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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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

You'll Teach Me And I'll Teach You: Do Pokemon's Mechanics Actually Work?

Pokemon has a brilliant mechanical narrative where you're encouraged to treat your pokemon as living creatures, and use them to fashion an identity for yourself... or at least that's how it works in theory. In practice, do Pokemon's mechanics actually work... and is Ian Bogost right to suggest that maybe chasing after narrative in games is a lost cause?
Reload the Canons! is an ongoing Storming the Ivory Tower project where I play through The Canon of videogames. 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. You can support Reload the Canons! and my other projects on the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

The thing about games, like any text really, is that they're open. But the other thing about games is that they have degrees of freedom that allow you to radically screw with them, and the radical potential to be lively in ways that exceed other texts. Even as you radically screw with them, they might screw with you, or screw with the narrative they're expected to convey.

This, for some scholars, is a real problem for games. How can you have a truly great narrative on par with the masterpieces of literature and cinema and theater [mumbles something that might be a grudging "and graphic novels" but who can say] if things are so open? And if things are closed, well, why make a game at all?

Just today Ian Bogost, noted Object Oriented Ontologist, made, let's call it, waves on the Internet with an article that argued these very points. It was published in The Atlantic which should give you some idea of its quality, and people who have been following along will know that his whole premise--which seems to among other things kind of assume that narrative = speech/text--is handily sidestepped by this issue of dynamics that we've been talking about. If meaning-making in games is centered in part upon the runtime behavior of systems colliding with player input, then it seems rather silly to say that games are uniquely ill suited to narrative.

So why bring it up at all? Well, because I've been looking at this article for days now thinking oh god how am I going to make this technical exercise interesting, woe is me, and framing it with Bogost's argument is an easy way of making things a whole lot spicier. Thanks, Ian!

But beyond that, I do think the piece staggers ineptly towards a kind of interesting space to play in, which is the space where dynamics break down one way or another. Sometimes that breakdown can be fun and sometimes it can be frustrating, but either way it constitutes a collapse of dynamics-driven narrative into... well, still a narrative, but maybe one that doesn't line up with the rest of the game's content the way it should.

I think this is interesting to talk about with respect to Pokemon because the dynamics are so clearly narrative. As I discussed last time, Pokemon is a game that on the level of gameplay is about self-fashioning. It's about creating an identity for yourself. In a sense, when paired with the other narrative elements, this makes it a coming of age story.

But I also think there's a ton of stuff in Pokemon that takes the ideal narrative I laid out and opens it to these sorts of points of collapse, places where the dynamics mutate into something else entirely. Sometimes that's because the games stumble over themselves, get in their own way.

Other times, though, it's because the players are little shits.

Pokemon Insurgence is dark pokefic essentially. There's cultists, theyre sacrificing people to Legendary Pokemon, you're an amnesiac prospective child sacrifice, and the first thing you're able to meaningfully do in the game is choose between Psychedelic Bulbasaur, Nightmare Before Charmandermas, and Doom Metal Squirtle as your starting pokemon. I mean gosh look at these things:

Delta Charmander
Delta Squirtle
Delta Bulbasaur

So entering the game I found myself responding to this darker, edgier pokemon world with, perhaps somewhat predictably, a pretty un-serious attitude. Having picked Nightmare Before Charmandermas, and having named it xXxGOTHxXx, I proceeded to take the piss with basically everything I did in the game. How could I not? Thus I played through the game with pokemon like a Cubone named Slayerfan7, a graveler named Moshpit, and a Shuckle named, god forgive me, LaBlueGirl. Oh, and Exeggcute. I just kept that name because, like, how was I going to top a name like Exeggcute?

Bogost seems to see this as proof of games' narrative paucity, inherently, as a medium. It's not far off from an example in his own text of a highly detailed narrative game that a player disrupted by roleplaying a zombie and responding to everything with "BRAINS." Now, I think this is pretty incredible, and notably the people running the very study Bogost cites seem to see this as a fascinating example of the potential of games, oh and I happened to note Bogost's example on Twitter to Magic the Gathering writer Kelly Digges and his response was "The people in the game KICK YOU OUT for acting weird? That's amazing!" And yet Bogost stands seemingly alone with his No Fun Allowed sign, tsk tsking at the fact that these open ended possibilities, the possibility of daring to be stupid, makes game narratives inherently untenable.

