The Bleak Moral Landscape of ‘Pikmin 3’

Don’t let the cute characters fool you. Pikmin 3 is horrifying.

This column contains spoilers for Pikmin 3.

I’ve played all of the Pikmin games and have always been slightly uneasy about the message lurking underneath their playful facades. Maybe it’s revisiting the series almost 10 years later or maybe it’s that the latest game more openly embraces its dark side, but Pikmin 3 has put its more disturbing aspects into focus.

The opening cutscene quickly introduces a set of flawed protagonists:

The people of Koppai haven’t been attacked by some external enemy. Instead, they’re responsible for the overpopulation and famine afflicting their planet. Facing the prospect of screwing and eating themselves to death, they look outward for an answer rather than focus on correcting the system that got them in trouble in the first place. It’s a rare thing to see in a video game and especially in a Nintendo game. The hazardous wildlife you struggle against are obstacles, but they’re not really evil. The Koppaites are both the heroes and villains of their own story.

As human as all of this behavior is, it is somewhat hypocritical to look down on them. It’s strongly implied that the mysterious planet they find, “PNF-404,” is Earth, so it’s clear that humans either reached the end of their journey as a species or were forced to abandon their planet. Judging by our own responses to drought, disease, and climate change, we’re not much different than the Koppaites.

The Koppaites have a solution, but it’s an extreme one: look for answers outside their planet and find these answers, whatever the cost. There’s a single-mindedness to their mission that is both admirable and terrifying. Despite the unknown and the potential danger, the little explorers remain focused on their mission.

What’s disturbing is that this mindset is less about their willingness to makes personal sacrifices and more about their willingness to sacrifice others. The titular Pikmin are, of course, an indigenous life form that the Koppaites use to collect the material for their salvation. Little is known about the Pikmin or how they naturally fit into the ecosystem because they are immediately adopted and repurposed as an army.

Most of the research done on Pikmin is focused how they can be practically applied as tools. The data logs in the game are full of observations about their durability when exposed to hazards and their physical abilities. Their obedience is rewarded by continually tossing them into battles of attrition. Even the largest predators can be taken down if you’re willing to lose some Pikmin in the process.

The Koppaites seem to acknowledge the harshness that the Pikmin face on some level:

The underlying logic is chilling. Pikmin aren’t “soldiers.” The Koppaites are just treating them like soldiers. Despite the damage done to them, Charlie, the captain of the Koppaite expedition, decides that the ends justifies the means. The specific end being the survival of Koppai at the expense of other life forms.

Depending on how many supplies you collect, the Koppaites have won a short term victory without accomplishing a long term success. The most dedicated explorers seemingly ensure victory, but only if they achieve the most challenging of three endings, which requires collecting every piece of food on the planet:

Judging by these stats, the end of Pikmin 3 will prove to be ambiguous for most players:

Since most players fall well short of perfection, they must take solace in the fact that the Koppaites have learned “teamwork” and “planning,” which will supposedly help them address their self imposed food shortages.

But what exactly does “teamwork” and “planning” mean in this case? Based on the in-game dynamics, it means impressing a species into a makeshift army and then outsourcing dangerous and/or menial work to them, and after achieving your goal, leaving them without considering the consequences of your interference. We’re meant to assume that the Koppaites will somehow take lessons from the Pikmin, learn the error of their ways, and become sustainable farmers, but it seems just as likely that they could learn another lesson. There is a food supply on another planet and a disposable labor resource to mine it. Why change?

Pikmin 3does not offer a mechanical reason for choosing a more altruistic path. It records the Pikmin you help breed and the Pikmin who die in your service, but there are no consequences outside of cold arithmetic. If you have too few Pikmin, you’ll need to make more in order to succeed, but you’re never explicitly judged on your stewardship or your ratio of living to dead Pikmin. All that matters is the fruit that the Koppaites need to survive. More fruit is looked at as more success, regardless of the cost paid in Pikmin.

69% of the Pikmin that I plucked from the ground perished, yet I’m on the more successful side of the bell curve.

The Pikmin perform adorable gestures and produce equally adorable noises, but the game’s mechanics portray them as the raw material needed to fuel a society who pushed itself to the brink of collapse. Pikmin 3 is a game about finding an alien world, creating a disposable slave underclass out of an entire species, and then abandoning those slaves once certain requirements are meant. It’s a clinically detatched story of colonization and short-sightedness, which makes it scary.

It’s also extremely fun to play, which may be even scarier if you think about it for too long.