Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pokemon Generation 7's Significance to the Series Theory

Today’s theory is different from my others. Usually, my theories are on aspects of storytelling, or potential other perspectives on characters, which are unlikely to ever be definitively proven right or wrong. But today’s theory is a little more grounded in tangibles. We’re going to see whether I’m right or wrong--probably the latter, I’m sorry to say--on the inevitable day that Pokemon Generation 8 is released. For the sake of Pokemon’s recent, utterly unexpected venture into quality storytelling, I hope today’s theory will, in at least some part, be vindicated. But I’m not betting on it. Time will tell, I suppose. On with the rant!

There’s just no 2 ways about it: against all expectations, Pokemon Generation 7 is a good RPG. No, that’s selling it short. It’s a great RPG. It’s got a story with depth that feels like it matters, with a well-written, complex, dynamic, and so gosh darn lovable main character, and a complex, well-written, skillfully executed villain who perfectly serves as the main character’s foil. Pokemon Generation 7 has a plot with a real purpose, that poses and explores actual questions and issues, and more than once invokes genuine emotion in the player.

And the interesting thing is, some of these more thoughtful parts of Pokemon Generation 7 may not just be significant in their own right, as moments in their own story, but also as a foundation to the themes and direction of future games in the Pokemon series. For, you see, within Pokemon Moon and Pokemon Sun are seeds that could lead to a complete shake-up of the imbalanced, illogical, and morally worrying way that the Pokemon world, and indeed even its narrative, views and treats its eponymous race of dogfighting servants.

The bulk of this potential is found within the game’s true main character, Lillie. Not surprising, of course, given that Lillie already does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to inserting purpose and depth into Pokemon Generation 7. Lillie has the potential to be a graceful, subtle first real step that Nintendo and Game Freak are taking toward recognizing Pokemon as being, and deserving to be, more than battling slavepets.

To see what I mean, we must first acknowledge a certain unstated narrative decision regarding Lillie: namely, that she is, symbolically, a Pokemon. In the literal sense, Lillie is, of course, as human as any other character in the game, but she nonetheless is clearly meant to be analogous to a Pokemon. Her initial design, of course, is the most obvious giveaway of this fact, as Lillie’s clothing and hairstyle when you first meet her intentionally make her visually similar to Nihilego, the Pokemon/Unknown Beast of greatest narrative importance to the game’s story (besides Nebbie, that is).* And this decision is not just a typical but unimportant artistic choice, the way Gym Leaders will often have color schemes and hairstyles evocative of the Pokemon Type that they specialize in. The game explicitly tells us that Lillie’s mother Lusamine has intentionally made Lillie’s appearance as close to Nihilego’s as possible, for reasons that are fascinating, thought-provoking, but also irrelevant to and just too darned time-consumingly complex for this rant.

Lillie also seems to unconsciously (and perhaps even consciously) parallel herself to Pokemon, as well. Even as she eventually casts aside her mother’s control over her and begins to dress as she wants to, Lillie keeps the comparison her mother drew between her and Pokemon alive--heck, she kind of makes the analogy stronger. Because even as she shows off her new look and determination, Lillie equates this evolution of her character with an advancement of a Pokemon, calling her new outlook and fashion her “Z-Powered Form.” This is, of course, in reference to the Z Moves that Generation 7 introduces to the Pokemon battle dynamic, single-use attacks of extreme power that’re all flashy and super special awesome and such.

Of course, what exactly a “Z-Powered Form” in fact is, I couldn’t say. It’s not actually a thing for Pokemon...seems like Lillie should have called her new look her Mega Evolution, but Mega Evolution is, like, so last Generation, so I guess they just had her go with the less technically accurate analogy for the benefit of tying in with this Generation’s Z-Move gimmick.**

Regardless, though, Lillie’s obviously referencing (if perhaps ineptly) a concept unique to Pokemon in the game to describe herself. So, yeah, even when she’s broken free of the clutches of her dominating mother’s after-influence, Lillie is still meant to represent a Pokemon, by her own words.

So here’s the thing: If we look at Lillie as representative of Pokemon, the story of Pokemon Generation 7 has some very interesting implications for the future of the series. The meat of this game’s story, after all, is that of Lillie stepping out of her mother’s domination, free to be her own person and seek her own destiny. In a touching display of compassion and genuine goodness, Lillie makes the choice to return to Lusamine and save her, not because she’s obligated to, but because she still loves her mother and won’t leave Lusamine to destroy herself. It’s a great coming-of-age story, particularly when it occurs alongside the journey of Alola’s first-Champion-to-be as the island region prepares to join the rest of the world in having a Pokemon League.***

But keeping the Lillie = Pokemon metaphor in mind, the story takes on a new tone. It starts to seem like it’s an allegory for a Pokemon, any given Pokemon, escaping from the dominating, self-concerned control of her trainer, a trainer that demands unconditional obedience from the Pokemon in every regard, and expects the poor creature to shape its behavior and physical existence to suit the trainer’s whims. Which, needless to say, is exactly what we do when we play these games, to varying degrees, and even in-universe seems to be the case for a substantial portion of the trainer population. And while I’d love to say I came up with this interpretation on my own and act all smart and thoughtful, the game basically just spells it out for you as Lillie confronts her mother at the Aether Foundation. She basically tells Lusamine off for taking advantage of Lillie’s love for her, declaring that children aren’t just toys to be played with and discarded...and in the same conversation, also denounces the way that Lusamine harmed Nebby (the Cosmog Pokemon that Lillie ran away with to save from her mother’s machinations). The parallel is drawn clearly between Lusamine’s abuse of Lillie and her abuse of her Pokemon.