Obviously my nonsense naming system undercuts the entire dark aesthetic of Pokemon Insurgence, since I opted to be a jackass instead of taking it seriously, but hey, that's also a form of self-fashioning made possible by the tools offered by the game. In a sense, I am still playing through the narrative exactly the way the game wants me to on the level of dynamics. My party composition, after all, is heavily driven by these aesthetics and the desire to have a party maximizing the badass mall goth quotient for my playthrough.

The dynamics offered may push in a particular direction but the player's response is always what brings the dynamics of the game to life. I'm engaging with the choices in the game in a way that's not intended but that is inherently permitted by the game's structure and to me at least is highly amusing (though probably not to anyone else). And in doing so, I'm actually on another level doing exactly what the game wants: I'm creating my own identity.

An identity as a 13 year old edgelord who just found out about hentai and nu metal.

Of course if what I'm doing is transgressive, I think that's only fair. After all, if creating fan games is, itself, a kind of game, Insurgence is certainly a transgressive mode of play for the original Pokemon series. Not because of its type-shifted pokemon, but because of what it does to the narrative material of Pokemon, the appropriation of the world and its mechanics for this story of cults and sacrifices. That's what makes it interesting to me. You'll note that none of the Pokemon games I tried for Reload the Canons! exclusively feature canon pokemon or cleave particularly closely to the existing storylines. It's the willingness to jump into new territory that most excites me, even as it seems to unsettle Bogost. (He doesn't, for the record, seem to love fanfiction either.)

If I have an issue with these fan games, it's not because they go too far, take too many liberties in their play. It's that they don't go far enough in challenging aspects of Pokemon's mechanics and resultant dynamics that work against each other, stumble over themselves. See, if part of the Pokemon experience is one of self fashioning, by the same token other game elements, the way that the numbers underpinning the game interact, make that self fashioning much more difficult.

Let me give you a mechanical example of my own. In my playthrough of Pokemon Uranium, I had a much greater focus on the composition of the party based on play style. There, one of my initial encounters was with cubbug, which, you'll recall, is a caterpillar that's also a bear cub, and basically the best thing that ever happened in my life. Cubbug is in my party in that game because A. it's adorable and B. it's also expressing a play style driven by status effects, something I find interesting. 

Cubbug has a bunch of abilities that are primarily status-affecting. So, looking at this pokemon that's a bug that's also a bear cub, with a bunch of adorable abilities like "charm" and "string shot," immediately I was like A. this bug is my child and I will protect it and B. this ability set is going to let me engage in play in a way that's more strategic and focused on lockdowns, cantrips, and control. It signals, if you pick it up early in the game as I did, having never played a Pokemon game before, that you can build a pokeparty primarily based upon switching out pokemon with stat effects and using them to screw with your opponent. It signalled that I didn't necessarily need hard hitters if I had these clever play styles.

Not... so much though as far as I can tell.

Here's a bunch of stuff making that less possible:

  • Battles don't last all that long in practice, so status effects seem to have much less importance than they might otherwise.
  • If you're weak to an opponent, in practice you're doing a quarter of the damage they're doing to you a bunch of the time, making damage races a disaster.
  • This means that in practice battles are often a rock-paper-scissors battle between power types. Strategy in the game consists therefore of having a spreadsheet open so you can refer at all times to the breakdown of what type attacks are super effective against your opponents, competing against the damage race generated by that killer quarter damage.
  • The dead turn it takes to switch between pokemon means that damage races are further disasters if you're weaker or focused on status effects. Switching pokemon means you lose critical momentum, and there's a chance that effects like sleep may wear off by the time you've switched out your, uh, wizard pokemon let's say for your paladin.
  • The curve for leveling seems to be such that outside of a few levels difference victory swings heavily on just who's got that slight boost in stats.

I found quickly with Uranium that possible weird synergies between attacks meant little compared to the rock-paper-scissors typing and minor level differences. My strategies didn't mean shit. That was pretty frustrating, honestly--it felt like a whole range of possibility that seemed wide open at the beginning was actually shut tight.

This was even more disappointing in Infinite Fusion. My party there was strongly driven by the nightmare horrorshow aesthetic I was going for, but in practice I kind of had to give up on it because Brock was impossible to defeat without a water type. In fact, frustratingly, I ended up having to wander around gormlessly searching for a Polywag, then I had to grind its level up so that it actually had water attacks... it became this sort of tedious fetch quest for the paper that could defeat Brock's rock, amidst a field of scissors, scissors which I actually would have been much happier using, because those scissors had weird bug heads and tentacles.

