Next Time on Pokémaniacal: If I Were In Charge


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!


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.

All of this pushes the games’ other main goal entirely to the side, to the extent that the games themselves barely mention it.  I refer, of course, to the Pokédex quest.  All of the Pokémon games in the main series begin with the local Professor asking the player (and, in some cases, the player’s rival) to travel around the region in which the game is set and use the Pokédex to gather data on all the Pokémon that live there.  Interestingly, in Black and White this is later revealed to be only a pretence concocted by Professor Juniper and the player character’s mother, their real purpose being to send the player, Bianca and Cheren on a journey around Unova that will expand their horizons and (particularly in Bianca’s case) help them find their paths in life.  Professor Juniper still seems to find the information useful to her research, though, and gives the player little rewards for reaching milestones in Pokédex completion, much as other Professors have in the past, and Black 2 and White 2 present us with a remarkably stubborn return to the formula.  Gathering badges and challenging the Pokémon League is only ever suggested later, as something that would also be kinda fun to do.  In reality, of course, the badge quest is what takes up all of our time, and many (most?) players won’t give any serious attention to the Pokédex quest until after becoming Champion.  Even then, the sheer enormity of the task of catching every last Pokémon, already daunting by Gold and Silver, has now become so great that casual players would be forgiven for throwing up their hands and crying “well, f#ck that.”  As such, the importance of catching everything has begun to wane as time goes on.  “Gotta catch ‘em all,” once the central tenet of the franchise, has become far less ubiquitous in marketing, and the focus of the games is often now on merely seeing all the Pokémon of a region (Diamond, Pearl and Platinum, for instance, demand that you meet every Pokémon in Sinnoh – not necessarily catch them – in order to move on to the more remote areas of the Battle Frontier).  In some ways, of course, this is a good thing, because trying to assemble all 649 of the damn things from across multiple games (including a few who aren’t available within any game) is the sort of quest that breaks spirits with alarming efficacy.  On the other hand, this continuing marginalisation of the Pokédex quest de-emphasises what was originally the whole point of Pokémon – its roots in the hobby of insect collecting, and the central theme of discovery – in favour of gradually increasing the emphasis on battling and the development of ever more complicated mechanics for battling.

This, of course, brings me back to where I started: becoming the very best, like no one ever was, which is, for the most part, about battling – breeding and training Pokémon for combat, and honing one’s tactical skill in commanding them.  As we’ve seen in the past, Pokémon battling can be a tricky issue that creates some very troubling questions about the moral standing of the whole franchise, especially because it’s so central to the way humans relate to Pokémon.  I don’t think this is something we can, or even necessarily should, eliminate, because trying to do a Pokémon game with relatively little emphasis on battling would basically entail redesigning the whole game and much of the setting from the ground up, which is a) totally beyond what I’m trying to do here, and b) probably not what people want anyway.  Pokémon battling, as Black and White show, can also be made to work quite well as part of a story when you think about the way it can allow two opponents to express their convictions to one another on an equal footing, the way the player does with N.  The parts of the game that deal with Gyms and the Pokémon League do their best to make it feel as though it isn’t all about battling and competition, persistently attributing your success to your love for your Pokémon – this is an idea that goes right back to Professor Oak’s admonishment of Blue at the end of the first games, and appears in comments by powerful trainers throughout the series.  It’s worth noting, however, that it’s much more difficult to treat Pokémon badly; the games make the broad assumption that Pokémon like being with the player, and making them dislike you almost requires deliberately poor battling and consistent use of foul-tasting herbal medicines.  I can only imagine what characters like Blue and Silver could possibly be doing to earn the opprobrium of their Pokémon.  This has the unfortunate effect of trivialising a rather important theme.  It’s not bad that battles are treated with the kind of attention and complexity that they have always received – but when the ideas of friendship and learning are viewed so simplistically by contrast, it does start to feel rather as though battling is the whole point.  In Black and White, when you first meet Alder, he questions your rival Cheren about why he wants to become Champion, and Cheren responds that he doesn’t see a need for any reason – the Champion is the strongest trainer, and being strong is an end in itself.  We the players, it is implied, have better reasons – but what exactly are they?  After defeating N, why do we continue training to grow stronger and eventually defeat Alder?  Heck, why exactly do we do anything after defeating N?  And for that matter, in any of the games, how would we answer the other half of Alder’s question – once you have power, what do you do with it?  We’re clearly supposed to disregard power for its own sake, but isn’t that exactly what the structure of the games encourages us to seek?

What I’m slowly trying to suggest here is that setting up the games’ basic structure around what is essentially a competitive sport risks completely missing the point.  Obviously it’s an easy excuse to have the player build his or her way up through tougher and tougher battles towards the big leagues, but it neglects some important aspects of the games’ message.  The fifth generation games again make important steps in the right direction, I think, by tying the final stages of the badge quest to stopping Team Plasma’s plot, but after that, why go on to keep getting stronger and challenge Alder?  That was Cheren’s ambition, not yours.  And what happens after that?  Create ever better teams for the sake of building Battle Subway streaks?  It all becomes a little bit empty. Finish the Pokédex?  Well, the rewards for that have definitely been improving since the days of that sorry old certificate they gave you back in Red and Blue, but it’s still something of a tedious and thankless job.  So, how do we fix this?

I think this is one place where taking lessons from some of the spinoff games like Pokémon Ranger and Mystery Dungeon could prove beneficial.  Most of what you do in those games is done through the medium of combat, as in the main series (well, okay, Pokémon Ranger is a bit weird in that respect but, let’s face it, that business of drawing loops around wild Pokémon on the touchscreen, while using the powers of your own follower Pokémon to help out, is basically a surrogate for Pokémon battles), but it’s never just for the sake of getting better at fighting stuff and getting recognised for being good at fighting stuff.  Mystery Dungeon, of course, has you achieve higher and higher ranks as a rescue team and gain the associated prestige, but every single mission you perform, even the ones that aren’t actually related to the plot in any way, have a clear, simple and appropriate purpose to them: Pokémon are in danger, you can help.  This is not to say that the gameplay in Mystery Dungeon isn’t flawed in other respects, but it got some important things right.  In Pokémon Ranger, likewise, you’re always helping people out with their Pokémon-related problems of every kind, learning about what it means to be a Ranger and why that’s so important.  Keep the battles; by all means keep the battles, but give them some context!  Give players reasons to fight, and show them how their actions can change the world around them for the better (or the worse… but that’s another article entirely).  We see a little, in Black and White, of what it means to be a Gym Leader, and how these elite trainers form an important part of their societies, bridging the gaps between people and Pokémon – once the player becomes Champion, why not do the same thing from a first-person perspective?  What problems are there that only a Pokémon League Champion can solve?  Let us not forget that the word ‘champion,’ though commonly used as a sporting title, can in other contexts mean “a person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause” (thank you, Oxford) – just like N, Alder, and the player in Black and White.  A Pokémon League Champion is a hero of the highest calibre – why might the region need someone like this on call?  Someone who is the very best, like no-one ever was?  And even at the lower levels, what are the rights and responsibilities of a trainer?  Having Pokémon and knowing how to work with them effectively means being able to help people in all kinds of ways – what can we do with this?

The other half of the question is to do with revitalising the Pokédex quest, which traditionally provides the initial stimulus for the player’s journey to begin, before quietly fading into the background and being forgotten within the first five minutes of play.  Damnit, you’re supposed to be helping Professor Tree learn stuff!  There’s a lot you could potentially do with this, but I would begin with making the Professors’ requests a bit more specific, with relevant and appealing rewards attached: “I need you to gather information on how such-and-such a Pokémon evolves.  Do you think you could catch one for me and raise it a little bit?  Wait, you want what?  I gave you a Pokédex and a starter Pokémon, you ungrateful little- oh, whatever; if you do this for me and bring the Pokémon back for me to take a look, I’ll teach it a new move that’ll make it a lot more powerful; how does that sound?”  I might even go so far as to have the player’s progression through the game world and the storyline tied to the completion of the Pokédex, with the Gym challenges being a side show, rather than the other way around – but I’m not married to that particular idea, since some people inevitably just won’t be interested.  In short, what I’d want to do with the Pokédex quest is actually make it part of the story.

