Select Your Starter: A Frequent Familiar Comfort

Play cycles have been at the front of my mind this month. I installed and started Hideo Kojima’s return to games post-Konami termination, Death Stranding. While the game has knockout visuals, a star-studded cast (especially for a video game) and all the heady, highfalutin concepts that are standard to his games, I’m reflecting mostly on the loop of gameplay. This will sound like a knock, but your base task in this game is mundane. You’re making deliveries. 

You make Norman Reedus (a.k.a. Sam Porter Bridges) walk literal kilometers with totes filled with godknowswhat up mountains and across rivers, and for the most part that’s it. Sure, there are other obstacles in between, but it can all be reduced to walking and keeping your balance with the heavy load on your back. But I think me playing Death Stranding made me realize that maybe I like doing mundane things in games?  

Look, this is a tangent, I know. I’ll try to tie this thread together. 

Loops manifest in our daily lives, as we’re pulled by the proverbial leash of routine—roll out of bed, get cleaned up, eat, get to work, muddle through the next eight or so hours, get home, make dinner, settle in with some movies, books, shows, or games and go to sleep shortly after. At this point in my life, weeks and months have started losing their weight, and that thin line between each day on the calendar has become fluid. The whitespace in between the lines is filled with scrawl like “So-and-so’s wedding,” “concert,” and “Simon’s vet appointment.” 

But for the most part, a week has become a single unit of time, where it used to be seven days.  I got my gas for the week, pulled the trash to the curb, paid my rent on the first of the month, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Pokemon has become part of my loop, my routine, my yearly play cycle. I know that at least every other autumn, another entry in the series is released. I know that every new game in the main series will have the same base values: Eight gyms, a team of villains, a rival, a professor, three starting Pokemon to choose from; different passages are blocked by the same obstacles; a champion and legendary creatures wait for me at the end. 

The world of Pokemon has never been a boring place for me to be. But even if they decide to one day set the game on a terraformed colony on a moon of Jupiter, I know it’ll still have the same skeleton, and that’s honestly comforting to know. I don’t play Pokemon for the excitement anymore. Sure, there are moments in the game that are exciting, like catching a particular Pokemon that you wanted. None of them, at least in recent memory, have come from the story itself. 

Would I welcome a radical change to the series? Absolutely. But I’m not complaining otherwise.

While it isn’t an identical experience, I’m finding that inhabiting the Pokemon and Animal Crossing worlds evoke similar feelings. I’ve always been a sucker for the simple life of Animal Crossing. You’re telling me, unlike my actual life, I can spend all day fishing on a beach and hand a backpack full of said fish to a Llama in exchange for money? And that’s enough for me to pay off and furnish my house? 

That simplification is present in Pokemon as well. I’ve never been able to dive deep into RPGs (at least in video games) that are heavily systems-based. Sprawling skill trees are anxiety-inducing. Constantly swapping out armor and weapons for better versions that you craft or loot feels like a chore, more so than the actual chores I’ve spent many hours doing in games.  Character creation down to the bridge of your nose, while in theory sounds great, is overwhelming. Like pointing out the blemishes on your face, every time I see my customized character in a cutscene, I’m reminded of how poorly I’ve made them. 

In these latter few Pokemon, you can customize your character very slightly, mostly by purchasing new outfits. Even that’s daunting.

Sure, there are numbers crunching in the background that can make a particular Pokemon better than the next. If you want to flex your stuff in competitive battles with other actual players, and put your Pokemon on a strict training regimen, more power to you. 

But whether my Squirtle’s disposition is one way or another doesn’t bother me any. The appeal to Pokemon for me at this point is wandering around a bright, beautiful setting with my group of colorful friends that happen to know how to launch electricity from their cheeks, fire psychic blasts with their minds, and spray water from their mouths. 

Pokemon is a return to the simple, familiar life. A cozy blanket to wrap up in after the quiet drama of your office job ends for the day. That’s how I feel today, and the seed of that feeling was planted with the fourth generation of Pokemon. 

Diamond and Pearl were released in September 2006. This was the first time I’d bought one of these games on its release date with the money I had somehow saved up. I was in the sixth grade, recently turned 12. I was still far from being the person I am today because at this point I was still prioritizing video games over schoolwork and responsibilities at home. I’ll lapse occasionally, still, but living with your partner and three cats means your house won’t stay clean forever.

Like every new entry in the series, the visuals were updated. This time, having released for the Nintendo DS, Diamond and Pearl featured fully-rendered 3D models, at least in the overworld. In battle, Pokemon were pixelated sprites still but were more realized than Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald, with more movement and bright, bombastic attack animations.

I’ve mostly enjoyed Pokemon as a solitary experience. I’d occasionally use a connector cable with a kid on the bus or at recess and trade, but for the most part, I was playing at home, by myself. So, when Diamond and Pearl introduced online battles and trading, I knew I had to participate. Of course, Nintendo’s inherent high-security level matchmaking meant I would have to track down people who had the game and have them send over their 12-digit friend codes before we could get anywhere. 

I eventually discovered a little website called Serebii. If you’re unfamiliar, Serebii is a Pokemon resource. Like Bulbapedia, it keeps an up-to-date list of Pokemon stats, as well as news about the anime, movies, spin-off games, and really anything related to property. Among all of its resources, I found a chat room where people coordinated battles and trading. 

I quickly realized just how bad I was at Pokemon. My team was swept every battle I entered. One move after another after another just one-hit K.O. my Pokemon. For trading, I had nothing of value for anybody. 

Here was a group of people that had broken down the game to a science. They were diving into the minutia of traits, hidden abilities, and individual and effort values, something I still don’t understand to this day and don’t care to. They were spending hours with multiple DSes open, with multiple games running, hunting for a shiny version of a specific Pokemon so they could trade for others. 

The persona I’d built up around myself—the one I spent years picturing running across the landscape of the Pokemon world with his team beside him, defeating any foe in his path—had become a little more grounded. Maybe I could make it as a breeder, sailor, or cool trainer in Pokemon? Maybe even a support trainer at my town’s Gym. Not the actual champion. 

Look, I’ve come to terms with not likely being the Pokemon champion of our world. I have too many interests and too little focus to hone my party’s stats like that. I’m content with being the guy who’s played the games from the beginning, and who is still guilty of daydreaming about wandering from region to region with six pokeballs on my belt. 

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