Larry asks:

Hey, just something that’s been, pun very intended, bugging me- Paras and Parasect. We all know their deal, their horrible, horrible deal. But it’s weird, innit?

Why would a Paras let itself evolve, let its trainer do that to it? How come the Parasect *seems* to maintain all emotional bonds? (Saying that based on friendship/affection remaining.) If the Paras’ soul really gets sucked, and it’s a known fact, why isn’t it even frowned upon to evolve Paras?

This seems like one of the more trustworthy dex entries, the damp habitat thing seems realistic, Parasect’s eyes are too barren for comfort, but I can’t quite make up my mind.

This is on my mind specifically because now I’m playing soulsilver with a Paras, and I’m not sure if I can forgive myself if I evolve him. Thoughts?

(PS: I know there’s an anime episode about a girl who wants to evolve her Paras, but I couldn’t find your review, if there is one. All I know is that in the ep there doesn’t seem to be any drama OR soulsucking?)

So, Parasect is… a tricky one.  Just to get us all on the same page, here are (by my reckoning) all the relevant examples of how the Pokédex talks about Parasect and its mushrooms:

  • The mushrooms have “taken over” the host bug.
  • Staying in dark and damp places is “the preference not of the bug, but of the big mushrooms.”
  • The mushroom “extracts” nutrients from the bug until “nothing’s left.”
  • The mushroom “controls” the bug.  Notably, Ultra Moon also says this about Paras.
  • “The bug is mostly dead, with the mushroom on its back having become the main body. If the mushroom comes off, the bug stops moving.”
  • The mushroom “appears to do all the thinking.”

Now, I am always willing to accuse the Pokédex of bull$#!tting, but this doesn’t feel like any of the common genres of Pokédex bull$#!t – it’s not an exaggeration or a weird boast, it’s not credulously reported myth or folklore, it’s not censoring the “savage” or “cruel” side of nature and the wild.  And, of course, it’s almost certainly a reference to the infamous parasitism strategies of the real fungi of the genus Ophiocordyceps, which infest insects and alter their behaviour, causing them to carry the fungus to ideal locations for dispersing its spores (tochukaso, the name of Paras’ mushrooms, is the Japanese for O. sinensis, which infests ghost moth caterpillars).  We are probably meant to believe all this, then.  On the other hand, evolving Paras into Parasect doesn’t overwrite or obliterate the Pokémon’s nature, or other personality-related stuff that we can observe in the games like friendship/affection.  Now, there is an obvious external reason for that (programming special exceptions to personality-related mechanics just for Paras clearly wouldn’t have been worth it) but the anime also doesn’t make a big deal of it, and gives no indication that Parasect is in any way adversely affected by its evolution.  I do in fact have an old commentary on the Paras episode, but it doesn’t talk about this because, well, it simply doesn’t come up, even in an episode that is about evolving a Paras.  In fact, I think it’s a pretty important early episode for illustrating the idea that evolution is very commonly a signifier of personal growth and psychological maturity.  It’s supposed to be a good thing.

Let’s talk about a real-world antecedent here.  O. unilateralis can control ants, driving them to seek out specific combinations of altitude, temperature and humidity that are optimal for the fungus.  Ants, however, are not genius animals (at least not individually).  They don’t even really have “brains” the way vertebrates do, and their whole decision-making process is driven by following pheromone signals from other ants.  The fungus itself also has everything it “wants” pre-programmed into it by evolution and doesn’t really need to “think.”  Very few Pokémon, I would venture to suggest, are significantly less intelligent than, say, a particularly stupid dog.  As a parasite, you can still fµ¢£ up certain aspects of a mammal’s instinctive behaviour in ways that are advantageous to you, but you can’t really subvert and control the whole of what we would think of as its “mind” or “personality” without basically killing it.  Here, the really famous example is the parasitic protist Toxoplasma gondii, which eliminates rats’ fear response to the smell of cat pheromones, making them more likely to be eaten and transmit the parasites to cats (their real preferred hosts).  Other than the elimination of that particular fear response, it’s basically the same rat; there might be some other personality changes, but if so they’re subtle and difficult to quantify experimentally (evidence that T. gondii can influence human behaviour is even more tenuous).  That’s the level of what we should expect a fungal parasite to be able to do to a creature as intelligent and complex as Paras.

