The Kick Up the Arse That Pokémon Needed

It’s funny what a difference a few tweaks in the right place can make. I wrote back in 2011 about my disappointment in Pokémon White, my first foray into the series since the GBA evidence to me that it was a series in decline. It was a sense of diminishing returns that left my copy of Sapphire abandoned and Blue as my only game with a full Pokédex, and a hardware generation and a couple of instalments in the game series hadn’t done anything to advance things substantially.

As you might have guessed, I’ve recently given it another go with Pokémon X. Fool me once and all that, but my 1998 self would have been so deliriously happy with a fully 3D Pokémon game that I couldn’t resist. And, unsurprisingly, not much has changed between this and Black and White. Nor, indeed, the Game Boy games. Maybe I’m a graphics whore or something, but the little changes here have made all the difference.

Pokémon X/Y Trainer

Graphics aren’t everything, sure, but they are something, and Pokémon X – or Y, but I’m going to talk about the version I own – doesn’t feel as half-arsed as Black/White did. Seeing those monsters in three dimensions, performing flashy attacks beyond bobbing the sprite up and down, adds dramatically to the personality and appeal. It’s like going from a pen-and-paper RPG to, well, a video game.

Another complaint I had about Black/White was that I found Pokémon to be insultingly formulaic. To illustrate:

  • It’s time for you to become a Pokémon trainer! Go and get your starter from the local professor!
  • Your rival picked the opposing element, so fight him/her.
  • Work your way through the gym leaders.
  • Thwart the plot of a criminal gang with a weird uniform, staffed entirely by incompetent henchmen.
  • Head to Victory Road and beat the Elite Four.
  • Uncover some secret of Pokémon mastery that the world’s scientists couldn’t crack a kid could for some reason.
  • Go after a set of one-of-a-kind legendaries.
  • If you’re not bored by now, pour months into building a competitive team.
  • Oh, and catch ’em all™.

Which Pokémon game am I talking about? It basically could be any of them.

X is the same, but by not looking just like it did on the Game Boy and delivering the occasional well-placed hit of nostalgia (see screenshot below) it tickles the urge that the last generation failed to. If I’d drifted away from the series and come back to this instalment, I’d have been perfectly happy with how much things had progressed.

Pokémon X/Y Mega Blastoise

It’s still not the 3D adventure that I would have killed for in 1998 – Monster Hunter looks closer to that ideal, so it’s feasible, though perhaps not from a small team on a release schedule like Game Freak’s – but as a much-needed improvement to a stagnated franchise, Pokémon X delivers. Given that delivering on the series’ potential would require Nintendo to release powerful hardware, show some ambition and overhaul a proven cash cow, I’ll take what I can get.

Trevor Phillips

Ever since GTA protagonists became actual characters with motivations, it’s been walking a difficult narrative line. Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti, the first real attempt, was largely successful given that he was a willing criminal sociopath, even if it could be difficult to square his need to keep a low profile for his burgeoning criminal empire with his tendency to steal tanks, slaughter police and FBI, and brandish rocket launchers. Though less of a caricature than his inspiration, Tony Montana, Vercetti was less believable unless players chose to play it straight, taking on the role for themselves.

Trevor Phillips

This only got worse through San Andreas and the extended GTA IV saga, which presented reluctant protagonists. None wanted to be drawn into the criminal world, forced to kill and steal, yet all did and all could be made to commit slaughter on an industrial scale. GTA IV’s Niko Bellic was particularly guilty, both protesting his status as a killer without requiring much persuasion to go out and kill, and bemoaning his status as a poor immigrant while owning Algonquin penthouses and running around with $250,000 cash in his pocket. “Oscar-quality story” indeed.

I believe the somewhat poncey term these days is ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ – the incompatibility between a fixed narrative arc and player freedom. It’s not a problem unique to GTA, but as a series that champions freedom and has put gaming’s ambitions as a serious storytelling medium on its shoulders, the quandary is innate. We could see Rockstar experimenting with a way around it in Red Dead Redemption, which made violence and lawlessness inevitable in a violent, lawless world. John Marston could be played curiously bloodthirsty for a reluctant outlaw, but at least this was a world where running around with a gun didn’t seen incongruous, and a game where the inability to escape one’s past was a major theme. But how can it work in GTA’s modern USA?

Enter Trevor Phillips.

He’s a career criminal, so having a lot of cash stashed isn’t a stretch. He’s psychotic and so neither is a murderous rampage. He enjoys crime so getting pulled deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld is in keeping with the character. He’s Canadian, so… well, let’s not go there. He’s also responsible for – spoiler warning – one of the most disturbing scenes in the series. In a game that hit headlines for one scene in particular, I found the aforementioned one far more unsettling.

In other words, he’s the first GTA character who’s reflective of how people play GTA. Even, arguably, better at it than the silent ciphers like GTA III’s Claude, simply because he actually is a character.

GTA V is one of this generation’s great games, and Trevor is one of its great characters. What’s more, it’s the second generation in a row with a loveable psychopath from one of its top adventures at the top of the list. Clearly, it’s a pattern that works.