Three brave and brilliant pillars of science and knowledge at work. And also Sycamore.
Three brave and brilliant pillars of science and knowledge at work. And also Sycamore.
Image: YouTube

The first thing every player sees when starting a new game of Pokémon Red or Blue is the pixelated image of a scientist named Professor Oak. Oak welcomes you to the world of Pokémon, inviting you to study and understand these creatures alongside him in his quest for knowledge.

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It’s an inspiring moment, even today. After thousands of games that ask you to win, kill, conquer, and destroy, Pokémon wants you to observe and study. It’s a science fiction story, and it’s one that positions science as something noble, good, and worthy of pursuit as a hobby and a career.

Scientists in the world of Pokémon must reckon with a world ruled by elemental creatures from beyond time and space, and they must choose knowledge over fear. For them, science is the work of trying to fundamentally understand why ghosts are weak to crows. It’s realizing that you are a tiny gear in the grand clockwork combining 896 species of Pokémon, and saying that you Gotta Catch ‘Em All. For science. The Pokémon franchise is a beautiful, hilarious, messy, contradictory ode to understanding the world around you, especially when it doesn’t make sense. And it’s the best sci-fi story in video games because of it.

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Just a normal scientific article proving that sometimes the ghosts of children turn into trees.
Just a normal scientific article proving that sometimes the ghosts of children turn into trees.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

The story of Pokémon has spanned games, movies, shows, and every other type of art form and physical media possible. But the rules of that world have remained relatively consistent for decades. It’s a world built on late-90s optimism towards emergent technology (there is nothing more powerful than an internet-connected PC, apparently) and an expansive ruleset of how all of the Types of Pokémon—18 in all—relate to each other.

These rules may be internally consistent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t weird as hell. The world of Pokémon includes martial artists constantly getting their asses kicked by birds, giant cannibal bugs, hard evidence that ghosts and aliens exist (and that they hate us), and the evergreen JRPG trope of a child being tasked to Kill A God. Amid all the trainer battles, Criminal Teams™, and universal health care, this is a world where scientists are doing their best to understand it all. Here’s what I’ve learned from Professor Oak and the rest.

(Except Sycamore. He knows what he did.)

Did I catch them all? Yes. What did it cost? Everything.
Did I catch them all? Yes. What did it cost? Everything.
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Rock, Paper, Scissors, Bird, Fist

Battles in Pokémon revolve around Type advantages, a hard-coded set of rules based on observable laws of nature, like “water extinguishes fire” and “normal people are weak to punches.” Each game starts with the player choosing from a trio of Water, Grass, and Fire Types to ease them into the basics of this system. A longstanding triumph of the series’ character design has been its ability to clearly communicate a Pokémon’s basic Type from its visual design alone — bugs look like bugs, birds look like birds, and mimes look like nightmares.

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But because this is a series about collecting superpowered monsters using what can charitably described as “Ant-Man Technology,” the Type matchups quickly veer away from the real-world laws of physics into wild logical swings to figure out how many fairies it takes to beat a dragon.

Don’t let its smile fool you; this bird (?) kills dragons.
Don’t let its smile fool you; this bird (?) kills dragons.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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Psychic Types are weak to Bug, Dark, and Ghost Types, presumably because they represent three common and widespread fears held by humans. In turn, they are strong against Fighting and Poison Types, because… they can’t be fooled by brute strength or sneak attacks? It’s unclear, but it feels right, and that’s the beating heart of PokéScience: No one really knows anything; let’s try to figure it out anyway.

Bug Types beat Grass Types by eating them alive, which explains why Bellsprout ultimately evolves into Victreebell, a giant mouth that only knows how to hate and scream. Ghosts are weak to two things: Other Ghosts, and The Philosophical Concept Of Evil. Ghosts cannot hurt Normal types, which suggests that spirits can only harm you if you believe in them. Dragons are super effective against other Dragons, but are roundly defeated by Ice Types and Fairy Types.

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Speaking of which: Fairy Types. They’re the newest Pokémon Type, and are inspired by magical beings from fables and folklore. Their visual design trends towards the European and medieval-inspired, which is why their weaknesses are similarly old-fashioned: Steel and Poison. Like something out of a Brothers Grimm fable, you can only defeat magical creatures by using iron or poison. In the world of Pokémon, the laws of myth and nature exist alongside hard scientific discoveries.

It makes sense that a cake would be weak to knives. And poison.
It makes sense that a cake would be weak to knives. And poison.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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Every myth is real, and most of them want to kill you

Many Japanese RPGs subscribe to a Hayao Miyazaki-esque view of the world, where nature and magic are seen as an inherent force for good consistently challenged or threatened by science, technology, and industrial development. In these frameworks, stories of mythic creatures and Gods are often left to fall into legend, not widely seen or believed by the common folk. In Pokémon’s world, the appearance and interference of Gods isn’t just common; it’s expected. In one of the games, you end up riding a God like your own personal private jet because it’s convenient.

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In every single Pokémon game, you meet at least one God. Most of the time, a Criminal Team™ is attempting to use said God to destroy/improve/reset the world, and only a silent, determined child with a badge collection can stop it. Imagine if our society had access to fossil records and space travel, but also had objective proof that the sun moved across the sky because it was a flaming chariot being chased by wolves. That’s the duality of every scientist working in the world of Pokémon.

Pictured: God. Weakness: Wolves With Weapons.
Pictured: God. Weakness: Wolves With Weapons.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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In Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (ORAS), the player can visit the Mossdeep Space Center, an island outpost where you can learn about the research into space and weather being conducted by the resident scientists, and see a space shuttle attached to solid rocket boosters outside. It’s a relatively hopeful, lowkey location in the games; a reminder that in every reality, humans look up to the stars and dream for more.

