[It's time for another Monthly Musing -- the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. -- CTZ]
It starts with a childhood promise I made to myself many years ago: I would never give up living in the world of Pokémon. This was my world; mine alone and mine to stay.
I loved being a kid. I was one of those types who was convinced that he’d never, ever grow up. No way, not in a million years. And why would I even want too; those tenuous strains that are imposed upon adults are just not appealing when you have the bright, mysterious, intricate other-realities of videogames to delve into every day after school’s out. It was an obsession which caused me to only think one way. Alcohol, girls; I wasn’t interested in these things you apparently only do because you’re supposed to do them. No, I would stay my own way, and that way forever because I knew better. That was the fantastic way my ten-year-old mind saw the world.
There were a lot of things I thought I knew better than anyone else a decade ago, that I can look back on today with a laugh and a smile. The idea that there was a secret portal under the bed which would take me to the Pokémon world entered my mind at one point. Once, while in the field at school, I thought I could see Hyrule from A Link to the Past just floating in the clouds above me.
Such is the curious mind of the child. They can immerse themselves in any world they please, and believe in the most wondrous of things. Its fascinating, how in years that have passed I’ve been able to transport myself into all sorts of magical places and situations, whereas now, the responsibilities of being an adult are burden enough to prevent me from having such a free ability. In a way, I feel it’s a quite a saddening rite of passage in its inevitability, but retrospectively, I’d never fight it away, since the journey into adulthood brings some of the greatest experiences in life a person can ever have.
If that ten-year-old version of me found out what I’d become today however, there would be no telling how pissed off he would be. And that is why I write this piece today; to travel back and once again see the world from the perspective of the child me, discovering the reasons as to why one world in particular held my childhood attention and shaped the character I was as a kid. As the old narrator of the animé would say, the world of Pokémon.
You look at it and realize Pokémon has everything a child dreams of. When a person comes of age, they have the opportunity to enter into a glorious adventure which would shape the entire course of their life. Free from the constraints of school, or being grounded indoors by your parents, you would essentially be free to do whatever you want. The best part: you’re always under the constant protection of the monsters you catch, which you know that while being adorable and loyal now, will someday evolve into the most kick-arse beasts that everyone who crosses you will be terrified of. It’s brilliant! The only responsibility you have is to yourself and your pocket monsters. Occasionally, you’ll have the odd moral choice thrown in there where you must choose whether to save the world from an evil organization bent on controlling it for themselves, but apart from that, the restrictions and responsibilities that apply to growing up don’t exist. Why buy a house when you can sleep in a Pokémon Center? Why need a car when you can ride a Rapidash along the land? Why couldn’t the real world be like this?
I was completely into it. And I mean that in the most blunt of ways; I was really into this world. Who says that only violent games make us go bad? Pokémon made me into a right selfish little bastard of a ten-year-old. The promise of its eternally adventurous life and discovering all of its mysteries meant so much to me alone, that I wouldn’t even let my brother get into it the same. I wouldn’t let him watch the cartoon, play the games, do anything involved with it under penalty of giving my parents a bloody difficult time. When Digimon came onto the scene, brandishing its ‘mon’ suffix as if it owned the place, I couldn’t have it anywhere near me. It was perceived as an invader, set to take down everything I stood for. I was an asshole with one motivation: the Pokémon world belonged to me. It was mine, all mine, and no one, or nothing could take it from me.
Every kid has their childhood obsessions that echo into future lives, this is the one that I held. As to how much this does echo in to my present: yes, I still dream of that same freedom and adventure, but in a thoroughly less arrogant way to back then. I also have no desire to make cats do a slash attack on command anymore, so I guess I turned out pretty well after that period.
I find that the most immersive of game worlds are the ones we can emotionally lose ourselves to. Even though I was a diabolical bastard in the real world, I still felt a kind attachment to my Pokémon. I started with a Bulbasaur, who I raised to level 100 and never evolved because I liked him just the way he was. I wouldn’t complain; that stage one monster could tear through the kids on the playground, and the Elite 4 were dust when faced with his mighty vine whip. On the other hand, nowadays I can acknowledge that vine whip is one of the weakest grass type moves in the game and I’d never give it to a creature at level 100, but I suppose that’s testament to how much I’ve changed and how I view the world of Pokémon. Back then, it was a move often used by Ash Ketchum and his never evolving Bulbasaur. (ref. Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden) so I used it to be closer to that world. Now, it’s a statistic.
