Thrill of the Hunt

Illustration by Vinnie Zullo

[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon.]

I throw on a denim shirt and jeans in my rush out the door. I am on my way to the adult English conversation class I teach. I’d spent the day at work pushing my supervisor to solidify my return flight. A Japanese English teacher mediated. When I get to class, I teach what a Canadian tuxedo is.

And after class, we meet on our old bikes. I comment that it feels like college, when I made my friends call ourselves the Blackhearts whenever we biked around together.

“It’s like high school back in New Zealand,” Edwin says.

I lead down the road. “Turn here,” he says. “There are more stops this way.”

We live in Japan, and we play Pokémon Go.

It is a warm night, the last of May. We live in Hokkaido, where it snows from November until maybe April, maybe May, maybe next week. Warm days are rare. We leap at the chance to be outside. I’m reminded of sixty-degree days back in college in Maine last year. People brought homework and speakers and flip-flops to the campus quad and studied or played games I wasn’t outdoorsy enough to know.

***

Pokemon Go launched in the summer of 2016. I was just out of college. “One Dance” played daily on the radio, and presidential campaigning buzzed on every wavelength of our TV screens and Facebook feeds. Niantic launched the game and sent the world over into a frenzy. People downloaded the app and shared photos on social media of a Ponyta on their run in LA, a Squirtle on the beach in Miami, a Ghastly above their trash can.

Within months, the game amassed twenty-one million users and became one of the most successful mobile apps, ever. Niantic modeled the app off of data and location mapping from their previous AR venture Ingress, which felt new at the time but didn’t stir the same commotion as everyone’s favorite pocket monsters did. Now you could be a trainer in real life. Now what was the world but a place where Pokemon lived among us if you just cared to open your phone?

The augmented reality app got people outside, playing in the real world the way they did as kids. If the Pokemon generation grew up playing on swing sets and languishing on front lawns listening for the din of the ice cream truck, fifteen years later they could take their smartphones out of college dorms and studio apartments in cities they couldn’t afford to live in and play in the world again. It was free entertainment. It was a key to a new social world.

With any new trend like it, Pokemon Go sparked debate on internet forums, in the New York Times, on concerned parent blogs. Was it fostering healthy play with friends? Was it creating a force for socialization, for new appreciation of landmarks and local history through technology? Was it luring people into back alleys and the backs of trucks? Was it creating more dependency on technology and prescribed methods to imagine?

***

We started playing last summer when the game came out. Before leaving for Japan, I tried it. I was visiting my sister and her fiancé in their New Jersey apartment for the last time before my departure. We sat on Adirondack chairs and drank glasses of wine. We ate from a bag of peanut butter M&Ms my mom had hidden in my suitcase. I downloaded the app, I played, I deleted it before leaving. Life was too busy for distractions. Goodbyes to say, suitcases to pack, sunsets to feel compelled to watch.

But soon I arrive in my city. Going from Shinjuku’s neon and bustle during orientation to buckwheat and rice fields. There are mountains and farms with tinny blue and red roofs. Crows sound like gravelly old men and foxes skitter at twilight with their lethal brain fungus. It sounds nice and quiet because it is quiet.

In Takikawa in August, I lie on the floor of my apartment after a run, my face in front of the one-foot tall oscillating fan. I wish for more windows for cross-ventilation. I think of my dad coming home from work.

“Open more windows. You need some cross-ventilation.”

My evenings after work are filled with runs and experimenting in the kitchen. Before I have time to recover from jetlag, Edwin asks me to dinner with Hui and Jerome, other people on our program from Singapore and Canada. I immediately say yes.

We go to the sushi restaurant where I ate my welcome dinner on my first night, so I feel well-versed when it comes to using wasabi and ordering sushi, which glides down the conveyor belt on small race cars. They ask me questions about myself, but I otherwise defer to them, observe the space they create before deciding how I should contribute.

And then we drive around town. We stop at the culture center to play this game that I’ve had to download again. It’s just been released in Japan, and what were quiet nights now bustle. People are on bikes or on foot or in cars with their hazards flashing. This is the nightlife. We walk through neighborhoods in search, looking for virtual creatures that are new or rare. We venture to a park. We park in front of a Buddha statue and walk down an unlit dirt path.

“This is the dinosaur park,” someone tells me. “They found manatee dinosaur fossils or something here.” Through a fence there is a fresco of a manatee sitting in darkness. It looks like it is in a cave, and grass pokes through the stones.

I get used to life in town. I make friends. I go out to drink and we continue to play here and there. We all go camping one weekend in September. At Shikotsu Lake, clouds dance low over the water. Green mountains encircle us. It’s a crater lake. Japanese people set up elaborate tents and prepare barbecues fit for epicures. We play cards, and I get mad about the international variation of rules I know.

