If I Were In Charge: Every challenge along the way, with courage I will face

Part of what I’m trying to do in writing this series of articles is illustrate possible ways of giving more time and attention to aspects of the Pokémon world that the core games tend to marginalise.  Battles are the heart of the Pokémon series; I’m not going to pretend they aren’t.  Without battling, Pokémon is a game about a kid who walks around the country listening to people talk and telling his pets to move rocks (now that I write that, I wonder whether someone could make an interesting game out of it…).  As I’ve suggested more than once already, though, there’s no reason we need to be battling just for the sake of battling – which, let’s face it, is what the game is really all about once you’ve defeated the villains of the day.  You go to the Pokémon League and become the very best, like no one ever was.  Then you go to the battle tower and fight other battling enthusiasts to hone your craft.  Your only real aim from that point is to become better at battling and, perhaps more importantly, achieve recognition for being good at battling.  Given that the whole point of Cheren’s character arc in Black and White is that these things aren’t all that important, I think it makes sense that we should look into this structure a little.  Why do we battle?  Why is defeating Gyms so important to us, why is becoming a Champion such a central ambition, and what else can we do with Pokémon Gyms?

The badge quest is what occupies most of your time in the core Pokémon games.  Normally it is intercut with episodes involving the game’s villains, but the badge quest is what you do with your own time, when you aren’t busy fighting evil (Black and White are the lone exception – by introducing another character who wants to become the Champion of Unova, and must not be allowed to, they explicitly make the badge quest a necessary part of defeating Team Plasma).  In terms of your character’s implicit motivations, it’s collecting badges that drives the plot forward.  You want to travel to the Pokémon League headquarters, defeat the Elite Four, and, ultimately, challenge the Champion, so that you will be recognised as the most powerful trainer in the region.  In order to be admitted to the League, however, you have to prove that you’re even worth the Elite Four’s time – by travelling around the country defeating eight Pokémon trainers of great skill and obtaining the symbols of their authority.  Initially, these battles are easy, but progressively increase in difficulty, perhaps implying that the leaders hold back their full strength against less experienced opponents (one of Cheren’s comments in Black and White 2 appears to confirm this), creating a gradual slope that encourages new trainers to improve themselves.  Why make it necessary to travel to so many, though?  Why not allow a trainer to undergo a four- or five-stage assessment with the local leader and be done with it?  Surely Victory Road and the elite trainers who hang out there would filter out any remaining no-hopers?  Well, if I may be forgiven for breaking out the clichés, perhaps it’s not about the destination so much as the journey.  You’re not just winning battles to show that you’re awesome; you’re also meeting and learning from eight of the highest-ranked Pokémon trainers in the region, each with a different specialty, widening your understanding of all Pokémon in the process, and this is what in-game dialogue and characterisation should reflect.

Traditionally, Pokémon Gyms are marked by a specialisation in a single Pokémon type, and although there are exceptions (sometimes for thematic reasons, other times because there just aren’t enough Pokémon of the appropriate type in the region) trainers in the Gym normally use Pokémon exclusively of that type.  People come to the Gym, presumably, to learn what makes a particular element tick – maybe so they can use it more effectively themselves, or maybe so they can counter it more safely.  I want to look particularly, however, at three Gyms, two which depart from the standard, and one which sticks to it in an unusual way.  The Striaton Gym has not one specialty type but three – Grass, Water, and Fire – and its focus is not so much on mastery of a single element but on mastery of the concept of element in Pokémon.  The Striaton Gym aims to teach new trainers that some Pokémon possess distinct and important advantages over others, though it is unfortunately hampered by the very small number of Grass, Water and Fire Pokémon available at that point in the game, turning it into more of a Lillipup Gym than a Grass/Water/Fire Gym.  The Viridian Gym, under the leadership of Blue in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, has no specialty type at all but a specialty move – Trick Room.  All the trainers in the Gym, including the leader, make use of this field effect to allow their slow-moving powerhouse Pokémon to strike first in battle, resulting in a challenge that forces players to deal with a very unusual but potentially dangerous ability, and showcases what it can do.  The third Gym I’m interested in is the Petalburg Gym, which takes Normal as its specialty element.  On Ruby and Sapphire, however, Normal-type Pokémon aren’t really the theme of the Gym at all – the theme is using items.  Each trainer has his or her own room, with a name like “accuracy room” or “recovery room” and uses items (X Attack, Super Potions, Dire Hit, etc.) to emphasise that particular aspect of battle, demonstrating the effectiveness of a wide variety of items players might not have experimented with on their own.  Many of them use the same Pokémon (two use Delcatty, three use Linoone, and two use Zangoose) but their different items provide different challenges.  On Emerald, the trainers are all changed, and now use a wide variety of Pokémon to demonstrate what Normal is really all about – versatility – but although I do think this makes for a more interesting challenge, I liked the idea of what Ruby and Sapphire were doing with the Gym as well.

