All right, we had another One of These Things, and an appropriate Arbitrary Duration has passed, so here’s what I think of what people said in response to my dumb question: what is Pokémon “about”? Part of the point of this one was I didn’t even know, necessarily, exactly how people were going to take the question; there’s several different ways you could reasonably have interpreted what I was asking, so there’s a lot in there, and I’ve almost certainly missed some good angles that came up in the comments. Still, I’ll do my best to hit most of what we came up with and what I think of it.
Right out of the gate, there’s a simple answer that, basically, Pokémon today is too cynical and profit-motivated to be considered to have a coherent literary or artistic meaning, which I think Herald of Opera was the most committed to, but there’s a thread of this in several other people’s responses as well.
Herald of Opera:
I don’t think Pokémon knows what it’s about anymore, aside from obtaining more solid gold Ferraris for The Pokémon Company’s top brass. The players don’t even have that to unify them, and thus threw a riot over the games finally deciding that they were starting to collapse under the weight of excessive hoarding.
Name (required) gives a more charitable interpretation of similar logic:
Pokémon’s the #1 biggest thing ever franchise in the world, and I suspect in order to get to that position, or because of that position, its themes, so to speak, are either weak/understated (eg environmentalism), inoffensive/broadly appealing (eg friendship) or easy to reinterpret in various ways according to individual preference (discovery, exploration)….
… I consider Pokémon’s central theme to be: “whatever, but, like, in a good way.”
Because the main message of Pokemon is “you should form emotional attachment to our commercial property”….
…The point is to get you to form essentially a parasocial relationship with Pokemon to continue cross-commercial investment in the franchise. Like this interview with James Turner that I WAS able to find (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJk3wrvL6To) states, every Pokemon needs to look like it can be your friend.
And perhaps more charitable still from Andrew C:
I’d agree with the above commenters who argue something the lines of, “Pokemon isn’t about anything, it’s about everything (everywhere, all at once) that anyone wants it to be.” Maybe it started off as “adventure + friendship + bland moral messaging” but the calculus from the designers had to have changed once it became the global mega-phenomenon that it is.
And, well, I’m not unsympathetic to even the most cynical version of this; there’s some truth to it. I do think there are some pretty significant ways that Pokémon’s worldbuilding and storytelling are shaped by being cogs in an extremely profitable media empire. I also think it’s probably fair to suggest that there isn’t really a strong unifying vision of what Pokémon’s themes are supposed to be that holds true across all Pokémon media (i.e. not just Game Freak’s games), beyond the safest and blandest platitudes. On the other hand, I think you can argue that a lot of modern media, probably most or all high-budget mass media, is on some level driven by cynical greed and drive for profit. But given that, I also think it’s… let’s say surprisingly uncommon for those mega-projects to be genuinely soulless. Like, Marvel movies are a thing, right? The reason there’s eleventy twelve of them is clearly because they’re a relatively efficient and predictable way of making obscene amounts of money, but it’s just as clear that a lot of people do seem to find them not just “cool” or momentarily entertaining but deeply meaningful. The people making the obscene profits are also very much not the same as the people doing the actual work, especially in media like film and video games where you may need the cooperation of dozens or hundreds of people in order to do even a broadly competent job. Two things can be true at once here, is the point; you can sell out to the corporate masters and still want to create great art; you can occasionally even succeed. And you can be in that position and fail, I think, for more complicated and more interesting reasons than just being motivated by corporate greed.
So let’s move to what Pokémon media might be trying to say, or perhaps what we think it ought to say.
I, personally, think that the series is meant to be (seeing as how it doesn’t always achieve it and sometimes outright fucks it up in new and interesting ways) that Hope Friendship and Kindness are the traits that deserve to give a person power, and that the only way to fail is to not try.
I feel like Pokémon is about escapism. You can pretend to be in a world where humans can be on more equal footing with each other and power is usually concentrated with the people who are the most good hearted.
I think all the Pokemon media is in an underlying sense about the power of friendship, at least texturally….
The games were built from the start to heavily encourage trading with real life people. Every game since gen 3 has a figure who you pal around with that is explicitly your friend who you travel around and interact with amicably (including most of the side games)…
…Even in the hardest game mode of Nuzlocke, you must nickname your Pokemon because first and foremost, they are your friends.
And I think there is definitely an important strain here of “uncomplicated pro-social messages for kids,” things like “be kind” and “tell the truth” and “share” and “friendship is great”; you know, all the beliefs that are so simple and obvious and childish that a lot of adults seem to just forget about them. That makes sense because the Pokémon games were originally – and I think very much still are – about the creators’ experience of childhood. That ties in with the notion of escapism too, because part of Pokémon’s stated mission in the beginning was to give children some of the feeling of growing up in an earlier time and a more “natural” world, as the cities of Japan grew larger and the skyscrapers climbed higher. It’s supposed to help players return to a world that is gradually ceasing to exist. I have… complicated feelings about that, which I’ve touched on before in one of the only good things I’ve ever written.
