Champions of the Pokémon League, Part 3: Steven

Steven, Steven, Steven.  What is there to say about Steven?

Well… he likes rocks.
In Ruby and Sapphire, Steven is the Champion of Ever Grande City in Hoenn and the son of Mr. Stone, president of the Rustboro-based Devon Corporation, but lives in Mossdeep City, on an island in Hoenn’s northeast.  He wears neat, formal clothing, enjoys talking to other Pokémon trainers about their training style, and likes rocks.  Honestly, that’s pretty much it.  In comparison to the other Champions, Steven is really quite bland.  He seems to be a fairly quiet, analytical sort of person, and he often comes across as rather distant, particularly when he shows up near the end of Heart Gold and Soul Silver.  He’s plainly quite adventurous, but he travels alone and doesn’t seem to spend much time around people.  In fact, he steps down from his position at some point, so that Wallace becomes the Champion instead in Emerald version, possibly because he dislikes the attention and would prefer to spend his time looking for interesting rocks.   This is all absolutely fine in its own way, and there’s something appealing about the idea of an unassuming Champion – you can see Lance coming a mile off, whereas this guy isn’t nearly as blatant.  You’re not exactly surprised when you walk into the Champion’s room and find Steven there, since he was involved with saving the world during the game’s climax (albeit in an extremely vague advisory capacity); it’s more that there’s a moment of “oh, hey, it’s this guy!  Um… what was his name again?” …which is the problem, of course.  Steven is an incredibly forgettable character.  Heck, I barely remember him and this is my schtick.  His involvement in the story in Ruby and Sapphire is minimal.  You first meet him when you bring him a letter from his father while he’s in the Granite Cave on Dewford Island looking for cool rocks.  At one point you run into him on the road and exchange small talk before he wanders off.  When you reach Mossdeep City, you have another dull and pointless conversation and he gives you an item that you just happen to need to continue the story (not because he knows you need it; he just… kinda has one lying around that he doesn’t want).  Finally, when Groudon/Kyogre is awakened and begins playing havoc with Hoenn’s climate, he… talks for a while, tells you some things you knew already, and introduces you to Wallace, who actually matters.  If Ghetsis, the principal villain of Black and White, has unwittingly stumbled into Pokémon from a high fantasy story, then Steven has wandered over from an informative but ultimately rather tedious geology textbook.

Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the character Game Freak seem to have been trying to build with Steven.  However, the thing about quiet, aloof, intellectual loners is that, in real life, they’re not usually the most memorable people in a room unless you spend a bit of time with them, and this holds true here as well.  You have to be careful with your characterisation if you want to portray someone like this as anything other than hopelessly dull and, let’s face it, deep characterisation is not Pokémon’s strength (larger-than-life characters who can make a big impression in a short space of time, like Alder from Black and White, tend to fare better).  Ideally, for Steven to make a proper impact and not be boring and forgettable, we would need to work with him on something important to him, or see him become emotional about something (or, alternatively, not become emotional about something we’d expect him to), or at the very least get some dialogue out of him that isn’t the hopelessly generic “so, since we’re both trainers, why don’t you tell me what you like about Pokémon?” drivel he produces when you meet him on the road.  One of the little extra bits you get in Emerald that Ruby and Sapphire don’t have is a battle with Team Magma in the Mossdeep Space Centre, in which Steven fights at your side; you’d think the extra screen time would help, and… well, I guess it does reinforce that he’s not a big talker; considering how much dialogue the Team Magma leader, Maxie, has in that scene, Steven says remarkably little in response.  Honestly, the impression I get is that such a trivial thing as the plot is of relatively little significance to him, and he’s just annoyed that it’s happening on his island (come to think of it, since Mossdeep would’ve been one of the first places to be hit by the weather disturbances caused by Groudon and Kyogre during the climactic sequence, that could easily be his motivation for everything plot-related he ever does).  Left to his own devices… well, in Emerald, he just wanders off to the top of Meteor Falls to look for more rocks after the story’s over, where he becomes a ‘bonus boss’ along the lines of Red from Gold, Silver and Crystal.  His words to you when you speak to him?  “Do you maybe… think of me as just a rock maniac?”
Yes, Steven.  Yes, we do.

In this piece of fanart by Wildragon, Steven, his hair a little ruffled but his clothing immaculate as always, takes a break from rock-hunting in Meteor Falls with his strongest Pokémon, the steel behemoth Metagross, at his side.  If you like what you see, check out Wildragon's DeviantArt page,

Contrary to what his obsession with rare stones might lead you to expect, Steven is not actually a Rock Pokémon trainer; he describes himself as a Steel-type specialist, although only three of his six Pokémon are Steel-types: Skarmory, Aggron, and his signature Pokémon, Metagross (who hits like a truck and, if you’ve never seen one before, has weaknesses that aren’t all that easy to figure out).  With Forretress, Steelix and Scizor unavailable in Ruby and Sapphire, there aren’t actually enough Steel Pokémon to assemble a full team of them.  He could conceivably have used Magneton, and a second Aggron wouldn’t have been too big a stretch, but the only other Steel-type around at this point is Mawile, and I think on some level Game Freak recognised that Mawile is not a Pokémon anyone should be forced to use, ever.  The composition of the rest of his team, therefore, comes down to what I was saying last time about choosing Pokémon that are ‘thematically appropriate,’ even if they aren’t necessarily from the right element.  Armaldo and Cradily are Rock-types, of course, but even among Rock Pokémon they are peculiarly suited to Steven since, as extinct Fossil Pokémon, Steven’s Cradily and Armaldo would have been resurrected for him from rocks – one imagines he found their fossils on one of his geological excursions and brought them to the scientist who studies that very technology for his father’s company.  Claydol is harder to place (Lunatone or Solrock might have been a better fit given their association with meteorites; on the other hand they’re much weaker than Claydol and perhaps not appropriate for a Champion) but again has shades of something he could conceivably have simply collected while exploring – Claydol and its juvenile form, Baltoy, are ancient ceramic figurines brought to life by mysterious forces; a dormant Baltoy is just the sort of thing Steven might decide to pick up whether he recognized it as a Pokémon or not.  The practical result of all this is that Steven has a team that not only makes sense for him personally but is far more diverse than anything his subordinate Elite Four have managed to put together – each of them has not one but two weaknesses shared by their entire teams (with the exception of the Kingdra Drake uses on Emerald, who has only one weakness, and Phoebe’s Sableye, who has no… well, no specific weaknesses).  You’d be hard-pressed to find such a magic bullet for Steven, which, in part, is testament to how difficult it is to inflict meaningful harm on Steel-types anyway, but still a point in favour of his team composition.
I always talk, quite deliberately, about two sides to everything: on the one hand, you have design, portrayal, character and story, and on the other, you have abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and how something is put together in terms of game mechanics.  With Steven, I think Game Freak have done a fairly depressing job on the former, and a surprisingly good one on the latter (his Aggron notwithstanding – I mean, yes, I know it looks cool, but you just don’t teach Dragon Claw, Thunder and Solarbeam to a Pokémon with a special attack stat normally reserved for root vegetables).  Despite my deep-seated conviction that he’s frightfully boring as he stands, having given Steven a closer look in the course of writing this entry, I’ve come to believe that he would be a very interesting character in a game that was actually character-driven, but, as I said, Pokémon tends to do a better job with eccentric, over-the-top people… who return in force when Wallace becomes Champion in Emerald…

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