Next Time on Pokémaniacal: If I Were In Charge

Okay.

Let’s do this.

You all hear me complain on a regular basis about how such and such an aspect of the Pokémon games is totally mismanaged, or how such and such an idea is neglected, or such and such a concept is just setting things back and needs to die in a fire.  I really can be such a whiner sometimes, am I right?  Well, I think it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.  If I’m so damn clever, how would I run these games?

I want to establish here, first of all, what I’m not doing in this series of entries.  I’m not planning out a whole Pokémon game from scratch, although I may write stuff that could be part of one, and I will talk about how I would structure a new game.  I’m not creating any new Pokémon, although I will talk about where I think new Pokémon are necessary and beneficial.  I’m also not going to attempt anything really radical, like completely replacing the battle system or transplanting the games to an entirely different setting, because that way lies madness, but I have a lot of little tweaks in mind.  Most importantly, I’m not critiquing or building on any preview material of X and Y.  Most of the ideas I hope to talk about have been at the back of my mind since well before generation 6 was announced.  I have no interest in speculating about how X and Y are going to be handled, and I am not going to start reviewing them before they’re even released.

I want to try to think about every aspect of the games, how they contribute to their overall themes and aims, how often they fail to do so and why, and what can be done to change that.

And just to make sure I don’t leave anything out, I’ll be organising my thoughts according to the lyrics of the season one theme song.

Here goes nothing.

If I Were In Charge: I want to be the very best, like no-one ever was

So what are these games about, anyway?

We want to be the very best, of course!  You know, like no-one ever was!  Become Pokémon Masters!

…right?

What… what is a Pokémon Master, anyway?  How do you become one?  Why does everyone want to?  What are we doing with our lives?

The title is much more prominent in the anime, where Ash’s explicit goal in life, which he states with some regularity, is to become a Pokémon Master, but the games occasionally use it too.  Lance, for instance, grudgingly acknowledges the player as a Pokémon Master when defeated at the end of Red and Blue.  The implication is that one attains the title, in its most strictly literal sense, by defeating the Elite Four, whether or not one actually becomes Champion by this act (in Red and Blue you don’t – at least, not immediately – since your charming rival got there first).  Maybe, although there can only be one Champion at a time, anyone who has ever qualified to challenge a sitting Champion is considered a Pokémon Master?  This is all academic, though.  The important point to recognise is that, whether you’re aiming to become a Pokémon Master or the Champion, or obtain all the badges, or work up an awesome winning streak on the Battle Subway, or whatever, it’s always about battling and being the very best, like no one ever was.  Yes, I’m going to keep saying that.  In fact, it’s actually quite an appropriate phrase for the degree of power players seem to obtain in the games, much more so than it is for the (perhaps more realistic) periodic waxing and waning of Ash’s career.  It’s not uncommon for players to remain undefeated throughout their single player runs, and even the most elite of NPC trainers in the overworld never come close to a team of six level-100 Pokémon.  In the context of the game’s plot, you are the unbeatable Pokémon Master Ash wishes he could be… until the introduction of special battle facilities like the Battle Subway, which unexpectedly introduce dozens if not hundreds of trainers capable of going toe-to-toe with a team of the League Champion’s strongest battle Pokémon.  Even then, of course, the game’s expectations for your performance are measured in terms of winning streaks; your implicit goal is still to be not just good but unbeatable.  Odd, isn’t it?  And doubly so if taken in the context of the anime’s persistent message (typical of 1990’s children’s television) that winning is of secondary importance to simply enjoying the game.

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If I Were In Charge: To catch them is my real test; to train them is my cause

Gotta catch ‘em all.

As we discussed last time, the phrase doesn’t get used so much these days, but in the early years of the franchise it was quite liberally plastered all over everything Pokémon-related, and it still strikes a chord today with ex-fans from the first two generations.  Interviews with the creator, Satoshi Tajiri, suggest that the whole idea of Pokémon had its conceptual roots in the hobby of insect collecting, a hobby which is becoming increasingly impractical in the real world as Japan (along with just about everywhere else) becomes more and more urbanised with every passing year.  This makes the significance of the catchphrase readily apparent; an important part of Pokémon’s ‘mission,’ as it were, is to encourage players to explore and understand the diversity of life.  Even though the words themselves have lost their central position, their legacy and the impact they have on the philosophy of the games is still important, so let’s talk about that.  How does “gotta catch ‘em all” still shape the way Pokémon works?

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If I Were In Charge: I will travel across the land, searching far and wide

(It is rapidly becoming clear to me that many entries in this series are going to be prohibitively long.  You have been warned.)

