If I Were In Charge: Teach Pokémon to understand the power that’s inside

I want to begin with a little aside – I love the double meaning of the phrase “the power that’s inside.”  On the one hand, it can be understood in the same sense as another phrase Pokémon quite likes, “the power that’s in your hand,” referring to the fact that Pokémon trainers quite literally hold incredible power in their hands, inside their Pokéballs, while on the other, of course, in the context of the line itself it can be taken to refer to a Pokémon’s inner potential, which it is a trainer’s job to nurture and hone.  It’s the latter of these meanings that I really want to talk about today, though, with particular reference to some of my old favourite subjects: the ethics of Pokémon training, and the mutually beneficial aspects of the relationship between humans and Pokémon.

What do Pokémon get out of being with humans anyway?

Pokémon are, regularly, stronger and faster than humans, allowing them to perform all kinds of difficult tasks that we can’t.  They possess a wide range of incredible powers, and many of them seem to draw on sources of energy that we can’t even comprehend.  The default assumption, one imagines, would be that Pokémon benefit from working with humans because humans are more intelligent, but are we so sure that this assumption is legitimate?  The anime seems to portray most Pokémon as being significantly more intelligent than their counterparts in the real world, able to understand a fair chunk of what is said to them by humans and grasp even fairly abstract concepts.  Perhaps you don’t trust the anime; there are many people who don’t, but even if we stick strictly to what we know from the in-game Pokédex, there are many Pokémon who are demonstrably smarter than humans – Alakazam, for instance, with his infamous “IQ of 5000” (we shall forget, for the moment, that any IQ score in excess of about 180 is effectively ‘off the scale’ anyway, and that there simply is no meaningful way of quantifying intelligence of that magnitude – it is enough to know that it is clearly far in excess of the human norm).  We should bear in mind, however, that IQ is normally a measure of a subject’s capacity for logic, problem solving, and pattern recognition.  Most IQ tests cannot measure a subject’s capacity for leadership or creativity, and do not claim or attempt to.  These are also, I suspect, just the areas where humans pull ahead of most Pokémon – we can come up with a wider range of applications for their powers than they can, inspire them to work together to solve greater problems than they could on their own, and understand why their relationships might break down or how to fix them.  Pokémon themselves, I believe, also increase their aptitude in these areas by being with humans, as well as increasing their confidence and self-awareness, which could be a factor in allowing them to evolve, too (these ideas are based largely on observations from the anime, since the games just don’t provide enough information on this sort of topic; I don’t really have time to get into any detail here, but see especially my commentaries on The Case of the K-9 Caper, The Problem with Paras and Attack of the Prehistoric Pokémon, and also watch Bulbasaur the Ambassador, which I haven’t written a commentary on but hopefully will someday).

These ideas, of course, are largely absent from the games.  From what the games can tell us, the primary benefits Pokémon derive from working with humans are companionship and combat experience, and the latter is really of greater benefit to the trainer than to the Pokémon.  There is, however, one aspect of what I’ve been talking about that the games do express and always have, and this is that Pokémon who live with humans learn to use their powers in increasingly unorthodox ways, perhaps gaining a broader understanding of their own abilities and increased lateral thinking skills in the process.  I refer, of course, to the use of TMs, or Technical Machines, the DVD-like devices that allow Pokémon to learn techniques they never could in the wild.  The use of an actual machine to do the teaching was once a necessary abstraction.  Up until quite recently TMs were, of course, expendable; this allowed the moves in question to act as limited resources, which players had to spend with caution.  If the trainers themselves had been teaching the techniques, it would have been very difficult to justify this kind of limitation – is the technique somehow stored in your brain and then expended when it is taught?  Of course, having just one of each became a pain, so Gold and Silver allowed us to start breeding Pokémon who would know specialised attacks from birth without needing to be taught, and over time it also became possible to buy extra copies of more and more different TMs at facilities like the Battle Frontier.  Eventually, of course, one has to admit that many of the attacks available as TMs had become basically unlimited anyway, so this is precisely what Black and White did, and TMs can now be reused ad nauseam… but now that we’ve come to this point, what exactly is the reason for using ‘technical machines’ anyway?  Why not place the responsibility for teaching new attacks just where it should have been in the first place – with the trainers?  The move tutors that have been present since as early as Crystal Version provide ample precedent for the idea of attacks being taught by humans directly, so there’s absolutely no reason it should be impossible, and it emphasises the personal role of trainers in encouraging the growth of their Pokémon, so it seems to me that it could only improve the feel of the games.  That being the case, let’s try to outline a system for how this would work.