This is what I mean when I say there's a tension in the mechanics here that emerges in the dynamics--a tension between the pull to be the very best... and to be like no one ever was. Shut up, it's clever. There's a tension between the desire for victory and the desire for self expression. Ultimately I think that the game, like many many MANY JRPGs, incentivizes, above all else, looking shit up in a guide. The higher you get into more competitive play, from what I gather, the narrower the band of possible viable teams become, meaning that the possibility of aesthetic builds is foreclosed by the prevalence of dynamically broken pokemon. Remember way back with that example from Magic the Gathering where all the decks were taken over by a narrow mechanical focus, in that first article in this series? It's like that.

You can get hardcore at Pokemon enough to beat the game with a bunch of ratatas of course, but this requires such a high level understanding of systems that by that point you've had to utterly sort of demystify the mechanics, which pretty much puts paid to the concept of treating these pokemon like living creatures rather than data in a spreadsheet. The balancing in the game thus actively contradicts the desired experience.

This is weird in the context of fan games because they should be open enough that they can reassess these things. I don't know that there's much comfort level though in the fandom for radically reassessing the balance of some of these mechanics. Thus exploring possibilities within the game-of-game-creation is also sort of foreclosed due to the dynamics of fandom, and due to the fact that many of these games are grounded in an existing codebase that can be repurposed for new games.

To me, this seems like far more of a danger to narrative experiments in games than the fearsome openness that Bogost is so apparently alarmed by, or by games' inability to be the holodeck from Star Trek (???). And, I mean, yeah, a bunch of fan Pokemon games aren't exactly representative of games as a whole, but by the same token I think it's a solid snapshot of how we engage these products culturally. It's really remarkable that the creators of these games can master so many of the systems so well while iterating on them creatively, whether in the direction of creating a plausible new pokemon generation, an edgy reimagining of existing materials, or an entire new mechanic that offers a bewildering range of options for players... and yet still not challenge the underlying functions and numbers that make the games tick.

The problem here is not that narrative doesn't work in these games full stop. It's pretty easy to parse out both the point of the hidden IV/EVs and the overall structure of how you compose your party, after all. And even when you're not playing the game right, as with my ridiculous Pokemon Insurgence jackassery, you're still, in another sense, embracing the spirit of the games as self expression.

The problem to my mind is that design philosophies from the 1990s are still in fandom, gamer culture, and the industry itself (at least when it comes to Nintendo stuff) aren't being reassessed from this broader perspective of what constitutes narrative, what games can say

Rather than endlessly retreading the same mechanical territory, therefore, and rather than just blowing off dynamics entirely as somehow not narrative content simply because it fails to perfectly map onto other media, let's expand our gamemaking-as-gameplay to include widening our engagement with existing systems, in the spirit of radically screwing with games.

1 comment:

  1. "[...] and yet still not challenge the underlying functions and numbers that make the games tick."
    For some reason I don't find it really surprising, or especially remarkable. Even edgy settings are not alien to canon games, like in Pkmn Colosseum where you're this ex-villain edgelord that goes around stealing (!) corrupt pokemon to bring them back to normal. But more importantly, having played quite a few canon Pkmn games, one thing that springs to mind is that the battle system is THE characterizing factor of the series. In every installment there is some additional shit attached like beauty contests or trivia quizzes or whatever, but the core experience of pokemon is battle. Games like Uranium or Insurgence are like TTRPG campaigns with homebrewed settings and races; they may change the feel of the game, but not the mechanical issues. So it may be argued that in order to truly consider a fangame revolutionary said game should change the battle system itself.

    The fact that that specific battle system is the core of Pokemon, by the way, is one of the issues that make its spoken messages... not so correspondent with the mechanics. Grinding is heavily rewarded (rewarding effort is a positive message, encouraging the boring and systematic beatdown of wild creatures a little less so), neither types nor pokemon stats are in any way balanced (so if you actually want to win with your fave bug-bear (heh) monster you have to grind a lot) and last but not least there are only a few instances of friendship (the indicator of the pokemon happyness and well-being) being relevant to fights, so the game as a whole has little concern about the player treating pokemon like slaves.

    Random notes:
    -Yes, it's hard to navigate pokemon battles without the effectiveness chart (It's not that hard to memorize it after a while, tho), but at least in the first generation with the games they gave you said chart (can't remember if they did the same in the following games) and didn't require you to buy separate guides like with the set bonuses in FFXIII (that fcking catastrophe of a game).
    -It would be hard to balance the status-based gameplay without overhauling the whole battle system, since outside of specific exceptions (can't poison Steel and Poison types, some abilities prevent specific statuses and so on) the statuses have the same effects on every possible pokemon. This means that once one founds a viable strategy to disable the opponent, that strategy will be viable against basically any enemy.


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