Pokémon Scarlet & Violet Report 02: … with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail, unwillingly to school.

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.

Of course the big controversy of this game are graphic glitches and the apparent limitations of the Nintendo Switch to fully run it. I’m not planning on going into that, as plenty of other people are talking about such issues online. I also find there are some questionable choices in the art and gameplay design that I’ve seen so far — but again I’m not going to discuss that here, unless they effect the narrative experience which is the main focus of these posts.

In the early Pokémon games your rival was introduced as an antagonist: someone you were meant to dislike and therefore be motivating to surpass and defeat. In later games they became more of a “frenemy” or even, as with Sword & Shield’s Hop, your best childhood friend, whom you competed against, not out of anger or even competition, but so that you both could grow stronger. The secondary antagonists that Sword & Shield also included, such as Marnie and Bede turned out to be characters with much more complexity that villains you are meant to stomp over on your road to victory. Nemona in Scarlet & Violet is not just a friend and rival, but our sempai, that is, our elder upperclassman at the Academy who is there to show us the basics of being a pokémon trainer.

A surprising story event is how quickly we encounter the game’s featured legendary pokémon — Miraidon, for me in Violet. Rather that show up at a climatic moment at the game’s end, I’ve meet and started interacting with it already, and we’ve manage to help each other out of some difficult situations. The poor guy seems to have habit of overexerting itself and getting tired out. Nemona and I also encounter Arven, another upper classman at the Academy. He’s an ill-tempered lout who also knows Miraidon. He even has a pokéball for Miraidon, though he’s not its trainer — that is, he can’t command or order it about. He gives me the pokéball, which means I’m carrying Miraidon around, but he’s not part of my actual team to use in battles and so forth. This is a strange situation and unlike any player/pokémon relation we’ve seen before.

My goals now are just to take a trip across the countryside, working my way towards the Uva Academy. Along the way I meet people, catch more pokémon (there are a lot and a wide variety too), and encounter this game’s version of PokéMarts to buy things, heal pokémon, and do various other tasks. Looks like there’s some sort of crafting system to make TMs to teach your pokémon new moves, but I’m not in a hurry to learn all its ins-and-outs.

The world of Pokémon has been from the beginning one of advanced technology, though it’s not always obvious on the surface. The ability to digitally store and teleport pokémon being its main manifestation. There was a very early Pokémon comic where buildings, vehicles, etc. all had a very sleek, rounded, futuristic appearance, almost like a Matsamune Shirow manga. It’s funny how now actual, real-world tech has surpassed some of what been the game, and how the narrative has to catch up. For example, tools such as your map, your communication device, and your actual digital storage of pokémon are all now encompassed by a single, cellphone-like device. Your pokédex (your archive of pokémon information) is now just an app on your “phone” within the game. Director Clavell makes an old-man reference (which I can identify with a little too much) how, in his days, trainers had to keep track of their pokédex with pencil and paper.

Arriving in my first city, Mesagoza, my first impression is how important food seems to be in this game. Most of the business I can interact with are cafes, restaurants, and food stands. What you eat seems to grant some kind of gameplay buff, but I’m not far enough to know how that works. In a somewhat offputting surprise, when you walk up to enter these and most of the other businesses, you open the door and immediately are shown a shopping interface. You don’t wander around inside and chat with other customers before making a purchase — just straight to the exchange.

In general there seems a lot less interactivity with the city than I’ve come to expect in a Pokémon game. You walk past people in the streets and overhear their mostly innocuous conservation. Most don’t notice you at all and only a few will engage in any chit-chat. I don’t really hear any rumors and nobody offers much helpful advice. Also, so far, I haven’t been able to go into anybody’s house to talk to them, find treasure (or, as in the odd feature in Sun & Moon, smell their beds). I’m missing a sense of attachment or involvement with the world so far.

The central narrative concept of this game is the pokémon school I’m attending, called Uva Academy in my copy of Pokémon Violet. Games in the past have had some sort of pokemon educational institution, but these have been minor story elements, just one of the many places you encounter in places you explore. Here it’s a big deal, essentially the center of the game world and your adventures.

It’s on the way to the Academy I do run into this game’s troublesome “team”: Team Star. They so far are just helmet wearing delinquents trying to intimidate other students into joining their gang. I have really enjoyed the twists and complexities of Team Skull and Team Yell in the past two games so I have high expectations of where their story will go this time.

The school itself is a large building, full of students and teachers, with rooms to explore, and particular locations such as the lunch room and the teachers’ lounge that I’m directed to in order to get plot information. There are also class activities to get involved with. For all the Harry Potter vibes, the school has a lot of Japanese customs, such as classes being ranked “A-1” and so on, and having the tradition of new students coming to the front of the classroom to introduce themselves.

You can also sign up to take particular “classes” in pokémon related topics. These are just cut scenes of teachers lecturing on aspects of gameplay. What is interesting to me, as a long time Pokémon player (since Red & Blue), is that these lectures actually explain things that, in the past, have been left for players to discover on their own. There have been a lot of game mechanics such as, say, the difference between a “physical” or a “special” attack (think of punching someone vs. shooting a lightning bolt at them) that the game never directly tells you about but that you learn by play, or by talking about with other players. In some ways these explanations take something away from the traditions of the game, but on the other hand they are appropriate for a game set in a pokémon school.

