Pokemon Play Report 04: Grass, Water, Fire

I am writing about my playthrough of the newest Pokémon game, Pokémon Sword & Shield, concentrating on it as a story experience, rather than on its mechanics as a video game.

First some Pokémon 101, in case you are unfamiliar with the game series:

Here’s the basic story structure of almost every Pokémon game. You are a young pokémon trainer — someone who travels the world capturing and training pokémon and using them in competitive battles (something pokémon seem to like doing). There is a circuit of eight Pokémon Gyms, dojos for pokémon battles, managed by a Gym Leader who specializes in a particular type of pokémon. You face each of these leaders in battle to win a special badge. Collect all eight badges and you qualify for the final Pokémon League competition, where you have the chance to win your place as the Pokémon Champion. Over the course of this journey you have a Rival, who might be an antagonist or might be a childhood friend, but who is on a similar journey to the Championship. There is also a trouble causing “Team” of some sort who are committing crimes or mischief. They tend to be minions of a master villain involved in some nefarious scheme you get caught up in. Those three plot threads tangle and cross over each other at various points before a resolution that sets the stage for the Championship.

Now back to where I am in the newest game.

At this point in Pokémon Sword & Shield, I am on my way to first of the gyms in this region’s Pokémon Challenge. The trip to the Grass Gym Leader Milo (whom I briefly met while he was herding wooloos early in the game) is a route across the countryside were I can look for wild pokémon and encounter the occasional fellow trainer. It’s all about improving your skill and training your pokémon to get stronger and stronger — and collecting many new pokémon, if your goal is to assemble a complete menagerie. As I run through the colorful, artfully designed 3D countryside, it is amazing to consider how far the visuals of the game have come from the black & white 2D graphics of the original Pokémon Red & Blue on the Nintendo Gameboy.

This region of Galar is dotted with standing stones such as those at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites in Britain. Outside the town of Turffield, there is also an enormous petroglyph on a hillside depicting a giant pokémon. The regions of Pokémon games have always been based on real locations, but Sun & Moon’s Hawaii-like Aloha, and now the British Galar really succeed in creating the sense of being in a distinct area. The assistant Pokémon Professor, Sonia, who continues a parallel journey to mine, is studying the petroglyph as part of her research, and connects it to the Darkest Day legends. These ominous tales are of pokémon in their giant dynamax form rampaging across the countryside. It seems like dynamax is going to be an important story element, and not just a new gameplay feature, the way similar power-ups in earlier games, such as mega evolutions and z-moves were.

Milo

Milo’s Grass Gym is waiting for whenever I am ready to take the challenge. Hop is ahead of me in the journey, having already won his badge. He’s fulfilling his role as my rival, spurring me on to advance my part of the story. With so much to do in this game, so many pokémon already around to catch, it can be easy to get distracted. The match with Milo is held, as is the norm in Galar, in a huge stadium. Also normal by this time in the game, I have a team of six fairly strong pokémon, while Milo, as the first gym leader you face, only comes at you with two. Those two are not slouches though, and Milo does invoke dynamax, causing one of his pokémon to grow to Godzilla size and attack with a pyrotechnic display of visual effects. Still he wasn’t too hard to beat and I win my first badge. Milo congratulates me and points me to the next gym. Pokémon has always done a good job of demonstrating good sportsmanship and fair play.

Nessa

The next stage of our journey takes us to port town of Hulburry, where the Water Pokémon Gym Leader Nessa is based. Once again I meet her outside the gym, doing non-pokémon activities. I also have a quick lunch meeting with Chairman Rose — who seems pretty dependent on his personal assistant Oleana to keep him on schedule. Something is up with these two, I’m pretty sure. She might be the true power behind the throne so to speak, with the shorts and ball cap wearing Rose as puppet. Defeating the water gym is no big deal. Besides having a full compliment of six pokémon, I have the advantage of knowing she’s going to use water-type pokémon, so I can assemble my team with that in mind.

