Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pokemon Generation 5: Why I was Disappointed with It

As a whole, the Pokemon series is...not a shining example of powerful storytelling, deep and involving characters, or artistic ingenuity. While Generation 4 (Diamond/Pearl/Platinum) did have a somewhat decent plot and a surprisingly respectable villain, everything up until that point had been a varying blend of generic and silly. Yes, yes, most people like the Pokemon games, and I can see why they tend to addict their players so effectively, but keep in mind, I play RPGs, including Pokemon, with an interest in their intellectual content: the quality of storytelling, the depth and emotional strength of their characters, their creativity, the worth of their plot and setting, and so on. Whether or not I can catch'em all and get to Level 100 and so on isn't important to me, so you can see why most Pokemon games don't impress me.

So, basically, I wasn't expecting much from the 5th Generation of the franchise when I started it. But the game has nonetheless been quite a disappointment to me. Remember my La Pucelle Tactics rant, where I basically explained that my disappointment with the game wasn't that it had let down expectations I'd had for it before playing, but rather that it so utterly failed to live up to its own potential even though all signs early on indicated that it would be great? Same basic premise here (though to a lesser extent). Pokemon Generation 5 fails to live up to the expectations it gives us early on.

The heart of the matter lies with the premise of the game's story. Basically, the conflict of Pokemon's 5th Generation games is that a group named Team Plasma is out to get trainers to free their Pokemon and no longer keep them Friends? Pets? Slaves? Whatever you'd call them. Team Plasma claims that Pokemon suffer when kept by Trainers and must be liberated, and is willing to force the issue through theft and violence.

Now, this is a pretty loaded issue for a Pokemon game to bring to the table. The fact of the matter is that it very much IS morally questionable to keep Pokemon the way most trainers do in the Pokemon universe's games, anime, manga, and so on. After all, let's look at this issue. The most common way of acquiring a Pokemon is to forcibly remove it from its natural environment. Just that alone seems kind of immoral--presumably most of these creatures have an established life that they're being taken from. This capturing process is made worse by the fact that it usually involves battling the Pokemon until it's weak enough that it can't fight back against the Pokeball used to catch it. So we're not just talking about removing it from its natural environment--we're talking about doing so by hurting it until it's too weak to evade capture. Exceptions exist, of course, and some Pokemon, I believe, welcome the opportunity to belong to trainers, but most resist the process.

So once they belong to a Pokemon Trainer, what happens? Well, it depends on what the human's interests are. The Pokemon may be entered into beauty contests, or put on the stage in rinky-dink little plays, or just hang out with the trainer in normal life. I guess this is okay, sort of, provided the creature's cared for well enough. But, the most famous and presumably common thing to do with a Pokemon is to find other trainers and have one's own Pokemon fight theirs in physical combat, until one combatant is no longer conscious. Uh...that's...pretty hard to justify. One of the more vile and morally reprehensible acts one can perpetrate in real life is to force animals to fight and hurt each other for the amusement of human onlookers, and it sure seems a lot like what's happening in these games. Not just that, but consider the fact that many Pokemon exhibit a level of intelligence that makes them seem as sentient as any given human being. It's not just that these trainers are forcing helpless creatures to harm one another, they're doing it with intelligent, rational beings.

Now, this all paints the world of Pokemon to be pretty fucked up. To be fair, there's a lot of reasonable arguments defending its ways, believe it or not, like the fact that it's hard to conceive of how a Pokemon could really be forced by a human to do things against its will, given that most of them are capable of lethally powerful actions. I mean, if the fire-breathing lizard and super-powerful psychic whatsit really don't want to battle or even be kept any longer, all that needs to happen is for the lizard to turn around and blast his 11-year-old captor in the face with a skin-melting stream of fire, while the other Pokemon grabs its trainer's brain in a psychic fist and squeezes it like a stress ball. Nonetheless, it's certainly a pretty big moral question that's been brought up by many players, viewers, readers, and so on of the series, so the game making the focal point of its plot a conflict with a group advocating Pokemon freedom seemed quite a gutsy move by Nintendo and Game Freak, and I was looking forward to seeing the question finally explored.

Well, that never happened.

