When I was younger, I liked to overtrain my Pokémon until they stopped listening to my every command. You could do this in older games and risk the consequences. I found it thrilling to know that, at any moment, maybe in a crucial battle, my Pokémon might not do as I say. Now that I’m the proud owner of four pets, I understand why I loved something that was meant to be a punishment and I’ve developed a new sense of how I wish Pokémon in these games would behave.
Pokémon games typically gate a player’s progress by requiring you to get a new badge before you can train your Pokémon beyond a certain level. Pokémon beyond level 30, for example, may not always listen to you until you get your fourth badge. You could spend hours in the grass slowly powering up your buddies beyond the recommended level, but generally, it’s not worth it. Your power advantage could be eradicated by unruly monsters with no care for your strategies. Better to progress at the rate the game wants you to.
Anyone who has played Pokémon probably had this happen to them at least by accident. I loved to do it on purpose, even though the consequences enraged me later on. I’ve had gym battles go sideways because of a missed play, for example. It sucked back then, but I look on it fondly now. I still remember the moments where my Pokémon defied me or annoyed me, and given the thousands of hours I’ve spent in Pokémon games, that’s notable. But why?
Two years ago, I adopted a rambunctious terrier puppy with a history of abuse. He was a small little thing, nervous to the bone, and with severe separation anxiety. Still, training him was surprisingly easy: he picked up new commands quickly, to my delight. I’ve never met a creature or person who was so devoted to me, and wanting to make me happy. I can’t even look at him without him standing up expectantly, hoping that I’ll call him over to sit on my lap. I am my dog’s entire world.
Still, it’s been tough to live with my dog. What I wasn’t told when I initially adopted him was that he was a breed with endless amounts of energy, which is difficult to navigate when you have a demanding job and hobbies. Even on days that he spends running for hours, you still can’t tire him out. He always wants more. That, combined with his anxiety, makes getting him to actually listen a tricky proposition. He’ll do commands, but he’ll do them so fast he messes them up—if he does them at all. He’ll eat my underwear. He’ll bark at friends that he knows if they come over, and won’t stop even as they pet him and give him treats. I tell him to stay there or do this and he’ll refuse if he sees another dog or person. He’ll start whining excessively if I so much as cross the street without him. The list is long. I know what they say: there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. I’m working on all of this—he’s on anxiety medication, he’s getting extra training from a professional, I try my best to undo some of the damage of abuse. The problems are there, though.
My cats are ‘worse.’ They destroy furniture, scratch me so hard that I have scars, steal my food, and push their dirty asses in my face. Every day my oldest cat climbs over a tall bookcase and nearly knocks it over. I think it’s only a matter of time before one of my cats breaks my TV, because they like messing around near it too much. One of my cats always bolts into the fridge when I open it and the others always try to run out the door when I’m leaving. They all love to get in the way. I mean, they’re cats. They do what they want, and they almost never listen. If anything, they’ll manipulate me into giving them what they want, the furry bastards.
On any given day, the number of annoying or unwanted things my pets do seems to match the number of joyful things they do. But that’s part of the charm. Pets aren’t meant to be robots: they’re living, breathing creatures with needs, wants, and flaws of their own. My relationship with them deepens whenever we overcome things together or survive one of their dumbass decisions. I might curse at my cat every time she goes into the fridge, but there’s also a small part of me that knows it’s going to happen and thinks it’s kinda cute. All the poop and pee I’ve had to clean for my puppy has, in a strange way, only brought me closer to him. I may not like any of it in the moment, but I notice that I miss it whenever I’m away from my babies. The rebellion, the trials and tribulations, and the frustration are all part of the experience. The happy times would be meaningless without some friction.
Owning pets is all about the good and the bad. The bad eventually becomes the good: I look forward to every single painful biscuit my cats make on my bare skin, even if it means waking me up at six AM.
In Pokémon, there’s barely any of this. By design, video games are things we want to master and dominate, so when you tell your Pokémon to do something, you expect them to do it. Otherwise, they’ll never do anything you don’t like. You can only win the game and become powerful if everyone does as they are told, which means that you generally don’t want to over level your monsters. There’s no push and pull, no negotiation, no unwanted behavior that might still be a quirk you can love. Your main consideration is how you’ll train a monster, where you’ll dole out stats and moves.
Newer Pokémon games have broken this ultimate obedience model a bit by allowing creatures to perform surprising feats in the middle of battle. Your Pokémon might survive a lethal attack, or hit a little harder if you become close enough to them. Pokémon Amie, a feature introduced in X and Y, also helps the illusion of Pokémon-as-companions by letting you pet them. Depending on where you rub, your creature might happily close their eyes, lean into you, and enjoy your touch. Or, they might get mad and push your hands away. None of this goes far enough, and most of it is presented as utility to the player. Friendship levels gained by petting your Pokémon are just another mechanic to master and take advantage of, because you know it’ll eventually serve you in battle.
What I want from mainline Pokémon in the messier side of pet ownership: the disobedience, the annoyance, the anger. The anime understands this dynamic well. Pikachu is special because it refused to go into the ball. Charizard made us all cry because he was such an asshole to Ash. Ash was way out of his depth, and that made the eventual friendship all the more meaningful. I want my Pokémon to have a will of their own, even if—especially if—it messes up my game. Then it’ll feel a little bit more real.