Kabu

Fire Leader Kabu is next, though his gym is the one where opening ceremonies at Motostoke were held. But Kabu is not ready for a challenge yet. He’s off training in the mines and I basically have to go find him to let him know I’m ready. Mines and tunnel complexes are another typical environment in Pokémon games, places where you meet very different types of pokémon than you do in grassy fields or forests. The ever arrogant Bede is also in these tunnels, and I get to defeat him again, though as usual he barely even acknowledges his loss. The dignified elder gym leader Kabu is Bede’s opposite, welcoming my challenge and looking forward to honorable battle.

Marnie

I can’t immediately go to the stadium, but must spend another night at the nearby hotel. What the story is doing is making me face fellow trainer Marnie, whom I had only met briefly before. She waits at the hotel for a battle. It’s one of the more challenging ones too, particularly if you haven’t rested up your pokémon and because as an unfamiliar opponent, you don’t know what pokémon she’s going to send against you.

The Gym battle with Kabu is next day. Once again Hop is ahead of me and has already beaten the challenge. Kabu’s attitude of respectful sportsmanship continues when, rather than waiting for me on a throne or proudly striding in from the opposite side of the stadium, he quietly joins me at the entrance and we walk in together. The battle goes smoothly enough if you are prepared for a Fire Master. This battle does teach more about the important tactics of when to dynamax your pokémon for the optimal use of that limited special power.

Next stage of the challenge is the castle fortress city of Hammerlock. Hop and I head out that way only to run into Bede once more. Hop wants a crack at this jerk and so stays to fight him while I go on another jaunt through the countryside.

Hop defeated

When I next run into Hop something very unusual and upsetting has happened. Hop has lost to Bede! Not only has he lost the pokémon battle, Bede has insulted him and accused Hop of being a disgrace to his champion brother Leon. Hop is clearly shaken by this, and keeps his face turned away from both me as a character and me as a player looking at the game screen. Pokémon games do have serious character moments from time to time, but this quite a somber tone shift for what this game has presented so far.

Pokemon Play Report 03: A Journey of Eight Gyms

I am writing about my playthrough of the newest Pokémon game, Pokémon Sword & Shield, concentrating on it as a story experience, rather than on its mechanics as a video game.

So far the story of Pokémon Sword & Shield is straightforward. My friend Hop and I are setting out on our journey to become champions in Galar’s great tradition of pokémon battling. There was that weird bit with the mysterious pokémon in the foggy woods, but those things happen. Professor Magnolia’s assistant Sonia is also going to be traveling the land, but her goal is not battling, but scientific research about pokémon. I am getting a bit tired of Hop’s over-the-top enthusiasm and look forward to some time on my own quest — alone.

Wild Area

Our train to the city of Motostoke is delayed by a herd of sheep — or rather wooloos, spherical sheep-pokémon — and we have to travel a ways through the “Wild Area.” This introduces us to a new feature of this game. In the Wild Area you can wander and explore, find lots of pokémon, and even join other players in raids against giant “dynamax” pokémon (I want to hold off talking about dynamax until it becomes a bigger part of the game’s storyline). The Wild Area is Pokémon’s first real attempt at an online game world, the sort of thing associated with World of Warcraft and other MMO (“massive multiplayer online”) games. It’s a tentative start, but players have been asking for a Pokémon MMO for a long time. Another very new aspect of the Wild Area is that some pokémon you might encounter there are very strong. Most of a Pokémon game is carefully designed so that as you play through it, the new pokémon you find are the appropriate strength for what you, as a pokémon trainer, should be able to handle at that point of the game. But in Sword & Shield’s Wild Area, if you are not careful, you can easily run into a pokémon strong enough to crush you and your team. Of course you never “die” in a Pokémon game. Loosing a battle is just a consumption of time and resources, but it’s a setback in your progress.

Motostoke

I could play around in the Wild Area as much as I’d like, but I need to get to Motostoke eventually. And it is a big town, a large city actually, compared to my home village. A new town means new shopping. Shopping is a surprisingly important part of video role-playing games, and has its roots in tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons. You go fight monsters, take their treasure, and the spend it. Usually on more weapons and gear to help you fight more monsters! In Pokémon you have always earned money by fighting other trainers and you spend it on better equipment to help you in your journey (the British flair of Sword & Shield continues, with references to this as buying your “kit”). As games have progressed there has been more shopping with the goal of customizing your character. You can buy clothes and accessories, as well as changing your hair style, eye color and (if your character is a girl) makeup. So you can play dress up, and either go for an exotic appearance, or try to make your character look the most like you as an actual person.

