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Pokémon – What Kind of Journey Is This?

Twitch Plays Pokémon Pokemon White (cover)changed a lot of things for a lot of people. Mostly it changed the website imgur into a paradise of pseudo-religious iconography for a Bird Jesus and a Helix Fossil, and created a community entirely unique for representing the crazed voices of a schizophrenic poké-trainer. But since the people of Twitch completed their quest and have moved onto more crystalline varieties of adventure, it inspired me to return to that world of adorably terrifying creatures.

So, I booted up Pokémon White, and started out on another adventure with an otter and a rat. As you do. I couldn’t help but think about the universe the game presents to me, which is quite different from the anime cartoon show, manga and of course the card game. I began to notice some traits in all the places I went to.

Remember Press B to RUN by dmy-gfxAll women, in the towns I have been to currently – only the first two – were depicted as a kind of supermother. Your own Mother cares not when two Pokémon battles result in the utter destruction of your room, and it is heavily implied – as in all games – that she is a single parent. In this game, she was also a trainer in the past, and she says she misses it. As I moved into the next town, I met a couple who married because the woman always beat the man at Pokémon battles. Another couple of newlyweds explained to me that there are differences between women and men and that makes the world exciting.

In general, the women seemed empowered in their role. I would not go so far as to say that the places I have been to so far show an accurate depiction of gender as a whole, but it does seem that the game is trying to drill into me that women are caring souls we should care for in return. In fact, the whole game shows this. Even the villain of Pokémon White wants to release the pocket monsters from their prisons, albeit in a very evil looking way. The entirety of the Pokémon universe seems fuelled by a complete honouring of being kind to your fellow man (or woman). I find it quite heart-warming that a game built on cockfighting and children running away from home is in fact supported by a series of lovely lessons for the target market playing it (and that target market is not 23-year-old men, even if they are probably playing it predominately); lessons that you should be kind, and respectful to your peers, especially those that raise you.

Pokemon White Street (screenshot)The other thing I noticed was that everything is Pokémon. You go to the pokéshop to buy pokésweets for your poképet in your pokézoo and poké-poké-poké…! Seemingly the entire world half-worships the adorable little killing machines, with no exceptions. There is something quite sinister about this, if you really think about it.

Essentially we are left in a world where everything is sickeningly lovely, where discovering yourself is important, and where failure is merely a part of life. Where your Mother is always close to support you in your decisions, and where your friends are your family. Pets are your allies, the world is your oyster (or Shellder) and everything is just one great big happy experience where even bad things are just a bit of a lesson of niceness…

And then along with that, the constant reminders that this is the world of Pokémon. Not your world. Not his world. Not even Team Plasma-Rocket-Doomy’s world. It is the world of the monsters that fight on behalf of children. As lovely as it is to care for the people around you – and to teach this to younger generations – I can’t help but find this universe just a little bit creepy, like that episode of the Twilight Zone where you have to be nice or the kid will turn you into a dog (or Houndour).

Now, I can easily rectify my confusion over how this world works. This is a gameworld that has evolved over many, many years. It is trying to teach children (and adults!) how to be good people – which I can’t say many other games do – and the constant pokéstuff everywhere is simply because that is the theme that the designers have used to make the game cohesive and fun. But, I want to see this from a fantasy perspective. I want to put a new lens up against this reality.

Kyurem Black and White by arkeis-pokemon

Naturally I will be putting a very Westernised fantastical eye to the world of Pokémon, due to my background, and this shows quite a bizarre world indeed. As I said, it is all cockfighting and children leaving home, but why? What happened in this world’s history to make such things occur?

Gengar by SoupAndButterI have heard many theories from friends and the internet, of viruses transforming creatures into Pokémon, of apocalyptic scale wars between Human and Pokémon resulting in worship, control and being happy, of how scary it actually is to be trapped in your own home because walking outside warrants you being attacked by giant caterpillars and drill-armed bees. It isn’t surprising that in a world where even urban environments are as scary as a full on safari park, that being kind to your fellow man is top on the agenda. And similarly that you wouldn’t build your cities, products, and life around the things trying to kill you. We cover our world in advertisements for the things that we love and see most in the world; if the thing you saw most often was a giant Sandshrew blinding people in the city you would probably talk about them more than you would a new brand of shampoo.

