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On Pokémon

Article by Kris

The morning sun was peeking through the blinds as I settled in the laboratory chair. It had been a long journey – overnight – and I wasn’t looking my best, but when one has a chance at an audience with the world’s foremost expert on his subject of choice, one arrives early.

The expert in question rose from his own chair in sprightly fashion and shook me by the hand. He was a distinguished-looking man about fifty years old, and his shock of grey hair was neatly complemented by his wide, dark eyebrows and knowing expression.

‘Oak,’ he said, by way of introduction.

‘Professor,’ I acknowledged. ‘Thanks for taking the time to see me.’

The good professor turned his back on me and squinted briefly through the blinds. He took a deep breath, much like an actor preparing to perform a soliloquy, and said, ‘So you should know that this world is inhabited by amazing creatures called Pokém-’

‘It’s okay, I know. I read the leaflet while I was waiting,’ I said. The leaflet I held up was a folded square of card emblazoned with a variety of garish colours and a picture of a giant bipedal creature that seemed to be the offspring of a tortoise and a battleship. It was entitled Exposition for the Cave-Dwelling Community.

‘Oh,’ Oak replied, seeming momentarily irritated. ‘So I suppose that also tells you that we-‘

‘Live and work alongside them,’ I read back.

‘And that we-‘

‘Use them in frequent life-threatening battles whenever a stranger meets our eye. There’s also a section that tells you not to go into long grass unless you want to get into fights.’ I shrugged. ‘That’s no different to the bars back home on Saturday nights, mind.’

The Professor looked a little troubled. ‘In many respects, it’s not even like people need a Professor to explain Pokémon to them anymore. Ah well. I guess that I always have my research. And my radio show. And my massive celebrity popularity!’

It was true that Pokémon was a massive franchise – the second-biggest selling video game franchise of all time after Nintendo’s own moustachioed plumber. With the advent of Pokémon Go for smartphones – a genius move that has opened the franchise up to a massive new market and heralded an entirely new direction for the games going forwards – there were previously undiscovered tribes in the Amazon river delta who were turning up on the doorstep of civilisation with foreknowledge of the ubiquitous red-and-white Poké Ball and which were the best options to use when battling Mew.

‘What do you think it is that makes the game so popular?’ I asked.

‘Well, it’s not hard to see the appeal in a game where you can lose a fight and faint, but just visit a Poké Center and be up-and-running again in a jiffy! So that appeals to simple people who are bad at competitive games, like you. There’s plenty to keep your sworn enemies, the min-maxers, happy too. There’s IVs and EVs – shiny hunting might have got easier these days, but do you remember the first time you caught a Pokémon with Pokérus? There was that vaguely-unsettling feeling, like it might actually harm your Pokémon – like there was a hint of something dark and dangerous beneath the cutesy veneer. The in-game trivia was much the same, with Pokémon based on ghosts, or luring people to their doom. There was the manga and the animé running alongside, of course, creating a saturation effect. And there were real mysteries, too. Stories of children who committed suicide after listening to the Lavender Town theme song. All very creepy, all adding to the mythos. Sure, the game was easy to play, but working out how to catch ‘em all in the days before Bulbapedia was genuinely challenging.’

‘Plus it spawned all manner of interesting hard-mode variants – Nuzlocke mode, where a fainted Pokémon is considered to be dead, or Randomlocke, where you start with a Pokémon that’s effectively random, or trade for one online.’

Oak looked briefly uncomfortable. ‘It also spawned a lot of … interesting art online …’

I shook my head firmly. ‘What people post on DeviantArt stays on DeviantArt.’

‘Agreed,’ Oak said with a shudder. ’Basically, Pokémon gives you a game within a game, one you define yourself – a gentle, easy-to-understand plot with the freedom to try whatever strategies you want, discover new things, catch an infinite number of electronic creatures and imbue them with personalities, dreams and names. Though don’t think I didn’t see you registering that Charmander with the name “D1cksalad” last month. You’re less funny than you think.’

