Continuing my thoughts about the narrative experience of Pokémon Scarlet & Violet as I play through my game of Violet. Assume spoilers about it based on how far along I am in each post.
Of course the big controversy of this game are graphic glitches and the apparent limitations of the Nintendo Switch to fully run it. I’m not planning on going into that, as plenty of other people are talking about such issues online. I also find there are some questionable choices in the art and gameplay design that I’ve seen so far — but again I’m not going to discuss that here, unless they effect the narrative experience which is the main focus of these posts.
In the early Pokémon games your rival was introduced as an antagonist: someone you were meant to dislike and therefore be motivating to surpass and defeat. In later games they became more of a “frenemy” or even, as with Sword & Shield’s Hop, your best childhood friend, whom you competed against, not out of anger or even competition, but so that you both could grow stronger. The secondary antagonists that Sword & Shield also included, such as Marnie and Bede turned out to be characters with much more complexity that villains you are meant to stomp over on your road to victory. Nemona in Scarlet & Violet is not just a friend and rival, but our sempai, that is, our elder upperclassman at the Academy who is there to show us the basics of being a pokémon trainer.
A surprising story event is how quickly we encounter the game’s featured legendary pokémon — Miraidon, for me in Violet. Rather that show up at a climatic moment at the game’s end, I’ve meet and started interacting with it already, and we’ve manage to help each other out of some difficult situations. The poor guy seems to have habit of overexerting itself and getting tired out. Nemona and I also encounter Arven, another upper classman at the Academy. He’s an ill-tempered lout who also knows Miraidon. He even has a pokéball for Miraidon, though he’s not its trainer — that is, he can’t command or order it about. He gives me the pokéball, which means I’m carrying Miraidon around, but he’s not part of my actual team to use in battles and so forth. This is a strange situation and unlike any player/pokémon relation we’ve seen before.
My goals now are just to take a trip across the countryside, working my way towards the Uva Academy. Along the way I meet people, catch more pokémon (there are a lot and a wide variety too), and encounter this game’s version of PokéMarts to buy things, heal pokémon, and do various other tasks. Looks like there’s some sort of crafting system to make TMs to teach your pokémon new moves, but I’m not in a hurry to learn all its ins-and-outs.
The world of Pokémon has been from the beginning one of advanced technology, though it’s not always obvious on the surface. The ability to digitally store and teleport pokémon being its main manifestation. There was a very early Pokémon comic where buildings, vehicles, etc. all had a very sleek, rounded, futuristic appearance, almost like a Matsamune Shirow manga. It’s funny how now actual, real-world tech has surpassed some of what been the game, and how the narrative has to catch up. For example, tools such as your map, your communication device, and your actual digital storage of pokémon are all now encompassed by a single, cellphone-like device. Your pokédex (your archive of pokémon information) is now just an app on your “phone” within the game. Director Clavell makes an old-man reference (which I can identify with a little too much) how, in his days, trainers had to keep track of their pokédex with pencil and paper.
Arriving in my first city, Mesagoza, my first impression is how important food seems to be in this game. Most of the business I can interact with are cafes, restaurants, and food stands. What you eat seems to grant some kind of gameplay buff, but I’m not far enough to know how that works. In a somewhat offputting surprise, when you walk up to enter these and most of the other businesses, you open the door and immediately are shown a shopping interface. You don’t wander around inside and chat with other customers before making a purchase — just straight to the exchange.
In general there seems a lot less interactivity with the city than I’ve come to expect in a Pokémon game. You walk past people in the streets and overhear their mostly innocuous conservation. Most don’t notice you at all and only a few will engage in any chit-chat. I don’t really hear any rumors and nobody offers much helpful advice. Also, so far, I haven’t been able to go into anybody’s house to talk to them, find treasure (or, as in the odd feature in Sun & Moon, smell their beds). I’m missing a sense of attachment or involvement with the world so far.
The central narrative concept of this game is the pokémon school I’m attending, called Uva Academy in my copy of Pokémon Violet. Games in the past have had some sort of pokemon educational institution, but these have been minor story elements, just one of the many places you encounter in places you explore. Here it’s a big deal, essentially the center of the game world and your adventures.
It’s on the way to the Academy I do run into this game’s troublesome “team”: Team Star. They so far are just helmet wearing delinquents trying to intimidate other students into joining their gang. I have really enjoyed the twists and complexities of Team Skull and Team Yell in the past two games so I have high expectations of where their story will go this time.
The school itself is a large building, full of students and teachers, with rooms to explore, and particular locations such as the lunch room and the teachers’ lounge that I’m directed to in order to get plot information. There are also class activities to get involved with. For all the Harry Potter vibes, the school has a lot of Japanese customs, such as classes being ranked “A-1” and so on, and having the tradition of new students coming to the front of the classroom to introduce themselves.
You can also sign up to take particular “classes” in pokémon related topics. These are just cut scenes of teachers lecturing on aspects of gameplay. What is interesting to me, as a long time Pokémon player (since Red & Blue), is that these lectures actually explain things that, in the past, have been left for players to discover on their own. There have been a lot of game mechanics such as, say, the difference between a “physical” or a “special” attack (think of punching someone vs. shooting a lightning bolt at them) that the game never directly tells you about but that you learn by play, or by talking about with other players. In some ways these explanations take something away from the traditions of the game, but on the other hand they are appropriate for a game set in a pokémon school.
A little oddly after all then school setup (it’s implied that I spend some time at the Academy), an independent study program is announced that sends us students out on a “treasure hunt” so we can explore and learn about the outside world of pokémon — the usual thing one is expected to do in the game series. What is different is that the various NPCs we’ve met encourage us to pursue different goals. Nemona, who loves pokémon battles, wants us to journey to the different Pokémon Gyms to train, and work towards being a champion battler. Arven wants our help investigating sightings of the mysterious Titan pokémon (and also collect sandwich recipes). An unseen agent named Cassiopeia wants us to investigate Team Star. Chairman Clavell and the enigmatic Professor Turo (who appears to be Miraidon’s original trainer) definitely do not want us messing near the ominous “Area Zero.” I’m sure the game will ultimately have me doing all those things, so the choice is really just what to concentrate on first.