Ever since the first generation of Pokémon games, one aspect of the series has remained the same: its introduction.
We have always been introduced to the world by a professor greeting us with a cheerful, “Welcome to the world of Pokémon” speech, following which we are allowed to choose the name (and gender) of the protagonist. After doing so, your full-body avatar is shrunk down into a smaller sprite better-suited to the world you’re about to explore, and you find yourself in your parent’s house.
Every single time I went through this sequence, I thought the same thing: “Oh, what a nice, kid-friendly introduction.” And then I would continue on with the new adventure. “Gotta catch’em all.”
However, upon reading through the games’ Iwata Asks interviews in preparation for our ongoing coverage of Pokémon Black/White, something different clicked in Ishaan and I this time around, and took us down a train of thought we’d never considered before.
Before I continue, I’m going to wax philosophical for a moment. There exists an old philosophy that states that the body and mind are separate, with the mind commonly referred to as the “spirit” or “soul.” The two are connected at a single conduit by which they communicate with each other. The two do not affect the other except through that point, such as sensations felt through the nerves or the mind’s instructions for the body to move.
Remember that this theory was formed at least 400 years ago, so there was no such thing as brain imaging at the time. This philosophy was called Cartesian Dualism. Another way to imagine this is that the mind is controlling the body from a separate dimension or plane of existence.
You can’t really apply this theory to most videogames. In most games, you are playing as the character you represent. You are Cloud as you wander through Midgar; you are Lloyd as you go through Sylvarant; you are Wander as you slay the Colossi.
In Pokémon Black/White, however, this isn’t the case. In Black/White, you are someone playing through a character in Isshu. You are not the character in Isshu, but you are playing through him, which is a subtle but important difference.
Perhaps a better example would be the Sims, then, where you are not the character but are simply playing through him or her (or the whole family). You know you are not that Sims character, but that you are living through a virtual reality as that character and controlling that character’s life (and possibly screwing him over royally).
This is exemplified most clearly in Black/White through the use of a new item called the C-Gear.
Every Pokémon generation (after the first one), saw the main character eventually gaining a device that would have features such as a map, a phone, and other random gadgets planted on it. It was implied that it was the character in the game that sported this device — that it was attached somewhere on him, like on his wrist or to his bag. Now, the C-Gear, which is a similar device, is yours.
This was done because, after much consideration, director Junichi Masuda decided that one of the most important focuses of Pokémon was interaction. The C-Gear facilitated several possibilities, such as enabling you to trade your Pokémon directly from the box and to trade and battle anywhere you want. In previous games, you could only trade from your party and you had to enter the Union Room every time you wanted to do so.
The C-Gear also enables players to use the DSi and DSi LL’s camera and microphone to hold video chat sessions through the “LiveCaster” function. Originally, the team had come up with the idea of the LiveCaster as a means to communicate with the professor, but then they thought, “Why not use it in real life as well?”
The reason for all of this functionality in the game was because the creators wanted to focus on communication between the players. This desire was also expressed in their creation of the Dream World. This is a “world” on the PC that the DS connects to through the use of the Wi-Fi.
There, players can interact, find items and berries, as well as old generation Pokémon with different abilities from before. It was situated “in the computer” because Masuda felt that the best way to take Pokémon to the next level was through “communication through a computer.”
The previous Wi-Fi system worked well, but Masuda wanted more, like the Dream World completely based inside the computer. At first, he thought it would be a bad idea if the player wasn’t represented as a human being in this world. After all, it’d feel weird if the Pokémon started talking after all this time.
The next idea was to use a Mii-like avatar to represent the player in the computer world, but then Masuda realized that then the player would be playing on three different levels: first the person (you) playing the game, then the character in the Pokémon Black/White game, and finally the Mii in the computer Dream World.
This was too much, so he ultimately settled on the idea of playing as a Pokémon. To make it work, the computer world would be a world of dreams, and your Pokémon would understand what you were thinking. They would then express your thoughts for you. This way, you (as the player) are not a Pokémon.
I’ve mentioned the distinction between “you,” the player, and the protagonist of the game twice. Admittedly, up until now, I had always assumed the Pokémon world was … well, the world of Pokémon. Just like how Sylvarant was its own world, or how every world in Final Fantasy was its own.
However, with developer Game Freak now emphasizing this separation of the mind from the body to such a great extent, it leads one to consider the possibility of it always having existed in past Pokémon games, although, perhaps not manifesting itself as blatantly as it does in Black/White.
Remember, co-director Ken Sugimori’s quote about how Pokémon was the story of a “boy’s summer,” and that you were role-playing in it? Special care was taken to let you feel like you were the boy, such that he had no supernatural powers. This was one of the originating concepts of Pokémon, so it’s been around since the beginning.
Remember the start of every single Pokémon game thus far? Thinking back to the intros, the Professor directly addressed you, the player, right before you were shrunken down to the size of the other characters, almost as if you were entering another world.
After a lengthy conversation between Ishaan and I, this was our interpretation:
The Pokémon world is a virtual world with monsters and people in it who live in the world and know nothing about the “outside” (our world). You, the player, are from the outside and are brought in by the Professor, the only one that lives in the Pokémon world who knows of the outside.
Once inside, you interact with people inside as though you live in the Pokémon world. However, you can also connect and interact with other people who are from the outside through Pokémon Centers. Sound familiar? It’s also the basis for many other franchises as well, not the least of which is The Matrix.
Keeping the distinction between “outside” and “inside” in mind, there exist at least three layers of “reality,” both in-game and out. To casual players, such as most children or their parents, Pokémon is simply a game. It isn’t real. They go inside or refer to the inside as a superficial, fictional world of its own. What you see is what you get.
Then, there’s the people inside the game who live inside. The trainers and the gym leaders all believe that the world they live in is the world. It is their reality. They are unaware of the outside, with the exception of a select few individuals.
And then, there are the hardcore players, who look into the EVs and IVs of the Pokémon, who learn to manipulate the world to be the very best (like no one ever was). They look past the superficial layer of the world (that the monsters just level up and grow stronger) and instead, study its “science” to try and customize the creatures in the world to suit their needs.
This is why there’s no mention of Pokémon’s meta-game in any of Nintendo’s official manuals — because the game’s largest audience, the average casual player, neither knows nor cares for it. They want to play a game. Us hardcore types, however, are allowed to play God.
Finally, there are those inside the world of Pokémon who know about the outside. The Professors who address you at the beginning of each game. The Nurse Joys that work at the Pokémon Centers. After all, they are in control of the rooms that allow you to communicate with others who are from the outside.
Using the metaphor of the Matrix, the first type of people are the normal people outside the matrix, like Cypher. Those who live inside are like those still sleeping in the pods. The hardcore players are all akin to Neo, and the last group is essentially like Morpheus.
As stated before, it seems like this distinction has always existed in Pokémon since the beginning. However, with Pokémon Black/White, this separation line has been darkened with the introduction of the C-Gear and the Dream World.