Pokemon What Ifs

There are many possible artistic what-ifs, that although far less consequential than historical ones, can still have an effect on the genre in question. Here’s a few for Pokemon.

-No Pikachu. Or rather, no famous Pikachu. In the actual Pokemon Red/Blue, Pikachu is just an out-of-the-way Pokemon in the Viridian Forest that you have a good chance of missing altogether. In the anime, it became Ash’s starter, and the rest is history. Pikachu was a way to avoid being biased in favor of any of the game’s three ‘real’ starters.

If they had picked one, it may have led to the series being ever-so-slightly less successful-Pikachu is photogenic and “cute” in a cross-cultural way that the three real starters kinda-aren’t. In the fandom, you’d have people who picked one starter have that sweet and all-too-rare feeling of canon vindication.

(If you wanted to be mean, make it Charmander, then watch as the kids wanting to follow Ash meet the wall of the Pewter Gym).

-Pokemon games follow Gold/Silver’s precedent of multiple regions.

In Pokemon Gold/Silver, you could go back to the region of Red/Blue. This was messily implemented, as it stretched the Gameboy’s abilities to their limits, but it was still sixteen gyms rather than the usual eight. From Ruby/Sapphire on, it was the cash-Miltank of new region, eight gyms. There’s a part of me that hopes that following GS’s lead would lead to a more interesting or non-linear setting, but there’s another part that thinks it would just spread the game too thin.

-Cinnabar Island shenanigans.

All it would take is a few tiles in the east of Cinnabar Island changed, and you lose your greatest ability to munchkin rare candies break Pokemon Red/Blue. That would make one lose out on a cheat/bug, but little more. A more interesting difference in quality control would be to remove the ability to skip the Seafoam Islands by just flying back to Pallet Town and surfing down.

In the actual game, you can skip one of the hardest maps easily.

What would the trade-off be? Better maps, worse Pokemon?

I love weird stuff like this.

Gate First Cour Review

So, the first block of the Gate anime I previously talked about is done. Forget the implausibility of it-how is it from an artistic perspective?

Even given the low standards (I’m not expecting anything beyond a shamelessly nationalist adventure story), it’s-mediocre at best. The biggest problem by far is the very frequent changes in tone. Multiple times within the same episode, the story goes from gory gruesome dark war to silly anime antics to its politics and back again. The latest episode, for instance, starts with dozens being burned to death by a dragon, follows one of the surviving elves as she melodramatically searches for the JSDF to help, has the princess who loves sleazy comics receiving a batch of ‘art books’, and has the JSDF soldiers complaining about how they can’t move to where the dragon is because it’ll just “give the opposition party ammunition”.

If this was done well, I might have been more tolerant of it, but for the most part, it isn’t.

The politics were also annoying. I actually don’t mean the politics on the other side of the gate (Reading Baen and similar books has mithridatized me towards far-right politics), but rather the laughable attempt at dramatizing it from the Empire’s view. My reaction, which has held up, was-“Why is there even a faction that still thinks they can win at all when they’ve just been on the receiving end of something that makes the Gulf War look like Borodino in comparison?”

There are a few mitigating factors beyond just the setting. The animation isn’t bad at all, and since it’s been adapted from something (adapted from a manga which was adapted from a novel), almost everything was in the original source material (which doesn’t excuse the problems, but explains them as not being entirely the anime producer’s fault).

Recommendation:

Watch a bit for the novelty, and see if you like it more than I did.

How I’ve Tried to Fit A Square Monster into a Round Hole

Fiction is an interesting phenomenon. A premise that remains totally implausible from a realistic standpoint can nonetheless be accepted completely, and without protest. The reader can understand that it’s the way the setting is. But some approaches can make a reader more critical.

Like most people who grew up in the 1990s, I had and have a soft spot for the “Pocket Monsters”. I will freely admit to reading and writing Pokemon fanfiction. However enjoyable (in a guilty-pleasure way) the fiction is, I saw a trend. Nearly every attempt to make a ‘darker’ fic seemed to fail. The prototypical example of the trend, Pokemon Master, is illustrative-rather than trying to chip away at the goofy parts for a cartoon, the authors plop hordes and hordes of “grimdark” on top of this, meaning that instead of a yellow Pikachu goofily shocking someone, you have a black Pikachu gorily killing someone.

I thought, with typical misguided enthusiasm, that I could do better. This had huge problems of its own (more to come later), but I was determined to fit the square monster into a round hole. I basically summed up my feelings on a traditional journey (in hindsight, I was a lot harsher than I should have been-I don’t want to reject something entirely due to lack of ‘realism’)-in one forum post.