With that in mind, let’s circle back to those Pokédex entries.  “Taken over” and “control” are vague, and could refer to almost any kind of behavioural manipulation (and, again, one entry actually says that Paras is already “controlled” by mushrooms before it evolves – maybe the entity you think of as “Paras” was always a combination of the bug’s mind and the fungus’s influence).  A preference for dark and damp places is believable for a fungus, and a “preference” is something that Parasect can still choose to override, if it has a good enough conscious reason (say, it has a trainer that it wants to be with).  The idea that the mushroom “appears to do all the thinking” is one that I am willing to write off, because… well, “appears” sort of leaves it as a matter of interpretation, and come on; it’s a fµ¢£ing mushroom; do you agree that it “appears” to do all the thinking?  The one about “extracting” nutrients until “nothing’s left” is ominous, but then again, there’s another entry that says Parasect’s bug body is already “mostly dead,” so maybe that entire process is largely finished by the time the Pokémon evolves.  So that just leaves the “mostly dead” entry itself: “The bug is mostly dead, with the mushroom on its back having become the main body. If the mushroom comes off, the bug stops moving.”  I would read “mostly dead” as describing the atrophy of several of Parasect’s vital organs (perhaps including the eyes, hence the famous “soulless” look), as the mushroom takes over their structures and functions.  The fungus works its way into so much of the body and usurps so many of its systems that Parasect would die without it, which is a sound strategy for preventing its removal. If the two organisms have been living together like this for millions of years, then it’s possible that Paras can’t grow to maturity without the fungus anymore; its organs might fail on their own.

My final observations, though, would be these: 1) Parasect’s higher cognitive functions are presumably still useful for gathering food and avoiding or fighting predators, which the mushroom… probably does value; 2) the mushroom’s preferences are pretty basic, and it doesn’t actually need to turn Parasect into a full mindless zombie to satisfy them; 3) Ophiocordyceps and T. gondii both alter their hosts’ behaviour in ways that cause them to die while spreading the parasites, while Parasect’s mushroom seems to be invested in keeping Parasect alive (albeit on fungal life support so it can’t back out).  It’s clearly weird and disturbing and kind of hostage-y, but I think we have room to be okay with it, as long as characters within the world back us up and the games confirm that your Parasect, at least, has retained its personality and memories.

10 thoughts on “Larry asks:

  1. My interpretation is that it’s actually the mushroom(s) the trainer really interacts with. The fungi of Paras have complex inner lives and a yearning for social validation that’s been ignored by their surroundings for far too long… So, a trainer actively assisting her fungacious friends in their endeavor – upon evolution, Big Mushroom loves her more than anything!!! And uses the bug like a corpse puppet to express its affections.

    (Also, when is Game Freak gonna make their Leuchloridium? Imagine an adorable baby snail that you catch on Route 1, and then when it evolves at lv. 24… But what big eyes you have!)

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    1. Yeah, this is my interpretation as well. It solves the morality question that the OP posed about evolving a Paras: if it was already the fungus you’re bonding with in the first place (not impossible, considering the multitude of other fungi Pokémon in the game) and the bug was already mostly dead (big difference between mostly dead and all dead!), then there’s no real problem about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know the order of types in dual-typed Pokémon don’t matter much at all, but I feel like it’s a missed opportunity for Game Freak to not make Paras a Grass/Bug Pokémon instead of the Bug/Grass it is now. It could have been used as a nice, (slightly) subtle hint as to which of the creatures is the ‘primary’ Pokémon you’re actually training and bonding with. Heck, if they even wanted to do the darker take and tell a little story, they could have kept Paras Bug/Grass but have Parasect be Grass/Bug instead. The order of two types is such an overlooked area of possible storytelling on a small scale, something they could do without changing anything mechanically at all!

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  3. Thanks Chris! Guess that means Cory’s everstone comes off.

    Honestly, though, I’m shocked by the comments proposing that the *shrooms* are the pokémon, and discounting the bug, because… then what even is that bug? It’s the size of a pokémon, shape of a pokémon, expresses emotions and seems like a pokémon, but isn’t one? Just a host?

    Also, an afterthought: upon analysis, the conclusion you came to kinda nears my personal hypothesis- isn’t the bulbasaur line pretty much the same thing? skiddo and gogoat? Do parasect just get a bad reputation because their animal half atrophies upon the fungus reaching maturity, when it can compensate?

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    1. It’s not like it would be the first mushroom Pokemon – I mean, it would, by virtue of literally being the first, but we have other Pokemon that are entirely mushrooms, just not parasitic (at least to that level; Shiinotic is questionable). If the mushroom itself is the Pokemon, then the bug we see is basically a puppet. It certainly simplifies the moral dilemma if the bug part was never sentient. But fact does remain that, as far as we can see, the bug half cannot exist without the mushrooms and Parasect is part of its natural life cycle. Nature is crazy. Ultimately though, the best source material here is likely the aforementioned anime episode, and as far as I’m aware Parasect seemed to maintain its memories and personality through evolution so… whether the seat of consciousness is the bug or the mushroom, it remains intact?

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  4. I’ve more or less always assumed the mushroom is essentially the brain. At the very least, I don’t believe Paras can even survive without them – have we ever seen a Paras without mushrooms? I basically feel Paras is already more or less a zombie bug. At the very least, Parasect is part of the natural life cycle of a Paras. Though it would be interesting if Paras is ever given a split evolution where it is separated from the fungus…

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    1. Could be a heartwarming alternative to have Paras evolve into a strong independent cicada. Tough choice for the trainer though…

      One really cool idea I found (on bogleech I think, and I do think it was by Mr. Bogleech himself) was a Grass/Ghost evolution where the mushroom has been possessed by the ghost of the bug – perfect!

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