Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 13: Heroes, Villains, and other Friends

Wrapping up my playthrough of Pokémon Sword & Shield. My focus is on the narrative experience of the game, more than the mechanics of play, though I will include some introduction to what the world of Pokémon is all about.

Pokemon 101

As you’d expect in a collecting game, some pokémon are easier to find than others. Common pokémon are abundant. They are pretty much just things like squirrels or birds or insects (though they may involve into more powerful forms). Less common types get to be more like beasts — bears, lions, eagles, and the like. Eventually there are pokémon that are real monsters, fearsome and dangerous to anybody who is not a trainer. Each game also introduces some special pokémon, classified as “Legendary,” that are unique, singular entities. They tend to come in small sets — the three Legendary Birds of Red & Blue, the four Tapus in Sun & Moon. Locating, tracking, and capturing these Legendaries makes up a small side-quest to the main adventure.

And then each new generation of games has a pair of even rarer pokémon who acts as mascots and symbols of that game. Each version of a game has its own exclusive member of that pair. For instance Pokemon Shield has Zamazenta, while Pokemon Shield has Zacian. Since you can only get one or the other from each game, you have to either buy both games, or find someone to trade with to get all of that generation’s pokémon. The pokémon is also at the center of each game’s story, as they are world shaping, or world destroying forces. So you start off catching mice and caterpillars and end up with a god at your beck and call. Arceus, a pokémon in Diamond & Pearl, is literally described as predating the world and as “the pokémon that shaped the universe with its 1,000 arms.” Yet you can carry it around with you in a pokéball along with Pikachu…

As mentioned back at the beginning of this series, this is my second time playing through Pokémon Shield. The first time I was unprepared for the game’s narrative structure: encountering all the smaller, individual stories of my fellow citizens of Galar. Bede and Opal. Marnie, Team Yell, and Piers. Raihan. Kabu. These were all characters with their own lives, their own stories. Even in the encounter with Oleana, the dramatic focus was on the revelations about who she was as a person and her motivations as Rose’s loyal assistant. All these small stories were the knots around which the larger story elements, my journey through the Pokémon Challenge, Hop’s ambition to surpass his brother, Sonia’s investigation of the Darkness Day, were woven. The scale and complexity of the story can be zoomed in or out, revealing smaller details, or larger themes, depending on where you chose to look.

After hearing Rose’s ominous words, I need to get back to the hotel and rest of up for tomorrow’s battles. In previous games, a player would go up against the “Elite Four,” a group of powerful Pokémon Masters. They’d be a mixture of Gym Leaders you’d faced earlier, along with an occasional new character. Here in Sword & Shield that is replaced by a bracket of trainers, made up of myself and the other Galar Gym leaders, all of whom want the chance to face the champion Leon.

The proceedings are disrupted when Bede shows up and demands a chance to battle with me. He’s been working with Opal, but wants one more chance to go up against me and make his own choice in life, after being manipulated by others for so long. If he looses, he promises to retire from training. Of course he does loose (he has to for the game to continue) but the cheering crowds convince him to accept his role of becoming the new Fairy Type Gym Leader. I then move through the various brackets, going up against Gym Leaders I’ve beaten before. All roads lead to Leon and the chance to defeat the undefeated. Except…

Rose interrupts the match before it starts. It seems his mad plan to trigger the Darkest Day as a solution to Galar’s energy needs has worked a little too well. It’s up to Leon to try and save the day. Sonia, Hop, and I know from Sonia’s research that the Sword and Shield pokémon of legend may hold the answers to controlling this disaster. So we head back to the mysterious foggy woods near our home town, where we once saw a vision of one of these mythical creatures. We don’t find it, but do come across an ancient shrine protecting a rusty old sword and a shield in similar condition. Hop grabs the sword and I take the shield (if I was playing Pokémon Sword rather than Shield, these would naturally be reversed).

Back in Hammerlocke, the situation hasn’t improved. Oleana pleads with me to help, choosing to try and save Rose himself, rather than support his plans. That’s a big breakthrough for Oleana’s self-awareness. While Leon is still, in theory, taking care of things, I am, in the end, drifting into the role of “kid who has to save the world.” As I’ve mentioned, that’s the usual for Pokémon narratives, but this game has avoided it so far. I wonder if at any point in the development of this story they seriously considered not falling back on that trope.