A little oddly after all then school setup (it’s implied that I spend some time at the Academy), an independent study program is announced that sends us students out on a “treasure hunt” so we can explore and learn about the outside world of pokémon — the usual thing one is expected to do in the game series. What is different is that the various NPCs we’ve met encourage us to pursue different goals. Nemona, who loves pokémon battles, wants us to journey to the different Pokémon Gyms to train, and work towards being a champion battler. Arven wants our help investigating sightings of the mysterious Titan pokémon (and also collect sandwich recipes). An unseen agent named Cassiopeia wants us to investigate Team Star. Chairman Clavell and the enigmatic Professor Turo (who appears to be Miraidon’s original trainer) definitely do not want us messing near the ominous “Area Zero.” I’m sure the game will ultimately have me doing all those things, so the choice is really just what to concentrate on first.

Pokémon Scarlet & Violet Report 01: A Bright, a Bright, Sunshiny Day

One of the first things I started to write about on this blog was Pokémon — particularly the how games work as narratives. My copy of Pokémon Violet arrived today, so I wanted to start off a new series of “live” posts as I play through this new addition to the long running franchise and this new entrance into the world of pokémon.

I decided, when this game was announced, to attempt to avoid as many spoilers as I could, both in game mechanics and its story. With the way marketing works these days, it would be very easy to learn almost every aspect and secret of a game before it came out. I’ve done okay so far, though it’s next to impossible to avoid seeing things such as pictures of the new kinds of pokémon, or general facts about the setting and region of the game. I haven’t ready any reviews or summaries yet.

These posts will contain spoilers as I’ll be writing about everything as I come across it in my play through.

The previous main series game, Sword & Shield, had some very interesting variations to the standard Pokémon narrative structure. I played it all the way through twice and wrote about it extensively here on this blog. There was a fair amount of criticism for that game, most of it based on it not including every single kind pokémon that ever appeared in the franchise, but some objected to the new directions and ways its story was told. I am coming into Scarlet & Violet very curious about how things will play out. Will it be a return to the same old, same old, or will it continue to shake things up and experiment in subtle but important ways?

The very first thing you encounter is character customization, where you can decide your player avatar’s looks. As in the past few games, you can choose from a selection of eight different facial types with different skin tones and suggestions of gender presentation. In Sword & Shield none of these choices were labeled “boy” or “girl,” but the dialog of the story did gender you based on your choice. I haven’t yet encountered a situation where that comes up in Scarlet & Violet. Then on to specific choices of facial details — and so many choices of eyelashes..! Continuing the theme of gender representation, even though I choice a “boy” looking face, in the customization I was free to choose any hairstyle, lip color, etc that I wanted. I wonder if this will ultimately include clothes as well? Previously choosing a “boy” meant only being to buy “boy” clothes at shops. We’ll see…

Sword & Shield’s opening cinema introduced several of the main non-player story characters and the significance of stadium-style pokémon battles before ever getting to “your” introduction and your place in the world. Scarlet & Violet’s opening does two things: first it is a kind of promotional piece for the Uva Academy: a school young pokémon trainers attend to learn the about pokémon and how to best interact with them. Very Harry Potter! No sign of the usual Pokémon Professor, but instead we see the Academy Director, Mr. Clavell, who will serve the role of introducing us to pokémon training and give us our starter pokémon. The opening then shows a sequence of this game’s cover star, an enigmatic legendary pokémon who rockets across the sky, briefly transforms into “motorcycle mode” (one of things it was impossible not to be spoiled on in the game’s publicity), before disappearing as mysterious as it appeared. These scenes also give us glimpses of the wide world we’ll doubtless be exploring, hinting at least some level of a Zelda:Breath of the Wild open world. Is that a promise this game can keep?

Next is the oh so familiar scene of your avatar in their room, in their house, getting ready to start their big adventure. Early Pokémon games have the strange narrative conceit that it was acceptable for a 10-year old child to be allowed to wander, alone, through a monster-filled world having adventures. Sword & Shield introduced the idea of an organized, Olympics-style tournament to vaguely justify your journey. Here, you have enrolled in a pokémon academy where there will be at least the presumption of official adult instruction about and supervision over the process of becoming a pokémon trainer. I’m guessing that this game’s Gym Leaders will be instructors at the Academy?

Your room and your whole house is brightly lit and brightly colored. Seems a little too toylike and bland. I liked Sun & Moon’s premise that you had just arrived here and your house was scattered with moving boxes that your mother never quite got around to unpacking. Speaking of moms, you again, in classic Pokémon style, appear to have no father, just hardworking single parent mother. I’m assuming that, as in Sword & Shield, her hair color and complexion is determined by my choices for myself, though her hair doesn’t exactly match mine.

Director Clavell himself shows up to complete our enrollment in the academy and deliver our choice of starter pokémon. We get to run around and play with them a bit before closing, which is a nice addition. As I have done since Pokémon Red & Blue, I picked the grass-type for my starter, this time a green kitty named Sprigatito.

We next meet another core component of a Pokémon narrative: our friend/rival. This time it is a slightly older female academy student named Nemona. She seems of Spanish ancestry, and uses words such as buenos and vamos. Sword & Shield had a lot of fun with British slang, so I wonder what this game will do with the language of its setting. This new region, Pladea, seems generally Mediterranean, with its coasts, bright sun, and palm trees. Like most recent friends and rivals in the series, Nemona is a very enthusiastic pokémon battler, which is a useful device to encourage us to participate in the game’s core activity (more on that next post). Our friend Hop in Sword & Shield was quite a complex character, so I hope Nemona will also have an engaging story and not just be a device to lead us through the mechanics.

After I picked grass-type Sprigatito, Nemona, interestingly, chose the type weak to mine, the water duck Quaxly, rather than strong against grass fire-type Fuecoco — who ended going off with Director Clavell. This division of the starters ended up being of some significance in Sword & Shield, s0 once again we will see!