Pokémon has grown into a global phenomenon since its first appearance in 1996. This twenty-year-old franchise began with the original Pokémon games, Pokémon Red Version and Pokémon Green Version, and has since grown to span multiple media platforms from television, to comic books, to video games, and, most recently in 2016, to mobile phones with Pokémon GO. Spinoffs like Pokémon GO not included, the mainline Pokémon series has become known for a consistent release of a new “generations” of games that utilize a similar narrative formula where in each subsequent edition of the series, players are tasked with two primary goals: defeating other powerful Pokémon trainers and collecting all the different types of Pokémon creatures available. Players start their journey as a novice Pokémon trainer and use their captured Pokémon in battles against other Pokémon in order to make their own Pokémon stronger.
After the success of the original games in Japan and the subsequent English-language release in the American market, a sequel set of games called Pokémon Gold Version and Pokémon Silver Version (GS) were released in Japan in 1999 with English-language versions published in 2000. GS continued the story of the first games but added new mechanics, a new set of characters, and a new region for players to explore. Examining the character of Silver, this essay explores in depth how morality messages are conveyed to children and adolescents through video games designed for their demographic and situates the critique of games like Pokémon in the broader context of literary analysis. The Pokémon videogames have been largely ignored in academia, with critical attention instead primarily focusing on the television show’s economic and cultural impact. The study of the games, however, allows us to view game mechanics in video games as literary tools which allow the creators to make metaphoric connections between the mechanics of the game and narrative ideas in the game’s story. A prime example in GS of this interplay between mechanics and narrative is the introduction of the new “Dark-type” mechanic. This mechanic helps explain the motivation behind the actions taken by the character of Silver and allows for a deeper reading of the game. By combining traditional literary techniques, such as dialogue and narrative, with the visual and mechanical information presented to the player through the medium of a video game, Silver emerges as an “evil” child who through the intervention of the player character can overcome his flaws and become “good.”
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Pokémon Critique
Although the economic and cultural effects of the Pokémon franchise have been discussed with some academic attention, little has been written on the narrative elements of the popular video game franchise. The book Millennial Monsters, for example, critiques the work of the broader Pokémon franchise and the role it has played in promoting consumerist ideals. In this book, Anne Allison argues that the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” slogan of the early television show and video game marketing is as a “cute-ification” of a hyper-capitalist consumer culture: children are taught by these products that success equals having all of the things (192-270). Additionally, both Allison in Millennial Monsters and Jospeh Tobin in Pikachu’s Global Adventure describe how marketers paid careful attention to “dejapanify” the product so as to best appeal to a western audience; specifically, they toned down references to anime or Japanese culture in an attempt to create a nationless product with mass appeal.
Although the Pokémon phenomena has been widely left out of academic discussion except in an economic context,
various social activists have devoted time to discussing the moral messages of Pokémon games. Early on in the rise of Pokémon’s popularity, for example, popular Christian televangelist Phil Arms participated in the moral panic surrounding various sources of children’s media. Regarding Pokémon, he expresses concern that these “little, reclusive, power-filled monsters” (Moore, 00:38) teach children how to “enter into the world of witchcraft . . . to use psychic phenomena” and “put supernatural powers against their enemies” (01:15-27). In his sermons and his book written on the topic,
Pokémon and Harry Potter: A Fatal Attraction, he
Phil Arms preaches on the demonic power of Pokemon
explicitly links Dungeons and Dragons, one of the foundational role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons was central figure in the largely imagined “corruption” of America’s youth that came with playing certain games that had themes of the paranormal, magic, or the occult, such as Pokémon. Themes of the paranormal and even the occult do exist within Pokémon titles, as do overt and intentional references to various mythologies all over the world. However, as will be explored later, rather than praising demonic forces, the games use these supernatural characters to explore how power should be used responsibly and morally.