That’s enough for today.  This is, of course, more of a rough sketch than anything else; I’m hoping that at least a few of these ideas will develop more over the rest of this series.  I hope everyone else is looking forward to it as much as I am!

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?

The first point is that, as far as the games go, our relationship with Pokémon is largely defined by capturing them and training them for battle.  If you’re at all familiar with my anime reviews from last year, you’ll know that I’m very interested in looking at all the different ways humans interact with Pokémon besides just catching, training and battling with them.  The games show the way non-trainers relate to Pokémon as well – for one thing, the introduction sequence, where Professor Tree asks you for your name and gender, traditionally mentions training as only one of several ways people can live with Pokémon; for some people, Pokémon are pets, for others, workmates, for still others, a field of research.  In general, though, these other relationships tend to be sidelined.  The game is about Pokémon training, after all, so people who just live with Pokémon rather than battling with them tend to be unimportant townsfolk.  Even the Professors, at whose behest we all began our journeys, tend to get relatively little attention.  As far as I can recall, Professor Juniper is the only one who ever actually discovers anything in the course of the game, although Professor Birch, bless him, can often be seen mucking around in the fields of Littleroot Town and Oldale Town, sweetly attempting to be productive.  We just don’t see much of the array of different relationships, largely because they so rarely intersect with the trainer’s life.  The most prominent case is probably Hugh’s quest in Black and White 2 to save Purrloin, who seems to be more like a pet than anything else, but we see so little of Purrloin’s actual owner, Hugh’s sister, that it doesn’t really come to much.  Pokémon Contests, Pokémon Musicals, and Pokéstar Studios are likewise interesting attempts to show these other aspects, but they tend not to get much attention – there’s little in the way of a storyline to go with them, and they are entirely separate from what’s going on in the rest of the game.  Pokémon are absolutely pivotal to just about every aspect of the culture of this world, but we tend to see it from quite a narrow perspective.  As powerful trainers, however, we are in most cases the people best equipped to deal with Pokémon-related problems of all kinds – a perspective the core series has, for the most part, not been tempted to embrace in the past.

The other side to what’s going on here is, as I touched on last time, the other half of the phrase: we’ve gotta catch ‘em all.  Not just some, most, or a few, but every last one of the damned things – six hundred and forty-nine, with a hundred-odd more slated to appear in October.  This is part of what causes the Pokédex quest to be marginalised in the minds of players; it’s just an unrealistically demanding objective, with relatively little in the way of rewards for progress until you reach the very end (though it must be acknowledged that there have always been some, ever since the Itemfinder and Exp. All in Red and Blue).  Even seeing them all, which is where the emphasis has now shifted, is becoming a fairly monumental effort.  Quite aside from the sheer volume involved is the idea that, as I have repeatedly and vociferously complained in the past, perhaps some Pokémon just shouldn’t be subject to capture.  This statement mainly covers certain legendary Pokémon, like the literal embodiments of space and time, Palkia and Dialga, or the purported creator of the universe, Arceus, although I could extend it without much difficulty to the majority of legendary Pokémon and perhaps a few other specific Pokémon like Unown who behave in a particularly unusual way.

As I’ve already suggested, I think the solution to this problem is not to reduce the importance of the Pokédex further, but rather to increase it, making it a major focus of gameplay by integrating the Pokédex quest into the story while adding incremental rewards for working towards its completion.  Moreover, let’s say that capturing Pokémon is not the only way – or even necessarily the primary way – of obtaining their full Pokédex data; indeed for some species it may be impossible to gain full Pokédex data simply by capturing them.  One possibility here might be a system in which tiers of information are progressively unlocked – basic data is gained just by seeing a Pokémon, more is earned by catching it, and either training the Pokémon to a certain point or completing some sort of quest allows you to complete its entry.  Full data, once obtained, could also be much more comprehensive than what the Pokédex gives you at present, including not only all available facts about a Pokémon, but also useful reference data like the Pokémon’s egg group and egg moves, level up move list, and in some cases perhaps information about how it evolves.  At present all of this information and more can be accessed through the Pokédex 3D app for the 3DS; why not make some of it part of the in-game Pokédex, unlockable via in-game accomplishments?  I also want to emphasise the idea that, in completing the Pokédex, we are working with Pokémon, for Pokémon, not just for the benefit of humans, as well as change the dynamic of the relationship between players and legendary Pokémon, with the latter being, if anything, above us and beyond our total understanding.  This is, admittedly, difficult to show, and it’s a theme I’m going to come back to in later entries in this series, but I’ll try to make a start on it here.

That’s enough of theory.  Let’s work on some examples of events and quests.

Example 1: Collecting data

As you reach the first major town on your journey, you receive a call from Professor Tree, who is studying the ecology of the surrounding areas.  The Professor asks you to find all of the species of Pokémon that live on the route into town, and capture at least three of them.  Once you have all the data you need, you can call back and the Professor will explain a theory about how the area’s food chains fit together and how each Pokémon is essential in the local ecology, giving you complete Pokédex entries on all of the species involved, including the ones you didn’t catch.

Example 2: Atmosphere

Sometimes learning new things isn’t about overcoming a challenge at all, but about being in the right place at the right time.  A townsperson mentions to you that you’ll see something neat if you travel to a particular forest clearing at a certain time of night.  Find this spot to observe a swarm of Volbeat and Illumise performing their mating dance.  Watching the dance gives you complete Pokédex data for both Volbeat and Illumise.  A Pokémon who observes the dance closely will also gain a significant effort bonus to special attack, larger if the Pokémon is a Bug-type.

Example 3: Helping Pokémon

You find a wild Torterra in a forest, trying to escape members of Team Rocket (or similar ruffians).  You drive them off, but Torterra appears forlorn.  Exploring the area will allow you to find several of the Pokémon who lived on Torterra’s back, and coax them to return.  You gain complete Pokédex data on Torterra and partial data on all the Pokémon that lived with it, and your understanding of Torterra’s importance in its environment allows you to increase the happiness of your Pokémon more quickly.

Example 4: Investigating a legendary Pokémon

In a small town library, you find a man researching the legendary Pokémon, Jirachi.  He asks you for help.  If you find and show him a book describing a mysterious Pokémon from local legend and its temple in the forest, he makes the connection with Jirachi.  Coming this far gives you partial Pokédex data on Jirachi.  You can then accompany him to the temple, help him through its puzzles, and summon Jirachi.  He will then reveal that his intent was to capture Jirachi, using a Pokéball-like machine of his own design, and asks you to fight Jirachi while he prepares to use it.  You can agree and attack Jirachi, in which case the man will reward you with a pile of shards or Heart Scales, or challenge him to a battle to stop him, in which case Jirachi will grant you a wish in gratitude (for example – “I wish for my Pokémon to grow more powerful” causes Jirachi to infect your entire party with Pokérus).  Either way, you get Jirachi’s complete Pokédex data.

Example 5: A favour for a friend

When one of your Ghost Pokémon reaches a certain level (let’s say 40) it will indicate to you that it wishes to visit a particular sacred site (the region’s equivalent to the Pokémon Tower, or Mount Pyre).  If you go there with the Ghost Pokémon who made the request, it will allow you to see into the spirit world.  The ghosts of both humans and Pokémon live there, and both have been thrown into turmoil because the Dusclops who guards the place has gone mad and is attacking everything it sees.  If you defeat the Dusclops, it will reveal through a telepathic vision that its Reaper Cloth has been stolen.  Questioning the other spirits will allow you to determine the identity of the culprit – another Pokémon trainer.  If you track him down, he will deny all knowledge of the missing cloth, but if you defeat him and explain the situation, he will admit that he took the Reaper Cloth, but didn’t know why it was important.  When he returns the cloth, Dusclops will regain its sanity and evolve into Dusknoir.  You gain full Pokédex data on both species, your Ghost Pokémon’s happiness is increased to maximum, and you can visit the spirit world side of the graveyard at any time to catch Ghost and Psychic Pokémon with their hidden abilities.