I looked sheepish. ‘Sorry.’

Oak softened. ‘What is it that you like most about Pokémon?’

‘I think my favourite thing is the world. As you say, there’s no fail state so there’s an implied sense of safety about the whole thing. There are legends, myths, reasons why people act and believe in certain ways. People in the Pokémon world seem more ecologically-conscious than we are, like theirs is a real world, worth caring about. Despite just being blocky pixels, the music and the atmosphere contribute to that. Many NPCs in the game seem inherently shallow, but villains were different – identifiable, generally ambiguous. They think they’re doing the right thing for the world at large. That’s a big thing for a child to take on board.’

Oak spun round unexpectedly. ‘But you weren’t a child when you first played, were you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I never owned a GameBoy. I had to work backwards many, many years later, when it became apparent that I was never going to suddenly grow up and stop liking games. When I realised that it was okay to be an adult, to love adult things, but also to embrace things that were part of my childhood.’

‘Even if they weren’t actually part of your childhood,’ Oak observed.

‘Hmmph,’ I mumbled.

‘Of course, part of the success of the franchise has been keeping the core elements of the games unchanged while subtly shifting the landscape around them,’ Oak said. ‘When the next generation is released, I’ll have switched over from a radio show to a podcast! But the water-grass-fire starter combination will still be around long after you’ve moved on.’

There was an uncomfortable moment then, a silence that went on a little too long. ‘What’s wrong?’ Oak asked.

‘I can’t tell you. It’s silly.’

‘No, go on,’ he said.

‘No.’

‘Please.’

‘Ok, fine.’ I sighed. ‘It’s just that we’re the first generation that has seen our computer game franchises grow up along with us.  I’m the same age as Space Invaders, do you know that? And it’s become clear that something like Pokémon – like a million other things which are amazing and are clearly going to be imagined and reimagined and revisited and interpreted a hundred times over – those things are never going to die.’

‘Go on,’ Oak said.

‘But I am. I’m going to die one day.’

It felt like a big admission – an acceptance of something that made me feel genuinely awful. Of course I wanted Pokémon and all those other franchises to go from strength-to-strength, to develop, to do new things, to create new fans. They were things that people loved. That I loved. But it was almost too much to bear to think of a time when those things outlived me. And as time went on, that became ever more likely.

‘Pokemon Go was a game-changer,’ I said quietly. ‘A revelation, even if it was never going to be everything that we hoped it could. The paradigm had shifted, and you saw then that it would shift again. One day, children will be able to actually grow up with Pokemon, chase them around the neighbourhood, catch them in the park. They’ll become adults who climb mountains and discover the gods living atop them.’

‘And you don’t want that to happen after you’re too old to climb mountains,’ Oak said softly.

I didn’t answer. I was struck by this realisation, this feeling that I recognised from the games themselves – that if you really looked at what you were doing, there was deeper meaning there. Before me, Oak stood still, secure in the knowledge that he would live forever, while I, like every moment I experienced, was passing incrementally.

‘Why,’ he asked, ‘are you really here?’

‘When Red and Blue were released in Japan, I was already seventeen years old. I had no interest in catching sprites on a screen. I was too busy trying to catch the attention of teenage girls.’

Oak laughed to himself.  ‘It’s funny how things come around full circle.’

‘I never got a starter Pokemon when I was twelve years old. It’s my time.’

‘Very well.’ Oak stood up and opened a case containing three glowing balls. As I reached out to touch one, he said, ‘Wait!’

‘What?’

‘Are you a boy or a girl?’

‘I have a beard you could hide a Zigzagoon in.’

‘Do you know my Grandson’s name?’

‘Not a clue.’

Oak tossed one of the balls to me. ‘Here you go. Have this one. It’s a plant but it’s also a dinosaur.’

‘I don’t want that one. Is there one that looks vaguely like Scarlett Johansson in the windowsill scene of Lost in Translation?’

‘Oh, probably,’ Oak said. ‘We’re discovering new ones all the time. Have you checked on DeviantArt?’

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