I have never been into Pokemon. Until recently, a short daliance with Pokemon Go and a few hours with a previous game (Black? White? One of those) was the extent of my hands-on with the franchise. I have played more Pokemon in the last week than in all of the previous twenty-three years combined.
Well, “played.” I’m not actually playing. We bought Pokemon Shield for our six-year-old who loves Pokemon, and this is his first Pokemon game. I’m more of his co-pilot, helping him read some of the tougher words and acting as a general gaming liason for standard stuff like menu navigation, etc. My wife, a bonafide Pokemon nerd, consults on type match-ups and moves, etc, and our three-year old just likes to peddle the bike around and run from fights. So it’s a group effort, I guess.
At any rate, this is the first time I’ve really had a look at a Pokemon game up close to any extent. And I knew that the game was a deeper RPG than it appeared on the surface; I may not have been a Pokemon player, but with the circles I travel in clearly I’d heard of things like IVs and EVs and Egg Moves etc. I just never had much context for how they all fit together in the bigger picture.
I do now, and I’m still reeling a bit. Partly because there’s a lot to dig into, but mostly because my son is playing an entirely different game than the one I’m watching. For him, it’s magic. It’s an adventure. It’s an experience buoyed by the imagination of childhood. He runs around fighting Pokemon, capturing Pokemon, working his way through to become the ultimate Trainer. He refused to capture a Meowth for the longest time because they were “dumbfaces”, and sticking to that principle was more important than completing a Pokedex. He plays with the Pokemon in his camp far longer than is required to get them some XP, and dislikes sending them on Poke Jobs because he feels better knowing his friends are close.
I’ve been playing games for so long, I look at Pokemon and I see all of the systems underneath, working together to create the facsimile of an adventure. I see the timing of turns, when to heal, when to use what abilities, and the stats beneath those that dictate their outcomes. What he sees as an adventure down Route 5 to find the next gym, I see as the A to B between quest points, and tick boxes to check off in order to advance the next tier of content.
And obviously it’s all still a game to me; just because I “see the matrix for its code”, so to speak, doesn’t mean I can’t see it as a video game. Playing with my son just reminds me how I used to see them. Before I was aware of so much about the boundaries of code, and things just seemed limitless.
I look at Pokemon and I see a strategy game I can grind and min/max and systems to exploit to move numbers around. And there’s an appeal in that for me. But between the two of us, I think my son is playing the better game.