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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Like No One Ever Was: Can Pokemon's Mechanics Tell A Coming Of Age Story?

If Pokemon games are about creating an identity, are fan games just an extension of gameplay?

From the moment you pick up a Pokemon game, you're playing pokemon, in the sense that you're participating in the game's mechanics of self-fashioning. You're making an aesthetic choice. Selecting "Sun" or "Moon" for example is a part of the process of playing the canonical games. The release of two different slightly tweaked versions seems, at least to an outsider like me, to mainly be about declaring yourself interested in one style or another, interested in getting access to a different palette of pokemon to choose from.

Not that I've ever made this choice, of course. I've never played the main series, remember--that's the whole point of this Reload the Canons series. But even in the fan games that I HAVE played, there's an overarching sensibility that draws me towards some games and away from others.

What's really interesting to me about this is the fact that in Pokemon things that might seem to be external to the mechanics factor deeply into the games' meaning-making. If we're centering meaning-making in games on dynamics, the collision of mechanics and the player/reader within the live runtime environment of the game, this suggests that you might start playing Pokemon before you even fire up the game. The game you're playing is one of self-determination, and this theme is deeply embedded in almost every aspect of Pokemon's mechanical systems.

There's a correspondence between the age of the child player character--a child composing a party of pokemon while  emerging for the first time into the wider world--and the mechanical way in which you interact with the various pokemon. You explore the often occluded or confusing rulesets of the world while also exploring the environment and encountering new creatures, creatures you select companions from as you progress toward your goal. This is as transparently a coming of age narrative as you can get. It's all about determining your own path for yourself, a path that interacts necessarily with the creative sensibilities of external forces.

Think back to what EVs and IVs do for the game by being hidden. Mechanically, these tools are kept from the player in order to encourage the sense of pokemon as real creatures. This mechanically intersects with the visuals of the pokemon themselves--an aspect that is much more immediately apparent than how quickly pokemon will increase their stats, or what abilities they'll learn--to encourage selection based on things other than raw stat power.

You might have a particular affinity for fire, for example. This invites play experiences where you might be elated when encountering an unfamiliar or rare fire type pokemon, or frustration when you fail to catch it.

Or you might love weird, goofy looking pokemon, pokemon that the fandom reviles or simply doesn't take seriously. This invites perhaps a bewildered kind of triumph when you pull off something like, say, defeating elite enemies with an underleveled angry rat.

Pokemon's astounding array of stylistic possibilities enables all kinds of weird team building shenanigans, to the extent that you can reasonably ask questions like Bogleech does here: "What six pokemon, for instance, best communicate a swamp environment while looking as cool and varied as possible?" It's a weird question, but it's an answerable one (you can click through to see Bogleech's possible answer) and that's kind of incredible. It really suggests that a huge part of the canon pokemon experience is this sort of self expression... and more than that, self-fashioning, making an identity for yourself within the game.

This is certainly how I enter into fan games like Pokemon Uranium, Infinite Fusion, and Insurgence. From the start I'm engaging them through the pokemon I encounter, and drawing from that information inferences about what kind of personal style I'll be able to forge with the tools the game is giving me.

Now, I actually don't have a level of familiarity with pokemon to know what is and is not canon at sight. Apparently Buizel, for example, is a canon pokemon, despite my assumption that something so goofy couldn't possibly be in the main game. Buizel is a weasel that is also a buoy, and the fact that someone published a game where this creature exists gives me hope for humanity. But it's a good example of just how varied the styles are: there's a huge possible range of pokemon aesthetics, so parsing out what will or won't be possible in a particular game can be tricky, particularly for someone inexperienced like myself.

But we do get some critical information at the outset of fan games: three original pokemon starting us off, three stylistic options we can choose from initially paired with opening worldbuilding text, and, of course, the aesthetic of the name and logo and so on, that can be used to suggest a theme for the games that is then developed (or not) by the player. From the outset, then, self fashioning within these fan games becomes a weird dynamic process where there's a kind of tension between the thematic focus of the fan-creators and the fan-players.

There's always going to be some tension between creators and players, of course. I think the nature of these games as community-driven changes the dynamics somewhat, though, in that the size of the projects necessitates greater community involvement. Even as the aesthetic choices of the games are stabilized in some ways, in other ways it is theoretically possible for individual fan-creators to influence the design goals of the overall game in order to further their individual goals as players.

I'm sure this is part of what drove the design of Pokemon Insurgence. A big part of Pokemon Insurgence is type-shifting. As such, the starters for the game are the three classic starters--bulbasaur, charmarnder, and squirtle--converted to, respectively, the types fairy/psychic, ghost/dragon, and dark/fighting. So from the outset this feels very much like an exercise in "look at our badass AU of the best parts of the canon series." There is a focus I think on a lot of fan favorite badass pokemon (and, perhaps coincidentally, pokemon appealing to furries) for these "delta" versions, these type-shifted versions, and that plays into the game's overall dark edgy fanservice style (fanservice in the sense of being directed very much toward pleasing fans, not in "great stonking tits" sense). All of it feels a little bit more Hot Topic than Pokemon usually is, which jives with the game's narrative of cults, human sacrifice to dark pokegods, and so on.

So, if we're interested in the way that Pokemon games convey to the player the parameters of their quest for self expression, the three starters of Pokemon Insurgence do that pretty well, signaling that the tools available to you are going to be drawn from the canon, focused on appealing to fans, while having a dark stylistic sensibility.

Pokemon Uranium, meanwhile, has three entirely new starters: Orchynx, Raptorch, and Eletux. To my mind, these all key into the industrial atmosphere of the game, the sense of technology and scientific progress driving this region's story. The least sort of connected one might be Raptorch, but I think you could parse its fire/ground type and its raptor nature as a kind of fossil fuel nod or joke. This theme of technology is not ubiquitous--there's a good variety of weird strange pokemon alongside the numerous industry-focused things--but it is nevertheless there, and the player can react responsively.

