I've tried. Oh believe me, I've tried. I've tried my hardest to get into the rhythm of Pokémon, to fall into the groove of critter collecting and trainer battling and all the other activities that Pokémon fans love so much.
But I just can't do it. It's been 15 years since Pokémon Red/Blue—the only one I've played to completion—and since then, I've fallen into the same stale pattern: 1) see new Pokémon game; 2) think new Pokémon game could finally be the one for me; 3) try new Pokémon game; 4) give up after two gyms; 5) repeat.
It's bizarre. These are supposed to be adorable, addictive JRPGs with broad appeal and an unrivaled ability to make you feel like you're going on a grand ol' adventure. They're supposed to offer the type of complex customization only possible when you can train and breed your very own stable of quirky critters. They're supposed to be charming and inimitable and loads of fun. Really, I should love these games.
With all that in mind, I started playing Pokémon Y with a singular goal: pinpoint exactly what I don't like about Pokémon, and why I can't get into it, no matter how hard I try.
I think I figured it out.
But first, let's talk about this e-mail I got a couple weeks ago from a feisty Kotaku reader named Doug:
I've noticed (or rather, it unsubtly hit me in the face) that if there's ever an article about JRPGs on Kotaku, it's going to be written by you. I haven't kept any data, but I'm pretty sure that if it came to betting on Jason-written JRPG articles vs Caity-written Beyonce articles over on Gawker, betting on you would be more of a retirement plan than an actual gamble.
The only others who I think might have even touched on the same topic are possibly Patricia and Evan? I don't even know anymore. Jason is to JRPGs as Hitler is to military dictatorship. Not that I'm complaining, mind you — most of your stuff is at least mildly entertaining or informative, like that recent XSEED translation thing.
So I'm wondering — how would you classify your relationship with JRPGs? Obsessive? A hobby? A life's passion?
Do you feel that your enthusiasm for JRPGs could possibly be some kind of self-justification for having spent so much time on JRPGs when you were younger? At least, I assume you did.
"Most of your stuff is at least mildly entertaining or informative" is the nicest thing anyone's said to me all month. Thanks, Doug. And, yes, I do spend a lot of time asking myself that core question: what's so appealing about JRPGs?
I think Pokémon offers something of an answer for me, mostly because of what it doesn't accomplish as a role-playing game. When I play the game, and pick it apart, I can see all the blank spots that need to be filled in, and figure out what works so well in the JRPGs I do love.
Dialogue, for example. One of my favorite pastimes in a JRPG is wandering around towns and hearing what people have to say—it's sometimes amusing, sometimes helpful, and often interesting. Good NPC dialogue helps add flavor to a world. RPGs like Lunar and Grandia and Earthbound populate their cities with quirky, alluring individuals who tell you about their days, their habits, and their desires. These people help enhance the illusion that you're wandering through a place that could actually exist.
In Pokémon, well...
This is a game built for children, and perhaps because of that, the characters all talk like children: everything they say is either functional—designed to help you out or guide you toward your next objective—or vapid, like "Pokémon sure are mysterious!"
The language is simple. The verbs are straightforward. There are lots of exclamation points. None of it is particularly interesting, and it's hard to feel like you're missing out on much if you skip out on the NPCs you see in the world.
What's more, nobody talks about anything except Pokémon. The entire world feels one-note, like an SNL skit that lasts 30 hours too long. People don't seem to live for anything beyond Pokémon hunting, capturing, and battling. It feels so... shallow.
But it's not just the lack of random character flavor that bugs me—when I play Pokémon, I find myself bored by the fact that I'm walking around with a bunch of creatures whose only way to interact with the world is to battle with other creatures. In Pokémon, your characters are cyphers, because they're animals. They're Pokémon. You can stamp part of yourself on each one of them, training and breeding and customizing their abilities, but you can never make them talk, or tell them to interact, or have them do much of anything other than fight with one another.
When I play an RPG, I don't want cyphers; I want people. I want personalities. I want to go on an adventure with people who have motivations and flaws and conflicts and relationships, and I want to see how they evolve—both narratively and mechanically—as they overcome the obstacles along their way. I want to see Cecil transform from a dark knight to a paladin, starting all over again from level one as he reevaluates his life decisions and, fittingly, has to lean on his friends for support in battle. I want to see Chaz learn to deal with, and even grow to respect Rune's arrogant, sometimes hostile demeanor. I want to feel like this journey meant something to the characters I've been accompanying along the way.
In Pokémon, your journey is to go take down other Pokémon trainers, and if you don't immediately develop a desire to collect critters and battle them against one another, there's not a whole lot to drive you forward. It's why I've never been able to stay interested in these games.
Besides, when a JRPG does rely upon cyphers, I need more than what Pokémon offers. When I play a game like Shining Force II—a game in which your party members can be each be identified with a single adjective—I can find satisfaction through combat, which is complicated: you have to simultaneously think about positioning, healing, and maneuvering your units around a grid-based battlefield in order to take down enemy armies as efficiently as possible. At every moment, you're making important decisions.
In Pokémon, you also spend most of your time battling, but the outcome will be determined mostly by this chart:
This isn't strategy—it's a glorified version of rock-paper-scissors. To beat the game, you just have to make sure you've got the right Pokémon at the right time. Your preparation before a battle is significantly more important than any decisions you make within that battle, because as long as you have the right abilities and high enough levels, you're always golden. (In single-player, at least—I haven't spent any time with competitive multiplayer battling, but by all accounts that's a much different beast.)
At this point I suppose I should make it clear that I don't begrudge anyone who does find Pokémon interesting. We all play games for different reasons.
On his lovely blog Brainy Gamer, the always-insightful Michael Abbott has an interesting essay about why people love JRPGs. Here's the bulk of his argument:
A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player’s mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I’m determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game’s rules. Nothing new here.
But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I’ve cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.
By Abbott's rules, Pokémon is a well-designed JRPG. The rules make sense, and they fit the game's structure perfectly. You choose to use Pikachu's thunder attack on that Squirtle because you know lightning is strong against water, and because you've trained Pikachu for that moment, and because you're a trainer who wants to be the very best in the world.
But if you can't buy into the world, and if you can't bring yourself to care about that Pikachu, and if you can't find a reason to keep playing the game because it all just feels so shallow, then that ecosystem might just not work for you.
I sometimes feel left out when gamers talk about their obsession with trophies and achievements. I've never quite understood the desire to get a 100% completion rating, or to spend hours obsessing over a perfect score, or to collect all 700-something Pokémon, or to spend time in a world that feels as explicitly unsatisfying as this one.
Maybe that's what really appeals to people about these games—that impulse to collect. I get it. I do. I get the appeal of challenging yourself to accomplish something, and monster collection has been ubiquitous for a reason: people love it. I can get into it too, sometimes. But when it comes in a wrapper like Pokémon, I just can't bring myself to care.
Top image via deviantArt