(This article was originally published on a now-defunct videogame analysis site, and has been backdated to reflect this. Also, spoilers for Pokémon Black and White)
When I was twelve years old, Red and Blue hit the playground and I spent hours of my young life shuffling through the tall grass, leaving piles of unconscious Pidgeys in my wake. Today, I do this in airports with a new generation of ubiquitous pest Pokémon whose names I cannot remember.
The real-life implications of my diligent training seem grim; I descend on an idyllic patch of grass full of local wildlife, and systematically beat, burn or electrocute them into submission. I will capture some of these Pokémon, but most will never get the privilege of training with me and massacring their wild counterparts for hours on end. Most of the little monsters end up rotting on my PC in suspended animation. But honestly, would it really be better to release them into the wild, so they can continue to be knocked unconscious on a daily basis by aspiring trainers?
This seems like a dire fate for any animal, but one of the crucial aspects of this universe is that Pokémon are not animals. They are considerably more sentient than animals, which implies they have agency. The franchise has used this to counter comparisons between Pokémon battles and, say, cock-fighting. Pokémon are our friends, we are reassured again and again. Pokémon have a choice and Pokémon like to fight! Battles are not an arena where dumb animals are enslaved and tormented into violence, but a beautiful collaboration between trainer and monster to achieve greatness as defined by the parameters of the fictional universe they inhabit.
The core tenet of any fictional universe is that the rules are different. Drawing real-world parallels is an interesting exercise, but usually a superfluous one when it comes to enjoying a game for what it is. If Professor Oak says Pokémon are my friends, it must be true. I did not at twelve years old (and still do not in my twenties) need any more justification to be able to enjoy Pokémon. I can buy into the straightforward premise of a happy world where cute monsters fight other cute monsters, no one really gets hurt and everyone is friends.
In light of this, it seems like a counter-intuitive choice to introduce a moral grey area in the obtusely-titled Black and White.
The bad guys in all previous Pokémon games followed the model of the anime; single-minded villains with hordes of dumb cronies and megalomaniac tendencies. The mission was innately satisfying in its simplicity: you must stop the bad people from taking Pokémon away from good people, because the good people are friends with Pokémon and the bad people are mean. In Pokémon Black and White, Team Plasma have more complex motives. Lord “N”, their mysterious young figurehead, is obsessed with the idea of separating Pokémon from humans permanently. The objective of Team Plasma throughout most of the game is to free all Pokémon from perceived slavery, to save them and to help them become “perfect.”
The most obvious layer of confusion is that Team Plasma are using Pokémon to battle as a means to this end. It must be obliquely assumed that there is literally no other way to incite conflict in the Pokémon universe, since we can hardly have poor Bulbasaur trying to deflect bullets with Vine Whip. At one point, after defeat, Lord N even acknowledges his hypocrisy: “Tsk! Why? Is it impossible for me to win while feeling bad about being a Trainer?” However, most of his rhetoric is consistent: Pokémon must be liberated from the service of humans. The existence of this character challenges the ethics of the Pokémon world.
I talk to everyone I meet in the world of Pokémon. As a result, I am resigned to skimming through a significant amount of filler dialogue before I find that elusive TM or Rare Candy. Thus, I am in a position to assure you that the chat that you will experience in Black and White is nothing short of cloying. Every second person will tell you how much they love Pokémon, how much your Pokémon love you, how Pokémon and people need each other, to grow together in peace and harmony with all the Pokémon hugging and singing and dancing. This is the entirety of the argument that is supposed to motivate the player to battle fiercely and unequivocally for the propagation of the current world order. I am aware that these games are marketed at twelve year olds. I feel immovably certain that my twelve year old self, strategy guide clutched in sweaty palm, would have been mortally offended by the puerile drivel offered by these games as an argument for keeping Pokémon confined to their balls.
N has a valid point. In fact, he gives voice to the single most common criticism of the concept of Pokémon, one that has been levelled at the franchise since its inception. For the first time, these criticisms have not only been acknowledged by the games, but incorporated as a keystone of the narrative. This had the potential to take the Pokémon universe in an excitingly unprecedented direction. The problem is that the moral question is presented to the player at the outset, and then promptly drowned under a tirade of cheerily vague assertions of friendship and love. We are introduced to a grey area and then told to ignore it. N is revealed to be yet another megalomaniac with daddy issues and no one learns anything.
The potential for moral ambiguity in Black and White was so huge that it was disappointing to realise that this game was not going to act as a debate. Instead, the question is clumsily shoehorned into the existing Pokémon formula and then quickly dismissed before anyone can get too uncomfortable. The introduction of a Team fighting for the freedom of Pokémon could have been a genius stroke, but half-hearted execution has firmly relegated Plasma to the hall of entirely unmemorable Pokémon villains. As a member of the older generation of Pokémon fans – and one who snored her way through Diamond and Pearl – this wasted potential ultimately ruined the game for me. For a brief tantalising moment, I thought I was dealing with a darker story and a moral grey area. Instead, Black and White managed to firmly live up to its name.