By Choo Ruizhi, FASS + USP, Year 1
What makes a Pokémon Master? After nearly 14 years, we have come to take it as a given: Defeat the Elite Four, become the Pokémon League Champion with your wonderful team of colourful Pokémon and their mind-blowingly awesome moves, and then, finally, catch ‘em all. Every single one of them. Simple.
What began as a little, disturbing itch in the back of my mind years ago when I was first introduced to the exciting, exotic world of Pokémon returned with a vengeance when I watched the last episode of the anime reboot, Pokémon: Origins (we review the series here). A clearly sentient, immensely powerful Mewtwo was beaten down and then forced into a Pokéball (purists will tell me that it was an Ultra Ball) by a bright-eyed adolescent to complete his collection.
And yet, isn’t there something inherently wrong with an entire (even if fictional) culture centred on capturing and pitting what would generally be innocent, docile creatures against each other? More so if we are to accept the premise that Pokémon are sentient enough to be our “friends”. The question that follows from that then is…will we ever store friends as data; to be released when it so pleases us, so that we can use them to smack the lights out of other wild animals who we want as new…friends?
I suppose you could call it a “Childhood Ruined” moment if you like…though I prefer to see it as a “New Eyes” moment: one in which you realise things have so many more layers; so much more depth and colour than when you first set eyes on it.
I have to admit it was a very bittersweet moment for me though, to realise how condescending Pokémon trainers suddenly sounded, how they used ‘friendship’ to justify the capture and blatant exploitation of wild, hapless creatures. Here was the White Man’s Burden again: we shall encounter you in the tall grass; the deep jungle; the open savannah; the mysterious Dungeon, and then we will break you. All because we want to give you our love and friendship. Sounds familiar, anyone?
I can hear you cringe: you’re over-reacting. It’s a kids’ game; it’s not really supposed to make sense. Stop superimposing your ideals on an innocent universe where logic takes a backseat. Get a life!
But if we are to accept Pokémon as the sentient, intelligent creatures they are depicted as in the anime, then I am simply not ruthless nor cold enough to force them into beating the living daylights out of another creature just for my pleasure, or my collection. It takes a Master indeed: to juggle the emotional and physical needs of so many creatures, and then to lead them into battle…or to be detached and inhuman enough to force Pokémon into goring each other for what is little more than bloodsport and their trainer’s self-gratification.
Let’s face it: all that talk about not exploiting Pokémon, of understanding their feelings and making a ‘connection’ with them, is just idealistic, politically correct cotton candy to delude distracted parents seeking a justification to give their kids what they want. We would rather have a Level 70 Charizard (better yet, a Rayquaza) than a pathetic Level 3 Pikachu any day. Unless, of course, said Pikachu has a special ability, or was extremely rare, or would at Level 70 be the ultimate Pokémon…
My point is simply that Pokémon is and never was the beautiful world of friendship that the producers foisted on us, at least not if we want to become the very best (like no one ever was). Being a Pokémon Master implies an unparalleled level of discipline and brutality toward those you call “my best friends”. Can’t have an omelette without breaking some eggs. Can’t have an Elite-Four-trouncing Dragonite if you don’t leave an infirmary of crippled, broken wild Pokémon in your wake.
What that creates is a system not only of exploitation and violence, but one of transactional relationships. We will not accept anything but the very best: effectively, the best combination of Pokémon to not only defeat, but utterly devastate any credible opposition. Now, that’s simple to whitewash in a binary world of pixels. But transpose that into something approaching reality as we know it, and what we have would be violence on a scale we claim (in our times) to utterly abhor. It would mean creatures almost if not more intelligent than us eviscerating each other for ridiculously egotistical reasons. And we claim wars over territory or religion are stupid.
I used to laugh at the pathetic Metapods or Kakunas of the Bug Catchers; the pitifully weak Pokémon that were mustered against the calculated, efficient Pokémon teams I raised. Why would Nintendo create such unimpressive opponents? Who the hell raises a whole load of Caterpies or Magikarps?
Besides the realistically obvious answer of, “so you can level your Pokémon up”, I see now with new eyes that perhaps these trainers valued their Pokémon beyond their mere appearance, types and abilities. Perhaps they realised that Pokémon meant more than what could be won or conquered; that the great seas and savannahs which Pokémon inhabit hold greater mysteries and deeper fulfillment than trainers and their petty battles ever could.
I don’t need badges nor titles. Give me the quiet comfort of good friends any day.