I’ve never played Pokémon. Never watched the TV shows, seen the movies, collected the cards, or anything. Of course I have heard of it, it’s hard to have anything to do with pop culture and not know the franchise exists. But it’s not exaggerating to say that I basically know nothing about it. I do play computer games, however, and there’s nothing on my ‘must-play’ list at the moment. I was assured a copy of Fire Red was what I needed so I found one from an Entirely Legitimate Source, got it working, and began to play. The following entries are from my journal as I gradually realised what I was dealing with.
It begins like a dream. My vision blurs, and a strange-looking man in a white coat calls himself Oak while saying that some people call him a professor (which isn’t all that reassuring). Apparently the world is full of creatures called Pokémon, and they’re used in battles. This isn’t very comforting either. Oak is polite enough to ask my name before introducing his grandson Gary, who it seems is also my life-long rival. Oak then tells me I’m going to go on a great adventure… and at that point I wake up, in front of the game console in what I presume is my bedroom. I take a moment to look at everything in the room. It has very little in it. The computer offers the promise of more information, but I only find a potion. Going downstairs, a woman who claims to be my mother seems remarkably unconcerned that her son is leaving home, and tells me that “Professor” Oak was looking for me. My head is already spinning; something about all this seems strange. I need to get my bearings.
I go outside to look around. Pallet Town seems small, but I have only started to explore when Oak comes running up to me. I shouldn’t walk around on my own, he says, because wild Pokémon might attack me. Before I can say anything he hurries me off to a large building. Inside it looks like a research facility of some sort. He tells me to choose one of the Pokémon he has in balls on a table to defend myself with. I look at all of them, and decide that the Bulbasaur looks easiest to take care of. Gary has appeared from somewhere and grabs the Charmander, then as I’m leaving challenges me to a fight. The Bulbasaur wins, thanks to that potion I found earlier, and Gary complains he picked the wrong Pokémon as he hands over 80 units of the local currency. No-one stops me as I leave the building and take a little walk with my new pet.
Pallet Town is small – two houses, a pond, and the research lab. It’s surrounded by forest, and the only way out is covered in long grass. I get attacked by wild Pokémon twice before I can even reach a signpost outside town, so I guess Oak was right when he said it was dangerous to walk around alone. I win both fights, but I’m starting to get seriously concerned. My Bulbasaur isn’t in any shape to fight again, and I don’t really want to find out what happens if I run into one of these monsters without some way of defending myself. I head back to Oak’s lab to see if there’s some way of healing Pokémon, but all he says is that I have to make them fight in order to get stronger. Another fight will just make my Bulbasaur deader, so that’s not much help. Going back to my house in Pallet Town and talking to my mother reveals that resting will heal me and my Pokémon, which is one problem solved at least.
However I still need to think a bit. Why can’t I remember anything before the dream about Oak that started all this? Why is everyone, even my “mother”, so keen to get me out of Pallet Town? Why are monsters roaming freely just outside? How does Oak fit in to all this? It’s times like this that I really need a good library, but the only books in town all seem to be about monsters. I’m getting an uncomfortable Potemkin-village sort of feeling about all this. It’s as if the entire place has no reason to exist other than to take kids, convince them that the only way out is to use these monsters to fight each other, and then get them doing that as quickly as possible. There’s no school, no businesses. Nothing but the forest, a few houses… and the Pokémon research lab. Huh. That’s interesting.
What do I know about Pokémon so far? There are lots of them, they’re used in battles, and some people can train them. Okay, here’s a theory: the research centre isn’t studying Pokémon, it’s studying the people who can train them. They take a subject and push them into situations where they will have to use their talent. The very first fight I had was right in the middle of the lab with Oak’s “grandson” (scare quotes intentional, the alleged professor can’t even remember the kid’s name). It’s not clear yet why they would want to do this – maybe they’re trying to develop a way to artificially replicate the control ability. The Pokémon themselves tie into this somehow, I’m certain. All the effort being put in to finding people who can control them makes it clear they have some significance beyond their fighting abilities. The one thing that’s sure is that I need more information about what’s going on. I’m sure they have some way of keeping tabs on me once I leave, but it’ll be easier to find things out without researchers on top of me all the time. So I need to get out of town, and then maybe I’ll be able to get some answers.
I make my way back to the path, and eventually reach Viridian City. This isn’t any less artificial, however. Everyone is obsessed with Pokemon! It’s weird, the shops don’t seem to sell anything except pokemon related items and there’s a whole center dedicated to getting them healthy again after battle. Obviously they’re a really big business. I get given a package for Oak, take it to him, and have to fight again when Gary comes in looking for trouble. For all this I get a handful of pokéballs and an empty pokédex.
