“This is it? This is the game?”
I am in Italy with my partner, and just like every beach holiday since 1999, I have booted up Pokémon. This particular version is Pokémon Sun for the Nintendo 3DS, but all the games are fundamentally the same: you’re a child leaving home to catch and train tiny monsters so you can defeat various bosses and bad guys. My boyfriend, who has never played Pokémon, has just watched me eviscerate a grunt trainer with my level 41 Mudsdale.
“It’s so … slow.”
I consider, for the first time, what the Pokémon games look like to a person who has never played them. They are slow. A huge portion is just you, a 10-year-old, walking around and being assaulted by bats. The “battles” you enter with other trainers are fundamentally lacking in drama, and mostly consist of you smashing the same one or two moves over and over again. And the “moves”? You see very little of them. Rattata uses “tackle” and this is signified by a rat animation inclining slightly forward.
Why have I been playing this game for 20 years? Because there are two different but adjoining games going on in Pokémon. There is one you play on your console, the plodding, multiple choice-based, “gotta catch ’em all” game that birthed an anime dynasty, then there is another that happens entirely in your own head.
If you’ve ever played Pokémon, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The guilt you feel when it’s time to bench your Pidgeot – the one who started with you as a humble level 4 Pidgey on Route 1 – because you know he can’t take you to the dizzy heights of the Indigo Plateau. The overwhelming sense of gulping-for-air urgency when you and your team emerge, limping and faint, from another endless cave of poisonous Zubats and aggressive trainers. The strange existential panic when you use a thunder stone on your dainty Pikachu, so he may evolve into a hefty daddy Raichu.
The game encourages you to evolve your Pokémon, bench the weak ones, and do whatever you can to succeed. The weirdly intense emotional state this summons is not a result of the slow gameplay mechanics but a cumulative effect of the writing. The games are essentially road movies. You journey through different towns, dropping in on lives already in progress, stories already in motion. And like any road movie, the visitor is only ever told as much as he needs to know. There are no Super Mario-style “Find the princess!” prompts. You are asked, simply, to read the room.
One visceral example of this is Lavender Town, which you experience as a vague, unfinished ghost story. You arrive in this small village. Something is obviously wrong. Nothing is growing, there are no water features, and a shrill, repetitive 8-bit tune plays. You learn that this is the home of the only Pokémon graveyard. It is the first time we are introduced to the concept of death. We know Pokémon “faint” if they lose a battle, but healthcare being free and medication cheap, death is not something we’ve had to confront yet. But now we know: Pokémon die and they are mourned.
That’s not all. Something terrible has happened here, and recently. One of the characters explains: “Ghosts appeared in Pokémon Tower. I think they’re the spirits of Pokémon that the Rockets killed.” So Lavender Town is haunted because of a massacre led by Team Rocket, something we hear nothing more about.
Mysterious massacre … Team Rocket from Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us
The Pokémon games are full of stories like this: half-written, euphemistic, full of hints and easter eggs, and characters who allude to things that often never happen. For the first few hours of Pokémon Blue and Red, you are led to believe that a big plot with a Clefairy is about to kick off, and it simply never does. It creates a sense that you are living in a vast, complex world full of lost tales and broken people.
Take the gym leaders. These are the game’s grimy local politicians, whose moods and preferences govern an entire region. The more you play, the more you read into their sad little lives. Brock’s backwoods gym is so dull you can practically hear your rubber soles squeaking on the floor as you destroy his Onix. At Lt. Surge’s deranged Electric-type gym you’re forced to sort through trash before he’ll even speak to you. Female-led gyms tend to be more elaborate – do they have to work harder to gain credibility? Is there inherent sexism in the gym leadership world? Maybe that’s why Erica has more trainers than anyone else. Maybe it’s a feminist thing. Maybe Erica is the AOC of Pokémon.
From the beginning, Pokémon has encouraged this kind of close reading. Satoshi Tajiri, the president of Game Freak and creator of the franchise, began his career as a writer. He made a video arcade fanzine, also called Game Freak, which became hugely popular for its gamer tips and lists of easter eggs. In 1999, he gave an interview to Time magazine about the mysterious and elusive Pokémon named Mew, which was added to Pokémon Red and Blue at the last moment as a hidden extra. “There were 150 characters, and Mew was number 151,” Tajiri explained. “It created a myth about the game, that there was an invisible character out there … It kept the interest alive.”
For decades, fan theories about how to find Mew circulated through forums. Most speculation centred on a small truck parked near a ship named SS Anne at Vermilion Harbour. The truck is only accessible with the aid of some crafty trading with another player; for years, many players believed that Mew was hidden behind that elusive vehicle.
The sparse storytelling has led to players filling in the gaps in other creative and fascinating ways. The world is mostly populated by children and elderly guardians, and your own father is absent. Lieutenant Surge, an Electric gym leader, alludes to combat, and is one of the few middle-aged men in the game. To many fans, the natural conclusion is that we are living a decade or so after a war so devastating that it claimed an entire generation of men. Suddenly, the lush forests, the free healthcare (didn’t the NHS begin after the second world war, after all?), the societal emphasis on having strong Pokémon who are willing to fight for you – it all makes sense.
As a novelist, I’m keenly aware that people won’t commit to a story unless it engenders an ideological pact between writer and audience; it has to encourage us to fill in the gaps and overinvest emotionally. I would feel ashamed to undertake such a close reading of the Pokémon games, if I weren’t absolutely sure that these theories live in the hearts and minds of millions of fans who spent their childhoods starting adventure after adventure, each more or less identical and yet all filled with imagination. These fans are easy to find. All you need to do is whisper the magic words: “I like shorts. They’re comfy and easy to wear.” Trust me, they’ll understand.
Caroline O’Donoghue’s second novel, Scenes of a Graphic Nature, will be published by Virago in June.
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