June’s Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality offered an incredible deal for gamers, no doubt – it swept up well over 1700 indie games into a single package which could be purchased for as little as $5 – but more importantly, it raised an astonishing $8,175,430 in donations for funds related to the Black Lives Matter movement. With purchasers spending $10 for the bundle on average, Itch.io’s fundraiser is an example of what can be done when enough people get together in the name of a good cause; certainly, it knocks the (admittedly welcome) donations of far more moneyed games industry entities into a cocked hat.
Itch.io’s bundle also gave around 810,000 of us a chance to wade into a veritable sea of corking indie games – some familiar, others less so. One that immediately jumped out at me, because I’d been meaning to download it since its release last year but completely forgot to, was Sectordub’s utterly charming platform adventure, Pikuniku.
Set in a colourful storybook world of bold shapes and primary colours, Pikuniku is the tale of an unassuming creature – the wide-eyed, bipedal Piku – who wakes up on a seemingly idyllic island of free money, abundant resources, and limitless leisure time. After convincing the locals that he isn’t the terrifying mountain monster written about in their legends, Piku ventures further into the island, and discovers that all isn’t quite as it first appears: top-hatted entrepreneur Mr. Sunshine uses showers of cash, nightclubs, and other distractions to keep the populace amused while his robots strip the island of its resources – they rob fields of corn, lop down trees, and drain water from lakes. A clumsy yet good-hearted character, Piku eventually forges an unlikely alliance with an underground resistance movement, and agrees to help overthrow the island’s bulbous dictator.
What’s immediately striking about Pikuniku is how cleanly it combines different styles and influences. Its aesthetic could be described as a happy marriage of Eastern and Western whimsy: there’s the colour and zaniness of Japan’s LocoRoco and Katamari, mixed with a distinctly European vein of humour that takes aim at the gig economy and tech capitalism.
Beginning in the darkened recesses of a cave, Pikuniku might seem almost too slow and laidback at first, as Piku gamely jumps and kicks about the place, and the first physics-based puzzles hove into view. Piku can use a bandy leg to kick and roll objects around the screen, which is handy for knocking, say, an acorn onto a switch to open a door. Gradually, though, the lock-and-key puzzles are joined by a pleasing array of minigames, obstacle courses, and even the odd boss battle. In each, Pikuniku’s designers bring their keen imaginations to familiar scenarios: one assault course of spinning traps could have come from an early Super Meat Boy stage, except the traps in question happen to be toasters that eject deadly slices of bread. Elsewhere, there’s a curious take on basketball (where Piku’s lankiness again comes in handy) and a rhythm-action dance-off against one of Mr. Sunshine’s robot underlings. From beginning to end, Pikuniku is studded with moments to make you smile.
Admittedly, Pikuniku isn’t a long game – you could probably blast through it in three hours if you aren’t fussed about finding the various hats and other trinkets hidden about the place – which was a fairly common criticism when it emerged in January 2019. The bigger disappointment, I’d argue, is that its developers don’t delve a little deeper into the themes Pikuniku so economically sets out in its opening few minutes: digital surveillance, automation, wall-to-wall advertising, and the tantalising notion of a society entertained into extinction are all established but barely addressed later in the game. Mr. Sunshine emerges as an amusing boo-hiss villain with a dastardly plan, but not much more than that.
Still, Pikuniku does find time to throw in the odd delicious scene or exchange here and there. Towards the end, one of Mr. Sunshine’s dastardly plans aren’t undone by the player’s ingenuity, but rather a pair of robot workers, who suddenly realise they’ve long been asked to do dangerous jobs for a pittance. “But think of the free exposure and experience for your resume!” Mr. Sunshine blusters. Needless to say, the robots aren’t having any of it.
Like Mr. Sunshine’s promises of free money and everlasting entertainment, the internships and gig economy jobs of the real world could be regarded as negatives dressed up as positives; sadly, the issues that have led us to this moment in history are far more complex to solve than Pikuniku’s. The satirical bite in Pikuniku is a gentle one, then, but its overriding sentiment – that the powerless can group together and effect change against the powerful – is an admirable one, and curiously fitting for the times we find ourselves in. I’m quietly hoping Sectordub has another visit to its sunny island dystopia lined up for the near future.