While you shop and explore the town you also have a chance to chat with people you pass on the street — this is almost always just a pre-set statement or brief exchange. Some of these exchanges are chit-chat, but occasionally an important piece of information or a clue will be mentioned, so you get into the habit of trying to talk to everybody you see. Sometimes they have gifts to hand out as well. Some of these NPCs (“non-player characters”) just have word balloons over their heads as you approach them, to represent what you overhear as they talk to other people. It’s a little more efficient, but does me feel like an eavesdropper, particularly when people are commenting about me, apparently not noticing that I right there.

Bede

When you spot someone who has distinctive clothes and elaborate, unusually colored hair, it is an immediately clue that this is not just a random citizen or passerby — it’s a character important to the story. That is how, when you visit the Pokémon Stadium, you meet Bede. Besides his appearance marking him as story character, Bede immediately gets serious about Antagonist Attitude. He seems offended by your mere prescience in his vicinity. His main beef is that he was authorized for the Pokémon Tournament by Chairman Rose, the owner of the whole shebang, while Hop and I were chosen by Leon, who is “only” the undefeated Champion. We also get to meet Rose himself, who is a Tony Stark-looking businessman who seems to own everything in sight. In role-playing games, wealthy, omnipresent businessmen who radiate an image of beneficence do not have a good record of trustworthiness— but we’ll see.

My main goal in town is registration for the Pokemon Tournament. Opening ceremonies are tomorrow, but fortunately my registration includes a free night at the hotel next door. There we meet Sonia again, who fill us in on a little background lore: the legend that there was once a hero who, armed with a magic sword and shield, defended the land from a disaster called “The Darkest Day.” Ominous foreshadowing. Is this game once again going to cast us in the role of a world saving hero? The fantasy adventure trope of an ancient evil that was once defeated, but now arises again for a new battle is maybe a little stale, 80 years after Lord of the Rings was written, so I hope that something a little fresher is in store.

Team Yell

My hotel check-in is interrupted by members of “Team Yell.” An expectation in Pokémon is encountering each game’s “Team.” It began with Team Rocket in Red & Blue, and each subsequent game had a new group: Team Plasma, Team Galactic, Team Flare, etc. These mostly incompetent buffoons are the minions or followers of the game’s main bad guy and come from a long tradition of such characters in Japanese entertainment. Sun & Moon gave some nuance to its “Team Skull,” which was more an underprivileged street gang being exploited by more the powerful and privileged to do their dirty work (there was also a lot of complex cultural elements to Team Skull’s hip-hop styling that didn’t work well here in the United States). Team Yell, though rough and aggressive, are not immediately presented as criminal. They are the Pokémon Championship’s equivalent to football hooligans, and the devoted fans of another new character and competitor, Marnie. When we meet her, she’s relatively well-mannered (compared to Bede) and even apologies for her fan club (describing them as getting “a bit shirty). I am certain I will be encountering Team Yell throughout the game and will have some big matches against Marnie herself. But just how much of an antagonist, how much of an actual villain, she will turn out to be remains the be seen.

Before the ceremony I have as much time as I want to explore the steam powered city of Motostoke, talking to people, finding stray bits of treasure lying around, and even picking up a small side quest to find a missing pokémon. Eventually is time to move on to the ceremony, and to learn what the real structure of Sword & Shield, as a video game, will be. Fundamentally it is… exactly the same as every other Pokémon game. There are eight Pokémon gyms, each with a leader who specializes in a particular type of pokémon. I need to journey from one to another, in a set order, defeat the leader of each gym, and earn a badge. When I have eight badges I qualify to participate in a final championship battle. Check, check, and check. Sun & Moon mixed things up a bit by recasting the gym battles as a series of “Trials” where you took on some different challenges to complete the ritual, though they still came down to battles against leaders (“Kahunas” in this case) and did end up in a final Pokemon League Championship. Some players objected to even those changes, since the traditions of Pokémon are so deeply established that any variance gets resistance.

