I've seen my share of virtual combat. From Ikari Warriors to Call of Duty, I've re-enacted the greatest tragedy of humankind for my own entertainment in countless ways. Sometimes I'm a general leading the fray, other times a lowly foot soldier tied to a turret, perforating everything that moves. But for all the war games I've played, none of them has provoked as much reflection or evoked stronger feelings in me than Pikmin 3.
As I play Pikmin 3, I'm constantly reminded of Stanley Kubrick's World War I classic Paths of Glory, in which a French general hungry for a promotion orders hundreds of men to rush an entrenched German position in a futile attempt to gain ground. After all, my Pikmin tactics have generally boiled down to amassing a small army of the creatures and then hurling them en masse at the enemy.
The key difference here is that in Paths of Glory, many of the soldiers simply don't go. Understanding the madness of the endeavor, they retreat back to their trenches, or never move from them in the first place. Pikmin, on the other hand, are perfect soldiers. Their morale is so unshakeable that a simple whistle blow is enough to rally them from any ordeal. They never question their orders. They will march dutifully into the Bulborb maw of death. They will follow you into hellfire or high water, and regardless of their resistance to flame or ability to swim, they'll do so with a smile on their face. (Well, I imagine it's a smile based on the happy chirps they make, anyway. My Pikmin don't actually have mouths. Again, perfect soldiers.)
All generals should value the sacrifices their soldiers make, and the developers seem to have gone out of their way to ensure this is not lost on the players of Pikmin 3.
From a gameplay perspective, the Pikmin are a transparent tool for the player. They are the shovel that digs up buried treasures, the wrecking ball that crushes obstacles in the way. They are the gun that kills the enemy while the general tries to stay safely clear of the fray. They are one more resource that must be managed in a game about managing resources, whether they be fighting forces, food sources, or the always-limited time.
But like all soldiers, the Pikmin are more than resources. I rely on the Pikmin for everything, as the directly controlled characters in Pikmin 3 are helpless to fight off enemies, collect the food they need to survive, or negotiate obstacles. But they also rely on me. They procreate by lugging dead animal or plant matter back to their odd little "Onion" spaceship, which then spits out seeds. But the Pikmin can't pluck themselves from the ground, and they don't explore the world of their own volition. Though I am the one "in charge," the relationship is inherently symbiotic. Only by working together can we accomplish our goals.
That dependence on one another forms the basis of a relationship with the game's creatures, one Nintendo uses to great emotional effect. All generals should value the sacrifices their soldiers make, and the developers seem to have gone out of their way to ensure this is not lost on the players of Pikmin 3. Beyond the gruesome attrition that happens in the course of gamplay, Pikmin 3 tries to hammer home the player's performance with each end-of-day debriefing. As the day ends and the player's ship takes off, missing-in-action Pikmin who just barely missed the dust-off scramble away from predators. Sometimes, you see them get eaten. Other times you don't. Regardless, they never live to see the morning. It's a sad ritual, one that drove me to take better care of my Pikmin, and whenever possible, to track down any stray sheep before nightfall. And on those days when I'd failed them, when I lost scores of faithful subordinates to the dangers of that foreign soil, I watched as a sort of penance. There is an option to skip this scene, and one I've taken multiple times, but I find the act of shutting my eyes to the consequences of my actions only compounds the grief.
Once in flight, the player gets to see the stats for how many Pikmin died that day, how many were abandoned to die that night, and how many your campaign has killed to date. That's usually followed up by one of the crew members delivering a briefing oblivious to those figures, comments about how great it is to have a juice buffer that may as well be "All quiet on the western front." So far I've seen one exception, a day that ended with Captain Charlie lamenting the sacrifices the Pikmin made, referring to them as soldiers and laying the metaphor out clearly for all. Nintendo basically stopped just short of requiring players to sign letters of condolence to the Pikmin's surviving family. (Which now that I think about it, is an unfortunate omission given how easily that lends itself to the GamePad's touch screen.)
This all sounds overly dramatic for a game about exploring a variety of gardens with a retinue of adorable seed people, but all of these elements were deliberately put in place. And the part that ties them together and gives them a cohesive meaning is that the game supports a variety of play styles. This is something I've found lacking in other such games, like Yager's much-acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line. That game turns on one horrific scene in which players realize they've unintentionally committed an honest-to-goodness atrocity. But the reveal, clearly designed to make players feel guilty about their actions, is a bit hollow when you realize the player never had any choice in the matter. The trio of main characters are ushered into a tightly constrained area, and they cannot advance unless they follow the developers' script. Even if they see the fallout of their actions coming a mile away, their only options are to commit the atrocity or stop playing the game entirely (which could be a significant and deliberate message from Spec Ops creators or a handy cop-out, depending on how you want to look at it).
Nintendo, in its infinite kindness and cruelty, has also given players the option of replaying Pikmin 3 from any previous day's save point.
As anyone who ever accidentally thrown a bomb Pikmin in a hectic battle will attest to, every day in Pikmin 3 has the potential to turn into an atrocity. But here, the player has a say in the matter. They can load up on Pikmin and treat the creatures as expendable cannon fodder, which, strategically speaking, they are. But a savvy player can also get by with fewer Pikmin, using them as a scalpel instead of a hammer, valuing their lives as much as they might value the fruit that is their actual mission. It's harder to play that way, of course, but virtue isn't virtue if it's always the most convenient course of action.
Deciding you want to minimize casualties is all fine and great, but this is war, and casualties happen. Any loss of life is regrettable, what's done is done, the dead cannot be brought back, and we must honor their sacrifice by completing the mission. At least, that line of thinking might provide a general some solace in the real world. But Nintendo, in its infinite kindness and cruelty, has also given players the option of replaying Pikmin 3 from any previous day's save point. This ability to rewrite history is a blessing for those of us prone to tactically crippling missteps on an operational level (see bomb Pikmin, above), but it's a curse for anyone attempting to wage their war ethically. How many Pikmin did you lose today? 1? 5? 50? Is that an acceptable loss? How many is too many when you can always go back and try for less?
With its lack of player agency, Spec Ops: The Line tries to make you feel crappy for "just following orders." But Pikmin 3 makes you feel crappy for giving them. I'm 25 days into the campaign now, and I have the nectar of hundreds of dead Pikmin on my hands. I feel terrible about my actions, but I have not changed them. I have a mission to complete, new lands to explore, and fruit to collect. And if sacrificing them accomplishes that mission, then that's what they're there for. I have begun to empathize with the dastardly general from Paths of Glory, one of the most despicable, vile wretches ever committed to film. I can't condone his actions, but I have a better understanding of them now, a realization of the dehumanizing effect of a military chain of command, and the things that suddenly become acceptable when you start seeing living things as tools and resources, a means to an end. And that's a hell of a lot more than I ever took away from Ikari Warriors and its ilk.