This being the case, then, what does the rest of Lillie’s story tell us? Lillie goes on to find her confidence and discover herself, as well as encourage Nebby to grow in new ways without her (as the companion to Moon/Sun, rather than remaining in Lillie’s care), and her story concludes with a showdown against Lusamine, in which Lillie saves her mother from her own madness, and proves herself as an independent individual, both to herself and to Lusamine. As Lusamine murmurs in questioning wonder at how beautiful Lillie has now become, the girl has proven that her love for and devotion to her mother can exist--indeed, has never been greater--as a part of her as an independent person. Not only was Lusamine mistaken when, in her madness, she believed that the only way to guarantee the consistent love and devotion of her family was to control them completely, but the love and devotion that Lillie has now voluntarily shown for her mother is greater, more ‘beautiful’, than ever before. But beyond the surface level of a coming-of-age story that deals with our fear of losing those close to us as they mature into people of their own...this is a story with interesting implications. If Lillie is also meant to represent a Pokemon, and by extension Lusamine is clearly meant to represent that Pokemon’s trainer...then this is a story very different from that cowardly slop in Generation 5. This is a story which dares to criticize the foundation of the Pokemon world: that of a domineering trainer who, as shown through the options and nuances of gameplay, gets to casually acquire, use, and discard Pokemon in accordance to his/her whims alone. Through its protagonist Lillie, Pokemon Generation 7 says that the conventions we’re so used to in these games, which we in real life poke fun at and question the ethics of, actually are morally unsound.

Yes, we know that there are cases in the Pokemon world of trainers mistreating their Pokemon--the sad sack plot of Generation 5 hinged its whole message of “KEEP UP THE STATUS QUO AND DON’T THINK ABOUT THINGS TOO MUCH” around the idea that 1 guy mistook the supposed rarity of Pokemon abuse as the norm, as I mentioned in previously. Nonetheless, until now, the concept was used only as a rare contrast that highlighted how okay it was for the regular Pokemon-human dynamic to exist. Generation 7, on the other hand, actually stars the individual who questions the ethics of the world’s hierarchy. Stars, and glorifies her.

And that by itself is impressive. But what’s really interesting is that this game does more than just having Lillie question the norms of the Pokemon world, call attention to the fact that maybe thinking, feeling, reasoning creatures shouldn’t be kept as slave pets. Yes, Pokemon Generation 7 goes beyond simple critique of its own series: it also proposes an alternative. Criticism, after all, is an absolutely essential component to human society, but it’s the easier half of a whole--the other half is actually offering a solution for the problem being highlighted.**** In having Lillie return to save Lusamine from herself, in having Lillie show her devotion even when Lusamine has turned her back to her daughter, and in having Lusamine finally, at the end of the climactic showdown, realize just how amazing Lillie truly is as her own person, Pokemon Generation 7 poses the solution to the current inequitable and ethically uncomfortable status of Pokemon and their trainers. The solution is simply to have trainers give up their supposed authority and control of their Pokemon...release them, let them be their own free beings, and let their love and devotion to the humans keep them voluntarily by the trainers’ side. Lillie has proven that she can be Lusamine’s daughter and her equal at the same time, and by metaphorical extension, that a Pokemon can be its trainer’s companion and equal at the same time.

That’s what I’ve taken from this, at least: that Pokemon Generation 7 has stood up, and proclaimed, “Let equal beings share their love and friendship as equal beings.” To me, the moral and message of Lillie’s story, when viewed through the understanding that she represents Pokemon, holds a very real possibility that the series is ready to take itself in a new direction.

Now, Lillie is my biggest piece of evidence for my thoughts that the future of the Pokemon series might involve a revolutionary change in tone and interpersonal dynamics between trainer and Pokemon, but I do want to point out that there are a few minor details of Pokemon Generation 7 that corroborate this. First of all, there’s the Pokemon Pelago feature--a pleasant, physical location for your Pokemon to go to, instead of just being cooped up in a PC storage system. Could be, and probably is, meant as nothing more than a gameplay feature, but it does nonetheless carry with it an implication that perhaps Pokemon prefer being ‘free range,’ so to speak, than being compressed into a digital box.

There’s also the fact that Alola has a noticeably more equal attitude (though obviously nowhere near actual equality) towards Pokemon, a fact which is outright stated a couple times. Pokemon are implied to have jobs in the community as their own entities (rather than just being used by trainers to perform those jobs), such as independently providing transportation services to those taking the Alola Island Challenge.***** I mean, sure, these transportation Pokemon are still having to drop whatever they’re doing to assist the human being that calls on them, but they’re doing so on their own, without some preteen owner breathing down their necks a few feet away. As a result, it feels less like a slave pet kowtowing to their master, and more like a contracted entity voluntarily fulfilling a responsibility--that is, an employee just doing their job. A region (one which seems especially glorified; I can’t recall any previous installment in the series whose characters, NPCs, and overall tone had so much enthusiasm for its setting) in which Pokemon are viewed as slightly closer to peers than in any other’s an interesting detail to call attention to.

