December 25, 2013 by Daniel
I am not, by any means, what one could call a “Pokefan”. I was part of the craze when I was a kid, as we all were; I watched the show a lot, I bought the toys, I saw the movies in theaters, and I certainly collected the cards (though never bothered to learn the rules; nobody did). I can even recall going over to a girl’s house after school one day with the sole purpose of making little Pokémon models of our own out of Plasticene. But this was a pretty typical layer of fandom – this was the stuff that everyone did, which speaks to just how ubiquitous Pokémon was for a time. The people who were real fans were those who played the games, and played them religiously. They would bring their Game Boys to school, and they would sit in class with their heads down and their hands under the desk, occasionally popping their hand up and asking a question so that the teacher could see that really Ms., I AM paying attention, before returning to their previous downturned cranium and concave spinal bend. I vaguely recall anything Pokémon-related being “banned” at my school at some point, but then so were hockey cards, and Pogs, and Crazy Bones, so it’s not like it actually mattered.
In this respect, I was admittedly a bit of a slacker. I got my Game Boy later than most – late enough that it was a Color – which meant that my first Pokémon game was Yellow. This, in turn, meant that while I was experiencing my first travels into the Kanto region with my little Pikachu, everyone had already done the same with their Blastoises, or Charizards, or Venosaurs. There was something profoundly unhip about Yellow, and I could feel the separation between myself and the early adopters even then. I played through the game with a strategy guide, and that was essentially the end of my time with the Pokémon games.
Considering my history with the franchise, I was prepared to completely ignore the release of Pokémon X & Y. But then the reviews started to hit, and I became intrigued. They talked about how it was the best Pokémon game yet; how spending hours level-grinding was no longer necessary; how it seemed like the ultimate realization of the game Nintendo has been trying to make since the first one. And gosh, those 3D, fully-animated creatures sure are purty, huh?
So I ended up being really excited to play a new Pokémon game, picked up a copy of Pokémon Y, and…..well, ended up being a little disappointed, to be honest. While I think it’s a decent enough little game, I found that after a few hours of catching, training, and battling, that old Pokemon fatigue started to set in and never really left. I can’t speak for what happened in the franchise in the interim that I was away from it, but this generation of Pokémon has a lot of design issues which primarily stem from communication problems – between its story and world, its insinuated mechanics and actual game flow, and its plot and gameplay.
The narrative of the Pokémon games tends to be twofold. The first layer is a wider, region- based plot that changes from game-to-game. This happens in the background for most of the game, and tends to be connected to whatever evil “Team” the game chooses to use (Flare, in this case). The second, more important, plot is the player’s personal journey throughout the game world as they fill up their Pokedex, beat the all the gym leaders, and gradually become the true Pokemon Master. One of the major problems with Pokemon Y is that both sides of this narrative are quite lacking.
I am very much aware that the more traditional, linear plot of these games is not their main draw, but that doesn’t excuse the Team Flare plotline from being incredibly weak. First off is Team Flare themselves, who are a bunch of bumbling idiots with a motivation that is not understood until much too late in the game, and are thus completely non-threatening as a villainous entity. Then there’s the issue of Lysandre, the leader of the team, who doesn’t reveal himself as the main villain until, again, very late in the game, and yet is completely obvious as such from his introduction because he is the only character in the game who isn’t happy all the time. The Team Flare plotline suffers hugely from “Mystery Box” syndrome, wherein the writers mistakenly assume that something being a mystery, even a very obvious one, immediately makes it more compelling; of course, in practice the most intriguing villains tend to be the ones whose actions are at least relatively understood from the start. What that motivation actually ends up being – an on-the-nose comment on radical environmentalism – is fairly interesting in its desire to connect with modern concerns, but since this is a Pokémon game, aimed primarily towards children, the topic isn’t really examined with the subtlety that it requires. Contrast this with Team Rocket, whose evilness is immediately apparent – they’re stealing and, sometimes, straight-up murdering Pokemon – and whose leader, Giovanni, is directly tied to your own personal quest, since he is the final gym leader you need to defeat before moving on to the Elite Four. They’re more obviously malignant, but certainly a better driving force because of it.