Then I have to say one of the biggest problems with portraying the Pokemon World as some sort of Darwinian dreamland is that the representations we see of it show modern standards of living and peaceful cities. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that when fanfiction writers try to change that, they almost invariably fail, because formalized battles and leaders being kids in silly costumes are incompatible with a truly rough, tumble, survival of the fittest society (Also, in such a society, no one would send their valuable kid out on a “character-building” journey, there would be plenty of character-building just living.) Another, somewhat related problem with having everyone go out on a journey is that having everyone’s youth go and flop around, then come back to a modern society, would wreak havoc on an economy.

So, the only way I can think of this is to have the number of people who actually go on journeys to be limited, and to make the setting of the games a pseudo-Darwinian dreamland. One version just has a lucky few going on journeys as part of becoming professional trainers and everyone else lives a normal, hard-worked life broadly comparable to modern existence. Another, darker one basically has the area being closer to a Persian Gulf rentier state than anything else-the economy is driven by off-screen commodities, and you have a small “native” population backed up by tons and tons of foreign workers, and the native population small enough and the money great enough that you can have artificial prosperity despite ludicrous inefficiency.

So in my first version, the aspiring trainer is basically the equivalent of specializing in music or athletics for most of their early life, only really going on a journey (as opposed to catching one common Pokemon near their home, etc..) if they show real talent. Even that’s a means to an end-the moment they compete in real tournaments, they stop journeying and start just training.

In the second version, the aspiring trainer’s family has a home with tons of servants, a simple job, and enough money to be contented. Yet because of this bizarre fantasy, they feel that they have to send their kid out into the brush because it’s the only way you can truly build character.    

I fell bizarrely in love with the rentier state model of the Pokemon nation, and my thoughts and development of it continued-not so much for ‘plausibility’ or ‘realism’ as just that I liked the concept-darker without being stereotypically grimdark, and good enough to work.

The resulting nation is kind of like a weird cross between the Roman Republic and a Gulf oil-state.

One decision, undoubtedly controversial even to me, was to “wall off” the capabilities of the monsters. The answer is contrived, a sort of “GM says so” argument, because I wanted them there without it turning into a civilization ruled by warrior-kings controlling their legendary and final-stage evolution Pokemon. The most controversial handwave was to say that Pokemon cannot be used in large-scale armed conflict among humans.

The justifications are as follows-

-The previous Pokemon-training human civilization destroyed itself, along with many, many Pokemon in a cataclysmic war.

-This left a psychic/aura ‘imprint’ on the remaining ones (and the hidden legendaries, assuming they exist).

-Thus, they’ll just disobey and run off if ordered to fight in a battle bigger than the 1986 FBI shootout, and even something like that requires incredible discipline.

-The League, whose base consists of the descendents of the few survivors of said cataclysism, has a gigantic revulsion to using Pokemon in battle for that reason. They also have warehouse-loads of Master Balls at the ready in case they face anyone who does not share that objection and has somehow managed to weaponize Pokemon.

The nation has a population, of, at most, 10-12 million people. Of those, slightly less than half are native-born citizens, and the rest are foreign migrants. (Cardona has favorable geography mixed with a psychotic immigration enforcement). Only citizens are allowed to be trainers.

The economy is a petro-state, completely dependent on resource revenues. They also are blessed with good enough isolation to spend very little on conventional defense. This means they can get away with a lot of inefficiency.

That was the easy part. The hard part was making a story, since all this focused worldbuilding was taking away from the fact that it’s still ultimately a setting where kids run around and chase monsters. So enter the League’s Special Intelligence and Investigation, which I could use as a crossover bait. Their job is to do both the League’s dirty work and keep the possible dangerous consquences of Pokemon in the bottle. Lavishly funded, they have cross-dimensional transport capability that they take full advantage of.

SII had various forms, from a somewhat realistic agency to an outright XCOM-esque force. The biggest problem was that they were so thematically alien to the setting-evil team leaders being “Gerald Bulled” by a ruthless force that doesn’t play by the cartoonish rules is just nihilistic and munchkiny. So that seemed like a dead end as well.

Then it hit me. The “doesn’t play by the same rules” applied to SII as well. They’re used to dealing with rabble-rousers and ‘ordinary’ antagonists who can have their lairs overrun by commandos. What they’re not used to dealing with is (to give an example from just the second movie) hideously rich collectors who have giant flying castles that would require a lot more than a single missile to bring down.

Suddenly, it goes from a grimdark munchkin-stomp to a story about the interactions between a grounded and “leaping” setting, with the former not always the best. I could even have SII enter a world with total anime physics as a joke and watch their commandos go flying into the sky after they attack ineffectually. But except as a humorous bonus, I don’t think I’d go that far.

