Damn, this one was hard to write…
Who among us has never once felt a little cheated by our inability to respond “yes” to the Team Rocket recruiter’s offer in Cerulean City on Red and Blue? One of the more persistent demands fans make of Pokémon is the possibility of being able to ‘swap sides’ as it were – play for the bad guys once in a while. Many RPGs allow this; some even focus on it, so it’s hardly without precedent, but Pokémon games do not do this. Even outside the core series, there are (to my knowledge) no games where playing as a villain is an option. Surely this is somewhere that offers a lot of potential for future developments?
Well, yes and no. The fact is, I think that Game Freak’s reticence to explore those paths is, in many ways, entirely justified. So before talking about how I’d do this, let’s first think about whether I even would.
The difficulty with working with ideas like this is that Pokémon is, at its heart, an incredibly optimistic world. This is not to say that it doesn’t have its fair share of darkness, or that its darkest places are not at times the most interesting – a glance at Yamask, at the Marowak of Pokémon Tower, or at N’s backstory will immediately dispel any such illusion. In the end, though, N is freed from Ghetsis’ cynical manipulation to become a hero in fact as well as in name, the mother Marowak is laid to rest with her killers punished and her home saved, and even the tortured Yamask can find happiness in their new existence with kind trainers. Optimism doesn’t mean that the world is happy and shiny and nothing bad or painful ever happens; it means that there’s always a way out, and that being traditionally ‘good’ is often the path of least resistance. In part this is because so much of the Pokémon universe is fuelled, implicitly or explicitly, by ‘the power of friendship.’ This is particularly obvious, of course, with Pokémon like Chansey and Golbat who actually achieve their final forms by bonding with trainers (and exactly what that means depends on how you view evolution, but many characters seem to regard it as a realisation of potential), but it’s also worth bearing in mind the games’ persistence in attributing your success to love of your Pokémon. It’s perhaps even implied that your triumphs over the series’ villains are as much a matter of moral superiority as of tactical skill, although the same probably cannot be said of your Pokémon League victories (with the exception of Red and Blue, where Professor Oak explicitly calls out his grandson on this). The option of an ‘evil playthrough’ turns all of this on its head – the virtuous, noble trainers of the world are unable to stand against your corruption, as it turns out that callous cruelty is actually just as powerful a tool for raising Pokémon as friendship, a realisation which has the potential to damage some of the fundamental assumptions the world is built on. Pokémon are power. Strong trainers have a far greater capacity to effect change than ordinary people. As long as the majority of strong trainers are good, decent people who particularly value friendship, the result is a stable, orderly society. In the end, this is why the Champion is so important; as the greatest trainer, he or she symbolises the qualities that make trainers great. Allowing players a path to power through deceit, selfishness and callousness, one which culminates in the Championship, the position of ‘greatest trainer,’ isn’t just about giving players more choice; it shakes the setting’s morality, and even its implicit sociopolitical structure, to their core.
It’s kind of a big deal.
So, given all of this, where do we take the game’s basic structure? If we’re talking about a more morally ambiguous organisation like Team Plasma, there’s an easy way out – your quest is to take control of your Team and turn it into a force for good by eradicating its more objectionable factions – but I suspect that this would not satisfy the players who want the option in the first place, and would be seen as something of a cop-out. If we’re going to do this seriously, we need to be joining a thoroughly nasty group like Team Rocket. Why, under these circumstances, do we keep working on the Pokédex? Why, assuming Professor Tree knows of our new allegiance, does he or she continue to help us? I’ve assumed so far that we would still be taking the Gym challenge and working towards the Championship, but wouldn’t it make more sense just to try to sabotage and take down the Pokémon League? Most importantly, how do we get around the inescapable fact that, since the beginning of the series, the greatest trainers have drawn their strength from friendship and kindness? I think it might be worth looking here at Silver (the character, not the game), because he has an interesting position in the games’ moral structure. First of all, he opposes Team Rocket in spite of being portrayed in a very clearly negative light – just because you’re a douchebag doesn’t mean you’re automatically on their side. Could there be any truth to the reverse? Second, even after his ‘redemption’ towards the end of the game, and his gradual realisation that working together with his Pokémon (as opposed to just abusing them and complaining about how pathetic they are) is a much surer way to strength, he’s still a dick. He’s a lot nicer to his Pokémon, sure, but he’s still not really a model human being. Even his obsession with power hasn’t changed; it’s just that it’s now a joint obsession built on a foundation of mutual trust (something you can also see in a number of minor characters from the anime – AJ, for instance, from the Path to the Pokémon League). Can we go somewhere with this? Emphasise the idea that, no matter who you are and whose side you’re on, the greatest possible source of strength is ultimately a good relationship with your Pokémon?