There’s another issue too, which has to do with what the plot communicates vs. what the world actually shows. Lysandre’s motivation is that he wants to hit the reset button on the human race because we’ve become so selfish and destructive as to be unfixable as a culture. This is obviously a meta-commentary on our own world, but it clashes hugely with the in-game world, which is colourful, lovely, and wondrous, and in which humans, for the most part, treat each other incredibly kindly. There is a childlike, utopian feeling to the Pokemon world that just doesn’t work with the kind of statements Lysandre continually makes, and it’s just one more moment of incongruity between what the writing is telling the player and what the player actually experiences.
Your rival is the most important part of Pokemon Red/Blue. When your personal quest feels too abstract – when your immediate goal is a slog, and you’ve forgotten why you’ve chosen to take on this daunting task in the first place – the remembrance of your rival, with his sniveling face and taunting personality, is what keeps you going. The important part about your rival is that he is set against you from the beginning of the game, and that he is always one step ahead of you. He beats gym leaders by the time you’ve only just set foot in their town, and he makes a point to come up to you and be a complete dick about it; if you beat him in a Pokemon Battle, he laughs it off and gives some poor excuse to explain why he lost. He is the human connection that keeps the player emotionally invested in the game. I couldn’t care less about whether I “catch ‘em all”, but you can bet that I’ll keep going just to punch that goddamned rich kid in his stupid face. And the game designers completely understand this, as shown by the fact that your final boss is not Giovanni, nor is it the Elite Four – no, they give you the honour of ripping away your rival’s pride just as he has become the the Pokemon Champion. The suggestion is obvious: throughout all of this, he has been your truest enemy all along.
This is where Pokemon X/Y takes its greatest misstep – it assumes that you are already invested in the desire to become the Pokemon champ, and thus refuses to give you the human connection that keeps you motivated to continue. Yes, you have rivals – four, in fact! – but they’re all completely pathetic. Three of them don’t seem to have any purpose at all, as their motivations are, respectively, A) to have the fullest Pokedex, though it will always be laughably small in comparison to the player’s; B) to put together the best dance team (?); and C) I honestly don’t know what Shauna’s narrative function is supposed to be. One of them is another legitimate trainer and battles you regularly, but the roles have flipped – they are now always one step behind you, and will constantly become agitated at how poorly they seem to be doing in comparison to you. It reaches a point where you actually feel bad for handily defeating them at every opportunity.
Indeed, the game seems intent on never allowing you the feeling of ascension that is so crucial to the player’s personal story. There is no feeling of starting from the bottom and clawing your way to the top. Even when you’re a lowly beginner with no badges, everyone is immediately supportive of you; everyone is willing to give you tips, or new moves, or items that will help you out; everyone is telling you how great you are, how they wish they were as good as you, how your chances of beating them in a battle are probably quite high. At best, your main battling rival is a bit cold towards you, and that is the only negative feeling towards the player that anybody in the game has. As a result, Kalos doesn’t feel like a living, breathing world where you are just one in a sea of millions – it feels like you are the only important person in the entire region, and that there is a self-esteem epidemic plaguing the nation. Perhaps a slyly-hidden commentary on the modern life of children by the designers, but it makes for a tensionless experience throughout.
Other than the wi-fi-enabled multiplayer design, which really is quite elegant and well-implemented if multiplayer is your thing, the big revolution in Pokémon X/Y is the Exp. Share item that you get after defeating the first gym leader. The item is automatically applied to your party, and makes it so that even Pokémon that don’t participate in a battle still gain experience points. As someone who hates grinding in any RPG, but especially in Pokémon games, this was a revelation to me. The game also takes an extra step in encouraging you to actively catch as many Pokémon as you can, since you now gain experience points from catching wild Pokémon. All of this means that levelling up your Pokemon to combat readiness is easier and less monotonous than ever. These mechanics seem like small tweaks, but they actually communicate a big change in the basic functioning of these games; they offer a more “free” Pokémon experience, where you are encouraged to seek out new Pokémon at all times because you can change up your party as needed without having to worry about the fact that new members will be severely under-leveled for a long time.
