So what are these games about, anyway?
We want to be the very best, of course! You know, like no-one ever was! Become Pokémon Masters!
What… what is a Pokémon Master, anyway? How do you become one? Why does everyone want to? What are we doing with our lives?
The title is much more prominent in the anime, where Ash’s explicit goal in life, which he states with some regularity, is to become a Pokémon Master, but the games occasionally use it too. Lance, for instance, grudgingly acknowledges the player as a Pokémon Master when defeated at the end of Red and Blue. The implication is that one attains the title, in its most strictly literal sense, by defeating the Elite Four, whether or not one actually becomes Champion by this act (in Red and Blue you don’t – at least, not immediately – since your charming rival got there first). Maybe, although there can only be one Champion at a time, anyone who has ever qualified to challenge a sitting Champion is considered a Pokémon Master? This is all academic, though. The important point to recognise is that, whether you’re aiming to become a Pokémon Master or the Champion, or obtain all the badges, or work up an awesome winning streak on the Battle Subway, or whatever, it’s always about battling and being the very best, like no one ever was. Yes, I’m going to keep saying that. In fact, it’s actually quite an appropriate phrase for the degree of power players seem to obtain in the games, much more so than it is for the (perhaps more realistic) periodic waxing and waning of Ash’s career. It’s not uncommon for players to remain undefeated throughout their single player runs, and even the most elite of NPC trainers in the overworld never come close to a team of six level-100 Pokémon. In the context of the game’s plot, you are the unbeatable Pokémon Master Ash wishes he could be… until the introduction of special battle facilities like the Battle Subway, which unexpectedly introduce dozens if not hundreds of trainers capable of going toe-to-toe with a team of the League Champion’s strongest battle Pokémon. Even then, of course, the game’s expectations for your performance are measured in terms of winning streaks; your implicit goal is still to be not just good but unbeatable. Odd, isn’t it? And doubly so if taken in the context of the anime’s persistent message (typical of 1990’s children’s television) that winning is of secondary importance to simply enjoying the game.
All of this pushes the games’ other main goal entirely to the side, to the extent that the games themselves barely mention it. I refer, of course, to the Pokédex quest. All of the Pokémon games in the main series begin with the local Professor asking the player (and, in some cases, the player’s rival) to travel around the region in which the game is set and use the Pokédex to gather data on all the Pokémon that live there. Interestingly, in Black and White this is later revealed to be only a pretence concocted by Professor Juniper and the player character’s mother, their real purpose being to send the player, Bianca and Cheren on a journey around Unova that will expand their horizons and (particularly in Bianca’s case) help them find their paths in life. Professor Juniper still seems to find the information useful to her research, though, and gives the player little rewards for reaching milestones in Pokédex completion, much as other Professors have in the past, and Black 2 and White 2 present us with a remarkably stubborn return to the formula. Gathering badges and challenging the Pokémon League is only ever suggested later, as something that would also be kinda fun to do. In reality, of course, the badge quest is what takes up all of our time, and many (most?) players won’t give any serious attention to the Pokédex quest until after becoming Champion. Even then, the sheer enormity of the task of catching every last Pokémon, already daunting by Gold and Silver, has now become so great that casual players would be forgiven for throwing up their hands and crying “well, f#ck that.” As such, the importance of catching everything has begun to wane as time goes on. “Gotta catch ‘em all,” once the central tenet of the franchise, has become far less ubiquitous in marketing, and the focus of the games is often now on merely seeing all the Pokémon of a region (Diamond, Pearl and Platinum, for instance, demand that you meet every Pokémon in Sinnoh – not necessarily catch them – in order to move on to the more remote areas of the Battle Frontier). In some ways, of course, this is a good thing, because trying to assemble all 649 of the damn things from across multiple games (including a few who aren’t available within any game) is the sort of quest that breaks spirits with alarming efficacy. On the other hand, this continuing marginalisation of the Pokédex quest de-emphasises what was originally the whole point of Pokémon – its roots in the hobby of insect collecting, and the central theme of discovery – in favour of gradually increasing the emphasis on battling and the development of ever more complicated mechanics for battling.