What I would be aiming for is something like a scene in, of all things, the first Mortal Kombat movie. Sonya draws her gun on SubZero, and he just nonchalantly freezes it, showing the game is changed. Under my earlier concepts, the whole scene would be just a repeat of the infamous swordfighter ‘clash’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now-it’s the cue for the ‘rationalists’ to redefine their definition of ‘rationality’.

Certainly going to be a lot more fun to write.

“This Pikachu is a Class Hexa threat.”

“But it’s just a Pikach-wait, it what?”

“I told you.”
Oh, and that horde of Master Balls the League thinks is its ace in the hole? Well, let me just say that the enemy gets a vote…

Fanfiction Friendliness of Settings

Some settings are seemingly better for fanfiction writing than others. One example, which was part of a major craze on Spacebattles, is the light novel/anime series called The Familiar of Zero. The plot is basically this-in a fantasy world similar to early modern Europe, a bumbling mage named Louise summons a bumbling Japanese teenager named Saito as her familiar. “Antics” ensue.

The FoZ craze had external factors going for it, such as a popular Fanfiction.net author kicking it off. However, the way it was sustained had a lot to do with the setting. Namely, there were just the right factors for why it got so much attention.

-First, the summoning mechanism allowed for a lot of easy, “built-in” crossover opportunities. For a fanfic writer, making a crossover would be as easy and natural-seeming (unlike contrivances) as “Louise summons _____ instead of Saito.”

-Second, the setting itself was viewed as something potentially interesting, motivating the “fixfic” interest. Unlike the traditional swords-and-sorcery, this was an early modern musket setting, making it stand out conceptually. In addition to this, the “mechanics interest” group liked the intricacies of the magic system (A lot of Spacebattlers like anything that seems quantifiable). That the original works squandered this in favor of “antics” made the motivation all the greater.

The FoZ craze has now burnt itself out, and the new hot fanfiction topic is a web-novel called Worm. That has plenty of its own reasons for the waves of fanfiction, but that’s another story.

Now, there is another work that, despite its popularity, has featured very, very few fanfics. Having finally reached the “Infamy Rank” in Payday 2, I can see why that series has so few entries on fanfiction.net. The setting seems to have everything that went for FoZ going against it. On paper, crossovers could be possible, and in fact official ones have been done in the game itself.

-The setting is much more rigid. Being an un-supernatural, at least nominally grounded modern world, a writer is more limited in what they can actually make. Not that that would stop anyone who really wanted to do something differently, but it’s still an obstacle.

-More importantly, it’s less conceptually interesting and tougher. Being built as a game where the player follows their character by default, there’s no need to ‘hook’ them. The existing characters are some of the least sympathetic protagonists anywhere, and they have just enough personality so that the author can’t use them as blank-slate protagonists like an RPG customizable character.

The modern action setting isn’t novel or possessing of much opportunity to ‘fix’, and is made worse by the game being hard to extract from its mechanics (in-game and the few cutscenes, the Clowns can mow down waves of officers who charge blindly forward, and then can stay hidden-to apply even the slightest amount of plausibility to it would be a Herculean task).

This doesn’t matter for the game itself, but does for a fanfic of such a work.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the internet can be weird. If Payday had spawned a giant fanfic community and FoZ been left with a few scraps, I would probably be writing a blog post on how it was natural that such a popular and already crossover-apparent setting could have so much writing (just look at how easy it is to insert a new heister/rogue, since they did it in canon-etc), while totally understandable that a mediocre goofy anime would be left in the dust (Well, how can you make anything good from a silly little “antics” show-etc). But I still feel that some settings are just more fanfic-friendly than others, for reasons other than the popularity of the original/canon work.

Gate: Thus The Blogger Analyzed

Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There is an extremely silly book-turned-manga-turned-anime. The actual show is a mess of outright goofiness and battles that are as melodramatic as they are one-sided.

The synopsis of the plot thus far goes like this-Gate opens in Tokyo, and out steps a pseudo-Roman fantasy army that pillages and murders-until they get machine-gunned. The JSDF then builds a dome around the gate, and sends a scouting unit led by a goofball nerd who somehow passed Ranger School. You get wizard-girls, elves, and as of the last episode, catgirls, bunny-girls, and medusa-girls. And that after an unironic use of blasting Wagner from helicopters while machine-gunning hapless opponents. Oh, and a princess named Pina Colada. No joke.

Mounting a political and economic critique of such a setup seems as easy an overkill as the actual fighting, but that didn’t stop countless observers (including me) on my favorite forum of Spacebattles from giving a try.

-Japan immediately and officially annexes the entire world on the other side of the gate.

-Then they brag about how rich they’re going to get off the resources there.

-No one else is allowed through the gate.

