This week, Chase channels his inner Egoraptor and analyzes the game feel of the Pokemon franchise.
If you’re wondering why my writing has been more sporadic these past few weeks, you can pin most of the blame on technical difficulties. Yes, I seem to have caught a rather nasty bug of “Computer-Break-Down-itis”, having to replace my battery (expensive) and my hard drive (essentially meaning I had to start over on everything I was previously doing). Combine that with the typical university work, and you’re left with a guy desperately trying to keep up. I’m here now though, and my computer should be good as new. And what better way to return to writing than to pick up where I left off on Pokemon SoulSilver?
This update’s going to be a little different than our usual ones though. Typically, I plan to maintain the back and forth style of the first one, with character thoughts and my own sarcastic remarks/observation, but after re-watching Egoraptor’s excellent Sequelitis series (which you should all be watching right now if you haven’t already), I decided there was a lot more I wanted to discuss on Pokemon’s game feel.
When I use the phrase ‘game feel’, I’m specifically referring to the way the game interacts with the player to set up the overall mood and tone. Great game feel immerses the player into the world of the narrative and never lets you go, creating interesting stories and characters worth following. Games accomplish this through the gameplay and story in nearly equal measure to create an atmosphere that players will remember and actively want to explore.
Replaying Pokemon, I’ve found that Pokemon is flawed when it comes to this game feel, especially compared to other games within similar genres. I’m not talking about things like being unable to fly to places you’ve never visited despite having a map that could easily lead you there, nor am I referring to the layout of these regions lining up perfectly with the order in which you need to battle their gyms despite the fact new trainers should be coming from everywhere. Those are gameplay designs that serve a purpose of increasing game feel, since they help form a tighter narrative in which the story can guide you into the situations in which you’re supposed to be involved in that moment. Losing those things would create a less linear story and weaken the intent of the designers. I guess my point is that logic can be overlooked as long as it serves a greater purpose, but the problems I list below struggle with both the overall feel AND logical design (listed in no particular order).
Yes, I used the phrase ‘protagonist’ here because he is far from being a hero. Blandy McNoPersonality is a ten year old kid who wants to become a Pokemon master. You know, the goal of literally everyone in the Pokemon universe. Besides having a very mild connection with a professor next door (and I refuse to believe each region only has one Pokemon professor), there is nothing unique about the main character. I know I named him ‘…’ as a joke, but the more I play the game, the more it seems fitting. He has no dialogue, no discernible personality of any kind, and the only relationships he forms are those the game just straight up tells us happens. We never see him make friends or learn anything about his interests and hobbies outside of Pokemon. No wonder no one can remember his name; there’s nothing about him that makes him worth remembering.
Now, I know why Nintendo did this: they wanted the player to place themselves in the role of the protagonist, allowing us to be the player. But decisions like that only work when the rest of the game complements such a choice, and Pokemon simply doesn’t. There’s no morality to be found in Pokemon, and there are no choices to be made other than “Do I want to catch this one, or save my Pokeball for something better?” There’s no ability for the player to become the character because the player isn’t in charge of the narrative. I can’t decide to join Team Rocket, or apply to become a gym leader, or even avoid battles altogether to simply become a contest trainer a la May. Structured gameplay should also bring structured character development, and the lack of character of the protagonist makes it really hard to get truly immersed in the universe; instead, you’re constantly aware that you’re playing a game, which is a shame.
So, we’ve already established our main character has no character to speak of, but surely there’s a reason we’re on this quest other than to catch them all, right? Without purpose, games become nothing but grinding and collecting for its own sake (see iOS games like Monster Paradise and Maestro). What is the purpose of all this collecting and battling? No idea, because the game never gives you one. It’s just a given that as a ten year old from a small town (curiously, they’ve never made the protagonist a city kid, though they never explore this theme, so whatever I guess) would want to do all these things. We have no idea what spurs us on our adventure, or why we should care to help people like Professor Elm when he needs us to do favours that serve mostly as busy work?