If I were writing a Pokémon game, starting from the position that I wanted players to be able to join an ‘evil’ side… well, for starters, it would be quite different from what I’ve been working towards so far in this series. I would probably offer not two options but three, and make it clear that each one has its problems. Joining a side doesn’t just mean taking on its enemies and advancing its goals to the detriment of its two rivals; it also means dealing with the internal problems of your group, and doing the ‘right’ thing on each of the three paths. As an example, let’s say that the factions on offer are the regional Pokémon League, the Professors, and Team Evil. The Pokémon League in this region is weak, ineffectual and corrupt – perhaps in the wake of a major natural disaster. A succession of introspective, hands-off Champions has caused public support for the League and interest in training to wane, fewer talented trainers rise through the ranks every year, and layers of bureaucracy stifle all decisive action. With no Pokémon League agenda or oversight to guide their actions, the Professors are absorbed in research for its own sake. While all of them are theoretically in it for the noble end of increasing human knowledge, some steal and hoard data, and a couple have taken an ‘ends justify the means’ stance to certain forms of experimentation; few remain interested in sharing their advances through education, and most have retreated to their ‘ivory towers,’ as it were. Team Evil is split by a schism between trainers who regard Pokémon as tools (in the traditional manner of Pokémon villains) and trainers who see their Pokémon as junior members of the organisation, deserving of certain rights, privileges and rewards. The former despise the Pokémon League and are glad that it’s fading; the latter have a slightly more ambivalent view. Initially, there are jobs you can do for all three, to get a sense of the sort of thing that’s going on here – a League inspector needs someone relatively unknown to check out a local Gym, and give them a swift kick in the pants if they aren’t doing their job; Professor Tree asks you to capture a certain Pokémon for a colleague’s unspecified ‘experiments’ (and perhaps to steal it back later on, once the nature of those experiments becomes clear!); a Team Evil agent wants to free his partner Pokémon who was confiscated by police on a job that went wrong. The choice comes when all three want the same thing, and all three approach several trainers, including you, to get it for them – let’s say a fossil of a rare Pokémon, which is believed to possess some kind of unique power. Professor Tree wants it for the Pokédex project, and to understand its abilities. Team Evil wants to resurrect it with the help of one of the more morally bankrupt Professors and make use of its powers in their future plans. Your contact in the Pokémon League just wants to keep it away from the other two.
If you join the Pokémon League, the story follows a perfectly straightforward path – you need to bring the wayward Professors back into the fold and make the results of their research accessible to everyone (starting with the Pokédex project), put down Team Evil’s operations, and grow powerful enough to become the strong, new Champion your region needs to turn itself around. If you want to stick with Professor Tree, the plot centres on creating a united syndicate of Pokémon researchers with common goals and ethical standards, a group with the necessary organisation and leverage to lead the region forward in place of the decaying Pokémon League. Professor Tree needs all of his or her colleagues on side (or at least most of them), so this can’t be about completely putting an end to their operations, but clearly they need to be shown the error of their ways before progress can be made. They want a Champion who is prepared to fundamentally change the way the league functions, giving a far greater role to science and technology – for the demands of the story, then, the current Champion probably has to be distrustful of scientists, perhaps with a philosophical or spiritual inclination to view science and nature as opposed (compare, for instance, the contrast Colress draws in Black and White 2 between Ghetsis’ technological approach and the player character’s emotional bond with Pokémon). Siding with Team Evil means that you’ll first have to resolve their internal disputes – they may all be criminals, but while some of them are brutes and vandals, others have the foresight to understand that their Pokémon make better partners than servants. The latter group don’t want the Pokémon League to fail – they like the free Pokémon Centres, cheap mass-produced Pokéballs, and access to technology like Pokédexes that can only be guaranteed by a thriving trainer organisation. If anything, they want to prop the League up; they just want to make sure there’s some profit in it for them. That means getting in on the ground floor of any restoration that happens – Gym Leader positions for some of their agents and executives, plenty of space to run operations like Team Rocket’s game corner without too much oversight, freedom to travel to areas where rare Pokémon are found, control over new Pokémon research, and, if at all possible, a friendly Champion.