Game Theory analyzes a popular Pokemon fan-theory
Secular analyses of the Pokémon games has also largely come from the pop culture sphere. Countless videos on social media platforms attempt to deconstruct hidden meanings or messages embedded in the plot or lore of the series. One example is the YouTube channel Game Theory, which deconstructs popular fan theories about the game in the episode “Game Theory: Solving Raticate's "DEATH" (Pokemon Red and Blue),” or attempts to meld real world science with Pokémon game mechanics in "Pokemon Evolution Would KILL YOU! | The SCIENCE! ...of Pokemon." Animal rights groups have also attempted to
analyze the messages conveyed through the Pokémon videogame. Notably, PETA has released two mock-Pokémon game of their own, in which the violence and goriness of a typical Pokémon game is dramatically increased to point out its potential promotion of animal cruelty.
Despite condemnation from religious figures and animal rights groups, the long-lasting survivability of the franchise suggests more than simply a savvy marketing campaign that encourages children to continue purchasing more and more of the same. Rather, Pokémon games utilize game mechanics to create compelling narratives for children, which in turn introduce children to moral frameworks that demonstrate the games’ perception of “good” behavior and “bad” behavior.
PETA's version of Pokémon
Game Mechanics as Literary Tools
When analyzing videogames as literary texts, it is important not to focus solely on plot and dialogue, but to examine every aspect of the work, including such elements as sound design, visuals, and game mechanics. The phrase “game mechanics” is usually understood as shorthand for every aspect of playing the game that is not explicitly the game's story. Game mechanics serve as the tools by which the player completes the videogame’s narrative but are also the physical limitations on what it is possible for a player to do while playing the game. Game mechanics include such things as the confines of the map, how many items players can keep in their inventory, or whether or not a player needs a certain item in order to walk across a bridge. Early in video game history, many games, such as Super Mario Bros., involved the player character moving to the right and jumping to avoid enemies in order to reach the end of the level. Therefore, one of the “game mechanics” of Super Mario Bros. is the ability to “Move Right.” “Moving Right” is how a player metaphorically “reads” the story, but is not necessarily is the narrative of the story proper.
Side-scrollers like Mario from the early era of video games were not known for intricate plot lines and thematic overtones; their stories tended to be a thin excuse to encourage the player to continue forward in what was largely an exercise in hand-eye coordination and puzzle solving. Alternatively, as video games became more complex due to advances in computing, story-driven games began to emerge called role-playing games (RPGs). These were much like the role-playing games played on tabletops, like Dungeons and Dragons. In RPGs, game mechanics have much the same purpose as older games and comprise mainly physical limitations on what the player can do to interact with the world. However, game mechanics in RPGs can also establish the narrative limits of a game or function as metaphors for certain characterization choices made by the author. For example, basing a non-player character (NPC) on a game mechanic, or limiting the access an NPC has to specific game mechanics, establishes aspects of that character’s personality or role in the story without explicitly mentioning those characteristics with tools like narration or dialogue. As an intuitive example, an antagonist character may be shown to have an incredibly high character level when compared to the player, showing the player that the antagonist is much more powerful than player and should not yet be challenged, without ever an explicit mention of the antagonist’s skill or abilities. Game mechanics are one of the ways the player discovers the story, but are also the way that authors of a game write the story.
The Pokémon games contain an essential game mechanic known as “Pokémon Types.” This system of “types” gives each Pokémon creature a set of strengths and weaknesses against the attacks used by other Pokémon. Part of the strategy of a Pokémon battle relies on understanding how the player’s Pokémon type matches up against the opponent’s. “Water-type” Pokémon, for example, are weak to “Electric-type” attacks but would resist “Fire-type” attacks. Pokémon are visually linked to their type through design and mechanics, such as the eminent Pikachu, whose Electric-type is reflected in its yellow fur and ability to shoot lightning bolts at opponents. This system of positive and negative matchups could be daunting to a young child: the Gold and Silver Pokémon games, for example, feature seventeen types in total, each having a unique reaction to the other sixteen. However, the narrative and mechanics of the Pokémon games are cleverly intertwined to give the player an intuitive understanding of this complicated system. The major characters throughout the story of a Pokémon game are usually thematically based on one type. The most important of these characters are the Gym Leaders that the player is expected to defeat in order to progress the story. Because each Gym Leader is themed after a certain type of Pokémon and only uses Pokémon of that type, children
are able to learn the mathematics of the typing system intuitively. For example, consider the Ice-type Gym Leader in GS, Pryce. His name is the first clue to his abilities, an obvious pun on the word “ice.” His personality is described by others in the town as “cold” or “frozen.” He is an old man with snow-white hair, who is only ever shown wearing a coat and scarf. The challenge presented by his Gym consists of a series of slippery sheets of ice that the player slides around on in order to reach him. While not incredibly subtle, the theming creates a clear picture of the meaning of different types and allows
Encounter with Pryce
players to familiarize themselves with all of the Pokémon in an indirect and entertaining way.
