Monday, May 11, 2009

Pokémon and On and On

The Nintendo DS games occupying my DS carrying case seldom appear on the currently playing section of EXP, not because of any sense of shame, though I am acutely aware of stares when I rifle through my collection on public transportation. Rather, I play these games in short cycles commuting to work and they rarely stay in my mind for long. One recent exception has been Pokémon Diamond, part of the fourth-generation of Pokémon games, twin to Pokémon Pearl, uglier sibling to the recently released Pokémon Platinum, and one of the strangest creations on my shelf.

I purchased Diamond a couple months ago, long after its 2007 release date. I consumed it with excitement, albeit slowly. Four of my housemates also picked up copies of Pokémon Pearl and Platinum. We soon began late night trades of captured pokemon and requests for Evee evolutions. Yet even after the hours of good ol' fashioned bonding time, I've come to this conclusion: Pokémon is the most terribly designed game that I still enjoy playing.

Pokémon Diamond has a respectable rating of eighty-five on Metacritic, with plenty of glowing reviews. My own experiences with the game would demand an alien scoring system that could translate my hatred and enjoyment into a series of runic matrices or non-euclidean constructs. I have voiced my antagonistic ramblings to my housemates with mixed results.

Game flaws populate Pokémon as if its "Gotta Catch 'Em All" slogan were referring to poor design choices. Allow me to rant for a moment. The game, for all its depth, is incredibly uninformative. For a large portion of the game, a world map is not easily accessible as an application on the bottom screen. The map that is available, both on screen and in your bag, is largely devoid of helpful information. "Is that the route that is blanketed in fog? Do I need cut to access a honey tree there?" You might as well guess.
The same uncertainty is applied to your pokemon collection efforts. Some pokemon can only be caught at night, others in short windows of time after slathering a tree with honey. Some pokemon evolve only when certain conditions are met, some must hold onto a specific object, others only evolve when traded, or when you earn their love. None of this information is made clear to the player.

This uncertainty is exacerbated by incredibly slow gameplay. The incessant short but useless animations are maddening. Every little thing, crushing rocks, telling you an attack is "super effective," and reminding you its raining, requires numerous seconds of game time. Fighting a weak pokemon , a repeated occurrence when not showering yourself with repel potions, can take far too long considering how easy it is to defeat them in one blow. The result is too few opportunities for meaningful input.

Additionally, the joy of combat is quickly eroded as strategy becomes attacking your enemy's obvious weakness. Strong moves do not balance well and it is easy to rely mostly on your startingcreature. This "Big Hitter Syndrome" becomes increasingly important as eggs and pokemon with out-of-combat abilities take up precious space in your party.
Yet watching your pokemon evolve or catching a new breed is incredibly satisfying, sharing this joy with friends even more so. I believe Jonathan Blow's assessment of World of Warcraft is applicable to this same phenomenon. Blow has called WoW unethical, relying on "artificial rewards," aesthetically appealing sounds and visual effects that do not stem naturally from well designed gameplay. I'm a huge WoW fan, but I can see how he interprets level grinding as tedious work to achieve artificial satisfaction.

Pokémon shares this affliction. To put it bluntly, Pokémon's gameplay is incredibly boring, but the artificial rewards are enough to keep me playing. The games success can be partly attributed to its ability to satisfy a human (or cultural) desire to consume and collect. Blow considers this to be unethical because designers are intentionally exploiting "these psychological phenomena" to sell fundamentally flawed game designs. Its clear the Pokémon have not markedly improve since its inception, its ability to satisfy a strange desire has always been close to perfect.

Can a game that sells millions and is widely praised, yet full of glaring flaws and frustrating design choices, still be considered a good game when its success relies on artificial rewards? Has Pokémon become a sort of virus, propagating a false desire to "Catch 'Em All?" Why is this anomaly, this awful yet entertaining game, so unsettling? Maybe I should smash the cartridge in protest... right after I snag myself a Raichu.


  1. All the more reason to keep coming to this website, an interesting perspective coupled with clear and knowledgeable compassion for games in general. Thanks yet again, always enjoy reading these articles.

  2. I do understand your critique. In I agree in general. Pokémon is a un-ethical game in many ways. What I find most insulting is how they always try so shoe-horn some valuable kid-friendly lessons into it. And it never really fits because the game is about capturing animals and letting them battle to their death for your mere entertainment.

    However, here are two things you might consider:

    You've mentioned how a lot of things in the game depend of not telling players things. I've noticed that this is a common trait in Japanese games. It becomes apparent in B-Grade games like Lost in Blue. Here an older article (sorry for shamelessly promoting my stuff again). You've been recently talking about culture. Here is a tough nut: if discovery of hidden properties (such as Pokémon that only appear on a certain day) is regarded as a valuable, fun thing in japanese culture, are we allowed to judge it as bad game design?

    The second thing to consider is that while the game itself has some flaws, Pokémon as a franchise is actually a pretty well thought-out. It's one of the unique examples where an entire brand has been successfully designed from ground up across multiple media: the games, the anime and the trading cards. There have been quite a few wannabes (Digimon?) but they never been able to catch up because they missed the lesson here: in order to be successful on the market today, you need to stop thinking in products but in services. It's no longer a game you sell, it's an entire world in which the individual products you provide are only parts of the bigger picture. While the parts themselves may be flawed, in the end it's the world you're selling.

  3. @ Mario

    We're glad you enjoy it! Just be careful with the compliments, I might get a big head and start writing for IGN.

    @ Krystian

    The kid friendly thing I talked to about with Scott today. If a game is marketed and designed for kids then it might have to be judged by different criteria.

    Your Japan question is great, and to be honest, I don't know how to answer it. I suppose it depends on who the developers are intending to satisfy. I actually think Pokemon could apply some changes and still satisfy both play styles, but point taken. I wonder how many people would just say Japanese tastes are uninformed.

    As for the franchise, well, a marketing strategy to develop a widely consumable franchise can be impressive. That doesn't mean the game is.