My Pokemon Experience

The original Red and Blue versions are the only Pokemon games I’ve never beaten. Maybe it’s because I was too young to really play them well, then by the time I got a handle on things, Gold/Silver appeared and I fell in love with that, never looking back.

Gold/Silver is far and away my most fond generation of Pokemon games. It could very well be my rose-tinted glasses as I was growing just old enough to appreciate it, but everything, with a two-region game and day-night shifts, seemed so big and grand. Ruby/Sapphire was very good, but it and many of the later one-region games just feel a little cramped in comparison.

I’d say my least favorite (and this is definitely a relative term, the game was still very good) would probably be Black/White. Simply because its story went into a higher “narrative bracket” by trying to cast doubt on the journey-while quickly and totally yanking back to the “it’s totally ok” message. But the gameplay was still very good.

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Source Extinguishing

So, I got and beat Pokemon Moon. I’m impressed that I managed a totally unspoilered playthrough. The game is good, even if I think the Pokemon franchise/formula is showing signs of limits. Still, it’s a cash Miltank.

But what it quenched was my SII commando fic concept, simply because playing a cutesy kids game shows just how much force is required to wedge in realistic special operators. The one idea I had was an SII agent in Alola-on her honeymoon.

Kind of illuminating overall, and a reason why I want more fanfic writers to be involved in the source material-(which seems like a no-brainer but sadly isn’t).

 

Lore Pileups

Two years too late, I rediscovered the craziness, madness, and improbable victory of Twitch Plays Pokemon.

The viewership understandably dropped after the novelty of the first Red run. And there was something else I found, something sad but not unexpected. Forced lore.

The original run had organically developed memes and lore, from the Pidgeot to the ATV Venomoth, to of course the Helix Fossil. Later, everyone was trying to build up the lore from the start.

In other internet fandoms, however small, this sort of lore pileup happens a lot.

  • The Infinite Loops started off as a pure crackfic Groundhog Day for the lols anything-goes story-and then developed into a cosmology.
  • The Big One was a forum what-if about a nuclear end to WWII that turned into a massive historical “epic” spanning back to the 300s BCE.

Lore pileups make sense only to the “in-crowd” while turning off outside fans, and seem a lot funnier than they can be. While in some ways unavoidable, they’re a sign that a work is jumping the shark.

Blank Slate Heroes

I have to admit, I have less enthusiasm for Fallout 4 now than I did when it was released. Part of this is me knowing what happened rather than going into the game excitedly, but that’s not everything. (After all, I loved New Vegas despite my runs adhering rigidly to walkthroughs)

I think one big thematic misstep, which one of my favorite game bloggers, Shamus Young agrees with, is making the protagonist voiced. It’s a sort of uncanny valley where they’re too detailed to just be a blank slate, but aren’t detailed enough to be an interesting character themselves.

(That I’m not impressed by the voice acting doesn’t help matters either)

I had three couriers for my New Vegas playthrough. One was a talker who sided with the NCR, one a brute who sided with Caesar’s Legion, and one a physically weak ex-gangster who sided with Mr. House to redeem themselves. (Said courier compensated for her physical weakness by getting power armor and blasting the final boss with a super-railgun).

Even games without the customization of New Vegas make blank slates. For the protagonist of Undertale, the players (eventually) know their name, that they’re nice, and that’s it. For a Pokemon trainer, their family is known, but they’re not.

I do invent backstories for blank slate characters that often contradict the rest of the setting. Why not?

Who Could Be A Fitting “Sans”?

First, an obligatory spoiler warning for Undertale (even if this is like closing the barn door long after every single horse has left).

 

 

So, one of the most interesting and challenging characters in Undertale is Sans the skeleton. At first seeming to be just a silly, lazy character (in contrast to his overexcited, bumbling brother, Papyrus), he’s later revealed to know about the timeline changes caused by the main character/player saving and restarting the game, and becoming apathetic to the world because of it.

Unlike his brother, Sans never fights the player on either a “normal” route or a pacifist route. However, on the so-called “genocide route”, where the player must go out of their way to keep killing literally every single monster in every single area throughout the game, Sans finally rouses himself into action and serves as what is generally considered by far the hardest boss in the game.

The Sans battle in its entirety.
Sans is jokingly referred to in the game’s “check” screen as the “easiest enemy”, having only one HP (but dodging every attack), and only doing one damage (per frame).
Now, I goofily wondered what a rough counterpart to Sans would be in other games. Not in terms of the character (either lazy or uncaring), nor even in terms of being an incredibly hard battle (the mechanics would be different). No, what I was thinking of was the style. To be a Sans-equivalent, said character would have to:
  • Be established throughout the main storyline, regardless of what path the player takes.
  • At the same time, having a good justification not to fight the player unless they go to a terrible extreme.
  • Nonetheless, in that extreme case, going to action.

 

For the most literal example, from my favorite RPG of all time, Fallout New Vegas, the replacement for Sans would be none other than-Yes Man.

Yes Man is a robot/computer program that is programmed to enthusiastically obey any order given to it by anyone. The character is a clear plot device, intended to serve as a bailout for players who fail the other three main quest lines. Yes Man obviously can’t say no, and their inability to be permanently killed (even if contrived) is to prevent the the player from losing that way.