Silver: An Evil-Type Trainer
However, the mechanics of typing in the Pokémon games move beyond the attacks and abilities of Pokémon and open up a creative space for the developers to build interesting main characters like Gym Leaders. In GS, all of the seventeen types have an associated Gym Leader, except for the newly introduced Dark-type. The English name for the “Dark-type” is a translation from the original Japanese name あくタイプ (Akutaipu). In an instance of the transformative nature of translation, rather than using the most direct translation of Akutapiu, which would be “Evil-type,” the American translators went with a word with slightly less negative connotations in western thought: “Dark.” The understanding of the mechanics of the interactions between types is fundamental to progressing through a Pokémon game’s story. Therefore, it is unusual that none of the gym leaders exist to serve as the symbolic “Dark-type” character for the player to interact with and learn about the Dark-type. This lack of a “Dark-type” gym leader brings us to the character of Silver, the rival of the player’s character, who can be seen as metaphorically taking the place of this missing Dark-type character.
The fundamental way that players interact within the world of Pokémon is through the construction of their
A demonstration of a complete Pokedex
Pokémon teams. Unlike the Gym Leaders who are limited to a single thematic type, players are expected and encouraged to diversify their team of Pokémon. This secondary goal, collecting and cataloging all the known Pokémon of the world, has deep origins in Japanese monster mythology. The idea of a “monster encyclopedia” dates back to eighteenth-century Japan, where compendia of local mythological beasts would be compiled in books accompanied by illustrations (Foster). The player receives an item just like these encyclopedias called the Pokédex, which contains small bits of information about the
Pokémon that the player catches. As the player’s rival in GS, the character Silver is not limited to a single Pokémon type either. Instead, his team is made of a variety of Pokémon who create the effect of a “Dark-type” trainer through their association with various Japanese and western mythological and occult connections.
Direct parallels can be seen between the Pokémon on Silver’s team and the supernatural monsters of Japanese mythology, such as those described in Pandemonium and Parade, a modern monster encyclopedia cataloging Japanese
in nature, that are sly and tricky. The dark mythological beings that Silver controls signal to the player the thematic meaning of the “Dark-type” as a class of Pokémon which are supernatural tricksters with dangerous powers. mythological creatures. Gastly closely resemble the Sogen Bi, a flying burning
head of a decapitated monk (Foster 178). Kadabra is based on a combination of both eastern and western paranormal
Silver’s association with “Dark-Type” is not only reflected in the composition of his Pokémon team, but also in how his interactions with the player mirror the “Dark-type” moves that Pokémon use to attack one another in battle. Some of these attacks—Thief, Beat Up, Pursuit, and Feint Attack—parallel certain aspects of Silver’s character. Silver is introduced to the player after he steals a Pokémon, like the attack Thief, and then relentlessly follows the player around (Pursuit) usually initiating surprise battles (Feint Attack) because of his overwhelming desire to defeat the people he believes to be lesser than him (Beat Up). Each of these Dark-type moves relies on underhanded or dishonorable tactics to gain an advantage over the opponent, such as stealing their items or allowing more than one Pokémon to attack at once. The mechanics demonstrated by these “Dark-type” moves show how mechanics can be used as both abstract tools in videogame interaction, but can also be the basis or story and character decisions that follow more traditional means of storytelling.
The RPG genre of video games both impose limits on the world but also provide thematic and metaphorical frameworks. Silver is a wonderful example of this. The three core mechanics of the series—Types, Teams, and Attacks—show that Silver is meant to be understood as a “Dark-type” trainer. They also to inform the player about how the Dark-type interacts with the rest of the Pokémon world.
