My Father the Phone: A tribute to Ness’s dad

Call your mother

Today is Father’s Day, and many videogame characters out there are likely celebrating their fathers and father figures. The Koopa Kids and Bowser Jr. have Bowser, Jade has Pey’j, and Mega Man has Dr. Light. Fathers are important things to have in one’s life, as reflected by the sheer amount of them created by developers to work alongside their protagonist sons and daughters.

While the others are out giving gifts and spending quality time with their dads, Ness, star of the popular second entry of the Mother series, is more likely to sit by the phone all day with his sister and mother. He never sees the head of his family, not even on the one holiday dedicated to him.

To most, Ness’s father probably doesn’t seem like the best videogame dad. He comes off as somewhat of a deadbeat, due to a huge loan he took from his neighbors without paying it back. He is never at home to see his family, not even after his son saves the entire world. But somehow, he is still the first one to come to my mind when I start to think about the subject of prominent pixelated patriarchs.

Earthbound, and the Mother series in general, contains a lot of comforting familiarity within all of its wackiness. The characters look normal enough, healing items are just normal snack items, the cities look like the ones we visit every day, and so on, and so forth. You can even input your favorite food for your mother to make for you. The way that all of the characters speak and act, even the stranger ones, make the world in these games much closer to ours. In the center of it all, it is Ness’s father who is one of the strongest ropes tying it all down to run parallel with the world outside the game. His normalcy lies in his faults.

Ness’s father is supposedly symbolic of workaholism, one of the biggest problems among Japanese men. They tend to spend so much time at the office that they have none left to give much personal attention to their wives and children. Work is such a huge part of his life that one of the only things ever unveiled about him is that that his job is in the hamburger industry.

But even though Itoi created Ness’s dad with Japan’s social problems in mind, his ways also reflect a similar problem within the United States: divorce. Like many children my age and younger, I grew up without Father’s Day celebrations due to a divorce that occurred early in my life. The first time that I played Earthbound was before I knew anything about the foreign cultural influences behind the design. I looked at the relationship between Ness’s father and the rest of his family, particularly the father and child relationship, and wholeheartedly believed that this game’s hero too was a young victim of parental separation.

I had experienced all of these things before. Him leeching off of others. His promises of being there on birthdays that never come to fruition. Spending more time over the phone with him than in person. I’m sure many others felt the same way toward Ness’s dad when they first made their way through Earthbound; he drew a very strong parallel between his world and our world by acting a lot like some of the men who have left their families behind for whatever reason. But what makes him a likable father? Seeing qualities of the workaholics and divorcees of the real world in him doesn’t make him sound like the best father in the virtual world, but the believability of his character is what makes him special to me.

Nearly all male parental game characters never fail to make an appearance for their offspring when they need them most. When Jessica was kidnapped, Haggar wasted no time in rescuing his daughter.  When their mother died, Kaim was there to take Cooke and Mack into his care. Being there for your children is a really great thing, but in the real world, a father or father figure cannot always do that. In his physical absence, Ness’s dad has that extra helping of humanity poured into his character, and while he may not ever be around to aid his wife and kids in person, let alone see them, he is still able to support his family and show love for his son regardless of his limitations. And I’m not just talking about the tremendous amounts of money that he sends, though that does help.

Some people might argue that Ness’s mother is the better parent in the young psychic’s life, due to her being the one he goes to whenever he becomes nostalgic for home. It might also be arguable that this fact proves that Ness has a preference for the company of his mom, and that he may secretly resent his dad a little for always being gone, whether it’s due to a demanding job or a split up. Another plausible negative is that Ness’s father only gives his son all of that money just to win his favor or make up for his absence.

But compare what each parent does for their son, and you can see that Ness’s dad is as important to him as anyone else in his life. Ness’s mother supplies comfort food and love, while his dad dispenses money, wisdom (“Don’t work too hard.”), and the all-too-important ability to save the game. All things considered, they are on pretty equal ground in terms of importance in both Ness’s journey and his life. Without his father’s support, he would not be able to save his progress or keep himself sustained and clothed. He would be hard-pressed to make it very far in his journey at all.

On top of his genuine fatherly ways, the fact that Ness’s dad isn’t super strong, immortal, a genius or a giant lizard helps you to feel that, while playing through Earthbound, that he could be your own father, especially if you’re the type to name the characters after yourself and your friends as I always did. It doesn’t matter that he is just a ringing phone on the hotel counter or beside the store checkout; he is still one of the best, most supportive and caring game dads of all time, and to me, he felt like my real father (in that he was always the one on the other line when I got phone calls as a child) and the father I wished I had at the same time. His phone sprite could easily be swapped out with one of his body, but it would not make him any more or less awesome. His behind-the-scenes actions and words are more than enough.

Don’t feel sorry for Ness as he awaits his father’s call today. He may not be having as much fun as the other videogame children and their fathers while they give presents and play together, but he has the most interestingly designed and awesome dad of them all. He has always followed his son as a watchful eye over the situation, no matter where his life has taken him, via the telephone.

Happy Father’s Day to my favorite videogame dad, all of the other heads of virtual families out there, and all of the fathers who play!

Ashley Davis