Moral Ambiguity and ‘Pikmin 3’

From an aesthetic perspective, Pikmin 3 is everything that a Nintendo game aspires to be and more. Yet, it completely misses the fact that combining cute, sympathetic characters and mass murder can be a little off putting.

Nintendo’s Pikmin 3 has a wonderfully cute aesthetic. Like many Nintendo games, it is filled with bright colors, big eyes, green pastures, and adorable characters. Combined with the HD graphics of the Wii U these vivid colors, dainty creatures, and lush environments really pop and create one of the most beautiful games that I’ve ever played. You play as Alph, Brittany, and Captain Charlie, astronauts sent from the planet of Koppai to “PNF-404” to find fruit and seeds. Your home planet has evidently run out of food and is suffering from a famine. Sadly, the characters that you control are microscopic and completely helpless on their own against the massive monsters that they encounter.

This is where the hallmark of the Pikmin series comes in, the “pikmin” themselves. A race of plant-animals that live in onion space ships that, like you, are completely helpless on their own. They are slightly lazy, very small, and awfully fragile, but they make up for it by being useful and incredibly cute. The player controls these tiny critters and throws them around to defeat carnivorous beasts, solve puzzles, retrieve fruit, and complete quests. The game also has a unique setup in which you have a single “day”(roughly 20 minutes) to go down to the planet, find fruit, and advance the plot before you have to head back into orbit because all the really big, scary monsters come out at night. This helps create a sense of urgency and speeds up the pace of what would otherwise would be a slow game.

It is fitting that the Pikmin series is from Asia and is also most popular there. It is all about a group-oriented culture. Instead of playing as Master Chief or some single individual who possesses immense skill, the player’s power in Pikmin 3 comes from the group working together to achieve common goals. In Pikmin 3, there are five different types of pikmin, each with their own unique abilities and immunities to different hazards within the game. Alone, the various pikmin aren’t dangerous and can’t win any fights, but group them all together and they can take out creatures a hundred times their size.

The pikmin are absolutely adorable and the game really pulls for you to be sympathetic to their little cause — to just live in the world and not be eaten by all the predators that surround them. This makes it incredibly jarring when they die, and they do die — a lot.

This is because Pikmin 3 is, at its core, a real time strategy game. All RTS games involve lots of death. It is just the nature of mass combat. Most of them distance you from your subjects or make them inhumane. In Starcraft, you control advanced aliens, disgusting insectoids, or humans who mostly take the shape of mechs or tanks. In Warcraft you control orcs, elves, strange humans, or the undead. As a player, you are never asked or prompted to feel emotional about the units under your command, you are just trying to complete goals and destroy enemies. This is how every RTS game works except for Pikmin.

This makes playing Pikmin 3a slightly disturbing experience. Over the course of a day, you are bound to lose some pikmin in fights or by accident, but not so many as to numb you to the experience. And every time that one of them dies you get the privilege of seeing their little soul escape their earthly bodies and float into the sky as they cry out to you, “Why?”, leaving you to sit in sadness hoping that you won’t lose any more before sunset.

So the player is caught in an ethical catch-22 when advancing through Pikmin 3. The pikmin need to collect fruit and seeds to save the unseen starving masses on Koppai, who have squandered their resources and deserve their fate. But the player doesn’t want his or her powerless servants, who are so valiant and never complain, to experience what can basically be summed up as genocide.

The characters within the game experience this remorse in their daily journals. But the game is too lighthearted to take it any further, with the characters just expressing that they “must do better” the next day. For the player, this just isn’t enough to justify their rampant exploitation of these defenseless critters. Inevitably you just end up feeling bad whenever one of them dies because of how dramatic such deaths are. Also, the game never lets you forget because at the end of the day it keeps track of how many of your pikmin have died and gives you a handy chart to show the exact moment in the day that you betrayed your little servants.

All these feelings are compounded during the final boss encounter, a boss who can basically eat and kill pikmin at will. The game conveniently places the pikmin’s onion space ship nearby so you can quickly go get reinforcements in between the waves of slaughter. This leaves the player with a slightly sour taste in his or her mouth as the characters fly back home with their new found fruits. The feelings of exploitation are only enhanced when in the final log the characters “hope” the pikmin will be okay on their own.

This ambiguity is “cleared up” during the credits, which show the pikmin relaxing on the planet and using the various levels that the player conquered as an amusement park of sorts. But this is narratively inconsistent with the rest of the game, as every time that we see the pikmin on their own they are in peril and in need of assistance. The player is left feeling that they raised up all of these pikmin, plucked them from the ground, and commanded them only to serve their own needs and then just left them to die as required by the natural order of things.

Pikmin 3 is an excellently designed game. It is gorgeous, creative, intuitive, fast paced, and a ton of fun. The gameplay is challenging but never overwhelming and the controls (with the Wiimote) are almost perfect. From an aesthetic perspective it is everything that a Nintendo game aspires to be and more. Yet, it completely misses the fact that combining cute, sympathetic characters and mass murder puts it more in line with an Edmund McMillen game than Super Mario 3D World. Pikmin 3 isn’t supposed to be dark at all, but that can only be maintained if you refuse to think about its broader implications.