And why does Professor Elm turn to you, anyway? Are we really supposed to believe there’s not a single other trainer Elm trusts with this task? The guy barely knows you, and you haven’t even received your Pokemon yet when he asks you to go meet Mr. Pokemon for him. You’re quite possibly the worst candidate he could have found for this reportedly important task, yet he asks it of you without a second’s hesitation.
Worse, when he gets there, it turns out Elm’s been bragging about your Pokemon abilities to Professor Oak and Mr. Pokemon, who are fascinated by you, Oak even going so far as to ask for your number. Again, why? You haven’t done anything to prove yourself yet. You have no special powers or abilities. There is absolutely nothing that makes you anything resembling the chosen one other than the fact that there’s a camera that follows the protagonist’s every movement. When Team Rocket attacks, shouldn’t the authorities call the local gym leader to help out? Or maybe they should have Pokemon themselves? I mean, the player could still be involved, but unless there’s a reason this character is above everyone else, all you get is a sense of undeserved grandeur. All your accomplishments feel empty when you realize there’s no reason behind anything that’s happening other than ‘the plot said so’.
Some wild behavior
I did an article on my own site about the five Pokemon games I wish Nintendo was making right now, giving a few ideas for games that I think could hit a mainstream audience while staying true to the heart of Pokemon. One of my favourites was a combat system similar to something like Dragon Age: Origins, with each button representing another key attack. This would provide a lot more versatility to battles, giving an extra dimension of skill to dodging moves and timing your attacks to maximize efficiency. But let’s assume Nintendo can’t/doesn’t want to do something like that on a standard DS release, as that could very well be beyond the technical capabilities of the device (let me know in the comments if that’s true; I’m genuinely curious).
At the very least, greatly improved Pokemon AI would go a long way towards convincing the player that the world of Pokemon could actually exist. One of the greatest frustrations I have with wild encounters is that they never seem to occur on a realistic scale. Bird Pokemon like Spearow and Pidgey would very rarely separate themselves from the rest of their flock. They’d attack in waves, swarming anything that served as a genuine threat, like the flock of Spearow did in the first episode of the anime. Even if you were able to catch one off guard, upon realizing there was a threat, these Pokemon would likely call for their family and friends to protect them if they got the chance. Moves like growl should act as a natural sign to all other Spearow that a battle is going down, but it never amounts to anything.
Modern games took a step forward by introducing wild double battles with the dark grass mechanic, but shouldn’t most Pokemon respond that way? Shouldn’t Weedle be close to a Beedrill swarm that can come by at any moment should the player not defeat it quickly enough? Actions like that would make the Pokemon feel more real and natural instead of simply feeling like another encounter. There should be multiple types of encounters: encounters you choose (when you see a Pokemon worth catching and there’s a good opportunity for it) and encounters sprung upon you (in which a Pokemon feels threatened or as if it has an advantage over you). Factors like how likely they’ll be able to call for help could be brought into play through formulas similar to those already used to determine the likelihood a Pokeball will work. These actions would create water cooler stories: stories that you immediately have to share with your friends. Which sounds more fun to you: “I battles my way past 8 Weedle before I finally got through that stupid forest” or “Dude, I had to run for my life from an angry swarm of Beedrill after I accidentally disrupted a Kakuna hive looking for items! They cornered me, but Totodile was able to spray them with enough water to hold them back while we made it out of the forest”? I know which game I’d rather play.
The trainer problem
Ok, so we’ve got a no-personality protagonist with no reason why we should care about his adventures. But what about the rest of the people in this world? Shouldn’t they all be motivated by the same desire to catch ‘em all, beat the gym leaders, and become the greatest Pokemon master ever?
Apparently not, since pretty much every trainer you encounter, with the exception of your designated rival and a few recurring bad guys, just stands around waiting for a chance to battle with whoever passes by. And you’re the only one who ever battles them. Why don’t they ever battle each other? Why aren’t they moving around searching for trainers to fight or Pokemon to catch? Why don’t they travel along the same routes you do? We know GameFreak is capable of such programming because non-trainers move around all the time. So why don’t they just do it?
