Four years ago, the entire population of planet Earth played Pokémon Go. Niantic’s mobile AR game fell perfectly into the timeline, with large-screened phones sporting decent cameras being far more affordable, and VR/AR being the buzziest of attention-grabbing bees. Also, it was actual magic: You could walk around your own local streets and fields, capturing Pokémon that appeared in the real world like a real actual Pokémon trainer! The only thing I was lacking in 2016 was a child old enough to play it with, and the faintest inkling of what a Pokémon was.
I mean, I knew of them. Like Netflix or Logan Paul, you don’t get a choice over knowing that Pokémon exist. But I was turning 20 when the phenomenon first began; I fell between the cracks age-wise, and as such Pokémon forever more passed me by. Then, this summer vacation, my almost-six-year-old son discovered the cartoon series on Netflix.
It was love at first binge. He immediately ditched his all-consuming relationship with Lego Ninjago, cruelly kicking it to the curb midway through his second viewing of all 70 bloody episodes. He began inhaling the PokéShow in every spare second of his day (look, it’s been a wet few weeks, and he’s been at home for most of the last six months—stop judging my parenting). The first thing I did was look up how many episodes this series would offer, got back up off the floor, and decided I had to do something, anything, to drag him away from the screen and out into the drizzly grey of the Great British summer. (It’s over one thousand. 1000 episodes. ONE THOUSAND.) But wait! Pokémon Go! The thing he now loves, but outdoors.
I did have a brief look at Pokémon Go during its heyday. I didn’t understand any of it, but I got it: Flicking Poké Balls at AR cartoons hopping about in the real world, adding them to a collection, and then I presumed battling them against others in dimly lit parking lots. I thought optimistically, and indeed naively, that four years later the game would be one refined experience. Coming late to the game would mean everything’s ironed to perfection, ice rink-smooth, and the pay-gates left to swing in the breeze now the crowds have moved on. Aha-ha. Ha. No.
Even creating an account was an act of sheer bravery. To make an account for the boy, I had to make one for myself first, then follow a series of entirely inaccurate instructions to add his to mine. Just to give you an idea of just how miserably unwelcoming that whole experience was, when it asked me to select my date of birth, I had to tap backward month by month from the present day. While adequately catering for the all-important newborn market, this proved somewhat more galling for a man born in the 1970s. Just the 504 taps to get to a screen I could click on.
Pokémon Go in 2020 seems to go out of its way to be obtuse, an incoherent blur of overlapping and contradictory menus, the majority of crucial features never explained, and not a glimmer of player feedback-driven guidance to be found. Instead some very enthusiastic young man repeatedly popped up to ask us to complete a series of unexplained tasks, while a blur of pop-ups tried to tear away our attention from fathoming what on Earth was happening. Hammering away these endless messages like we were playing a clicker, we eventually were able to walk the streets of our home town, and discover that… my phone had lost all access to GPS satellites. Can’t blame the game for that one. One factory reset later, we were off. And despite all my forthcoming moaning, straight away my son was utterly elated.
Things have certainly changed in the game in the last few years, but not in ways I can see as for the better. I remember the best thing about Pokémon Go was looking through the camera to see the little cartoony blighters dancing about in the middle of the road some way up the street. You’d walk toward them, not too close so as to scare them, and then toss a Poké Ball to try to add them to your micro-zoo of presumable animal cruelty. Today you still see them on the map, but in AR they’re hidden, invisible until grass sprouts out of the ground right next to you. Tapping on that has them appear in your immediate vicinity, no matter how far away they were beforehand. It completely breaks the illusion that they were already extant in the world around you. It takes away the important blurring of reality, as you scouted around to reach them.
And of course the most massive change is just how much less generous it is compared to its earliest era. Where once Poké Balls rained from the sky like, well, rain, now they’re a resource so limited as to become the most painful feature of playing with a nearly six-year-old. Watching as he wildly tosses the damned things with the inaccurate abandon only available to those yet to be burdened by the iron bars of capitalism, I physically winced as he threw my money into the virtual air.
We’ve gotten lucky too. Well, “lucky.” The cataclysmic horror that holds the entire planet in its gnarled clutches has seen a bunch of far more recent changes arrive in the game, as creators Niantic attempt to remodel for a more socially distanced world. As a result the game is far less persnickety about proximity to PokéStops (locations in your area of some interest, that produce a measly handful of extra Poké Balls and fruits), and has reduced the traipsing distance required to hatch eggs and restore various attributes. “Various attributes”—see, I still don’t really know what’s going on, because as I say, of the 95,000 different features involved, most are still lost on me.
