Slimes. Goombas. Pidgeys. Gelatinous Cubes. Mudcrabs. Life has always been difficult for creatures on the bottom of the foodchain in video games. They exist to make us feel powerful, and they exist to make us powerful.
At the beginning of a game, they can serve as easy fodder for XP farming and testing out our new combat abilities; they can make an area seem populated without being too overwhelming for players just starting their journey. By the end, or even the middle of a game, they are little more than the snails you accidentally crush ‘neath your boots on the way to the supermarket.
What a life to lead: perpetually low-level, destined to never grow up, never reach heights any higher than “generic mook”. But you know what the worst part is? A lot of these poor, doomed, weak creatures are based on real-life animals, and those animals don’t even know that we consider them to be little more than kickable fauna.
Given that this is Crab News Thursday, I want to begin with our little pinchy friends. In real-life, crabs are small but mighty, able to deliver pinches that will, at the very least, require the application of a substantially-sized plaster. In video games, crabs are stupid baby weaklings that rarely have more than 50HP, who can be dispatched with little more than a bonk on the head.
And, sure, most crabs that you’ll find on a Norfolk beach are the wee ones that you can scoop up into a bucket with nary a worry, but have you seen spider crabs and coconut crabs? Apparently, according to this article I found by searching “crabs pinch can kill you?”, the coconut crab is capable of killing entire birds. I’m not much bigger than a bird!
Speaking of our avian chums, in the Pokémon games, they pretty much all start with the same thing: here’s a small bird, named Pidgey or Pidove or Piflamingo, who exists solely to get your starter Pokémon used to the taste of blood. Never mind that there’s an entire Hitchcock movie dedicated to how bloody nasty birds can be, especially if they know where all the soft parts of your face are — what did birds ever do to deserve being the punching bag for an entire series?
Bats, birds, bugs, bandits and blobs: we’ve been casting them as weak, trivial, and barely worth our time for decades, now. Occasionally we’ll get a trope reversal or subversion, like the Big Green Chuchu in The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, or Goombella, the friendly, almost-human Goomba companion in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, but these are usually the exception to the rule. We seem to have just universally decided that certain creatures are the lowest lifeforms, and they deserve to die unceremoniously.
If I were feeling slightly more verbose and annoying, I might spin this piece into a takedown of, er, capitalism, or something. You know, how the strong (bosses) use the labour of the needy (mooks) to do their dirty work (bothering the hero), and how the working class (mooks) need to seize the means of production (…Bowser’s flamethrower, or something). But it’s a Thursday, and I don’t feel like it, so you just write that bit yourself, okay?
My point is this: every hero’s journey is built upon a mountain of corpses that were so insignificant to you that they barely registered as a blip on your radar, and that’s what the developers want you to think and feel. That’s why so many low-level monsters are slimes, because it’s hard to humanise a dollop of mayonnaise. But I say to you, dear developers, that you’re giving FAR too many real-life animals a bad rap. Why does Pokémon consistently use birds and bugs? What does Bethesda have against crabs? And why do low-level soldiers in The Witcher 3 always have chicken sandwiches in their pockets? That last question isn’t really relevant, I’m just curious.
But lately, things have been getting better for level one baddies. With monster-raising games like Slime Rancher, Viva Piñata, and Stardew Valley — in which you can trap a bunch of slimes in a pen in order to farm them for their precious goo — the market for taking care of the babies instead of just trampling them over and over again is growing. Many people, myself included, want to take care of the crabs and birds, not kill them.
I’m far from the first person to suggest that violence in games is getting a bit boring, and that the new in-vogue thing to do is to spend time tending to animals instead, but I want to add my voice to the call anyway.
If anyone out there is able to make games, and is still reading this: give me a crab-raising game, please. Let me make up for all the murder I done.