such as Mister Carpainter, No Name Mouse, Gerardo Montague, Brick Road, The Apple Kid, and Lardna Minch. By contrast, Tony’s name seems very un-Earthbound-like. In light of all the Beatles references — and the game’s alternate name set, which transposes the identities of The Beatles and Yoko Ono onto the main characters — I wonder if Tony might take his name from one of the two Tonys known for their work with the Fab Four. There’s Tony Sheridan — an early collaborator of The Beatles who dropped out when the band went onto bigger and better things, much in the way Earthbound‘s Tony technically joins the party briefly but then lets the main foursome pass on without him. And then there’s Tony Barrow — a press officer who also worked with The Beatles early in their career, though later than Tony Sheridan did. Barrow seems like a less likely candidate, even if Earthbound Tony’s call to get information about the heroes’ progress has the vaguest of similarities to what a press agent would do.

Real-life Tonys aside, I feel like Earthbound’s Tony also merits a comparison to Brian Epstein — the Beatles’ manager and the best possible candidate for the position of “fifth Beatle,” according Paul McCartney. Though not publicly, Epstein was gay, and the stress of leading separate public and private lives inspired the band to write the song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” or so said John Lennon. And Earthbound Tony’s letter to Jeff certainly seems to be doing just that, especially with that postscript line “Don’t show this letter to anyone!”

Of course, I’m overthinking all this. Still, Earthbound is a game that seems to invite analysis, as a lot of what went into it doesn’t seem to be arbitrarily thrown in. I guess posts like this are the most I could ever hope to do in tribute to Itoi’s work: offering even his most minor creations a chance at being placed in popular culture at large.

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