RandomAccess also looked a lot at the childhood aspect:
….Why there’s a bug type, why bug catchers are such a prominent trainer class, Shigeru even said the development of the game boy’s link cable was inspired by this, as he imagined tiny bugs crawling between the game boys on the cable. But of course, it wasn’t just bugs, they filled it with all kinds of things they loved as kids like cool kaijus, RPG monsters inspired by Dragon Quest, folkloric creatures. They framed the story around their experience growing up as kids, you start off in more rural and forested areas, then you slowly start getting into more industrialized places as you progress through the games. So, at its core, Pokemon is about the joy of childhood wonder and connection with nature in an ever-changing world.
And that also brings us into the nature-and-environmentalism angle.
Pokémon is inherently environmentalist, it is about working with nature, not against it….
…every problem has been caused by humanity trying to control the environment to their own ends…
Yeah, and I think this came up tangentially in the first One of These Things, but I think it’s very specifically a Shintō-influenced conception of environmentalism that puts a heavy emphasis on tradition (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the game and region) and on personal and community relationships with – and obligations to – nature itself, as personified by Pokémon. As Wolf Howls says, most of Pokémon’s villains are humans who to control forces greater than themselves, generally personified as legendary Pokémon. We, the players, get to catch and train those same Pokémon because the games’ moral framework sees us as having put in the right kind of work – the building of respectful relationships with nature – to earn that privilege and be trusted not to abuse it. RandomAccess also mentioned kaiju movies as an influence on Pokémon, and that’s another idea that came up briefly last time; the whole point of Godzilla, the ur-kaiju, is that there are forces in the world that are greater than humanity, that we cannot conquer or control (this is the point that American adaptations seem to struggle with). The only sane approach is respect and cooperation, and Pokémon presents a setting where that approach is rewarded.
There’s another angle that I think we got in the most detail from Jeffthelinguist, which gets into not just the deliberate themes of Pokémon but where the fan community takes them.
I think the entire franchise…. is all, in its entirety, about self expression and fulfillment.
In universe, people use Pokemon for pretty much everything to reach their goal of happiness and find their place in the world, and NPCs *constantly* use Pokemon for self expression. Many trainers specialize with either one type of Pokemon or one theme. Sometimes it’s related to their career (construction workers), sometimes it’s a hobby (hikers), and sometimes they really just like that one Pokemon (pokemanics). Pokemon are friends and partners but they’re also an aesthetic choice…. In a world where the focus of the games can change greatly (maybe you’re just a photographer or a warlord), it’s just universal that people use Pokemon to complete their own lives and convey an image.
And this bleeds into the real world. Players make competitive teams or complete the Pokedex for fulfillment, fans create fakemon or write overly analytic blogs fo fulfillment. And when it’s not fulfillment, it’s self expression. They train a team of their favorite Pokemon even if it’s not viable, maybe even sticking to one type or theme. They draw fakemon of their ideal Pokemon. They write blogs to let everyone know their opinions on designs, characters, themes. They shiny hunt because they love those Pokemon, they wear the apparel because they franchise is a part of them, they wear the underwear because – okay, hopefully you get it.
And that’s important too, because once a piece of culture is out in the world I don’t believe it “belongs” to the creator anymore, or not just to them, anyway. That kind of fandom-as-self-expression phenomenon isn’t specific to Pokémon, not by a long shot, although I think there is an argument to be made that Pokémon is particularly good at it – partly because, with a standard team size of six Pokémon chosen out of several hundred, each with the potential to have typical moves or unconventional ones, there’s just a lot of player choice and customisation inherent in the game mechanics. There’s a cynical angle to this as well, of course – a lot of that real-world self-expression comes from buying and owning stuff that the Pokémon Company licenses. And, uh… if, as a company, you can get a lot of people to make it a part of their identity and self-expression to own $#!t that you sell, you’re going to be pretty happy. I don’t think that’s a problem with Pokémon, though, I think that’s a problem with the entire concept of corporate ownership of culture, something which I think is Bad Actually. There are lots of other forms of fandom self-expression that Jeff lists that don’t feed back into TPC’s profits, like art, and fan fiction, and ROM hacks, and all of my bull$#!t… which I quite like, because although I probably won’t live long enough to see a future where Pokémon is public domain, I think it’d be a fun time.
…For me, Pokémon is about…. collecting. No wait, hear me out. I think that is what led to its success the most. There were 151 (not much later 251) of the lil bastards that every kid in the world could religiously remember the names of and beg their parents to keep buying merch, merch and more merch. I remember how many times I’ve begged mom to buy me gum packages with Pokémon sticker cards in them, because I was collecting them and was still missing a few….
