Sunday, September 19, 2010

Deceptive Design | Pokémon Black & White

It's been a common complaint for the past two generations of Pokémon titles that the designs have been getting worse with every game.

I've danced around this with earlier Pokémon-related posts, but my take on this is simply that Game Freak and Nintendo have fallen into rather destructive a habit of meeting some sort of twisted quota to pander to the masses (this is a consumer product we're talking about after all). The designs are rarely just plain bad, but when the most detrimental of them manages to churn up a collective disdain, aesthetic credibility immediately gets called into question. People are also natrually geared to take things that garner any sort of general consensus seriously, even if it's far more than worth their time to begin with. This is all but surprising, seeing as how we gamers have always had snooty tastes.

When one (most notably an artist) has a condensed level of style however, they will immediately build a stronger (and far more recognizable) style. This essentially equates to the old 'quality vs quantity' adage. This is also why the audiences and people in a position to judge are so prone to hold on to the original 151 Pokémon's design as being somewhat superior. They really aren't, they're just as moronic-looking as the rest. I'll even admit to still being tethered to this concept myself, as I can certainly point out the design issues I have with each and every single little critter I've seen thus far. Remember that little project I mentioned? It's on hold now thanks to Black & White temporarily overloading me with sketch-ennui, but I do intend to finish the damn thing (I stopped at around #62, Poliwrath). I noticed this stuff however, in their entirety after drawing the twentieth little jackass, Raticate.

It would seem that the following formulas have some credence worth laughing at:

Perception + Nostalgia + Compression = Quality
Opinion + Generational Shifts + Expansion = Natural tendency for audience to 'rebel/react' somehow

As an artist, I personally find this particular facet of the franchise fascinating, if only because I'm so ignorant to the inner-workings of how Ken Sugimori engaged with the rest of the development team. I have absolutely no damn clue who is designing the characters and various 'Pokes' now, but I assume it's not just him (i.e. he drew the original 151 Pokémon himself from what I understand).

When the first three starter types were revealed for Black & White, the backlash against all of them was more immediate and explosive than the last, almost confirming that the effect increases in intensity with each generation. I suppose the grass snake didn't catch as much hell as the pig and the otter, but he was part of the 'trio of worsening' nonetheless.

I can't source this definitively, so take it for what it is. Supposedly, it's an interview featuring Sugimori and Yusuke Ohmura:
KS: "I really struggled the most with the Water-type [starter] this time."

YO: "There was talk of, 'Wouldn't a sea otter be good for the Water starter?' But it was a really close decision in terms of what this sea otter would become once it evolves. In the end, we decided to have it evolve into something with a completely different appearance."

KS: "Of course, we want to make the starters into Pokémon that remain with the player throughout the game, so we hope to make them evolve into creatures that offer a surprise to the player. We always make an effort to throw in some twists and create third-stage evolutions that have an impact."

YO: "There was also talk this time about dividing the three starters into Japanese, Western, and Chinese styles of design. Tsutaaja was based on Western design, and Pokabu was rooted in a Chinese style, so I was told, "Let's make Mijumaru into a more Japanese-style design." Someone even asked, 'Can't you make Mijumaru into a samurai?' [*laughs*]"

Everyone: [*laughs*]

KS: "I worried about it for a while, and I eventually went to go see the sea otters at the aquarium. I happened to catch the sea lion show while I was there, and I became aware of the sea lion's power. 'Well, let's try blending a sea otter and a sea lion', I thought. I came up with the idea of making the shell on Mijumaru's stomach into a sword (katana) and using it to fight, and that's how I completed Mijumaru and its evolution."
(via Bulbapedia, also Pokémon Pia originally)

Just grabbing a design from a recent game that I've been playing this week to show all this at work:

This guy looks like he could easily sneak into the National Pokédex right? This is actually Sheep Man, from Mega Man 10. The lineage of Pokémon is growing, it's certainly expanding, but it hasn't moved but a few inches in terms of artistic diversity. I'd love to make a biased attack on this as an Asian ideal, but that's a debate I'd rather have on its own formal right, far removed from this rather small and ultimately pointless topic.

The ideal---the axe to grind for me here would be a more science-related approach to creating the characters/creatures. Yes, you heard me right. We've had (or at least I've had) enough of Japan's nigh-ritualistic 'culture display'. Right now, I'd have to assume that any sort of design for these guys in constructing the creatures is based almost completely on cheap aesthetic appeals. This is opposed to any type realism or practicality. This is quite deceptive, as on the surface, it appears to be what's actually being done, some fantastical simulation of reality, but it isn't. A grass pokemon for example, just looks like a generic land dwelling baddie were it in any other videogame. Very few of them actually look drawn to facilitate a bond to the environment/setting they're supposedly from or embody, they simply have touchstones that obnoxiously scream so (e.g. Charizard's tail). I'm not falling for it anymore you sneaks.

Strictly speaking from the videogames' position, all that the players are given simply amount to little tidbits regarding the nature of their respective species. This usually means one or two sentences that the player could most likely make up on their own anyway by simply looking at damn things. There was never any actual authority being displayed with the design of these creatures and the slow revelation of this fact is what people are actually feeling and thus reacting to now. What little there is becomes 'lost in translation', which isn't simply going from Eastern to Western audiences, but more of a designer to consumer one as well (not to mention an artist to audience one too).

This also got briefly mentioned in the Ego Agenda and its response (and here's another), but the creatures' appeal is just becoming a thinner and more insulting veil to view them through. THIS would be why I'd say the designs appear to be getting worse with each generation.

The only thing that's really changing here are the people playing these games. The artists of course, change too, but nowhere near the pace of the former. These artists are not just simply scraping the bottom of the barrel. It's much more complicated than that. It's part of my definition of an artist to problem solve and to deceive. The problem is that these guys are now MAKING UP their own problems unnecessarily and becoming bogged down and weary while trying to deal with an audience that's been trained VERY WELL to 'eat their work and ask for seconds'.

Image Credits:
Images via The_Katbot,, Mega Man Knowledge Database, and random crap I dug up via my own Tumblr