Played Pokemon Go yet? Get on it! Obviously Pokemon Go, though not what most would consider a narrative, has been a huge phenomenon since its release a couple of weeks ago. People seem to fall into one of two camps; either they are enthusiastically obsessed or they’re stuck wondering why all these people are running down the street shouting about a Squirtle. I am definitely in the obsessed bracket and proud of it. Team Valour FTW!
So, first off, let’s flashback. Pokemon began life as a set of RPG games on Nintendo Gameboy back in 1996 and then blew up from there. There was the games themselves, the anime, manga, trading card game, Monopoly, plushies… It was everywhere. As I am from the UK, my first experience with it (apart from some family friends throwing one of my toys around, screaming “PIDGEY!!!”) was Pokemon Red on my old, black-and-white screened Gameboy. I loved that game. Several generations of games have followed since and I lost interest after generation two… Until Pokemon Go.
The premise of the first generation games was simple – your character was to catch and train Pokemon, beat your rivals and all eight gyms, and defeat the Elite Four. You were one trainer in a world of many and it was what you did that made you special. The creatures were cute, the actions were easy to pick up, and the narrative was your typical quest adventure. What made it exciting was how it fitted with each player, no matter what their personality was. My sentimental nature meant that I tended to build a team quite early on and stick to it, even though better Pokemon would come later. That technique worked well for me because my Pokemon would level up to become complete bad asses. I beat the Elite Four with a Raticate! My sister’s technique was different, more thought out and she paid attention to type strengths and weaknesses. It worked. This was the core theme of the game. It didn’t matter who you were or how you played – you could still be a Pokemon Master.
Flash forward to the later games, which, as much as I loved the ever-expanding Eeveelution line, weren’t as big a hit with me and it took until Pokemon Go’s release for me to understand why. I always assumed that it was to do with age or sentimentality. Thought these are factors, my biggest problems have in fact been the distortion of the narrative and its applicability to life now. I have dipped in and out of the various games (most recently trying generation four’s Pearl and six’s Omega Ruby) but have never found myself getting immersed in the same way. It’s Omega Ruby in particular that made me realise what had changed. The games are no longer focused on you, as an ordinary trainer, going on a simple quest. At the point I stopped playing OR I had just encountered one of the legendary Pokemon. I fought it and then it joined my team. I didn’t capture it. I didn’t have to carefully calculate when to throw a Pokeball. I defeated it, then it suddenly decided that it saw something special in me and joined my team. A legendary Pokemon just handed to me on a platter. This didn’t sit well with me. I’ve never wanted to be special for no apparent reason – I want to be special because of my talent or because I earned it. The ordinary Pokemon trainer working towards being a Pokemon Master is no longer the core narrative of the RPGs. Instead the Pokemon trainer is a special snowflake who has some spiritual connection with Pokemon that makes them better than everyone else. Urgh!
So how does Pokemon Go fit into all this? Unlike the RPGs, Go doesn’t really have a formal narrative. It’s more like a sandbox game than an RPG. The only formal elements of narrative I’ve found so far (at level 13) is the rather sparse introduction by Professor Willow and the brief introduction to the three teams. Compared to the text-heavy, rather more structured, step-by-step progression of the RPGs, it doesn’t have a story. You go out, you catch Pokemon, and you might go to a gym if you feel like it but there’s no real pressure to do so at this point. You do it your way. And that is exactly why I think that it is the closest to the generation one games than any of the others.
The first generation games, as I said before, had really rather simple storylines. That was why it was so easy to become immersed – the player could easily see themselves as the trainer and, if they were anything like me, fill in gaps in the narrative (such as personality) with their own thoughts. A trainer that would otherwise be unremarkable becomes important through the player. Pokemon Go has a similar simplicity that allows the player to construct their own narrative and play it their way. I have friends who have never gone to a gym and have no intention to do so because that is not the part of Pokemon they enjoy. I am obsessed with Eevees and want to create a team of them. Others want to do the gyms. In the Pokemon Go world, all these different players can do it their way and still have the same successes as budding Pokemon Masters.
I also feel that another part of Pokemon Go’s success is its applicability to the world now. The message of the first games was very fitting for its late nineties release; you can be the very best if you work on it. With Pokemon Go, though the competitive element remains if you so choose, there is more of a community feeling which is more fitting with the internet generation. If you spend much time on Tumblr (and I spend WAY too much time there), you see the way that the current generation wants to work towards something better. Yes, it’s imperfect, but there is this general feeling of people wanting to build a community. There’s also a feeling of people not knowing how to build that community feeling in the real world because, you know, internet. It’s been less than a month and Pokemon Go is already helping. I am rather socially inept at times but I notice other Pokemon Go-ers when I’m out and feel a camaraderie that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I’ve chatted to strangers about interesting Pokemon in the area. I’ve showered and left the house on days I didn’t need to! And I don’t seem to be the only one if conversations with friends and internet articles are anything to go by. People are losing weight, getting more sunlight, being more sociable, feeling more able to leave the house when in a depressive state… Many of the problems faced by today’s generation are being aided by a simple phone game.
So, in summary, what do I think of Pokemon Go? It brings the franchise back to basics and is well fitted to the current generation in terms of message and what you are expected to do. Though the formal narrative elements are sparse, the implied narrative is adaptable to players of all sorts and is therefore closer to the first generation RPGs than anything since. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistakes as updates come!
What did you all think of Pokemon Go? An improvement on the franchise or an abomination? Which Pokemon do you most want to catch? And, most importantly, what team are you on?