And yeah, absolutely! I think that’s an important part of the player experience – not one that appeals so much to me, probably for a lot of different reasons that relate to the specifics of my early experience with Pokémon, but the existence of this blog attests pretty well to my engagement with the closely related impulse of documentation and cataloguing. I sort of have a notion, as an autism-spectrum person, that this is what it is about Pokémon that scratches a particular itch for a lot of people like me; the collecting, whether of Pokémon themselves or of knowledge about them, the sense of mastery that comes from completion and from understanding. I think that there’s something very human about wanting to find categories for things and create frameworks for explaining them – put things into boxes, then break down the boxes to understand how they work.
Well, I think that covers just about-
Pokemon is a series about punishment for deviating from the status quo.
Good to know I can always count on Shibarianne to serve up only the spiciest of takes.
…Magma and Aqua have the foresight of a deaf bat but are still framed as doing what they do to increase habitats they see at risk. Plasma’s liberation is revealed to be a front but even before the curtain drops they’re presented as ominous, and disquieting because they threaten what we see as a natural order.
The most sympathetically the series has ever attempted to portray delinquents and outsiders is Guzma, and Piers and Team Yell, and they’re never actually presented as being in the right. Sure it’s given a noble nod, but they are still confined to the “Team” nomenclature, grouping them in with ecological disaster artists and hypocritical megalomaniacs. All because they don’t want to play along with their society’s values, or just want to be happy in their home town rather than relocate because the magic Dynamax goo isn’t there….
I mean, she’s got a point.
(Incidentally, since we’re here, Shibarianne has just finished working on – and I believe will release in a few days – a ROM hack titled Pokémon Ephemerald, which is Emerald with a retyping and redesign of all 386 Pokémon, which I think is quite exciting. I’ll probably post something about that when it happens. Anyway.)
Personally, I think this is less an intentional theme and more of an inevitable trap that Pokémon’s creators fall into because they want their world to be a true utopia with no structural issues that need to change, but also (post-Team Rocket, anyway) want conflict with antagonists who aren’t just “evil because they’re evil.” It’s having their cake and eating it too, so to speak, and it tends to leave some… cracks in the characters’ motivations and beliefs. So you get this inescapable logic of “yes, Chairman Rose was right to worry about the future of Galar, but he shouldn’t have done anything about it, and now that he’s been defeated, we certainly won’t do anything about it either,” or “yes, it makes perfect sense that N would be concerned about whether Pokémon can be free and happy in this society, and it’s reasonable that he still has reservations and hopes for a better future even at the very end of the story, but actually it’s all fine, and we certainly won’t change anything.”
I’ll just grab another bit from Joereviewer here:
A sort of cynical observation on this is that when it comes to issues of the environment, Pokemon sort of takes the stance that things will just sort themselves out as long as you are friendly and align yourselves with the Forces of Good. The sort of Solar Punk future Pokemon seems to have been aesthetically approaching seems to require no sacrifice, no change in behavior of the modern populace. It’s even a little concerning that the Bad Guy Plan of SWSH was “trying to solve an energy crisis too fast,” and the solution isn’t really to change anything other than “put nice people in charge of the exact same system.”
If you’re not prepared for your own setting to change in significant structural ways, your stories have to disprove or dismiss anyone who thinks it should change (well, either that or introduce an undertone of hopelessness that would be wildly out of step with Pokémon’s normal worldview). To be clear, I think these are understandable choices in light of the need for the Pokémon games to be the uncomplicated and artistically unchallenging starter motor for a much larger media empire, but nonetheless basically the storytelling decisions of a cheese-hearted, square-livered coward.
So… I don’t think we answered the question, which is fine; it was a dumb question, and to be fair, I did make clear from the start that These Things are going to focus primarily on extremely dumb questions. I don’t think I have a good answer of my own to this one, or at least not in terms of anything that ties the whole 26-year-long mass of Pokémon media together, but I can say what kind of storytelling I think Pokémon is most interesting and useful for, and that’s the nature angle – thinking and telling stories about what it means for humans to be part of the living world. It’s a great theme, because it can be made appropriate to any age group; kids need to be taught about it, but adults also sometimes need to be prompted to think more deeply about it as well. It’s also a theme that, perhaps, highlights the need for our world to change in certain fairly revolutionary ways, which is – as we’ve just discussed – not something Pokémon’s owners and creators are interested in doing. But one of the bittersweet things about creating a piece of culture that becomes massively successful on a global scale over multiple decades is… it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to all of us. Which means we decide what it’s about and what value it has.
So… we’ll do another One of These Things soon; thank you to everyone for coming, and of course special thanks also to the dark Lovecraftian cosmic consciousness that works its will through my Patreon supporters: Name (Required), James Crooks, hugh_donnetono, PLCM, Hamish Fyfe, Leo M.R. and Esserise. Should I say something else here? Do I have a catchphrase? “Stay maniacal!” Gods, no, that’s awful. Cringe off the charts. Let’s just go with “bye, or whatever.”