Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Limbo Level | Pokémon Black & White

I intended on putting up Forwards Compatible Reduxes over the week, but a string of Siliconera posts recently caught my eye. The most pertinent one is dealing with 'levels of reality', which of course inspired my typical esoteric titling. The limbo level is simply where I'm at with the recently released generation V games, and I think I might be trapped there---indefinitely.

I'm also trying out something new here in terms of formatting with this post. Mainly taken from Andrew S.'s Tales of a Scorched Earth, I've always been partial to how he cites his posts in superscript, so I'm gonna give it a whirl myself.

I've seen quite a few articles within the past week praising 'change' in regards to Pokémon Black & White. I can't really filter out the voices due to an overwhelming suspicion alert going off in my head. This alert is merely the reaction towards the toleration of incremental and 'commercially safe' changes that the series has seen over the years. It also seems that Black & White are just the newest fad for people to pointlessly mull over whether or not 'the change' question is even worth asking to begin with. Yes, some of us still think that a radical change is worthwhile for this series. In the end though, maybe I'm just the only one that's still persisting in seeing whether or not that goddamn top falls over.

"If they were to develop a new game thereafter, they would have to change all but the most basic aspects of the series."
(via Siliconera1)

As seen with most other 'change issues' concerning gaming, when a well established franchise tampers even slightly with a well proven formula (or even an aesthetic icon), our little haven virtually explodes.

Recent Examples:

  • Go to any forum board concerning StarCraft 2 and take your thinking-cap off.

  • Everybody seems to have an opinion on how Devil May Cry should look, but the fans are the last ones we should listen to (even the ones with a reasonable negative reaction).

  • The Pokémon franchise has arguably 'needed' to change since the third generation; everybody notes this---yet none of us can articulate a message forceful enough to leave any lasting impact on the matter.

    I've not played Black & White yet, and I'll have to wait until next spring like everyone else. However, judging from the few hours that I've watched, the above quote seems as if it's becoming all the more relevant now2. I just don't really see the series ever reaching a state of 'actual change' at this point. That's the easiest part of this to identify. One doesn't just change something that's generating that much cash and pleasing that many fans at the same time. Yet, I'm always left wondering 'hasn't this series been one of the few that's actually earned a bit of experimentation room for itself?' One also has to understand that when I say change, I don't mean simply stripping the clothing off the games and dressing them up again. I'm talking about something even more basic and fundamental here. The core concept itself. How do we deal with it? Both players and the developers would do well to ask that question to themselves.

    Yes, the core concept itself should be reconsidered entirely. Everybody has become so comfortable with it, they don't even care to think about what it would even mean to question it.

    Continuing on from the metaphor above, Black & White appear to be at best---the equivalent of plastic surgery, ultimately 'cosmetic' changes that satisfy the needs of everyone but the 'core principle'3 (which it also ironically counteracts). The core principle in this case is Pokémon's goal as a game. Dare we use that blasphemous argument here, one which so many gamers are becoming more and more impassioned with evolving? This would be the argument that games can extend meaning beyond mere entertainment. Pokémon's appeal is often tied up in its pervasiveness. This is an aspect of 'the core' that I don't think should be touched; there's certainly no logical reason to do so right now. It's fine as is, it appeals to children and adults alike.

    The problem though, is the perception of going back. This has to be done in order to construct a new foundation for anything. In Pokémon's case, it's neither a slight nor merit to admit that the series has tried and failed at this repeatedly4. The design and development teams may perhaps add new features or tweaks that inevitably cause ripples (e.g. TMs changed? Big. Fucking. Deal.), but they're always built upon that same foundation---always. Criticizing this process tends to infuriate fans who have become entrenched in the habitual surroundings of what they love, and their first knee-jerk reaction is to irrationally defend all change at all costs.

    The easiest solution that I've seen and have railed against for years myself is what Pokémon would mean as an MMO (one that's officially licensed anyway).

    "Trading is a core concept of Pokémon. So when you're trading, you meet with a friend and decide which one you want and which one they want. I would like to emphasize real-world communication. You don't see each other online."
    ---Junichi Masuda5

    There it is again, that 'core', that sacred line they dare not cross. In this particular case, I'd even say it's hypocritical. In what world is the Internet not real-world communication? I don't need Nintendo and Gamefreak to dictate the implications of a filtered online presence to me. They're terrible philosophers in that sense6. Indeed there's a difference, but it's not vast enough that this should be thrown out all together, especially out of some insane notion that they're imbuing physical contact as some sort of superior gaming mechanism. If they really honored that belief, they'd keep the concept intact while cultivating the MMO-prospect as well; suggesting mutual exclusivity here is just totally unwarranted though right? I mean, why give us players a choice at all, especially when you designers can excessively pervert arbitrary ideals? Silly Asians...Pokémon's for kids.

    That typecast is a problem too. Despite the series' aforementioned pervasiveness, it still to this day---retains that 'children's game' persona. Now I'm not saying the series should go Mortal Kombat or anything, but introducing some actual maturity in the series wouldn't be such a bad thing either (it wouldn't even have to change its aesthetics). The franchise at large suffers from this, coloring the entire thing in a somewhat Saturday morning cartoon identity. I'm not even suggesting that be removed, merely complemented. We live in an age of nerdom where the most exalted forms of animation blend the two (i.e. maturity and puerile fantasy)7. Pokémon, despite its proxy to this arena, has remained staunchly immune to such a potential strength for well over a decade now (and the fans are the ones that empower it). I've already noted earlier that Black and White appeared to be an admission of the series' developer recognizing this and preferring to lazily parody it. So, at best, I'm expecting Gen-V to simply say "Lol". Baby steps I guess?8

    The base settings of the game show how 'cosmetic' this change is as well. With Black & White, we're introduced to Isshu, a fictional region roughly inspired by America's cultural capital9. I'm willing to bet too that the game does nothing but passingly exploit that setting through a rather thick Japanese lens (which we tend to find humorous and nothing else). America's going to laugh at any 'cleverness' expressed in this title (and I'm being generous), and America has also been known to exhibit a definitive global trait, a tendency to want to smile without thought. Earthbound can get away with this sort of parody10, Pokémon however, cannot, not in my eyes anyway.

    "Another complaint Masuda had heard was that children were having too much trouble completing the main story of the game, and that they usually ended giving up. Along this line, the map was designed so that it would be a linear adventure and younger players wouldn’t get lost. Since most of the appeal of the game was what you did post-story, Masuda wanted as many people to reach that point as possible."
    (via Siliconera1)

    I'm sorry, but I'm never gonna be the type that strives to make kids even dumber than they already are.

    These guys appear to have been busting their ass over the past twelve years to give gamers what they want, and to be fair---they already have. I won't deny that. My question now however, is what do gamers need, and furthermore, what do the designers want? Anytime I read design insights into this particular series, I'm painfully reminded of the old saying 'work smart not hard', except the words are always jumbled around...

    The good news here is that I think I'm done talking about Pokémon for the time being. I'm sick of it. Until I get my hands on B&W and see for myself the context of what's been 'changed' or not, I'm gonna go dark on the topic for my blog. Since I see myself playing through those before I finish my little drawing project, that's the earliest I see myself coming back with all of this.


  • The Methodical Destruction of Pokémon In Black & White
  • If you play video games and can't name one Pixar, Disney, or Miyazaki film that appeals to you, you are a true aberration.
  • The Pokémon Ego Agenda & Its Response are still getting quite a few hits for me
  • It will take quite the force to ever get me to go back to New York City in this lifetime.