For all its day-glo colours and upbeat music, Splatoon is a game that has always teetered on the brink of some uncomfortable ethical territory. Not only in the Splatfests’ questionable interpretation of the democratic process (I refuse to believe that ice cream is better than cake just because some jumped up ice cream fiends were better at make-believe paintball), but right through the core of the single-player campaign, which puts you in the midst of an ongoing race war between the Inklings and Octarians – a conflict you’re pretty much blindly expected to accept you’re on the right side of because your team has better sneakers.
Naturally, rather than back away from any of this ethical ickiness in the sequel, Nintendo has instead decided to lean in, by not only extending the Octarian opposition but also adding in a new adversary: the Salmonids.
This time around, in addition to waging bloody war against the Octarians, the “heroic” Inklings are also wading out into the ocean in order to steal eggs from the Salmonids for ends unknown. These humble, googly-eyed fishmen are simply minding their own business when they’re thrust into the desperate defense of their home, fending off foreign attackers (those would be us, the players) who are literally trying to steal their babies.
The poor Salmonids are so unprepared for this conflict that most of them are forced to improvise any weapon they can in order to defend themselves – in this case mostly frying pans. Even their youngest infants are sent out in the name of protecting their own unborn siblings, armed with nothing but plastic cutlery to hold back the over-armed squid kids bearing down on them.
“Hmm, I wonder what the evil grizzly bear company might be doing with all these salmon eggs?”
Feeling like a bad guy yet? It gets better. As an Inkling, you’re doing all this – destroying families, threatening homes, literally stealing babies – not in the name of some higher goal, or some greater good, but because you’ve become a corporate shill. You’re the latest hire for Grizzco, a mysterious corporation represented by a statue of a grizzly bear clutching a salmon in its mouth. Hmm, I wonder what the evil grizzly bear company might be doing with all these salmon eggs? WHAT A MYSTERY.
That corporate influence only serves to emphasise just how deeply uncomfortable the politics of Salmon Run are as soon as you look past the primary colour aesthetic. You’re explicitly doing all of this for money, with bonuses connected to just how many Salmonid eggs you managed to steal.
“And of course the game gets away with it all.”
That’s hardly surprising from Splatoon 2, which is a pretty overt celebration of consumer culture – it’s as much a shopping sim as a shooter, and I can’t think of a single game that devotes as much time to congratulating players on their purchases (in this case by ‘freshness’), or ties its shopping so deeply into the overall aesthetic.
The whole progression loop of the game is built around how satisfying it is to buy new clothes and gear – even including actual discrete stores to buy them in – so it’s almost a logical progression to ask the player to break their moral code in the name of expanding their purchase power. How many families will you tear apart to get a pair of imitation virtual Yeezys?
And of course the game gets away with it all thanks to a combination of being really fucking excellent and that sheer Nintendo-ness that means cultural criticism just runs off them like water off a duck’s back (ducks in Splatoon 3? We can only hope). From moment to moment the game is such a joy to play that you sort of forget it’s all a bit morally dubious – you’re too busy splattering walls with ink or gliding over the map wondering why every game doesn’t let you play as a squid. And on the off chance that you do pause for thought, take a moment to wonder what the poor Octarians and Salmonids did to deserve it all, that Saturday morning cartoon sensibility quickly papers over the cracks.
It’d be at least unfair to suggest Nintendo is entirely oblivious to all this, but in a way that awareness just makes it all the weirder. The game warns you that the Salmon Run mode is a “shady” job, and you pick up your assignments from a dank, dingy corner of the hub – in sharp contrast to the high-tech sheen of the rest of Inkopolis.
Part of that grime is down to the mode’s deep-sea oil platform aesthetic, but part is undoubtedly a conscious effort by the devs to distance Salmon Run from the rest of the game. ‘We’re not encouraging you to steal these salmon eggs,’ the design suggests, ‘we’re just letting you know they’re there. Anything you do next is up to you.’
Don’t let that attempt by the devs to distance themselves fool you. Nintendo knows full well it’s created a strange, subversive setting, one that turns cute squid kids into hyper-aggressive slave traders for a mystery corporation. It wants you to ignore that, to focus on splatting Salmonids; it wants to distract you with wacky bosses, fresh gear, and a sentient shrimp tempura. But wake up, sheeple! You’re the bad guys now – don’t let the Big N pull the ink over your eyes.