When Friday is a Vegetable

A Colonial and Ecological Exploration of Pikmin

Essay - When Friday is a Vegetable

Joey DiZoglio is a student at Brown University studying English and intending on entering Alpert Medical School. In the meantime he hopes to complete a thesis on the remapping of American gothic space in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His command of language better be as good as his command of pikmin.

In the 2001 game Pikmin, protagonist Captain Olimar provides the titular word to his indigenous saviors and establishes a power relationship that develops throughout the entire game. During his first day shipwrecked on a toxic world he discovers a little plant person and needs to identify it within his pre-existing realm of experience: “Its shape is similar to the pikpik brand carrots I love so much… I believe I shall call it a Pikmin”. This name immediately assigns the pikmin to Olimar’s previous values and makes them tokens of hope for escaping the planet. As a man who employs both his own wit and the native labor of a foreign land, Olimar matches the archetypal Robinson Crusoe figure. The player’s main source of tension over the allotted thirty days is careful management of the “real-time strategy” resources, pikmin and pikmin food, while simultaneously combatting hostile life forms. Olimar’s colonial domination over the pikmin is the theoretical framework of the game mechanics. Given this lineage to post-colonial studies, the pikmin resonate as a people enslaved exploited by foreign empire. Yet the planet’s ecosystem rejects the role of subordination. Its alien biorhythms and defensive adaptations seem to imply that Olimar is just a superficial addition to the pre-existing ecocommunity.

Olimar and the Robinsonade Narrative

As part of his extensive exploration of the science fiction genre, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. identifies the techno-Robinsonade (217) as an archetypal plot of science fiction narratives. It employs the eighteenth and nineteenth century stories of colonizing savage lands but exchanges ships for spacecrafts and islands for planets. Nevertheless, the central character remains the same; a “handyman”, whose roots hark back to clever Odysseus, exemplifying rational and industrial thinking (226-227). As the handyman turns to space travel, this modern adventure hero ties his expertise to his technology (232). Veritably, Olimar would be dead without his space suit’s life support and after the first day, his ship’s engines that enable him to escape the nocturnal predators of the surface. In one of many ship’s logs Olimar remarks:

“Gradually, my repairs to the Dolphin continue. This ship is like a part of me. One could even say that it is tied to my very essence. Yes, it was a long – one might say epic – journey, going from mere repairman to captain of my own ship…”

The entirety of Pikmin keeps Olimar tied to his ship. Rebuilding its battered hull piece by piece reconstitutes Olimar’s own spirit and optimism for survival. With this willpower, he rejects the entropy of nature, asserts his dominance over the wilderness, and earns his ticket back to civilization.

Pikmin, Slavery, and Neology

Counterpart to the colonist’s brain, the willing slave is a native that lends his strength for the handyman’s master plan for civilized living. As labor, the slave takes up the master’s mission of creating a rational space from primeval wilderness (229-230). So much of the colonial myth depends on the “naturalness” of the slave’s subservience. In the origin text, Friday puts Crusoe’s foot onto his own head; meaning he must have enough free will to desire his own bondage. Vast libraries of post-colonial texts dedicate themselves to exploring the struggles and connections between Crusoe and his black servant. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is another colonial text that has already been connected to Pikmin. Robin Wilde argues that Olimar inhabits a space between Conrad’s Marlowe, captain of a riverboat, and Kurtz, the megalomaniac turn white god deep in the Congolese jungle. I hope to expand on his reading of the careful line Olimar treads between dependence on the natives for survival, and proclaiming himself as their despot.

Csicsery-Ronay deviates from race studies when defining the techo-Robinsonade and notes how science fiction turns the willing slave into a robot companion. Instead of the now grossly obsolete theories of racial subordination, the techno-Robinsonade depends on the robotic subordination to their organic masters. Pikmin however brings the character archetypes of the Robinsonade into the realm of species development through the theory of evolution. The pikmins’ role as hordes of willing slaves problematizes the argument of “natural order” of subservience by making a species biologically dependent on a master. The game hides the Crusoe experience within the logic of “instinct”.

The naturalization of oppression is a key step to any hierarchical society. Pikmin’s protagonist employs the power of language to establish his power over the hybrid army. Through language, Olimar controls the player’s understanding of pikmin manipulation. To begin, the pikmin mothership is an “onion” that ejects seeds which sprout. Upon plucking the sprout, the captain delivers the helpless pikmin into the world. He immediately maps his alien experience into a mimicking analogy for gardening. As Homi Bhabha writes in his essay on mimicry in colonial discourse,  “Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (126). This acknowledges the colonizer’s desire to understand the exotic world, wherein vegetables are ontologically inferior to animals. By appropriating the language of gardening, Olimar subverts pikmin identity and makes them subordinate to the horticulturist’s whims. For Olimar, Pikmin are no more valuable or independent than a peck of pickled peppers.

