Pokémon are our friends; this we know. “They are our wonderful partners,” N tells Ghetsis at the conclusion of Black and White 2. This is not to be contested; these ideas have been part of how Pokémon has presented itself since the very beginning. However, many of us catch Pokémon by the dozen, and will often barely interact with them after that. It is almost required of us, given the nature of the games. The more Pokémon you have, the closer you get to completing the Pokédex, and the more varied your breeding stock, which is important for obtaining Pokémon with the most effective possible movesets. The games simply do not portray the player character as having a meaningful relationship with most or even many of his or her Pokémon. Auxiliary applications like Heart Gold and Soul Silver’s Pokéwalker, Black and White’s Dream World, and the upcoming Pokémon Amie (of which I am dimly aware, despite my efforts to ignore everything about X and Y until they’re actually released) seem intended to correct this, but these don’t really go far enough. Is it even possible, given the nature of the games, to construct representations of actual personal relationships with each and every individual Pokémon in a player’s possession? I am forced to concede, in advance, that it may not be – but that isn’t going to stop me for trying.
The Pokémon games represent the developing relationship between a trainer and a Pokémon fairly simplistically – with a one-dimensional hidden statistic, commonly referred to as ‘happiness’ but more properly called ‘friendship.’ The mechanic has its origins in Yellow Version, where it exists for Pikachu alone, and was expanded in Gold and Silver to apply for all Pokémon, even triggering the evolution of some species like Eevee and Golbat. It can take any value from 0 to 255, for most Pokémon begins at 70, and is fairly simply increased just by having a Pokémon in the active party. Levelling up the Pokémon, feeding it vitamins, getting an NPC to groom it, or feeding it certain berries (Pomeg, Hondew, Kelpsy, Qualot, Tamato and Grepa) will accelerate the process. Going in the other direction, and making a Pokémon dislike you, is actually much more difficult. Repeatedly allowing it to be knocked out in battle will gradually make a Pokémon unhappy, but the effect so small that you really have to be trying to upset it – walking to and from the Pokémon Centre for another round may well offset much of the damage you’re doing, and allowing the Pokémon to gain a level will easily wipe out the memory of several unpleasant defeats. The only other way to reduce a Pokémon’s friendship is by feeding it herbal medicine, such as Energy Powder – these items are substantially cheaper than the equivalent commercially-produced items, but they’re also less widely available, and it’s not like money is ever really a huge problem in Pokémon, so other than the Revival Herb (which replaces the Max Revive, normally unavailable in shops) there’s really no good reason to be using these things unless you’re actually trying to make your Pokémon hate you for some reason. In short, the games generally make the assumption that Pokémon will automatically like any trainer who doesn’t force-feed them foul-tasting cut-price ‘alternative’ medicine. It’s a very summary, almost dismissive treatment of what is supposedly a major theme.
I want to start by adding a little complexity to the way friendship works – first of all, by making it two-dimensional, with one axis for happiness (based on how much a Pokémon likes and trusts you) and one for respect (based on how highly a Pokémon rates your competence as a trainer). Let’s assume, for now, that both axes go from 0 to 255, just like the present friendship system, and that most species of Pokémon will start at 70 on both axes when first captured. NPCs who currently rate a Pokémon’s friendship with a trainer can assess both qualities, giving answers like “this Pokémon seems satisfied with you all around,” “this Pokémon admires your skills, but it seems cautious about opening up to you,” or “this Pokémon seems to want to protect you… it likes you a lot, but it doesn’t think you’re a very good trainer.” The factors which currently affect friendship can be divided between these two: happiness accumulates when you keep a Pokémon with you and when you use vitamins on it, and decreases when it is knocked out or fed herbal medicine, while respect increases when the Pokémon levels up. Obviously we need a few more factors here. What can trainers do that would make their Pokémon like them more or less? Let’s talk about respect first, since that’s the new axis I’m introducing and is going to need to be defined solidly before we move on.