I have no problem with sticking to type specialist Gyms for the most part, but I would also like to mix things up a bit more with Gyms who have other kinds of focus.  One might have trainers who simply favour ‘endurance,’ combining defence-heavy Rock, Ground and Steel Pokémon with moves like Sandstorm and Toxic; another could be built around the use of Gravity the way Blue’s Viridian Gym is built around Trick Room, abusing high-power, low-accuracy moves like Blizzard and Thunder at every opportunity.  Others could focus on a particular status condition or weather effect, or even Baton Passing.  Each Gym, ideally, should introduce players to some new aspect of what they can do with Pokémon.  Again, though, the type specialist Gyms should stay as well as these quirkier ones – learning strengths and weaknesses is important to playing Pokémon well, so it’s good for new players to be exposed to that kind of challenge!  But how to fit all of this in…?  The obvious answer, of course, must be to have more Gyms.  The anime seems to indicate that there are at least 12 official Pokémon Gyms in Kanto, although only 8 badges are necessary for entry into the Pokémon League grand tournament.  We also know from the games that there are 11 official Gyms in Unova, although only 8 are ever open for business at one time, and they have only 10 different badges between them.  Why not have a Gym in every major town?  For reference, that would bring Unova’s total to 15, assuming that Nuvema, Floccesy, Anville and Lentimas are too small and unimportant to have Gyms of their own.  Implement some manner of scaling difficulty, and Gyms can be tackled in whatever order the player wishes, or skipped over entirely (this is nothing controversial; many games have systems of this kind – simply have the game keep track of a number of ‘check points,’ such as powerful trainers defeated, or species of Pokémon obtained, and increase the levels of all trainers accordingly).  In terms of the story, your primary motivation for visiting new cities is actually to find new Pokémon.  Professor Tree may contact you periodically asking for information on a particular species or habitat, and you will obligingly toddle off towards the appropriate area – or ignore the request completely and head in the opposite direction; either way, there will be Gyms around if you feel like taking one on.  Your first Gym battles might even come about because you need the leader’s help wrangling the local wildlife!  Other leaders might be too busy to battle you at all, but will hand over badges in exchange for help dealing with the local people’s Pokémon-related problems.  You might even go to the Gym for some extra firepower if you’re looking to take on a particularly well defended villain’s hideout.  Of course, if you already have the eight badges you would need to enter the Pokémon League, the gloves come off – further challenges won’t just be to test you; the leader will fight at full strength and make you work for your victory.  As always, you’ll be able to learn the leader’s signature move if you win – and, as previously discussed, more badges will continue to increase the respect your Pokémon have for you, making it easier to control high-level traded Pokémon, or Pokémon caught at a high level (something Professor Tree will make abundantly clear to you early on – after all, he/she/it wants you to get out there and collect Pokémon).