As we travel across the land, searching far and wide, players of the Pokémon games have always had to deal with a set of annoying little restrictions – the need for ‘hidden’ moves that help us navigate through the overworld.  These moves can be taught to compatible Pokémon using Hidden Machines, HMs, and once learned cannot be forgotten except with the aid of a specialist move deleter.  They are also, for the most part, absolutely terrible.  Let’s look at their history.

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If I Were In Charge: Teach Pokémon to understand the power that’s inside

I want to begin with a little aside – I love the double meaning of the phrase “the power that’s inside.”  On the one hand, it can be understood in the same sense as another phrase Pokémon quite likes, “the power that’s in your hand,” referring to the fact that Pokémon trainers quite literally hold incredible power in their hands, inside their Pokéballs, while on the other, of course, in the context of the line itself it can be taken to refer to a Pokémon’s inner potential, which it is a trainer’s job to nurture and hone.  It’s the latter of these meanings that I really want to talk about today, though, with particular reference to some of my old favourite subjects: the ethics of Pokémon training, and the mutually beneficial aspects of the relationship between humans and Pokémon.

What do Pokémon get out of being with humans anyway?

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If I Were In Charge: It’s you and me; I know it’s my destiny

Pokémon are our friends; this we know.  “They are our wonderful partners,” N tells Ghetsis at the conclusion of Black and White 2.  This is not to be contested; these ideas have been part of how Pokémon has presented itself since the very beginning.  However, many of us catch Pokémon by the dozen, and will often barely interact with them after that.  It is almost required of us, given the nature of the games.  The more Pokémon you have, the closer you get to completing the Pokédex, and the more varied your breeding stock, which is important for obtaining Pokémon with the most effective possible movesets.  The games simply do not portray the player character as having a meaningful relationship with most or even many of his or her Pokémon.  Auxiliary applications like Heart Gold and Soul Silver’s Pokéwalker, Black and White’s Dream World, and the upcoming Pokémon Amie (of which I am dimly aware, despite my efforts to ignore everything about X and Y until they’re actually released) seem intended to correct this, but these don’t really go far enough.  Is it even possible, given the nature of the games, to construct representations of actual personal relationships with each and every individual Pokémon in a player’s possession?  I am forced to concede, in advance, that it may not be – but that isn’t going to stop me for trying.

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If I Were In Charge: You’re my best friend in a world we must defend

…and oh, how it does need defending.  I’ve discussed all of Pokémon’s past villains before, long ago, but it can’t hurt to summarise… The scale of villainy in the Pokémon universe has swelled considerably since its early days in Red and Blue, when Team Rocket’s dastardly plans nearly brought down one of Kanto’s most important corporations, Silph, to give them control of the prototype Master Ball and its blueprints.  Their return in Gold and Silver nearly reduced all the Pokémon of the nation to servitude through the mind controlling radio signal developed by their scientists.  Ruby and Sapphire saw Teams Magma and Aqua send the very balance of nature into chaos, risking the safety of the whole world to bring about their utopian visions.  Things came to a head with Diamond and Pearl, when Cyrus’ machinations nearly wiped out the entire universe, before Black and White (very sensibly) took a step back and a deep breath, thought about it, and toned it down.  As I am fond of saying, I think Black and White have, hands down, the best plot of the core series so far (and that includes Black and White 2), primarily because of the somewhat ambiguous nature of the villains.  Team Plasma’s stated goals – the goals which most of their members believe they are working for – can conceivably be seen as perfectly noble.  N is a genuinely good person, in spite of his somewhat… unusual upbringing, and he has one of Unova’s legendary dragons to prove it.  Many, if not most, of the Seven Sages are similarly enlightened.  Even some of the grunts appear entirely sincere in their desire to ‘save’ Pokémon from human oppression – and even at the end of Black and White 2, N still has a vision for a new world; a world where humans and Pokémon live together, but without Pokéballs.  It’s only Ghetsis, with his lust for power, who is truly irredeemable (well, and possibly Zinzolin, but I have an unaccountable soft spot for Zinzolin; so sue me).  Ambiguity like this is good.  There are very, very few people in the real world who do things for no other reason than ‘because I’m evil, damnit.’  People who do bad things very often believe they have good reasons – from time to time, they’re even right.  Maxie and Archie in Ruby and Sapphire flirt with similar ideas, but their plans are so far-reaching and so insane that, although they believe they’re working for the good of all, it’s difficult to sympathise (although it’s worth acknowledging that they were a clear step forward).  What I’m going to do here – or try to – is create quick sketches of two villainous factions, not entire storylines, but enough to give some idea of how they might work, what their goals might be, and what kind of conflicts might feature in a game that included them.

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