Hopefully, these examples demonstrate, if not a polished final draft, at least the kind of aesthetic feel I’m aiming to create in this project.  You aren’t just a random wandering Pokémon trainer; you’ve been chosen by your hometown’s Professor to receive a special rare starter Pokémon and travel to gather important information, so why not act like it?  In another vein, quests like these are one of the ways in which I think the games could potentially benefit from following the lead of the anime in the way Pokémon and their trainers are portrayed; the impersonal way in which the games tend to treat Pokémon is, to an extent, inevitable simply because of the way the games work, but it clashes rather glaringly with the franchise’s overall messages of partnership, and it’s something else that I want to work against as I continue this series of entries.  For now, though, I think I’ve done about enough for one day.

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.

HM moves have always been a part of the game, since the original five from Red and Blue.  There have been eleven in total – though, mercifully, never all at once – which serve a variety of uses in moving the player around the Pokémon world.  Cut, Rock Smash and Whirlpool remove or bypass static obstacles – trees, rocks, and whirlpools respectively.  Fly allows for instantaneous transport to any town previously visited.  Surf permits the player to move on water.  Strength can be used to shift large boulders.  Flash lights up a dark cave, while Defog, similarly, clears thick fog banks.  Waterfall and Rock Climb, finally, allow you to climb up and down waterfalls or cliffs.  These are all perfectly sensible obstacles an adventuring Pokémon trainer might need to overcome, and I think it should be recognised, before saying anything else, that they are an important part of the games’ atmosphere.  The idea that travelling with Pokémon allows you to do things and visit places that you couldn’t on your own seems to be central to the aesthetic aims of the game designers, and a key way of emphasising the way people depend on Pokémon in this world.  In other games, the player character would probably overcome obstacles like these by collecting tools, learning and improving specialised skills, or enlisting the aid of NPCs.  In this game, we overcome obstacles by obtaining Pokémon whose powers are appropriate to the situation at hand, and training them to use those powers in a helpful way.  Pokémon Ranger is particularly good at using and developing this aesthetic angle, since all of your alliances with Pokémon in the Ranger games are temporary in nature – if you find some troublesome obstacle, you just grab one of the Pokémon floating around nearby and ask it to clear your path.  It will then quite happily get back to its own business.  Most Pokémon in the Ranger series have field abilities of varying strengths, which function analogously to HM techniques.  Significant chunks of the game are about using Pokémon abilities to manipulate the environment.  It really does make a lot of sense, and because of that, I’m glad that the core series has this system… it just gets infuriating sometimes.

There are two things about HM moves that make them painful.  The first is that they are generally useless.  How useless?  Well.  In earlier generations, Cut was useful in the early stages of the games before stronger Normal-type moves became available, but would quickly turn into more of a gallstone in your moveset.  As of Black and White, it is strictly inferior to Tackle, the most basic of all Pokémon moves, having the same power and slightly lower accuracy.  This is pretty much the standard we’re dealing with here – with notable exceptions.  Fly received a power boost in Diamond and Pearl that actually made it useful (in-game, that is; competitively it’s still a big neon sign reading “PLEASE COUNTER ME”) as long as you don’t get too annoyed by the fact that it takes twice as long to kill anything, and as long as you’re not trying to use a special attacker Flying-type like Togetic or Xatu.  Surf, for its part, has been a staple of Water-types since day 1, only recently beginning to share the limelight with Scald, while Waterfall was originally just an inferior version of Surf but eventually became very important in Diamond and Pearl when physical Water attacks became a thing.  Trying to cram both onto a team can still get annoying if you only have one Water-type (especially if that Water-type prefers physical attacks, like Feraligatr), but at least they’re individually useful.

Of course, once you have shackled your Pokémon to one of these moves, it has to stay there.  HM moves can never be overwritten by other attacks.  In fact, in Red and Blue it was impossible to get rid of them at all, because those games lacked a Move Deleter.  It seems at first as though this rule exists only to make them even more of a pain, but there actually was once a good reason for it: to avoid the possibility of a player wandering into an area and then losing access to the moves that would be necessary to get out.  In Red and Blue this would have been much easier than you might think since, with no bag pockets and limited inventory space, you might not actually have your HMs with you all of the time.  All it takes is for a slip of your finger to overwrite Surf by mistake while you’re mucking around the Seafoam Islands and you’re trapped there forever.  From Gold and Silver onward, you always have your HMs with you, and from at least Ruby and Sapphire (not sure how far back this goes), it has been impossible to release Pokémon that know some HM moves like Surf and Fly.  Hypothetically you could still overwrite your Pokémon’s moves and then release them, but surely by that point you must be doing it on purpose!?  If nothing else, you have to admire the lengths they go to protect us from our own self-destructive stupidity.

As long as I’m on the subject, I may as well mention something else of relevance that has changed since Red and Blue – the size of Pokémon movepools.  In the original games, there were quite a lot of Pokémon who simply didn’t learn four different worthwhile moves by levelling up, and most TM moves could only be taught once, since you couldn’t breed Pokémon to pass their moves along (well, yes, okay, you could always go to Cinnabar Island, lob your backpack into an L-shaped hole in reality, and never have to worry about running out of anything again, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t intended to be part of the game).  Sure, it might be a pain having to teach an undeletable Cut to your Sandslash, but then again, what the hell else are you going to teach it?  Bide and Mimic?  Sandslash learns exactly one useful attack in Red and Blue anyway (Slash), so if you’ve already squandered your Earthquake and Rock Slide TMs on Charizard and Machoke, and you aren’t willing to fork out the Game Corner tokens for a Hyper Beam TM, you might as well just go with it.  One moveslot in the first generation games is, strange as it may seem, not really a huge loss, even if there’s no way you can ever get it back.  Today this is almost unthinkable.  Very few Pokémon are in such dire straits that their level-up movepools do not contain four attacks better than Cut, and the proliferation of TMs and move tutors has only increased the availability of moves that are actually useful.

Anyway.  This, then, is the nature of the HM system.    I may not give Game Freak a whole lot of credit, but presumably they are aware that the need for HM moves forces players to load up their prized Pokémon with substandard attacks.  One imagines that this is intended as a cost – trees and rocks and whirlpools wouldn’t really be huge obstacles if you could get past them without actually having to give anything up, right?  As a result, they settled on a portion of your Pokémon’s effectiveness as the price you have to pay.  It may be impossible to know, however, whether they anticipated the way players would respond to this cost: by the creation of an entire team role archetype, the HM Whore.  The HM Whore is a Pokémon who does not battle at all and knows three or four of the less inspiring HM moves, such as a Tropius with Cut, Rock Smash, Flash and Fly – basically, dodging the whole issue by offloading the useless moves on a Pokémon you don’t intend to use anyway, whom you can stuff into your PC while you don’t need those techniques.  The time of the HM Whore may be coming to an end, though.  As I’ve mentioned, a lot about these games has been changing, including the reality of how HMs are actually used.  The Move Deleters have been moving to progressively earlier points in the story – from remote Blackthorn City in Gold and Silver to as early as Driftveil City in Black and White 2.  The other massive change is reusable TMs.  Now we can teach Pokémon HM moves as often as we like; all we have to do is overwrite a TM move and relearn it at our leisure.  Black and White, for that matter, even recognise how pointless and irritating the whole business is by making it unnecessary to ever actually use any HMs to complete the story – all the areas that require them are optional (though the sequels, sadly, do not share this virtue).  What I’m saying, in short, is that the way the HM system works is already changing.  The vestiges of the old system are nothing but a minor annoyance now (where they were in the past a major annoyance) – and why on earth would we want to keep something like that?  I have a number of ideas for altering or replacing the system, so let’s talk about those.

