Pokémon Scarlet & Violet Report 05: Proving the Rule(s)

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.

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.