The amazing thing about Pokémon RPG’s though, is that the point which draws you in is the sheer amount of customization that is possible. I once exploited it to play the role of the characters, but its possible to create a staggeringly diverse team that you can personally call your own. Hundreds of attacks and creatures to train make the only limits what you care to do with them. I still have that thing where I’d rather pay the £30 for the opposite game, than delete the team that I’ve spent countless hours raising myself in order to start the game again. (Or back in the day, spend about forty-five minutes swapping things around to boxes on Pokémon Stadium with the transfer pak, only to find later that all my items had been erased!) It has to be said, it’s certainly a pretty damn good achievement for a game to make the player care about what is essentially just bits of data they’ve strung together themselves.
So what happens when you’re forcibly taken away from the worlds cared about most. I found out one day that when you eventually do see past the facade of those quirky names and sprite artwork, it hurts. I remember crying to my parents after I’d caught the fabled glitch Pokémon Missingno and had it bugger up all the characters during battles. It was like a defamation of my world, ruining what I thought was to be a secure haven by putting pixels in the wrong places and having random lines of code block my path. Its scary having yourself completely immersed in something, only to be witness to its fragile walls crumbling before you. I hated game glitching after that time, not for the frustration it can cause, but because it literally caused that heart wrenching feeling that I was being torn from a place I should be.
In Pokémon, it can be responsible for the entire ruination of your world. Mental blocks are firmly in place, stopping me from looking at the butchered Hall of Fame record that happens when you cheat, and I won’t turn on my copy of Silver anymore since I’ve been afflicted by the primitive clock which breaks the game after a number of years. For the latter, ignorance is bliss. I can still imagine my Totodile alive and kicking today. The rest however, shows me that the virtual world can cause as much pain as it does joy. It astounds me.
Just like myself, the world of Pokémon has aged into a very different beast as to what it once was. I can look back on those days when the biggest mysteries I cared about were of the five legendary monsters that needed to be caught, then look to nowadays where the 20 plus legendary fighters of today have watered down that vintage sense of wonder somewhat. The beauty of the real world integration has been stripped down too. Going back to 1999, the biggest secret that we were all obsessed about, (that wasn’t the golden bird in the first episode of the animé) was that of Mew. The elusive 151st Pokémon which was only attainable by physically moving out of your house to a certain location across the country, for a tournament event where it could be downloaded. Since when had a videogame required you to do anything but play it before? It’s a bit like Psycho Mantis, only if he would have asked you to hop in the car and head down to a remote location where you can dig up a secret golden memory card which blocks psychic powers. This feature was brilliant in the day: fans got to meet other fans, passions clashed, and battles were made to see who was truly on top. Now I realize its possible to bypass all of this interaction, and simply download those rare event Pokémon off the internet for use in my game. As the technology to do these things becomes more accessible, the social values that they used to hold become ultimately less necessary. I suppose that could also be used as a metaphor for the ever changing technological age we are currently immersing ourselves in.
I haven’t touched much upon the actual, fictional Kanto world of Pokémon, because the most important part of it to me was not held within the concrete towns and the gyms, but the actual idea of it all. Today, I see Pokémon as a game, rather than an experience. I can say that so many things have changed since my childhood that its alienating to the kid inside me who wants to make that journey again. Everything is bigger: the numbers, the attacks, even the depth involved in raising your Pokémon has become too scaled for me to fathom. Since those darn EV points became apparent, it dawned on me that its possible to actually fail your Pokémon if you don’t train them correctly. The simplicity of just getting to level 100 and having the ultimate team is gone, when there’s dedicated fans out there who would spend the hours turning all the intricate gears until they have creatures that would wipe you out before you saw the second attack. As an adult mind, I can't replicate the vast lands and adventures I could as a child, and as a gamer, I now find it difficult to access them as I once did, and truly gain the title of Pokémon Master for the new age. Growing up, huh.
Pokémon is something that will always stay close to my heart, as well as that kid who wants to travel around and someday go on a fantastic journey of his own. It’s a world that’s shaped me as a person, and made me want to do other things in life: from my long running affair with animé, and the beginnings of a young Japanophile, this obsession was the origin to it all. And I know, as long as I keep that young kid of my passing days next to me, I’ll never forget the childlike wonder that motivated me into all those things, and I’ll never stop dreaming of my own freedom and adventure in this reality.
Pokémon. Pocket Monsters. Monsters in your pocket. A world in your pocket.