It's not, notably, a trend I ended up following. While I did pick the steel/grass Orchynx as my starter (it's a metal plant cat thing, how could I not?), Orchynx if anything prompted a dive into the most adorable pokemon I could find. Last time I burbled at length about how happy Cubbug makes me; adorably weird is kind of the overall sensibility I ended up with for my party.

The variety of Pokemon Uranium's possible creatures really speaks to the involvement of a community rather than a single individual. It also suggests a meta layer on which these games act as exercises in self-fashioning: they're the community fashioning an aesthetic for itself. Looking through the wikis for these games reminds me a lot of coming up with custom pokemon as a kid, imagining the possibilities of whole new creatures while also trying to stick to the parameters of the existing game lore.

This is another type of hyperflexible mythology, where you've got a range of types that are relatively static but have great diversity within them. Very occasionally they'll add a new canonical type as well, which opens up the possibility of appending the existing mythology with things like Uranium's nuclear types. The type system, and the existing wide and often idiosyncratic styles of canon pokemon, provide a range of possibilities you can work within, and also space outside those possibilities for ideas that can be explored within Pokemon's aesthetic and mechanical systems, but haven't been yet. 

The existing hyperflexible mythology lets the creators of Pokemon Uranium define what the game's new type should look and feel like while also filling out their setting with pokemon that navigate existing systems, systems they've already established. This is, in a sense, another kind of mechanic: a set of constraints and rules that fan/creators engage with as a form of self expression. This suggests that creating a fan game is itself a kind of play, a play that is outside the bounds of the strictly mathematically calculated certainly but play nonetheless, a kind of metagame that engages mechanics on the level of the question, "within these bounds what can I create that is new and unique?"

Eeveelutions are a great example of a kind of sub-mechanic within the hyperflexible mythology, if we see hyperflexible mythologies as mechanics unto themselves, tools brought to life by the collision with players. Eevee can be a tool for defining a new aesthetic sensibility, as in Uranium where the new "Nucleon" is used to define the somewhat otherworldly alien aesthetic of the nuclear type. (Sadly, while there's a number of pokemon type-shifted into nuclear, there aren't that many other original nuclear type pokemon, which I find kind of disappointing given that's Uranium's whole sort of reason-for-being.)

All this is interesting because it suggests that the point is less to create a finished product than to engage in creation itself. This play is self-justified by the creating process itself. That's not to say that Nintendo's takedowns of fan projects are ever going to get my approval--these games should still be allowed to exist as objects for other fans to play--but it does clarify why so many people work on pokemon fan games, not to mention their own pokemon generations and OCs and so on.

Pokemon, of all the games I've researched so far for Reload the Canons, has far more fan games than anything else except maybe Mario (and a lot of Mario games are very simple copies more than anything else, nothing as elaborate and full of original lore as Pokemon Uranium). I think this is a product of these systems, and the way the mechanics both within the game and without, in the metagame, allow for a dynamic narrative of self-fashioning. Self expression and the construction of an identity through play are core to the game, of course people are going to create their own pokemon games!

If any of these games express directly this dynamic, it has to be Pokemon Infinite Fusion. Infinite Fusion is a little bit weird in that it is, by the creator's description, more like a romhack than a full game. That assessment is kind of true, I think... there's not as much focus on an aesthetic vision as you're introduced to your starter pokemon here, in contrast to Uranium and Insurgence, for example. Or well, not in the pokemon as you're introduced to them. After all, you're just shown a Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander--the standard starters for the very first Pokemon games. And you pick one...

...And then your rival picks BOTH the other pokemon and merges them together into one atrocity, one bizarre hybrid creature. 

That kind of sets the bizarre tone for the game, a game in which you can splice pokemon together to create horrible nightmare abominations. This unsettling mechanic adds another layer of customizability and self-fashioning in that you can determine to an extent what you want to do with your party with a higher level of granularity as long as you don't mind creating nightmare abominations (which I, personally, don't mind at all!). So in some sense the game is certainly announcing its aesthetic interests with that first choice, even if it does it by pretty strange means.

This continues throughout the rest of the game, the random generation mechanic spitting out creatures sometimes fascinating, sometimes horrible, sometimes just goofy. One of the first things I encountered was a Pidgela, which is a Pidgeot and a Tangela merged hideously together into a mass of tentacles with a bird head sort of sticking out weirdly. From that point on I vowed to create a party of only the most profoundly unsettling pokemashups. The game invites an experience of exploring certain aesthetic paths down into the weird abyssal depths, without ever demanding adherence to these abyssal styles, or any style in particular.

Of course, this stretches the idea of this being a coming of age narrative pretty far, if not to the breaking point outright. This is still self-fashioning, but it's self-fashioning in the context of frankensteining your pocket monsters together at whim. Infinite Fusion is kind of fascinating for how it pushes the core mechanics of Pokemon to the point where the dynamics that result from them collapse into something far far weirder.

And yet, I think it really gets, to some extent, at the core of the experience of creativity and expression that Pokemon offers. It really is a logical extension of the core game's mechanics, internal and external. It, and the fusion generator that inspired it, simply introduce deeper randomness, a deeper kind of surrealist methodology, to the existing systems, automating, to an extent, the creative exploration of Pokemon's possibilities.

For all this, though--for all that Pokemon seems designed to encourage a bond between player and creatures, to experience a narrative of self-fashioning, and to explore the creative potential of its tools--I'm not sure that it actually... well, works. See, for every mechanic that encourages these experiences, there's a bunch more that actively confound them.

And that's what we'll be covering in the third and final part of this mini-series of articles.

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