If I Were In Charge: To catch them is my real test; to train them is my cause

Gotta catch ‘em all.

As we discussed last time, the phrase doesn’t get used so much these days, but in the early years of the franchise it was quite liberally plastered all over everything Pokémon-related, and it still strikes a chord today with ex-fans from the first two generations.  Interviews with the creator, Satoshi Tajiri, suggest that the whole idea of Pokémon had its conceptual roots in the hobby of insect collecting, a hobby which is becoming increasingly impractical in the real world as Japan (along with just about everywhere else) becomes more and more urbanised with every passing year.  This makes the significance of the catchphrase readily apparent; an important part of Pokémon’s ‘mission,’ as it were, is to encourage players to explore and understand the diversity of life.  Even though the words themselves have lost their central position, their legacy and the impact they have on the philosophy of the games is still important, so let’s talk about that.  How does “gotta catch ‘em all” still shape the way Pokémon works?

The first point is that, as far as the games go, our relationship with Pokémon is largely defined by capturing them and training them for battle.  If you’re at all familiar with my anime reviews from last year, you’ll know that I’m very interested in looking at all the different ways humans interact with Pokémon besides just catching, training and battling with them.  The games show the way non-trainers relate to Pokémon as well – for one thing, the introduction sequence, where Professor Tree asks you for your name and gender, traditionally mentions training as only one of several ways people can live with Pokémon; for some people, Pokémon are pets, for others, workmates, for still others, a field of research.  In general, though, these other relationships tend to be sidelined.  The game is about Pokémon training, after all, so people who just live with Pokémon rather than battling with them tend to be unimportant townsfolk.  Even the Professors, at whose behest we all began our journeys, tend to get relatively little attention.  As far as I can recall, Professor Juniper is the only one who ever actually discovers anything in the course of the game, although Professor Birch, bless him, can often be seen mucking around in the fields of Littleroot Town and Oldale Town, sweetly attempting to be productive.  We just don’t see much of the array of different relationships, largely because they so rarely intersect with the trainer’s life.  The most prominent case is probably Hugh’s quest in Black and White 2 to save Purrloin, who seems to be more like a pet than anything else, but we see so little of Purrloin’s actual owner, Hugh’s sister, that it doesn’t really come to much.  Pokémon Contests, Pokémon Musicals, and Pokéstar Studios are likewise interesting attempts to show these other aspects, but they tend not to get much attention – there’s little in the way of a storyline to go with them, and they are entirely separate from what’s going on in the rest of the game.  Pokémon are absolutely pivotal to just about every aspect of the culture of this world, but we tend to see it from quite a narrow perspective.  As powerful trainers, however, we are in most cases the people best equipped to deal with Pokémon-related problems of all kinds – a perspective the core series has, for the most part, not been tempted to embrace in the past.

The other side to what’s going on here is, as I touched on last time, the other half of the phrase: we’ve gotta catch ‘em all.  Not just some, most, or a few, but every last one of the damned things – six hundred and forty-nine, with a hundred-odd more slated to appear in October.  This is part of what causes the Pokédex quest to be marginalised in the minds of players; it’s just an unrealistically demanding objective, with relatively little in the way of rewards for progress until you reach the very end (though it must be acknowledged that there have always been some, ever since the Itemfinder and Exp. All in Red and Blue).  Even seeing them all, which is where the emphasis has now shifted, is becoming a fairly monumental effort.  Quite aside from the sheer volume involved is the idea that, as I have repeatedly and vociferously complained in the past, perhaps some Pokémon just shouldn’t be subject to capture.  This statement mainly covers certain legendary Pokémon, like the literal embodiments of space and time, Palkia and Dialga, or the purported creator of the universe, Arceus, although I could extend it without much difficulty to the majority of legendary Pokémon and perhaps a few other specific Pokémon like Unown who behave in a particularly unusual way.

As I’ve already suggested, I think the solution to this problem is not to reduce the importance of the Pokédex further, but rather to increase it, making it a major focus of gameplay by integrating the Pokédex quest into the story while adding incremental rewards for working towards its completion.  Moreover, let’s say that capturing Pokémon is not the only way – or even necessarily the primary way – of obtaining their full Pokédex data; indeed for some species it may be impossible to gain full Pokédex data simply by capturing them.  One possibility here might be a system in which tiers of information are progressively unlocked – basic data is gained just by seeing a Pokémon, more is earned by catching it, and either training the Pokémon to a certain point or completing some sort of quest allows you to complete its entry.  Full data, once obtained, could also be much more comprehensive than what the Pokédex gives you at present, including not only all available facts about a Pokémon, but also useful reference data like the Pokémon’s egg group and egg moves, level up move list, and in some cases perhaps information about how it evolves.  At present all of this information and more can be accessed through the Pokédex 3D app for the 3DS; why not make some of it part of the in-game Pokédex, unlockable via in-game accomplishments?  I also want to emphasise the idea that, in completing the Pokédex, we are working with Pokémon, for Pokémon, not just for the benefit of humans, as well as change the dynamic of the relationship between players and legendary Pokémon, with the latter being, if anything, above us and beyond our total understanding.  This is, admittedly, difficult to show, and it’s a theme I’m going to come back to in later entries in this series, but I’ll try to make a start on it here.