The deal, as it turns out, is that Rose had been feeding Wishing Stars to a sleeping pokémon called Eternatus that is the source of Dynamax energy. When it finally awoke it could not be controlled, and Rose was counting on Leon, the undefeated Champion, to capture and tame it. Hop and I arrive just as Leon is throwing a pokéball at this demonic dragon skeleton thing — and fails to catch it. That’s a nice touch, seeing another pokémon trainer going up against the Boss Monster in a traditional battle, and having the pokémon break free, as happens sometimes in gameplay. Everything is kept within the rules and mechanics of the Pokémon world.

Leon and his own pokémon are too exhausted to try again and so it looks like it is up to Hop and me — or at first just me. I battle against Eternatus and while it’s a tough fight, I prevail. Except that Eternatus pulls out the oldest trick in the video game bad guy book: its defeat only triggers a transformation into a new, even more powerful form: Eternamax. That’s pretty standard for video game Boss Monsters, their needing to be defeated multiple times before you can actually “win” the game.

It gets worse when our pokémon can’t act due to the energy the transformed Eternamax radiates. That is, until Hop recalls the rusty sword and shield we carry and suggests using them to summon their respective pokémon. Yes, it is Hop that comes up with the idea that ultimately saves the day. While after Zacian and Zamazenta arrive and we have a four-against-one battle, it comes down to me to throw the pokéball to make the capture, the final putting together of the puzzle was Hop’s action. In a video game, particularly a game that is intended to be playable by children, you can end up stuck in a narrative dead end if it is left up to a player to make a specific action. A fighting game such as Mortal Kombat might insist you flail away trying again and again and again to beat a final Boss. Pokémon games, particularly this Pokémon game, try to make the play experience less frustrating. As player it could have been up to me to go into my inventory of items and pull out the rusty shield and activate it. But I might not have thought of it or remembered it. And the game would be stuck. The final battle did have some nice back and forth of hopes and fears, though it was a familiar situation in the world of adventure video games.

Crisis solved, and Rose facing the consequences of his actions, it is now finally down to the battle against Leon. This isn’t a post about the details of the battle, so I’ll just say it’s the hardest in the game and possibly the hardest in any Pokémon game. Leon takes it seriously, promising me, and the cheering audience, to grind me into the dirt. Leon uses his team effectively against mine, using well chosen tactics against my strengths and weaknesses. In my first play through of the game it took several tries to defeat him (the narrative doesn’t really care about you loosing; if Leon beats you, it just ignores it and gives you another chance).

When he is eventually defeated, Leon, like his younger brother, has to struggle with his emotions. As proud as he is, strong battles from anyone are what he values most. And with fireworks and celebrations, the main story of the game ends, followed by, as in every game from the first, scrolling credits and a final “The End.”

Only it’s not really the end. If you start the game up again you are back home talking with your Mum. Pokémon games you see, don’t really “end.” You can continue to travel around the world catching and training pokémon, completing mini-games you might not have finished (I have not yet said a word about the whole curry mini-game in Sword & Shield, where you search for ingredients to make different curry recipes) and fighting in various competitions with the game or online with other players. There is also the strange phenomenon of the “post-game,” that is, an additional short story adventure that unlocks at this point. You don’t have to play it, but you can. And in this game it is how you finally get the opportunity to capture Zamazenta (or Zacian, if you are playing Sword). I’m not going to cover that in this series. Nor do I plan on talking about a new feature to this generation of Pokémon games: downloadable content, more adventures, more areas to explore, and more pokémon which you can add to the game as a separate purchase. Such additions are common in video games these days but this is the first Pokémon game to try it out, with two new adventures available now and who knows what to come.

Pokémon games are built from a mixture of the familiar and the new. Much that is fundamental in Sword & Shield are game elements and play activities essentially unchanged over twenty years. Each new game generation adds to them, both in new pokémon, but also new ways of being in the world of Pokémon. The narrative of this game, as I’ve tried to describe in this series of posts, was, in it’s subtle way, the most radical change to the franchise. The region of Galar has not been just the background for this story. The narrative of this game has been the exploration of this world and people in it. That has been the main point, more than a mechanical progression of plot and defeated enemies.