So what does this all add up to? What’s my point? Well, it’s simply this: I theorize (and really, really hope) that Pokemon Generation 7 is intended to be a turning point in the series. Not just in the sense that we’ve finally seen a main series Pokemon RPG with a real story and well-written characters (though I am DEFINITELY down for this being the first of many quality plots and casts!). Rather, I think that this well-written, subtle story of shaking free from unfair bondage and rising up to prove the value of being free to be oneself and pursue relationships out of choice rather than obligation could be a turning point for how the Pokemon series views and implements its titular species. Born from the quiet but bold words and example of Lillie, future titles could finally begin truly exploring the questions of what’s right and just for Pokemon, the questions that have been glossed over, ignored, and at times even actively and ineptly sabotaged by the series until now. The future might hold new stories which further challenge the dynamics of the Pokemon world, even new game features that could revolutionize how Pokemon are acquired--maybe we could soon see a game in which “catching” a Pokemon is less about beating them within an inch of their life and trapping them in a tiny prison, and more about actually convincing them that you deserve their companionship and support, keeping them together as a group out of mutual respect and affection rather than an iron grip of control, as Lillie has taught us is better. I theorize that from here on, with Generation 7 as a foundation to build off of, the Pokemon series will, much as its eponymous beings do, evolve into something greater! Something of depth, that develops itself in a dynamic way with each new installment, moving toward a more worthwhile, wholesome world in which humans and Pokemon are the equals who grow as friends and family for real. A whole new series has been born with Generation 7!

Or, y’know, more likely the next games will be the same careless, uninteresting, shallow cash-grabs as always, and Nintendo will backtrack the hell away from the possibilities that Pokemon Moon and Sun opened to them. I suppose we’ll know for sure in a couple years. Even if that winds up being the case, though, I’ll always have Generation 7 much as I have Xenosaga 1: as a shining moment of glimpsed potential for something great.

EDIT FROM THE FUTURE: Yeah, it was the cash-grab scenario.

* Does anyone find it interesting, incidentally, that in the Pokemon Refresh thing, touching Nihilego in the spot where her face would be (if we use Lillie as a blueprint) provokes a strong reaction? I wonder whether there’re any implications to that.

** Speaking of Mega Evolutions, is anyone else annoyed that none of Alola’s new Pokemon got any? The Z Moves are cool and all, but I’d rather see some cool powered-up forms if I have to choose.

Also, way to drop the ball and still not have a Mega Evolution of Rapidash as a totally bitchin’ fire alicorn, Nintendo. It’s like you guys don’t even read this blog.

*** Come to think of it...why hasn’t the series tried something like this before? I mean, the basic premise of Pokemon is pretty much always the same thing: a kid going on a journey that’s a socially-encouraged rite of passage. That’s basically already the foundation of a coming-of-age story anyway, so why not make an actual, honest-to-Arceus story about growing up and out of the confines of youth? It seems so damn obvious! Sheesh, Generation 7 really is the first of the series where they gave the slightest crap about what they were writing.

**** Not, for the record, that there is anything wrong about offering sincere critique even when you don’t personally have a better solution available. It’s not the diner’s responsibility to know how to make their meal palatable, but the chef’s. It is simply the diner’s privilege to expect as much, and to call attention to a situation which prevents them from having a satisfactory experience.



  1. Isn't this theory contradicted by the fact that Lillie became a Trainer at the end of the game?

    1. Not necessarily. We don't see or know anything of what kind of trainer Lillie is going to become, and my theory isn't that this is the beginning of the end for the concept of Pokemon trainers, only that this is the beginning of a striking shift in the dynamics of how trainers and their Pokemon interact and function. It may very well be that Lillie goes to become a trainer who embodies this new perspective and approach, the prototype trainer whom, in the next game, we may emulate with this new direction to the series.

    2. Same anon as before.
      Maybe my judgement is clouded by pokemon stories outside of the game, but this kind of trainer you describe is not exactly new. Yellow from the pokemon special manga definetly qualifies, and arguably Ash Ketchum qualifies too (and saying this is painfull, because i hate the anime.)

      - he is willing toput his life on the line for the sake of his pokemons

      -He always release them if they wish so

      -He usually don't catch them by defeating them in battle but earn their respect in a differen way.

    3. Hm, well, I'm focusing more on the RPG series than the show or mangas, which don't really have an equivalent of Ash Ketchum or Yellow that I've seen. Ash has some issues from as much as I know about him (the things you list are his better moments, but he also has some lousy moments where he treats Pokemon (and other people, for that matter) with little to no consideration), but essentially, yes, a philosophy on Pokemon training that's closer to his is what I'm theorizing and hoping that we'll see develop in the series thanks to the influence of Generation 7's narrative, potentially spearheaded by Lillie.