Sword & Shield both returns some elements to that tradition, but also makes some radical changes in its presentation — though ones that are in keeping with how the games have progressed over the years. In the first few generations of Pokémon games, gym masters sat patiently waiting in their respective dojos for trainers to pass by. You knew very little about them in advance, so each encounter was a big reveal. In the last few games the gym leaders began to be developed as active characters. You could even encounter them walking around town, going about their lives when they weren’t on duty. In Sun & Moon the Kahuanas were civic leaders with other responsibilities besides pokémon battles.

Opening Ceremonies

The distinguishing feature of the Galar region is that pokémon battling is a popular spectator sport and has an organized structure, like the Olympics. You don’t just wander the world as an itinerant battler, but enroll in this competition along with a cohort of other trainers, whom we can assume we will also ultimately battle. In this opening ceremony we don our official uniform (with a player number that we get to pick out) and parade into the stadium like a sport star. And then the Gym Leaders themselves are introduced (or seven are at least, the eight is mysteriously missing). Never before in a game have we gotten to see the leaders all at once in such a ceremonial fashion.

While this is a change in Pokémon tradition, in Japanese manga and anime, tournaments and organized completions are a omnipresent format, either in martial arts duels, heroes fighting through a succession of enemies, or as here, in an official organized sporting event. In those forms it is not uncommon for the young, ambitious hero to get glimpses of who their eventually challengers will be. It makes clear how long and arduous the completion will be, since each opponent you best only steps aside to reveal someone harder, and then harder still. It’s a natural, time-proven structure for melodrama and video games. These sports and other completion stories are as popular as ever, and Sword & Shield is really embracing the format without hesitation.

After the opening ceremony it’s time to journey across the countryside toward the the pokémon gym of Milo, master of grass type pokémon.

Pokémon Play Report 02: Your Story

I am writing about my playthrough of the newest Pokémon game, Pokémon Sword & Shield, concentrating on it as a story experience, rather than on its mechanics as a video game.

The previous game in the series, Pokémon Sun & Moon started off with a long, dramatic introductory scene of mysterious events at a research facility. As a player, you didn’t know who any of these people were or what these cryptic events mean. It is over the course of play that you piece together the mystery. At its center is the story of a young girl struggling to find the courage to escape from an overbearing and abusive mother, and eventually gathering the resolution to make her own choices about her life and future. It’s a moving, emotional story, but as the player, it is not your story. Your actions in the game influence what happens and through friendship you become a role-model who shapes her life decisions. Still you are mostly a witness and an observer.

Making the events of a video game feel like something that happens to you, that you are actively involved in, is a challenge. Even in a game such as Pokémon where you have a lot of freedom to move around the world and interact with what you want to, there is a fundamental structure in place that demands a fixed series of actions. As a pokémon trainer you have to become stronger and more skilled before you can take on increasingly difficult challenges. When there is an unfolding narrative, scenes have to take place in the correct order. In older games you accepted the story was on a rail, like a ride in an amusement park. As games get more sophisticated, player expectations increase. The games have to make you care about what will inevitably happen, and welcome the predetermined sequence of events — or else just abandon the idea of a linear story entirely. Sun & Moon wasn’t entirely successful with its focus on other characters. I’m very curious how the new games faces these issues.

Traditionally in Pokémon games, your first interaction with the world is a listening to a lecture by a “Pokémon Professor,” a scientist who researches Pokémon. They give you a brief introduction to this world where humans and Pokémon live and work together and introduce the concept of being a pokémon trainer. Sword & Shield departs from this. The first thing we see is one of the huge Pokémon Statiums where people in this part of the world gather to watch Pokémon battles as a spectator sport. The classic introduction is given by, not a professor, but an MC for this event. He uses many of the same phrases that the intro speech has had since Red & Blue, but also explains how popular these public competitions are and how their champions are famous and admired public figures. So while our character has not yet appeared, we are shown just how big and important public pokémon competitions will be in this game and in this story.

