Pikmin is depressing

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.

Olimar and the three original Pikmin

Olimar and the three original Pikmin

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?

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  1. #1 by ade on September 16, 2009 - 2:21 PM

    Nice article- It got me thinking though. It sounds more like a game of questioning norms rather than a depressing one. First, I wouldn’t make the argument about ecology, b/c although they are carrot-like or whatever, they are a society first and foremost. They have consciousness and the *ability* to defend themselves with what they already have- ie there is no need for evolution in the sense of ecology and genetics, only an evolution of mind, which is in my definition a REVolution. Therefore I would say the game on one hand is commending the attributes of democracy and communism; ie- any society NOT governed by a single leader/ group of unelected leaders. Then as it continues, the game downplays the positives and up-plays (word?) the negatives, ie- the reality is there are ALWAYS more powerful people who are leading the way, and usually these people are greedy in whatever capacity fits their specific brand of perversion. However AT THE SAME TIME, the Pikmin are nonetheless can be seen as better off AS A SOCIETY b/c they now fight for themselves. Really I think it is an essay, in game form, of the pros and cons of a variety of societal constructs.

    But I never played the game, so there’s that…

    • #2 by Clint Emsley on September 16, 2009 - 2:32 PM

      That actually makes a lot of sense, as far as societal vs. ecological. I suppose the Pikmin are sentient, not just creatures of instinct, so that does make it more of a societal shift. It does try to portray a living world, though, and I feel like I am an intrusion upon a world that was clearly doing fine as it was. It feels sort of like people pushing their values on other cultures, even though they may not be right for those people. But clearly it was right for the Pikmin, so good point.

      The only time I felt Olimar was incredibly selfish was at the very last part, so maybe it’s the idea that power corrupts as well?

      Also, irony: Your icon is purple, and mine is green, har har.

  2. #3 by Gil on September 16, 2009 - 2:48 PM

    Wow… that was a pretty deep evaluation of both those games. I did enjoy them both but never really looked past the colorful and seemingly happy facade. wow… that’s a lot to think about.

  3. #4 by playdeezgames on September 17, 2009 - 6:54 AM

    I have not played either game, but from your description, the original game has a rhetoric that reminds me of the myth of Prometheus, whereas the second one more sounds like the exploitation of Native Americans by colonists. Even if the society of pikmin seem better off when the main character leaves them, there is no way of telling what sort of long term negative effects that will only come to light generations later.

  4. #6 by monkeyvault on September 23, 2009 - 9:05 PM

    Oh man, I totally remember having a conversation about this at some point. It was like, 3 years ago. Goddamn.

    Anyway! I totally see your point, and it can definitely be a hella depressing game at times. But also, I don’t think what Olimar does is inherently wrong.

    I suppose it’s important to determine whether or not the little bastards are supposed to be conscious or not, as ade noted. If they’re conscious, then all you’re doing is giving them a direction, and they make the choices that lead to their deaths, or their alteration as a culture. And if they’re NOT conscious, and they’re just blindly following whoever they consider to be their current leader… Well, it’s kinda depressing to use them, but my moral compass says hey, USE THE ANIMALS. I mean… Lots of animals are going to die in battle, whether you’re there or not. Just because you give them a different cause to fight for doesn’t necessarily make their deaths “wrong,” even if it causes more of them to die. They’re completely unaware that they’re fighting to get your cash back. It’s just as worthy a cause, in their minds, as the fight for survival. Therefore, their deaths are no more painful to them.

    And if they’re conscious… Hell, the way I see it, anyone who’s capable of being exploited in such a way doesn’t get my sympathy. If the little bastards are all, OKAY, I GUESS I’LL FOLLOW OLIMAR INTO THAT BUCKET O’ DEATH THERE, then Olimar is not to blame for their actions. Even if those actions affect the turn of future generations, and permanently ruin the planet. It’s not up to Olimar what the Pikmin do with their knowledge. Everybody has a choice. I guess. Maybe. I think the conclusion they wanted you to draw is that capitalism is evil and Olimar fucked up their planet, but I don’t agree with it.

    • #7 by Clint Emsley on September 24, 2009 - 8:07 AM

      I think there’s a line between conscious and intelligent. A 4 year old is conscious, but not necessarily intelligent. The Pikmin seem to have consciousness, but not really intelligence. So it’s pretty much like sending a 4 year old to its death for $100.

      Also, if they ARE purely instinctual animals, then I think it’s interesting I would defend them (especially since they’re fictional), but still eat cows. Pikmin are cute flower people. Cows are stupid, stinky cattle. So, y’know, that’s kind of interesting as well. Anyway, I don’t think they operate purely on instinct because they sing little happy songs if you leave them alone long enough, which is creepy.

      So yeah. I don’t know what the game was TRYING to say, but that’s what I got from it.

  5. #8 by monkeyvault on September 24, 2009 - 10:39 AM

    You know what WordPress should adopt? The ability to log in on the freaking comments page. I hate having to go to the main page, log in, and then come back to a blog to leave a damned comment with my screen name displayed.

    ANYHOO. Yeah, I guess there’s a difference between consciousness and intelligence. That whole 4-year-old thing made me all :(, and at the moment I don’t really have a counterargument for the logic, so, uh. Olimar is kind of a douchebag.

    As for the whole burgers-are-delicious aspect… Well, burgers are delicious. Also if you had to actually kill the cow, I think you’d probably give up meat, and so would most people I think. We’re way more likely to get all righteous when we actually witness something unjust, rather than when we merely hear of it or know of its existence. This is why children in Ethiopia are still starving. The commercials don’t really do it for us. However, if we sat eating lunch in front of Starvin’ Marvin, I think we’d feel the sudden urge to donate all our paychecks.

  6. #9 by fastlane56 on November 12, 2009 - 8:09 PM

    Okay, so the game may be a little depressing. But that’s why God made Pikmin videos like this one:

    If this doesn’t make you feel better about Olimar’s small little friends, absolutely nothing will. :D

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