So I was having a discussion on one of my previous posts with Mr. DeezGames (I realize I do not know his real name), and he mentioned something he called “Procedural Rhetoric,” basically what the rules of your game say about your view of the world. [EDIT: This phrase actually came from Ian Bogost, as Mr. Deezgames informed me later] This got me thinking about what games I’ve played might be saying, even if accidentally.
This line of thought lead me to this conclusion: Pikmin is a deeply depressing game.
Pikmin is a game that was released by Nintendo for the Gamecube. The basic premise is that an astronaut (Olimar) crash lands on an unknown planet, and must reassemble his ship to return home. He only has a limited amount of breathable air, so he must complete his ship and take off within 30 days. He discovers small creatures (which he names Pikmin after the Pikpik brand of small carrots on his home planet, a hint of themes to come) which he can utilize to help him in this quest.
At first glance, Pikmin is a cute, relatively light Real Time Strategy game with kids in mind. Olimar, the Pikmin, and even the enemy creatures are relatively cute and cartoony (although occasionally terrifying). However, just below the shiny surface, there are a number of dark themes.
First and foremost is the seemingly destructive nature of human influence on an ecology. When you land, the food chain seems to be pretty balanced, and Pikmin are on the very bottom, being essentially walking plants. As you play the game, you learn to use the Pikmin as a makeshift army to accomplish tasks, such as building bridges and retrieving your spaceship parts, but also defeating enemies and even neutral creatures so as to use them to create more Pikmin (which is backwards from the status quo). As you return multiple times to the same level, you will start to see the effects of your hunting trips: Less and less creatures of the carnivore variety, and more and more Pikmin following you.
At the very end of the game, Olimar does indeed take off, and he sees the Pikmin using the lessons they learned from him, organizing to fight off predators and multiply. This is a seemingly positive message about the power of cooperation and teamwork, but to me it comes off as very destructive and the sign of a damaged ecology. And Olimar is the catalyst in creating this unbalanced situation. Yikes.
Secondary seems to be the idea of an oppressive leader sacrificing his followers for his own benefit. (Stay with me on this one) Now, this is not really exposed until the late game, but it does become rather apparent that Olimar is incredibly selfish. As you play the game and defeat enemies, you will invariably lose Pikmin. I felt terrible losing them, and strived as hard as I could to not lose a single one. Eventually, though, it will happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is balanced by the fact that the Pikmin are doing better than ever, and the fact that Olimar will die unless he gets all of his ship parts, making it (arguably) more justifiable.
However, the very last (and according to Olimar, the most important) piece is also the final piece guarded by the most difficult boss. What you don’t find this out until you’ve lost maybe 50-80 Pikmin (in my case, anyway) trying to defeat this final boss is that the last piece is his Piggy Bank. Holy crap, talk about retroactive guilt. What a perfect example of clashing with your character’s values. I felt like shit for killing these little guys just for my cash.
Is this anti-capitalist rhetoric? Or is it just supposed to be ironic? I thought it was a little evil to plug this into a game that was ostensibly for kids, but I think that added to the shock factor at the very least.
Pikmin 2 expands upon this idea, but is very heavy handed about it. When Olimar returns to his home planet, they find out that all the junk on the Pikmin planet is worth more cash than anything they’ve ever seen, and Olimar is sent back with his cohort, Louie, to collect more junk to sell. At this point, Olimar is sacrificing his Pikmin JUST FOR MONEY. It’s terribly depressing, and one of the main reasons I do not like that game. It is interesting though: Olimar’s boss is very greedy and, well, bossy. Is it possible that Olimar was just doing what came naturally to him in the first game because of the society he lives in?
Yes, I know, I’m reading a lot into this, but Pikmin is one of the few games that has made me think so deeply, so I think there must be something going on under the hood. I think that, while perhaps misdirected, it is a great example of demonstrating a concept through gameplay, something only a game can do. And even if it’s not supposed to do that, it’s possibly MORE interesting if the creator did not intend that.
Regardless of any deeper levels, Pikmin is a game about using and destroying harmless creatures for your own benefit. Isn’t that just a little weird anyway?