New Vegas’ own pseudo-genocide route requires the player to use Yes Man (after all, even the crazed Caesar’s Legion needs you to spare them). 

The psycho ending.
So, while clearly not existing in the real game, my fanon would involve the Yes Man battle. Throughout the game, not only will he not oppose you, but he can’t. (If you went down that path in the fanon, you’d see hints of indecision and warning start to pop up in his speeches).
Then, after the normal final bosses are dealt with, Yes Man comes, and instead of his congratulations and statement of “assertiveness” (misinterpreted as him going rogue, but another plot device to make him just loyal to the player), he’d (with a changed voice tone and image from the silly smile), say “Do you really want to rule?”, and have a short conversation about how the Lucky 38’s computer installed a defense protocol inside him (the same one that largely spared the area from the nuclear war).
(The player can do a speech or science check, which doesn’t do anything even if passed-the implication being “Ha, now you’re trying to bypass fighting, sorry nope”).
From there, the player has to fight through waves of upgraded Securitrons (all with the “Yes Man” angry face) until they blow up the Lucky 38’s reactor, which destroys the entire area in a giant mushroom cloud and kills them. The end.
Ok, that was still pretty dumb, and me trying to shoehorn in too exact an analogy.
_ _ _ _ _ _
From my childhood RPG dream, there’s a lower-stakes but much easier way to include a “Sans”. That setting would be Pokemon, and the metaphorical skeleton is obvious-the professor that gives you your starter.
Give the player the option of evil shortcuts (stealing trainer Pokemon, using dubious power-ups)-and then, should they use said shortcuts, have them face the disappointed professor with a team of six level 100 fully evolved Pokemon.
The boss would say things like “Do you really care about loving your Pokemon, or just winning at all costs?”

 

(Even Rare Candies might technically qualify, given the number of people who used the item duplication glitches to munchkin their way to the top.)

There are undoubtedly more ways, both as contrived as my Fallout example and natural-seeming as my Pokemon one, to give the player a bad time throughout numerous games. This is one of those silly speculations I love thinking about way too much.

 

When a scenario is too balanced

Here it goes.

I’ve been having less fun making Command scenarios than I did when I first made a few. They haven’t become unfun, just less fun. I didn’t know why, until a Tasteful Understated Nerdrage (excellent video series, btw) video described it.

The games were described as “too balanced”, and having “too much choice”, and the video explained why that was the case. To me, I emphasized with “too balanced”-and the mindset that made games shift from unbalanced to the opposite extreme.

I missed the original Infinity Engine games almost-OK, totally completely. But in other games of that era, I can see the imbalances described at work-the original Pokemon, with its overpowered Psychic type, the stuffing of “poison” to all but one grass-type, the glitches, and so forth.

So, exploring Command, exploring the editor, exploring the circumstances, and, without the clearest picture, making something, was an experience that was majestic. This was also an experience that could only happen once. Even if I made an unbalanced scenario, it would be a calculated one-one of “Ok, let me handicap the Italians with third-gen fighters”, not “Ok, what do they have, hmm, F-104s, ok, I’ll use those”. I know too much about the context and the game mechanics to repeat my initial experience-and that’s both a good and bad thing.

What Difference A Protagonist Change Makes

For a long time in one of my fanfic-writing goals, I was stuck-stuck beyond the usual lack of energy. What I wanted and what the setting was just didn’t fit together. Then I found, in a somewhat unusual source, something that identified the problem.

I looked at a video talking about Pokemon Reburst, a manga that attempted to “maturify” the well-known series. The series, despite a decent-sized run, seemed to slide down once it wrapped up (the reviewer had trouble finding information on it in Japanese, much less English), and once he got the gist of the plot, it wasn’t hard to see why.

The problem was simple-it was just a second-rate shounen story with a bit of Pokemon window dressing. Despite the vastly different genres, I saw the parallels between my own struggles at writing a long Pokemon fanfiction and what was identified as the problem in ReBurst. Namely, my outline was just a secret agent story with a bit of monster window dressing.

It would center around the League’s Special Intelligence and Investigation department, a combined intelligence service and “intervention” force. SII, in addition to its ‘normal’ duties, takes the job of securing the multiverse (yes, dimensional travel is a thing) from extranormal Pokemon and the artifacts related to them.

Sounds good enough. But there was just one problem-the image I had of SII doesn’t fit into the setting. Not just that they’re too dark. Rather, it’s a combination of their image-semi-realistic agents backed by camo-clad commandos patterned off the infamous Spetsnaz are more suited to Counter Strike: GO than Pokemon Go-and something even worse.

The Pokemon setting, even in its darker fandom interpretations is centered around a fair fight, or at least an individual-on-individual battle. The SII agent does everything possible to avoid that. It just-doesn’t really fit the theme far beyond any appropriate tone.

Thankfully, I’ve found an alternative-make the protagonist a trainer, and keep SII, especially their ERUs (Emergency Response Unit, although the name is intentionally reminiscent of something else) as a supporting cast. I’ve found a plot setup that enables me to do it.
The setup is very simple: Don’t make the main character an SII agent. Make them a normal trainer. This has also solved a lot of other problems with the fic as well-it gives me an anchor, and lets me do things that Secret Agent Super Dragonite or his army of polite masked backflip-hatchet tossers could never do. Never underestimate the power of limiting scope.

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.

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…