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Future Fragments: The Existential Dilemmas of Pokemon Black (and White)

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I admit I was a bit wary when I picked up the latest Pokemon game. There’s a stigma surrounding the series–role-playing “lite” at best–and I haven’t played one seriously since the days of Pokemon Yellow, where the starter Pokemon was the ever-faithful and unwilling to evolve Pikachu. However, the series has grown up since then, with new Pokemon and atmosphere that point to a changing future for games of its ilk. The very dichotomy of Pokemon Black and White suggests a morality that previous editions of the series–like red and blue, or gold and silver—were not burdened with. In taking on some of these new dilemmas, the Pokemon series has perhaps spawned a game that asks the player to contemplate their actions on new levels.

It starts from the very beginning. Just committing to a color is a decision, as some spaces are only present in each version. The covers of white and black evoke the yin yang. White is home to more natural environments, while black includes more dramatic cityscapes. The cover pokemon are of course each limited to their corresponding versions, but for once the difference is more than skin-deep. Many have pointed out that Black and White is just another step in a predictable formula, a quick face-lift for a series whose mechanics haven’t changed much since the very beginning. It certainly has some of the same moments, including the paralyzing first step of choosing one of three Pokemon andknowing the others will be kept from you forever (though with Snivy on the table, is that even really a choice? 🙂 So in some ways, they’re right. But there are more ways for a game to grow than by inventing a new battle system, and these are the ways that Pokemon has changed.

The story at the center of Pokemon Black and White involves Team Plasma, a group preaching against the enslavement of Pokemon. Their solution? Public speeches combined with terrorist (or activist?) attacks to “free” Pokemon from their trainers. We’re pretty far removed from the days of Team Rocket’s slightly ditzy efforts to accomplish…well, it was never too clear what they were after. With Team Plasma, Pokemon villains have moved from laughingstocks to timely social commentary.

The storyline seems to question the underlying morality of the Pokemon trainer paradigm, an interesting move for a game franchise. The Penny Arcade team took it on in comic form, and their strip highlights the real brutality of the world. If you think about the practice, it’s a twisted concept. Capture innocent beasts in the wild, trap them in tiny cages, and force them to fight others in exchange for the brief freedom of the outside world. Those who aren’t deemed worthy are instead kept in “storage”–a state one can only presume to be akin to suspended animation if it is to be thought even remotely humane. The driving slogan–“Gotta catch ’em all”–pushes you to acquire even unneeded Pokemon with the same driving desire as a trophy hunter.

As I took on the role of Pokemon collector, I found myself surrounded by characters contemplating their own role in this system. My two childhood friends were continually questioning their own motivations, and even the seemingly driven “rival” who falls into a classic Pokemon mode started wondering why strength was so important to him. Between these continual reminders I continued forward in the same familiar gameplay, capturing an army of adorable but vicious minions and culling (well, consigning to storage…) those who seemed unlikely to evolve in a profitable fashion. I even engaged in a bit of trading, passing common finds along for more exotic varieties when I encountered those looking to swap.

And, of course, I battled. And as I approached the seventh gym, I was reminded how essential this endless combat is:

“The problem is never whether you can battle or not. It’s whether you will battle or not…if you don’t fight, you won’t lose, but you won’t go stronger either.”

These were the words of a trainer lackey–before and after I defeated her. The words are perhaps at the level of fortune cookie wisdom, but I remembered them as I moved forward to fight the leader of the gym of ice Pokemon.

But then, once I beat her too, she threw out her own one-liner:

“No matter how many battles I fight, I don’t know what strength is. Perhaps you can find the answer.”

Some of the most continually surprising moments in Pokemon have always come from the non sequitur moments provided by the random population. Even as a more grown-up story shapes the landscape, the residents of Unova remain innocent. You can wander freely into any house and no one will ask you what you’re doing there—instead, they’ll often offer advice on your living that seems to speak to questions well beyond the world of the game.

It was one of those random moments that first made me wonder at Pokemon’s lessons for life beyond Unova. While I was wandering into people’s houses in search of valuables (apparently a perfectly accepted behavior), a woman in a house watching her child offered her thoughts:

“If we live a monotonous life, do we get used to it and stop thinking about changing it?”

Intriguing words from an eternally trapped digital character. I also couldn’t help but wonder at the irony, as a game that includes as much grinding as the Pokemon series perhaps has no business suggesting we rethink our own monotony. Yet she captured some of the existential angst running through the entire game. She’s far from the only character with something to say, and pseudo-zen philosophy comes from girls with umbrellas admiring the rain and old men living in remote houses.

The characters are only noticed if you’re being mindful, entering every space, chatting with even people unlikely to move you forward in the progressive battle structure of the game. For a world that doesn’t really offer conversations–the most complicated your responses get in most situations is a choice from yes or no–it’s a dash of character that creates the feeling of a society. These momentary glimpses push for awareness of everything from the game structure itself to contemplation of your own environment–not bad for a game about capturing cartoon monsters.

As video games are coming of age, we expect more from them. Even the most seemingly empty of games evoke study–take, for instance, the video putting the Angry Birds conflict in the vein of a Civil War documentary. It’s a beautiful example at pushing at the assumptions behind a game that doesn’t seem to have hidden depths:

The Pokemon franchise will likely continue, perhaps with a 3D version of Black and White already waiting in the wings, or perhaps they’ll find new colors of the spectrum to pair. But if it does, one hopes that the voices of this version will remain, pointing out that they can leave us with more than monotonous grinding and a shiny high score at the end.

Author: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

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