My six-month-old son hates being in his car seat. He hates the click of the buckle being clipped in and the restriction of not being able to wriggle or crawl. He lets out a squawk — not a cry, more like a colossal sustained whinge. In the back seat of the car, as we move towards our destination, all I can do to soothe him is whack this empty Coke bottle against the metal bars of the car seat and encourage him to do the same.
When my son reaches out for something he wants his breathing shifts into an excited wheeze. An enormous gummy grin emerges. It’s a recent thing and the first time I heard it I panicked. I shook my wife awake with wide frightened eyes. Why is he doing this? Is he okay? I am burdened with the constant exhaustive alertness that comes with Google parenting: Does he have asthma? Does he have asthma because we found a cockroach in our kitchen yesterday? Does he have tuberculosis? Maybe he has cholera. Maybe he has leprosy. My internet brain leaps from one apocalyptic Wikipedia entry to the next with increasing intensity. Being a parent is hard.
My son likes plants for some reason; leaves in particular. Again it’s a recent thing. When we walk past one he reaches his sticky, saliva-coated hand in its direction and starts breathing like a concentrated heart attack. I had the stupid idea of ripping a leaf off a tree and putting it inside the empty Coke bottle I rattled against the metal bars of the car seat.
‘He’ll love this,’ I thought to myself.
The first time I saw Pikmin I did everything except wheeze and stretch a saliva-covered paw in its direction. It seemed as delicate and balanced as a sculpted miniature garden. The text instructions rattled past as the music chimed and clunked and charmed. I remember physically nodding as the game rules were explained. This little mini eco-system was beautiful, fully realised and, above all, designed.
An exquisite little garden with exquisite little rules.
But now when I think of Pikmin, I mostly think of my wife. We’d only been going out for three months when I forced a controller into her hand and said, “you’ll love this”. (I do this periodically in an attempt to make her love video games but I have a low strike rate. Pikmin will forever represent the one time I knocked it clean out of the park.) As she played, her scowl relaxed to a grimace then, eventually, a smile. Before long she played with the ferocity of a jealous toddler. She wouldn’t share; held the controller like a tightened vice. Obsessed.
I can’t wait until my son is old enough to play Pikmin for the first time. I think he’ll love it.
“It’s a strong connection,” says Shigeru Miyamoto.
I’ve just explained to Miyamoto that when I first played Pikmin I was single and then, when Pikmin 2 was released, I was with my future wife and we played together. Now I am about to begin Pikmin 3 and we have a son. One. Two. Three. Pikmin has a similar progression. In the first game there was Olimar, just one Captain. Then there were two of the little dudes. Now there are three.
My wife and I played Pikmin 2’s multiplayer mode together. We played and played and played till our brains were as frazzled as walnuts. Like a pair of disenfranchised hermits we developed our own language, made our own rules and then bent them out of shape. We evolved techniques, invented counter-techniques and outsmarted each other like mischievous chimpanzees. It brought us closer together. I have no doubt of that.
I tell Miyamoto this story. I tell Pikmin’s creator that his game helped me convince a girl to fall in love with me.
He just shakes his head.
“It’s good that you didn’t start playing Bingo Battle with her for the first time with Pikmin 3,” he laughs, “because you may not have gotten married!”
I think my relationship could take the strain of Pikmin 3’s new competitive mode, but maybe I’ll play it safe with the co-operative mode.
“People often say games will make you stupid,” Miyamoto tells me. “So with Pikmin I wanted to make a game that would make people smart.”
On sunny days my parents practically had to sweep me outdoors with a broomstick. ‘Why are you in the house on that computer when it’s a nice day outside’. I’ve heard a dozen different variants of that sentence and it never changed a single thing. I remain pale. I remain pasty. Video games always felt like something your parents didn’t quite understand, but that was a good thing. Maybe the suggestion that the pixels dancing around your CRT made your brains leak from your lug-holes made the whole endeavour a little more exciting.
But it got me thinking: when was the last time video games felt dangerous? Not specific games or specific genres — there’ll always be some ‘murder simulator’ hitting headlines — I’m talking about video games themselves — as a cumulative noun. By the time my little boy is old enough to feel peer pressure video games will feel as subversive as a worn out Rubik’s cube. For our generation that’ll feel like a good thing — it’ll probably feel like validation — but it’ll drain some of the appeal for our children I suspect.
The thing that’ll rot our children’s brains hasn’t been invented yet. But we’ll know it when we see it. It will scare the living shit out of us and we’ll write letters in short hand saying so. It won’t be Mario. It won’t be Sonic the Hedgehog with his cool red trainers and it sure as hell won’t be Pikmin.
Every father has the same weird fantasy.
I remember the moment I found out that the collection of cells gestating inside my wife would someday become a little boy who likes leaves but hates car seats. There was a split second of disappointment — I always imagined having a little girl — but that feeling left as quickly as it came.
‘I cannot wait to show him Indiana Jones. He’ll love it.’
And Star Wars and Back to the Future. I’ll take my son climbing, I’ll play football with him. My kid will be ripped.
Oh, and video games. That goes without saying. Video games.
My Dad likes bird-watching. He loves birds of prey. Five years ago he actually adopted a fucking real-life buzzard. It lives in my parents’ backyard to this day. I vividly remember his last-ditch final effort to coax my brother and I into sharing his enthusiasm when we were kids.
It was a bird watching centre, two hours drive from our home. We didn’t want to go. Obviously. We screamed and whined the entire trip. We whinged about how we hated birds, that they were boring. Oblivious to the fact that this was important to my Dad, like the little brats we were, we guffawed and laughed about how ‘stupid’ the entire trip was. For two hours.
Karma is gonna get me.
There is a copy of Pikmin 3 on my desk. When my son is, say, 10 years old I’m going to tap him on the shoulder, distracting him from the thing he is doing that I find utterly bewildering and maybe a little bit terrifying. I will be clutching that worn-out packaging. I’ll have found it buried in a cardboard box beneath a pile of dusty old Blu-rays we no longer watch. It will be an act imbued with a history, with layers of meaning that he can’t possibly comprehend but, somehow, I’ll expect him to.
“He’ll love this,” I’ll say to myself.
Unperturbed by my son’s glassed-over gaze and confused expression, I’ll unpack the Wii U. I’ll spend an hour looking for the HDMI cable that’s now obsolete and I’ll plug it into a TV with a resolution so high it’ll make 720p look like someone smeared a consistent veneer of Vaseline over the entire screen.
I’ll make my son play with me. Or maybe I won’t make him, he’ll probably just feel obliged. He’ll force a laugh to make the whole thing feel less awkward. I’ll be old, set in my ways and lack any and all self awareness. I’ll be beaming and my son will tolerate it. I’ll smile through him.
He won’t reach out gasping with sticky, saliva-drenched fingers. He’ll be his own little human being with his own little stories. He won’t remember the time I put a leaf inside an empty Coke bottle and rattled him to sleep in the car seat with a clunk-clunk-clunk.