See, after introducing this huge concept into its game, of whether it's right to keep Pokemon, the game backpedals like HELL away from ever addressing it. I mean, it is like some kind of low-achieving ART, the way Game Freak manages to completely avoid the issue for the entire game. The sleaziest of politicians could learn something about dodging uncomfortable questions from this game. This total avoidance is achieved through 3 major cop-outs:

A. Non-acknowledgement by the good guys. While some NPCs allow themselves to question their lifestyles at the words of Team Plasma, the characters of importance to the plot (Gym Leaders, the protagonist's friends, etc) uniformly dismiss and ignore the question raised by Team Plasma. While they will sometimes mention a reason why humans and Pokemon living in this societal system is positive for both races (they are really fond of playing the angle of both trainer and Pokemon growing together through their experiences), they never really debate the points made by Team Plasma. And it's not the ignoring that comes off like the good guys are unable to get around the argument so they're going to just shun it and hope no one notices, like all those angry Anons who comment on my Fallout: New Vegas's Lousy Karma System rant. It's more like the narrative of the game itself just isn't going to bother with them, and so these quite reasonable arguments against keeping Pokemon as slave-pet-friends seem like they must be irrelevant.

B. Mustache-twirling Team Plasma. What's the best way to make a point of view seem absolutely wrong with no room for exceptions or gray areas? Probably to make the people advocating it into one-dimensional bad guys. Eventually the player finds out, from speaking to Team Plasma members, that more or less every single member of the group, with the one exception being their semi-puppet leader, does not actually believe in the cause that Team Plasma claims to be for. As it turns out, Team Plasma's goal is to convince the rest of the world to separate from Pokemon so that the only people left in the world who have Pokemon are the Team Plasma bunch. At that point, the masses will be, by and large, helpless to stop Team Plasma's rise to world domination, as the group will be the only ones with the overwhelming and deadly powers of Pokemon at their disposal.

Making Team Plasma turn out to be simple villains is a masterful way of avoiding dealing with any issues they might have otherwise brought up. First of all, it eliminates any possibility that the player could question whether the protagonist should be fighting them, because it shifts the focus of the conflict completely away from the rights of Pokemon to a quest to prevent evil world domination. Even if the player (and thus, protagonist) would normally advocate Pokemon freedom, it's now their heroic obligation to stop Team Plasma.

Secondly, and far less subtly, this dismisses the issue by associating the idea of Pokemon freedom with one-dimensional bad guys. It would be different if the members and command of Team Plasma were villains with some depth of character; we could at least take their perhaps misguided ideals seriously enough to give them a little thought were that the case. But by having them just be simple, nefarious jerks, no shades of gray? The obvious course of action then is to just ignore anything they say, and so, the issue raised by them can and will just be dismissed as evil-talk.

C. The manipulated antagonist, N (yes, N is the only name we're given to refer to him as, and no, I don't really know why). N is the one and only member of Team Plasma that we see who earnestly believes that it is wrong to keep Pokemon and that they will be better off if freed, and maintains that keeping the creatures is harmful to them. Where most see Pokemon battles as a fun pastime or inspiring experience, all N sees is his friends being hurt. He's the figurehead and token leader of the group, and he fights only for ideals, not for the underlying villainy that the rest of the group secretly does.

So why would N be a tool for Game Freak to avoid properly addressing this issue of whether it's wrong to keep Pokemon and battle them, you might wonder? Because Game Freak comes in at the last moment to completely and totally undermine N's credibility through his origin story. Late in the game, the details of N's life are revealed to the protagonist, and it turns out that N was raised by Team Plasma's leaders, kept isolated from the rest of the world in his room with nothing but carefully selected entertainment and Pokemon to keep him occupied. The Pokemon brought to him were always ones who had escaped abusive trainers (which the game is very quick to claim are rare aberrations). So the message here, which the game itself is all too happy to point out, is that N has a perception of the world and its ways regarding Pokemon that is extremely incomplete and has been designed to give him a bias. And thus, his concerns about the welfare of Pokemon can be and are dismissed as naive misunderstandings of the world, instead of the legitimate moral issues that they should be and are.

So you see, both overtly and subtly, Game Freak completely minimizes any and all possibility for considering and debating the loaded issue it introduced as its main source of conflict for the game. The potential the game promised by connecting the issue of Pokemon rights to the plot is completely passed over. Why? Why even HAVE the question of whether it's right to keep and battle Pokemon if it's going to be so totally ignored? You can't tell me they couldn't have thought of some other schtick for Team Galaxy. Team Magma and Aqua in Pokemon Generation 3 showed that the game makers would accept just about any idea for a team's goals, no matter how ridiculous they may be. Did they put this in because they actually did want to address this issue? Because if that was the intention, this is the biggest RPG storytelling failure I've seen since Rogue Galaxy tried to convince its audience that it was interesting in any way. You can't address an issue and put it to rest if you childishly refuse to legitimately engage any of one side's arguments.