Silver’s Moral Journey
GS, the second generation of the game released in 1999, revolves around a player-controlled protagonist named Gold by default. After receiving a first Pokémon, the player is challenged by a nameless boy to a Pokémon battle. It is later revealed that this boy, named Silver by default, has stolen a Pokémon from the same facility that gave the players their own first Pokémon and that he wishes to use it to become a powerful trainer. After ending the battle with Silver, either in victory or defeat, Silver becomes the player’s rival. “The Rival,” a character that frequently interacts with the player as the story progresses and mirrors the player’s own skill and development, is a staple of the Pokémon universe. Silver’s team of Pokémon grows alongside the player’s team. However, Silver consistently blames his failures in battle on his Pokémon rather than himself. This behavior counters a lesson consistently presented throughout the story by other characters: namely, that a Pokémon trainer should respect their Pokémon for their inherent strengths and only focus on improving one’s own ability as a Trainer.
The main characters in the Pokémon games, the player and their rivals, are adolescents of undetermined age (a misconception from the anime leads people to believe that the video game protagonists are ten years old, but this is never stated anywhere in game). Jes Battis examines the teenage characters in science fiction and fantasy young adult literature in Supernatural Youth: The Rise of the Teen Hero in Literature and Popular Culture as liminal (3-4), on the cusp between adulthood and childhood. This state, Bettis argues, allows these characters to explore diametrically opposed positions, such as being both weak and strong, masculine or feminine. Their journey ends with a decision to favor one side or to find a balance between the two forces. Silver is similar to these characters in that he, too, must examine his own beliefs about individual power, cooperation, brute force, and love. He ultimately abandons those aggressive beliefs that the Pokémon world suggests are wrong in favor of a kinder approach.
Recurring themes in the dialogue of GS concern Silver’s dislike for authority figures and his preference for individual
sources. The core design of the body comes from the kitsune, a trickster spirit in the shape of a fox (202), but also draws from abilities associated with American magicians and psychics, like spoon bending and Zener cards. Silver’s signature Pokémon, the Sneasal, is an Ice/Dark type weasel-like monster with sharp claws, based on the myth of the kamaitachi, a weasel that would fly around on cold winds, slicing unsuspecting victims with its long claws (136). By incorporating these sinister mythological creatures into Pokémon and distributing them to certain trainers like Silver, the
developers of GS imply that Silver is a master of monsters that are spooky, that are occult that are sly and tricky. The dark mythological beings that Silver controls signal to the player an understanding about the thematic meaning of the “Dark-type” as a class of Pokémon which are supernatural tricksters with dangerous powers.
achievement, thus revealing the nature of his moral failures and struggles as put forth by the creators of the Pokémon games. He speaks with the repetitive, insistent diction of an angry child and has an obsession with weakness. For example, at one point, Silver states, “He claims to be the Elder but he's weak. It stands to reason. I'd never lose to fools who babble about being nice to Pokémon.” Elsewhere, he declares, “I'm going to be strong and wipe out the weak. That goes for Team Rocket too. They act big and tough in a group. But get them alone, and they're weak. I hate them all.” To Silver, being weak is
The Player meets Silver confronting monks
considered a moral failure, and acting as a part of a group implies your inability to have the strength necessary to act alone.
The main antagonizing force throughout GS, which Silver mentions above, is Team Rocket, a criminal organization that has various nefarious goals. A secondary goal of the player during their adventure in GS is to defeat this team. Silver appears at pivotal moments while the player is attempting to defeat Team Rocket. Unlike the player, who receives assistance in this endeavor from other powerful characters like Gym Leaders or Champions, Silver constantly attempts and fails to destroy the organization on his own. At one point in the game, players are tasked with finding medicine for a sick Pokémon in order to convince a Gym Leader to return to her position as a leader of the town. Silver appears to players when they first enter this town, and he reveals another level of his cruelty and anger at authority when he says, “Speaking of weaklings, the city's Gym Leader isn't here. Supposedly taking care of a sick Pokémon at the Lighthouse. Humph! Boo-hoo! Just let sick Pokémon go!” The player is only able to continue the story of the game by curing this Pokémon and defeating the gym leader, something Silver would never even consider despite wanting to prove his own power. He detests those who require assistance or even offers to help others, and he refuses those offers of help from everyone in turn. This inevitably leads to his failure, and it is only through the assistance of other characters that the player’s character ultimately succeeds.
