As a kid, I used to love insect-like creatures Pikmin a little too much. Nintendo’s brightly colored creatures pierced the charm with their small heads and giant eyes. And while Pikmin it was too hard a game for me to play, I was always happy to watch my older brother enjoy it. But as we continued, a problem arose: I couldn’t bear to see Pikmin die.
The Pikmin series is a real-time strategy game. In the first game, you play as Captain Olymar, a space explorer hacked into an alien planet. Left with no means to return home, other than repairing his broken ship, he calls on the island̵
Olymar can command an army of dozens (if not hundreds) of Picmin at a time to perform tasks such as fighting other creatures and transporting parts of the ship. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Pikmin, said the inspiration for the game came from watching ants in the garden. All the captain has to do is whistle and the creatures are happy to lay down their lives for him.
Unfortunately for my brother, Pikmin-death is almost inevitable in the series. As you explore the world with your Pikmin, there are plenty of ways to kill them. They can be eaten. They can drown. They can be crushed. Unless you are an extremely skilled player, it is not uncommon to burn hundreds of Pikmin in one game.
As a result, I subjected my older brother to an endless stream of criticism and appeals to simply “be better” in the game. Once I even got to the point of crying when he refused to return to the level and take the missing Pikmin.
Although the average Pikmin player must feel good about his death, it still sucks to see them whine and make a sad cry when they die. You can even see a little ghost flying in the sky when another creature eats it. To add insult to injury, they are the ones who are brave enough to deal with the monsters and eventually kill them.
Given this harsh reality, my brother came up with a unique solution to allay my worries: He created a complex system of knowledge in which Picmine does not die. That way I didn’t feel bad from their deaths.
How I rationalized Pikmin’s death
Here’s his summary: when Pikmin “dies”, he doesn’t actually move on to the next life, everyone’s soul just goes back to the onion ship – a game vessel that spawns the seeds to create more Pikmin. Once there, their spirit enters a queue of other souls, waiting to be re-elected.
Let’s say we have five Pikmin and I lost three of them to fight. If I choose two more of the onion ships, then I have three waiting to be reborn. If we have chosen more Pikmin than those who have died, then the total pool of souls is growing, and so is the queue. In reality, in this system, if you end the game with a net higher number of Pikmin than you lose, then none of them die forever.
The tension behind Pikmin
Why I thought that Pikmin, who dies again and again, is more humane than one who dies once, is beyond me. But I have never questioned the system. I wanted to believe my brother. Still, this extra knowledge helped me resolve the inner tension that exists in the game. On the one hand, we don’t want to be interested in Pikmin. We must see them as disposable soldiers, because we cannot close the loss of a single hero by the hundreds. Again, they must be equivalent to insects.
But on the other hand, we have to take care of them enough so that we don’t throw them away indefinitely and we can’t progress in the game. So developers create incentives for us to protect them. More Pikmin ultimately means more combat power. But I always found the emotional stimulus much more powerful. The feeling of intestinal upset when seeing a death is the best reason why game designers can give us to protect them and thus progress in the game.
In an environment where the characters die over and over again and it becomes so banal and invisible, there is something special about worrying too much.