A kick of satire and a dash of tongue-in-cheek politics elevates this 'Earthbound'-inspired RPG.
Header image and all screenshots courtesy of Atlus.
Like a lot of RPGs, Citizens of Earth begins with a loud knock at the door, and a protagonist waking up from bed. But unlike Earthbound, the protagonist isn't a small child with a love for baseball caps and bats, he's a grown adult, sleeping in his childhood bedroom, waking from the sounds of his caring mother. He's not just any adult, either, he's the Vice President of Earth; a narcissistic, simple-minded man that finds himself in charge of recruiting fellow earthlings into his party to help him save the world from global disaster.
The game pokes fun at role-playing games like Earthbound and Pokémon, but it also makes a point to portray politicians as liars, connivers, and schemers. Obviously, these jokes on politicians is nothing new, but Citizens of Earth's satire really hits onto truth, especially now, as we move into the early days of the Donald Trump's presidency.
Perhaps it was harder to see the game's grimace back in January of 2015, when it was officially released, five months before Trump announced his official campaign. What preceded Trump's announcement were years of potential nominations, birth certificate conspiracy theories, television shows, book deals and Twitter rants. What won the election was a long call to the hateful, to put Hillary in prison, and force Mexico to pay for a wall. Surely, we laughed and wished and prayed, Trump's campaign would be a publicity stunt, but it wasn't. The naive thought that that a Black president suddenly erased the country's racist history was broken.
Citizens of Earth isn't pointing directly to Donald Trump as an example of an imperfect political system, of course, but it's still a satire that uses its cutesy, outrageous world to poke fun at our very white political system. The VP's fiendishly coiffed hair and slick smile represent all the shit-eating grins donned on the world's politicians.
Citizens doesn't only poke fun at how white politics are, but also how much the average person (and especially people of color) must endure it.
It's one of very few games where most playable characters are women, or people of color: From a Frankenstein-esque mad scientist, to a pregnant yoga instructor, the recruits represent the wide scope of people, both through occupation and race, who walk on this planet. Each character has their own special abilities and attacks. While some parties may be better together than others, the game encourages players to learn about each citizen's capabilities. I have never played a game that allowed me to create a party of three Black women—a cop, a scientist, and an architect—to fight off any enemies. That ability to choose my allies in battle was refreshing, and extremely exciting.
And yet, that feeling was slightly diminished when I realized there is always one other person in the party, whether I want him there or not: The Vice President of Earth. Beyond convincing people to join his team, the VP doesn't really do anything. He's just there. In times of battle, he stands at the corner, making little remarks ("Don't forget to protect me," or "Another victor for the VP," for instance) depending on the success of the fight.
I take the VP's inactivity in battle as a chide to all politicians who claim to be for the people but use them instead. This politician, like many, insists that he is helping, that his strong posture and wide smile is somehow helping his people who are sacrificing themselves to save the world. With the point of the finger, the vice president directs his constituents to attack anything near him, and of course they always abide.
This is when Citizens of Earth satire truly makes a statement. It isn't solely a fun jab at old-school RPG's. The game takes a solid look at ways politicians abuse their influence and the people they are meant to lead.
The Vice President isn't the only symbol of a kooky, wacky political system. There's the president, who cares more about vacationing and coffee than saving the world. There's the Chief of Security who is a giant tank, and the secretary who turns into the main villain when he becomes disgruntled from the amount of work he's forced to do to compensate for the lack of work coming from the President and Vice President.
The Vice President's incompetence doesn't go unnoticed; it was part of the game's selling point. Characters make it a point to remind the VP of how little he does, and how much they don't really like him. What is expected is of the real heroes of the game—the citizens—is to stand up and support their leaders, no matter how incompetent, how disqualified they may be for the job.
Strangely enough (or perhaps not strange at all), I didn't notice the serious take until the presidential election started to wind down, and everyday turned into another reminder to take Trump seriously. He was no longer the joker in a theatrical election, he was more than an ultra-wealthy television personality obsessed with attention. He was an actual presidential candidate, and now he's the president.
What's sad is that the last year has proven Citizen of Earth's wackiness is still embedded with (at least) a small kernel of truth. There will always jokes of lying, scheming politicians that connive their way into office, but this year alone has proven the reality of those quips. Where Citizens of Earth diverges from its satirical point is at the very end, when the Vice President finally offers to join in battle, this time by himself. (Heads up, spoilers ahead!)
Determined to help his citizens, the VP decided to fight the final boss alone. He soon realizes he's horrendously lower-leveled, because of his inexperience fighting. His only attack includes smiling, where he "delivers an award-winning smile." When smiling gets him nowhere, this is when the VP relies, once again, on his citizens, this time to give him strength in encouragement to win the fight.
The Vice President, once resented for his incompetence and ignorance, is supported and celebrated for (finally) placing himself in front of danger and saving the world. A mutual bond grows between the civilians and their vice president. The VP turns into their representative, and through his influence, uses their hopes to vanquish their enemies. It's a cutesy, yet over-the-top way of showing how politicians should interact with the people they're meant to help.
And now that we're into the very beginning of Trump's presidency, all signs point to years of economic and social destruction and distrust, not just by Trump's hands, but his cabinet's hands, a brash group of people who oppose climate control, who are racist and anti-choice, and who have convinced rural citizens that the United States has forgotten about them.
Games often attempt to make political statements about current day issues, though only a few have been able to successfully pull it off. Citizens of Earth manages to succeed, but I think the game did it almost accidentally. It was a general jab at politics that suddenly became more relevant as the months went on, and Trump's influence started to grow. It's a silly game that both is and is not meant to be taken seriously. It's a game about evil girl scout cookies and an intergalactic coffee store called Moonbucks. But its ridiculous take on politics, when paired with this year's president election, is actually not as outrageous as we wanted to believe.