The following article is an opinion piece.
There are a number of excellent systems and mechanics in Game Freak’s Pokémon series that merit extensive scrutiny. There’s the Pokédex, a dictionary that turns each game into a heroic quest for knowledge instead of solely a game where you capture monsters solely for its own sake. There’s the complex battling system, which uses types and stats and effects in a way that’s simple and deceptively deep. And there’s the slow expansion of the games’ worldview, where elements have steadily been added over the series’ twenty years without upsetting the fundamental affability that makes it easy for new trainers – like my father, a sixty year old Alpha Sapphire and Sun player (Fire starters in both cases) with only moderate experience playing games – to discover the games’ pleasures. However, when thinking about the series I kept coming back to how it plays with choice.
At the very beginning of almost every game in the series, you are presented with a set of Pokémon, often a Grass, Fire, and Water-type. All of them are strong, and each would make a wonderful traveling companion. But you only get one. And often, which one you get dramatically dictates the early going, and the strategies you have before the number and diversity of Pokémon you can catch increases. Definitive choices like this pop up constantly during the games: how do you evolve your Eevee? Which four moves would best suit your Greninja or the team? Do you want a Hitmonlee or Hitmonchan? Do you choose a Cover or Plume Fossil? Did you see Latias or Latios?
This goes even further based on the fact that most (if not all) mainline Pokémon games come in sets of two. Ever since Red & Green were released in Japan, each new generation includes a pair of games, from Ruby & Sapphire to the just-released Sun & Moon, each one with a mighty beast on the cover. They’re incredibly similar, and what distinguishes them more than anything else is the individual Pokémon you can catch; several are exclusive to one game or another, and the only way you can get everything is through trading. This furthers the series’ belief in communication and friendship as paramount – friends trade with each other, some Pokémon can only evolve through trading, a few others can only be caught in one game or another – but also makes this idea of choice front and center to how it expresses this theme. In addition, more recent entries do more to distinguish each other, so players don’t get to see quite every piece of content. This is less about forcing fans to buy both versions, but to talk with fellow players and learn about what each of you have found.
Now, to be fair, this is not the reason why we have two versions of each generation. Game Freak planned to incorporate the otherwise painfully underutilized Game Link cable to include a thematically relevant trading mechanic, and Shigeru Miyamoto (who produced Red & Green) argued that multiple versions with exclusive monsters would encourage this much more effectively than if there was only one version. Furthermore, as the series has continued, the strictness of these choices has lessened a great deal; Gold & Silver added a system where you could breed most Pokémon, Diamond & Pearl introduced online connectivity to make filling out the Pokédex even easier, and every generation has added opportunities to get around limitations. But those limitations still remain, because they’re tied less to game completion than to personal investment. You are still the person who has to make those choices – though, of course, there’s no pressure to even get to that point. Aside from the late game struggles to save the day, it’s a very lackadaisical world that’s alright with you going at whatever pace you like.
And that personal investment may be the most important element, because Pokémon as a franchise is incredible in how much you can customize your approach to the game itself. Think about it; every player, NPC, rival, boss, and opponent from across the world has potential access to, for the most part, the same tools as you, and the same restrictions: no more than six Pokémon on a team, and four moves to a Pokémon. There may be a legendary monster that’s restricted to online events or a move exclusive to one Pokémon, but for all intents and purposes, every person has the potential to be on the same level. Even games based around universal systems and emergent gameplay usually have bosses or enemies with powers the player cannot use, and it’s noticeable for how rare this degree of universal mechanics is. The series has flirted with moving from this on rare occasions, such as the special effects monsters in Black 2 & White 2’s Pokéstar Studios, but in general this has remained a staple.
Due to their interactive nature, games are ideal for allowing self-expression in both action and identity; even in games without complex stories or role-playing mechanics, how you interact with the systems it provides can be empowering in and of itself. And modern games like to tout their ability to do this to unprecedented degrees, with complex character creation tools and plots allowing multiple conclusions. Pokémon has never had the latter and only introduced the former with X & Y, but from the start it’s always been incredible at allowing that expression. You’re only “punished” through potentially losing matches, which doesn’t even end the game or force you back to your last save.
A few months ago, I tried a “Nuzlocke” run of HeartGold, a fan-made challenge in which you can only catch the first wild Pokémon you encounter in a location and release every one who faints in battle. It’s incredibly difficult; it forced me to adopt a degree of patience and caution I would otherwise ignore, and to use monsters I might otherwise not. And because of that, the team I had by the end was wildly different than any I’ve used before, which are often a type-diverse group of personal favorites. I interacted with it entirely differently than I did in 2010, in a way the game is clearly not designed to be played, but it was fun. And it’s still self-expression, just an entirely different kind.
There is, though, one final element in how the game plays with this, which is that your progress through the game is deeply controlled and steady. You never have full access to all of the monsters in the game, with a few of them introduced at a time in each new location (there are scarce few environments in each game that provide the player with absolutely no Pokémon they have not yet met). And this means that players don’t have to immediately memorize all eighteen types and how many hundreds of moves. There’s some Normal and Flying and Bug-Types around, and that original trio of Fire, Grass, and Water, with more types and complex abilities showing up later. You slowly build up your knowledge of the mechanics and world, and as that goes on you also start to make favorites and preferences. Maybe that Tepig you thought was adorable isn’t so great after all, and maybe you’d rather replace it with that super cool Chandelure? Maybe you really like one type or style of fighting, and build a team around that? And maybe you’re more fascinated by the mechanics, and immediately start learning about egg moves and Effort Values and base stats.
A lot of the series works in this vein, introducing ideas at a lethargic pace. It means that many Pokémon games do feel less exciting in the early going, but increasingly engaging as you gain more and more access to monsters, attacks, and lore. But each step is punctuated with these little limitations and choices, and how you respond to them defines not only how you interact with the world but your own personality.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that makes Pokémon successful; it’s the iconic Ken Sugimori designs, the clear battle system, the way the game gives you clear demarcations of your progress and success. But while all these things are deeply important, all of them are tied, fundamentally, to this notion of choice. You choose how to play it, at almost every level, and these choices are clear even if the full range of consequences is not. This notion of choice – the ones that force you to make decisions about what you prefer, and the ones you make in how you play – is central to an underlying humanity within the games, a humanity that has kept it exciting for twenty years.