This one isn’t going to be super heavy on sweeping themes and allegory; I don’t have, like, a hot take about how Hop’s character arc is actually a commentary on British masculinity, or anything like that. Nor (thank Arceus) do we need to get especially deep into the lore of any particular legendary Pokémon to understand what Hop’s deal is; Zacian and Zamazenta are relevant to his story, but we can do this without them. That means I can just… talk about what Hop does in the story, then say what I think about it, like I used to do back when I was still pretending that my life made sense. The theme here isn’t even all that complicated or particularly unusual in a Pokémon game: Hop’s story is about growing up in other people’s shadows and learning to find your own path and excel in your own way, not comparing yourself to the achievements of others. It’s sweet, it’s uplifting, let’s talk about it.
At the beginning of Sword and Shield, Hop is a young boy growing up in the same town as the player, the sleepy south Galarian village of Postwick. I’m going to repeat the characterisation of him that I gave in my contemporaneous notes on playing the game: that, in terms of other rival characters from the series, he’s a mixture of Hau’s relentless positivity with Blue’s intense competitive attitude and ambition. As the younger brother of Galar’s Champion, Leon, Hop makes it clear from the very start of the game that he feels he has a lot to live up to, but seems pretty confident that he can prove himself worthy of Leon’s legacy, and indeed surpass it. Unlike the player character, Hop already has a Pokémon when the game begins – a Wooloo – but he receives a Galarian starter Pokémon from Leon alongside us, and according to his Pokémon League trading card he learned how to battle from watching every single one of Leon’s televised matches. He is ready for this; he is 100% up for the glorious destiny that awaits him. He’s also brave and has a strong sense of duty, insisting that the two of you venture into the forbidden and dangerous Slumbering Weald to rescue a lost Wooloo. He loses none of his enthusiasm or drive when the two of you encounter a mysterious Pokémon in the mist and are both rendered unconscious, although he never seems to be all that motivated to find out what that Pokémon was or why it attacked you.
Subsequent events make it clear that he is, at the very least, pretty solid at this Pokémon training malarkey, when Leon endorses both of you for the Gym Challenge on the basis of a battle between the two of you. Other characters we meet make a big deal of the fact that Leon, who has never endorsed anyone before, has broken that silence for these two trainers (both of whom he has known personally since their infancy… but, y’know, there’ll be a time and a place to talk about Leon’s blatant nepotism). There are some huge expectations invested in both of you, and Hop also has huge expectations of himself. He’s visibly discouraged by repeatedly being beaten in your regular battles with him as you travel the region, but works his way through the first three gyms at the same pace as you and remains confident in his abilities. He also does his best to keep the traditional British stiff upper lip, treating his losses as a chance to grow and quickly bouncing back from every failure. He’s kind of Pokémon’s ideal of a young trainer: determined, personable, driven by the love of the game and love of his Pokémon. His ambitions are important to him, but he also cares a lot about having fun and growing.
And then Bede shows up. Bede is the other rival character in Sword and Shield, and is definitely getting his own one of These Things, but all we need to know for the moment is that he’s a cold and ruthless Psychic Pokémon trainer who was endorsed for the gym challenge by Chairman Rose himself, thinks this makes him better than anyone else in the competition (even the two trainers who were endorsed by the Champion), and is pursuing some secretive mission on Rose’s behalf. Bede has no patience for Hop’s cheeriness or his intention to rival Bede’s own ambitions, and decides shortly after our Motostoke gym battles to challenge Hop. This does not go well. Hop can take a loss – he’s had a few of them at your hands. Bede, though… well, Bede is a Psychic-type specialist (at least, he is at this point in the story); he knows how to read people. He is also a dick. As such, he takes direct aim at Hop’s most crippling insecurity by telling him that his failures are so pathetic they’re actually going to ruin Leon’s reputation. Hop takes this hard.
And here we have to break from story a bit and talk about Hop’s team.