The first, and most obvious, possible method is to replace the whole thing with a Ranger-style system in which all (or most) Pokémon have a ‘field move’ with a variety of possible uses.  The original Pokémon Ranger had nine different field moves – Tackle (which is Strength), Gust (which is Defog), Flash and Cut (duh), Crush (which is Rock Smash), Cross (which uses Vine Whip or similar to cross a ravine), Recharge (which restores energy to your Ranger equipment), Soak (which puts out fires) and Burn (the most useful of all, which sets things on fire).  All of these have three different power levels, with each successive level being effective against larger or more challenging obstacles.  Later games in the Ranger series introduce a dizzying array of more specific field moves, as well as some obstacles that require the use of two at once, but for the purposes of translating the mechanic into the core games, I think it will be sufficient to stick with the basics.  It would be very easy to assign each Pokémon one or two of perhaps nine field moves, each with applications in the game world, retaining the former HM moves as regular moves learnable by Pokémon as normal.  You don’t need to teach your Sandslash Cut, because all Sandslash have automatic access to the Cut field ability, whatever their actual movesets are.  If it were up to me, I would follow Black and White in making the use of these abilities largely optional – you can use them to discover secrets or extra rewards, but you’re not actually going to be prevented from continuing in the story if your team happens to be missing some of them (this also makes it much easier to avoid situations where players can potentially trap themselves, since you can’t release Pokémon while in the field).  Moreover, some obstacles might be solvable by using any of two or three different field abilities (some rocks, for instance, can be crushed or moved).  The three-tier system could also be put to good use: all Pokémon start with only the first level of their respective abilities, and require special training to unlock the higher levels.  The ability to cross whirlpools or rapids and climb waterfalls, for instance, could be unlocked by the second and third levels of the swim ability – that way, there are still some obstacles that act as barriers in the early game but become trivial later on.  Because the premise of the core games is so very different to that of the Ranger games, the tricky part would be to avoid getting carried away – the wide array of field moves usable in the later Ranger games is pretty awesome, but implementing too many different field abilities in the core games, requiring players to have Pokémon on hand for every conceivable situation, could become just as much of a drag as the HM system.

My next suggestion, which has the advantage of being somewhat simpler, is to leave the HM system largely untouched, but do more to make the moves themselves strong and useful choices.  The trouble with making all HM moves as powerful as Surf is that many of them have to be available quite early in the game, and it would make things rather boring if all Pokémon just spammed various HM moves all the time.  Solution?  Make HM moves improve gradually over the course of the game.  Probably the easiest way to do this is to make them function like Return, and have either their power or the secondary effects tied in some way to a Pokémon’s level of happiness, but I’m not totally sure of the balance on that particular power curve.  I would prefer simply to have more powerful versions of each HM move unlocked by collecting badges, or reaching some similar milestone (you could potentially combine this with the old system of having an HM move’s field effect be unlocked by earning a badge).  Cut, for example, could start out at 50 power, with no secondary effect, as it is now, then upgrade to 70 power with a high critical hit rate once you earn three badges, and finally upgrade to 90 power with an extremely high critical hit rate once you have six badges (if that seems excessive, then I will note that just being a Normal attack is enough to make Cut a fairly unappetising choice for most Pokémon).  Rock Smash, by contrast, could keep its low starting power of 40 but improve in its ability to reduce the target’s defence – initially having a 50% chance to lower defence by one stage, increasing to 100% when you earn your fourth badge, and finally lowering defence by two stages once you earn your seventh badge.  No-one, I suspect, would be particularly bothered by having to learn HM moves if they were actually worth using, even if they remained undeletable.  Either of these first two systems can even be tied in with my plans to make the completion of the Pokédex a more important part of the game – instead of, say, collecting two badges to unlock the field effect of a move, you have to collect, say, five Pokémon who can learn it (or who possess the corresponding field ability, under the Ranger-style system).  Unlocking the more powerful versions might require ten or fifteen.  Hell, you could even have some field abilities that let you into whole new areas, not accessible until after defeating the Elite Four, which require twenty or thirty appropriate Pokédex entries.

The final possibility is my pet idea which I originally discussed early last year with a completely different purpose in mind: making Unown useful and relevant.  The basic premise of the idea is that, by arranging a group of three to five Unown into a word and enticing them onto a specially prepared clay tablet, you can create a usable item that has a supernatural effect determined by the meaning of the word.  A tablet reading CUT, for instance, can be used to remove trees and grass in place of a Pokémon that actually knows Cut, a tablet reading SWIM could be used to cross water, and so on.  Potentially, other words could create effects that are nothing like HMs at all – a TRAP tablet, say, to be used in battle to prevent a wild Pokémon magically from escaping.  There are a number of ways you could work this – have certain letters become available only at certain points in the game, thus limiting the words that can be formed, or have the tablets limited in size and number, so that players can only have a certain number of words at a time, and need to find larger tablets to make longer words.  The latter could, potentially, be combined with the existing HM system – you still need to fit a bunch of field techniques into your party, but you can use tablets to substitute for a few of them at your discretion, giving yourself a little bit of leeway.  If we stipulate that the Unown can only leave the tablet if you bring them back to the ruin where you found them, it’s also very difficult to put yourself in a situation where you don’t have the necessary abilities to escape an area.  The principle difficulty of this system is that it’s rather out of step with the general atmosphere of the games, in that it’s very ‘high fantasy’ in its feel and seems to imply that a significant chunk of the game would revolve around the Unown and their ruins.  It also loses that rather nice quality of the HM system I mentioned at the beginning – the feeling of reliance on one’s Pokémon – which is why I quite like the idea of meshing it with the existing HM system rather than making it an actual replacement.

On reflection, I think that if I were actually called upon to work on a Pokémon game, I would pick the first of those three options, partly because Pokémon Ranger has already done so much of the work for us, but also because it’s the only one that does away with all the aggravation of undeletable moves entirely.  It also has the advantage of providing a lot of very easy lead-ins to quest-type episodes – someone might need the help of a Pokémon with a particular field ability (best to use this sparingly, though; we don’t actually want to turn the core games into Pokémon Ranger titles).  I would retain my Unown idea, though, and try to convince the developers to use it for something else – maybe using tablets with primarily battle-related effects, like HEAL or STUN.  In summary, then – the HM system is not without its merits, but there are plenty of ways it could be altered or even replaced completely while still retaining those benefits and vastly decreasing its potential for aggravation.  Hopefully, I’ve shown that this is achievable.  For now, then, that’s all from me!

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?

Pokémon are, regularly, stronger and faster than humans, allowing them to perform all kinds of difficult tasks that we can’t.  They possess a wide range of incredible powers, and many of them seem to draw on sources of energy that we can’t even comprehend.  The default assumption, one imagines, would be that Pokémon benefit from working with humans because humans are more intelligent, but are we so sure that this assumption is legitimate?  The anime seems to portray most Pokémon as being significantly more intelligent than their counterparts in the real world, able to understand a fair chunk of what is said to them by humans and grasp even fairly abstract concepts.  Perhaps you don’t trust the anime; there are many people who don’t, but even if we stick strictly to what we know from the in-game Pokédex, there are many Pokémon who are demonstrably smarter than humans – Alakazam, for instance, with his infamous “IQ of 5000” (we shall forget, for the moment, that any IQ score in excess of about 180 is effectively ‘off the scale’ anyway, and that there simply is no meaningful way of quantifying intelligence of that magnitude – it is enough to know that it is clearly far in excess of the human norm).  We should bear in mind, however, that IQ is normally a measure of a subject’s capacity for logic, problem solving, and pattern recognition.  Most IQ tests cannot measure a subject’s capacity for leadership or creativity, and do not claim or attempt to.  These are also, I suspect, just the areas where humans pull ahead of most Pokémon – we can come up with a wider range of applications for their powers than they can, inspire them to work together to solve greater problems than they could on their own, and understand why their relationships might break down or how to fix them.  Pokémon themselves, I believe, also increase their aptitude in these areas by being with humans, as well as increasing their confidence and self-awareness, which could be a factor in allowing them to evolve, too (these ideas are based largely on observations from the anime, since the games just don’t provide enough information on this sort of topic; I don’t really have time to get into any detail here, but see especially my commentaries on The Case of the K-9 Caper, The Problem with Paras and Attack of the Prehistoric Pokémon, and also watch Bulbasaur the Ambassador, which I haven’t written a commentary on but hopefully will someday).

