Immersion and Diversion in Pokémon Let’s Go: Pikachu and Let’s Go: Eevee (or: Why I Love Pokémon but Hate Pokémon GO)

As a lifelong Pokémon fan, I watched with bemused tolerance as Pokémon GO arrived and quickly established itself as the most successful augmented reality game ever (sorry, Ingress). Despite being a die-hard for the franchise, I had exactly zero interest in that particular installment. Don’t get me wrong—I see the various appeals, from the novelty of seeing a Rattata in your front yard, to interest in the technology itself, to nostalgia for childhood experiences with the series, to just an excuse to get yourself out of the house. Those are all completely valid reasons to play a game, and I don’t look down my nose at people who enjoy it. Pokémon GO just happens not to offer the aspects of the series that have brought me back, again and again, for over twenty years.

Those aspects are, in short: appealing narrative and interesting battles. I’ll admit to being pretty hardcore about my Pokémon battles (I used to play competitively online), but ultimately it’s the narrative context rather than the crunchier combat that makes the main series of Pokémon RPGs so much more alive to me than Pokémon GO. See, what I really enjoy is bonding with my Pokémon. To do that, we need to have experiences together. We need to be on a journey. We need to explore together; to get into tough scrapes together; to rely on on each other, face challenges head on, and emerge victorious together. Watching my little battle-babies grow from neophyte newly-caughts to lean, mean, fighting machines, all the while imagining their personalities and our relationship developing (yes, I am this kind of Pokémon nerd) is what makes the games really satisfying and engaging for me. The narrative context the game provides—the innate narrative relevance given to every battle—is what enables that experience. The result is much more immersive for me personally than Pokémon GO, which allows me to catch a Pokémon while walking to the bus stop, but doesn’t provide that narrative context.

So, fine. I prefer the main series games, other people prefer Pokémon GO. To each their own, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. With Let’s Go: Pikachu and Let’s Go: Eevee, the worlds have begun to collide.

In the new Let’s Gos, there are a number of deviations from the standard Pokémon RPG formula. And a lot of them are good! Pokémon can be let out of their pokéballs to follow you around: good! My Eevee perches on my head as I dash from town to town: exquisite. Pokémon encounters are now collisions with actual Pokémon models running around in the tall grass rather than random encounters: debatable, but mostly good. You can freely swap Pokémon out of your party at any time: kind of feels like easy mode, but I can live with it. You can transfer Pokémon between the Let’s Go games and your Pokémon GO app, and there’s a new pokéball peripheral that can be used with both games: not a selling point for me, as someone who doesn’t play Pokémon GO, but sure, why not.

Catching interface in Let's Go: Pikachu and Let's Go: Eevee.
Catching interface in Let’s Go: Pikachu and Let’s Go: Eevee.

And so we come to the biggest formula change: battles with wild Pokémon have been replaced with a Pokémon GO style catching mechanic.

Boy howdy is this a bad idea. Let me count the ways.

1. The game just went from easy to virtually effortless. Pokémon games have been trending in the easier direction, with increasingly user-friendly mechanics, for years now, and that’s mostly fine with me. The designers have generally done a good job keeping the game accessible to new, younger players, but also interesting for veterans like yours truly. So far, they’ve achieved this by throwing bones to competitive players (like making IV breeding a billion percent easier; if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it) even as the game becomes overall less challenging. But removing battles with wild Pokémon basically throws challenge out the window. You can now level your entire party quickly without even fighting battles, and the caves and dungeons like Rock Tunnel and Cinnabar Island (which, to be fair, were probably too hard for the target age group in the original games) have lost their very raison d’etre as challenge zones (a.k.a. crucibles in which the unbreakable bonds of trust between trainers and Pokémon are forged).

2. Catching Pokémon through battle interfaces more naturally (and more interestingly) with the existing gameplay. It increases the value of certain status moves and lower power attacks, forcing players to be more strategic about what moves they keep. It also creates a direct connection between the strength of the Pokémon you have and the strength of the Pokémon you can catch. Catching through battle isn’t perfect—catch rates in earlier games were much too low, making the experience frustrating and unduly difficult—but I’d much rather see the existing mechanic refined rather than replaced with a new one that has no connection to the existing gameplay.

3. You can’t train your Pokémon anymore! Recall: an important draw for this game franchise is the feeling of kinship the player establishes with their Pokémon as they train and fight together. Battling wild Pokémon, whether to make it through a dungeon or just to beef up, is bonding time. Even if it’s sometimes tedious, there’s a satisfaction that comes from watching a Pokémon grow stronger through the blood, sweat, and tears of many battles. Changes like EXP Share and less EXP needed to level up overall were already eating into this, though, again, some rebalancing was definitely called for if you look at early installments in the series. Removing wild Pokémon battles entirely, however, is not just an overcompensation—it’s a straight up removal of core gameplay that was important to the player experience.