Hop has previously been using Wooloo and Corvisquire alongside the starter Pokémon given to him by Leon (Thwackey, Raboot or Drizzile), but when we battle him in Stow-on-Side he’s ditched them in favour of Cramorant, Toxel and Silicobra, keeping only his starter. Then again, by the time we return to Hammerlocke after challenging Opal, he’s gotten rid of all three of those Pokémon and replaced them with Trevenant, Heatmor, Snorlax and Boltund. In part, I think Hop’s process of switching out most of his Pokémon is meant as a model for players. Sword and Shield have some of the most generous experience mechanics of any Pokémon game yet, as well as a portable connection to the PC storage system, which makes it very painless to try out many different Pokémon before settling on your final team of six, or even rotate a “team” of eight or nine. Maybe that’s all Hop is doing, and maybe all we’re supposed to take from it is that we should try the same thing. On the other hand, I think it’s particularly striking that, during this stage of his career, Hop keeps the starter Pokémon given to him by Leon, but loses Wooloo – that is, his actual partner Pokémon. My impression as I played the game was that this was part of a crisis of confidence that Hop was suffering; after losing to Bede, he feels he needs to completely reinvent himself and take Pokémon training more seriously. In particular, he needs to reinvent himself in Leon’s image to avoid being a disappointment, so he discards the Pokémon that was his, first, that represents his own style and personality and that he shares the most memories with. Wooloo’s a good friend, but if he wants to get serious, they can’t battle together. He gets over that, though: by the time we battle him in Circhester, his old Pokémon are back, now evolved into Dubwool and Corviknight, accompanied by Rillaboom/Cinderace/Inteleon, that Snorlax and… for some reason Pincurchin (a Pokémon whose very existence just bewilders me, but we don’t have time to get into that right now). He rotates Pokémon, tries new things, and eventually concludes that his best bet is just to be the trainer he was all along.
Hop collects his remaining badges at about the same pace as you do, and is also with you when your mentor Sonia shows you the Hero’s Bath in Circhester and discovers a lost tapestry from Hammerlocke in a random greasy spoon diner, so he keeps up with Sonia’s developing suspicions about the truth behind Galar’s myth-history. He doesn’t have a lot of plot-related scenes because, well, there’s not a lot of plot for him to be involved with in the mid-game (it would have been interesting to see him in Spikemuth, though); Sword and Shield pack a lot into the final chapter in Wyndon. In the end, Hop is one of only a handful of trainers to collect all eight Galar gym badges and travel to Wyndon to participate in the final contest, along with the player, Marnie and a fourth unnamed trainer (Bede has at this point been disqualified). Even then, though, he doesn’t get to fight his brother; the way the Galar Championship Cup works is that all the qualifying challengers duke it out, then the winner of that round of battles gets to fight the Gym Leaders, and only then does an eventual victor have the chance to challenge Leon for his crown (so after everything you, Hop, Marnie and everyone else have been through, it was still a totally realistic possibility that all of you would lose and in the end Raihan or one of his colleagues got to challenge Leon). At the end of the first day of battles, once it has become clear that you, not Hop, will be the one to progress to the final challenge, Leon invites both of you out for a celebratory dinner… and stands you up. It’s at Hop’s insistence that the two of you, with the help of Marnie, Piers and Team Yell, break into Rose Tower to try and find out just what Leon thinks is more important than dinner with his two protégés. Honestly, even after seeing the whole story, I think Hop was overreacting here; Leon was never in any danger and was just running late. Is this subtle characterisation of Hop as stressed, confused and desperate for his brother’s attention, or just kind of a clumsy plot sequence? I’m not saying it’s the second thing, just implying it.
The next day, when Rose re-enacts the Darkest Day and sends the entire region to hell in a handbasket, Leon rushes to Hammerlocke to contain the crisis. Hop wants to help, but is pessimistic after failing his own final challenge. Fortunately, he’s been paying attention to Sonia’s wild hypothesising. He’s the one who pieces together the clues and leads the player back to the Slumbering Weald, hoping to find Zacian and Zamazenta and ask for their help. This initially looks to be a bust, as the legendary Pokémon are in a deep sleep and can only appear to us as illusions, but we do find their magical sword and shield. Once we get to Hammerlocke, Hop suffers one more defeat – this time at the hands of Chairman Rose – but remains defiant as ever, joining the player on the roof of the power plant to fight the mysterious, terrible Pokémon responsible for the Darkest Day: Eternatus. It’s also Hop who, when Eternatus’ cosmic powers completely disable your Pokémon, comes up with the Hail Mary play of using the ancient shield and sword to summon Zacian and Zamazenta – which actually works, allowing you, Hop and the legendary wolves to take down Eternatus in a 4-on-1 Max Raid battle. I think that deserves some emphasis here; Hop loses to you over and over, and he loses to Rose, but in the end he actually plays an equal role in saving Galar from Eternatus, which is more than any other rival character in Pokémon’s history has ever done. The Pokémon League Championship is such that there can only be one winner, but in the myth-history of Galar, it took two heroes to stop the Darkest Day, just as it took two heroes in Unova to settle the clash between Truth and Ideals, and Hop is the inheritor of one of them. I’m stressing this because I feel like a lot of the reception of Sword and Shield sees Hop as kind of useless and ineffectual (it’s not that players don’t like him – of course people like him, he’s so cheerful and energetic it’s hard not to – but a big part of his appeal is how he recognises his many failures and still bounces back from them). I think Hop doesn’t give himself enough credit for his role in ending the Darkest Day, and that bleeds into the way players perceive his contributions as well.