-China and the US want to go through the gate, and the former wants to settle a third (!) of its population on the other side.

Either the JSDF would back down or see what happens when you pit a gain of totally undeveloped and completely theoretical resource deposits against the damage to one of the world’s most trade-dependent economies. But even if they and not Japan backs down, the “Special Region” could easily turn into a political and economic nightmare even without it.

1: Economics.

-Even if you know the resources exist, getting them is a huge problem. You have to find them, which means extensive surveys. Then you have to build the infrastructure, then you have to deal with the bottleneck of one small gate. This will take years and years and years, and that’s assuming that the costs make it viable at all. (As in, if it’s not just cheaper to import them from other countries on Earth)

Considering that there’s so little else of value there, the raw materials are going to make the Special Region sink or swim. And logically, it’d sink, given all the bottlenecks.

And then there’s the opportunity costs. See, you’ve shackled your country to one so much less advanced that there’s very little precedent. The (not exactly trouble-free) reunification of Germany, with similar technology, only with differences of efficiency, is not comparable. Even a reintegration of much more divergent Korea would be a piece of cake compared to absorbing an entire world or even a much less advanced country. At least North Korea has paved roads, for one.

And this is the best-case scenario, which assumes everyone is completely docile. In any instance with the slightest plausbility, they wouldn’t be.

2: Politics.

Where do I even start?

Ok, first let’s ignore the dubious Sino-American fetish for the gate. The biggest political problem is that the way to endear yourselves to the local population is not to openly view the whole world as nothing but a resources dispenser (which is precisely what the leaders on the other side think about the Special Region). The second-biggest political problem is that by introducing a touch of modernity, you’re going to trigger something beyond your control.

Sure, the people won’t mind if the only paved roads you build are the ones from the mines to the gate. Suure. And they especially won’t want to emigrate to the other side. Sure, you won’t want to go to this world of riches and miracles on the other side, you’ll just keep dirt-farming while the neo-coprosperityists strip-mine that mountain over there.

How many humans (and others) are in the Special Region? I ventured a guess.

-If the Empire has an “average” population density, and is roughly the size of Germany (based off its Holy Roman Empire inspiration), multiple demographics calculators give it a population of around 10.5 million people. But given its more shiny, high-fantasy feel (and ability to send ahistorically large armies), the population could increase to 15 million under the best-case scenario..

-If it’s the size of Turkey (Eastern Roman Empire), population varies from 26 million to 39 million.

So in the lower case, it’s 7 percent of the population of Japan (about 127 million). In the higher case, it’s 30%. I’m being low-end here and only counting the people of that one explored area. Using theorized world population for the 1200-era Middle Ages (350 million baseline, if I multiply it by one and a half its 525 million), that’s 2.7 and 4.1 times the population.

And going to one of the most infamously homogenous countries in the world. Uh-huh. No issues there.

Macguffins and Underdogs

Girls Und Panzer is a very goofy anime that makes absolutely no pretense of being realistic. Therefore, it is an excellent example of what breaks my suspension of disbelief and what doesn’t. I can accept, simply because it’s the premise of the story, that-

-The ideal school setting is on a giant aircraft carrier that puts the Mobile Offshore Base to shame.

-You can have a sport involving girls in WWII-vintage tanks that somehow remains largely safe for all involved. Even when the tank flips over.

-Etc…

None of this bothers me in the slightest. I know I’m getting a silly anime about a silly sport, so this is to be expected. What does bother me a little bit is the “Knock out the flag tank and win” example. Not because it’s any less “plausible” than the sport itself, but because, from a literary perspective, it gives the writer an easy “solution”. Rather than figuring out how to have them win a winner-takes all match, it’s easier to just make a “hit the MacGuffin and win” plan. Especially if it’s an underdog who would be unlikely to win repeatedly “fairly”.

Far more serious works than GuP have this issue. Harry Potter’s Quidditch has the infamous “catch the Snitch and render the rest of the game de facto irrelevant” matter that made it easier for Rowling to write, but made it a very (literal) MacGuffin game.

But Quidditch is still a small part of the series, and it takes place in a world that’s meant to be abnormal. The nominal underdog repeatedly winning through repeated gimmicks is a bigger problem in more supposedly grounded works, especially in series that go on longer than originally planned.

Far more serious works than GuP have this issue. Harry Potter’s Quidditch has the infamous “catch the Snitch and render the rest of the game de facto irrelevant” matter that made it easier for Rowling to write, but made it a very (literal) MacGuffin game.

But Quidditch is still a small part of the series, and it takes place in a world that’s meant to be abnormal. The nominal underdog repeatedly winning through repeated gimmicks is a bigger problem in more supposedly grounded works, especially in series that go on longer than originally planned.