These ideas, of course, are largely absent from the games.  From what the games can tell us, the primary benefits Pokémon derive from working with humans are companionship and combat experience, and the latter is really of greater benefit to the trainer than to the Pokémon.  There is, however, one aspect of what I’ve been talking about that the games do express and always have, and this is that Pokémon who live with humans learn to use their powers in increasingly unorthodox ways, perhaps gaining a broader understanding of their own abilities and increased lateral thinking skills in the process.  I refer, of course, to the use of TMs, or Technical Machines, the DVD-like devices that allow Pokémon to learn techniques they never could in the wild.  The use of an actual machine to do the teaching was once a necessary abstraction.  Up until quite recently TMs were, of course, expendable; this allowed the moves in question to act as limited resources, which players had to spend with caution.  If the trainers themselves had been teaching the techniques, it would have been very difficult to justify this kind of limitation – is the technique somehow stored in your brain and then expended when it is taught?  Of course, having just one of each became a pain, so Gold and Silver allowed us to start breeding Pokémon who would know specialised attacks from birth without needing to be taught, and over time it also became possible to buy extra copies of more and more different TMs at facilities like the Battle Frontier.  Eventually, of course, one has to admit that many of the attacks available as TMs had become basically unlimited anyway, so this is precisely what Black and White did, and TMs can now be reused ad nauseam… but now that we’ve come to this point, what exactly is the reason for using ‘technical machines’ anyway?  Why not place the responsibility for teaching new attacks just where it should have been in the first place – with the trainers?  The move tutors that have been present since as early as Crystal Version provide ample precedent for the idea of attacks being taught by humans directly, so there’s absolutely no reason it should be impossible, and it emphasises the personal role of trainers in encouraging the growth of their Pokémon, so it seems to me that it could only improve the feel of the games.  That being the case, let’s try to outline a system for how this would work.

Obviously some sort of interface for displaying and selecting teachable moves is necessary, to replace the current system of a TM case or TM pocket – not necessarily anything fancy; I’d imagine some sort of manual or notebook, which starts off blank and gains new entries as you learn attacks.  It could even be a function of the Pokédex, potentially, to emphasise its position as a compendium of Pokémon-related knowledge.  Teaching moves could be more or less unchanged, but how do we gain them in the first place?  As matters stand, we obtain new teachable moves by finding, buying, or being given TMs, but if the commodity in question is now knowledge and understanding, clearly this will not always be appropriate.  It makes sense for a Gym Leader to reward you by teaching you his or her signature move.  In at least some cases, dialogue from past games suggests that these moves were created by the leaders themselves (Bugsy’s Fury Cutter, Giovanni’s Fissure), so arguably this even makes more sense than receiving a little instructional DVD; however, it doesn’t fit so well with, say, a Pokémart clerk who is your point of contact for Rain Dance or Hyper Beam.  As with so much else, I think that one effective way of making this work would be to tie it in with the Pokédex quest.  In order to teach a Pokémon a move, you need to understand it yourself, inside and out, and that requires working with Pokémon who know the move already – so a catch-all way in which it is possible to obtain any TM move is by obtaining Pokémon who can learn it on their own.  The number of Pokémon it takes to teach you a move varies depending on how powerful and how common the move in question is, but four or five is typical.  Some people, or books, may be able to grant you a partial understanding of an attack, which will reduce the number of Pokémon you need to catch (I imagine a status bar-type thing that fills up as you come to understand the move more completely).  You might also gain partial or complete knowledge of a move by completing a quest involving a Pokémon who uses that move, or a person or Pokémon might teach you an attack in exchange for a favour.  Move tutors can teach you their techniques too, but it’s a lot of work for them, and many of them are also reluctant to give up their secrets, so they will demand a large number of shards as a fee, many more than they would ask for teaching the move to a Pokémon (you can also attempt to work it out by studying more Pokémon who use the move naturally, but you might need to observe these more unusual attacks in seven or eight different species before you crack it).  If there’s anywhere humans can compete with Pokémon, it’s in breadth of experience, and applying and recombining ideas outside of their original contexts.  That’s what we bring to the table – so why not emphasise it?

There’s one group for whom all of this works rather differently: legendary Pokémon.  Many legendary Pokémon are thousands of years old.  A few of them think thousands of years is a good amount of time to spend on a nap.  Some of them have probably had trainers before and watched them grow old and die, and they may even have done it more than once.  If we can capture legendary Pokémon, it would be the height of arrogance to assume that they’ve never been captured before – it is far more likely that they have been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.  Moreover, these Pokémon are often tied very specifically to a sphere of influence over which their control is more or less absolute, and can brute-force their way through most confrontations within that sphere by dint of their all-around supremacy.  When they do face conflict, it most often seems to be with other legendary Pokémon of equal standing.  Why, then, should they have any interest in us?  Some, such as Reshiram and Zekrom, have a built-in answer in their flavour and backstories, but for most, the answer is probably specific to the individual, and has nothing to do with a traditional trainer-Pokémon relationship.  If anything, they might be curious about us and want to observe the way we interact with Pokémon, or try to enlist us in their own agendas.  Far from looking to benefit from human guidance in improving themselves, many legendary Pokémon are explicitly the teachers, guardians and patrons of humanity (one thinks of Ho-oh, the Sinnoh lake trio, or Landorus).  Sure, working with us is not out of the question, but the humans are not going to be the ones ‘wearing the pants’ here, so to speak.

Furthermore, catching a legendary Pokémon as you would any other can potentially have some unsettling ramifications for the setting’s cosmology (not to mention game balance – I’m looking at you, Kyogre – although that’s not really what I’m looking to address today).  Dialga is literally the personification of time.  Time flows because Dialga exists.  Are you absolutely sure it’s a good idea to dematerialise him and store him in a computer?  Arceus is the creator of the universe, and we see in one of the Nintendo events for Heart Gold and Soul Silver that he can create Pokémon like Dialga, Palkia and Giratina from nothing.  I will say this again: creating Pokémon, even godlike ones, is demonstrably within the limits of Arceus’ explicitly defined powers.  Why doesn’t the game end when you obtain him?  If you’re missing any Pokémon from your Pokédex, he can just create them for you.  The franchise does generally seem to acknowledge that trying to control these powers will often end very badly for everyone, due to their intimate connections with the forces of nature – look no further than the plotlines of Ruby and Sapphire, or Diamond and Pearl, or of the second movie, Power of One, if you’re prepared to acknowledge the anime as something that actually exists – but tends to exempt player characters from such consequences, without any clearly explored reason.  Clearly the implication is that actually capturing a legendary Pokémon (as the antagonists of those stories never do – they use some other contrivance, such as Cyrus’ Red Chains) makes it all okay, but it never seems to have been thought necessary to consider how or why.  In short, legendary Pokémon are not like other Pokémon, and treating them as though they are does a great disservice both to them and to the setting as a whole.

After recognising all of this, though, I don’t want to take legendary Pokémon away from the players entirely.  People like legendary Pokémon.  It feels good to unleash the power of an embodied divinity upon your hapless opponents.  What I do want to do is attempt to redefine the relationship in question, so that it is explicitly very different from what we have with other Pokémon.  This is not about “teaching Pokémon to understand the power that’s inside.”  If anything, these Pokémon are teaching us – and, quite possibly, using us.

Here’s how I envision a relationship with a legendary Pokémon working.  When you first encounter a legendary Pokémon, you must fight it, along with a cadre of its minions.  This is, mechanically, equivalent to fighting a trainer who uses the legendary Pokémon as part of his team, like N in Black and White – the Pokémon will fling five other powerful Pokémon, usually of its own element, at you before fighting you itself, in a single long battle.  In the traditional format of a battle with a legendary Pokémon, the principle challenge is to pacify the damn thing and then avoid knocking it out while you find out whether you brought enough Dusk Balls – this is, frankly, an anticlimactic way of dealing with them.  These Pokémon are at obscene levels and will abuse their abilities and their full movepools maliciously, hopefully offering a challenge on par with any human Champion.  Defeating your opponent earns you a degree of respect from it, so that it will be prepared to ‘talk’ with you in some fashion, and grant you small favours – it might offer you a useful item, teach you a new technique, or even entrust a rare Pokémon to you to raise, in recognition of your skill.  If you want more, you have to do something for it – for a Pokémon like Articuno or Tornadus, this might involve undermining a rival legendary Pokémon in some way (and, potentially, taking the brunt of the consequences); for someone higher up the cosmic ladder, like Palkia, you might have to help deal with some threat to the stability of space-time, probably something in the human world that the legendary Pokémon doesn’t want to handle personally, or can’t without provoking the wrath of other great powers.  Some Pokémon might not need anything from you at all, but will give you some arbitrary mission as a test of your worth.