Well, because then you wouldn’t have set opponents making sure you’re around the right level before your Pokemon team challenges the next gym. It doesn’t matter that such decisions make no sense within the world of the game, or that the logic of each of these being practically game resetting if you lose is idiotic at best: it’s just there to serve a mechanical purpose.
“But Chase!” you exclaim towards your computer, “Didn’t you say earlier that logic can be overlooked if it serves to heighten the overall game feel?” Of course it can, but now we have to ask ourselves what purpose this truly serves. Sure, you now have these arbitrary check points to make sure you’re as strong as you should be before you advance, but it also serves to make each encounter along the journey feel meaningless. These trainers aren’t special: they’re just a slightly more organized wild battle scenario that happens to give you loot if you win and reset some of your progress if you lose (I know you just go to the last PokeCenter at which you healed your Pokemon—though logically you should visit the one that’s closest since there’s no way you’d get that far in certain situations without your Pokemon conscious, but whatever—but the trainer refuses to acknowledge his victory over you in any way. To him or her, it never happened. That kills immersion, as it makes your defeats meaningless even on a purely aesthetic level).
There’s no possibility for an underdog story, since there are no consequences, or even results, of any potential defeat. Heroes lose sometimes, and coming back stronger makes the victory feel sweeter. That’s taken away from you by the mechanics of the game. As is any opportunity to see the trainers as anything other than a nuisance in the way of your progress. They have no character, goals, beliefs, or any quality that impacts the game, so why have them in the first place? So far, GameFreak hasn’t let trainers be trainers, and it’s a massive missed opportunity.
(Incredibly radical idea: Why not get rid of Pokemon levels altogether? Not statistics, mind you; those should increase as the Pokemon gains experience. But what if the player had no way of knowing how strong his Pokemon were in relation to everything else? Training Pokemon would feel like a far more organic experience. Players would have to make judgment calls on what Pokemon he or she prefers without any way of factually knowing whether they made the right choice. It’d be like being the coach of a basketball team, running the six best Pokemon you think you have while experimenting with the bench [PC Pokemon] and scouting other potential team members [wild Pokemon] to improve in the future. The game would be far more natural and organic, albeit frustrating to those who hate making decisions based on gut feelings and not factual data. It’d be an interesting experiment at the very least.
Okay, this is a really minor point, but why in the world are these PokeMarts understocked with vital goods other than because otherwise players could get items too quickly? In what universe does a PokeMart not sell Pokeballs? You don’t run out of something that vital to your economy. It’d be like if the supermarket ran out of milk. Not to mention the lack of logic behind cities having certain types of Pokeballs and potions until the very moment you should need them.
Hey, Nintendo, I’ll give you this idea for free. Want to make the world feel more realistic while still keeping players from becoming too good too quickly? Increase the price of the better goods, decrease the payout from defeating random trainers, and increase the payout from defeating gym leaders. Problem solved. Players won’t be able to consistently afford goods that are above their skill level, but if they want to spend all of their first gym badge prize money on a hyper ball so they can catch that elusive Abra, they should have the opportunity to do so.
At the end of the day, each of these problems serves to undermine the very environment Nintendo and GameFreak work so tirelessly to create. You can tell from the graphics, battle animations, and the overall world that this is a property about which this team cares greatly. Contests, increasing the maximum battle size, and other features like how a Pokemon’s nature affects training shows that this isn’t a series that wants to stagnate (though Black 2 and White 2 don’t seem like much of a step forward either, to be perfectly honest). The shortcomings listed above made sense when they first started out because they didn’t have the resources, but now, GameFreak has all the finances and fan support to go out and make some changes to this series to make it feel more fresh and whole. The future is far from bleak for this franchise, but progress will come when the mechanics and story work together to form the game feel this franchise deserves.