The Pokémon games are masterpieces in interactive world building and player involvement.
Its regions are beloved like no others in gaming. People adore being in them, exploring them, theorizing about them- and most importantly playing in them.
It’s no wonder that the cries for remakes of games released only 2 generations prior, are nowhere as loud as within the Pokémon community.
Of course this can be attributed to the great soundtrack, the charismatic characters, the fun look of many parts of these regions but I suspect it’s because:
Pokémon feels alive like nothing else in gaming does.
Odds are you’ve played at least one of the many mainline games.
You fought your way through an entire region, beat some bad guys/gals and became the champion. This all seems like pretty basic RPG stuff.
There are of course games that have better graphics, larger stories, grander quests. Maybe even some brilliant AI that reacts to your choices, and let’s NPCs interact with you “naturally”.
Yet Pokémon manages to create living, breathing worlds without all of this.
Pokémon worlds seem alive, and like you are truly a part of it. All because of its core game-play element:
The Pokémon themselves!
What makes Pokémon special?
How are they different from usual party members or weapons in other games? Both fulfill the same mechanical functions right? You use them to lower unfriendly HP-Bars, they become stronger through battles and…that’s it? How could they possibly make a whole world come to live?
Well let’s see what is at the core of every Pokémon
- 4 attacks
- 6 Stats
- Elemental strengths and weaknesses
- A sprite
- A passive Ability.
- 1 of 3 sexes (Male, Female & Undefined)
- A personality, which influences their stats
Even between two Pokemon from the same species, there can be huge differences. So if you were to breed 2 Axew at lvl. 1 you will probably wind up with 2 unique little monsters.
Now if we were to combine all of these things we’d surely get a “Pokémon”.
But no sprite has ever felt alive only because of assigned numbers.
Then what is it about Pokémon that make them carry so much weight in our consciousness? Why is it that when I encounter a new Pokémon there is always an exciting rush, no matter if I like the species itself or not.
Why is it that we talk about them with more excitement than we talk about the weapons you equip in other RPGs, or the monster companions you “catch” in “Pokémon-likes” ?
Well. The key word is P O T E N T I A L.
Standard RPG weapons and party members ARE (this and that strong, maybe even upgrade-able). Pokemon, much like real beings,not only ARE but they COULD and very importantly WERE.
Let’s take Fraxure.
If you ever meet one you already know that:
- Fraxure is rad. It IS.
- Fraxure used to be an Axew once. It WAS.
- Fraxure has the potential to evolve into a Haxorus. It COULD.
You can find this principle of potential everywhere in the regions because of the way you encounter Pokémon.
Take a walk on route 120 of Hoenn. The rain is running down your face. You cross a bridge, and enter high grass. Some rustling can be heard in front of you. A rush of excitement hits you.
Now, in a typical RPG a random encounter is usually an annoyance. But in Pokémon it opens up a world of possibilities.
What could a square of grass mean for you? It could contain a Pokemon that:
- You have never seen before
- Has the ability to evolve
- Has already evolved
- Has the ability to breed
- Could become part of your team
- Won’t join your team but is exactly what you needed to fill your Pokédex
- Could own unexpectedly awesome stats, attacks…
- Could just become cannon-fodder for your own Pokémon, so they can become stronger (there are Pokémon better suited for cannon-fodder than others)
- Could simply be ignored
- Or probably the most exciting thing of them all: Every Pokémon has a “Shiny” variant, which is colored SLIGHTLY differently than its “normal” version!!!
- Doesn’t exist. You stepped on an empty patch of grass. Sometimes you want that.
Behind every corner lie possibilities, it always feels like there is more going on in these regions than you can immediately see or control. This is further strengthened by the way Pokémon incorporates the title creatures into its environments.
Absol and Trubbish are great examples:
Finding Trubbish on Route 5 and 16 next to the busy entertainment metropolis Nimbasa City, clicks in the mind of the player. After all once a large amount of people gather it makes sense that the place will be filled with … Trubbish.
Seeing an Absol at Route 120 in Hoenn, might seem like a normal encounter at first. But after catching it and unlocking one of its Pokédex entries, you might realize that something is amiss:
“Absol has the ability to foretell the coming of natural disasters. It lives in a harsh, rugged mountain environment. This Pokémon very rarely ventures down from the mountains.” and “ Every time Absol appears before people, it is followed by a disaster such as an earthquake or a tidal wave. As a result, it came to be known as the disaster Pokémon.”
It doesn’t take a keen eye to see that route 120 definitely isn’t part of a “harsh rugged mountain environment”. And continuing their adventure, the player will soon witness the awakening of the legendary land and/or sea Pokémon which could lead to disaster in the Hoenn Region.
The placement of a Pokémon combined with the knowledge one gains through their own actions (catching the Pokémon) enriches the games world, as well as the background of the creatures itself.
- Most of the ground you tread on in Pokémon contains an enormous amount of potential
- With every Pokémon there are possibilities, options, a future.
- They have backstories, things they used to be, characteristics.
- The environment you find them in, tells you something about the Pokémon and vice versa
The entire game world is bursting with potential.
Every creature was, is and will be.
And that is exactly what life itself, feels like.
Now what about you?
Having a game-world that feels alive is great and all but it looses its touch if a certain factor is missing from the game, namely:
So what does that mean.
Let’s look at a series of games that doesn’t involve the player in meaningful ways: GTA
Not to say those are bad games. They’re all good fun, but I’m using them as an example because it’s a series that boasts itself with feeling “alive”.
People walk around and react to you driving your car into their faces.
“You can do whatever you want!” is a buzz-sentence often used.
Which is true in some ways ,but what you want doesn’t matter to the games core story.
The game wants you to finish its several missions in very specific ways.
This leads to fun cinematic segments, but fails to make the player feel like they’ve accomplished something, and like they’re part of this world.
If the players only means of interacting with the game is through the games instructions, the game will feel static.
In Pokémon starting at the beginning of the game you CHOOSE.
First your look, your name, then your first Pokémon.
After that the main way you interact with the game is through a plethora of choices.
- If you should train your Pokémon,
- If you should catch other Pokémon
- Which Pokémon fit into your team,
- What attacks they should learn
- When and if they should evolve
- What Pokémon are best suited to … produce eggs together
You decide how you want to use the potential of every Pokémon you meet. It’s in your power. All of this makes your involvement in the games world so much more intimate.
Every Pokémon in your team represents a multitude of these choices.
Your team only exists because of the way you chose to approach this world.
It is a reminder that you are part of this world, that you hold power, that you aren’t a bystander of your story but ... the protagonist.
Of a world you know. A world you’ve mastered.
A world you can feel comfortable in.
No wonder it makes so many of us feel right at home.