Complete the task you’re given, and the Pokémon will offer you a totem of sorts (something like Lugia’s Tidal Bell, or Arceus’ Azure Flute; for a less mystical Pokémon like Mewtwo or Genesect, it could be a transmitter of some description) which you can use to summon it, sending one of your other Pokémon into PC storage if you don’t have a spare slot.  You can form its moveset from any four attacks it is able to learn; they’ve been around long enough that they know every trick in the book.  The Pokémon will not hang around indefinitely – it will leave after (picking numbers at random here) fifteen battles with trainers, or two hours, whichever is longer – and the totem cannot be used again immediately; the legendary Pokémon may grow annoyed if you summon it too often, it may demand some additional service from time to time, or the item itself may need to be recharged somehow (perhaps by something as simple as using particular attacks in battle).  Regardless of whether you actually have a legendary Pokémon with you all the time, however, obtaining one of these treasures is a symbol of something resembling friendship.  This Pokémon, for whatever reason, has decided that it likes you, and is happy to invest a small portion of its power in you.  You can use these items to draw upon that, granting your own Pokémon bonuses that last until you replace them with another legendary Pokémon’s power.  The nature of the bonus depends entirely on the Pokémon, and some of them might not even be combat-related at all – being marked by Lugia might reduce all incoming Water-type damage slightly, Shaymin’s blessing could boost the experience your Pokémon gain, while Meloetta could improve your Pokémon’s ability to perform in contests, musicals, or similar events.  The idea here, again, is mostly to redefine the portrayal of the relationship so that it involves more explicit give and take – something which, I think, has to be assumed anyway in order for the world to make sense.

What I’m aiming to do with the ideas I’ve discussed today – and what I’ll continue to aim for in further entries of this series – is to use game mechanics to change the way the Pokémon world is portrayed.  My next rant, on the lyric “it’s you and me; I know it’s my destiny,” will continue some of the themes I discussed today, and hopefully offer some new ideas about Pokémon happiness mechanics.  See you then!

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.

The Pokémon games represent the developing relationship between a trainer and a Pokémon fairly simplistically – with a one-dimensional hidden statistic, commonly referred to as ‘happiness’ but more properly called ‘friendship.’  The mechanic has its origins in Yellow Version, where it exists for Pikachu alone, and was expanded in Gold and Silver to apply for all Pokémon, even triggering the evolution of some species like Eevee and Golbat.  It can take any value from 0 to 255, for most Pokémon begins at 70, and is fairly simply increased just by having a Pokémon in the active party.  Levelling up the Pokémon, feeding it vitamins, getting an NPC to groom it, or feeding it certain berries (Pomeg, Hondew, Kelpsy, Qualot, Tamato and Grepa) will accelerate the process.  Going in the other direction, and making a Pokémon dislike you, is actually much more difficult.  Repeatedly allowing it to be knocked out in battle will gradually make a Pokémon unhappy, but the effect so small that you really have to be trying to upset it – walking to and from the Pokémon Centre for another round may well offset much of the damage you’re doing, and allowing the Pokémon to gain a level will easily wipe out the memory of several unpleasant defeats.  The only other way to reduce a Pokémon’s friendship is by feeding it herbal medicine, such as Energy Powder – these items are substantially cheaper than the equivalent commercially-produced items, but they’re also less widely available, and it’s not like money is ever really a huge problem in Pokémon, so other than the Revival Herb (which replaces the Max Revive, normally unavailable in shops) there’s really no good reason to be using these things unless you’re actually trying to make your Pokémon hate you for some reason.  In short, the games generally make the assumption that Pokémon will automatically like any trainer who doesn’t force-feed them foul-tasting cut-price ‘alternative’ medicine.  It’s a very summary, almost dismissive treatment of what is supposedly a major theme.

I want to start by adding a little complexity to the way friendship works – first of all, by making it two-dimensional, with one axis for happiness (based on how much a Pokémon likes and trusts you) and one for respect (based on how highly a Pokémon rates your competence as a trainer).  Let’s assume, for now, that both axes go from 0 to 255, just like the present friendship system, and that most species of Pokémon will start at 70 on both axes when first captured.  NPCs who currently rate a Pokémon’s friendship with a trainer can assess both qualities, giving answers like “this Pokémon seems satisfied with you all around,” “this Pokémon admires your skills, but it seems cautious about opening up to you,” or “this Pokémon seems to want to protect you… it likes you a lot, but it doesn’t think you’re a very good trainer.”  The factors which currently affect friendship can be divided between these two: happiness accumulates when you keep a Pokémon with you and when you use vitamins on it, and decreases when it is knocked out or fed herbal medicine, while respect increases when the Pokémon levels up.  Obviously we need a few more factors here.  What can trainers do that would make their Pokémon like them more or less?  Let’s talk about respect first, since that’s the new axis I’m introducing and is going to need to be defined solidly before we move on.

It makes sense that a Pokémon’s respect for you would be based primarily on how well you handle it in battle – respect increases when the Pokémon scores a super-effective hit, or strikes the final blow against a Pokémon of a higher level than itself, and decreases when it suffers a super-effective hit, or is knocked out by a lower level Pokémon.  A Pokémon’s respect will grow more quickly if it wears an effort training item such as a Macho Brace or Power Band, and successfully reaching at least 200 effort points in a single stat will result in a large respect bonus.  Winning any important battle will increase the respect of all the Pokémon with you, while other important milestones like earning badges can increase the baseline level of respect which all Pokémon (or potentially all Pokémon of a certain type) are prepared to give you, causing newly caught Pokémon to respect you more and placing a hard limit on the minimum level of respect you can drop to.  This is important, since a Pokémon whose respect for you drops too low will often refuse to obey your orders in battle!  Higher level or evolved Pokémon will also be less willing to obey than lower level Pokémon.  If you’ve raised a Pokémon from a low level yourself, this shouldn’t be a problem, but wild Pokémon captured at a very high level (say, 40+) may be trickier.  Also, while friendship/happiness is reset to its base value when a Pokémon is traded, respect will be set to its minimum possible value!  This, of course, is intended to replace the system whereby high-level traded Pokémon will refuse to obey new masters without the appropriate badges.  If you have a lot of badges (and therefore a high minimum respect) it shouldn’t take long to win over a new Pokémon, but a high level one might still cause trouble for a while.

Happiness can be affected by most of the same things that currently affect friendship, with a few adjustments so that making Pokémon happy isn’t quite so effortless – in particular, I want to increase the penalty for letting a Pokémon be knocked out, and also make herbal medicines more widely available and possibly cheaper (incidentally, the descriptions of herbal medicines should be updated – rather than ‘bitter,’ they should be described with a more generic world like ‘foul,’ since some Pokémon actually enjoy bitter foods).  A wider variety of effects, such as temporarily increasing a Pokémon’s resistance to a particular attack type, or a purchasable herbal version of PP Up, could also be a nice idea.  In addition to the typical methods, many Pokémon will also become happier when you complete certain quests – anything that involves helping out a Pokémon of the same species, for instance.  A Pokémon’s nature can also influence the way its happiness increases – quests involving a lot of fighting, for instance, might particularly increase the happiness of brave, rash or adamant Pokémon, while quests to do with learning or looking for secrets might appeal more to quiet, mild or quirky Pokémon.  Sassy and jolly Pokémon might love performing in contests, musicals or films, while timid, modest or bashful Pokémon might hate it.  Naughty and Impish Pokémon enjoy pranks, whereas calm or docile Pokémon like to help grow and build things.  Your Pokémon will express their approval when you do something they like, and will remember these events as a permanent record of your journey together.

