I came across the first Pikmin in 2001. At the time, it was the newest video game created by celebrated videogame designer Shigeru Miyamoto. Responsible for some of the most successful gaming franchises of all time, Miyamoto is famous for drawing inspiration from his everyday life to create universally accessible gaming experiences. The Legend of Zelda franchise was inspired by his childhood exploration of the natural environments that surrounded his home. Nintendogs was dreamt up during interactions with his Shetland sheepdog. Wii Fit stemmed from his obsession to weigh himself daily. The Pikmin games have their roots in his fondness for gardening.
The main plot of the first game has Olimar, a tiny alien astronaut, crash-landing on an alien planet that is very reminiscent of Earth. Being the size of a thimble, Olimar is in desperate need of assistance to recover the scattered engine parts of his damaged spaceship. He finds allies in indigenous creatures called “Pikmin”, cute plant-animal hybrids that behave like swarms of ants and come to regard Olimar as their leader. It proves to be a mutually beneficial relationship; the Pikmin are able to multiply quickly by being able to acquire more food, and Olimar accomplishes his objectives and eventually succeeds in returning to his home.
The sequel, Pikmin 2, was released in 2004. This time, Olimar returns to the planet with his co-worker Louie to salvage treasure in order to pay down the debt of their employer back on their home planet. The game fleshes out the world of Pikmin more significantly, introducing new vistas and a host of exotic creatures. There is more of a focus on collecting items and exploring underground subterranean levels, but the tiny explorers still rely exclusively on the help of Pikmin swarms to accomplish their objectives.
I found myself utterly charmed by the setting and characters of the Pikmin universe. The narrative devices employed in the Pikmin games coupled with its exploration of natural environments make them unique experiences that convey surprising connections to ecology, biology, and science.
A Thoughtful Depiction of Ecology
The world of Pikmin contains various fictional habitats, each with their own unique varieties of flora and fauna. In Pikmin 2, Olimar keeps extensive notes on each species that he comes across. Some of these entries are astonishingly detailed, conveying to the player real-world ecological concepts:
“Creeping Chrysanthemum: Like Pikmin, the creeping chrysanthemum is a member of a group of creatures with ambulatory root structures. This creature is known as a “mimic,” but because it is actually a form of plant, this label is not entirely accurate. For unknown reasons, the creeping chrysanthemum’s mimicry does not fool Pikmin, perhaps because they share a similar heritage. It relies on preying upon other creatures to provide sustenance, so it has no need of leaves for photosynthesis. Generally speaking, the role of plants within an ecosystem is as a producer species, and thus plants are generally found at the bottom of the food pyramid. However, on this strange planet the line between producer plants and consumer plants is blurred.
Bulbmin: This loathsome creature is in fact a parasitic form of Pikmin that has infected a bulborb. Unlike Pikmin that nest in Pikmin Onions, this parasitic relative spends its life inside the body of a host, usually a bulborb. Juveniles fall in line and mimic the actions of their parent until maturing to full independence. By burying its rootlike limbs into the nervous system of the host bulborb and infusing it with natural hormonal excretions, the bulbmin is able to control virtually all of the host’s bodily functions. However, the host’s voracious appetite seems impossible to suppress.”
As someone with a biology background, I enjoyed reading through these detailed descriptions immensely; they help me immerse myself in the Pikmin world. Although fictional, the in-game creatures behave realistically as organisms within an ecosystem. Some creatures are actively hostile and hunt down the Pikmin Olimar controls. Some are opportunistic scavengers that will occasionally sneak into Pikmin swarms and capture a single individual. Still other organisms simply shrug off attacks from overzealous Pikmin. The player is tasked with understanding the tendencies and behaviour of dozens of unique creatures so that they can minimize casualties and maintain sufficient number of Pikmin in order to recover treasure or ship parts.
In Amongst the Green Blades: Scale & imagination
“This is an ever-surprising ecosystem. What has caused this planet’s vegetation to grow to such gigantic proportions? In comparison to the Pikmin and the other creatures of this planet, the scale of the plant life here seems inexplicable. Perhaps, long ago, creatures of incomprehensible size walked the surface of this planet, just imagine!”