Next the game takes us to where every other game also starts up: waking up in your bedroom at your house. You also meet your best friend, Hop, who is a high energy pokémon trainer, brother of the reigning competitive champion, whom we saw in the introduction. Hop just cannot wait to prove he is worthy of becoming a battler himself and follow in his brother’s footsteps. But to do that he has to set off on the journey of being a pokémon trainer, compiling his pokédex, and learning what it means to work with pokémon. As a player, you are, at first, mostly being dragged along by Hop’s unwavering enthusiasm. Fortunately you are presented as having much the same interests, though not at Hop’s level of, as one would say in Japanese, “genki.” Hop is a classic character type in Japanese comics and animation.

Another enduring feature of Pokémon games is that you are given a rival whose goals parallel yours, and with whom you must ultimately battle to become the best. Japanese “shounen manga” — boy’s comics — have used this formula for decades. Usually though the rival is an antagonist, a villain even, who embodies the opposite values of the hero. And this was the case in the early Pokémon games. Your rival was a condescending jerk who mocked you and only wanted to get stronger and stronger, even at the cost of his pokémons’ well being. You triumph not only by getting stronger yourself, but by learning to respect, love, and work with your pokémon as partners. That theme continues through the decades in Pokémon. In the past few games your rival has become more a friend than a dark mirror. In Sword & Shield, Hop is excited about being your rival because he believes that having someone who inspires competition is the best way to improve oneself. Friendship remains important to him as well. I have every expectation a more classical antagonist will be introduced into the story soon.

A little about location, since that is an important part of Pokémon. Each game so far has been set in a distinct “region.” These are based, loosely, on locations in the real world. Pokémon Red & Blue was set in “Kanto” and modeled after central Japan. Subsequent games have been based on other parts of Japan, and then locations such as France, Hawaii, and now Great Britain — known in the game as the “Galar” region. As the name suggests, Sword & Shield is going for a bit of the lore of knights and castles, with a bit of steampunk. In at least the English language version of the game they try to add a bit of British dialect as well. When Hop is concerned that your mother will be upset about the two or you galavanting around looking for strange pokemon he advises you to “Tell your Mum, or she’ll go spare!”

The early game thus consists of Hop leading you around in basic activities. You character is native to Galar, but to you as player, this is an unknown country. That is a big part of the fun of Pokémon as a role playing game: exploring this new region, learning about its cities, people, and their individual histories and culture. Another function of the beginning of the game is teaching you how to play it. Video games in the 21st Century do not come with instruction manuals. It is left to the game itself to teach you, usually through a series of simple tutorials. To players such as myself, who have played, well, quite a lot of pokemon games, tutorials can be a drag. Sword & Shield takes some big steps in dealing with this. Often a character with a tutorial role asks you if you know how to do something. If you say yes, you can just get on with things, without an inevitable lesson in game mechanics that have not changed for over 20 years.

So in Sword & Shield you can, with relative efficiency, get to the point of choosing your first pokémon. Another slight departure from the norm in Sword & Shield is that your starter pokémon are given you by Hop’s champion brother, Leon, rather than a Pokemon Professor. This again shows the high status of champions in Galar. You do soon meet a professor, Magnolia, who gives you a pokédex and asks you to record data about the pokemon of this region. Pokemon Professors always specialize in some spect of pokemon life or biology and in this case, Professor Magnolia is studying the phenomenon of dynamaxing, which allow a pokémon to temporarily grow to giant size. In a stroke of amazing good luck, two falling stars, whose rare components are vital to allowing a Pokémon to dynamax, just happen to land near by so Professor Magnolia can construct a pair of brackets for you and Hop, so that our pokemon can potentially learn to dynamax when we and they are ready.

So everything is ready for our pokémon journey to learn and train and battle. Though there is the matter of that encounter with a mysterious, previously unknown pokemon we encountered in the fog shrouded forest. I wonder what’s up with that?

Pokémon Play Report 01: Who am I? What am I doing?

I am writing about my playthrough of the newest Pokémon game, Pokémon Sword & Shield, concentrating on it as a story experience, rather than on its mechanics as a video game.

