Why Not? Ep. 1b - Pokemon Go: Nostalgia
I have played Pokemon Red Version more than any other game in my life. I got the game in 1999 as compensation for my family moving. I was 8 and had the cards and watched the show. Getting a GameBoy Color and Red Version was a big deal.
Pokemon To An 8 Year Old Me
The story starts with you in your room in your mom’s house and coming down to her already having started the day. The game could have skipped this and started you with Professor Oak giving you your choice of starter Pokemon, but placing you in your mom’s house instead does a lot to make it relatable to a kid and sets up the game such that you can insert yourself as the protagonist easily.
Interestingly, this game is neither a hero’s journey nor a coming of age story. It runs none of the tropes common to those archetypes. Your Pokemon journey was more of a simple adventure, and a kid’s adventure at that. The stakes, while often dramatic, are always low. Team Rocket won’t hurt you if they defeat you, Professor Oak doesn’t keep bringing up his Pokedex, the gyms and the Elite Four will give you all the chances that you need. Everyone is happy to wait for you and to encourage you. The tone of the game is far too positive for you to ever be worried.
More than anything, this game reminds me of being allowed to go buy something from a local store by yourself. There is some responsibility attached to this, and it helps you grow as a functional person, but the entire thing is a very safe space. Also, the exercise is focused on you. Even the shopkeeper’s motivation feels like it’s more about helping you than efficiently processing your order. The people in line behind you have much more patience with a kid fumbling to get the money right than an adult doing the same thing. The people in Pokemon do a good job of talking to you like you’re a kid.
Pokemon famously has roots in Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of bug catching and key to the appeal of Pokemon to children is in how it is the video game version of a collection hobby. These give kids something that they own, and that feeling of possession matters a lot when you are young.
It’s a kind of basic fact, but things fighting other things was cool to 8 year old me. I’m not ashamed of it. Many Pokemon had big, flashy attacks with cool names that were constantly repeated. I don’t know what else you would expect from an eight year old.
The Value of This Nostalgia for Pokemon Go
The result of all of this is that when I opened Pokemon Go, it brought back the feeling of being 8 years old. As a kid, I pretended to walk around and catch and fight Pokemon. This wasn’t even uncommon for me and my friends. Playing Pokemon Go in an Uber recently was a surreal experience because of how much it was like road trips when I was a kid, but in a very different context. I’m not the only person like this, and Pokemon Go had that going in.
Everyone wants AR to succeed because it is intrinsically cool and it feels like the future, but everyone really wants AR + Pokemon to succeed because it reminds them of their past. The combination is as much a fulfillment of a personal fantasy as Rock Band ever was.
Additionally, the game hijacks a lot of context that was years in the making. Collecting these Pokemon is a lot more fun than it would be were they not Pokemon.
Niantic’s Goals Don’t Overlap With My Own
What I want is to be a Pokemon Master. It’s what I’ve wanted for 18 years and I’m not going to stop now. I’m not clear as to what exactly this game wants from me, but it certainly does not share my dream. These Pokemon do not level, fight or evolve as I’m used to, and all of those were key to the fantasy. It deosn’t even deliver on the smaller promise of feeling as though Pokemon are living in the real world. The game feels too much of a video game for that and the spawning system lacks the necessary nuance. Separating water and ground Pokemon is a strong start, but far from sufficient. It breaks immersion when I see the same spread of Pokemon everywhere, especially when they are all Pidgeys and Rattatas.
The game’s design is muddled and so it’s hard for me to ascribe any particular goal to it. Does it want me to walk for the exercise? Does it want me to meet people? Does it want me to explore my city? Is it satisfied if I just get out in the sunlight? I’m not sure and I don’t trust it. Whatever it may be, it isn’t what I want and that dissonance does severely hurt the game.
The Flip Side of Nostalgia
I wish this game was less Puzzle & Dragons and more Pokemon. The game has ripped design lessons from the free-to-play mobile market, and while that can be done to great effect, the result here is a shallow and oddly predatory set of mechanics. There are games for which that would not be a problem, but here it conflicts with the two decades of Pokemon that comes before it.
Additionally, small things get to me. The fact that they used the term badges for their achievements feels bad to me. I wanted gym badges, not achievement markers.
Also, the worthlessness of my starter Pokemon just feels very bad. You built an attachment with your starter Pokemon in any of the games as it accompanied you for your entire journey. Here, it does nothing.
The Pokemon TV series had many flaws, but it understood that what the people watching wanted was to be in that world and fulfilling that desire was enough. This is what Jurassic Park did perfectly. Jurassic Park understood that dinosaurs are just cool and let them take the stage. Pokemon Go really doesn’t feel like it understands this.
Pokemon Go is a game that relies heavily on nostalgia, and the nostalgia factor is enough to get a lot for it. However, that trait comes with a lot of baggage. This game was more fun when I was eight years old and the whole thing was make-believe.