Starting off the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. This first entry is mostly a revised repost from my earlier attempt at a series about the game. I describe some of my history with video games and introduce the basic premises of Pokémon.
A brief history of my experience with video games: I recall pretty clearly the video games of the 1970’s such as Pong and Lunar Lander. As video game arcades became a feature of shopping malls, I’d frequently be there on weekends, putting quarters in the slots. Game systems then came into the home and I reached the peak of my gaming in the 90’s, playing Phantasy Star II, Final Fantasy 7, Ocarina of Time, etc. You can see my leanings to story-oriented games, rather than ones based on dexterity or skill. In modern times games have gotten too stressful and complicated for me. I have trouble just visually following the fast moving images or managing all the buttons on the controllers. Nor do I find much fun in games filled with other players trying to kill me.
There’s some irony here in that I went on to work in the video game industry for over 20 years, rarely actually playing the games I was involved with.
The series I’ve consistent followed has been Pokémon. I’ve played every edition of the franchise since Pokémon Red & Blue came out in the USA in 1998. I can’t deny that one appeal of Pokémon is that it is not very hard. It has always been a game that young children can pick up and play through with minimal difficulty. Pokémon is a game that, particularly after you have finished the main storymode, you can play while watching TV, waiting for a file to download, or even at the same time as you’re playing a completely different video game. Also, while the lifestyles and behaviors of some pokémon are frankly terrifying, nobody in the game is actively trying to murder you. Beneath the easy-to-play surface of a Pokémon game is an amazing amount of depth and complexity. The individual abilities, skills, strengths, and weakness of pokémon are varied, complex, and cryptic. Much of the lore about raising and training them is not explained in the game, but has had to be deduced by players over the years.
These days there are numerous webpages where one can look up how an “IV” is different from an “EV,” what a pokémon “nature” means, or the many laws governing pokémon genetic inheritance, but even with Internet resources a player needs to reach outside the game, and spend time studying to take advantage of this lore. If one wants to master the game’s high level challenges, and definitely if one wants to play competitively against other players, or to participate in the various national and international tournaments, many hours of careful preparation, breeding, and training are necessary to form a team of pokemon that can battle at such levels.
To people familiar with Magic: the Gathering, I compare putting together a completive team of pokémon with building just the right deck of cards in Magic. Only in Pokémon you can’t just buy the right members, but have to raise them, as if they were champion horses or show dogs… Battling with pokémon isn’t the only thing you can do in the game. Different players have different focuses. You might be a collector, with the goal of catching all the 800+ kinds of pokémon, plus their different variations and rare types. Some players mostly want to explore and interact with the fictional world each game presents. Others might like the different mini-games each generation of the franchise includes, such as making videos of your pokémon or putting them in beauty contests.
I’m a collector, with a pretty vast (though not yet complete!) stable of pokémon, some of which I’ve had since 2006’s Pokemon Diamond & Pearl. There have always been ways of transferring pokémon from one game to another, sometimes from one game system to another, that make for a fun puzzle. Trading pokémon with other players around the world is possible in these Internet connected days. A new game app called Pokemon Home has come out this year which greatly assists players having all their pokémon together in one huge collection.
Besides the collecting and battling aspects of Pokémon, the game presents a narrative experience. It is, like games series such as Final Fantasy or Zelda, a role-playing game where you control an a avatar in the game world as if they were a character in a story or movie. It’s a game type that has its origins in the table-top adventure game Dungeons & Dragons, created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax back in 1974.
The story of the journey unfolds on several levels. First is your development and progression as a Pokémon Trainer, someone who catches and befriends these mysterious creatures and uses them in competitive battles. As you travel the world, improving your skills, you visit a series of Pokémon gyms, defeating the resident master in a match, and earning a special badge. When you have completed the set of eight badges you have earned the right to challenge the reigning Pokémon Champaign in hopes of becoming yourself, the greatest Pokémon master of all. Every core series Pokémon game has had that structure, with some variation, since Red & Blue.
The games also have an a more narrative story plot that goes on in the background of your personal journey. These plots have become bigger and more involved with each game. In Red & Blue you crossed paths with the criminal gang Team Rocket, which was stealing and exploiting Pokémon for selfish reasons. By Pokémon Black & White in 2010, your characer was struggling with a supervillain and his cult, and were trying to save the whole world from destruction. The game’s designers seemed to recognize that the escalation was becoming unsupportable and dialed it back in 2016’s Pokemon Sun & Moon, though that game still had a large scale plot suitable for a summer blockbuster movie. As a narrative experience Sun & Moon had other problematic issues which I will touch on in comparison to Sword & Shield as we encounter the story it has to tell.