Continuing the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. My focus is on the narrative experience of the game, more than the mechanics of play, though I will include some introduction to what the world of Pokémon is all about.
The first couple entries here will mostly be revised reposts from my earlier attempt at a series about playing through the game.
Pokémon as a game about catching, collecting, and training strange creatures, and then using them to battle other trainers in formal matches. It is also a role-playing game where you create a player character, an avatar of yourself, who journeys around the Pokémon world exploring, learning, and having adventures. So while it is a collecting and dueling game, it’s also part of the same genre as Final Fantasy, Zelda, and other games of a style that has born from Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1970’s.
You begin a Pokémon game by creating your character, from whose point of view you experience the game. In the earliest versions of Pokémon in the late 90’s, you played as a boy (essentially the character Ash, if you’ve ever watched a Pokémon cartoon) and the only option you had was to pick his name. Later games introduced being either a boy or a girl character.
In Pokémon Sword & Shield after you state your name, you are presented with a selection of faces, with different skin tones and gender presentations, and asked which one looks like you. Being a boy or a girl is not mentioned — though after the choice the game considers you gendered, addresses you as “he” or “she,” and restricts you to buying clothing and accessories according to that assignment.
In every previous game, you would next meet the game’s “Pokémon Professor” the game character who introduces you to the world of pokémon, explains how humans and pokémon live and work together, and that there are some people who catch, raise, and use pokémon in competitive battles: Pokémon Trainers. The Professor would then give you a pokémon of your own and provide the basic lessons for caring for it and how to catch more.
Sword & Shield departs from this, and a veteran player of the game immediately feels that something different is going on. The first thing we see is a huge Pokémon Stadium crowded with excited people. A man in a three-piece suit steps up and introduces himself as Rose. To the wildly cheering crowd he gives the classic introduction mentioned above, also explaining how in this region of the world pokémon battles are hugely popular sports and how champions are famous and admired public figures. Rose then introduces Leon, the current undefeated Champion. Leon is quite the showman and knows how to work the crowd, striking his signature battle pose, and directing his main pokémon, Charizard, to undergo the transformation called “Dynamaxing” which metamorphoses him into a gigantic fiery form.
So while our character has not yet appeared, we are shown just how big and important public pokémon competitions will be in this game and in this story. We are also introduced to Dynamax, a new game mechanic, as well as an important plot element of the story, as we shall see.
The game then takes us to a bucolic countryside of cottages and green fields filled with sheep — I mean, filled with wooloos, the pokémon equivalent for sheep. A teen-age boy is running up to the door of one of the quaint houses. He’s come to your house so you two can meet his older brother, the Pokémon Champion Leon, whom we saw in the opening, when he arrives at the train station.
Another enduring feature of Pokémon games is that you are given a rival whose goals parallel yours, and with whom you must ultimately battle to become the best. Japanese “shounen manga” — boy’s comics — have used this formula for decades. Often that rival is an antagonist, a villain even, who embodies the opposite values of the hero. In the early Pokémon games, your rival was a condescending jerk who mocked you and only wanted to get stronger and stronger, even at the cost of his pokémon’s well being. You triumph not only by getting stronger yourself, but by learning to respect, love, and work with your pokémon as partners.
The stories in Pokémon games have gotten more complex and in the past few editions of the series, your rival has become more a friend than a dark mirror. In Sword & Shield, Hop is excited about being your rival because he believes that having someone who inspires competition is the best way to improve oneself. Friendship remains important to him as well. With your childhood rival in the role, the games typically end up introducing another character as a more classical antagonist, so as a player familiar with the formula, you start looking out for when they will show up.
With Hop’s arrival, the game finally introduces you to “you,” your character in the game. You’ve been sitting on the couch presumably watching that introductory scene with Rose and Leon on your new phone — a device Hop describes as “flash,” the first use of British slang that we’ll be encountering from now on.
While Pokémon takes places in an imaginary world (whether it’s a world of fantasy or of science-fiction could be debated) the different regions of that world are based on real places. The first game was set in an area called “Kanto,” that was modeled on central Japan. Other games are set in versions of other parts of our world. Pokémon Sun & Moon was distinctly Hawaiian, and now Sword & Shield is based in a region known as “Galar” — which is modeled after Great Britain. As the games themselves have gotten more visually sophisticated with more detailed and colorful graphics, the individual characteristics of the regions have become more distinct. The lore of knights and castles, standing stones, and rolling green hills, with a dash or two of steampunk, shape the art of this game. It’s not to hard to identify the exact areas and cities that the locations on Sword & Shield are based on.
While earlier games have been set in the Pokémon versions of the United States or France, local slang has not been incorporated into the dialog so extensively. It’s not just a few words, but a whole style of speech. When Hop is concerned that your mother will be upset about the two or you galavanting around looking for strange Pokémon, he advises you to “Tell your Mum, or she’ll go spare!” It would be interesting to know how this is presented in the Japanese language version of the game, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about that…
Back to the story, where you and Hop are to pick up his big brother. Hop is Leon’s biggest fan and just cannot wait to prove he is worthy of becoming a battler himself and follow in his brother’s footsteps. Hop is something of a classic character type. He is, as one would say in Japanese, “genki.” For the first part of the game you, as a player and a character in the story, are mostly being dragged along by Hop’s unwavering enthusiasm. Fortunately you are presented as having much the same interests.
Before leaving, as a good son, you need to check in with your mother, who reminds you to bring your backpack and that home is a place you can always return to. Mothers, are always prominently featured in Pokémon games — while fathers are notably absent. They are either mentioned as being away, or not addressed at all. Pokémon Sword & Shield adds a small, but significant addition to the presentation of your “Mum”. In the previous game in the series, Pokemon Sun & Moon, while you could pick your skin tone, when you encountered your character’s mother, she had a ethnically neutral appearance. In Sword & Shield your mother matches your complexion and hair color.
Your character in the game also owns a Nintendo Switch of the same color scheme as the one you are actually using to playing the game. Identification with the player character is enforced by these little touches.
Next time we finally leave your house and meet some pokemon!