Imperial Mechanics

“Pikmin are as curious as children! They form groups to perform tasks that would be impossible for an individual. If I can make use of their skills, perhaps I can fix my ship! I shall sum up all I’ve learned of Pikmin conduct”

A toss and a whistle are the two primary mechanics of pikmin manipulation. Throw pikmin and call them back. Along with these actions: rearrangement, separation, and switching are organizational techniques to make pikmin an efficient and mobile army. As captain turns commander, these streamlined actions reduce the pikmin bodies to Olimar’s utilitarian urge. All pikmin exist to be tossed for a color-specific task and then whistled back in line. Strangely enough, the whistle has miraculous properties of dousing fires and overriding fungal spore infections. As bearer of this technology, Olimar strengthens his role of fatherly guidance and control over the otherwise leaderless rabble of plant people.

In the introductory quote to this section, Olimar realizes he can employ his zoological observations of pikmin for his own benefits. As techno-Robinsonade, the scientific process of hypothesis and experiment hones Olimar’s mastery over his starchy robots. They maneuver en masse, summoned by quantity, and devoid of individual traits or character. Their antlike strength and vicious prowess gives him access to all his ship parts often while the player positions Olimar safely out of harm’s way. Perhaps the most imperial abuse of pikmin instincts is the auxiliary mechanic of having them carry Olimar back to the landing area. Reasoned as a means of quick travel to return to the onions, the captain exploits the pikmin to carry his own body at their expense. As a Crusoe character, Olimar begins to believe his own myth of superiority and rightful rule when he repeats the rhetoric of authority over his army:

When I see the Pikmin engaged in fierce battle with other creatures of this world, I often grow uneasy wondering why they never attack me… Could it be that they actually view me as a parental figure? A strange, disturbing thought…

Olimar cannot comprehend why his fellow pikmin so readily took him as their leader. The disturbance of being seen as a parental figure hinges upon the level of sentience in the pikmin. On one hand, they could be imprinting Olimar into a biologically predetermined parental role. But, should they be capable of higher forms of rationality, they might actually trust this alien being to lead their hive towards growth and reproductive success. After days of combat, resource collection, and tactical refinement, Olimar has the wisdom to doubt his initial imperial grip over his workers. The remainder of this essay will shift from interpreting the game as an oppressive regime of the colonizer towards a meditation on the Olimar’s position in the planet’s greater ecosystem.

Pikmin Bloom and a Self-Regulating Ecology

Animal sociologists and zoologists study interspecies interactions in nature with Darwinian logic of natural selection along with a demand of simplicity through Occam’s Razor. When considering evolutionary reasons that species aid other species, these scientists consider both mutual and exploitative reasons for cooperation. They argue: “Because of the way natural selection is likely to act, we should expect exploitative rather than cooperative relationships between animals” (Barnard, 411). Some may doubt the validity of applying scientific acuity towards fictional worlds since an audience often expects artistic license to overpower any attempt at rational biology. However, upon examination, Nintendo developed an interconnected web of plant-animal activities that exist beyond Olimar’s technical input. The captain, himself, recognizes the larger forces at play on the planet:

“No matter how many of their compatriots fall in battle, the Pikmin fight on. Would this have been a peaceful planet had I never come? No… Surely the Pikmin lived like this before my arrival. They MUST have. In any case, I must not waver if I hope to return home. My task now is to do whatever I can to recover all of the Dolphin’s missing parts.”

If the pikmin were anomalies on their own planet and peace was the natural state then the combatant organisms would not have evolved defenses from these vicious sprouts. Instead, evidence suggests the planet’s fauna are not simply avatars for unique combat mechanics but rather fulfill ecological roles in relation to the pikmin.

Beginning at the bottom of the food chain, the pellet posies are the primary nutrient source of pikmin onions. Pikmin will attack them without command and collect their crystallized nectar. When pikmin populations are low, the pellet posies are able to reproduce as seen when one returns to a landing site after a few day’s absence. Small pikmin populations allow the breadbug of the Forest Navel to overpower the pikmin and take the pellets into its own nest. In fact, it is not only pellet posies that flourish with low pikmin populations. Each of the landing sites often exhibit larger and diverse populations of grub-dogs, blowhogs, wollywogs, and others beasts. After even one day’s work, most animals have been fed to the ravenous Onion to grow the pikmin hordes.

The puffstool and mamuta are the two enemies that deepen the pikmin relationship to other fauna. The puffstool, encountered in the dark recesses of the Forest Navel, has the unique property of emitting spores that infect the pikmin, change their appearance, and turn them against Olimar. This defense mechanism speaks to an evolutionary need to defend oneself from pikmin. Not only does the puffstool save itself but it also exploits the ability to dominate pikmin and destroy their original leader in order to reduce the pikmins’ catastrophic slaughter of other species.