At the end of ORAS, the scientists at the Mossdeep Space Center send the player to collect shards of an ancient meteorite full of Infinite Energy to stop a giant asteroid careening towards the Earth. They plan to utilize the Energy to warp the asteroid into an alternate dimension, and are stopped by a young woman representing an ancient order of dragon tamers. The player ends up fighting and capturing a Sky Dragon God (Rayquaza), riding it into space, and destroying the asteroid, Armageddon-style. Naturally, another ancient Pokémon, Deoxys, emerges from the explosion, and you fight it in space.

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You capture it as well. For science. It’s made of DNA. Because of science.

Pictured: Science.
Pictured: Science.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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What is the role of a meteorologist when at least half a dozen mythical Pokémon can control the elements, and hundreds of regular Pokémon can alter the weather on a hyperlocal level? How can you confidently predict a day of sunny weather when any trainer trying to boost Water-Type moves can ask their partner to use Rain Dance? What good are maps when Groudon and Kyogre can create oceans and land masses at will? How can farmers plan anything around the whims of a Pokémon like Landorus who could destroy or enrich their harvest just by passing by?

It’s increasingly clear that science in the world of Pokémon is a lopsided race to catch up with the myriad ways that the creatures shape the world around them. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that there are multiple planes of reality to deal with.

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This might just be an extremely relaxed alien invasion story

Maybe we should be a bit less relaxed.
Maybe we should be a bit less relaxed.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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Let’s be real: Pokémon are probably aliens, right? A collection of hundreds of species of rapidly-evolving aliens that have grown to live alongside humans for thousands of years, but aliens all the same. Some, like Solrock and Lunarock, Staryu and Starmie, and the entire Cleffa evolutionary line, have clear extraterrestrial origins. (There is also an equally plausible argument to be made that humans are the invasive species.)

Or maybe Pokémon are mutants. Grimer is said to have been formed from “sludge exposed to X-rays from the moon,” and ‘Mons like Trubbish and Vanillite have similar stories of inanimate objects transformed through exposure to energy sources. Mewtwo is a modified clone of Mew, and Pokémon Sword and Shield introduced the very specific nightmare of Pokémon borne from mismatched fossils, slapped together and reanimated for the hell of it.

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Oh my sweet boy, what have they done to you?
Oh my sweet boy, what have they done to you?
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

Diamond and Pearl introduced the Distortion World and the Hall of Origin—locations that are, canonically, Hell and Heaven respectively. These alternate dimensions house Giratina, a ghostly Dragon that was banished from existence for its violence, and Arceus, a Pokémon that was born from an egg in a formless void and created the universe after it hatched. It’s a lot. But what does it all mean?

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(Arceus has not been officially introduced into the story of any mainline Pokémon game, possibly because Nintendo and Game Freak realized that being able to add Actual God to your team would create balance issues.)

No one really knows anything

Imagine the life of the scientist writing the report about the Alien Lion Who Sometimes Creates Dimensional Breaches.
Imagine the life of the scientist writing the report about the Alien Lion Who Sometimes Creates Dimensional Breaches.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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In every Pokémon game, you play as a child sent to explore the world with a partner Pokémon and an empty Pokédex. The methodology of the Dex has always confused me; the entries seem to be written by an outside source, which means the player isn’t really discovering any new information. But now, years later, I think I finally get it.

The Pokédex isn’t an encyclopedia; it’s a textbook. Every child is offered a challenge once they’re old enough: Go learn about the world around you. Across eight generations of Pokémon games, the Dex entry for Pikachu has changed each time. I used to take this as evidence of the fallibility of knowledge in those worlds; now I understand that it might be the most generous and positive view of science I’ve ever seen in a game.

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The Dex entries change as humanity’s understanding of Pokémon evolves, for lack of a better term. To live in the world of Pokémon is to be constantly at the mercy of creatures that predate humanity and arrive from space, from other dimensions, from accidental everyday chemical reactions. The science doesn’t make sense because the world doesn’t make sense; it’s like asking for an accurate historical record of events while the Greek Pantheon is running around, turning into sexy animals and creating new seasons by kidnapping women.

There’s a cheerful, anything-goes attitude to how scientific advances are approached in the franchise. In the first game, a character accidentally splices his consciousness into a Nidorino, and in the most recent one, a billionaire assembles the pieces of an extradimensional God while trying to avert an energy crisis. (Both problems are solved by a silent child who happened to be passing by.) When the existence of aliens, ghosts, God, and the (Dragon-Ghost) Devil are common knowledge to the average person, what do you have to lose?

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We’ve all been there, Bill.
We’ve all been there, Bill.
Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

Science — the act of recording and testing information and assumptions until better ones can be found — is often misrepresented in games. In some games, it goes hand in hand with industry and technology, perhaps as a shorthand way of signalling the evil of an empire. In other games, it becomes interchangeable with magic, from Mass Effect fields to Forerunner technology.

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The science of Pokémon is the act of looking at a world filled with hundreds of shifting, extradimensional, unknowable monsters and writing down what you learn anyway. Your records could change in a year, they could change in a day. But the Pokémon games know (and try to teach us in turn) that the only thing worse than a book full of outdated information is one with no information at all.

Mike Sholars is a freelance pop culture writer who believes that the best way to celebrate the things you love is to roast them relentlessly. He loves video games and anime. Follow him on Twitter @Sholarsenic.

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