Obviously some sort of interface for displaying and selecting teachable moves is necessary, to replace the current system of a TM case or TM pocket – not necessarily anything fancy; I’d imagine some sort of manual or notebook, which starts off blank and gains new entries as you learn attacks.  It could even be a function of the Pokédex, potentially, to emphasise its position as a compendium of Pokémon-related knowledge.  Teaching moves could be more or less unchanged, but how do we gain them in the first place?  As matters stand, we obtain new teachable moves by finding, buying, or being given TMs, but if the commodity in question is now knowledge and understanding, clearly this will not always be appropriate.  It makes sense for a Gym Leader to reward you by teaching you his or her signature move.  In at least some cases, dialogue from past games suggests that these moves were created by the leaders themselves (Bugsy’s Fury Cutter, Giovanni’s Fissure), so arguably this even makes more sense than receiving a little instructional DVD; however, it doesn’t fit so well with, say, a Pokémart clerk who is your point of contact for Rain Dance or Hyper Beam.  As with so much else, I think that one effective way of making this work would be to tie it in with the Pokédex quest.  In order to teach a Pokémon a move, you need to understand it yourself, inside and out, and that requires working with Pokémon who know the move already – so a catch-all way in which it is possible to obtain any TM move is by obtaining Pokémon who can learn it on their own.  The number of Pokémon it takes to teach you a move varies depending on how powerful and how common the move in question is, but four or five is typical.  Some people, or books, may be able to grant you a partial understanding of an attack, which will reduce the number of Pokémon you need to catch (I imagine a status bar-type thing that fills up as you come to understand the move more completely).  You might also gain partial or complete knowledge of a move by completing a quest involving a Pokémon who uses that move, or a person or Pokémon might teach you an attack in exchange for a favour.  Move tutors can teach you their techniques too, but it’s a lot of work for them, and many of them are also reluctant to give up their secrets, so they will demand a large number of shards as a fee, many more than they would ask for teaching the move to a Pokémon (you can also attempt to work it out by studying more Pokémon who use the move naturally, but you might need to observe these more unusual attacks in seven or eight different species before you crack it).  If there’s anywhere humans can compete with Pokémon, it’s in breadth of experience, and applying and recombining ideas outside of their original contexts.  That’s what we bring to the table – so why not emphasise it?

There’s one group for whom all of this works rather differently: legendary Pokémon.  Many legendary Pokémon are thousands of years old.  A few of them think thousands of years is a good amount of time to spend on a nap.  Some of them have probably had trainers before and watched them grow old and die, and they may even have done it more than once.  If we can capture legendary Pokémon, it would be the height of arrogance to assume that they’ve never been captured before – it is far more likely that they have been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.  Moreover, these Pokémon are often tied very specifically to a sphere of influence over which their control is more or less absolute, and can brute-force their way through most confrontations within that sphere by dint of their all-around supremacy.  When they do face conflict, it most often seems to be with other legendary Pokémon of equal standing.  Why, then, should they have any interest in us?  Some, such as Reshiram and Zekrom, have a built-in answer in their flavour and backstories, but for most, the answer is probably specific to the individual, and has nothing to do with a traditional trainer-Pokémon relationship.  If anything, they might be curious about us and want to observe the way we interact with Pokémon, or try to enlist us in their own agendas.  Far from looking to benefit from human guidance in improving themselves, many legendary Pokémon are explicitly the teachers, guardians and patrons of humanity (one thinks of Ho-oh, the Sinnoh lake trio, or Landorus).  Sure, working with us is not out of the question, but the humans are not going to be the ones ‘wearing the pants’ here, so to speak.

Furthermore, catching a legendary Pokémon as you would any other can potentially have some unsettling ramifications for the setting’s cosmology (not to mention game balance – I’m looking at you, Kyogre – although that’s not really what I’m looking to address today).  Dialga is literally the personification of time.  Time flows because Dialga exists.  Are you absolutely sure it’s a good idea to dematerialise him and store him in a computer?  Arceus is the creator of the universe, and we see in one of the Nintendo events for Heart Gold and Soul Silver that he can create Pokémon like Dialga, Palkia and Giratina from nothing.  I will say this again: creating Pokémon, even godlike ones, is demonstrably within the limits of Arceus’ explicitly defined powers.  Why doesn’t the game end when you obtain him?  If you’re missing any Pokémon from your Pokédex, he can just create them for you.  The franchise does generally seem to acknowledge that trying to control these powers will often end very badly for everyone, due to their intimate connections with the forces of nature – look no further than the plotlines of Ruby and Sapphire, or Diamond and Pearl, or of the second movie, Power of One, if you’re prepared to acknowledge the anime as something that actually exists – but tends to exempt player characters from such consequences, without any clearly explored reason.  Clearly the implication is that actually capturing a legendary Pokémon (as the antagonists of those stories never do – they use some other contrivance, such as Cyrus’ Red Chains) makes it all okay, but it never seems to have been thought necessary to consider how or why.  In short, legendary Pokémon are not like other Pokémon, and treating them as though they are does a great disservice both to them and to the setting as a whole.

