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…