The Poke Narrative

Ben Shoemake, Columnist

The Pokémon games and I have always had something of a love-hate relationship: Love, because I can’t seem to put them down, hate, because I’m always left with the feeling that they could be so much more. At the end of last school year, I decided to start up a new game of what was then the latest installment in the Pokémon series: Pokémon Y. Since completing the game I’ve revised my old feelings on the game’s unfulfilled potential.

Pokémon games market themselves as grand adventures in which you can explore distant lands and befriend magical creatures. But when it actually comes down to it, the distant lands all end up looking pretty much the same, and the befriending of creatures generally amounts to walking back and forth and throwing tiny orbs at whatever comes your way. Your principal means of interacting with your Pokémon, through battling, is hardly indicative of a healthy, nurturing friendship, and your conversations with other trainers usually are restricted to short, two-line phrases. Pokémon provides for an interesting case study because, although stories of friendship are promoted strongly in the television series and in the game’s narrative, the game doesn’t actually provide a mechanism for carrying this out.

In a way, Pokémon reminds me of another Nintendo title, Animal Crossing. In Animal Crossing, a player finds themselves the sole human settler in a village full of cute animals, saddled with a large home loan and forced to pay it off. Like Pokémon battles, the tasks that a player undertakes in order to raise money are largely monotonous affairs: picking fruit, delivering items, hitting rocks with shovels. But somehow, it all seems worth it in the end, as you gain the friendship of your cute animal neighbors with their cookie-cutter preprogrammed responses, decorate your house, and find yourself further in debt.

Unlike in Animal Crossing, where friends will give you a portrait once your relationship with them becomes strong enough, Pokémon doesn’t provide a significant mechanism to record a player’s in-game relationships. In this way, it relies on personal narrative: I know that my Lapras, Simone, doesn’t like fighting and prefers to sing, but only because that is the story I have created around her character, not because of anything represented within the game. I might purchase a galette at the bakery for my Fletchinder, Flé, but when she eats it nothing noticeable happens to her description, and her stats don’t change. The significance of these actions don’t exist within the game’s mechanics, they’re all in my head.

For a long time, I wished that this wasn’t the case, that there was more of an in-game recognition of friendship and character. Lately, however, I’ve come to appreciate this absence. If Pokémon games started recognizing little gestures such as these, they would lose a lot of their meaning: Care and appreciation would become just another stat to maximize. With that approach, the actions that the game recognized as improving your relationship with your Pokémon suddenly wouldn’t seem as genuine, and those that it didn’t would seem less valuable. By not assigning its own meaning to acts of friendship, Pokémon games allow players to create it themselves, weaving a narrative that may not be represented fully in the game, but which is tailored uniquely for each user.

In order to play a Pokémon game, you have to care about your Pokémon. This isn’t because the game penalizes you for not doing so – some moves, like Frustration, are actually more effective if you and your Pokémon are antagonistic – but because without some level of personal investment, playing through battle after battle and wild encounter after wild encounter quickly becomes a chore. In playing through Pokémon Y, I have found myself thankful for the first time that the game doesn’t do more to hard-code friendship as a game mechanic, instead leaving things up to me as a player to create a richer, more personal narrative of my experience.