After recognising all of this, though, I don’t want to take legendary Pokémon away from the players entirely.  People like legendary Pokémon.  It feels good to unleash the power of an embodied divinity upon your hapless opponents.  What I do want to do is attempt to redefine the relationship in question, so that it is explicitly very different from what we have with other Pokémon.  This is not about “teaching Pokémon to understand the power that’s inside.”  If anything, these Pokémon are teaching us – and, quite possibly, using us.

Here’s how I envision a relationship with a legendary Pokémon working.  When you first encounter a legendary Pokémon, you must fight it, along with a cadre of its minions.  This is, mechanically, equivalent to fighting a trainer who uses the legendary Pokémon as part of his team, like N in Black and White – the Pokémon will fling five other powerful Pokémon, usually of its own element, at you before fighting you itself, in a single long battle.  In the traditional format of a battle with a legendary Pokémon, the principle challenge is to pacify the damn thing and then avoid knocking it out while you find out whether you brought enough Dusk Balls – this is, frankly, an anticlimactic way of dealing with them.  These Pokémon are at obscene levels and will abuse their abilities and their full movepools maliciously, hopefully offering a challenge on par with any human Champion.  Defeating your opponent earns you a degree of respect from it, so that it will be prepared to ‘talk’ with you in some fashion, and grant you small favours – it might offer you a useful item, teach you a new technique, or even entrust a rare Pokémon to you to raise, in recognition of your skill.  If you want more, you have to do something for it – for a Pokémon like Articuno or Tornadus, this might involve undermining a rival legendary Pokémon in some way (and, potentially, taking the brunt of the consequences); for someone higher up the cosmic ladder, like Palkia, you might have to help deal with some threat to the stability of space-time, probably something in the human world that the legendary Pokémon doesn’t want to handle personally, or can’t without provoking the wrath of other great powers.  Some Pokémon might not need anything from you at all, but will give you some arbitrary mission as a test of your worth.

Complete the task you’re given, and the Pokémon will offer you a totem of sorts (something like Lugia’s Tidal Bell, or Arceus’ Azure Flute; for a less mystical Pokémon like Mewtwo or Genesect, it could be a transmitter of some description) which you can use to summon it, sending one of your other Pokémon into PC storage if you don’t have a spare slot.  You can form its moveset from any four attacks it is able to learn; they’ve been around long enough that they know every trick in the book.  The Pokémon will not hang around indefinitely – it will leave after (picking numbers at random here) fifteen battles with trainers, or two hours, whichever is longer – and the totem cannot be used again immediately; the legendary Pokémon may grow annoyed if you summon it too often, it may demand some additional service from time to time, or the item itself may need to be recharged somehow (perhaps by something as simple as using particular attacks in battle).  Regardless of whether you actually have a legendary Pokémon with you all the time, however, obtaining one of these treasures is a symbol of something resembling friendship.  This Pokémon, for whatever reason, has decided that it likes you, and is happy to invest a small portion of its power in you.  You can use these items to draw upon that, granting your own Pokémon bonuses that last until you replace them with another legendary Pokémon’s power.  The nature of the bonus depends entirely on the Pokémon, and some of them might not even be combat-related at all – being marked by Lugia might reduce all incoming Water-type damage slightly, Shaymin’s blessing could boost the experience your Pokémon gain, while Meloetta could improve your Pokémon’s ability to perform in contests, musicals, or similar events.  The idea here, again, is mostly to redefine the portrayal of the relationship so that it involves more explicit give and take – something which, I think, has to be assumed anyway in order for the world to make sense.

What I’m aiming to do with the ideas I’ve discussed today – and what I’ll continue to aim for in further entries of this series – is to use game mechanics to change the way the Pokémon world is portrayed.  My next rant, on the lyric “it’s you and me; I know it’s my destiny,” will continue some of the themes I discussed today, and hopefully offer some new ideas about Pokémon happiness mechanics.  See you then!

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