Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report 04: Your Story

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 few entries here will mostly be revised reposts from my earlier attempt at a series about playing through the game.

Pokémon 101

The core activity of Pokémon games is battling. To capture a pokémon you must send a pokémon you already control to fight and weaken it. Once it is tired — you throw a technological device called a pokéball to “capture” it (image a cross between a Star Trek transporter and an ecto-trap from Ghostbusters). Once captured that pokémon is tamed and will obey you, though there are limits. Famously, in the Pokémon TV show, Pikachu refuses to stay in his pokéball. So while you, as player and character, command the pokémon you capture, there is a level of consent, will the pokémon agreeing to follow your direction.

The previous game in the series, Pokémon Sun & Moon started off with a long, dramatic introductory scene of mysterious events at a research facility. Over the course of play that you piece together the puzzle of what is going on. It’s a moving, emotional story, but as the player, it is not your story. Your actions in the game influence what happens and through friendship you become a role-model. Still you are mostly a witness and an observer.

Making the events of a video game feel like something that happens to you, that you are actively involved in, is a challenge. Even in a game such as Pokémon where you have a lot of freedom to move around and interact with the world, there is a fundamental structure in place that demands a fixed series of actions. As a pokémon trainer you have to become stronger and more skilled before you can take on increasingly difficult challenges. When there is an unfolding narrative, scenes have to take place in the correct order. In older games you accepted the story was on a rail, like a ride in an amusement park. As games get more sophisticated, player expectations increase. The games have to make you care about what will inevitably happen, and welcome the predetermined sequence of events — or else just abandon the idea of a linear story entirely. Sun & Moon wasn’t entirely successful with its focus on other characters. We will be looking at how the new game faces these narrative challenges.

The early game thus consists of Hop leading my character around in basic activities. My character is native to Galar, but to me as player, this is an unknown country. That is a big part of the fun of Pokémon as a role playing game: exploring this new region, learning about its cities, people, and their individual histories and culture.

Starter pokemon

Since battling is so important in Pokemon, there isn’t much I can do until I get a pokémon of my own, my “starter.” Another departure from the norm in Sword & Shield is that the starter is given me by Hop’s champion brother, Leon, rather than a Pokémon Professor. This again shows the high status of champions in Galar. I do soon meet a professor, Magnolia, who gives me a pokédex and to record data about the pokemon of this region. Pokemon Professors always specialize in some spect of pokemon life or biology and in this case, Professor Magnolia is studying the phenomenon of Dynamaxing, which allow a pokémon to temporarily grow to giant size. In a stroke of amazing good luck, two falling stars, whose rare components are vital to allowing a Pokémon to Dynamax, just happen to land near by so Professor Magnolia can construct a pair of brackets for Hop and me, so that our pokemon can potentially learn to Dynamax when we and they are ready.

As mentioned, the narrative structure of every Pokémon game involves the Gym Challenge where you travel from one Pokémon gym to another, earning the right to compete in the final Championship. Here in Galar, the Challenge in particularly important and so to participate you need the endorsement of a sponsor. Hop and I have a battle with our newly acquired pokemon and prove ours to Leon, and win an endorsement for both of us

Pokémon stadium

Pokemon battling as a sport is what Galar is all about, so we can be looking at the narrative for how it presents sportsmanship. Leon is thrilled with the idea of Hop and I being rivals, so that we’ll be driving each other on to greater and great achievement. Pokémon presents a healthy model for competition. Leon is convinced of his great skill and proud of his undefeated status — but that leads him to want everyone else to become strong as well.

With the endorsement, Hop and I can how travel to the city of Motostoke to register for the tournament. So everything is ready for our pokémon journey to learn and train and battle. Though there is the matter of that encounter with a mysterious, previously unknown pokémon we encountered in the fog shrouded forest. I wonder what’s up with that?

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