Pokémon is a game about catching, collecting, and training strange creatures, and then using them to battle other trainers in formal matches. It is also a role-playing game where you create a player character, an avatar of yourself, who journeys around the Pokémon world exploring, learning, and having adventures. So while it is a collecting and dueling game, it’s also part of the same genre as Final Fantasy, Zelda, and other games of a style that has born from Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1970’s.

Ash & Pikachu

You start by creating your character, from whose point of view you experience the game. In the earliest versions of Pokémon in the late 90’s, you played as a boy (essentially the character Ash, if you’ve ever watched a Pokémon cartoon) and theonly option you had was to pick his name. Later games introduced being either a boy or a girl character. As the graphics of video games improved, Pokémon gave you more options for customization, allowing you to pick hair colors and styles, and even go shopping for your own choices of clothes and accessories. I would frequently pick a girl character just because she would have a much wider range of fashion options that boys would have.

Selection Screen

Pokémon Sun & Moon in 2016 introduced an interesting approach to character creation. Rather than just answer the question “Are you a boy or a girl?” you were presented with a selection of faces, with different skin tones and gender presentations, and asked “which one looks like you?” After that choice though you were definitely considered gendered, would be referred to as a boy or a girl, and restricted to buying things according to that assignment.

Pokémon Sword & Shield continues that way of handling gender, though it does introduce a small, but significant addition to character creation. In Sun & Moon you could pick your skin tone, but when you encountered your character’s mother, she had a ethnically neutral appearance. In Sword & Shield your mother matches your complexion and hair color. Your character in the game also owns a Nintendo Switch of the same color scheme as the one you are actually playing the game. Identification with the player character is enforced by these little touches.

Ash’s Mom

Mothers, by the way, are always prominently featured in Pokémon games — while fathers are notably absent. They are either mentioned as being away, or not addressed at all. For fans, this naturally leads to rampant speculation about your character’s parentage…

This character you have started to create is always a child. A fairly young one too, often considered about ten, or at most a young teen. Yet the story always involves you heading on a journey into a strange and often dangerous world without supervision — aside from the ever increase army of superpowered animals, monsters, and even godlike beings you are collecting. Your mother, while expressing a bit of concern about what you get up to, is quite relaxed about you setting off on your Pokémon journey. I guess it is just an accepted part of the culture of this world, as your journey will include encountering many other young Pokémon trainers on similar expeditions.

The journey always has two goals. First is collecting information about Pokémon into an personal encyclopedia called a pokédex. Second, and fundamental to actual play of the game, is improving your skill as a Pokémon trainer by traveling to a series of Pokémon gyms, defeating the resident master in a match, and earning a special badge. When you have completed the set of eight badges you have earned the right to enter the Pokémon League and fight the League Champions in hopes of becoming yourself, the greatest Pokémon master of all. Every Pokémon game has had that structure since Red & Blue. Occasionally there are some variations. In Sun & Moon there was an additional set of challenges based on the local culture of the game’s setting. Pokémon Sword & Shield promises a different twist. In this game, in this region where the game in located, Pokémon battles are hugely popular and held in giant stadiums full of cheering crowds. Rather than something that might take place in a private, even secretive, martial arts dojo, they are public sports. Your goal at the start of the game seems to be earning the right to participate in these competitions. I am pretty sure there will still be gym badges and a Pokémon League introduced, but they are not the immediate focus.

Sword & Shield

The games also have an a more narrative story plot that goes on in the background of your personal journey. These plots have become bigger and more involved with each game. In Red & Blue you crossed paths with the criminal gang Team Rocket, which was stealing and exploiting Pokémon for selfish reasons. By Pokémon Black & White in 2010, your characer was struggling with a supervillain and his cult and saving the whole world from destruction. The game’s designers seemed to recognize that the escalation was becoming unsupportable and dialed it back in Sun & Moon, though that game still had a large scale plot suitable for a summer blockbuster movie. It had other problematic issues as a video game story, which I will touch on in comparison to Sword & Shield’s story — which we actually start playing next time!

Pokémon Play Report 00: Introduction

Pokémon Red & Blue

As an experiment, I’m going to try something new: For the just released Pokémon Sword & Shield game, I’m going to post play reports as I progress through my game. My focus will be on the experience as a story rather than the technical aspects of Pokémon as a video game.