That’s enough of theory.  Let’s work on some examples of events and quests.

Example 1: Collecting data

As you reach the first major town on your journey, you receive a call from Professor Tree, who is studying the ecology of the surrounding areas.  The Professor asks you to find all of the species of Pokémon that live on the route into town, and capture at least three of them.  Once you have all the data you need, you can call back and the Professor will explain a theory about how the area’s food chains fit together and how each Pokémon is essential in the local ecology, giving you complete Pokédex entries on all of the species involved, including the ones you didn’t catch.

Example 2: Atmosphere

Sometimes learning new things isn’t about overcoming a challenge at all, but about being in the right place at the right time.  A townsperson mentions to you that you’ll see something neat if you travel to a particular forest clearing at a certain time of night.  Find this spot to observe a swarm of Volbeat and Illumise performing their mating dance.  Watching the dance gives you complete Pokédex data for both Volbeat and Illumise.  A Pokémon who observes the dance closely will also gain a significant effort bonus to special attack, larger if the Pokémon is a Bug-type.

Example 3: Helping Pokémon

You find a wild Torterra in a forest, trying to escape members of Team Rocket (or similar ruffians).  You drive them off, but Torterra appears forlorn.  Exploring the area will allow you to find several of the Pokémon who lived on Torterra’s back, and coax them to return.  You gain complete Pokédex data on Torterra and partial data on all the Pokémon that lived with it, and your understanding of Torterra’s importance in its environment allows you to increase the happiness of your Pokémon more quickly.

Example 4: Investigating a legendary Pokémon

In a small town library, you find a man researching the legendary Pokémon, Jirachi.  He asks you for help.  If you find and show him a book describing a mysterious Pokémon from local legend and its temple in the forest, he makes the connection with Jirachi.  Coming this far gives you partial Pokédex data on Jirachi.  You can then accompany him to the temple, help him through its puzzles, and summon Jirachi.  He will then reveal that his intent was to capture Jirachi, using a Pokéball-like machine of his own design, and asks you to fight Jirachi while he prepares to use it.  You can agree and attack Jirachi, in which case the man will reward you with a pile of shards or Heart Scales, or challenge him to a battle to stop him, in which case Jirachi will grant you a wish in gratitude (for example – “I wish for my Pokémon to grow more powerful” causes Jirachi to infect your entire party with Pokérus).  Either way, you get Jirachi’s complete Pokédex data.

Example 5: A favour for a friend

When one of your Ghost Pokémon reaches a certain level (let’s say 40) it will indicate to you that it wishes to visit a particular sacred site (the region’s equivalent to the Pokémon Tower, or Mount Pyre).  If you go there with the Ghost Pokémon who made the request, it will allow you to see into the spirit world.  The ghosts of both humans and Pokémon live there, and both have been thrown into turmoil because the Dusclops who guards the place has gone mad and is attacking everything it sees.  If you defeat the Dusclops, it will reveal through a telepathic vision that its Reaper Cloth has been stolen.  Questioning the other spirits will allow you to determine the identity of the culprit – another Pokémon trainer.  If you track him down, he will deny all knowledge of the missing cloth, but if you defeat him and explain the situation, he will admit that he took the Reaper Cloth, but didn’t know why it was important.  When he returns the cloth, Dusclops will regain its sanity and evolve into Dusknoir.  You gain full Pokédex data on both species, your Ghost Pokémon’s happiness is increased to maximum, and you can visit the spirit world side of the graveyard at any time to catch Ghost and Psychic Pokémon with their hidden abilities.

Hopefully, these examples demonstrate, if not a polished final draft, at least the kind of aesthetic feel I’m aiming to create in this project.  You aren’t just a random wandering Pokémon trainer; you’ve been chosen by your hometown’s Professor to receive a special rare starter Pokémon and travel to gather important information, so why not act like it?  In another vein, quests like these are one of the ways in which I think the games could potentially benefit from following the lead of the anime in the way Pokémon and their trainers are portrayed; the impersonal way in which the games tend to treat Pokémon is, to an extent, inevitable simply because of the way the games work, but it clashes rather glaringly with the franchise’s overall messages of partnership, and it’s something else that I want to work against as I continue this series of entries.  For now, though, I think I’ve done about enough for one day.

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