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.
The introductory chapter of Scarlet & Violet suggested that the player choose which of the three different plot lines they should pursue: challenge the eight Pokémon Gyms, seek out the Titan pokémon, or battle Team Star. In practice it actually seems like game progression requires following up all three simultaneously, alternating from one to another as the difficulty increases. After I finish my first play through I might investigate whether it’s possible to complete one storyline all the way before taking up another.
I am though coming to feel that the game’s balance between player freedom in an open world and challenge difficulty progression does not quite work — certainly not as well as in, to return to the inevitable comparison, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Twice now I have clearly done things in the “wrong” order. The second Team Star base I raided was the Poison Crew— which did turn out to be too difficult for my current level. After some more play I went after the third base, Fairy Crew. It was a challenge, but I managed to win. Then back to Poison, where things went fine. The fourth base I went after was the Fire Crew, only to find that it was far too easy for the levels my pokémon had achieved.
An even more extreme situation arose when I came to the Grass Gym in the city of Artazon. Outside the Gym I meet Nemona, who congratulated me on earning 6 badges so far and challenged me to a battle. Her pokémon were at a level comparable to mine, in the mid 40s. I won the match fairly easily, mostly due to her choice, from early in the game, of picking a Water Type for her first pokémon, who was thus weak to my Grass Type. But then when I faced Brassius, the Gym Leader himself, his pokémon were only level 16-17! Clearly this was meant to be the second or third Gym I faced, not the 7th. That wasn’t the result of any deliberate choice on my part: this is just where I ended up after idly exploring the game world. It seems as if the game design expected players to cautiously move through the world, only taking the easiest path with lowest level pokémon and trainers that were available. That ultimately conflicts with the way the world encourages exploration and inspires curiosity.
This encounter at Artazon also demonstrates that while the challenge level of each Gym is fixed, other aspects of the narrative do scale and adjust to my own progress. The battle I had with Nemona is always going to happen as it did at which ever Gym happened to be the 7th one I reached.
Some of these balance problems do arise from how I am choosing to play the game. The big name, top-of-the-line video games these days can be very difficult to play and master. A few years ago I attempted to play the much praised Last of Us — only to find it far too difficult for me. And I don’t mean the difficulty of sneaking past and battling fungoid zombies: I mean just managing its basic controls, buttons, and menu systems. The game made me feel like a drunk 4 year-old, stumbling across the screen, lurching around while trying to walk in a particular direction, let alone successfully point a gun and shoot where I wanted.
Pokémon, on the other hand, is not a hard game. The early games can be successfully played by random number generators, Twitch Plays Pokemon, or by a goldfish. Competitive Pokémon battling can be intense, but the core gameplay is meant to be something young children can handle. What more experienced players have to worry about, as I mentioned above, is overleveling, that is, training your pokémon to too high a level, too quickly, so none of the game’s battles are challenging at all.
Players have come up with various self-imposed handicaps to increase the game’s difficulty, such as nuzlockes. On a Pokémon podcast I occasionally listen to, It’s Super Effective, the host mentioned that in his playthrough he was using a team of entirely Water Type pokémon. Now optimal strategy is to have a team with diverse types that are balanced to handle a wide range of different challenges. Using a single type can put you at a severe disadvantage against, say, a Type that is strong against you, or that you are weak against. I thought this was an interesting approach so I have been building a team of all Grass Types. Now in the world of Pokémon most other trainers, particularly Gym Leaders, do specialize in a particular type. So there’s always a Rock Gym, a Ghost Gym, or whatever. If you know the type and pick pokémon who are strong against it, you often can just plow right through. Sticking to a one Type team makes a big difference in strategy. My Grass team could easily handle a Water Gym, but an Ice Gym is much more of a challenge.
A consequence of the multi-plot diffused narrative of Scarlet & Violet is that the role of Gym Leaders is greatly diminished. The challenge of reaching 8 Gyms, collecting badges from winning a match against each leader, and thus earning the opportunity to take on the Pokémon League and finally the Champion, has been the core and concluding narrative event of each generation of the game. Even the “save the world” Hero’s Journey plots have been secondary to that. Sun & Moon did use a variation of the Gym system, but still ultimately led to a League and a Champion. Sword & Shield brought Gyms back, made the Challenge a public sporting event, and had the Champion be an important character in the story, whom you interacted with extensively.
That was actually a big change in how the narrative had been structured in early games. The identity of the Gym Leaders, the Elite Four of the League, and the Champion had been left a mystery until you met them — even at times a shocking plot twist. This has been gradually changing. In Sword & Shield you glimpsed all the Gym Leaders at the start of the competition and then often met several of them during your journey, before ever reaching their Gyms.
Now, in Scarlet & Violet, as mentioned, Gym Leaders are just local figures, whose significance is limited to just the city you find them in. The Elite Four are not a mystery or a surprise, as they introduce themselves to you at various points. One is even on the faculty of the Academy. So while Sword & Shield emphasized the significance of the Gym Challenge, this game does the opposite by removing any mystery and making the Challenge one of several co-equal narrative elements. In fact the other challenges also award you badges, the prize that used to embody your Gym progress.
While this takes a bit of adjustment for an old school Pokémon player such as myself, overall I have no real problem with these changes to the formula. The series often gets criticism for just repeating the same game elements generation after generation and its experimentations with alternatives have been cautious and conservative. As I said at the top, I can’t say everything they are doing in this game is entirely successful, but it’s interesting to watch the attempts be tested.