NOTE: I wrote this piece a long time ago. Seeing as I have yet to post it here, and would like this blog to house the majority of my writing, I thought it was appropriate to put it up again. I’m also quite busy writing other stuff at the moment that I’ll hopefully be able to show to you all soon.
There’s something really special going on in Pikmin. It’s not just the fantastic mechanics, character and challenge in the series (proving unequivocally that strategy games can work on a console) but something much deeper, something more human.
Which is surprising. For a series that has you controlling a microscopic alien on Earth, avoiding goggly-eyed enemies and herding colour coded carrots to help you in various ways, you feel a whole lot of empathy towards Olimar. He’s a likable little alien, racing around the planet, blowing his whistle like there’s no tomorrow and otherwise being adorably ridiculous. However, it’s Olimar’s journal entries at the end of each day and his appraisals of everyday objects (in our lives) that made me emotionally connect to Olimar. It’s why I think Pikmin 2 is so special.
It’s remarkably warming to hear Olimar’s journal entries because, while they are often hilarious, they also made me see the objects of his analysis in an entirely new way. While it may sound absurd to say my opinion on a something as simple as a bottle cap has changed because of Olimar, I believe it’s a testament to the quality of the writing found in Pikmin 2 that it did. The fact that every item Olimar finds in his journey is what our society would typically deem to be rubbish, but are incredibly valuable to Olimar’s people, speaks volumes about the theme of the game and our culture. It also perfectly demonstrates just how alien Olimar & Louie are.
This alien perspective is further explored through the game’s randomly generated Caves - areas of the levels which temporarily stop the clock and let Olimar and Louie delve further and further down tunnels in search for treasure. Each descending level of a Cave can be wildly different to the last, taking place in kitchen tiled rooms, underground grottos and childish pencil drawings and toys. In my first play through, I simply dismissed these sections as typical absurdist Nintendo charm, a charm that they perfected in the 2D Mario games of old, but further play throughs revealed something much deeper. I was looking at these levels through the eyes of a human when I should have been looking at them through Olimar’s. What Olimar sees is a world that is completely different to his own. That the designers chose to represent this perspective through fragments, bits and pieces of ordinary human objects, which are, in some cases, completely out of their normal environment is a stroke of genius. None of these objects and environments makes sense to Olimar or Louie so there placement, and even displacement, represents that. Even the enemies Olimar & Louie face are reminiscent of Earth insects and bugs, normally covered with strange armour, wielding sharp claws and even sharper teeth. Again, the familiar is skewed just enough to effectively demonstrate an alien perspective of our world.
However, what I found most fascinating about the Pikmin franchise is how much it doesn’t tell us. Is the planet we’re exploring Earth? Why exactly then aren’t we there? Each dropped item attained by Olimar & Louie encourages the player to further explore the land in hopes of an answer, but no answer is given. You eventually start to treat each item Olimar & Louie finds with the same amount of enthusiasm they do; pieces of a civilisation long since past. The history of this civilisation, and its ultimate fate, is kept a mystery to both Olimar and the player. For all the knocks Nintendo gets for its weak story telling, this is masterfully subtle, dense and even heartbreaking.
And that is why I felt so compelled to write this article. Sure, both Mass Effect and its sequel have fantastic narratives with a compelling cast of characters, but did you ever once feel like you were talking to real aliens in that game? Or feel genuine terror of landing on an uncharted land (maybe it’s not really the game’s fault though, it’s quite difficult to feel terror when you’re packing a large arsenal of dangerous weapons)? Both Pikmin titles managed to immerse the player completely in the role of an alien looking out into a new world, seeing and experiencing the unknown. That the world in question is so similar to that of our own makes Nintendo’s achievements even more impressive.
Nintendo really pull for you to feel that your home is Link’s starting village in every game. The Kokiri Forest, Clock Town, Outset Island, Ordon Village – all of these share the same desire to make the player care about the town they “lived in” before their adventure begun. Some succeed, others don’t, and mostly people disagree about what place is special for them in each game. This debate eventually leads to reasons why Link is saving the world and adds a welcome degree of interactivity to an otherwise linear narrative. Nintendo obviously writes the adventure as such that Link is portrayed as doing all of this to save everyone; he’s inclined towards kindness and assistance. The moment you add player interaction to the narrative it’s only natural for players to develop favourites and contextualise the personality of Link. Depending on skill level and what each player simply enjoys doing in the game, Link is going to be a very different person from player to player.
Exploration is one of the central tenants of the franchise and, if you look closely, Nintendo’s desire to emotionally restrain you to your starting village feels inconsistent with this mandate. Stories, of course, have to start somewhere and actively show you what the world is like before they can make something go wrong. A video game has to work doubly hard to ensure you know how to play the game and how it’s going to be structured, too. Unfortunately, a player’s natural desire to get out of things often works against emotionally bonding to a location. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker practically screamed at you throughout its tutorial to drop everything and dive into the ocean, boat be damned. The biggest, and most important, moments during a Zelda game are actually the storytelling beats the players discover themselves when they’re granted access to the overworld. No other medium shares this unusual focus on the experience over the narrative. The characters in films, books, and TV shows often work towards normalising the world around them before things went wrong and if that narrative isn’t told the audience gets frustrated at the lack of closure, or even direction. Video games don’t have that or, at the very least, don’t have to worry about that nearly as much. The experience carries more weight than the narrative and can even create narrative when it’s at its best.
It’s for this reason that the towns people tend to gravitate more towards in Zelda are actually the towns that are simply there to be discovered. Lon Lon Ranch in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time doesn’t even need to be visited in order to finish the game, but you’ll more than likely head there yourself considering it’s right in the middle of the map encouraging you to run away from the narrative and explore. Romani Ranch in Majora’s Mask is locked behind a gigantic boulder and needs to be actively seeked out in order to discover it. The countless undiscovered islands in The Wind Waker compels players to uncover them and Twilight Princess is… yeah, the anti-exploration. It does have a ranch though, so that’s something.
It’s actually the bars and ranches that have resonated with me most whenever I journey with Link. I don’t think this is accidental, either. Farms and ranches carry a romantic, back-to-basics atmosphere about them and the entire concept of “the frontier” and living day by day seems more fitting to Link’s exploratory tendencies. It’s natural that Link receives Epona whenever he journeys to a farm because travel is such an integral part of that environment and goes hand in hand with Link’s adventure. Bars exude similar feelings with a welcome sense of solidarity, conversation, excitement, boredom, and even rumours. In Zelda, they help to not only colour the world and its inhabitants but also to guide the player to even more secrets and discoveries. The Wind Waker was particularly successful in this regard as the combination of maritime exploration, dusty bars filled with charming stereotypes, traditional folklore, and pirates was much more conducive to exploration than anything the franchise has seen since.
That’s why I was so happy to discover The Lumpy Pumpkin in Skyward Sword. It’s easily the least content-filled area that Zelda has seen in a long time, consisting of an island home to a bar and a pumpkin patch outside the back of the house, but its inclusion speaks volumes about the game’s heart. There’s the typical father daughter family unit that Nintendo seem to be unnervingly happy to include in their games, the two or three NPC regulars repeating a select few phrases drink after drink, and even a stupid mini-game. It’s the very worst mini-game I’ve ever experienced but I’m okay with that. No, I’m just happy I can go there whenever I want, take a seat next to the bar and order a bottle full of hot pumpkin soup.