– Pikmin 1: Olimar Voyage Log, Day 8
The world of Pikmin is both familiar and different. The different levels of the game comprise various natural and urban settings, but everything is enormous compared to Olimar. This makes ordinary objects and landscapes take on a different dimension. As games that cater to all ages, the Pikmin games allow children and adults alike to see the familiar world from an alternate perspective.
At a children’s literature and environmental imagination symposium I attended several years ago, one of the presenters spoke about the use of scale and projection in children stories to nurture a healthy imagination, a key ingredient for developing empathy and understanding towards other creatures and individuals:
“The ability to project yourself through your imagination down to where blades of grass become trees, sea shells become boats, ants become dog-sized, and an entire valley spreads out between the mountain ranges of tree roots, can bring about two things. It can foster a sense of connectedness with other creatures…”
– Holloway, p. 134
Holloway cited the Mary Norton’s The Borrowers for her example; I use the Pikmin games for mine. What if dandelions were the height of telephone poles? What if rusty cans were the size of houses? What if puddles were as deep as great lakes? By presenting familiar outdoor settings from an unfamiliar perspective, the Pikmin games allow the player to identify with their diminutive avatars and the creatures they encounters in this alien but recognizable world. The player is asked, in subtle fashion, to consider the secret lives of animals that generally escape his/her notice.
Holloway stated that the use of projection in story also helps to develop visualization and imaginative skills that are crucial to scientific pursuits and the exploration of the natural world:
“The second thing this ability to project yourself—to transport yourself with your imagination into another scale—can do is to encourage a way of visualizing that is central to the work of many naturalists and scientists. Many scientists describe their ability to imagine themselves at different scales as vital to their work and to their insights.”
– Holloway, p. 134
The Pikmin games are also remarkably effective at eliciting empathy for other creatures. Designed to be incredibly cute and social, the Pikmin follow Olimar around like family pets. Tasked with managing the survival of increasing swarms of Pikmin, the environment poses significant challenges to their well-being and survival. Although the games have a soothing and relaxed atmosphere, the world of Pikmin can be a cruel and unforgiving one. Each night, Olimar is forced to abandon base camp and retreat into his spaceship as huge nocturnal predators emerge. On many occasions, I recall watching my best plans laid to waste because of an unlucky (or unwise) encounter that sends dozens of Pikmin to their deaths. Several entries of Olimar’s journal help to convey the mixture of hilarity and horror I feel when disaster strikes:
“I wonder just how this planet’s life-forms evolved. This creature belches fire, of all things! Once the Pikmin get caught up in the inferno, there is nothing that can be done. If only they had the power to face such flames without fear of burning…”
“Oh, horrors! A bomb-rock explosion engulfed my Pikmin! That last horrified facial expression is burned into my memory… I must review my procedures for handling Pikmin with bomb-rocks so that I do not repeat this mistake…”
When Pikmin succumb to environmental hazards such as water, fire, and toxins, they let out mournful cries of struggle before literally giving up the ghost, as if to say, “why did you let this happen to me?” These audio and visual cues reinforced the notion that as the player, I am responsible for their well-being and need to take better care of them. The Pikmin games also teaches that with the powers of leadership comes the responsibility of stewardship.
Pikmin 1: Observation, appreciation, attachment
I love the delivery method of Pikmin 1’s narrative in the form of daily journal entries: Each entry of Olimar’s voyage log is personal, emotional, and introspective. They convey the uncertainties of his situation, his excitement at new discoveries, and his changing mentality towards the alien world. As the bridge between the game and the player, Olimar is himself an intriguing protagonist. His characterization reveals a thoughtful and adventurous individual who harbours respect for life on this alien world; he approaches his unfortunate circumstances with the heart of a true explorer. Over the course of the first game, we see his increasing appreciation and wonder towards the alien world:
“I have seen that, at times, the leaf atop a Pikmin’s head will grow into a bud and then a flower. It appears that if I do not pick the Pikmin sprouts, they gradually bloom over time. Fascinating! This melding of plant and animal traits is surely unique in the natural world!”
“Deep in the cave I discovered in the forest, I encountered blue Pikmin. These blue fellows have something resembling gills on their cheeks, and they appear to be amphibious, surviving both in water and on land. The wonders of nature never cease to stun me, even in this alien land!”