Contrasting Silver’s obsession with self-reliance is his desire for a strong, powerful Pokémon team to win his battles for him. His Pokémon team allows him to push his failures off onto the “weakness” of others rather than taking responsibility for his own actions. Adult characters in the GS frequently tell the player that the proper relationship between a trainer and their Pokémon is that of mutual respect and companionship. After the second time battling Silver, if the player is victorious, Silver says, “Useless Pokémon! Listen, you. You only won because my Pokémon were weak.” However, as the story progress, Silver becomes less and less confident that he is only losing because his Pokémon are weak: “He told me that I don't love and trust my Pokémon enough. I'm furious that I lost to a bleeding heart like him.” Eventually Silver admits, if only rhetorically, that there are flaws in his worldview: “Is what that Lance guy said true? That I don't treat Pokémon properly? Love . . . Trust . . . Are they really what I lack?” After every battle, his conviction that ruthless training is the proper way to becoming powerful is tested, his resolve is weakened, and he becomes less and less like the “Dark-type” trainer he was introduced as.
In the final battle between the player and Silver, a particularly revealing line shows how Silver’s motivations have
Example Battle with Silver
changed after being humbled by the player: “I'm going to be the greatest Pokémon Trainer ever. Because these guys [his Pokémon] are behind me,” Silver says, showing that he has grown to care about his Pokémon beyond their utility as weapons. He then goes on to say, “One of these days I'm going to prove how good I am by beating you.” Instead of wanting to show the player how strong or powerful he will become, he specifically uses the word “good,” demonstrating that he is shedding the “Dark-type” persona, and instead attempting to emulate the goodness that the player has shown throughout the game.
From his beginning as a petulant child who insists on accomplishing his goals individually through sheer force, Silver develops into what the game teaches is proper and respectful: a trainer who cares for his Pokémon as partners and not as weapons. The construction of Silver’s character is accomplished in part through traditional interactions with dialogue, but also by a unique storytelling device of video games—game mechanics. The parallels between Silver and the “Dark-type,” seen through the composition of a Pokémon team or the attacks a Pokémon can use, demonstrate the strength of game mechanics as literary techniques. Rather than interpreting game mechanics as physical or technological constraints, mechanics can instead be seen as tools that allow creators to draw metaphorical lines between narrative and gameplay. Understanding the intricacy of Silver’s characterization in Pokémon Gold Version and Silver Version explains in part how the franchise was able to develop into one of the most successful video game series of all time, and one that continues to remain relevant twenty years after the release of its first installment.
Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. U of California P, 2006.
Arms, Phil. Pokemon & Harry Potter: A Fatal Attraction. Hearthstone, 2000.
Battis, Jes. Supernatural Youth: The Rise of the Teen Hero in Literature and Popular Culture. Ed. Jes Battis. Lexington P, 2011.
Bradshaw, Graham, and Tetsuo Kishi. Shakespeare in Japan. Continuum, 2006.
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade. U of California P, 2008.
Foster, Michael Dylan, and Kijin Shinonome. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. U of California P, 2015.
IGN Staff. “ABC News Pokemon Chat Transcript.” IGN, 9 Feb. 2000, pokamon-chat-transcript. Accessed 23 Feb. 2016.
Moore, Nick. “Pokémon Power.” YouTube, Uploaded by Nick Moore, 8 Dec. 2009, v=cmNb3xJFzkc. Accessed 23 Feb. 2016.
Game Freak. “Pokémon Gold Version.” Nintendo, 2000.
Game Freak. “Pokémon Silver Version.” Nintendo, 2000.
PETA. “Pokémon Black and White Parody Game: Pokémon Black and Blue.” Peta.org, 8 Oct. 2012, features.peta.org/pokemon-black-and-white-parody/, accessed 6 Apr. 2017.
Sheff, David. Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World. Knopf Doubleday, 2011.
"Game Theory: Solving Raticate's "DEATH" (Pokemon Red and Blue)." YouTube, uploaded by The Game Theorists, 18 June 2016, accessed 02 Apr. 2017.
"Pokemon Evolution Would KILL YOU! | The SCIENCE! . . . of Pokemon." YouTube, uploaded by The Game Theorists. , 21 Dec. 2016, 02 Apr. 2017.
Tobin, Joseph, ed. Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon. Duke UP, 2004.