Unfortunately, the designers haven’t changed the gameplay flow to adjust for the fact that your party now levels up really quickly. The typical progression of Pokemon games is to have the player slowly tweak their party until they’ve found one that is more or less “optimal”, both in terms of player preference and in terms of taking on the game’s challenges. However, the sort of Pokemon game that would be most conducive to the new mechanics is one where the player is constantly being challenged in unique strategic ways, and has to switch up their party frequently to compensate. Instead, the result is that the player is usually about ten levels above both wild Pokemon and in-game trainers, so they can power through the game without having to think about battle strategy or party composition. This is certainly not helped by the fact that every trainer in the game other than the Pokemon Champion is immediately handicapped by never using a full party. So not only does the player have hugely over-leveled Pokemon, but also opponents who are unwilling to utilize the full strategic possibilities that the game offers. From a design perspective, having this be the case for trainers in dungeon-like areas (Routes, Caves, etc.) makes sense, since otherwise player progression would be nearly impossible. But it seems like having a full party for gym leader and rival battles would at least make them more dramatic, exciting, and strategic than the standard trainer battles.
There’s also a conflict between the game’s story progression and gameplay mechanics. Again, a large draw of Pokémon, and especially the Pokémon game that is (unsuccessfully) presented here is the ability to create a team of whichever Pokémon you find most appealing. However, X/Y’s plot gives you a lot of Pokémon by default, and while you aren’t forced to use any of them, it certainly feels suggested by their mandatory inclusion in the game. This is furthered by the fact that the Pokémon the game gives you are the rarest ones, or ones that you wouldn’t otherwise obtain. There’s the standard three that the player traditionally receives – Starter, Fossil, Legendary – but this game also adds on two more: a first-generation Starter, and Lucario. Add on the experience-boosted Blaziken that the player can download with a wi-fi connection, and you’ve now handed the player a full, well-balanced team made up of rare, powerful Pokemon that the player doesn’t have to do any work for. Granted, it is incredibly easy to ignore this suggestion, but since the game doesn’t give you any reason to do so, why should you?
Again, it boils down to a communication error. I know for a fact that the Pokemon games are way more complicated than they seem at first glance, and just happen to hide this depth in order to create an accessible game – this is a commendable game design philosophy, but it becomes a problem when it’s so hidden as to seem like it doesn’t exist. At its highest levels of play, Pokemon is a game full of deep strategic choices, but you wouldn’t really know it just from playing through the single-player game.
All of the issues above lead to a moment-to-moment pacing issue that makes the game feel completely “flat” throughout. Between the first and second, sixth and seventh, and seventh and eighth badges, there are very long stretches of dungeon-type areas. Ostensibly, these areas are for leveling up your Pokemon and obtaining new ones, but as discussed previously, your Pokemon can get extremely powerful without once using them in battle, and new Pokemon are rarely needed to continue through the game. Instead, these long stretches of dungeoneering merely serve to remove any sense of forward momentum. I had several moments where I stopped playing for weeks at a time, simply because the Pokemon-catching areas felt like a roadblock to my actual progression.
Maybe there’s a gene for Pokemon that I’m just missing. It seems like if you’re the kind of person who finds catching Pokemon to be fun in and of itself, you’d probably like this one too! But I seem to be lacking this characteristic and found the majority of my time with it to be a total slog. For one, the game needs better writers. It’s certainly possible to make a colourful, kid-friendly game with snappy writing – hell, Nintendo’s own EAD Group No. 2 are amazing at doing this in the Animal Crossing series, which contains some of the most charming writing in the videogame medium. This would also serve to solve some of the gameplay issues, since so many of the problems come down to a fundamental communication breakdown between the gameplay and the plot.
In truth, though, I think the best way to fix a lot of the game’s problems would be to get some new blood and pretty much start from scratch. Since so many people are finding X/Y to be the ultimate culmination of this style of game, the time is especially ripe for a complete change. Let Game Freak work on some other games, which they are more than capable of doing. Keep “Gotta Catch ‘em All” and the visual style, and ditch everything else. Scale back the amount of Pokemon available and rethink the way the series needs to function. If it were me, I’d revamp the battle system, and perhaps remove the notion of levelling up at all. Think of it more like a fighting game than a JRPG – based more on knowing the unique quirks of each Pokemon and how they counter each other than dungeon-crawling. Hell, go full circle on it and bring in Dave Sirlin to create the thing; now that’s a Pokemon game I would want to play.