It makes sense that a Pokémon’s respect for you would be based primarily on how well you handle it in battle – respect increases when the Pokémon scores a super-effective hit, or strikes the final blow against a Pokémon of a higher level than itself, and decreases when it suffers a super-effective hit, or is knocked out by a lower level Pokémon. A Pokémon’s respect will grow more quickly if it wears an effort training item such as a Macho Brace or Power Band, and successfully reaching at least 200 effort points in a single stat will result in a large respect bonus. Winning any important battle will increase the respect of all the Pokémon with you, while other important milestones like earning badges can increase the baseline level of respect which all Pokémon (or potentially all Pokémon of a certain type) are prepared to give you, causing newly caught Pokémon to respect you more and placing a hard limit on the minimum level of respect you can drop to. This is important, since a Pokémon whose respect for you drops too low will often refuse to obey your orders in battle! Higher level or evolved Pokémon will also be less willing to obey than lower level Pokémon. If you’ve raised a Pokémon from a low level yourself, this shouldn’t be a problem, but wild Pokémon captured at a very high level (say, 40+) may be trickier. Also, while friendship/happiness is reset to its base value when a Pokémon is traded, respect will be set to its minimum possible value! This, of course, is intended to replace the system whereby high-level traded Pokémon will refuse to obey new masters without the appropriate badges. If you have a lot of badges (and therefore a high minimum respect) it shouldn’t take long to win over a new Pokémon, but a high level one might still cause trouble for a while.
Happiness can be affected by most of the same things that currently affect friendship, with a few adjustments so that making Pokémon happy isn’t quite so effortless – in particular, I want to increase the penalty for letting a Pokémon be knocked out, and also make herbal medicines more widely available and possibly cheaper (incidentally, the descriptions of herbal medicines should be updated – rather than ‘bitter,’ they should be described with a more generic world like ‘foul,’ since some Pokémon actually enjoy bitter foods). A wider variety of effects, such as temporarily increasing a Pokémon’s resistance to a particular attack type, or a purchasable herbal version of PP Up, could also be a nice idea. In addition to the typical methods, many Pokémon will also become happier when you complete certain quests – anything that involves helping out a Pokémon of the same species, for instance. A Pokémon’s nature can also influence the way its happiness increases – quests involving a lot of fighting, for instance, might particularly increase the happiness of brave, rash or adamant Pokémon, while quests to do with learning or looking for secrets might appeal more to quiet, mild or quirky Pokémon. Sassy and jolly Pokémon might love performing in contests, musicals or films, while timid, modest or bashful Pokémon might hate it. Naughty and Impish Pokémon enjoy pranks, whereas calm or docile Pokémon like to help grow and build things. Your Pokémon will express their approval when you do something they like, and will remember these events as a permanent record of your journey together.
This is all a nice first step, but the biggest difficulty with the way the games currently represent friendships with Pokémon, to my thinking, is that the majority of a player’s Pokémon are not with him or her at any given moment. However many Pokémon we have, only six can come with us at a time; the rest are in PC storage, which is itself a fairly unsettling concept. Exactly what state these Pokémon are in is up for debate; NPCs consistently describe them as being stored in the form of computer data, but what this is like for the Pokémon (and how, or even whether, it differs from the inside of a Pokéball – itself a subject of speculation) is unknown – one imagines they are unconscious, require no sustenance, do not age, and may lose all sense of the passage of time. From Ruby and Sapphire onward, storage boxes have had various wallpaper settings like forest, desert, or sea, but whether these have any effect on the Pokémon within or are simply cosmetic, I would not like to guess. At best, they live in a virtual world that allows them to enjoy happy, if meaningless, lives for the duration of their storage; at worst, they experience a blank, dull stasis that lasts until their trainers choose to retrieve them. Either way, it’s not particularly something I would choose to place a “wonderful partner” in for upwards of 90% of our time together. The anime, for its part, dodges the issue completely. Ash’s many spare Pokémon are transported effortlessly to Professor Oak’s laboratory in Pallet Town, where they enjoy the freedom of his spacious habitats, the company of dozens of other Pokémon both wild and human trained, and a generous food supply. Many of them, notably Muk, also develop strong friendships with the Professor himself, and he often comments that they continue to grow stronger while in his care as well. Both versions dramatically simplify the myriad difficulties that would no doubt arise from taking care of so many exotic creatures. Professor Oak, of course, presumably spends an obscene amount of grant money on food and maintenance (his research output and publication rate must be tremendous to keep the funds flowing), but we rarely hear about all the work that goes into the upkeep of his lands – we only get Ash’s perspective, and from where he’s standing, the whole process is remarkably hassle-free. I’m not going to suggest making it harder to swap Pokémon around (I assume, broadly, that we are not trying to annoy and alienate the fanbase here), but I am going to suggest trying to portray ‘stored’ Pokémon in a slightly more fulfilling way, and give players a little taste of the fact that we are actually talking about caring for dozens or hundreds of exotic and often magical creatures – and I think maintaining a certain level of convenience throughout all of this is going to be important.
