Pokémon Scarlet & Violet Report 03: Pokémon: Breath of the Wild

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.

A function of narrative is to drive the events of a story forward, either to an Aristotelian climax or the more subtle development of the Japanese kishōtenketsu structure. Yet one thing that Zelda: Breath of the Wild taught us is that video games don’t have to work that way. BoTW had a very strong and compelling narrative, but it was up to the player how much, and when, they engaged with it. For all that Link was constantly being told about how dangerous the looming threat of Calamity Ganon was, the player was free to spend as much time as they wanted wandering around, riding horses, collecting mushrooms, or whatever.

The linear narrative of Pokémon games can create a similar feeling. Normally the story advances only when you choose to go the next Pokemon gym. You can mess around, battling, collecting as much as you like and the narrative will not advance until you choose to activate it. The large scale structure though was fundamental linear, with a beginning, middle, and end — and no branching paths. Scarlet & Violet seems trying to find a middle ground between the Pokémon formulas of the past, and what BoTW accomplished.

BoTW allowed the player to travel freely (though reaching some locations became much easier as Link’s skills and powers increased) and engage in the larger plot with a lot of freedom of choice. You could, to pick a primary example, attempt to face the four Devine Beasts in whatever order you chosen. Each Beast had its own narrative based around it, with locations, NPCs, and specific challenges associated with it. These sub-narratives were largely independent modules, and while each contributed to a larger whole, the sequence did not much matter.

You could also seek out the locations that would trigger fragments of Link’s memories about the past, about Zelda, and Link’s relationship with Zelda, in any order. I found in my play experience, that the emotional effect of these memories was shaped by the sequential relationship that arose from the particular you happened to discover them. I have more to say about that in my full post on Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Returning to Pokémon, where narrative progress had previously always been structured around the order in which you visit the different Pokémon Gyms and battled each gym’s leader. Each Gym is progressively more of a challenge, so, practically, you had to face them in a fixed sequence as your own skill increased to match that challenge. The layout of the game world map also mostly confined you to a route that would take you from Gym to Gym appropriately(though you could easily go back to visit previous locations). A lot of this constraining of travel was accomplishing through the “moves” your own pokémon had access to. Could they, at particular points in the narrative, fly you from place to place, cross bodies of water, smash through obstacles, etc.

Recent games in series have removed more and more of those constraints, making it easier to move around, though the sequence of Pokémon Gyms remain core to the narrative. Scarlet & Violet appears to have abandoned that, in this post-BoTW era. You can go to Gyms in any order, as well as attack Team Star bases, or track down Titan pokémon to your own preferences.

How does that game design interact with game narrative? I’ll note again that I’ve tried to avoid spoilers for Scarlet & Violet, and so the questions I’m asking are likely answered in reviews and descriptions of the game which I have not read. I am guessing that the difficulty level of Gyms and other challenges scales with your own progression. Whatever Gym you face will be adjusted to a difficulty that you can reasonably overcome, given the number of Gym badges you’ve earned. The same with Team Star bases.

The Team Star storyline so far has the most structured narrative. My first encounter with them brought up a lot of backstory about their history with the Academy, the mysterious behind-the-scenes Cassiopeia and the ridiculously disguised Chairman Clavell, who is pretending to be a pompadoured student named Clive. Cassiopeia seems to have enlisted me into “Operation Starfall,” an all-out war on Team Star, without going into many specifics about why. I suspect a lot of unspoken drama between them that will be revealed in due course.

This all would all appear to be a linear sequence of narrative events — and so are the cinematics being set and staged based on which ever Team Star base I happen to be at? That is, would what I just experienced at Team Star’s Dark base have taken place, with slight adjustments, at some other base if I’d gone their instead? Some of what I learn comes from Team Star leader’s Giacomo’s personal memories — so maybe that aspect will turn out to like recovering Link’s memories, where a puzzle is being assembled, but the order in which I find the pieces makes a difference to how the emotions of the narrative come together as a whole.

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