The following is an entry in "Growth of a Gamer," a series of articles exploring the profound ways that video games can touch people's lives. For more information and more great content, you can check out the series' hub page! Until then, please enjoy "Pikmin: On the Importance of Little Things."
The DK Nature Encyclopedia wasn’t exactly a classic of children’s literature, but I would spend hours flipping through its pages all the same, tracing glossy photos of star-nosed moles and rock hyraxes and blue-footed boobies. (The book was, as the name suggests, a nature encyclopedia and not much else.) The bugs never bothered me—I liked the beetles the best, noble creatures with horns like antlers and chitin like black armor—but I remember how I used to avoid the section on plants and fungi. If I close my eyes, I can still see the swollen corpse flowers, the Venus flytraps, and the carnivorous pitcher plants. Spores and fruiting mycelium haunted my nightmares, and after a time the pages in that section started to stick together, since I refused to open them.
I carried this book everywhere, including on my monthly sojourn to Blockbuster (a now extinct specimen of video rental store). There, the flashiest games would croon at me from their shelves, their titles so full of energy they looked ready to burst with excitement: Super Smash Bros. Melee! Mario Kart: Double Dash!! Sonic Adventure 2 Battle! Wham! Ka-pow! Wowza! But one month, with my encyclopedia tucked firmly in the crook of my arm, I wandered away from these brighter and bolder titles and towards the sale bin, unsure of what I was looking for until I found it. The game should have been buried under the riot of color surrounding it, but my eye slid to it the way a stone might roll into the valley between mountains. No corona of light crowned it as I dug it out. No fanfare erupted as I turned it over in my hands. It just smiled, the ways games smile, and showed me a name written in flowers: PIKMIN.
I went back home, popped the disc into my console, and waited for the Nintendo logo to fade as I hugged my encyclopedia to my knees; I would need it, if I encountered something strange on my journey. This was new, uncharted territory, and I had to be ready for anything. I pressed START.
Then without preamble I was hurtling through the sky, my spaceship fragmenting into pieces as I rocketed through the atmosphere. Lethal quantities of poisonous gas—oxygen, deadly oxygen!—choked this foreign planet, and when I picked myself up from the wreckage I realized my life support system would last only thirty days before I suffocated and died. I was Captain Olimar, an alien no bigger than a quarter, and if I did not escape soon I would never see my wife and children again. On my own, I had no hope of recovering the lost pieces of my ship, let alone of surviving the night when the nocturnal predators woke.
But I was not alone for long. I found a sprout, peeking out the ground, and as soon as I pulled, the strangest creature popped out. It was not so unlike me: two hands, two feet, two eyes, with a leaf growing on its head where I had an antennae on my space suit. As soon as it emerged from the ground, it tottered after me like a duckling after its mother. I had met my first Pikmin, and its siblings followed soon after.
I admit, the Pikmin gave me pause. I braved the plants section of my book, flipping quickly past the rafflesia (ugh) and the mushrooms (ew), but I found nothing at all that resembled these "Pikmin." I anticipated a trick, for all carnivorous plants have a lure, but even though I expected the trap, the Pikmin caught me all the same—not with sugar, and not with sweet scents—they trapped me with an adorable idiocy. And I will testify to the effectiveness of this survival strategy, because as soon as the Pikmin won me over, I made a decision: I wasn’t going to let any of them die. Not one.
This was more difficult than it seems. Imagine, if you will, a game where you had to babysit an infant who was doing more or less everything in its power to kill itself, as infants often do. Now imagine that this kid has ninety-nine twin brothers and sisters, all of a similar age with similar inclinations. Now imagine that you’re in a sweatshop. Not only are you trying to keep these babies alive while they navigate the dangerous machinery and cramped quarters, but you’re also trying to keep them productive. Now imagine that the sweatshop is run by the Mafia, and if you don’t meet your production quotas by the end of the month then a gangster will choke you, and all your child workers, to death.
Hold this image in your mind.
This is Pikmin, a real-time strategy game that plays like the ultimate challenge in micromanagement. The Pikmin were the babies and I the babysitter, and if the Pikmin games have taught me anything it’s that a child is not worth it unless you really need someone to carry something for you.