Speculative intentions aside, what matters here is that the game's conflict, the foundation for its plot, is massively disappointing, because it promises an examination of an issue that has great potential for intellectual exploration, and then backpedals the hell away from it faster than Sarah Palin from a question requiring knowledge imparted in the second grade.* Bad show, Nintendo and Game Freak.

* Actually, I suppose that's not totally fair. She doesn't retreat from basic knowledge questions she can't answer so much as blunder blindly into them.


  1. Although I have not played the gen4 pokemon games I am curious to know why you thought it was superior to the gen5 pokemon games in terms of plot and having a better villain.

  2. Well, for starters, the disappointment I described above makes me dislike Generation 5's inadequate farce of a plot more than ANY of the previous ones. The Champion, Cynthia, also has a little more personality than previous games' recurring characters or those of Generation 5, another point in Generation 4's favor. But in general, Generation 4 had a more interesting dynamic with its primary Legendary Pokemon (Dialga, Giratina, and that other one, what was it called, Palkia?). More importantly, the majority of the plot's focus, fighting Team Galactic, was better because Galactic had a strong leader with halfway interesting goals. The leader, Cyrus, was much like one of the major characters of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, an individual who wishes to remake the chaotic world he sees to be one of order and logic, emotionless as he is. Consider that the villainous organizations of the previous games were either mustache-twirling caricatures who wanted super-powered beings to help them commit crimes or insanely stupid environmental terrorists. Cyrus, on the other hand, acted out of his beliefs and life philosophy, had a plan with some actual foresight (you can argue that Team Aqua and Magma had a plan, but as I recall, their plan going into effect fucked everything up for everyone including them, so no points for foresight there), and had some charisma and a perspective that one can at least see the logic of.

    Now, of course, Generation 5's evil bunch are out doing their misdeeds for a life philosophy, too, but only on the surface--as I covered in the rant, that's just a cover story for their true goal, which is basically just a repeat of Team Rocket. I'll give you that they're smarter than Team Rocket, since it's a lot more feasible to have everyone voluntarily surrender their Pokemon than to try to force thousands of people and their super-powered monsters into submission, but for all significant purposes, they're no better. N is the exception to this, but while Cyrus's perspective has logical support and thus, even if wrong, must be treated with some respect, N's beliefs are, as shown by the game itself, born from incomplete data, experiences that were specifically designed to make him think as he does, rather than true observations of the subject he opines about. So in the end, Cyrus and Team Galaxy are all around far better villains than the Generation 5 bunch

  3. Sorry, but story does not make a game.

  4. Do you take any special outrage when the villains can be boiled down as "LOL GODWIN"?

    1. I might, but I couldn't say until I knew what you mean by "LOL GODWIN"?

  5. Replies
    1. ...Still not getting it. Do you mean that the villains are being intentionally caricatured into one-dimensional evil-doers, denying them of their philosophical potential as adversaries? Essentially, boiled down to an overused cliche recognized for its unquestioned villainy? Because yes, that does annoy me.

  6. Why are you not understanding my terminology immediately?


  8. Thank you for explaining what needs to be said in the most eloquent and articulate way possible. I feel that just because game freak decided to put more focus on story for once in a Pokémon game, people are just blindly throwing praise at it without really analyzing it and realizing its' flaws as an actual story. Unfortunately, the internet wouldn't take this well as people don't take kindly to gen 5 criticism in general. You're a brave warrior for posting this.

    1. You're welcome! And thank YOU for the generous praise. I think calling me a brave warrior for complaining about a video game, particularly when I'm doing so on a blog that barely anyone actually sees, is an exaggeration, but I thank you greatly for the kind thought!

  9. God yes. The number of pokemon fans who are coming back and saying "Gen 5 is actually underrated" and, christ, "Gen 5 had a great story" are growing, so reading a negative review that reflects how I feel was cathartic.

    1. Hmmm,yes, I suppose we have reached the point at which Generation 5 is old enough to be defended from behind a big ol' sheet of bulletproof Nostalgia-Glass. Even by Pokemon standards, this one's a bomb, but some people played it earlier in life than they developed discretion as an audience, so doubtless it has many defenders. Ah, well.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting! I'm glad you enjoyed my rant.