Welcome to the first entry in my new Sparking a Discussion series. This is where I’m going to talk about things without reviewing them. I’ll just sort of post my thoughts and ideas about some work of fiction or game and hopefully get the readers thinking. And if you’d like to join in the discussion, leave a comment below!
As anyone who knows me knows, I spend far too much time playing Pokémon. From Red to Alpha Sapphire, I’ve played a game in every generation and loved them all. I’ve seen the battling mechanics go from a broken mess in Gen 1 to a progressively more balanced, sensible system.
But there’s one thing that’s been lacking in Pokémon since day one. No matter how good the graphics get, how fancy the towns and regions get, how many game mechanics let me feed my Dragonite cupcakes, I don’t feel like I’m part of the world. Pokémon has the potential to be a really immersive experience, but how?
When I’m asking myself how to make a game more immersive, I first have to figure out where a game has immersed me before. Enter Skyrim.
There’s one particular moment in Skyrim that stands out for me as the most immersed I’ve ever been. It wasn’t even anything too special. I was playing a heavy armour character and decided to get some Dwarven armour. So I went into a Dwarven ruin, picked up every piece of metal I could find, went to the nearest town and smelted it all into metal. Then I forged a full suit of armour out of that metal.
So what was so immersive about this? There are probably a few different interpretations. My answer was that I set myself a goal, determined how to do it and did it, entirely using knowledge that the game itself presented me and that was all sensible and consistent within the setting’s rules.
Pokémon easily has the potential to follow this pattern and be just as immersive as Skyrim. One thing in Pokémon struck me as the perfect example of how this could be implemented. The ultimate key to immersion in Pokémon already exists; it just has to be used properly. That key is Slowbro.
In all works of Pokémon, Slowpoke is presented as evolving to Slowbro when a Shellder bites its tail. Except the actual games. In the games, a Slowpoke evolves into Slowbro when it hits Level 37. The Shellder just sort of appears.
Suppose we got rid of that method of evolution and replaced it with a game mechanic that already exists – Pokémon fusion. In Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, the Pokémon Kyurem gained two special forms that it could only reach by fusion. You’d use an item (the DNA Splicers), a menu pops up and asks what Pokémon you want to fuse Kyurem with. You choose one of the two that can fuse with Kyurem, and they both disappear, being replaced with either Kyurem-White or Kyurem-Black.
It should be clear how this would work with Slowbro. If you have a Slowpoke and a Shellder in the party, you open up your Pokémon menu, tap Slowpoke, choose the ‘Combine with…’ option, poke Shellder, and then watch as the two are replaced by a Slowbro. The Slowbro would have the same nature, level, and other individual traits as the Slowpoke you used. It would be just like you evolved it.
Players would catch a Slowpoke and be happy with their dopey hippo salamander thing for a few towns and gyms and then feel it’s missing something. It’s just not fighting as well as their other teammates. But wait – an NPC tells them that, near where they are now, they can catch Shellder! So the player takes some time to catch a Shellder and evolve their Slowpoke.
It’s a goal that the player sets for themselves. The player learned that they can do it purely with knowledge that they learned in-game. It’s consistent with in-Universe materials. And that is how you get immersed in a game.
Slowbro is just one example. Several other Pokémon could use this fusion mechanic to increase immersion – say, any of the Pokémon who are really just several Pokémon mashed together.
Catching multiple Pokémon of the same species is something that currently isn’t much of a priority. But if the player could set the logical, canonically consistent goal of catching two Honedges, and be rewarded with a Doublade, that could change. You could even expand it to allow fusing multiple Pokémon into one “base” Pokémon to increase the bases’ stats – Mantine could get a small boost for each Remoraid attached to it, and male Combees could become useful by merging them into a Vespiquen for extra stats.
Of course, giving the players goals that they can set for themselves is only one part of the battle. The other part, which Pokémon games have gotten progressively worse at, is letting the players accomplish these goals when they want.
One of the least immersed I’ve ever felt in a game was when I was playing Pokémon White. The goal I’d set for myself was to catch a Joltik and get a Galvantula as fast as possible. A few towns into the game, an NPC finally mentioned something I’d been dying to hear – “Joltik lives in Chargestone Cave!”. I ignored the Gym Leader and ran off to go catch the Pokémon I wanted so desperately…
…Only to find that Chargestone Cave was blocked off. By Galvantula webs. Now, in most other games, I’d try to find a logical solution. Perhaps I’d slash through the webs with Cut. Burn them with a Fire-type Pokémon. Look for an alternate route into the cave. Maybe just catch the Galvantula who made the webs that were blocking me out of the cave.
None of those options were available to me. The webs would only be cleared out after I beat the Gym Leader who I’d deliberately ignored because I wanted to accomplish my own goal.
