For reasons not entirely logical, I still love playing Pikmin Bloom. It’s been almost six months since Niantic’s walking companion app launched, and my routine hasn’t changed much in that time. Every day, I try to get my steps in. I often fail to. I sometimes earn far too many steps by driving with my phone in my pocket. I occasionally go out of town, and have to wait weeks for items I discover there to find their way back to me. But every day, multiple times a day, I check in. I feel like I’m accomplishing something.
I’m not. I’m making numbers go up. And I’m still trying to wrap my head around the appeal of it all, because it runs counter to so much of what I typically like in games.
On a mechanical level, there’s not a lot of game here. You have tasks to do, which occasionally take a hint of strategy to complete. And there are ways to optimize your squad. But generally, it’s about walking. You walk to find seedlings, walk to make them grow, walk to get food to feed them. In a typical game, this would lead to something. Growing more Pikmin would unlock different types of gameplay or new stories to explore. Here, you plant flowers and fight mushrooms, but there’s no challenge to either. You essentially build up your team to keep building your team.
A big part of that, I imagine, is Niantic needs to make money, and the more it can get you thinking about the numbers, the more likely you are to spend money to make those numbers move faster. Which is weird in a game built around walking, since you’re essentially cheating yourself, but it’s done responsibly — the game doesn’t hold key features back if you don’t pay, and I have yet to spend (or feel like I need to spend) a dollar on it.
Without the typical challenges I look for in games, I find that a lot of Pikmin Bloom’s appeal comes down to something that sounds pretty boring on paper: it’s satisfying to see new technology working well.
Games set on real-world maps are no longer brand new at this point, but there’s still something fascinating about seeing yourself in two worlds at once, and Niantic’s tech has evolved to the point that it all works smoothly. In this case, you essentially play the role of a post office supervisor, and it remains fun sending Pikmin out and seeing them return, over and over. Even the smaller details, like the way the app uses vibration, feel refined to the point that playing seems like a taste of the potential of what games can be in the future.
I also love the passive collaboration of it all. Unlike Pokémon Go and Ingress, Pikmin Bloom doesn’t feature competitive elements. I recall the developers of Journey talking at one point about removing features that would allow players to negatively impact each other online, and it feels like Niantic took a similar approach here. You can plant flowers alongside other players, and team up with other players to fight mushrooms faster, but the design limits you from doing anything that would ruin someone else’s experience.
It reminds me of Noby Noby Boy or Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube?, in that you’re all working together towards a shared goal, though I suppose in the latter case that all kind of fell apart (and arguably wasn’t “shared” to begin with).
I do wish all my time spent was leading to something a bit more concrete. Not just items to collect, but things to do. An end game. Yet, as I keep reminding myself, doing so would clash with the idea that this is a companion app for exercise as much, if not more, than it is a game. And perhaps more importantly, it would also, sadly, mean I’d have to stop playing.