Looking at this different way of structuring the story explains some of its unexpected and even puzzling elements. For example, the revelation of Rose’s plan and the battle with Eternatus happen rather abruptly, though we’ve known something has been up for awhile. Some reviewers have complained about the suddenness of how this plot pops up and gets resolved, even claiming that it was a rushed, incomplete resolution forced on the game by the deadline of getting it out for sale on schedule. I don’t know any specifics about that (though I do know from experience about the scramble to get a game done and out the door on time). I feel that the climax of the Rose/Dynamax/Eternatus story fits in with how the entire game has handled its narrative.

Rose’s plans, and the disasters they cause, are not the work of the usual supervillain whose nefarious schemes serve as the primary narrative arc that I, as the game’s “hero,” fight against for the whole story. Rose is the last of the inhabitants of Galar whose story crosses our own. His episode is grader in scale and consequence that the others, and serves as a climactic encounter to end my journey. In the end though, it is just another of many stories I have discovered. If you try to think of this game as “the player character vs Chairman Rose,” in the way that others games are, say, “Link vs Ganon” or “Cloud vs Sephiroth,” you miss the point of this narrative. It’s easy to fall into that way of thinking, since so many games use that core of “hero vs villain.”

The ambitious industrialist is a common bad guy in genre fiction, so our eyes were on him all the time. He didn’t end up being the expected greedy villain, out to destroy for his own benefit, or for some strange belief system (as several previous Pokémon bad guys been). He seems to really care about the well being of Galar. If you watch the “Twilight Wings” series of animated shorts, Rose appears to be a really nice guy. That he is thinking about the future is also, on the surface, an admirable trait. Climate change is not explicitly mentioned in this game, but it’s lurking in the background. The most blatant environmental statement in the game is the Galar form of the pokémon Corsola. It is a coral pokémon, and in most games it is a Water/Rock type and is a cute pink. In Galar though, it is bleached white and is a Ghost type. There’s an energy problem in Galar and Rose does not want to ignore it, even though it will be generations before it’s a real problem.

What is missing from his story is why he has become so obsessed with immediate action, why he couldn’t not wait just one more day. We can only speculate and come up with out own theories. For instance, maybe Rose knew Eternatus was going to wake up soon, and that they did not have a thousands years to prepare. You could concoct a dozen theories like that. Those are just details, really. Rose is another character we see on our journey and he, like everyone else in Galar, has his story. The more we travel, as a pokémon trainer, on an endless journey, the more people and the more stories we experience.

Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report Part 12: Watching, Being, Doing

Continuing my playthrough of Pokémon Sword & Shield. My focus is on the narrative experience of the game, more than the mechanics of play, though I will include some introduction to what the world of Pokémon is all about.

Pokemon 101

The first Pokémon games included 150 different types of pokémon. As of this writing there are 893 in the all encompassing “National Pokédex.” Some pokémon have different appearances based on their gender (usually only slight) and some have different colors or other variations. Usually that means 2 or 3 or 4 different forms. There is a butterfly pokémon, Vivillion, that has 20 different wing patterns. The fairy Alcremie has 63, which are found or created through a variety of strange means, including spinning around in circles. Depending on how you count these variations and forms, there are well over 1000 distinctly looking pokémon for the obesssive collector to try and aquire. And that’s not even getting into the whole realm of “shiny” pokémon: extremely rare color variations that are highly sought after.

The narrative of Pokémon games is not the usual hero’s journey. As the player, you are a traveler, uncovering the world and increasing your knowledge and skill, but you as a character are not changing or facing difficult choices. In the previous game in the series, Pokemon Sun & Moon, there was a large story in motion around you, though your experience was mostly observational. It was a good story, yet in the end I felt some dissatisfaction from my lack of actual involvement in it. Involvement is a hard thing to achieve in a video game, where the technology is still limiting, and attempting anything more than a linear, preplanned story is a challenge.