4. It leads to narratively inappropriate actions, which can break immersion. Instead of fighting wild Pokémon to level up, the handiest way to train your little ‘mons is just repeatedly catching random wild Pokémon. This makes no sense and is totally out of character. Why would I catch ten Caterpie that I’m never going to use? And how does this make my Eevee stronger? Maybe nobody else cares about this kind of thing, but I’m trying get some role-playing going on over here. I didn’t spend $60 on this game so I could practice a simple timing and oscilloscope control minigame. I coughed up the cash so I could pretend to be a Pokémon trainer. Why are you replacing narratively-relevant gameplay with arbitrary, nonsense gameplay? I’ve spoken at length earlier on how I find the depth of the Pokémon RPGs more engaging than the AR of Pokémon GO, but come on, this is the worst of both worlds.

I’m all for updating the formula. If you want to introduce the pokéball-throwing mechanic on top of the battle mechanic (maybe as a way to mitigate obnoxiously low catch rates through prowess at actual gameplay, hint hint), I’ll give it a whirl. Maybe you do the aiming minigame every time you throw a pokéball (so mechanics like paralysis or sleep become more real, because they make the target, like, literally easier to hit). Maybe fainting a wild Pokémon gives you an opportunity to throw a pokéball, and if you miss or it breaks out, it recovers some HP and you continue the fight. Maybe you can sneak up on wild Pokémon in the field and get a chance to catch them, but if they see you first, you have to battle them. There’s a ton of potential here. And as little interest as I have in the current gameplay pattern of Pokémon GO, I’m also all in favor of augmented reality. Certainly there’s a ton of potential there as well.

I don’t know where the franchise will go in the future. Maybe Let’s Go: Pikachu and Let’s Go: Eevee were really meant more as Pokemon nature walks than legitimate installments in the series, and the next generation will be back to business. I hope that’s the case. What I do know is there’s a lot of new and interesting ground the franchise could explore to increase the sense of immersion that has drawn players to these games since the beginning. No matter what future installments are like, there will probably be curmudgeons like me complaining. Just, do me a favor. Don’t replace the immersive parts of the main series with AR and AR-tie-ins. Combine them to make something new, something that get’s me one step closer to slipping the surly bonds of Earth, and becoming a real Pokémon trainer.

The Joy of Motion in Non-Action Games

Motion has been a core part of the video game experience since it’s inception. The fundamental joy of pressing a button and seeing something move on your screen underpins everything we’d call a video game. For some games, motion is at the very essence of the experience. I’d like to talk about games where motion is not at the core, and how they can benefit from it anyway.

Point-and-click adventure games, visual novels, and many RPGs largely forsake motion in their gameplay, and often to their detriment. Hardcore fans of the genre may even take pride in the sparseness of action in these games, but just as many would-be players simply don’t have the patience to play a game where they never feel like they are moving–even if there is a deep and complex narrative world to explore, or a mentally stimulating gameplay mechanic to engage with.

In truth, for many players, exploration requires motion. Sailing a ship, hurtling through space, speeding down a highway, galloping along on a horse, soaring through the sky–these are mechanics often adopted by open world or otherwise exploration-oriented games to give a sense of space, and to capitalize on the joy of motion. And while most players will resort to fast traveling as soon as possible, I do remember a certain sense of freedom when, in Skyrim, I could afford a horse, and was ready to go anywhere I pleased, thus mounted.

This same principle can be applied to games that don’t have a huge open world to explore. Putting the sense of motion into exploration, and making the simple task of traveling from one place to another feel good, is something even a non-action, narrative-driven game can benefit from.

nitw2

A Note on Terminology

Throughout this article, I use the term “motive controls” to mean a game control scheme where the player directly controls a character on-screen, which has some dynamic motion capabilities, such as running, jumping, or flying. I would use “motion controls,” but that sounds too much like a virtual-reality-like convergence of human body motion and character motion. I don’t want to address human body motion as a game control scheme here; just the motion of game characters on a screen.

Motion in Non-Action Games

My poster-child for good motive gameplay in a non-action game is Infinite Fall’s acclaimed Night in the Woods, a side-scrolling platformer-style game centered on an anthropomorphic (and highly relatable) cat named Mae Borowski, a college dropout who has just returned to her rural hometown. While there are a few simple platforming puzzles, fundamentally Night in the Woods is not a platformer. The core gameplay is all narrative: you could remove the platforming entirely, and have a coherent Night in the Woods adventure game; but if you removed all the narrative, what’s left is not a playable platformer. That said, Night in the Woods does make excellent use of platforming as a means of traveling and exploring.

Boing boing boing
Exploration platforming in Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods.

It’s a game where you visit the same places every day–various locales around the protagonist’s hometown, places where old friends live or work–with no fast travel system. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a total drag because the basic act of traversing the areas is fun. The controls aren’t super tight, like they would be in an action-platformer, making certain sequences feel clunky, but the basic sense of kinesthetic joy the player gets jumping from rooftop to rooftop and tiptoeing across telephone wires is there.