As I read articles from the last few years, each lamenting the changes that see Niantic tweaking the game from its once welcoming arms to the miserable necessity of making money from its players, I realize that coming late to freemium gaming doesn’t carry the advantages one might naively assume. I pictured a scenario where games launch as monetized as possible, to bleed dry the mass enthusiasm that accompanies a launch, the largest audience handing over the largest amount of money. But it is of course the reverse. Make everything seem wildly free so as to cast your net far and wide, in order to catch as many whales as possible. Once caught, slowly increase the temperature until they boil the poor bastards alive. And playing it in 2020 is to step directly into the boiling water.
Of course, none of this matters a jot if you’re five and you’ve just fallen in love with Pikachu. Clutching daddy’s phone in his hand, walking the streets of our small home town, my son is absolutely, unequivocally Ash. He’s a fully fledged Pokémon trainer, and he’s gotta catch ‘em all.
As cynical and frustrating and downright opaque as this ghastly mess of a game might be, it’s still utterly magical. “DADDY! THERE’S A JIGGLYPUFF!” For him, it’s like meeting celebrities in real life. When he caught his first Pikachu he didn’t know what to do with all the emotions. We were in the park, one had just burst out right in front of us, and he caught it first time. He stood there, bobbing up and down on his legs, his face looking like it might pop. Then, “Oh my goodness daddy I don’t even know what to feel!” Soon followed by a mad smile, hooting, and jumping up and down.
We’ve fathomed what gyms are for, on at least some level. You can go fight the Pokémon others have left in them, and if you win you can leave behind one of your own. Some players seem to be on your side, somehow, and they can add one of their menagerie to the collection, and then something something something. The game doesn’t feel it’s important to say. Although I’ve since read, researching for this piece, that previously you’d earn lots of coins (the main currency in the game, usually bought with daddy’s money), this has recently been nerfed, in yet another drive to force players into spending more to keep playing.
The game wants us to evolve our Pokémon, which is a concept familiar to my son, but apparently not to those who write the game’s instructions. It seems that to do so you need to collect large numbers of a particular species’ “candy,” which, again, is never explained. Candy just seems to accumulate? We’re on the cusp of getting enough to evolve a Snivy, a Klink, and one or two others. But I have had to solemnly swear that we shall never evolve the Pikachu currently assigned as his buddy. “Daddy, you have to promise.”
And while I’m aware from reading around that there are lots more features for late-game play than ever before, it seems vanishingly unlikely his passion for the pocket monsters will last anywhere close to long enough for us to see those. He’ll find Avatar on Netflix soon enough, and then I’ll be begged for a whole new wardrobe of branded t-shirts and underwear.
But more than anything else, we’ve walked. We’ve explored. We’ve learned things about our neighborhood we never knew. Like, those alms houses down the road? They’re over 400 years old! And the mailbox set into the stone wall up our street? Anywhere between 70 and 90 years old. Since we started last week, we’ve apparently gone 16.5km. This is the same boy whose legs are tiiiiiiiiiirreeeeed about 13 seconds into any other trip. He’s caught 160 of the buggers, and spun 76 PokéStops, albeit most of them the same three near our house, over and over and over. Hey, if they’re going to nickel and dime us, we’re sure going to steal right back.
Most importantly, we’ve hung out, sharing a common interest, which is not always an easy task across a 37 year age-gap. Finding areas where our tastes overlap can prove tricky when I’m in my 40s—his sense of humor is far more sophisticated than mine, for instance.
Our favorite moments are when those fiends from Team Rocket show up, as they pass overhead in their nefarious hot-air balloons, or better still when they’ve taken over a PokéStop. Not only do we get to take down some dastardly villains, but we also get to rescue a Pokémon from them and heal it of its evil ways. Proper heroics. Then off we trundle once more, heading off down unexplored roads or into fields to look for streams.
I remain genuinely shocked at just what an alienating muddle Pokémon Go has become. So much assumed knowledge, so many crucial features never explained, such a gruesome mess of menus, like there’d been a chainsaw attack at a menu party. And I’m wearily disappointed by how monetized it’s become, with Poké Balls so scarce that you’re essentially forced to fork out for more. Well, when you’ve a five-year-old who flings them about so liberally, you do.
But I’m delighted by it too. The weird compromises to the AR mode aside, it’s still utterly brilliant to see the cartoon critters poking about in the world around you, flinging that ball to ensnare them, and then watching it wobble about on the pavement in front of you. I’ve loved the enthusiasm from my son to keep going, keep walking, spend as much time outside (yet well socially distanced) as possible. Plus that look on his face every time I break out a, “You’re JUST like Ash!”