For most of Sword & Shield, the narrative has accepted those limitations and worked with them. While you as the player are working through the Pokemon Challenge, which is the main activity of the game, on the narrative level you are a tourist. There’s an episodic structure of meeting an assortment of characters, such as the Gym Leaders and the other Challengers, seeing their stories, and watching them unfold — and get resolved. Though you rise in the ranks and become a Challenger of ever increasing fame — and there are some hints that you might have a more heroic destiny in the future — the game doesn’t try to make you feel that you are, really, the main character. You are more a narrative device that connects all these other stories. This structure is actually more like that of the long running Pokémon animated series, where the character Ash goes about his Pokémon journey and meets new people and situations in each episode.

Hop is the dramatic main character of this story, as he is the one with personal issues and emotional needs. He struggles with his admiration for his brother, his desire to become as good a trainer, and his inner doubts about his abilities — doubts he covers with his boisterous enthusiasm and energy. The game could have been structured so that I was “playing” Hop, in the way that many games make you be the main character. You then have the experience of directing that character as to where they walk or what attacks to use, but then switching to a passive observer, watching “yourself,” during dramatic sequences. It’s that way with most narrative games from Cloud in Final Fantasy VII to Joel in the Last of Us. Sword & Shield avoids that and instead makes us feel more comfortable in the observer/traveler role. It isn’t until the last stages of the game that some problems with this approach come up

Getting back to that, where we left off, Hop, Piers, Marnie, and I were leaving the hotel to find Leon, who’d last been seen heading to a meeting with Chairman Rose. We are stopped by Rose’s assistant Oleana. And I mean literally stopped as that she prevents us from going forward by locking access to the tower and giving the key to a henchman. Oleana has always seemed suspicious, but this is a sudden direct use of her power. It’s also a shift in how the game has played so far. I’m now given a mini-quest to hunt down her henchman, who is disguised as a League Trainer, and get the key back from him. As a mini-game it is not fun. Narratively it is supposed to represent a chase through the city and a series of encounters and escapes. The result is actually a sequence of boring searches and repetitive battles. This could have been an entertaining action sequence in movie. Here, it is trying to realize something the game isn’t meant to emulate.

It ends with Piers and Team Yell distracting the henchman so that we can get to the Tower. Note that we three kids (Marnie, Hop, and me) are now cast as the problem solvers, a trope the narrative has avoided until now. It’s then Hop and me who enter the gigantic Rose Tower to find out what’s going on. Then, it’s yet another slog of battles against more minions.

I’ve mentioned that Team Yell had turned out to be something of a fake out and not the usual bad guy “Team” of Pokémon games. Sword & Shield now gives us another team, Macro Cosmos, that do serve that classic role. They are a secret squad of Oleana’s agents in Rose’s organization. While they do have some amusing quips and worries about their bonuses and health insurance, these are all joke we’ve seen before in other “Teams” and the series of fights are not interesting. Hop does not participate in the battles, but does heal up all my pokémon between them — which means these battles are entirely inconsequential. They are only filler, extending the length of the game. Almost all video games use this sort of filler, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious. It unpleasantly contrasts with the good design we’ve seen so far. It is like a filler episode of an animated series that was farmed out to a cheaper production studio out of budget and schedule necessity.

Eventually we (it’s still Hop and myself) get to a confrontation with Oleana herself. This is much more interesting because it reveals her true personality for the first time: her placid demeanor cracks, she reveals her devotion to Rose, and gives hints of her personal backstory. Even her pokémon express something about her. She starts out sending a series of pretty and feminine presenting pokémon, before resorting to the living garbage heap Garbodor, which you can eventually learn is her oldest pokemon, from days when she lived in poverty. It is also a serious, challenging battle. Once defeated, Oleana gets out our way, though she reveals that Rose has already gathered all the Wishing Stars he needs, thanks to her manipulation of Bede.

And then we hear the dialog between Leon and Rose. Rose is obsessed with solving Galar’s energy problems. The power they have will last for another thousand years before running out, but Rose wants to do something about it right now, and asks for Leon’s help. The Champion agrees it’s something that needs attention, but can wait at least one day, until the Finals are done. Then he’ll be glad to help. For Rose though, that is not good enough.

The conflicts between industrialization and nature, between the needs of humans versus the future health of the planet are not new to video games, particularly Japanese games, and are not new to Pokémon. I’ll hold off discussing what this game has to say about this topic in general, and about climate change in particular, until we get to the end of the story, which is, it turns out, still a ways off.