Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 12: Watching, Being, Doing

Continuing my playthrough of Pokémon Sword & Shield. 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.

Pokemon 101

The first Pokémon games included 150 different types of pokémon. As of this writing there are 893 in the all encompassing “National Pokédex.” Some pokémon have different appearances based on their gender (usually only slight) and some have different colors or other variations. Usually that means 2 or 3 or 4 different forms. There is a butterfly pokémon, Vivillion, that has 20 different wing patterns. The fairy Alcremie has 63, which are found or created through a variety of strange means, including spinning around in circles. Depending on how you count these variations and forms, there are well over 1000 distinctly looking pokémon for the obesssive collector to try and aquire. And that’s not even getting into the whole realm of “shiny” pokémon: extremely rare color variations that are highly sought after.

The narrative of Pokémon games is not the usual hero’s journey. As the player, you are a traveler, uncovering the world and increasing your knowledge and skill, but you as a character are not changing or facing difficult choices. In the previous game in the series, Pokemon Sun & Moon, there was a large story in motion around you, though your experience was mostly observational. It was a good story, yet in the end I felt some dissatisfaction from my lack of actual involvement in it. Involvement is a hard thing to achieve in a video game, where the technology is still limiting, and attempting anything more than a linear, preplanned story is a challenge.

For most of Sword & Shield, the narrative has accepted those limitations and worked with them. While you as the player are working through the Pokemon Challenge, which is the main activity of the game, on the narrative level you are a tourist. There’s an episodic structure of meeting an assortment of characters, such as the Gym Leaders and the other Challengers, seeing their stories, and watching them unfold — and get resolved. Though you rise in the ranks and become a Challenger of ever increasing fame — and there are some hints that you might have a more heroic destiny in the future — the game doesn’t try to make you feel that you are, really, the main character. You are more a narrative device that connects all these other stories. This structure is actually more like that of the long running Pokémon animated series, where the character Ash goes about his Pokémon journey and meets new people and situations in each episode.

Hop is the dramatic main character of this story, as he is the one with personal issues and emotional needs. He struggles with his admiration for his brother, his desire to become as good a trainer, and his inner doubts about his abilities — doubts he covers with his boisterous enthusiasm and energy. The game could have been structured so that I was “playing” Hop, in the way that many games make you be the main character. You then have the experience of directing that character as to where they walk or what attacks to use, but then switching to a passive observer, watching “yourself,” during dramatic sequences. It’s that way with most narrative games from Cloud in Final Fantasy VII to Joel in the Last of Us. Sword & Shield avoids that and instead makes us feel more comfortable in the observer/traveler role. It isn’t until the last stages of the game that some problems with this approach come up

Getting back to that, where we left off, Hop, Piers, Marnie, and I were leaving the hotel to find Leon, who’d last been seen heading to a meeting with Chairman Rose. We are stopped by Rose’s assistant Oleana. And I mean literally stopped as that she prevents us from going forward by locking access to the tower and giving the key to a henchman. Oleana has always seemed suspicious, but this is a sudden direct use of her power. It’s also a shift in how the game has played so far. I’m now given a mini-quest to hunt down her henchman, who is disguised as a League Trainer, and get the key back from him. As a mini-game it is not fun. Narratively it is supposed to represent a chase through the city and a series of encounters and escapes. The result is actually a sequence of boring searches and repetitive battles. This could have been an entertaining action sequence in movie. Here, it is trying to realize something the game isn’t meant to emulate.

It ends with Piers and Team Yell distracting the henchman so that we can get to the Tower. Note that we three kids (Marnie, Hop, and me) are now cast as the problem solvers, a trope the narrative has avoided until now. It’s then Hop and me who enter the gigantic Rose Tower to find out what’s going on. Then, it’s yet another slog of battles against more minions.

I’ve mentioned that Team Yell had turned out to be something of a fake out and not the usual bad guy “Team” of Pokémon games. Sword & Shield now gives us another team, Macro Cosmos, that do serve that classic role. They are a secret squad of Oleana’s agents in Rose’s organization. While they do have some amusing quips and worries about their bonuses and health insurance, these are all joke we’ve seen before in other “Teams” and the series of fights are not interesting. Hop does not participate in the battles, but does heal up all my pokémon between them — which means these battles are entirely inconsequential. They are only filler, extending the length of the game. Almost all video games use this sort of filler, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious. It unpleasantly contrasts with the good design we’ve seen so far. It is like a filler episode of an animated series that was farmed out to a cheaper production studio out of budget and schedule necessity.

Eventually we (it’s still Hop and myself) get to a confrontation with Oleana herself. This is much more interesting because it reveals her true personality for the first time: her placid demeanor cracks, she reveals her devotion to Rose, and gives hints of her personal backstory. Even her pokémon express something about her. She starts out sending a series of pretty and feminine presenting pokémon, before resorting to the living garbage heap Garbodor, which you can eventually learn is her oldest pokemon, from days when she lived in poverty. It is also a serious, challenging battle. Once defeated, Oleana gets out our way, though she reveals that Rose has already gathered all the Wishing Stars he needs, thanks to her manipulation of Bede.

And then we hear the dialog between Leon and Rose. Rose is obsessed with solving Galar’s energy problems. The power they have will last for another thousand years before running out, but Rose wants to do something about it right now, and asks for Leon’s help. The Champion agrees it’s something that needs attention, but can wait at least one day, until the Finals are done. Then he’ll be glad to help. For Rose though, that is not good enough.

The conflicts between industrialization and nature, between the needs of humans versus the future health of the planet are not new to video games, particularly Japanese games, and are not new to Pokémon. I’ll hold off discussing what this game has to say about this topic in general, and about climate change in particular, until we get to the end of the story, which is, it turns out, still a ways off.

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