What would your dream pokemon region be based off of?
I’ve answered basically this exact question a couple of times before, so I’m going to incorporate it with another question about Pokémon regions and go through some thoughts I have about this:
The Dag asks:
Which region so far do you think has best incorporated the history, mythology, geography, and biosphere of its real-world inspiration?
My traditional standard answer for “where do I want a region based on?” is India, just because it gives you so much to work with, in terms of environment, climate, fauna, history, culture, mythology, everything. The feel of that region would also be distinctive and recognisable to an international audience, but still leave a lot of room for incorporating material that would be new and interesting to players in both Japan and the Anglophone “West.” But let’s talk about that second question a bit.
Kanto doesn’t seem like it’s consciously very Japanese, I suppose because it doesn’t need to be; it’s Japanese developers being inspired by the city where they lived and grew up. Hoenn and Sinnoh also don’t seem particularly concerned with being Kyushu or Hokkaido, although there is probably a lot that I’m missing there, and a lot that’s lost in the translation to English (does anyone know if characters from those regions use regional accents or dialect words in the original Japanese?). Johto is a bit different because it corresponds to the Kansai region, the location of the old imperial capital, Kyoto (which is Ecruteak City in Johto); Kansai is seen within Japan as a cultural and historical centre, so Johto gets more stuff that a foreign audience recognises as conspicuously Japanese. And then we leave Japan, and we go to Unova – which is a little bit New York City – then Kalos – which more clearly France – and finally Alola and Galar – which are definitely Hawai‘i and Great Britain. There’s only a few locations and Pokémon in Unova that are clearly American-inspired; Kalos has more locations but still not that many Pokémon. I don’t want to rule definitively on which of Galar or Alola draws more on the source region’s nature and culture for its Pokémon designs when I haven’t yet studied Galar’s Pokémon in the depth that I have Alola’s, although the number is large for both. I feel like Alola uses more, but several of its Pokémon species are more generically tropical than specifically Hawaiian, so I’m not sure.
So… here’s the thing about Pokémon regions being based on real places. When it’s a Japanese developer creating worlds based on New York, France, or the United Kingdom, it’s kind of a level playing field (doubly so in the case of Sword and Shield, which had a British guy in a senior position on the creative team). Those places all have loud cultural voices, and the Japanese perspective on them is informed not only by the way others portray them, but by the way they portray themselves. Hawai‘i… well, Hawai‘i is a bit more complicated, because yeah, it’s another part of the United States, but a lot of what’s unique about Hawai‘i comes from its native Polynesian culture that has been heavily commodified by the tourism industry in a way that can be kind of a sore spot for people who belong to that culture. It’s the tourist experience of Hawai‘i that informs the portrayal of Alola in Sun and Moon; it’s Hawai‘i, but it’s also a pastiche tropical island vacation paradise (this article gets into the positives and negatives of that portrayal really well). I don’t think Sun and Moon do a terrible job of incorporating elements of native Hawaiian culture; I certainly learned a lot of cool stuff while researching my Pokémon reviews, but… well, it’s kinda not my place to be the judge of that, is it? I’d be a lot happier about that with some Polynesian writers or designers on the creative team, even if only as consultants – and that’s also what I’d like to see in future if Pokémon goes somewhere else that has historically been on the receiving end of colonialism.
I had a brief aside about this in my recent article that covered Alolan Meowth and Persian: Alola canonically had a monarchy, and now doesn’t, but (in contrast to Kalos, where the sins of the ancient kings are a pretty critical part of the backstory) no one ever really says why or what happened to them. And… well, for me it’s difficult to get around the fact that, historically, the last Queen of Hawai‘i was overthrown by a US-backed coup in order to pave the way for annexation, and there’s just no nice way to say that in your kids’ game about friendly magical animals that you intend to sell in the US. You have to gloss over some stuff when you use a real place with a real history as inspiration for the setting of a kids’ game; that’s unavoidable, because history is brutal and Pokémon is an escapist fantasy. But when it’s not your history, and the people whose history it is are still disadvantaged because of the stuff you’re glossing over, and your own culture’s exposure to theirs is mainly in the form of a commercialised version shaped by external forces… well, it just pays to put in a bit more work, y’know? Which is part of the reason why, when I’ve been asked about it in the past, I’ve been kind of apprehensive about the idea of a Pokémon region based on my home country, New Zealand. New Zealand has… really good PR, especially in the US, but it would be a mistake to suggest that our history is one of harmony and justice; there’s some dark $#!t back there that we don’t exactly put in the brochures. If you want to populate that region with Pokémon based on Māori culture and give it a history and lore based on New Zealand’s real past, like, on the one hand, yes, that sounds amazing, but on the other hand, please don’t do it without advice and input from Māori artists and scholars.
On the basis of what they’ve been doing so far, I think Game Freak are likely to continue picking regions based on affluent countries where there are a lot of people who play Pokémon (because people like seeing themselves in the media they consume). Recently we’ve had a US region, then a European one, then another US one, then another European one. That might indicate another return to North America next – maybe to Alaska, or the Great Lakes (geographically these are really interesting choices, but see all my previous caveats about dealing with indigenous cultures) – or it could be time to branch out. Eastern China seems like an obvious choice. South Korea also makes sense, but, uh… Japan and Korea have… baggage… lots of baggage… not to mention, you then have to figure out what’s, um… what’s on the northern edge of the region. The countries I think would make the most interesting Pokémon regions – India and Brazil – have proportionally fewer people who can afford to buy the latest games and hardware on a whim; the Pokémon games also don’t yet support Portuguese or Hindi, and I think creating regions based on those places without translating the games for them would be a bit of a slap in the face to fans in those countries (I mean… yeah, it’s a chance to practise your English, but… come on). Both also come with pitfalls – Brazil could be prone to the same tourist-centred perspective as Hawai‘i, although you could skirt that by trying to focus mainly on the country’s wilderness and incredibly diverse wildlife; while in India you’d be taking a lot of inspiration from religions that are still followed by billions of people, and portraying a culturally diverse country that is… conspicuously trying to become less diverse at the moment. I think you can get out of a lot of potential trouble here by just being light-hearted about it, which is what Pokémon wants anyway, but again… bring people from those places on board during the design process!