Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report 03: Who am I? What am I doing?

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


Pokémon 101

Pokémon as 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 begin a Pokémon game 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 the only option you had was to pick his name. Later games introduced being either a boy or a girl character.

Character Select

In Pokémon Sword & Shield after you state your name, you are presented with a selection of faces, with different skin tones and gender presentations, and asked which one looks like you. Being a boy or a girl is not mentioned — though after the choice the game considers you gendered, addresses you as “he” or “she,” and restricts you to buying clothing and accessories according to that assignment.

Professor Oak

In every previous game, you would next meet the game’s “Pokémon Professor” the game character who introduces you to the world of pokémon, explains how humans and pokémon live and work together, and that there are some people who catch, raise, and use pokémon in competitive battles: Pokémon Trainers. The Professor would then give you a pokémon of your own and provide the basic lessons for caring for it and how to catch more.

Sword & Shield departs from this, and a veteran player of the game immediately feels that something different is going on. The first thing we see is a huge Pokémon Stadium crowded with excited people. A man in a three-piece suit steps up and introduces himself as Rose. To the wildly cheering crowd he gives the classic introduction mentioned above, also explaining how in this region of the world pokémon battles are hugely popular sports and how champions are famous and admired public figures. Rose then introduces Leon, the current undefeated Champion. Leon is quite the showman and knows how to work the crowd, striking his signature battle pose, and directing his main pokémon, Charizard, to undergo the transformation called “Dynamaxing” which metamorphoses him into a gigantic fiery form.

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. We are also introduced to Dynamax, a new game mechanic, as well as an important plot element of the story, as we shall see.

The game then takes us to a bucolic countryside of cottages and green fields filled with sheep — I mean, filled with wooloos, the pokémon equivalent for sheep. A teen-age boy is running up to the door of one of the quaint houses. He’s come to your house so you two can meet his older brother, the Pokémon Champion Leon, whom we saw in the opening, when he arrives at the train station.

Hop

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. Often that rival is an antagonist, a villain even, who embodies the opposite values of the hero. 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 pokémon’s well being. You triumph not only by getting stronger yourself, but by learning to respect, love, and work with your pokémon as partners.

The stories in Pokémon games have gotten more complex and in the past few editions of the series, 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. With your childhood rival in the role, the games typically end up introducing another character as a more classical antagonist, so as a player familiar with the formula, you start looking out for when they will show up.

With Hop’s arrival, the game finally introduces you to “you,” your character in the game. You’ve been sitting on the couch presumably watching that introductory scene with Rose and Leon on your new phone — a device Hop describes as “flash,” the first use of British slang that we’ll be encountering from now on.

While Pokémon takes places in an imaginary world (whether it’s a world of fantasy or of science-fiction could be debated) the different regions of that world are based on real places. The first game was set in an area called “Kanto,” that was modeled on central Japan. Other games are set in versions of other parts of our world. Pokémon Sun & Moon was distinctly Hawaiian, and now Sword & Shield is based in a region known as “Galar” — which is modeled after Great Britain. As the games themselves have gotten more visually sophisticated with more detailed and colorful graphics, the individual characteristics of the regions have become more distinct. The lore of knights and castles, standing stones, and rolling green hills, with a dash or two of steampunk, shape the art of this game. It’s not to hard to identify the exact areas and cities that the locations on Sword & Shield are based on.

While earlier games have been set in the Pokémon versions of the United States or France, local slang has not been incorporated into the dialog so extensively. It’s not just a few words, but a whole style of speech. When Hop is concerned that your mother will be upset about the two or you galavanting around looking for strange Pokémon, he advises you to “Tell your Mum, or she’ll go spare!” It would be interesting to know how this is presented in the Japanese language version of the game, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about that…

Back to the story, where you and Hop are to pick up his big brother. Hop is Leon’s biggest fan and just cannot wait to prove he is worthy of becoming a battler himself and follow in his brother’s footsteps. Hop is something of a classic character type. He is, as one would say in Japanese, “genki.” For the first part of the game you, as a player and a character in the story, are mostly being dragged along by Hop’s unwavering enthusiasm. Fortunately you are presented as having much the same interests.

Ash’s Mom

Before leaving, as a good son, you need to check in with your mother, who reminds you to bring your backpack and that home is a place you can always return to. Mothers, are always prominently featured in Pokémon games — while fathers are notably absent. They are either mentioned as being away, or not addressed at all. Pokémon Sword & Shield adds a small, but significant addition to the presentation of your “Mum”. In the previous game in the series, Pokemon Sun & Moon, while you could pick your skin tone, 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 using to playing the game. Identification with the player character is enforced by these little touches.

Next time we finally leave your house and meet some pokemon!

Pokémon Sword & Shield Play Report 02: Introduction

Pokémon Red & Blue

Starting off the reboot of my Pokémon Sword & Shield playthrough series. Please see the prologue for more explanation. This first entry is mostly a revised repost from my earlier attempt at a series about the game. I describe some of my history with video games and introduce the basic premises of Pokémon.

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. Game systems then came into the home and I reached the peak of my gaming in the 90’s, playing Phantasy Star II, Final Fantasy 7, Ocarina of Time, etc. You can see my leanings to story-oriented games, rather than ones based on dexterity or skill. In modern times games have gotten too stressful and complicated for me. I have trouble just visually following the fast moving images or managing all the buttons on the controllers. Nor do I find much fun in games filled with other players trying to kill me.

There’s some irony here in that I went on to work in the video game industry for over 20 years, rarely actually playing the games I was involved with.

The series I’ve consistent followed has been Pokémon. I’ve played every edition of the franchise since Pokémon Red & Blue came out in the USA in 1998. I can’t deny that 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 a 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.

Pokemon

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 show 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 fictional world 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 always been 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. A new game app called Pokemon Home has come out this year which greatly assists players having all their pokémon together in one huge collection.

Besides the collecting and battling aspects of Pokémon, the game presents a narrative experience. It is, like games series such as Final Fantasy or Zelda, a role-playing game where you control an a avatar in the game world as if they were a character in a story or movie. It’s a game type that has its origins in the table-top adventure game Dungeons & Dragons, created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax back in 1974.

The story of the journey unfolds on several levels. First is your development and progression as a Pokémon Trainer, someone who catches and befriends these mysterious creatures and uses them in competitive battles. As you travel the world, improving your skills, you visit 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 challenge the reigning Pokémon Champaign in hopes of becoming yourself, the greatest Pokémon master of all. Every core series Pokémon game has had that structure, with some variation, since Red & Blue.

Team Rocket

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 were trying to save the whole world from destruction. The game’s designers seemed to recognize that the escalation was becoming unsupportable and dialed it back in 2016’s Pokemon Sun & Moon, though that game still had a large scale plot suitable for a summer blockbuster movie. As a narrative experience Sun & Moon had other problematic issues which I will touch on in comparison to Sword & Shield as we encounter the story it has to tell.