9
Jan 13

Pokémon X And Why

FT///3 comments • 1,782 views

GET UR FROAK ON

While most of my online acquaintances were geeking out today at the thought of a new David Bowie album, our house was far more excited by the announcement of new Pokémon games – Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, the first on Nintendo’s 3DS console(1). The announcement was made by the President of Nintendo himself, in a style not far off the Queen at Christmas.

pokemonxystarters

The announcement makes Pokémon creators Game Freak look canny – widely criticised for releasing this year’s games, Black 2 and White 2, on the older DS machine, the rapid follow-up of X and Y shows they’ve been simply holding off until they’ve got a game ready (and a high enough user base to make it worthwhile)(2). After all, if these games make their ship date it will end up that the gap between console release and first Pokémon game is pretty much identical for the DS as 3DS.

So, good business. But good games? The reviews for X and Y are likely to be very similar to the last few Pokémon games, because X and Y themselves are likely to be similar. In fact you could write them now: global franchise, remarkable longevity, but will these be the last, finally they’ve included ____ but a change to ____ is long overdue.

In the case of Black and White the first blank was “a proper plot”(3) and the second was “the graphics”.

In this case your first blank will be “3D graphics” (duh) and the second will be – I’m guessing “the storyline”. Pokémon – like most franchises – is reviewed based on how much new stuff each iteration brings in, which is fair enough. But I think there’s an interesting disconnect between the game and its critics on what needs to change each time.

FENNEKIN YOU FEEL IT?

The main criticism of Pokémon games isn’t to do with the monster-battlin’ gameplay – addictive for kids(4) and generally acknowledged to have surprising strategic depth – it’s because the frame of the games is the same every single time. You start as a kid with a single Pokémon, catch and train others, and travel around beating eight Pokémon Gyms before taking on the Pokémon League – 5 battles in a row, and then you’ve won. Along the way there are shenanigans with villains – cue more battles – and a friendly rival or two to spar with.

This is the formula for every Pokémon game. It seems to make critics tear their hair out, but there’s no indication that X and Y will be much different. They MIGHT be, in which case this whole post will seem a bit silly, but I doubt it. The fans, after all, show very little sign of tiring of this stock storyline. (Though people who’ve stopped following it often cite the repetitive stories as a reason) (5).

Why do critics get hung up on this, and what are they missing? I think the answer lies in the kind of game Pokémon is, which people seem not to get – despite Game Freak mentioning it occasionally in their rare interviews. Before that, though, let’s talk about what it isn’t.

It isn’t – at least in the main games – a strategic or cerebral game, like Chess. And not just because chess doesn’t make its money by releasing new pieces every three years. Battles in games tend to be difficult only because of the relative power of your Pokémon, not because of the AI’s mostly basic tactics (6).

It’s also not entirely a RPG. This is shakier ground to be on, because obviously it plays exactly like a RPG. In fact my argument for it not being one is circular – the very consistency of the storyline and core battle gameplay in each game suggests it’s evolved into something else, a hybrid, getting away with a level of invariability which other franchises might envy. If it WAS a pure RPG, I think we’d long ago have seen the ‘open-world’ console version people keep moaning about.

CHESPIN ME RIGHT ROUND

pokemon-soccer A hybrid with what? I suggest that Pokémon is at heart a sports management sim. In a Wired interview last year, Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda tipped the wink – “what we concentrate on is that the gameplay is really solid — like a sport, like soccer or basketball”. But in the Pokémon games you’re not a player in this sport, you’re the manager – calling the plays, choosing the squad, scouting for new recruits, then sending your team on to victory. The franchise Pokémon is most like isn’t Final Fantasy or Zelda, it’s Championship/Football Manager. As if the final battle being called the “Pokémon League” wasn’t clue enough.

The structure of main series Pokémon games is very like a sports game – a set series of matches, between which you can train, improve your team, tweak your tactics, enjoy practise games, etc. Like most sporting sims, it’s a little bit utopian – apparent no-hopers can go on to win the league. Admittedly if you don’t win a match, you just try again until you do – no football sim is this generous – but this is a kids’ game, after all. One unusual feature is that unlike a football sim, where the sport created the management videogames, here the sim appeared before the sport: competitive Pokémon play – generally run on online simulators, wholly separate from the Nintendo games – shares rules and tactics with its originator, but is as brutally unforgiving as a real league would be for armchair managers.

Once you understand this, you can work out exactly what fans are getting from an apparently identikit Pokémon release – the same things as sports sim fans get from each year’s new iteration. Improved graphics, yes. Gameplay tweaks, yes – but at base they want the rules to be consistent and the storyline too: take a team to glory by winning the competition.

Instead what matters are the new players to weigh up, new tactics to try out, and a whole lot of texture. In real world sports sims texture is provided by the player: real life fandoms, rivalries and news stories. In Pokémon, with no real world analogues, not only must the players and tactics be created fresh each generation, the texture must too: hence the cities, villain teams, and rivals to give a framework for the Pokémon league (7). But make no mistake – as in a sports sim, the league’s the thing, which is why I’m so sure it’ll structure the main games in Pokémon X and Y, and why I’ll be rather sad if it doesn’t.

