Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Boredom, Terror, and Pokemon

Oshawott, my noble champion
Inspired by Jorge and Mattie, I have started playing Pokemon using the rule variant known as the Nuzlocke challenge. I'm not sure if I'll "finish" it (more on that later), but I'm glad to have tried it. First off, a quick refresher on the Nuzlocke rules:

1. You attempt to catch the first, and only the first, pokemon you encounter in each new area.
2. If a pokemon faints, it is "dead" and you must release it.

It's the first time I've ever done the Nuzlocke challenge. It's also the first time I've played a Pokemon game since the original Blue/Red editions. I decided on Pokemon White Version 2 so that I could have the most up to date experience. That combination of circumstances has led to some interesting realizations:

1. Pokemon (like war) never changes

Even though I haven't played a Pokemon game since the 90s, the game feels remarkably unchanged. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste at this point. What some call repetition others call ritual. Whatever your opinion, I think everyone can agree that it's remarkable that things like "PKMN" have persisted. I always imagined this weird abbreviation was more a function of screen economy, but maybe now it's house style? The franchise is fast approaching its twentieth birthday and has remained remarkably faithful to its roots.

2. Nuzlocke turns you into an NPC

I was always amused by the juxtaposition between you and the NPCs in the Pokemon world. On one hand, the world is full of modest trainers with small stables of pokemon. They talk about the lifelong bonds they form with their pokemon. Many run with lineups consisting of entirely of one type. On the other hand, there is this one trainer ransacking the wilds, capturing hundreds of pokemon, rolling over gym leaders as if they were amateurs, literally writing the book on the world's pokemon by catching and training them all. Nuzlocke's limitations mean that you're just one of the litany of small-team trainers trying to scrape by.

Thanks to my initial choice, my successful capture of Azuril, and the untimely death of my Patrat, I've become one of those trainers I always mocked. I don't have a big party, I feel especially close to my team since there is no replacing them, and I'm rolling with an all-water squad. In most Pokemon games, you're the Michael Jordan of trainers; in Nuzlocke, you're just another schlub trying to get by.

3. Long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror

Because your opportunity to catch pokemon is so low and the penalty of death is so high, the Nuzlocke challenge incentivizes grinding. Pokemon is already a fairly slow-paced, grind-oriented game, and this rule dramatically magnifies these traits. You need to be able to win battles without fainting, so levelling up is key. Especially early in the game, you don't have much money for health items like potions, so a short time of wandering around in the grass and fighting random encounters, you'll have to go back into town to heal your pokemon. I swear I can see a pixelated rut forming on Route 19.

On the other end of the spectrum, every encounter is potentially a life and death ordeal. Never have random trainers provoked so much terror. How many pokemon will they have and what types? Did I remember to heal my squad after that last battle? I bet my pokemon has enough HP to withstand another critical hit, but did I do the math correctly? Knowing that each battle is a game changing encounter is exhilarating.

4.  Deconstruction vs. Destruction

The Nuzlocke challenge is a novel way of adding some exciting consequences to what is usually a very forgiving game. Even so, I'm not sure I'll stick with it. First: the game's already slow pace begins to feel glacial if you're trying to effectively manage your small stable of Pokemon.

Secondly, and more importantly, the rule change cuts out a huge swath of the game. Without being able to catch and train a large stable of Pokemon, the game becomes a pretty bare-bones JRPG with extremely limited characters. True, your actions now carry heavy consequences, but such consequences feel bolted on. Games like The Walking Dead and Dark Souls have consequences that are indigenous to their rule systems. The Nuzlocke challenge is an interesting variant, but it dismantles a huge section of the game and leaves the remainder a much more homogenous experience. It makes sense that it arose from a veteran player's desire to add some spice to the game. He had already experienced the widest array of rules, so he pinpointed a specific challenge for himself.

In any case, let's place some bets: What will end my Nuzlocke challenge? Boredom, death, or glorious victory?

1 comment:

  1. Not terribly informative post here...

    I think you'd get a lot of the nice tension apparent in this challenge from the Etrian series in a sense and Fire Emblem in a more obvious sense...

    (not that anyone finishes the Etrian games, they just start them, and finish them over the course of the the next few years a little bit month by month)

    It's been really interesting reading your thoughts on the challenge as you've been going on with it though.