Roadblocks like these destroy immersion, frustrate the player and are just insulting. There’s no reason why I should have to put the goals I set for myself on hold. I’m the one pressing the buttons, so it shouldn’t be the game designers making every single decision.
The kicker is that Pokémon used to agree. Kanto, the setting of Generation 1 and its remakes, allowed much more free-roaming than subsequent games.
Kanto wasn’t completely free-roaming, but its roadblocks made sense. You couldn’t leave your town without getting a Pokémon, but that’s because Pokémon are dangerous and you need one of your own to protect you. The first Gym Leader you had to fight was Brock, which was also reasonable, but only because the game needed to introduce you to the concept of a Gym Leader in a proper setting. Cinnabar Island wasn’t immediately accessible, but it’s an island. You need to cross water to get there.
Everything in the middle was available to you in any order you chose. Want to skip Lt. Surge (gym 3), run down to get a Tauros in the same town as gym 5, and use it to stomp Erika (gym 4)? No problem.
If your game creates a big world full of places to explore, with fun things to do, full of awesome monsters to catch, then let the players do that. That’s what Kanto did so perfectly. It was an adventure; a world to explore.
So in this ideal Pokémon game I’ve brainstormed, we have a world we can explore at our own pace without unnecessary roadblocks, and small goals that the player can set themselves to keep their interest. Now what we need are long-term goals.
In Pokémon’s anime and manga, there are some characters who don’t actually care about gym leaders and badges. Ever since Ruby and Sapphire introduced Pokémon contests, all the different forms of Pokémon canon have presented it as a goal that’s just as meaningful and exciting as winning the Pokémon league. In the games? It isn’t.
I think that Pokémon could be improved by providing several different “paths” that would sort of constitute the player’s main goal:
- Path 1: Gym Badges. Travel from city to city, fighting wild Pokémon and trainers to make your Pokémon stronger. Take on Gym Leaders, get badges, and finally end with the Elite Four. Use Gym Badges and HM moves to travel to normally inaccessible areas.
- Path 2: Contests. Travel from city to city and perform contests at all the cities’ halls. The final goal would be Master rank contests. Contest ranks would give you the same perks as Gym Badges, letting you use HM moves to pass through roadblocks.
- Path 3: Saving the day. The player encounters a Team of some sort with a dumb goal of world domination. The final goal would be to thwart their plans, and probably involve capturing a Legendary Pokémon. By gaining the trust of law enforcement, you could get free travel to cities normally inaccessible at the start of the game.
- Path 4: Complete the Pokédex. Travel across the world hunting for different Pokémon, to fulfill the wishes of some Professor. The final goal here would probably be to catch Legendary Pokémon that aren’t part of Path 3’s story. The professors’ aides would help you get past roadblocks.
Right now, Pokémon games only progress with paths 1 and 3, and shoves them together awkwardly so that you need to do one path’s roadblocks before continuing on the goal. I think they should be completely independent.
However, just because two paths are independent doesn’t mean you couldn’t do both at the same time. Ideally, most cities would have a gym and a contest hall and some way to trigger a “save the day” event. If you want to do everything, you can. If you want to do one thing, you can. If you want to ignore all four paths and find something else to do, you’re free to do that as well.
I focused on contests at the beginning of this spiel for a reason. Contests are the thing that provides the least progression – the feeling that you’re actually advancing in what you’re doing. I think the main reason for this are the moves. Let’s talk about three specific moves – Tackle, Headbutt and Iron Head.
When it comes to battles, Tackle is a low-power, Normal type move. Headbutt is a stronger move, but it’s still Normal type, so it doesn’t have any type advantages. Iron Head is stronger still, and is a Steel-type move, so it can be Super Effective against a few things.
Most of the time, Iron Head is the best move of the three. So when you progress from Tackle to Headbutt to Iron Head, you feel like you’ve actually progressed.
In contests, all three moves are the exact same. The contest judges seem to believe that a boring body slam that basically any Pokémon can do is completely identical in appeal to a move that directly relates the toughness of a Pokémon’s head to metal.
Contest moves should simply follow the same pattern. The moves Pokémon start with are weak, and the ones they gain at higher levels are stronger.
To help promote contests as a viable main goal for the game, I would also let Pokémon gain experience and contest stats by doing contests. Finally, add in a few more contest levels per game, and possibly make them specialized halls with slight gimmicks like the Gym Leaders have, and you have yourself a contest campaign that’s equivalent to the Gym Badges campaign.
There we have it – three ways for Pokémon to increase player immersion. Number one: optional goals to allow players to obtain Pokémon in lore-friendly, logical ways. Number two: an open world that can be explored without silly roadblocks to tell you what order to do things in. And number three: branching paths that let you progress through the game even if you don’t just want to fight gym leaders.
But that’s just my thoughts on it. Do you think my ideas would help people get immersed in Pokémon? Is there something more important that I missed? Is Pokémon immersive enough already? Throw some comments at me below!