Written by guest writer and regular Scanline podcast host Allen Ibrahim.
With the upcoming release of Pokémon Sword and Shield, I’ve been thinking about exactly what it is I have loved so much about this franchise for most of my life. It’s fun and exciting to pick favorite Pokémon based on looks or abilities, but at some point the increasing number of them leads to a detachment from individual creatures. Geodude occupies the same space in my mind as Nosepass, Boldore, and Gurdurr as “Pokémon that get in your way while you go through a cave”. It is less the creature and more the scenario that you find them in that stays with you after the journey is over.
If this is not the thing I always remember about Pokémon games, what is? Gym leaders also fall into a bucket of “person with cool outfit tries to challenge me, but I beat them handily”. Sure, they’re markers of challenge and progress, but they’re also disposable by design. The one thing that persists in my mind with each subsequent generation is the locations, and what each of them says about the region they’re in. Despite the simple art style and limited capabilities of handheld platforms, I still FEEL like the cities in Pokémon are big. The choice to stay primarily handheld thus far means the regions of Pokémon are microcosmic. One of the many reasons this works in their favor is the perspective of the player.
I was never an outdoors kid. I preferred libraries and my room to our backyard or the playground most of the time. But when my parents would take us on a trip to the city, it always felt like a different universe. Growing up in the suburbs, cities look like someone took a Photoshop stretch tool and yanked everything upward and outward. And despite living only a few minutes by car from Boston, I still only picture a few street corners, the major tourist sights, and my favorite places to eat when recalling the city. Like a new Pokémon trainer ready to start their journey, I remember the essentials of places I’ve visited. Boston is Faneuil Hall, it’s Park Street, and it’s Fenway Park. I’ve only visited New York City a few times, so I haven’t formed the clearest silhouette of it yet, but I more associate New York with the people and memories formed there. I remember waiting outside a restaurant for half an hour, I remember drinking a comically large beer, and I remember walking through the 9/11 memorial center at 1AM and being stunned that there were so many people out and about. I don’t remember street or building names.
Pokémon has been emulating the feeling of visiting a new place as a young person to varying degrees since its inception. Kanto feels familiar because it has been imagined and reimagined multiple times. There’s a museum in Pewter City where you can learn about the Moon Stone, and then you go east to Mt. Moon and woah, it’s real! Time and again, Pokémon uses its story and world building to teach children the values they will need growing up. Ask questions, go outside, travel if you can, work hard, and never lose your childish sense of wonder.
My favorite Pokémon generation is Gen 5, which includes Pokémon Black and White, as well as their sequels Black 2 and White 2. The generation before it was more a showcase for new hardware than advancing the formula much, and this is why it’s oft-forgotten. But Sinnoh’s myth-heavy storyline made it feel even more like one foot was stuck in the past. Heck, they name drop Johto’s Lake of Rage in the first hour like it’s next door just to remind you that yes, it’s still Pokémon. But Gen 5 felt ambitious. You didn’t see a SINGLE old Pokémon until finishing the main campaign in Black and White 1, and it shows in the designs. With the largest number of new Pokémon in a single generation, Gen 5 gets some deserved flak for uninspired designs. Now, I’m Team Inanimate Object Pokémon through and through, but I understand disliking this generation for some of its Pokédex entries. But Unova as a region accomplishes more with its world building than any other generation before and since. It’s chock full of spaces not meant for the player to progress and conquer their way through.
Take Anville Town for example. Located a short train ride away from Nimbasa City, it is a town you only discover through poking at the game’s subway systems. The majority of Unova’s Battle Line is set aside for fights with other trainers. In this world, you can get into a fight ANYWHERE. Trainers run the trains (no pun intended), and the player can freely battle anyone on the Battle Line. But one of the lines does not lead to a battle. The Anville Line is the only way to get to Anville Town. You don’t stumble upon it, as the game clearly says to walk west of Nimbasa City to progress the story. But take a stop on the Anville Line and stay a while, and you’ll find a setting like no other.
With a population of 11 in BW1 (13 in BW2), Anville Town is one of the smallest areas in Unova. The NPCs recognize this, and nobody seems to care all that much. Almost as if they know you’re there by accident, the townspeople here only wish to help you on your way out. There’s a man in one house who assumes you came here because you lost something, and he seeks to help you find it. A tour guide stands at the center of the only bridge in town just to talk about Anville’s main export: trains. Every day of the week, you can come back to this man, and he’ll tell you about a new train. Mass-produced trains, extra large trains, futuristic bullet trains. There is absolutely no gameplay benefit to the train guy, but I find myself fascinated by him. This man’s entire life, like Anville Town itself, revolves around trains.
On the weekends, trainers stop by the train station on vacation. They don’t want to fight each other because it’s Saturday, and the weekend is relaxation time. They’ll trade you items though, and their presence here reminds me of so many street vendors and interesting strangers I’d meet once and never see again. The last NPC worth mentioning here is the Pansage Girl. Having lost her Pansage during a recent trip to Nimbasa City, she asks you to help her find it. A quick ride back and you find a police officer safely looking after Pansage. One more train ride, and you safely return the girl her lost Pokémon. Here, the Pansage Girl delivers one of my favorite pieces of text in the Pokemon franchise.
Before exploring that wonderful box of dialogue, it’s important to understand that Black and White 1 and 2 are separated by a two year time skip. 1’s plot concerns N, a green-haired boy who can talk to Pokémon and wishes to separate them from their trainers once and for all. N is revealed to be a pawn in his father’s grand plan, and BW1 ends with his fate being held in the balance. The Pansage Girl in BW2 tells the player “a person with green hair told me that Pansage’s dream is to become a railroad conductor. But…that guy…can he talk with Pokemon? ” This simple NPC dialogue reveals that not only is N alive and well, but he’s still following his dreams, and also it is likely that Pansage wanted you to ride the train back and forth so they could pretend to be the conductor. I wasn’t used to such important world-building coming from a random side quest in a skippable part of the game.
Often the most memorable parts of life lie off the beaten path. Most children in our world are taught to fear strangers and stay away from them, but JRPGs like Pokemon tend to follow the age-old rule: “Talk to everyone, examine everything”. In Pokemon, children are safe to explore and ask questions of complete strangers. Parents are ready and willing to say goodbye to their 10 year old kids as they run into the woods and battle monsters, forming friendships along the way and constantly challenging themselves. While we may never reach a point where our world is safe enough that one might feel okay letting their children do this, at least we have places like Anville Town. Areas off the beaten path, little cafes with polite waiters, or even just a lonely train town where none of the residents have anything to do but get ready to say goodbye.