Basically, the choice of Team Evil, in this situation, represents despair over a Pokémon League that is, itself, an organisation mostly made up of layabouts and crooks, held together by the actions of a few genuinely good trainers. On its own, the Pokémon League will continue to slide towards its eventual collapse, and all three choices are potential improvements, simply because the only way to go is up. Whichever way you go, you’re working towards order – the big question is whose order, and for what purposes. The way the different sides are portrayed has to be something of a mixture for this to work – there need to be villains within the Pokémon League and ‘heroes’ of a sort within our Team Evil, but the latter do need to be obviously villains, all things considered, otherwise we’re defeating the purpose of the exercise. A pair of rival characters could further this portrayal by taking the other two sides in the conflict (obviously their decisions would have to be revealed some time after you make yours). The first is an ‘impulsive’ character, who either joins the League out of a desire to fight for justice, or opposes them because of their corruption and winds up as a member of Team Evil, since it’s ‘better’ for everyone just to wipe away the mess and start anew. Breaking into the labs of a company that produces medical supplies in order to set up a new Pokémon Centre in an outlying village (one that charges a fee) might be robbing from Peter to buy Paul’s soul, but at least something’s getting done, where the League would take a year just to evaluate budget constraints. The other rival is essentially ‘rational,’ and will join the Professors by default or Team Evil as a second choice, either way because logic dictates the need for a change of leadership, and decisive action.
Rather than having legendary version mascots, as has become the tradition, each of the three paths ends in partnership with a different legendary Pokémon, representing a particular characteristic that the player – or rival – will need to cultivate: justice, intellect, and ambition (I’m currently imagining these Pokémon as a trio of mythical beasts; a centaur for justice, an empousa shapeshifter for intellect, and a chimera for ambition). Intellect opposes justice because it does things for reasons beyond the purely logical, and ambition because it can blind your objectivity; the opposition between justice and ambition should be obvious. If you choose the Pokémon League, you can defeat Team Evil and bring your ‘impulsive’ rival back on side, along with his legendary Pokémon, before claiming your own legendary Pokémon and becoming Champion; both of you then have a final showdown with the ‘rational’ rival, who is angling for a shift to a very strict, ordered way of living with Pokémon (along the lines of what my Team Eden wanted), overseen by researchers and Professors. If you choose the Professors, factions within the Pokémon League will prevent you from completing the necessary technology you need to enter your legendary Pokémon’s hidden realm and partner with it, forcing you to work with Team Evil and the ‘rational’ rival to steal the artefacts and information you need. They, naturally, go behind your back and use the same technology to find their own legendary Pokémon and then stab you in the back, working against you until you defeat them and force your rival to admit that the logical thing to do now is side with you. Then you can go on to the Pokémon League and defeat the ‘impulsive’ rival, who is now Champion, to start setting up your new order. Finally, if you choose Team Evil – and I vaguely recall that this was the original point of this article – your two rivals and their legendary Pokémon partners wind up at each other’s throats and you, the new leader of Team Evil, of all people, have to play the… let’s say ‘peacemaker’… by manoeuvring both factions into positions where they each have to admit that they can’t beat the other, then claiming your partner and defeating both rivals to become both the Champion and the de facto leader of the research syndicate. Naturally, this path is the most ‘ambitious’ one, that being the associated virtue of your legendary partner. It’s also the only one that leaves you in a position of more or less absolute power. You can, at this point, give your rivals a ‘join me and we’ll rule the galaxy together’ speech, which they will accept, in whatever positions you choose to give them – they are still your friends, sort of, and they’ve been fighting each other directly a lot more than they’ve been fighting you. Meanwhile, Team Evil have learnt from you that, in the world of Pokémon, a little kindness in the right place can actually be the route to incredible power, and that grand ambitions are always easier to achieve when you share them. The result is a tightly-knit aristocracy that guards its own supremacy fiercely, has a finger in every pie, and watches everything… but manages to do an okay job in the end.
This is totally not what I set out to write, but I am so done with this article.