Pokémon Scarlet & Violet Report 04: Narrative as Bricolage

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.

Turns out I was wrong expecting that the difficulty of Pokémon Scarlet & Violet would scale according to my own current level — as a mechanic that would allow a player to go anywhere and face any challenge one chose to seek out. It turns out the strength of Gym Leaders and so on is fixed, and that the different areas of Paldea are “gated” by the levels of the pokémon and the fellow trainers you have to face to get there. You are also constrained by the movement powers you’ve unlocked — swimming, flying, etc. — for your special transport or “ride” pokémon. So in a typical video game way, more of the world opens up to you as you progress through it. Or, I should sat, more easily opens up to you. There is little stopping you from attempting to power through harder challenges in an attempt to reach Gyms and cities you aren’t “supposed” to reach yet — if you feel the grind is worth it. This is another way Scarlet & Violet parallels Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where you could, if you really, really wanted to, jump straight from the very beginning of the game directly to the ultimate confrontation with Calamity Ganon (as you can see speed runners pull off on YouTube).

This all adds an aspect of exploration that is new to Pokémon, since you do have to explore and find a path of acceptable challenge through the game. Several times I have set off through an area towards a goal, only to reach a point where it was too hard to go forward. Fortunately, you can call a flying taxi at any time and travel between any Pokéstop you’ve visited in the past (again just like Link could teleport between shrines in BoTW) and then choose a more achievable destination.

The central story of Pokémon games has developed gradually, with cautious experimentation, over the past few generations of the series. Sun & Moon introduced a variation on the tried-and-true plot of eight Pokémon Gyms to find and defeat, replacing it with the Island Challenges. The story too made some departure from the usual “Hero’s Journey” formula. While there was still a world-threatening danger to overcome and a “big bad” villain to defeat, in many ways you, as the player character, were a secondary participant in the main narrative. If the game had been a movie, you were kind of the main character Lillie’s bestfriend, rather than the star, at least in term of dramatic arcs and character growth. Interestingly, the revised Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon de-emphasized and even watered down Lillie’s story, as if there had been complaints about it distracting from “your” presence in the narrative.

Sword & Shield brought back the Gym Challenge and made it into an Olympics-like public sport event that was a focus of much of the region’s popular culture. It also took the idea of an adventure movie plot and put it way in the background. For most the game the main narrative structure was your encountering the smaller stories and personal experiences of people you met along your journey (again I’ve written a lot about that).

With the (constrained) freedom of movement in Scarlet & Violet this decentralization of one, central plot progresses even further. You can end up interacting with a lot of individual, ongoing narratives and short character portraits. The Gym leaders have their own little narratives: nobody is just a Gym Leader. They are chefs, rap musicians, social media streamers, and so on, all part of their local community, part of the persistent, ongoing world.

The game encourages you, through rewards and important game information, to periodically check in back at the Academy. There you learn more about the various teachers and staff at the school as they tell you more and more about themselves as you converse and report to them about your ongoing adventures. The history and culture of Paldea gets depicted in increasing depth — once again appropriate for a school themed game. Plus, there are hints that some of them have, possibly, more complex agendas.

Then there are the larger story arcs that advance through the game play. These are mostly mysterious for me now, though I learn more with each encounter. Something sketchy is definitely behind the “Operation Starfall” I’ve been roped into, as part of Cassiopeia’s vendetta against Team Star — which I’m sure is itself part of some scandals and controversies in the Academy’s past that no one wants to talk about.

I have though begun to learn more about the deal with Arven, particularly how his quest to fight the various Titan pokémon and locate Herba Mystica is all about finding a way to heal his beloved pokémon partner, Mabosstiff, who was badly injured in some as yet unknown circumstances.

My senpai Nemona is also up to something too, I can’t help but feel.

One thing I don’t know is how much these narratives are unfolding in a linear way, directly connected with my progress through the game, or, as I mentioned in my last post, if they are more like the puzzle pieces of Link’s lost memories, and the order in which they assemble arrises from my choices. The fact that I don’t know that, or know what pieces of whose story I’ll encounter next, is an intriguing and involving way to construct an overall narrative experience.

One more ongoing story element is the mystery of “Area Zero” which I’m guessing will unlock once everything else is taken care of, for a climactic story event, just as the “Darkest Day” event erupted to wrap up the narrative of Sword & Shield.

 

 

 

 

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