This is all a nice first step, but the biggest difficulty with the way the games currently represent friendships with Pokémon, to my thinking, is that the majority of a player’s Pokémon are not with him or her at any given moment.  However many Pokémon we have, only six can come with us at a time; the rest are in PC storage, which is itself a fairly unsettling concept.  Exactly what state these Pokémon are in is up for debate; NPCs consistently describe them as being stored in the form of computer data, but what this is like for the Pokémon (and how, or even whether, it differs from the inside of a Pokéball – itself a subject of speculation) is unknown – one imagines they are unconscious, require no sustenance, do not age, and may lose all sense of the passage of time.  From Ruby and Sapphire onward, storage boxes have had various wallpaper settings like forest, desert, or sea, but whether these have any effect on the Pokémon within or are simply cosmetic, I would not like to guess.  At best, they live in a virtual world that allows them to enjoy happy, if meaningless, lives for the duration of their storage; at worst, they experience a blank, dull stasis that lasts until their trainers choose to retrieve them.  Either way, it’s not particularly something I would choose to place a “wonderful partner” in for upwards of 90% of our time together.  The anime, for its part, dodges the issue completely.  Ash’s many spare Pokémon are transported effortlessly to Professor Oak’s laboratory in Pallet Town, where they enjoy the freedom of his spacious habitats, the company of dozens of other Pokémon both wild and human trained, and a generous food supply.  Many of them, notably Muk, also develop strong friendships with the Professor himself, and he often comments that they continue to grow stronger while in his care as well.  Both versions dramatically simplify the myriad difficulties that would no doubt arise from taking care of so many exotic creatures.  Professor Oak, of course, presumably spends an obscene amount of grant money on food and maintenance (his research output and publication rate must be tremendous to keep the funds flowing), but we rarely hear about all the work that goes into the upkeep of his lands – we only get Ash’s perspective, and from where he’s standing, the whole process is remarkably hassle-free.  I’m not going to suggest making it harder to swap Pokémon around (I assume, broadly, that we are not trying to annoy and alienate the fanbase here), but I am going to suggest trying to portray ‘stored’ Pokémon in a slightly more fulfilling way, and give players a little taste of the fact that we are actually talking about caring for dozens or hundreds of exotic and often magical creatures – and I think maintaining a certain level of convenience throughout all of this is going to be important.

I want to talk a little about a completely unrelated game several of my readers recently talked me into trying out – Digimon World DS.  I will assume, for brevity’s sake, that most of you are familiar with Pokémon’s computer geek cousin, Digimon, in at least one of its incarnations, and get straight to the mechanic I’m interested in: the Digi-Farm.  As in Pokémon, Digimon World DS and its successors allow you to keep only six Digimon with you at a time, and a small but important part of these games is managing the space you use to store the rest of them, an artificial habitat called a Digi-Farm, in which they can live and continue to train while separated from you.  You can also visit them, talk to them, and check out how they’re doing (which, depending on exactly where and with whom you’ve dumped them, may turn out to be “not so good, actually!”).  I’m not going to suggest lifting all the mechanics for how these things work, partly because they get quite complicated, partly because they’re superfluous – they actually fill a place in the game closely analogous to Pokémon’s Effort system, of all things, allowing you to train your Digimon with a particular emphasis on individual stats, or on resisting a single damage type (none of which is actually necessary to play the game, but can allow you to progress more effectively).  I do, however, want to work with the idea that if you’re going to have a lot of Pokémon, you need to find a place to put them, and that where you put them can impact their general wellbeing.  Your Pokémon can still be accessed at any time, via the same kind of PC network as we have always used, coupled with a network of Pokéball transporters like those used in the anime, but rather than all of them floating in a sort of nebulous cloud, each one has a definite physical location – each ‘box’ represents an actual area which exists in the game.  In order to keep more Pokémon, you’ll need to control more locations or expand the ones you already have access to.

To start with, any Pokémon you capture additional to your party of six can be sent – where else? – to your house.  The player’s mother has always been portrayed as a helpful, supportive person, but very rarely gets a chance to be helpful or supportive (or indeed any time in the spotlight at all – the highlights are the GSC mother’s ‘banking’ service and the DPP mother’s occasional participation in high ranked Pokémon Contests with her Kangaskhan) so why not give her something to do?  She can only house and feed a few Pokémon, though, so before long you’ll have to look for more places to keep them.  Sometimes finding a new home for your Pokémon is as simple as having the right person owe you a favour – a daycare owner with a bit of free space, for instance.  Other times, you might need to claim an area by force, like an old abandoned factory taken over by villains.  Some habitats like volcanic or deep ocean areas might require the development and installation of special equipment to make them safe for humans to visit.  Whatever it takes to secure a location, once it’s yours a Pokéball transporter will be installed and you’ll be able to access it and the Pokémon living there at any time through the PC network.  Any new Pokémon you capture will be sent to the last area you looked at.  Most areas will have some kind of manager who lives or works nearby and can keep an eye on things for you, letting you know of any problems that arise.  The happiness level of Pokémon living in these areas will gradually drift towards a neutral state, but the nature of the area will affect exactly where it settles – some species of Pokémon will naturally be happier in forests, others in hills, and of course some places will just be completely unsuitable (let’s not leave poor Charmander in that deep sea research lab we ‘commandeered’ from Team Aqua).  A good place to start would be the habitat lists from Fire Red and Leaf Green, which divide all Pokémon amongst eight habitat types (grassland, forest, water’s edge, sea, cave, mountain, rough terrain and urban) though a couple more could easily be added, such as jungle, volcanic, desert, or ruins.  Keep Pokémon in the areas that suit them to ensure that they stay happy and healthy.  Some specific Pokémon may have problems if you make them share space with certain others – Zangoose and Seviper for instance – although with a bit of effort it may be possible to work around these disagreements.  If you’ve got the cash you can also get an area extended (you can stuff in more Pokémon than an area was made to hold, but their happiness will suffer from being overcrowded), install entertainments to make your Pokémon happier, or add gardens that will provide a steady trickle of berries.  If your Pokémon are particularly comfortable, living in a well-provisioned habitat appropriate to their species, you can ask them to train there in your absence, causing them to gain experience slowly.  They can be told to learn new moves automatically, or to wait for your instructions on your next visit, and if you have appropriate training equipment they can even focus on improving a specific stat, gaining effort points while you’re gone.

I’m not sure I’ve actually done what I set out to do – put forward a set of mechanics that help to portray a closer friendship between trainers and individual Pokémon – but I like to think I’ve made a step in the right direction by attempting to emphasise that Pokémon taken out of their natural homes do need to be taken care of somehow.  I am concerned that my new system would make it difficult to rival the 720-Pokémon storage space offered by the fifth generation PC network – presumably some people do manage to use it all, though I confess I am at a loss as to how.  I also have to wonder how well the games would be able to cope with storing so much additional data for, potentially, hundreds of Pokémon.  Still, that’s the beauty of just sitting here thinking about it – no-one’s about to hold me to account for the practicalities!

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.

And, after all the praise I’ve just heaped on the idea of morally ambiguous villains, I’m going to start with a group who are just plain rotten.  Just to keep you guessing.

One of the few major flaws of Black and White, in my view, is that the games gloss over one fact which is very important, even central, to the ideological conflict with Team Plasma: there are in fact people in the world who mistreat Pokémon, lots of them.  The ideas that Team Plasma attacks are not figments conjured by Ghetsis’ rhetorical flourishes; they are very real threats, like Team Rocket, who steal and abuse Pokémon, and Team Galactic, who enslave them in order to bring about their diabolical visions, under the command of men like Cyrus and Giovanni, as powerful and charismatic as Ghetsis ever was.  Purely to make that direct contrast possible, I think it’s very useful to have traditional ‘bad guys’ as well – although perhaps not as the main antagonists; I think they’re actually more useful as side quest fodder.  If you have a very basic motivation in mind for your primary villains (like “steal everything and become filthy rich” as in the case of Team Rocket), then I suspect the best way to make the plot more interesting would be to delve into the fact that these guys are basically the Pokémon Mafia and write something very dark and gritty, which I suspect is not really the direction Nintendo or Game Freak want to go for the central stories of the core games, so I want to have them around mostly to contrast the other groups.  Now for the details.  Actually bringing back Team Rocket, as fun as that would be, is not the most practical option; they’ve been disbanded twice now and I think starting them up again would be a bit of a stretch.  Let’s have someone new.  In Gold and Silver, Team Rocket have grand designs; they want to control Pokémon all over the country, force Pokémon to evolve, take over the world.  I think it would be interesting, though, to focus on some much more low-key stuff, like they try to do in Red and Blue.  They have the Celadon Game Corner set up to ‘launder’ their stolen Pokémon, they engage in industrial espionage while planning for the attack on Silph, their leader has infiltrated the Pokémon League as an official Gym Leader.  Let’s see what we can do with that.