I want to talk a little about a completely unrelated game several of my readers recently talked me into trying out – Digimon World DS. I will assume, for brevity’s sake, that most of you are familiar with Pokémon’s computer geek cousin, Digimon, in at least one of its incarnations, and get straight to the mechanic I’m interested in: the Digi-Farm. As in Pokémon, Digimon World DS and its successors allow you to keep only six Digimon with you at a time, and a small but important part of these games is managing the space you use to store the rest of them, an artificial habitat called a Digi-Farm, in which they can live and continue to train while separated from you. You can also visit them, talk to them, and check out how they’re doing (which, depending on exactly where and with whom you’ve dumped them, may turn out to be “not so good, actually!”). I’m not going to suggest lifting all the mechanics for how these things work, partly because they get quite complicated, partly because they’re superfluous – they actually fill a place in the game closely analogous to Pokémon’s Effort system, of all things, allowing you to train your Digimon with a particular emphasis on individual stats, or on resisting a single damage type (none of which is actually necessary to play the game, but can allow you to progress more effectively). I do, however, want to work with the idea that if you’re going to have a lot of Pokémon, you need to find a place to put them, and that where you put them can impact their general wellbeing. Your Pokémon can still be accessed at any time, via the same kind of PC network as we have always used, coupled with a network of Pokéball transporters like those used in the anime, but rather than all of them floating in a sort of nebulous cloud, each one has a definite physical location – each ‘box’ represents an actual area which exists in the game. In order to keep more Pokémon, you’ll need to control more locations or expand the ones you already have access to.
To start with, any Pokémon you capture additional to your party of six can be sent – where else? – to your house. The player’s mother has always been portrayed as a helpful, supportive person, but very rarely gets a chance to be helpful or supportive (or indeed any time in the spotlight at all – the highlights are the GSC mother’s ‘banking’ service and the DPP mother’s occasional participation in high ranked Pokémon Contests with her Kangaskhan) so why not give her something to do? She can only house and feed a few Pokémon, though, so before long you’ll have to look for more places to keep them. Sometimes finding a new home for your Pokémon is as simple as having the right person owe you a favour – a daycare owner with a bit of free space, for instance. Other times, you might need to claim an area by force, like an old abandoned factory taken over by villains. Some habitats like volcanic or deep ocean areas might require the development and installation of special equipment to make them safe for humans to visit. Whatever it takes to secure a location, once it’s yours a Pokéball transporter will be installed and you’ll be able to access it and the Pokémon living there at any time through the PC network. Any new Pokémon you capture will be sent to the last area you looked at. Most areas will have some kind of manager who lives or works nearby and can keep an eye on things for you, letting you know of any problems that arise. The happiness level of Pokémon living in these areas will gradually drift towards a neutral state, but the nature of the area will affect exactly where it settles – some species of Pokémon will naturally be happier in forests, others in hills, and of course some places will just be completely unsuitable (let’s not leave poor Charmander in that deep sea research lab we ‘commandeered’ from Team Aqua). A good place to start would be the habitat lists from Fire Red and Leaf Green, which divide all Pokémon amongst eight habitat types (grassland, forest, water’s edge, sea, cave, mountain, rough terrain and urban) though a couple more could easily be added, such as jungle, volcanic, desert, or ruins. Keep Pokémon in the areas that suit them to ensure that they stay happy and healthy. Some specific Pokémon may have problems if you make them share space with certain others – Zangoose and Seviper for instance – although with a bit of effort it may be possible to work around these disagreements. If you’ve got the cash you can also get an area extended (you can stuff in more Pokémon than an area was made to hold, but their happiness will suffer from being overcrowded), install entertainments to make your Pokémon happier, or add gardens that will provide a steady trickle of berries. If your Pokémon are particularly comfortable, living in a well-provisioned habitat appropriate to their species, you can ask them to train there in your absence, causing them to gain experience slowly. They can be told to learn new moves automatically, or to wait for your instructions on your next visit, and if you have appropriate training equipment they can even focus on improving a specific stat, gaining effort points while you’re gone.
I’m not sure I’ve actually done what I set out to do – put forward a set of mechanics that help to portray a closer friendship between trainers and individual Pokémon – but I like to think I’ve made a step in the right direction by attempting to emphasise that Pokémon taken out of their natural homes do need to be taken care of somehow. I am concerned that my new system would make it difficult to rival the 720-Pokémon storage space offered by the fifth generation PC network – presumably some people do manage to use it all, though I confess I am at a loss as to how. I also have to wonder how well the games would be able to cope with storing so much additional data for, potentially, hundreds of Pokémon. Still, that’s the beauty of just sitting here thinking about it – no-one’s about to hold me to account for the practicalities!