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three Pikmin, a blue one, a red one, and a yellow on, peer towards the gaze of the camera Image: Nintendo

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Why do Pikmin have to die

As a child, I couldn’t bear to see Pikmin die

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

As a kid, I loved the insect-like creatures from Pikmin a little too much. The brightly-colored Nintendo critters oozed charm with their little head and giant eyes. And while Pikmin was too difficult of a game for me to play, I always looked forward to watching my older brother enjoy it. But as we went along, a problem came up: I couldn’t bear to see the Pikmin die.

The Pikmin series is a real-time strategy game. In the first game, you play as Captain Olimar, a space explorer marooned on an alien planet. Left with no means to get home except repair his broken ship, he enlists the native creatures of the island, Pikmin, to survive and rebuild his ship.

Olimar can command an army of dozens (if not hundreds) of Pikmin at a time to do tasks like fight other creatures and transport ship parts. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Pikmin, said the inspiration for the game came from watching ants in a garden. All the captain needs to do is whistle and the creatures gladly lay down their lives for him.

Unfortunately for my brother, Pikmin-death is all but unavoidable in the series. While exploring the world with your Pikmin, there is no shortage of ways to kill them. They can be eaten. They can drown. They can be crushed. Unless you’re an extremely skilled player, it’s not uncommon to burn through hundreds of Pikmin in a single playthrough.

As a result, I subjected my older brother to an endless stream of critiques and appeals to just ‘be better’ at the game. One time, I even went as far as to cry when he refused to backtrack into a level and pick up a missing Pikmin.

Although the average Pikmin player should feel OK with their death, it still sucks to see them whimper and let out a sad cry when they perish. You can even see a little ghost float into the sky when another creature eats one. To add insult to injury, they’re the ones brave enough to take on the monsters, and they get killed in the end.

Given this harsh reality, my brother came up with a unique solution to calm my concerns: He made up a complicated lore system in which Pikmin don’t pass away. That way, I didn’t feel bad about their deaths.

How I rationalized Pikmin death

Here’s the rundown of it: when a Pikmin “dies,” it doesn’t actually pass on to the next life, each one’s soul just floats back to the onion ship — a vessel in the game that spawns the seeds to create more Pikmin. Once there, their spirit enters a queue of other souls where it waits to be picked again.

So let’s say we have five Pikmin, and I lost three of them to combat. If I pick two more from the onion ship, then I have three waiting to be reborn. If we picked more Pikmin than the ones that passed away, then the overall pool of souls grows and so does the queue. Realistically in this system, if you end the game with a net higher number of Pikmin than you lose, then none of them die permanently.

The tension behind Pikmin

Why I thought that a Pikmin dying over and over again is more humane than one dying once is beyond me. But I never questioned the system. I wanted to believe my brother. Still, this added lore helped me resolve a tension that exists within the game internally. On one hand, we don’t want to care about Pikmin. We need to see them as disposable soldiers because we can’t get hung up on losing a single character out of hundreds. Again, they need to be the equivalent to an insect.

But on the other hand, we need to care about them enough so we don’t lay them to endless waste and can’t progress through the game. So the developers create incentives for us to protect them. More Pikmin means more fighting power, after all. But I always found the emotional incentive to be much more powerful. The gut-wrenching feeling of seeing one die is the best reason the game designers could give us to protect them and thus, progress through the game.

In a medium where characters die over and over and it’s become so banal and invisible, there’s something special about caring a little too much.