I’m going to stick with the “Team X” naming tradition and call this new group “Team Nighteye,” because they think of themselves as working best under cover of darkness, and pride themselves on secrecy.  They want money and they want power, but most of all, they want influence.  They steal Pokémon, but this is very much a means to an end – misusing the powers of Pokémon is just one of the most effective ways of getting things done.  They don’t act openly in towns if they can avoid it.  Rather than robbing a business, they’ll kidnap Pokémon and use them as leverage.  Rather than attacking people themselves, they’ll give Pokémon to random thugs and point them in the right direction.  Rather than steal rare items or technology, they’ll ask for them – politely, offering to trade something else they really shouldn’t have, which may or may not turn out later to be fake.  The player tends to encounter Team Nighteye after being asked to investigate by people caught up in their schemes; dealing with them is often optional.  Defeat enough of their grunts and foil enough of their plans, and they’ll eventually start sending higher level agents after you periodically, until you locate and clear out their main base with help from other powerful trainers.  This doesn’t end their operations entirely – their executives just leave by secret routes as soon as they realise the jig is up – but you can get enough of their grunts arrested that they’ll stop trying to tangle with you directly.  Some of Team Nighteye’s more major plans you could uncover involve their efforts to gain power within the Pokémon League.  In the last few weeks or months prior to the start of our hypothetical game, they have managed to call in enough favours to establish one of their members as a Gym Leader, getting rid of most of the Gym’s former staff and replacing them with disguised grunts.  The player can become involved here by assisting the old leader’s second-in-command, who resents her sudden dismissal and is suspicious of the new leader, who isn’t even a particularly good trainer.  You then need to navigate the Gym’s puzzles and get access to the back rooms in order to find evidence of the new leader’s unsavoury connections.  The ‘Gym Leader’ eventually turns out to be a pawn – a Team Nighteye grunt who’s been given a few stolen Pokémon and told how to use them.  The brains of the operation is one of the new Gym trainers you’ve already beaten, whom the old second-in-command recognises as the janitor, of all people – actually a disguised Team Nighteye executive, who held back his real strength to avoid suspicion until being discovered.  Once all this is finally dealt with, your friend is able to get herself declared acting Gym Leader and award you a badge for services to the Gym, and later becomes the permanent leader.  When the player reaches the Pokémon League, he or she will find that another Nighteye executive has also been collecting badges, and has been groomed to challenge the Champion, possibly gaining an unfair advantage with some kind of trick, which the player will have to expose before his or her own challenge can take place.  Eventually, you can get all of Team Nighteye’s higher-ups arrested, one by one, and the group is effectively finished.

Now that we’ve got those guys in place, I want to have a group with arguably ‘good’ motives, despite underhanded methods and an extremist stance – a team who heard about the actions of Team Plasma in Unova and have taken it upon themselves to be ‘what Team Plasma could have been.’  They believe that ownership of Pokémon should be intensely regulated with stricter age limits (“children are not ready for that responsibility!”), requirements for skill-based qualifications (“how can we let Pokémon be owned by people who haven’t proven that they can care for them?”), and draconian penalties for any lapse in care (“anyone who mistreats a Pokémon should lose it!”), but since their extreme proposals have been rejected by the Pokémon League, they now take it upon themselves to push their own ideas on the region.  They call themselves Team Eden.  You first encounter this bunch while storming a small Team Nighteye compound fairly early in the game.  At first their grunts take you for a member of Team Nighteye and attack, since the rival team’s operatives are not exactly model trainers by anyone’s standards.  Upon realising their mistake, they give you some information about the compound (maybe some passwords) before withdrawing.  Team Eden grunts will later approach you on your travels a couple of times to ‘test’ you and see whether you are worthy of the Pokémon you own; after a little while they admit that you certainly seem to be, and reveal the location of their hideout, explaining that their leader (whom I am giving the working name Cassandra – a woman who sees a future no-one else believes in) would like to speak to you.  The hideout is some way outside a major city; its entrance is guarded, and the first couple of areas are puzzle rooms.  Once you get inside, you meet Cassandra, who battles you (again with the intention of ‘testing’ you) and explains her group’s beliefs.  She tells you why Team Eden hates Team Nighteye so much, but quietly leaves out the fact that they also confiscate Pokémon from innocent people who aren’t ‘good enough.’  For the moment, you are free to wander the hideout and talk to the grunts and scientists.  They talk openly about nebulous ideas of philosophy, but are unwilling to explain their actual plans.  Some will battle you if you ask them to, but others will admit that they don’t actually have any Pokémon, because they haven’t earned that right yet.  As you continue on your journey, you will encounter Team Eden’s forces from time to time, sometimes engaged in perfectly innocent activities similar to Team Plama’s rallies in Black and White, other times trying to convince people to give up their Pokémon – or, failing that, force them to.

Team Eden’s ultimate goal, which they are very close to reaching, is to create a device which can destroy Pokéballs without hurting the Pokémon inside (although the shock and confusion will normally cause them to flee unless they are particularly well trained).  Their efforts to build and test this device, and use it to change the world, would form the main conflict of this hypothetical game.  Since making a legendary Pokémon part of these stories is, by now, somewhat traditional, we could say that the device needs to be powered up by a Pokémon – the stronger, the better; Cassandra initially uses regular Pokémon but eventually moves on to summoning a legendary Pokémon, probably one who has some kind of vested interest in this conflict anyway.  Team Eden’s aim is to force everyone everywhere to reconnect with Pokémon ‘naturally,’ as they did in the days before Pokéballs – and if they can’t, well, too bad.  They act out of conviction that the resulting chaos will all be worth it, if it leads to a world where humans and Pokémon interact on an equal footing, and only the best humans can be Pokémon trainers.  Everyone else tries to stop Team Eden, because (as the Gym Leaders argue) being with Pokémon is what makes people grow to become worthy of their friendship.  This message could be strengthened by using a ‘rival’ character – someone who is initially careless and flighty, considered irresponsible by Team Eden, but becomes a better, more attentive trainer as time goes on, because of his Pokémon.  In the climax, Cassandra might attempt to use her device on this character, succeeding in destroying the rival’s Pokéballs but failing to make his Pokémon abandon him, forcing her to admit that there might be something to it.  One final possibility I’m toying with for Team Eden is the idea that the impetus for forming the group in the first place actually came not from Cassandra herself but from one of her Pokémon (I’m currently thinking of an Absol), who normally accompanies her outside of its Pokéball, or may not even have a Pokéball at all.  This Pokémon was abandoned long ago by a cowardly, cruel trainer, and has since found happiness with Cassandra, but is still driven by a conviction that humans need to learn their place.  Cassandra created Team Eden so that she and her Pokémon, together, could work to impose their ideas of justice on the world.  This angle would be tricky to work, partly because it would be difficult to show where an idea or opinion is coming from the Pokémon rather than its trainer, partly because it would be important to emphasise how different a Pokémon’s view of the situation is from a human’s, but I like it because I think it would be interesting to try to get a Pokémon’s perspective into these things.  Finally disbanding Team Eden would take the agreement of both Cassandra and her Pokémon partner.

As I said, these are not complete stories.  There’s a lot that would have to happen in the middle, revealing what’s going on gradually and showing what all the characters think about what’s going on – and, of course, fitting in plenty of battles.  All the specifics of how those things happen are largely negotiable; it’s the basic ideas that I’m interested in setting out today.  How did I do?  What do you think is important in a Pokémon villain?