Once night has settled, we’ve finished cooking and cleaning, we take out our phones and play our game in the dark before bed. We cheer about our catches. We discuss strategy. We run after rare monsters we find on a tracker app. This is something we never could have imagined, that we’d be on this quest during our time here. If it weren’t so universally popular, it would be very otaku, but months later it just becomes very obaasan–for grandmothers.

Before, I felt like a nuisance to Edwin. With my inferior Japanese and feeling of floundering, I needed help. Setting up my apartment, getting wifi so I could talk to family back home. But the camping trip changes things. I’m invited the week of.

“I’d never forget you, Michael.” His jokes are always self-aware and said with a smile.

***

In 1999, the fear of Pokemon had already rooted itself in the collective hysteria. An article by staff at Time details fear of Pokemania. New Pokefans watch Pikachus fight in the first movie and learn to love fighting. A nine year-old boy stabs a schoolmate over Pokemon cards at recess.

In 1999, the new millennium hadn’t yet arrived to crack our fear of Y2K crashing computers and downing airplanes. My mom bought water by the gallon and stored it in the basement. On New Year’s Eve we frosted our Y2Cake yellow, and it cracked down the middle. In 1999, Harry Potter was beginning to take hold, and I had magic on my mind. My friend Robbie’s aunt was a magician, and she added the most rare Pokemon cards to his collection. I saw her summoning them from inside her hat, flashing a Venusaur or Bellossom for him to take home.

Even then the aspirational nature of the game, the acquisition at its core, the fighting involved scared people. Did my mom wonder what dangers lay ahead when we bought a link cable so I could trade Pokemon on my Game Boy Advance? Did every pack of cards purchased raise the question, when will this end?

My first game was Pokemon Crystal. For a year, I walked my avatar around the house, talking with mom, clicking on the fridge, the TV, the table. I couldn’t figure out how to leave home. A year later, I picked up the game again and walked through the welcome mat and emerged into the world. Beyond my front door were other people walking, more buildings to enter, and the route out of town.

***

People start to drop out. Jerome stops and moves to Tokyo. Hui quits and doesn’t like Edwin playing when they’re together. It sucks up too much time. I start getting texts from Edwin. Wanna play tonight?

It’s becoming winter. He picks me up in his car. We drive a certain loop around town, well worn to maximize efficiency and have the most fruitful night possible. By now, people have taken their quests inside their vehicles, and we identify others playing by flashing blinkers, by peering through their windows as we drive away, watching them jab at their phones.

Edwin has two CDs. One has Chinese music. The other has some American pop songs from when I was in high school and one K-Pop song that gets stuck in all of our heads. He sends it to me before I visit Seoul.

We drive around town, listening to the two CDs, sometimes passing bikers or other cars we recognize. Our rides are quiet, filled with T-ara, Chinese songs I don’t understand, and talk about this game we’ve come to play. Our route brings us down Bell Road where people have painted murals over shuddered storefronts, and the shudders have become Poke Stops. We pass the End Polio Now sign that has been left to stand forever.

It gets colder. We all start skiing. He buys a device to play the game without using his phone. “You can get some distance on the chair lift if it’s slow enough.” The roads are always covered in snow and ice, and I can never shake the anxiety his fast driving gives me.

In February, four of us go to Niseko, Hokkaido’s most famous ski resort. Australia North. Australians work here for the season and play on the slopes or at the bars, depending on which job they work. Before skiing one morning, we go out to play. Marina and I wait by the car while Edwin and Lynn climb a snow bank taller than us to access a point in the game. I grab Edwin’s external battery from the car for him.

We’ve talked through battery saving methods.

We’ve talked through ways to walk eggs.

We’ve talked through the best route to drive in town.

We’ve talked through how much he’s spent on gas for this game.

By now it’s only us four who play, and when we’re not skiing, there’s not much else to do in winter. Maybe we’ll go under a kotatsu and watch Miyazaki and get drunk on yuzushu or whiskey and ginger ale. Maybe we look at the ceiling, finding outlines of gorillas or nostrils in the plaster and wishing they were clouds or summer stars.

After skiing, we visit an onsen, a Japanese hot spring. I’ve skied mostly with Lynn and Marina. We always visit onsen to rinse off winter sweat and the itchy feeling of ski socks and long johns, to sit under stars while in sulfur or mineral baths, grabbing handfuls of snow to feel alive. I’m always alone in the men’s onsen, and Edwin and I relish the chance to talk. About skiing, about travel, about life here. The game begins to slip away.