Finally, the mamuta, a stone monster, could have been a co-evolutionary “cultivator” of the dangerous pikmin.  Its arms have the ability to slam pikmin back into the ground, returning them to plant-like docility. Given its talismanic appearance and guardian nature—it never attacks, only reacts— the mamuta is a constructive version of Olimar. It favors biologic conservation instead of conquest. The pikmin were never meant to reach such dangerously high populations. These observations point to an exploitation theory for the pikmin as a biologically competitive species. In place of comfortable and static submission, their militaristic fidelity allows them to gain resource and territorial advantages (Barnard). In the cutscene following a complete collection of all the ship’s parts, the pikmin attack an adjacent bulborb with their own volition. They have reached a large enough population, sustained by the captain’s constant food collection, to stake out their own claim even as night descends and predators emerge.

Olimar as captain compels players to recognize the racist potential of the explorer’s account. By defeating strange beasts, exploring dangerous locations, and conquering Nature to return to civilization, he is the exemplar conquistador. The Pikmin trilogy should be further explored as a colonial narrative. First the explorer just tries to save himself. Then he returns, prepared to extract the planet’s treasures and riches. In a third iteration, the new colonists harvest the natural resource of food to fund their expedition. Already, Jon Irwin of Kill Screen Daily has acknowledged the relation between colonizer’s destructive consumption of resources and the predatorial consumption of pikmin bodies. Yet, allegory is insufficient. The game’s ecology points to greater struggles of biology and survival that exist beyond the constructs of civilization. Both animal and mechanical hybridization provides a fantastic yet terrifying insight into the potentials of evolution. The pikmin follow and support the player’s explorations into the farthest possibilities of life in the universe.


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Discussant’s Reply

David J. Leonard is associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinemaand co-editor of Criminalized and Commodified: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports (Rowman and Littlefield). Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.

I play Pikmin several times a week on Wii U with my kids.  Because we play on Nintendo Land and not with the original game, my knowledge about the game’s origin story is limited, if not nonexistent.  Enter Joey DiZoglio, with “When Friday is a Vegetable: A Colonial and Ecological Exploration of Pikmin,” who offers an important reading of Pikmin, situating its virtual imaginary, its narrative inscription, and its representational field within a larger history of colonial production, science, and racialization.

Imagined as children, as without mind and agency, the little Pikmins simply follow around Captain Olimar.  Protecting Olimar is first and foremost the duty of HIS Pikmins; more apt, the game imagines their bodies (they seem to exist without mind) as tools, as appendages, and as property to be used as the discretion of this character.  As noted by Joey DiZoglio this sort of virtual imaginary cannot be understood outside of history, outside of the cultural, political, and the scientific landscapes of slavery, colonization, and imperialism. A game such as Pikmin fits within a larger genealogy of cultural productions that have sought to normalize and naturalize hierarchy, inequity, and violence.

Highlighting the ways that game utilizes notions of science and speciation, DiZoglio exhibits great potential with interdisciplinary discussions of gaming.  Just as science and popular culture interfaced, our understanding of games must delve into the scientific imagination.  Culture has played an instrumental role in naturalizing inequity, power differentials, and notions of superior/inferiority; it has been central to the production and consumption of Racial Other as nothing more than a helpless child in need of a parental savior.  It’s clear from playing the game, and reading this piece, that Pikmin deploys these tropes within a gaming space that yet again privileges exploration and mastery over an untamed environment.

Games are never spaces of simple or pure pleasure; they may bring families together to laugh and collectively play, but in doing so Pikmin uses the tried and tested racial and national imagery to construct a world of Otherness and control, of domination and exploration, and ultimately the normalization of inequality. This pieces force us to wrestle with this larger history, albeit without an assist pack.

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

Works Cited

 Barnard, C. J. “Social Mimicry and Interspecific Exploitation.” The American Naturalist 120.3 (1982): 411-15. Print.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” OctoberSpring 28 (1984): 125-33. JSTOR. Web. 5 Jan. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/778467>.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.

Irwin, Jon. “Pikmin 3 Is an Adorable Lesson on Famine and Death”. Kill Screen. Kill Screen Media, Inc., 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. http://killscreendaily.com/articles/reviews/pikmin-3/

Mirabella, Fran, III. “Pikmin.” IGN. IGN Entertainment Inc., 3 Dec. 2001. Web. 05 Jan. 2014.

Nintendo EAD. Pikmin. Nintendo. 2001. Gamecube.

Wilde, Robin. “Olimartyrs: Pikmin’s Heart of Darkness”. Nintendojo. 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.