i feel like you’ve almost certainly answered this question before, but how do you think abilities work? some abilities seem more like physical features (tough claws, thick fat, compound eyes) whereas others are a lot more abstract (pixilate, mold breaker, cloud nine). wouldn’t a tinted lens butterfree’s eyes be just as compound as one with the compound eyes ability? what makes a gluttony snorlax have less fat than one with thick fat?
I’ve tried to answer this one before; let’s see… here.
It’s a bastard of a question, to be quite honest with you.
My natural inclination is to say that abilities have nothing in common and they all work in different ways because… why would they? As you rightly note, “abilities” covers a very wide range of traits and skills. There’s no reason to expect that the rules governing a Butterfree’s vision would be anything like the rules governing Snorlax’s rolls of fat. And in the Mystery Dungeon series, up until Gates of Infinity (2012/13), Pokémon did have both of their abilities. Sure, that’s not Game Freak, but clearly someone at the Pokémon Company must have looked at the game, and at the time this particular discrepancy was sorted into the “doesn’t matter” pile (and they only changed it during generation V, when hidden abilities came in, so that may have been motivated by a feeling that three abilities at once was too complicated). Abilities are easier to think about and make a great deal more sense if we say that “ability” is a catch-all term for a bunch of different traits that don’t interact in a uniform way, and that the limitation of one ability per Pokémon is purely a game balance constraint which doesn’t need to be consistent across media and doesn’t have any special meaning.
But of course that would be too easy, so I have to come up with a bull$#!t convoluted explanation that any number of possible retcons could render nonsensical at any moment. Because there are things in the games that interact with “abilities” as a class of thing, and they interact with all of them – psychological, physical and mystical – in uniform ways. There are things like Skill Swap, and Entrainment, and Simple Beam, and Worry Seed, and Role Play, and Ability Capsules, and you’ll notice that the anime tends not to show these things, because the Pokémon anime is wiser than I, and knows better than to try to make sense of the clearly nonsensical. The last time this came up, I suggested that most things which alter abilities are probably some form of mind-over-matter effect – that is, overwriting your Snorlax’s Thick Fat with Worry Seed doesn’t actually cause it to instantly drop a hundred kilograms, so much as it makes your Snorlax forget that its fat protects it from Fire and Ice attacks, causing it to feel more pain than it should. Which is fine, and explains most of the stuff that interacts with abilities, but not why you can have only one at a time. And I think we can maybe understand that as suggesting that each ability requires a particular mindset to use. All Butterfree have the advanced, tinted compound eyes that enable the abilities Compoundeyes and Tinted Lens, but they can’t focus on both the enhanced tracking that improves their accuracy and the multispectral perception that allows them to find flaws in a target’s resistances. They learn one skill, they stick with it, and the other atrophies from lack of use. All Snorlax have about the same amount of body fat; it’s just that some of them know how to use it to soak up heat and cold, some of them know how to use their bulk to dilute poisons, and some of them know how to override their bodies’ feeling of being full so they can store even more calories for a potential future crisis.
Now to count the seconds until someone suggests a Pokémon whose abilities can’t be explained this way…