The game had two time limits: I had only thirty days to escape the planet, and each day played in thirteen-minute segments. My goal was to recover all the lost pieces of my ship to make it space-worthy again, but in order to do that I had to break down walls, build bridges, bolster my numbers, and of course take down any predators that wandered in my way. One man alone could never do that, but a man with a horde of Pikmin behind him? Who needs shovels or pickaxes when you can bang your head against the rocks until it breaks? Who needs weapons when your men are living projectiles themselves? Like ants, the Pikmin scurried industriously through their little world, wielding numbers as their greatest strength. But one misstep—
And suddenly my squad was being eaten alive—
And the other squad was intercepted by an enemy swooping from the sky—
They’ve lost their cargo—
Knocked into the water—
Now there are BOMBS—
And night is coming—
Ten seconds to rally my scattered army—
NIGHT IS COMING—
And that was usually the point where I reset the level. Every decision counted, because every decision could prompt yet another genocide. And when, at the end of the day, I escaped to the lower atmosphere of the planet in my sputtering ship, I couldn’t bear to see the final summary of the day’s progress have a death tally more than zero. I wasn’t just going to escape the planet. I was going to do it right, because it’s the little things that matter.
But even as my hands shook in fear, even as I brutally executed anything that stood in my way, I fell in love. I studied my enemies, maintaining notes in my nature encyclopedia on every single one. I had always liked bugs and monsters, and the creatures of Pikmin were no exception. They were colorful, oftentimes goofy, and charming in their own way. I adored them even as I killed them—and that was okay. Pikmin showed me how death fed life. It was funny, and sad, and honest.
Thirty days passed, and not only did I survive, but all my Pikmin did too. That, more than anything, put a smile on my face. It’s the little things that matter.
When I went to Blockbuster again, picking out my next game was the easiest decision I had ever made, and it didn’t take me long to find the only other title written in flowers.
Desperation gave way to ambition in Pikmin 2, as I returned to the planet in search for treasure. But was I looking for gold? Fine silks and furs? Prizes of topaz, jacinth, and emerald? Not at all: I wanted bottle caps, and broken pencils, and bird feathers. While the original had turned horror into serenity, the sequel focused on seeing wonders in the mundane. Linoleum bathtubs and children’s playpens became the arenas in which my Pikmin fought bloody wars, while I looted a hoard of knick-knacks and doodads from this foreign world.
I was hooked by then, I admit it, utterly and hopelessly addicted to this franchise. A third game was but a rumor on the wind then, but I had an unshakeable faith that one day I would see a flowery 3 as well. If anything, the previous two games had prepared me for the wait: I was patient, ever vigilant for the tiny signs, never letting my frustration get the better of me. I waited, with my encyclopedia opened wide, as if it too was hungry for more. I waited, mind abuzz with feverish imagination and new possibilities. I waited. And waited. And waited.
For nine years, I waited.
I tried going onto fan forums to scratch the itch, although they became ghost towns as passion waned. I spread the gospel where I could, and played the games over and over again, with new restrictions, new tactics, and new challenges, but eventually I too had to move on. As I grew older, I played many games that gave me potential to be cruel, that gave me a thousand different tools to kill and hurt and abuse, but I always remembered Pikmin as the game that gave me potential to be kind. The game invited its players to care for minions that were as indistinguishable as Stormtroopers and just as expendable, and while no one had to take that invitation, so many people did.
Pikmin taught me that "expendable" was an illusion. Just one more helping hand can touch a thousand small tasks, the same way one little act can have a thousand cascading consequences. Because if I hadn’t gotten that encyclopedia…
If I hadn’t discovered
If I had never seen the calmness at the center of fear…
The beauty of the ordinary…
If I had never waited…
Hadn’t spent nine long years waiting and imagining and creating and wondering…
Then I would be somewhere, or someone, entirely different. I wouldn’t recognize the wonderful paradox that is nature. I wouldn’t know how to love that which I destroy, and that which destroys me. I wouldn’t see all the ripples radiating around me, from each of my day-to-day decisions, and I wouldn’t see any of the ripples coming towards me either. But I do, and I think I always will; because after all, every decision counts, and it’s the little things that matter.
About the Growth of a Gamer Series
"Growth of a Gamer" is a series of articles exploring the profound way games and gaming can impact our lives, as told by students of the Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California. Each one tells a personal story of how a particular game or franchise molded us into the people we are today, and through our experiences we hope to shed light on the ways that these games have affected all of you as well. We invite you all to share your own stories in the comments below, or by writing your very own series entries through Gamnesia's Journals feature. We love coming together to share in the joys that make gaming so memorable for us all, and we hope that you'll join us!
You can find more information about these stories and their authors at the hub page for the Growth of a Gamer series, or find a particular game from the list below to jump right in!
- Pikmin, by Kevin Shi
- Portal, by Drew Perlman
- Mass Effect, by Justin Camden
- World of Warcraft, by James Collins
- Pokémon series, by Abhishek Biswas
- Pokémon Gold Version, by Colin McIsaac
- Spider-Man 2: The Game, by Cristian Guzman