In the aftermath of the Championship Cup, we visit the Slumbering Weald again to return Zacian’s sword and Zamazenta’s shield. Here we are promptly accosted by the postgame storyline in the form of Shielbert and Sordward, brothers descended from the ancient Galarian monarchy who claim the sword and shield as their birthright. We’ll probably talk more about these pompous morons when I get to writing about Sonia. For now, the point is that Hop, along with Spikemith Gym Leader Piers, travels around the region with us to deal with their ridiculous plot, and is present at the final confrontation with them in Hammerlocke, when they attempt to enrage one of the legendary wolves and unleash it on the city. The other wolf (the one corresponding to your version of the game) shows up just in time to keep its sibling from eating one of the idiot princes. You get to battle and catch it, while the first wolf runs off, with Hop pursuing. Returning to the Slumbering Weald, we are just in time to witness Hop catch up with his legendary wolf and appease it. Not only does he succeed in calming its rage and convincing it that he is worthy to become its trainer, he seems to do this without a fight, which not even the player character was able to. Naturally, this is the occasion for one last battle between the player and Hop, both with their full potential finally realised.
Hop’s Pokémon are now extremely high levels, and personally I couldn’t beat his legendary Pokémon without using mine as well. When Hop loses this final battle to you, with his legendary wolf at his side, he comments that he’s already lost to you over and over, but for the first time he isn’t frustrated – in fact, he feels good about it. Hop has been judging himself against the standards set by his brother his entire life, and since the start of his journey he’s been judging himself against the player as well, always coming up third-best. I think it’s in this moment that he finally realises… that that’s a crock of $#!t. He could lose to you a hundred more times, and then lose to Leon a hundred times as an encore; he’ll still be a hero who’s done incredible things, and he can still keep doing more incredible things. With that in mind, he decides to give up competitive Pokémon battling to pursue a career that will let him help people and Pokémon everywhere – becoming a researcher, starting out as Sonia’s assistant. Leon reveals that he’s been watching, and finally acknowledges his little brother’s strength and bravery. From there, as the story ends, Hop is in a position to move on with his life in a new direction, doing things that neither his brother nor the player ever could, while remaining a damn fine rival to both. Becoming a researcher is a slightly weird ending for him, since he hasn’t particularly displayed any passion for intellectual pursuits in the story so far (when he started to explain that he wanted to help people, I thought he was about to say that he wanted to become a ranger or something). Admittedly though, Hop has been involved (albeit peripherally) with Sonia’s quest to learn the truth about the Darkest Day through mythology and art history, and he’s seen firsthand how her work has reshaped Galar’s self-image. I can imagine him becoming a pop-culture-stereotype sort of adventurer-archaeologist, seeking out the truth about the past in unexplored ruins.
Pokémon has this whole “rival” character archetype, where you have one person who challenges you over and over to keep you on your toes, and you are also that for them, but what do you do when your rival is someone who’s just plain stronger than you? Blue has a meltdown, Silver inverts his entire value structure, May/Brendan just kinda gives up on battles and fades into the background, Barry decides that his dad will be his rival instead, Serena/Calem never really got a convincing character arc because X and Y have too many rival characters and no expansion/sequel game, and Hau… well, Hau just kinda doesn’t give a fµ¢£ and, honestly, good for Hau. Just stick to the malasadas, buddy; you do you. But I think the most pertinent comparison here is with Cheren. Back in Black and White, Cheren’s character arc was about learning that just being strong and winning battles or titles isn’t enough of a goal to build your life around; he eventually finds more definite and constructive goals as a Gym Leader and a teacher in Black and White 2. In the same way, Hop realises here that being strong and winning battles and being the Champion… well, it would be great and all, but none of it is necessary for the meaning that he decides he wants in his life – to help people and make the world a better place. He figures out what’s actually important to him, freeing him to discard the goals that frustrate him and focus solely on what sparks his enthusiasm so he can live a fulfilling life. Whether that ending is a life lesson for the ages or a naïve pipe dream… eh, ask me again on my deathbed.