For prolog, a brief history of my experience with video games: I recall pretty clearly the video games of the 1970’s such as Pong and Lunar Lander. As video game arcades became a feature of shopping malls I’d frequently be there on weekends putting quarters in the slots. As games came into the home, I reached the peak of my gaming in the 90’s: Phantasy Star II, Final Fantasy 7, Ocarina of Time, etc. You can see my leanings to story-oriented Japanese RPGs, rather than dexterity or skill based games. In more modern times games have gotten too stressful and complicated for me. I have trouble just visually following the fast moving images or managing the all the buttons on the controllers. Nor do I find much fun in games filled with other players trying to kill me. The series I’ve consistent followed has been Pokémon. I’ve played every “generation” of the franchise since Pokémon Red & Blue came out in the USA in 1998.

I can’t deny one appeal of Pokémon is that it is not very hard. It has always been a game that young children can pick up and play through with minimal difficulty. Pokémon is game that, particularly after you have finished the main storymode, you can play while watching TV, waiting for a file to download, or even at the same time as you’re playing a completely different video game. Also, while the lifestyles and behaviors of some pokémon are frankly terrifying, nobody in the game is actively trying to murder you.

Beneath the easy to play surface of a Pokémon game is an amazing amount of depth and complexity. The individual abilities, skills, strengths, and weakness of pokémon are varied, complex, and cryptic. Much of the lore about raising and training them is not explained in the game, but has had to be deduced by players over the years. These days there are numerous webpages where one can look up how an “IV” is different from an “EV,” what a pokémon “nature” means, or the many laws governing pokémon genetic inheritance, but even with internet resources a player needs to reach outside the game, and spend time studying to take advantage of this lore. If one wants to master the game’s high level challenges, and definitely if one wants to play competitively against other players or to participate in the various national and international tournaments, many hours of careful preparation, breeding, and training are necessary to form a team of pokemon that can battle at such levels. To people familiar with Magic: the Gathering, I compare putting together a completive team of pokémon with building just the right deck of cards in Magic. Only in Pokémon you can’t just buy the right members, but have to raise them, as if they were champion horses or dogs…

Battling with pokémon isn’t the only thing you can do in the game. Different players have different focuses. You might be a collector, with the goal of catching all the 800+ kinds of pokémon, plus their different variations and rare types. Some players mostly want to explore and interact with the vast worlds each game presents. Others might like the different mini-games each generation of the franchise includes, such as making videos of your pokémon or putting them in beauty contests.

I’m a collector, with a pretty vast (though not yet complete!) stable of pokémon, some of which I’ve had since 2006’s Pokemon Diamond & Pearl. There have been various ways of transferring pokémon from one game to another, sometimes from one game system to another, that make for a fun puzzle. Trading pokémon with other players around the world is possible in these Internet connected days – though you have to watched out for counterfeits that the unscrupulous might foist off on you. Next year a new game app called Pokemon Home is scheduled to be released, which will greatly assist players having all their pokémon together in one huge collection. It will even allow pokémon from the mobile game Pokemon GO! to be transferred into it. That I am so excited by new ways to sort small bits of data and digital pictures of imaginary monsters shows what kind of Pokémon nerd I am (and maybe a bit too much of my inner psychology…).

Next I will get into reports of my actual play of the newest game, Pokemon Sword & Shield!

Quick Thought: About Kishōtenketsu

In describing Pokémon GO Fest in an earlier post I framed it terms of the Four Act Kishōtenketsu story structure.

You can find a lot of discussion of this structure on the web, particularly in how it relates to Japanese video game design. But here are a couple posts about the idea that I think are instructive:

The significance of plot without conflict
This was the first detailed discussion of the structure I found on the internet.

The Kishotenketsu struture of Digimon Adventure tri: an insight to traditional Japanese storytelling
This post looks at a specific anime, but goes into the cultural background of the structure, with some references for further study. It also makes me want to rewatch Digimon Adventure tri to better understand some of the puzzling aspects of that series.

