Pokemon Origins and the Spirit of Pokemon

With Pokemon X and Y coming out in a few days (I will be grabbing my copy the moment they hit the shelf, mind you, and I know a few other vegans who would do the same I have already clocked over 100 hours on this game as of this update. X and Y is AWESOME), I thought I’d do a post on Pokemon. A week ago, Nintendo released Pokemon Origins to celebrate the original Pokemon Red and Green games. Unlike the flagship series starring Ash, Origins is far more faithful to both the plot and mechanics of the games it is based on, where levels actually matter and Pikachu is just another wild Pokemon you meet in Viridian Forest.

In recognition of the fans who grew up with the these games and are now in their adulthood, Origins runs on much darker themes, and the fights decidedly more violent. Red’s fateful first battle with Green has gone viral for its steely depiction of Charmander’s agonising scream. Episode 2 acknowledges that yes, Pokemon can die when subjected to excessive physical trauma. Suddenly, these curious creatures seem far more vulnerable that we might have thought them to be. For me, the way in which Red ‘gloriously’ subdues Mewtwo, very much against its will, has been my most discomforting experience with Pokemon yet.

What are the creators of Pokemon trying to say with Origins? Are they simply operating on the assumption that an older audience would surely prefer a more cimmerian view of the Pokemon world? Or perhaps that this is what they always wanted us to imagine beyond the confines of our Gameboys? We can only hope that Pokemon trainers know when to recall their Pokemon before they suffer any permanent damage, and this is all based on the intuition of a 10-year old boy. Beyond this, the world of Pokemon battles is largely unregulated and brutal.

In the main anime series, a trainer who wishes to catch a wild Pokemon typically befriends it first, after which it willingly joins the team. Not in Origins. Much like in the games, wild Pokemon have to be beaten into submission – except their struggle for freedom is more poignant than ever. This puts a terrifying spin to the idea of ‘catching them all’. Throughout Red’s battle with Mewtwo, where I ought to have been dwelling in the grand denouement of Charizard’s growth, I instead found myself sympathising with Red’s hapless adversary. Mewtwo probably wanted nothing more than to lead a quiet life in Cerulean Cave and be left alone. It’s not as though he had been terrorising nearby towns or something. But then he’s a Pokemon, and the 150th one at that, so why respect his wishes? Red gleefully searches him out, attacks him and drags him back to Oak’s lab. Honestly, it’s not something to be proud of.

Who wants to play 'Spot the Hypocrite'?

Who wants to play ‘Spot the Hypocrite’?

Does this mean that I despise the Pokemon games? Not really. The games, being games, present certain systematic limitations and need to be constructed in certain ways. Battling a wild Pokemon is infinitely more seamless than trying to gain its affection. I don’t buy Pokemon games to play Nintendogs or some pseudo dating sim. Furthermore, like most gamers, I am a completionist. I want to know that I have done everything I can reasonably do (though completing the National dex is no longer one of those things). If it means being one step closer to completion, I have no qualms letting newly caught Pokemon rot in my PC indefinitely. I can be selective about which of my Pokemon I choose to feel affection towards, because I know that they are ultimately just a bunch of pixels (or polygons, with X and Y).

This is not the case if Pokemon were any more alive. If I were living in the world of Pokemon, I would much rather ‘befriend them all’ – and I wouldn’t have more Pokemon than I could devote individual attention to. I’m a little more ambivalent about Pokemon battles, though I admit that Pokemon do seem to love to fight, perhaps in the way a professional fighter does. Unlike animals, they are fully capable of consent. In that case, who am I to stop them? Regardless, my relationship with my Pokemon would be based on mutual respect and affection, and they would be free to leave me if they felt that I was failing to meet their needs.

When PETA denounced Pokemon with its very own parody, one passionate fan lashed back at them for misappropriating the franchise. According to him, Pokemon is about “love and respect and friendship”. And I very much agree with him. I believe that this is the true spirit of Pokemon. I have been playing Pokemon for over 10 years now, and not once have I felt that its message was anything but that. I was never encouraged to see Pokemon as tools or slaves. I genuinely loved my Pokemon. For this reason, I do not feel that Pokemon goes against my principles as a vegan. I’m sorry PETA, but you’ve picked the wrong battle this time. It’s not very effective…

… Or so I would say. Alas, Origins has gone and shot us in the foot. I love the maturity of Pokemon battles insofar as they are strategic, but I do not see how violence adds to them at all. I do not understand why any Pokemon fan would want to see the fights ‘grow up’ to become more vicious, where the nightmarish screams of our beloved Pokemon echo their suffering with more clarity than ever. It’s not as though violence makes the battles more strategic: plot armour evidently still matters far more than bad type match-ups.

To me, Origins is an ambitious attempt to redefine the hackneyed glob that the child-friendly main series has devolved into. Like most others, Episode 2 is my favourite of the lot because it emphasises that Pokemon, too, are stricken by death, which makes them a lot more vulnerable and human-like. However, its stylistic choices are gratuitous and questionable, and only serve to distract from the spirit of Pokemon. Pokemon does not need to exist in an unnecessarily cruel world to appeal to a mature audience. I ask once more: what are the creators of Pokemon trying to say with Origins, exactly?

Fortunately, Origins is quick to return to its roots. Even if it beseeches us to care about our Pokemon selectively and ignore the rest, at the end of the day, it is still about the bond between Red and his overrated Charizard.

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