This, of course, brings me back to where I started: becoming the very best, like no one ever was, which is, for the most part, about battling – breeding and training Pokémon for combat, and honing one’s tactical skill in commanding them. As we’ve seen in the past, Pokémon battling can be a tricky issue that creates some very troubling questions about the moral standing of the whole franchise, especially because it’s so central to the way humans relate to Pokémon. I don’t think this is something we can, or even necessarily should, eliminate, because trying to do a Pokémon game with relatively little emphasis on battling would basically entail redesigning the whole game and much of the setting from the ground up, which is a) totally beyond what I’m trying to do here, and b) probably not what people want anyway. Pokémon battling, as Black and White show, can also be made to work quite well as part of a story when you think about the way it can allow two opponents to express their convictions to one another on an equal footing, the way the player does with N. The parts of the game that deal with Gyms and the Pokémon League do their best to make it feel as though it isn’t all about battling and competition, persistently attributing your success to your love for your Pokémon – this is an idea that goes right back to Professor Oak’s admonishment of Blue at the end of the first games, and appears in comments by powerful trainers throughout the series. It’s worth noting, however, that it’s much more difficult to treat Pokémon badly; the games make the broad assumption that Pokémon like being with the player, and making them dislike you almost requires deliberately poor battling and consistent use of foul-tasting herbal medicines. I can only imagine what characters like Blue and Silver could possibly be doing to earn the opprobrium of their Pokémon. This has the unfortunate effect of trivialising a rather important theme. It’s not bad that battles are treated with the kind of attention and complexity that they have always received – but when the ideas of friendship and learning are viewed so simplistically by contrast, it does start to feel rather as though battling is the whole point. In Black and White, when you first meet Alder, he questions your rival Cheren about why he wants to become Champion, and Cheren responds that he doesn’t see a need for any reason – the Champion is the strongest trainer, and being strong is an end in itself. We the players, it is implied, have better reasons – but what exactly are they? After defeating N, why do we continue training to grow stronger and eventually defeat Alder? Heck, why exactly do we do anything after defeating N? And for that matter, in any of the games, how would we answer the other half of Alder’s question – once you have power, what do you do with it? We’re clearly supposed to disregard power for its own sake, but isn’t that exactly what the structure of the games encourages us to seek?
What I’m slowly trying to suggest here is that setting up the games’ basic structure around what is essentially a competitive sport risks completely missing the point. Obviously it’s an easy excuse to have the player build his or her way up through tougher and tougher battles towards the big leagues, but it neglects some important aspects of the games’ message. The fifth generation games again make important steps in the right direction, I think, by tying the final stages of the badge quest to stopping Team Plasma’s plot, but after that, why go on to keep getting stronger and challenge Alder? That was Cheren’s ambition, not yours. And what happens after that? Create ever better teams for the sake of building Battle Subway streaks? It all becomes a little bit empty. Finish the Pokédex? Well, the rewards for that have definitely been improving since the days of that sorry old certificate they gave you back in Red and Blue, but it’s still something of a tedious and thankless job. So, how do we fix this?
I think this is one place where taking lessons from some of the spinoff games like Pokémon Ranger and Mystery Dungeon could prove beneficial. Most of what you do in those games is done through the medium of combat, as in the main series (well, okay, Pokémon Ranger is a bit weird in that respect but, let’s face it, that business of drawing loops around wild Pokémon on the touchscreen, while using the powers of your own follower Pokémon to help out, is basically a surrogate for Pokémon battles), but it’s never just for the sake of getting better at fighting stuff and getting recognised for being good at fighting stuff. Mystery Dungeon, of course, has you achieve higher and higher ranks as a rescue team and gain the associated prestige, but every single mission you perform, even the ones that aren’t actually related to the plot in any way, have a clear, simple and appropriate purpose to them: Pokémon are in danger, you can help. This is not to say that the gameplay in Mystery Dungeon isn’t flawed in other respects, but it got some important things right. In Pokémon Ranger, likewise, you’re always helping people out with their Pokémon-related problems of every kind, learning about what it means to be a Ranger and why that’s so important. Keep the battles; by all means keep the battles, but give them some context! Give players reasons to fight, and show them how their actions can change the world around them for the better (or the worse… but that’s another article entirely). We see a little, in Black and White, of what it means to be a Gym Leader, and how these elite trainers form an important part of their societies, bridging the gaps between people and Pokémon – once the player becomes Champion, why not do the same thing from a first-person perspective? What problems are there that only a Pokémon League Champion can solve? Let us not forget that the word ‘champion,’ though commonly used as a sporting title, can in other contexts mean “a person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause” (thank you, Oxford) – just like N, Alder, and the player in Black and White. A Pokémon League Champion is a hero of the highest calibre – why might the region need someone like this on call? Someone who is the very best, like no-one ever was? And even at the lower levels, what are the rights and responsibilities of a trainer? Having Pokémon and knowing how to work with them effectively means being able to help people in all kinds of ways – what can we do with this?
The other half of the question is to do with revitalising the Pokédex quest, which traditionally provides the initial stimulus for the player’s journey to begin, before quietly fading into the background and being forgotten within the first five minutes of play. Damnit, you’re supposed to be helping Professor Tree learn stuff! There’s a lot you could potentially do with this, but I would begin with making the Professors’ requests a bit more specific, with relevant and appealing rewards attached: “I need you to gather information on how such-and-such a Pokémon evolves. Do you think you could catch one for me and raise it a little bit? Wait, you want what? I gave you a Pokédex and a starter Pokémon, you ungrateful little- oh, whatever; if you do this for me and bring the Pokémon back for me to take a look, I’ll teach it a new move that’ll make it a lot more powerful; how does that sound?” I might even go so far as to have the player’s progression through the game world and the storyline tied to the completion of the Pokédex, with the Gym challenges being a side show, rather than the other way around – but I’m not married to that particular idea, since some people inevitably just won’t be interested. In short, what I’d want to do with the Pokédex quest is actually make it part of the story.
That’s enough for today. This is, of course, more of a rough sketch than anything else; I’m hoping that at least a few of these ideas will develop more over the rest of this series. I hope everyone else is looking forward to it as much as I am!