My Open "Dear John" Letter to Pokémon
I have a lot of things I’ve wanted to say to you for a while, many of them will be painful – for both of us – but I think it’s time.
Do you remember when we first met? It was Christmas morning 1998. You came in a small package, wrapped with green paper and twine – very plain. I tore into you, as children on Christmas do; tossing aside the paper to unlock your mysteries, to discover you.
I remember being puzzled, at first.
“But mom…”, I cried, “…I don’t have a Gameboy.”
“Keep looking”, she said with a confident smirk.
It took a bit, but after some candy, a few pairs of socks and a bumblebee tee, I came to another package, wrapped in the same paper and twine. In what I’m sure some social scientist would say is a very disturbing example of an extreme case of early-onset materialism, I tore through the second package. It was better than I’d hoped. It was a Game Boy Color.
I remember that day so well because it was the second gaming device I ever “owned”, and my first portable. See, I don’t know if you remember this, but I spent a lot of my childhood on the go; traveling to and from Dallas, to and from St. Louis and all around Oklahoma City. I was in out of all kinds of daycares, I rode the bus to school and I really needed a companion. I needed a portable friend. I didn’t know it at the time, but you would ultimately become a huge part of my life.
I started with Red, the inferior version, moved to Blue, then Yellow. I followed up with Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Pinball, Pokémon Snap, Hey You! Pikachu. I had the cards, the clothes, the collectibles, the figurines and the posters. My first midnight showing of a movie was Pokémon: the First Movie. The first time I stayed up all night playing a game was for Pokémon: Trading Card Game, the Game Boy Color title. During the big Burger King cross-promotion with Pokémon, I got every single one of the toys, and the six gold-plated cards in the Poké ball display cases. I remember, at one point I was even calling the Nintendo headquarters a couple times a week just to tell them how much I loved Pokémon and how awesome I was at it. I still remember the number, 1-800-255-3700.
Most people would call this excessive, and while I look back on our time together now, with a kind of tender melancholy, I don’t regret any of it. In truth, I wish we could go back, to when our relationship was young. I wish we could relive all those firsts, but they’re firsts for a reason.
We had a good run, you and I, but it’s time we parted ways As much as I love you, your music, your mechanics, your mythology, I’ve grown up. I’ve graduated college, and I can’t love you “ironically” anymore. Finally taking off the rose-colored glasses, I realize it’s been a long-time coming, but I’ve only recently understood why we need to say our goodbyes.
Lately I feel like you’ve become less considerate, I feel like we’re not meeting each other halfway anymore. Remember the old days? Do you remember how much time I invested in Pokémon Crystal?
Two hundred hours.
I’ve only just now passed 250 hours’ worth of Skyrim, a much larger, richer and more expensive game.
You see, in the days before Gamefaqs and Prima, we had playground rumors. I did everything I could to learn everything about you, and you rewarded me with kernels of mystery and intrigue. There was so much to discover, there were so many unknown secrets (pun intended) that you didn’t give up easily.
It isn’t entirely your fault, I’ll admit. I know that you’re having trouble keeping up with the times, and that too, is part of the problem. Your best offerings are still on portable systems, but instead of innovating like you used to, you seem stuck in the past. In fourteen years, nothing about your core mechanics have changed. You still rely on turn-based “menu-battles”; you haven’t taken advantage of the enormous increase in portable computing power and, probably most telling, none of your characters say their names. You’re prettier, yes, more beautiful than you’ve ever been, but you still can’t match even the most basic things I saw in the show all those years ago.
Your appeal as a video game, was, primarily derived from the imagination of your audience. As a kid, I really wanted to be a Pokémon Master. I wanted to travel on my own with a companion, making my way in the world, struggling to become the best. The show fueled that passion, but I couldn’t participate directly. I couldn’t live out that fantasy.
It was your games that gave me that opportunity.
Handhelds were still more or less in their infancy and graphically speaking, your portable incarnation wasn’t much to look at, but we were young and I was so obsessed that forgiving your flaws came easily. I can’t say the same anymore.
The trend in modern technology is for complete integration across platforms, more control, more sharing and connecting with friends across a city, a country or even the world. There’s a lot of potential for you here given the degree to which your core mechanics – battling and trading Pokémon – rely on interacting with others. It isn’t too difficult for me to imagine a Pokémon game that integrates seamlessly with Twitter or Facebook – one that allows direct interaction between its players in a public, digital arena.
Similarly, I could see GPS integration or check-ins being used to get people out of their apartments and exploring their community – meeting other players in real life, and offering opportunities to catch rare Pokémon “in the wild” as it were. Pokémon battles could be modified to be faster and take place in real-time to give people on a city bus or in a restaurant opportunities to fight whomever is near.
Lamentably, the release of the trailer for X and Y did nothing to restore my confidence in your self-destructive path. As I watched, I found the idea of sitting down for another agonizing slog through rehashed content to be nothing if not distasteful.
I realized, then and there that I simply can’t keep this relationship going on my own. I’ve more than put in my time, but the more I think about it... the more I realize you haven’t been there, with me, trying to make this work.
You could be so much more than what you are, but with each game I see you squandering your potential. Instead, you cling to old mechanics. You add more and more content, driven by some curious delusion that more is better, that quantity is synonymous with quality. And as much as it pains me to say it, that’s just not enough anymore.
In the early 2000s you were at your best. You were keeping up with the times, adding deep, nuanced mechanics to the original formula. Since then, with each iteration you’ve added fewer and fewer things of substance. You’re banking on the sheer amount of time and energy it would take to unlock and then finish all of your extra content to keep me occupied.
As I’ve matured, so too have my tastes in media. You’re simply no longer worth the necessary investment, and your lack of narrative complexity or innovation doesn’t help.
We’ve lost that spark, we’ve lost the connection that we once had, and I don’t think you’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary to save this relationship. I can’t say for sure, and I hope you’ll turn this around, but if what you’ve shown me of Pokémon X and Y is any indication, the future isn’t looking too good for us. No doubt you’ll be bigger and better than ever, but I’ve already given all I have, and you’re going to need more than a pretty new wrapper to make me stay.
Former Pokémon Master