Night in the Woods does a great job placing content in locations that make active use of motive controls a necessary part of your travel and exploration: jumping and climbing allows you to reach little tidbits like a crew of baby rats in a loft, or a friendly astronomy teacher on a rooftop who shows you constellations with a telescope. The platforming challenges to reach these nuggets of content are not difficult, but that’s actually a good thing. What’s important is putting players in a position where exploration involves analyzing their surroundings and engaging with their environment, rather than simply taking time to search every available pathway.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the platforming in Night in the Woods is how cleanly it meshes with the visual aesthetic. The game nails a storybook-like art style which neatly arranges each area in two dimensions for platforming, while still conveying a strong sense of depth to the environment. The way characters move on the screen works well for both jumping around, and dialogue-heavy scenes. The failing in this area is that it is occasionally difficult to tell what is a platform and what is part of the background or foreground. At heart, the game puts good visuals before platforming clarity, but since the platforming is never terribly difficult to begin with, this doesn’t cause major issues.

Persona-5-Platforming
Platforming in Persona 5.

There are plenty of other games which try to get a little joy of motion in on the side. Persona 5, the newest entry in everyone’s favorite JRPG/dating sim fusion series, added stealth and platforming elements to dungeon exploration. When I first saw a trailer with the protagonist jumping across chandeliers and hiding from guards, I was pretty nervous. Persona is already, like, three games worth of mechanics rolled into one, and stealth-platforming is hard to get right when its the only gameplay. Turns out, my worries were largely unfounded. The high-motive gameplay in Persona 5 is pretty low-challenge: basically, press the X button, and something good will happen. The context-driven nature of the beast (it’s tricky to design stealth and platforming controls with only one button) made it occasionally awkward, but mostly it was just a way to make moving around your environment a little more interesting. The basic principle of this gameplay is not to add challenge, but allow the player to leap across chandeliers, dart out of hiding to ambush enemies, climb up and down multi-level areas, and look cool doing it.  The additional learning curve this feature adds to an already dense game, plus a certain clunkiness that rears it’s head in certain sequences, puts the motive controls in Persona 5 at a solid B grade, but I will admit to having some fun with them once I was acclimated.

Walking simulators are a ripe genre for use of motive controls in non-action games, as designers increasingly explore the narrative and visual potential of first-person games without gratuitous shootouts.  First-person controls can be deceptively tricky to nail, though, and when a developer takes the time to customize features like walking speed, head-bob, and running/jumping controls to their game rather than just plug-and-play with the cheapest first-person control script off the Unity asset store, it really shows.

parable1
The player on a moving platform in The Stanley Parable.

What I really want to talk about, though, is not the minutia of head-bobbing, but clever usage of first-person motion in a narrative game. I’ll use The Stanley Parable as a familiar example. A game that is principally about choice, one might think The Stanley Parable would work well as a point-and-click adventure or visual novel, where discretized choices are the core interactive mechanic. However, The Stanley Parable gains enormous benefits from using motive controls. The game never features any sort of HUD-based interactivity: every choice in the complex, branching narrative is made via character motion, underscoring the player’s agency in the story, one of the primary narrative themes. The Stanley Parable also does a good job hiding choices in way that involve the player moving in atypical ways, such as jumping off a platform at a certain time, or turning around and finding that the door behind them now leads somewhere different.  This organically forces the player to be alert and engage more actively with their surroundings.

The Stanley Parable also uses moving environments to effectively advance its narrative themes. At least twice in the game, the player finds themself on a moving platform: in one case, they’re being railroaded back towards the main path by an irked narrator, but have the option of leaping off to explore a different route; in the other, they’re on a conveyor belt in an industrial death trap, waiting to be crushed by unforgiving machinery. One situation emphasizes choice, the other is an embodiment of inevitability–two ideas that play tug-of-war throughout the entire game. The latter case shows off one of the most potent avenues opened by giving the player motive controls: what it feels like when you take them away.

NaissanceE
A strong sense of motion is conveyed in the opening sequence of Limasse Five’s NaissenceE as the protagonist sprints down a long hallway, fleeing an unknown danger.

So… High Motive Controls In Every Game?

Not necessarily. Pretty much every example of a non-action-oriented game with interesting motive controls comes with the caveat “it’s a little clunky at times, but…” Making sleek character controls that don’t feel or look clunky is hard. If you’re making a Metroidvania or bullet hell, smooth yet precise controls is, like, half the development process.  (Metroidvania or bullet hell developers can correct me on that percentage). All games are made with time and budget constraints, so if jumping, flying, or driving isn’t a necessary part of a game, it might not make sense to spend time and effort on these features.

Also, a game shouldn’t include motive controls just for the sake of it. They have to synergize with other gameplay, whether that’s exploration or puzzles or how dialogue plays out or just reinforcing the visual aesthetic of the game. Replacing what would be a direct cut with a motive travel sequence really doesn’t add much by itself.

When done wrong, motive controls can be a dealbreaker for a player, adding boring or frustrating sequences which distract from the core mechanics. When done right, though, they can increase player engagement and create a sense of wonder and exploration that’s hard to match with just point-and-click.

-Louis