NOTES

(1) these names, not terribly imaginative at first blush, are thought to be a reference to two of the three planes of a 3D graph
(2) you suspect Nintendo would have liked X and Y a little sooner, since Pokémon sells hardware as surely as vice versa, and the 3DS was something of a slow starter.
(3) this is debatable – Black and White won plaudits for their ‘complex themes’ mostly because they lampshaded the main thing wags objected to about Pokémon in the first place i.e. isn’t it a bit mean to keep these things on ice in Poke Balls?
(4) YES OK, Dads too. As an older Pokémon player at the start I’m now in a good position to enjoy playing it with my kids, and it’s great fun. I suspect we’re 5 or 6 years away from this Pokémon as cross-generational bonding effect being a significant element of the brand, a la Doctor Who, Lego, Star Wars, etc. If Game Freak can keep going for another couple of iterations it will do well out of this.
(5) the other reason given is the poor quality of new monsters. This is mostly nostalgia I think, given how rubbish some of the original ones were.
(6) not meant as a criticism – Pokémon is a kids game and kids’ tactics are pretty crude too. The effectiveness gap between average in-game tactics and potential ones – among Pokémon of the exact same level – would make the much-longed-for Pokémon Online MMORPG a horrorshow for new players.
(7) so texture is partly what separates good Pokémon games from lesser ones – and obviously every player has their own favourites. I keep meaning to do a review of Black 2 and White 2 exploring this – they made some interesting textural decisions which critics mostly glossed over.

Comments

  1. 1
    Cumbrian on 9 Jan 2013 #

    Great job with this Tom. It’s made me think about Pokemon games in a totally different light. I’ve never played them (never having owned the relevant Nintendo consoles) but thought I had a pretty good grasp of what was involved. Evidently, I did not; I’d dismissed them more because I have played other games with turn based elements (Final Fantasy being a prime example) and found them incredibly frustrating, so avoided them – not just because of the fact I didn’t own the relevant hardware but more because I didn’t think the mechanic was something I would enjoy.

    I’d never thought about it as a Football Manager type game though and I sank a lot of time into those (before other things took over and it made it clear that I probably shouldn’t ever play the game again). Thinking about it, Football Manager is essentially turn based too, so this has really made me think again about what it is that I find interesting in the gaming sphere.

  2. 2
    Cumbrian on 10 Jan 2013 #

    I got home last night and had another think about this with specific respect to texture. I think there’s a lot to be said about using this as separator of games. The games that I have played in the past that I enjoyed briefly but didn’t last (Gran Turismo, golf sims, etc) brought little to the party for me in way of additional texture – I don’t know enough about cars to geek out about all the additional options in GT and this meant that I didn’t get the depth that fans of that game find in it. Equally, I don’t know or care enough about the personalities of golfers or the characteristics of different courses to worry to much about mastering courses or beating Tiger Woods.

    I’m really enjoying Assassin’s Creed 3 at the minute, after finding the previous games great fun too. This, I think, is also largely a matter of texture. At its nub, the game rests on pretty simple and repetitive mechanics (basically, go here and kill this person or animal and/or retrieve this object) but the developers have done a skillful job of interweaving a fictional story into real life historical settings. The fact that you can effectively highlight different buildings in 18th century Boston and learn a little of the history of the War of Independence and the significance of certain places makes the game so much more fascinating for me than otherwise would be the case. Of course, they’ve been doing this for a while, certainly since ACII when you could do the same thing in Middle Ages Florence, but this additional texture and context has definitely been a defining part of why I have kept returning to the game series as further iterations have come out (despite the fact that the over-arching story is pretty weak sauce).

    Other games that I completed and immediately restarted to play again (Fallout, Red Dead Redemption, a cracking game where Russia invades America during the Cold War called Freedom Fighters) all brought additional texture and detail to the games that made me want to run through them multiple times. Returning to these games was more about enjoying the world and the events in them, more than applying different spins to my play style however (though both Fallout and RDR allow you to play as a good guy or a black hat, I never really bother following the black hat style of play – it’s just too much effort to constantly go around killing and stealing from innocent NPCs).

    What seems interesting about the games that I have found most enjoyable as opposed to what it seems Tom is saying about Pokemon is that a lot of the stuff that I have enjoyed as texture is deliberately inserted by the development teams, references well worn tropes and so on. The imagination has already been done and it’s simply a case of sampling it as you go along. It seems that, with Pokemon, given its sporting context with fictional teams and leagues, that some of the rivalries that kids experience when playing the game is likely to come from their own imagination (I hate xxx because I’m having a tough time beating them and their leader sneers at me when he wins) rather than being imposed on them by real world contexts (in Football Manager, local derbies and rivalries between managers and what have you are put into the game to augment realism) or expectations of genres (like the traditional Western tropes in RDR).

    In this sense, it seems like, from what I gather from the above, that Pokemon is actually a very clever game, operating as more blank canvas contextually, allowing the gamer to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks, giving a greater sense of freedom than some of the games I have returned to time and again. In some senses, this is perhaps more difficult than just nailing tropes and twisting real world history to fill a world texturally, and, as a result, I guess I feel like Pokemon is (probably – again I’m mostly going off what Tom has written as I don’t play the games myself) a much smarter set of games than I have ever really given them credit for. I think what it says about me, as well, is that (sadly) I am a bit of a lazy thinker when it comes to gaming and don’t use my imagination enough – otherwise, I might have been able to get much more out of Gran Turismo et al than I originally did by bringing my own thoughts to the texture that the game provided.

  3. 3
    Tom on 4 Oct 2013 #

    The first reviews of X and Y are starting to surface and, yes, they are exactly as predicted here: lovely graphics, no storyline innovation.

    Expect more Pokemon content on FT soon (“because you didn’t demand it!”)

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