In one entry, he realizes the time on this planet has changed his thinking surrounding the relationship he has with others back home:
“When I am surrounded by legions of Pikmin, I always picture the face of my boss, the head of Pilot Union. He was always so sharp-tongued with his orders, but I imagine he must have felt much the way that I do now. It’s funny, how a change in perspective can bring with it a deeper understanding of others.”
Several of his entries reveal an individual who is anxious to return home to his family. But at the same time, the natural beauty of the alien world increasingly entrances him. Exploring the environment and working in concert with the Pikmin has allowed him to form a deep connection and kinship with the natural environment:
“It is very strange… The scenery of this planet, which I once found hostile, now sometimes strikes me as surprisingly serene. Perhaps the Pikmin have opened my heart to the beauty of this world.”
Pikmin 2: Subversion, science, speculation
In the second game, Olimar returns to Earth with the objective to salvage the strange treasure of this alien world. In an interesting twist, the treasure that Olimar and Louie collect is in most cases the garbage of the modern world: bottle caps, empty cans, old broken electronics. The ship’s computer renames these scrap items with attractive names so they can be resold at high prices on Olimar’s home world; one of my favourite examples is an old worn-out gardening glove being renamed a “Five-Fingered Napsack”. This premise turns out to be surprisingly subversive; I interpret this as a subtle commentary on the sheer amount of stuff we throw away, from batteries and bottle caps to rubber duckies and sardine cans. When viewed from this perspective, the treasure hunt is in reality a recycling venture, a transmutation of trash into valuable commodities.
Olimar continues to appreciate the wonders of the world, this time as a scientist and a naturalist. He keeps meticulous notes of the creatures he encounters, recording them down in the game’s “Piklopedia”. Each species of flora and fauna is labeled with a fictitious scientific name and information about their behaviour, potential origins, and roles in the ecosystem. (Louie, on the other hand, keeps detailed notes on how to prepare and eat each species). Sometimes these entries take hilarious and bizarre turns:
“Antennae Beetle (Mesmeri raiocontra): This creature is able to control the Pikmin by way of the peculiar frequency of its roar, but its only objective seems to be defensive in nature, as it stops Pikmin from attacking and forces them to run away. This beast prefers humid, dimly lit environments, and has been known to inhabit empty and discarded containers. For this reason, it’s wise to thoroughly ventilate any specimens that are recovered. Lifting off with one of these creatures in the hold can lead to a rupturing of the specimen during decompression, resulting in an explosive mess.
Doodlebug (Pilli flatularum): While life forms that excrete foul musks to warn of danger are not rare, the doodlebug is the only species known to release flatulence when active above ground. Interestingly enough, since it is merely releasing the gas created by decay of the contents of the creature’s intestines, it does not have a special musk-producing organ. This means the creature is in fact merely flatulating. Spectral analysis of the rank gas indicates it contains not only methane, but hydrogen sulfide as well, making the flatulence a Grade XIII biohazard.”
There is a lot of creativity utilized in Olimar’s notes; this is not surprising given the bizarre life forms and items he encounters over the course of his adventures. Pikmin 2 also appears to make a point about the nature of ecology and of science; it is initially based on observation, speculation, hypothesizing, and experimentation. Olimar is depicted as a capable scientist that engages actively in all those principles. His active imagination allows him to make the mental leaps necessary in gaining key insight of the natural world.
The Pikmin games convey many intriguing environmental education opportunities. It takes place in a world is one that is rarely noticed but vitally important; the creatures that inhabit it behave organically with each other. The main character Olimar is portrayed as someone who is a true explorer and an excellent naturalist. He keenly observes with an open mind, is disciplined in his research, is imaginative in his speculation, and appreciates the significance of the relationship he forges with the Pikmin and the world around him. Overall, I believe Pikmin 1 and 2 are not only entertaining and well-crafted games, but also serve as memorable experiences that cultivate qualities of empathy, curiosity, and imagination towards the natural world.
Next up: One man’s impact on the landscape.
Holloway, M. (2011). In Amongst the Green Blades. The Lion and the Unicorn, 35, p. 132–145.
Images of Pikmin © 2001-2004 Nintendo, Inc. All rights reserved.