Pokémon GO Fest as Kishōtenketsu

Pokemon GO Fest was a huge event just held in Grant Park Chicago. Players of the augmented reality mobile game Pokemon GO gathered for a variety of shared events and activities. Tens of thousands of people were in a city park all simultaneous playing the same video game together on their mobile devices. Quite the 21st Century experience…

Pokémon GO Fest Banner

The centerpiece of GO Fest was a research mission players could undertake to unlock a new, “mythical” Pokémon, Jirachi. While one could play this a simple series of tasks or scavenger hunt, there was actually an interesting story behind the mission. It was all the more intriguing because this story did not follow the conventional western plot structure, but was an example of the Asian narrative structure known, in Japanese, as Kishōtenketsu.

In the West, stories are usually built along an Aristotelian Three Act structure. One of the first things you learn in studying stories in western forms of entertainment is that they need to be focused on conflict, either physical or emotional. A conflict is introduced, action raises the stakes and intensity, and the crisis builds until there must be some final resolution.

That’s not the only way to tell a story. Kishōtenketsu has a four act structure without a relentless build to a crisis or final confrontation. Plot without Conflict. You can watch Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro as an example – or you could play the quest available at this year’s Pokemon GO Fest.

At GO Fest you were given a quest with a series of stages. You didn’t know what the next one would be until completing the current set of tasks. While there were five practical stages to this mission, as I will describe, they form a Four Act Kishōtenketsu structure:

Act One is “Ki” or Introduction.

Act Two “Shō,” is Development.

Act Three “Ten,” is the Twist or change that brings in a new element that disrupts the situation. This is similar to the “intrusion” that sets Three Act stories in motion, though in that structure the new element is introduced by the end of Act One, if not sooner. Also, significantly, the “Ten” is more of a complication to the situation, rather than a conflict or danger to overcome.

Act Four “Ketsu,” is a Conclusion that brings together the complication with the existing situation into a new balance.

The mission itself unfolded like this:

Stage 1: We are introduced to the situation. Our advisor and teacher Professor Willow is researching stories of a mythical sleeping Pokemon. He ask for our assistance in gathering resources and help from friends while he investigates further. This is our Ki.

Stage 2: Prof Willow has discovered an ancient text about a pokemon said to grant wishes, but he been hearing reports of pokemon in the area being distressed. Our mission is to find five pokemon of five different types (ice, ground, fairy, water, and ghost) to see what might be going on. Our situation is progressing, though there are no major disruptions or changes. This is Shō.

Stage 3: While finding those requested pokemon, we notice one of each type has strayed from its normal territory. Willow’s request is that we return them to where they belong, and take a photograph to document the situation. But when we do so each picture is “photobombed” by a particular pokemon jumping into the picture!

Pokémon Photos

Stage 4: Prof. Willlow notices that each of the photobombing Pokemon has a connection to music. We now can find and attempt to catch the sleeping pokemon Jirachi. Our first two attempts to awaken him fail, but on the third try, the five musical pokemon appear and sing the song that finally awakens Jirachi!

These two Stages together make up our Ten. The appearance of five singing pokemon is not something we have ever seen in the game before so is quite the Twist, followed by the realization that the apparently wandering pokemon have been pursuing their own agenda: to find and sing Jirachi into awakening.

Stage 5: Jirachi wide awake. We can take pictures of it, trade for Pokémon from far away, and hatch new Pokémon from eggs to get our concluding rewards. Jirachi grants us the wish to have an amazing time at Pokemon GO Fest. We are at Ketsu, and a new stability with Jirachi awake and exploring the world with us as a new friend.

Jirachi Photo

As an interesting contrast, the animated movie which introduced this pokemon, Pokemon: Jirachi – Wish Maker has a more conventional western structure, with heroes fighting a bad guy who seeks to use Jirachi’s power for nefarious proposes. For GO Fest we don’t struggle with an enemy, don’t overcome a looming danger, or rescue someone from an imminent danger. Instead, we enter into a situation, learn about it, are puzzled by a mystery, and then come to an understanding of a process. While we interact with the situation, we don’t control it, but rather, through discovery, become a part of it.

GO Fest as a special event using the mechanics of Pokemon GO to make a unique video game experience is another topic I’d like to explore in a later post.