Game developers don't usually say much about the genesis moments that inspire their work, probably because they'd sound a little weird. And repetitive, considering how similar many high-profile games are to one another. Pikmin's is special, though.
The Telegraph recently published an interview with Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto that explains how the legendary game designer first came up with the idea behind his unique series of console strategy games. Here's a choice excerpt, emphasis added:
When Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Super Mario Bros. series of video-games, celebrated his 40th birthday, he put away unchildish things. He quit smoking and pachinko, a form of gambling game that combines the brightest, noisiest parts of pinball and fruit machines, took up swimming, and vowed to spend more time in his garden.
One day, around 15 years ago, Miyamoto was relaxing on his patio and saw a line of ants marching past his feet and off into the grass, carrying leaves towards their nest. Then he imagined for a moment – because this is how the Miyamoto mind works – what the scene might look like if they were tiny people.
"Ants, as you know, always have a leader, and tend to be carrying things, and as they move they create a kind of rail," he says. "And I started thinking about a game about lots of small people carrying things in a line, following a leader, with everyone going in the same direction."
The idea struck him as something he'd never explored before in his work. More importantly, it also sounded like fun.
"When we think about video games, we always have the idea of a start and a goal, and it's like a race between individual players: who can make it and who won't?" he says. "And I thought, 'Why does it have to be a competition? Why can't everyone just move together in the same direction, carrying things as a team? Who made these rules in the first place, anyway?'"
I've always thought of playing Pikmin as being more like herding cats than commanding a small army of ants. But hey, I'll take it.
The reason Miyamoto's now apocryphal story of how he became inspired to create Pikmin stands out to me is that I have a hard time imagining the way other game developers would explain their work in comparison. Artists get their ideas from any number of places, obviously. But picture sitting down and talking to any of the people who made some of this season's biggest games—Assassin's Creed: Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Destiny...the list goes on and on.
When I last spoke to Advanced Warfare's creators at Sledgehammer Games, they made the game sound like a refinement of an existing idea—i.e., shooting at bad guys with semi-futuristic weaponry. That's exactly what Advanced Warfare is, and that's not a bad thing by any measure. But there's a reason the developers at Sledgehammer don't reflect during interviews about sitting in their gardens and suddenly realizing that this was the way they wanted to have players shoot at bad guys. Shooting at bad guys isn't a new or groundbreaking concept in video games anymore.
Making an incredibly challenging RTS game about using herds of cute little creatures to indulge in a seductively pretty version of virtual housecleaning, on the other hand? Well, that does seem unique. Pikmin has been around since 2001, so the game's unique challenge of essentially asking players to pick up piles of stuff and carry it around a map as fast as they can isn't groundbreaking either anymore. Stephen noted in our review of last year's Pikmin 3 that the excellent Wii U game is ultimately a refined sequel rather than anything that feels genuinely novel.
But here's the thing: Pikmin still feels new to me, because there's nothing else out there quite like it. Critics and players have described Pikmin 3 as the Wii U's StarCraft. Presumably, comparing it to Blizzard's legendary series of PC-centric RTS games is meant as a compliment. But the description doesn't do justice to Pikmin's novelty factor. StarCraft is noteworthy because Blizzard has made it one of the best, if not the best, game in an established genre. It stands out from the pack. Pikmin doesn't, because there's no pack for it to be part of in the first place.
I wish there was one—don't get me wrong. Part of me likes to fantasize about what it would be like if a developer as talented as Blizzard decided to make a new Warcraft RTS game for a console, for instance, especially since the company proved itself so capable of adapting its legacy PC title Diablo III for the Xbox One and PS4 earlier this year. But until that happens (fingers crossed!), all we really have is Pikmin.
That's precisely why the game's origin story is so valuable. Not to sound too Malcolm Gladwell-y, but Miyamoto becoming inspired by watching a procession of ants makes the guy sound like a bonafide outlier. Regardless of how true the story is, his work ultimately speaks for itself in this case.
It has been a while since Miyamoto (and Nintendo more generally) produced something as novel as the first Pikmin, though. At the very least, this makes me think that it's important to recognize and highlight truly original ideas when they do appear—however rare an occurrence that may be. And even if they seem small at first. Small as a row of ants.