And soon in other onsen we talk about leaving. We both decide to return home. I to the US after one year, and he to New Zealand after four. We talk about all there’s left to do and finding jobs back home. We have six months left in Japan. Months that I will savor and fill with memories, I decide.

***

When I move back to Maine, I pick up the game again. I download Dispatch and think about going to game events with local players. The city is new, and I don’t yet know its parks and secrets. When I attend a raid, I stand alone and hurry home after. I open the app less frequently. I have friends to catch up with and Pokemon never figures in.

But now that we’ve moved away from our city, when we text, we ask if we’re still playing. I always say, yes, sometimes.

***

We start to play more at night. We drive around town searching for monsters and usually finding nothing good. Instead we find company and a way to kill time. Our drives are full of talking now. Now that we’re both leaving, we have more to talk about. I usually worry it’s my noise. The extroverted, self-centered, white, American millennial. But I realize I recall new details about Hong Kong food and time working at a casino while in uni in New Zealand.

He and Hui go to China. At night, lacking our drives, I go to the gym until March ends, when it becomes too expensive. And then the nights loom ahead. They are full and unwieldy. Warm enough for snow to start melting, but my hands go numb if I forget gloves. I feel restless and my mind turns to filling weekends with dinner plans or trips.

When they return, he tells me stories while we chop onions at a work event. He relays tales about the Great Wall, the terra cotta army, and running out of cash atop a mountain. We talk more about it on the radio show he does for work and during a drive around town, one of our loops.

Then I travel with Lynn and Marina. Seven flights in nine days, Taipei, Siem Reap, Singapore, stinky tofu, tuk tuks, fish amok, Dairy Queen, food poisoning, and durian. When I return, May has already begun. My stomach acts up. I take my first sick day and have to say no to driving, to searching. I stay home and go to bed. Early, because the sun already rises at four.

We play again. Big plans. There’s an event, and we’re out to conquer. I give him a birthday present, souvenirs from my trip, and he has a new CD. I don’t know the songs, but I know I soon will.

“Of course I put ‘Day by Day’ on it,” Edwin says. “How could I forget?”

We talk about going home. I’ve been offered a job in Maine, and I’ve taken it. In August, I will start a new life with old people I’ve known for years. I imagine my first day home. I’ll wake up at four because of jetlag, and then get up at five. I’ll go downstairs, hungry. I’ll eat a cold chicken cutlet, a favorite prepared by Mom and proffered during the car ride back from Logan Airport. I’ll sit on the couch and wait for the sunrise. If my dog comes, I’ll make him sit with me. He’s fourteen and won’t want to move.

At a reasonable hour, I’ll leave for coffee. I’ll open the app. The shop I worked at in college is near points in the game. Rare monsters appear. I catch them before getting out of my car. I text Edwin about my catches. I go inside and see coworkers I haven’t seen for almost a year.

“You’re back from Japan!”

“How was it?”

“Are you home for good?”

“Do you want your iced mocha?”

And then I get in the car and don’t check again. There’s so much to do now that I’m home.

I see all this in our car ride. I see the app disappear into a folder on my phone, opened only on a lark. As a reason to say hi to Edwin.

I feel less motivated to play, and so does he. The event ends and the game is less exciting than ever. Marina has faded into the background.

“I’m playing more now because once you and Edwin leave, it’ll be done,” Lynn says.

The game is moribund. Playing is a reminder of impermanence. How we’ll leave in two months and all stop. What filled our empty hours will amount to the nothing it always was once we stop clicking on the app. What do we have to show for all those nights playing in Japan?

***

On our bikes on the last day of May, we talk about this.

“Will you play when you go back?” I ask. Edwin has always been the leader, the most invested, the furthest along.

“I’ll miss driving around and playing.” At night, our roads are quiet except for the cars that speed down the main road after ten. Souped-up red and yellow sports cars that race each other, not waking neighbors because it’s become ambient noise. “Maybe I’ll play with my sister a bit.”

But our answers are the same.

We end the night at the Takikawa shrine. The lamppost casts the stone steps in jade. Flies dance in and out of the light under the tall stone gate. We stand in front of the shrine and play. We don’t say much. The shrine is on a hill and through the trees we can glimpse lights from the highway and pachinko parlors and shopping plazas.

When we finish, we mount our bikes and coast downhill. At a junction we say goodbye. I ride past the grocery store and the mound of black snow that still hasn’t melted. I cross the train tracks and ride to the buckwheat field by school. It’s been flooded to commence the growing cycle. In fall, I watched stalks turn from green to brown and then get cut down and replaced with snow.

I stand on the edge and listen to the frogs chirping.