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.
Besides battling wild pokémon in order to catch them, you frequently will battle other trainers, that is, the two of you will send out your teams of pokémon to fight each other. Each trainer can choose to swap a pokémon in or out of the battle to gain a tactical advantage. The battle continues until one side has had all their pokemon “faint,” unable to continue fighting.
Much has been made of the questionable morality of making these captured creatures fight each other for our amusement, but it is a fundamental conceit of the game that pokémon like battling. There are evil trainers who force their pokémon to do things against their will, but for sincere trainers, pokémon are choosing to do this as something they enjoy. The games, and certainly the long running TV anime, have plenty of instances of pokémon refusing to do things they would prefer not to. The narrative game play of 2010’s Pokémon Black & White actually dealt with this topic and there were moments in that game that left you questioning the ethics of being a trainer.
At this point in Pokémon Sword & Shield, I am on my way to first of the gyms in this region’s Pokémon Challenge. First stop is the Grass Gym in the town of Turffield. The countryside is full of wild pokemon to catch and other trainers to battle. You can try avoid encounters, but as a video game player you know you need to face them to train yourself stronger and stronger for challenges ahead
As I run through this colorful, artfully designed 3D countryside, it is amazing to consider how far the visuals of the game have come from the black & white 2D graphics of the original Pokémon Red & Blue on the Nintendo Gameboy.
Along the way I catch up to the assistant Pokémon Professor Sonia, whose research is taking her roughly along the same route as mine. She points out, in the distance, one of the power plants owed by Chairman Rose, which helps provide all the energy needs of the Galar region. The narrative is making sure we understand importance of reliable energy to Galar, and that Rose is responsible for delivering it.
For part of my journey I take a short cut through a mine where precious stones are being dug up. You always have to through mines or caverns or some sort of underground complex in a Pokemon game, since you need to experience a variety of different environments to catch all the different kinds of pokemon. I once again meet Bede, the arrogant young person from the opening ceremony. He says something about already gathering all the wishing stars in the mine. The endorsement of Chairman Rose makes him feel so superior that’s it’s hardly worth his time to battle me. A battle with a named character in the game is usually harder than a random trainer you meet on the road. Still I was able to defeat Bede without much trouble, not that he even really acknowledges his loss.
Outside the mine I also encounter, or rather collide with, a stray wooloo from the herd of Grass Gym Leader Milo. I meet Milo himself, who recognizes me from the Opening Ceremonies and looks forward to out battle. Throughout the game you will frequently meet the Gym Leaders going about their ordinary lives. As you do you collect League Cards, a sort of combination of business card and collectible card for trainers and gym leaders. They feature a portrait and a short biography that fills in some of the backstory and personal relationships of that character. All this helps build the region of Galar as a living place, full of stories and ongoing situations. As a player, you also design your own League Card. It records your progress in the game, and you can trade them with other players.
This region of Galar is dotted with standing stones such as those at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites in Britain. Outside the town of Turffield there is also an enormous petroglyph on a hillside depicting a giant pokémon. Sonia is studying the petroglyph and connects it to the Darkest Day legends. These ominous tales are of pokémon in their giant Dynamax form rampaging across the countryside. Normally pokémon can only Dynamax, and only for a brief time, when they are near special “power points,” which are where the Pokemon Stadiums have been built.
Milo’s Grass Gym is waiting for whenever I am ready to take the challenge. Hop is ahead of me in the journey, having already won his badge. He’s fulfilling his role as my rival, spurring me on to advance my part of the story. With so much to do in this game, so many pokémon already around to catch, it can be easy to get distracted.
The match is held, as is the norm in Galar, in a huge stadium. The lobby at the entrance is full of visitors and other trainers chatting about the competition. I’m requested to change into my uniform and proceed onto the pitch as the crowd cheers Milo and me.
Also normal by this time in the game is that I have a team of six fairly strong pokémon, while Milo, as the first gym leader to be faced, only has two. They are not slouches though, and Milo does invoke Dynamax, causing one of his pokémon to grow to Godzilla size and attack with a pyrotechnic display of visual effects. The crowd takes up a musical chant as the tension builds. Milo’s pokémon are both grass-type, so if you know their weakness, Milo isn’t too hard to beat. I win my first badge. Milo congratulates me and points me to the next gym. Pokémon has always done a good job of demonstrating good sportsmanship and fair play.
In the lobby of the gym, the dialog of characters has changed. People are aware of who I am now, that I have defeated Milo, and might be a promising challenger in the ongoing competition. When the game seems to have some awareness of you, adjusting the world and its inhabitants based on your actions, it contributes a lot to the feeling you are a participant in a ongoing narrative.