(Content Warning: discussion of familial abuse)
So you might be thinking – ‘Ashley, this is just a long listicle!’ and you’d be absolutely correct. I’m starting this off as kind of a pass time for myself to revisit whenever I feel like it. In short I have this compulsion to go back to Pokemon all the time and it has been kicked into high gear by the Sun & Moon games and anime both. So I figured what I’ll do is whenever I get the urge I’ll go into a new one and just sort of lay out some thoughts about them here so I can pretend to myself I’m working on some kind of project. Well, here goes:
As mentioned above Pokemon Sun (Alolan Raichu) is entirely responsible for revitalising my interest in the series. From its announcement really it seemed to tap into the adventurous energy that gripped me originally. No doubt it was aimed very specifically at getting people like myself back into it with its focus on alternate form original Pokemon drip fed to us via twitter feed but as aware of cynical demographic targeting as I am I am not more immune to it than anyone else.
My natural inclination towards cynicism aside the game really did display a focus on breathing some life back into the whole proceeding. While I can’t speak for X & Y or Black & White at this point, I last visited the world of Pokemon in Diamond which I (potentially unfairly) remember as a fairly dour affair that really started leaning into these big world ending threats that sort of transformed the game from being a kind of travel-writing-but-for-making-friends-with-weird-animals-thing into what felt like a relatively standard JRPG plotline.
So much of Sun is just enough of a shift to feel overwhelmingly improved as a whole: revamping of the dusty gym system to instead produce a series of themed trials with some cute concepts, the introduction of big boss fight Pokemon, flashy super moves activated by dances and slamming huge over the top attack names down on the screen. All of this adds up to make everything feel just that much newer. The amount of time spent interacting with trial leaders and learning about their places in their communities and how those communities function makes the places feel alive. The removal of HM moves frees up so much of the annoying little jabs of denial I’d come to associate with the series in general, alongside petting and feeding your Pokemon brings them that much closer to feeling like a group of friends instead of RPG items.
Speaking of friends though the real heart of the game lies in the characters. All these little improvements along with rowing back the story stakes from the world ending to simply going on an adventure leave so much room for the characters to take centre stage. I can’t say I recall ever being excited to continue along in a Pokemon game for the sake of reaching more scenes with basically every character in it rather than the simple manipulative RPG joy of seeing numbers improve, models and animations evolve. That isn’t to say the adventure of previous titles haven’t engaged me at all but much of it for me historically speaking has been the experience of Story and Character just gently railroading me into the direction it wants me to visit next.
Here though every time I saw my “rival” Hau and his boundless enthusiasm that seems to exemplify the whole feel of the game I was overjoyed, it felt less like mandated rival fight moments and like I was checking in with my travelling buddy. Each of the trial captains stood out as individuals and were allowed much more time to just chat than most Gym Leaders ever were. Not only that but the trials themselves gave a lot of room to personify each of their relationships to their home and the Pokemon they raise. The villain team falls even lower than the ineffectual mopey Team Rocket of Gold & Silver to the point of literally just being a bunch of comedic runaway edgy teens who can’t even really figure out what a crime even is (extorting me for absolutely miniscule amounts of money to use the Pokemon Centre in a town they ‘run’ was a particular highlight for me).
Then there’s the “real” rival and villain team in the initially friendly Aether Foundation. Aether Foundation are nice Pokemon conservationists that are actually a front for weird genetic experiments and some sort of weird Bloodborne communion deal along with what seems like a very lax attitude to the sovereignty of the places they work in. All that aside what they really are is the project of all around terrible mother Lusamine, a woman who is initially presented as almost the living embodiment of motherly love. Of course along with her organisation this all turns out to be cover for her true goals of becoming an inter-dimensional squid woman but what is interesting about Lusamine is that her cover story doesn’t feel entirely like an act.
What is even more interesting about Lusamine is her actual children who don’t really come up in her spiel about being a mother to all Pokemon. Her son Gladion is a runaway teen riddled with angst and accompanied by a strange and tortured genetically modified Pokemon that he freed from his mother’s labs. Her daughter Lillie is a prim and proper girl who has grown extremely shy from being kept away from the world except as a trophy and/or doll for her mother to use as set dressing for her persona. Lusamine pushes the idea of herself as a loving mother to all Pokemon loftily and with great self-regard as soon as you meet her. Though unlike the villainous scientists under her it feels as though she speaks her true feelings, her conception of parenthood is all about ownership and power – once she has lost that power over her Son and later her Daughter she displays little care for them at all. Pokemon are a much more ideal child in so far as they lack the ability to speak up, advance their own agendas or demand any treatment above the level of pet, victim or medical subject.
So finally we come to the point that makes Pokemon Sun stand out as the best entry in the series to me. Lillie opens the game following in her brother’s footsteps, stumbling on her mother’s secrets, running away with an important Pokemon and eventually bumping into the player. Lillie and her brother both reflect the Pokemon they end up running away with, Gladion puts up a threatening front and lives by incorporating himself into what passes for an underworld, Lillie hides herself and her Pokemon away to the point where you find her and it lost and alone under attack from Pokemon they have no capacity to defend themselves from. In a plot about living alongside these ecosystems Gladion becomes predator and Lillie becomes prey in response to their similar experiences. Though in isolation their responses notably follow along the gendered lines that Lusamine’s perfect son and daughter figures would require.
Lillie accompanies the player on their adventure from then on, learning about the places you visit alongside you and cheering you on from the sideline. Ultimately she is inspired by the player’s connecting with the world around them and the friendships she herself makes with people along the way. Behind the adventure and the plot arc to Pokemon Sun is the story of an abused girl coming out of her shell and learning to see herself (and this is something she explicitly states) as more than just her mother’s possession. Her development results in her confronting her mother after an “evolution” moment where she shifts her appearance from the doll-like outfit her mother chose for her (that notably shares the silhouette of the Ultra Beast she obsesses over) to a more outgoing Pokemon trainer-style look. Her grasping at self-reliance and self-respect puts her back in contact with her brother who in turn from interaction with the player and his sister learns to rely on others and drop the tough guy facade a little.
None of this is revolutionary stuff in storytelling and even with the ending being a little wishy-washy (haha) it all adds such a valuable emotional core to the series’ much stated focus on friendship and adventure that is strongly appreciated. It does a lot of work to transform the feel good stuff the games already did well into something pretty touching. Happening as it does alongside a main setting of learning about the people around you, respecting your environment and villains who do things like try to threaten bus stops and turn out to be just a pack of misfits who don’t know what to do with themselves; the whole experience ends up feeling very warm and empathetic. On top of all that it naturally also helps that playing as the girl protagonist makes Lillie’s whole plotline feel like a lesbian coming of age story (god bless gender selection in stories blatantly written for the boy protagonist eh?). All of which lands it as easily my favourite Pokemon related thing I’ve ever experienced and it will likely remain that way until they release Lillie’s Kanto adventure at my repeated demand.
We are not things for you to collect! We’re not made for you to just discard when you get bored of us!
Next Time: Hoenn????