Pokemon Sword & Shield Play Report 05: A Journey of Eight Gyms

Continuing the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. 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

Pokémon battles have a rock-paper-scissors mechanic. A water-type pokémon is strong against a fire-type. A fire-type is strong against a grass-type, and so on. Only in Pokémon there are 18 different types to keep track of. It’s not hard to remember that, say a electrical-type is strong against a water-type — but what about a steel-type against a bug-type, or a fighting-type against a dark-type? It’s complex, but learning type matching is an important part of being a successful battler and trainer.


The first stage of my story in Pokémon Sword & Shield is underway. My friend Hop and I are setting out on our journey to become champions in Galar’s great tradition of pokémon battling. 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 wooloos 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. 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. 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 shopping has developed to add 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 I visit the Pokémon Stadium, I meet Bede. Bede immediately gets serious about Antagonist Attitude. He seems offended by my 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 I meet Sonia again, who fills both Hop and myself 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 Pokemon 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. 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.

While establishing that traditional structure, Sword & Shield makes 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 Pokémon Sun & Moon they 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 competitions are a very common format. Martial arts duels, baseball, cook-offs, mahjong — the list goes on and on. In such stories 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 competition 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. Sword & Shield embraces the format.

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 Sword & Shield Play Report 04: Your Story

Continuing the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. 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.

The first few entries here will mostly be revised reposts from my earlier attempt at a series about playing through the game.


Pokémon 101

The core activity of Pokémon games is battling. To capture a pokémon you must send a pokémon you already control to fight and weaken it. Once it is tired — you throw a technological device called a pokéball to “capture” it (image a cross between a Star Trek transporter and an ecto-trap from Ghostbusters). Once captured that pokémon is tamed and will obey you, though there are limits. Famously, in the Pokémon TV show, Pikachu refuses to stay in his pokéball. So while you, as player and character, command the pokémon you capture, there is a level of consent, will the pokémon agreeing to follow your direction.


The previous game in the series, Pokémon Sun & Moon started off with a long, dramatic introductory scene of mysterious events at a research facility. Over the course of play that you piece together the puzzle of what is going on. 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. 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 and interact with the world, 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. We will be looking at how the new game faces these narrative challenges.

The early game thus consists of Hop leading my character around in basic activities. My character is native to Galar, but to me 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.

Starter pokemon

Since battling is so important in Pokemon, there isn’t much I can do until I get a pokémon of my own, my “starter.” Another departure from the norm in Sword & Shield is that the starter is given me by Hop’s champion brother, Leon, rather than a Pokémon Professor. This again shows the high status of champions in Galar. I do soon meet a professor, Magnolia, who gives me a pokédex and 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 Hop and me, so that our pokemon can potentially learn to Dynamax when we and they are ready.

As mentioned, the narrative structure of every Pokémon game involves the Gym Challenge where you travel from one Pokémon gym to another, earning the right to compete in the final Championship. Here in Galar, the Challenge in particularly important and so to participate you need the endorsement of a sponsor. Hop and I have a battle with our newly acquired pokemon and prove ours to Leon, and win an endorsement for both of us

Pokémon stadium

Pokemon battling as a sport is what Galar is all about, so we can be looking at the narrative for how it presents sportsmanship. Leon is thrilled with the idea of Hop and I being rivals, so that we’ll be driving each other on to greater and great achievement. Pokémon presents a healthy model for competition. Leon is convinced of his great skill and proud of his undefeated status — but that leads him to want everyone else to become strong as well.

With the endorsement, Hop and I can how travel to the city of Motostoke to register for the tournament. 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 pokémon we encountered in the fog shrouded forest. I wonder what’s up with that?