Though there is a touch of the apocalyptic to the Pokémon universe, it is quite a leap to assume it is that harsh a dystopia. It is apparent as you play the game that this is a stable world, and that though you may be 13 and travelling through the tall grass, settlements are often and the trusting pets in your service will always protect you. If your child had a giant pigeon as a guardian, and you knew it would do anything asked of it, you may be more open to the idea of them walking longer distances than the corner shop. To be fair, the journey from your house to the city is less than my bus journey from my house to school when I was around that age.

In other fantasy universes that follow the hero’s journey, the conventions of the world are usually more common. Travelling across Westeros, Middle Earth and the kind has a series of set challenges we expect from that kind of text, like bandits or goblins. In urban fantasy such as the Dresden Files or Supernatural it is expected that if the monster leaps out of the alleyway it can work in tandem with the rest of the world in some fashion or not, such as drug addict vampires or gangster werewolves.

I'm Pokemon Fan by ViniciusCarbonera

Pokémon feels different. The long journey from home is seen as a great honour, and yet is just as dangerous as a Middle Earthian trek. The cities seem unperturbed by the surrounding purple rats and giant beetles. The thing that makes Pokémon seem strange is that dangers are expected for one so young, and yet those dangers are seen as so normal and banal they are nothing to worry about. The comparison would be asking your 12-year-old hobbit to go to Mordor because that’s normal, and orcs are just part and parcel of the world around you; don’t worry, your pet Shelob will help you. Compared to, “This is a dangerous quest, if you accept it, the honour is that you may die and you are brave,” not “the honour is because this is normal adventuring behaviour for my child”.

Pokemon Black and White 2 by xX-Pretty-Skitty-XxI would love to see a grittier reimagining of this universe. It feels like they are so focussed on the loveliness and the fun-factor that they miss the fact their universe is actually bloody terrifying. However, would that then ruin the entire premise of Pokémon? Is the point of this world to teach you that adversity is just a part of life, the creatures in question a mere metaphor for any struggle you may face? You are taught by people of all walks of life – from elderly men to kindly mothers, from pre-schoolers to gym leaders – of what it means to be kind, respectful and true to yourself, and at the end of your journey you feel satisfied whatever the outcome. Is not the point of this game to teach you how to be a better person, not just to others, but yourself?

This seems a tad dramatic for a game which, on the surface, is about an electric mouse fighting a mushroom’ed crab, but fantasy has rarely been about what is only on the surface. A grittier universe may depict a more realistic vision of a world of lost children and fighting monsters, but don’t we already have enough of those? Have we done the gritty universe thing now?

I don’t think so. I really want that gritty universe please. I’ll take flame-grilled Pikachu over talk to the lovely team player any day.

Title image by ViniciusCarbonera.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Matteo Bortolotti says:

    If you look for a gritty version, read the manga (mind control and worse, zombie pokémon, pokémon slashing each other in half, pokémon used as weapon of mass destruction, horrific genethic experiments and attempted genocide), pokémon is full of nightmare fuels and it uses all of them.

  2. Avatar Aura says:

    Please, stop grimderperizing things.
    Like the user before me said, the genere have enough of that in official materials, more is a killjoy for those who don’t like that type of things, that is becoming the norm lately these days.
    Turning everything dark and grim only for the sake of the dark and grim don’t make an story better, or makes the story more adult or realistic.
    Everything, every story or game, deserve to be enjoyed for what they are… yes, even Twilight or Valvrave.

  3. […] wanted to apply fantasy convention to Minecraft, as if it were a story or novel, much as I did with Pokémon. However, this proved difficult as I did a little digging and discovered this “End […]

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