But what happens next?  Ostensibly the real benefit of collecting your eight badges is admission to Victory Road and the Pokémon League, the first step to becoming Champion, but why is becoming Champion even so important?  There are a lot of different kinds of Champion.  Blue was blatantly just in it for the power and admiration.  Lance was a crime-fighting superhero.  Steven was… y’know, I have no idea why Steven ever wanted to be Champion in the first place.  Wallace was unrelentingly fabulous.  Cynthia used her position to promote the study of ancient Sinnoh mythology.  Alder was an inspiring figurehead who did his best to kindle the enthusiasm of the next generation of trainers.  The whole point of Iris seems to be that she’s been Champion for such a short time that no-one is quite sure what she’s going to do with the position.  The Championship could be presented to the player in the same way: you are the ostensible head of your region’s branch of the Pokémon League; now what will you do with it?  One way of playing up this angle could be with the Hall of Fame.  We’re used to thinking of the Hall of Fame as a record of our achievements, because that’s all the games ever show us, but it also supposedly immortalises every past Champion and his or her Pokémon.  I think it would be interesting for the Hall of Fame to be an area you can actually walk around and look at, rather than just a cutscene after defeating the Champion.  For every past Champion, there is an inscription, detailing that Champion’s Pokémon partners and greatest achievements as the leader of the Pokémon League, as well as the dates of his or her reign.  Particularly beloved and accomplished Champions might have statues dedicated by the League to immortalise their greatness.  “This Champion saved the region from an invading army!  That one rebuilt a city after a terrible flood!  Him over there; he made it illegal to poach Pokémon in the southern jungles, and her; she discovered eight new species of Pokémon!  What are you going to do?”

Well, what are you going to do?  Continuing to fight crime, this time with the full authority of the Pokémon League behind you, could easily be part of it.  Protecting your region from the wrath of disturbed legendary Pokémon probably falls to you as well – or, for that matter, looking into more mundane problems, like Pokémon swarming out of control in normally quiet areas.  The Elite Four might have projects of their own that you could help with, as they continue to push the boundaries of Pokémon training.  One thing I always thought could be interesting is to have the player, as Champion, actually help to establish a new town; this would require a great deal of investigation to find ways of living and working around the wild Pokémon in the area.  Depending on the player’s choices, this could result in anything from a bustling industrial town to a sleepy village of artists.  Eventually, the inhabitants might even want a Pokémon Gym!  A leader would have to be appointed, and as Champion it would be your responsibility to evaluate any nominees.  Construction of the Gym itself, with all of its specialty equipment and puzzles, might necessitate some help too.  It might be possible, furthermore, to wrap some sort of story around Battle Tower- or Battle Subway-type facilities, which progresses as you reach either higher winning streaks or higher total victories.  Perhaps the Elite Four suspect the leader of the Battle Whatever of being a poacher or smuggler, using the facility as a front for criminal operations, but haven’t been able to get far enough inside to check it out quietly (just to keep you guessing – the leader isn’t up to anything shady, but many of his or her lieutenants are!).  There are, in short, a great many things that could keep a powerful trainer busy.  Pokémon impact every aspect of how this society functions, and the Champion is the greatest Pokémon trainer there is – surely a very handy person to have around!

I’m interested in the history, society and politics of the Pokémon world, and I sometimes need to give myself a swift kick so that I remember not everyone has the same tastes as I do – still, there’s no reason any of this needs to detract from gameplay.  Continue to make ever-more-challenging battles the main setting for resolving problems and overcoming obstacles, and essential nature of the games remains unchanged.  I just want to see more of the world in the process, and the way to show that, I think, is by looking at things like what a Gym actually does in a town, and why they need powerful Pokémon, or how a region relies on its Champion (as Unova does on Alder in Black and White).  At the same time, Pokémon games are a lot more complicated than the games themselves will often readily admit, so having the Gyms introduce some of the more esoteric aspects of the battle system at a manageable pace could, I think, be a big help to new players who would otherwise need to learn everything from a guide.  There’ll be more on that, though, next time…

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