You are almost not a real member of the millennial generation if you do not have, somewhere, a certain collection of cartridges in a cardboard box. Edge connectors choked with dust, labels eroded, and booklets ripped—they fan out amid nests of useless cable in a familiar rainbow of Red, Yellow, Gold, Silver, and Blue. I mean, of course, the Pokémon games—the great mass hysteria of our youth.
What made the Pokémon series so engrossing? The narrative of the games is straightforward, repetitive, almost so formalized as to be suffocating. You wander, catch, battle, gym-challenge, heal, lather, rinse, and repeat, and all in environments that differ slightly only in the most superficial sense. There are, everywhere, gyms and high grass, Pokécenters, Pokémarts, and Pokéballs. There is always another confrontation with Gary on the horizon, always another convalescence with Nurse Joy. Even the music rarely changes—that maddening eight-bit music which once heard can never be forgotten. What is it, then, that made us so crazed—that made us whine, in the cacophonous voice of an entire generation: “Mommy, I’m in a battle and you are making me die!”
The fundamental reason for the intense emotional investment that a game like Pokémon elicits from its youthful users is that the player-character at any given point represents only the game player’s own choices. There is a reason that the main character is such a cipher, so completely without personality. It makes the player’s choices—the trainer’s team—stand out as the only significant content of the game.
At the end of Super Mario, who wins? Mario wins—you have only lent your dexterous fingers to his eternal cause. Mario belongs to the world of forms, and your own mediocre Mario will never be anything other than an instantiation of this ideal Mario—this Platonic essence of Mario who never misses a Koopa or Coin.
But at the end of Pokémon, the winner is you, and this is because the player character signifies nothing beyond the gradual accumulation of player choice. Pokémon is always personal. Beneath the formulaic and repetitive surface story—Trainer goes to Pewter City, Trainer is attacked by Gary, Trainer is defeated by Brock—there is the player’s self-reflexive narrative of decision and consequence, cause and effect. “I can’t catch Mewto,” you lament, “because I used my Master Ball on Ditto.” “I can’t defeat Brock’s Onix,” you whine, “because I chose Professor Oak’s Charmander.” And when you do win, the triumph is yours alone. The sweaty-palmed and hyperventilating child who defeats the Elite Four does so with a team that has been constructed over the course of several weeks or months of painstaking hunting and selection, culled from an infinity of chances and choices.
It is in this that Pokémon achieves a pinnacle of fictional representation unique to real life and to games: the experience of the self as the contingent result of a history of decisions. No novel or other work of fiction can do this, because it will always have the immense drawback of having already been written. But Pokémon, for all its monotony, is infinite, and if our cartridges gather dust and clutter eBay, it is only because we have abandoned the game.
—Columnist Julian C. Lucas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.