After returning to Viridian City I wander around talking to people in an attempt to get a sense of the place. I find an old man who teaches me how to catch Pokémon and gives me a Teachy TV. These pokéballs are fantastically powerful if they can instantly trap a monster like that! And, worryingly, no-one seems at all surprised I have a pokédex or am apparently just wandering around on my own looking for monsters to fight, capture and kill. The Viridian City gym is closed, so I sit outside it to watch the Teachy TV. The closing message of every episode of the Poke Dude show is “Remember, Trainers, a good deed a day brings happiness to stay!” Isn’t that an interesting message for a TV show aimed at people becoming pokémon trainers? I’m getting a worrying thought-control vibe from that thing, and I resolve to use it sparingly.
But I have enough information to try an experiment. I go back to Route 1, and try to catch a monster. After I have a Pidgey and a Rattata, I take them into fights until all the monsters are level 7. Then I wander around until I find a road leading west. However I haven’t gone far before I encounter Gary Oak again. I don’t know how he keeps getting in front of me, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Gary says that nobody can talk to the Trainers unless they have a badge. And then, as I am coming to expect, he challenges me to a fight… except this time, both his monsters are a higher level than mine. Through a careful use of Leech Seed, Bulbasaur wins the fight for me. Gary hands over some more local currency units and runs off; I go back to Viridian City to heal my Pokémon and think about the results of my experiment.
Tactically, I’m outclassed. There doesn’t seem to be any way of improving a Pokémon’s performance other than experience gained through battle, so it looks like I’m going to be doing a fair bit of fighting to keep them battle-worthy. Ugh. In terms of information, the only way to learn about the monsters is to defeat them and capture them. The Teachy TV tells me that there’s a relationship between the types of Pokémon and what types of attack are best to use, but there’s no obvious list of these anywhere. Looks like a lot of trial and error is in my future. Ugh again.
On the environmental side, things are more confusing than ever. I just can’t shake the increasingly strong feeling that this is all fake, and very deliberately constructed for some purpose. It’s a world with no industries or professions other than Pokémon trainer or researcher, yet it still has fairly advanced technologies – that healing machine they have in the Pokémon centre, for example. Who’s making them? Where does the food come from? The roads are clean and well laid out, but run at odd angles and start and stop at strange places that don’t match where the settlements are. It’s almost as if this whole society is living on top of the remains of something that came before. And the Teachy TV is really raising my hackles. Trainers seem to be exalted figures with a good deal of status, and here’s the TV telling them that good deeds lead to happiness. This can only be a deliberate attempt at influencing them.
Putting all this together into some sort of coherent background isn’t easy, but here’s how it looks to me at the moment.
Sometime in the not too distant past, say two hundred years ago, there was some sort of civilisation-wrecking catastrophe. The inhabited locations that existed then were all more or less demolished, at least around here, leaving only a few signs such as the roads. The settlements we see now are new colonies or outposts deliberately placed by the survivors of this calamity, maybe as a kind of social-engineering project, and presumably supplied from the same source. The Pokémon must have played a major role in all this. The damn things are literally everywhere, you can’t walk ten yards outside town without having one attack you. And the entire society seems obsessed with the idea of controlling the creatures, practically revering the people who can. So whoever is responsible for this setup really, really wants it to produce people who can control Pokémon… which fits in to my earlier suspicion that the Pokémon Research Centre isn’t studying Pokémon, its studying people. If Oak (and others like him) are inserted into the population as agents of influence, that would explain why Gary keeps on getting ahead of me and attacking me: it’s all part of a testing program. If this guess is right then I’m going to keep on seeing him, and each time I’ll be put in a more difficult position until they find one that I can’t handle. In other words, I’m a lab rat.
There’s still a lot I don’t know, and practically everything I discover just raises more (and more disturbing) questions. For the moment I’m trapped, however. I can’t be the only person who has realised the artificiality of this environment, but there’s no sign of any of the others. Whatever authority is watching over this obviously doesn’t like people who don’t go along with the ‘reality’ they’re creating here. I need to gather information, and I need to do it without letting anyone know that I suspect there’s more to this than meets the eye or I’ll vanish just as completely as all the others must have. The only way to do that is to play along with their game… and never, ever, show what I’m thinking.
This is where the question of the post would usually go, but this isn’t an opinion piece. So instead I’m going to ask something else: do people want to see more of this, perhaps as a series?