Pokemon’s Main Stories Are Fine, But It’s The Smaller Stories That Really Count

I’m pretty sure we all probably remember the original story of Pokemon Red & Blue. From choosing either a Kabuto or Omanyte fossil to beating up your rival in Saffron City’s Silph Co. building, every narrative beat has become firmly embedded in our collective memory.

The same can be said about the rest of the Pokemon games. I’ll never forget seeing Cyrus gaze waywardly towards Lake Verity in Pokemon Platinum, or enlisting Gladion’s help after learning about the outwardly benevolent Aether Foundation’s true motives in Sun & Moon. Even Sword & Shield’s weird Jedward brothers are memorable – Sordbert and Shielbert, joint winners of the contest for worst haircut in all of Galar and possibly the entire world.

Ultimately, though, Pokemon’s best stories are the ones that aren’t written by the developers at Game Freak. I recently wrote about why I love Pokemon and talked about a level 83 Magneton called SEAN that my younger brother gave me over 15 years ago. Like all of the core narrative scenarios mentioned above, this memory has stayed with me for almost two decades, but I recall it with far more fondness than all of the ostensibly main story beats. The thing about Pokemon is that it allows for thousands of stories like this one – stories that are completely unique to our own playthroughs based on hundreds of tiny decisions we make that nobody else does.

For example, I’ve done loads of Nuzlockes over the years. For those unacquainted with the term, Nuzlockes are a hardcore challenge run designed to artificially increase the difficulty of Pokemon games by implementing optional rules, like how you can only catch the first Pokemon you encounter on each route. I’ve actually written about how Nuzlockes are the best thing to ever happen to classic Pokemon games, although that’s beside the point on this occasion – I’m talking about stories.

Most of my favourite Pokemon are special to me because I used them in a Nuzlocke at some point. I’ve always been a big fan of Vaporeon and Umbreon, but Nuzlocking Pokemon Let’s Go allowed me to find a new appreciation for Eevee without evolving it into one of eight different forms. Sure, the Let’s Go mascot version is significantly stronger than a regular Eevee, but keeping it alive and well throughout the entire game was no easy feat. What’s more, I actually nicknamed it Woody, which is my dog’s name – if Eevee went down, I probably would have cried enough tears to keep a beached Wailord alive. 

In general, nicknaming your Pokemon adds a personal level to your relationship with them, making the link between you far more sentimental. The stakes of a Nuzlocke accentuate this bond even further – if Woody faints once, he’s gone. The result of this is that every time I sent Woody out I’d get this instant pang of concern for him. Is he going to get tanked by a rogue Close Combat? That Weezing is packing Toxic – have I got an Antidote, or will Woody get knocked out before we make it to Nurse Joy? The threat looms over me like a cloud that’s been commandeered by Darkrai – this Eevee is literally named after my dog. I love that I hate it.

By the way, if you’re considering trying out your own Nuzlocke, allow me to offer you some helpful advice: Magikarp is the ultimate Nuzlocke Pokemon, and nothing anyone says or does will ever change my mind about that.

Stories like these are the main element of Pokemon that still draws me to the series today. I wasn’t super on board with Steel-types in Gen 2 – when I saw Scizor I felt like I had become the human manifestation of Marlon Brando saying, “Look how they massacred my boy” – but Beldum changed everything. Before I knew it I was going back to Dewford to pick up an Aron so I could tackle the Elite Four with a team formed around a mean Metagross/Aggron core. To this day Metagross is one of my favourite pseudo-Legendaries. Dragonite wins out only slightly, mainly because I regularly use it as a lead in competitive battling – that, too, has a story, given that I call all of my Dragonite leads “Gwaihir” after the lord of the Great Eagles from The Lord of the Rings. Yeah, I know…

But this structure really matters as we press on into the future of Pokemon. The Pokemon Company finally announced Diamond & Pearl remakes last week alongside a debut trailer for Pokemon Legends Arceus, which is set to take us back to the ancient days of Feudal Sinnoh. I’m excited to experiment with both of these games, although that’s not just tied to an ordinary desire for new experiences. It’s because through the small stories I’ve subconsciously written about this series over the years, my experiences with these new games will be completely different to those of everyone else. Yes, we’re playing the same main story, and yes, the worlds on screen look the exact same – but what do you nickname your Squirtle? And what moves do you teach your Umbreon? What do you mean you’re not a Toxic stall wall? Why on earth are you giving Umbreon Dark Pulse you big eejit? 

It’s true that lots of RPGs make player choice matter, but Pokemon’s system of reintroducing the same ‘mons in new regions allows us to carry a semblance of familiarity with us no matter where we go. When we move on to Gen 9, I don’t think we’ll be approaching it with Sword & Shield’s ridiculous story in mind – we’ll boot it up and be rapidly reminded of how we first met Impidimp whenever we see a Grimmsnarl, or how our Gen 8 Blastoise had a different moveset to the one we gave it in Gen 7. Pokemon’s main stories are good and memorable, but they’re not what makes these games special – it’s the stories we write ourselves that keep us coming back for more.

Next: Twitch Said ‘Womxn’: Here’s Why It Shouldn’t

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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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