I’m a fan of Pokémon. Yes, at 32, I’m an unabashed fan of the Pokémon video games. I don’t really care for the card game or television show, but as far as a jRPG goes, it’s one of the better ones, even if it’s become relatively stagnant in the last few years.
With that embarrassing plaster ripped off, now I can explain to you a theory I’ve come up with after talking about the world of the Pokémon video game series with my brother, D+Pad and Killed by Ghosts contributor Alfred Etheridge-Nunn.
In case you’re unaware, Pokémon is a Japanese roleplaying game on Nintendo’s hand-held systems. You play a tweenage boy or girl thrust into the world of pocket monsters. You, and several other children (and varied adults, but I’ll cover that later) hunt, collect and fight using strange-looking monsters. They number into the six hundreds as of this article, and each core game release “generation” seems to add another hundred or so. Like turn-based Japanese RPGs, it uses menu-based combat, random encounters and grinding levels. Unlike Japanese RPGs, instead of a class or a party of people with classes, you use a party of six monsters, each with their own level progressions and inaccurately-named ‘evolutions’ into newer, deadlier forms. The world appears modern, and there are several issues which come from a near-modern Earth-like environment with most of our innovations, but where EVERYTHING is about these monsters which inhabit the world.
This is where my theory comes in…
Pokémon is a post-apocalyptic horror.
Yes. A post-apocalyptic horror. You heard me right. Okay, there’s the premise, now allow me to elucidate in nine simple points:
1) The World has gone wrong
It’s our world, but it isn’t. Rather than be a generic fantasy land, Pokémon’s nations are all parts of Japan, given new names. There are references to parts of the real world, even though those places don’t exist. It’s warped enough to look like there’s been some major tectonic upheaval, and atmospheric problems which result in some districts suddenly being plunged into desert, snow, jungle and beach all in one small zone. In several of the games, Arcanine’s Pokédex entry refers to ancient Chinese folklore, as do several other entries in the games. Lt Surge, the lightning-based gym leader is referred to as “The Lightning American”. The list goes on. These things are spoken about, but don’t really exist any more. While Kanto, Sinnoh and the like are all based on Japan, the new nation of Unova is apparently what happened to part of America. So from that we can conclude that the countries as we knew them don’t exist any more (as with Panem in Hunger Games or the Knighted States in Gamma World, for instance).
2) Civilisation, or what’s left of it
Look at the towns and villages, they have what? Maybe a dozen people in them? The largest city, Nimbasa, has 239 people in it, because it’s the only place with recreations which aren’t specifically only for Pokémon (which I’ll expand on later). Without the stadiums it has a population of 150. And that’s a city. They have a currency, and that’s kind of admirable, but at the same time it’s a hollow gesture when few people seem to have a job, and the only way you acquire money seems to be from battle. If, say, you go into a house, then it’s a tiny one-room affair, with maybe one bed for a family of four. They’re all huddling together, inside, trying to avoid the outdoors, and especially the long grass. You don’t want to go into the tall grass…
3) Don’t go into the tall grass…
If you do, you’re dead. Proper dead. Why do you think there aren’t people? Normal people, I mean, wandering the countryside. The second you step into the tall grass outside of your village, you’re prey to monsters, and there are monsters EVERYWHERE. They roam the sea, the caves, the grass, everything, and they will all kill you. That caterpie? It’ll fucking have your face off.
To prove my earlier point about this being a post-apocalyptic Earth, these monsters look like ours and they have names which reference Earth animals which no longer exist (for instance pidove is a “Tiny Pigeon Pokémon”, but pigeons don’t exist, pidgeys and pidoves do). Maybe radiation mutated them? Maybe something warped animals and insects so that they changed form. Some were able to become a turtle with weird cannon things on their backs, some were sentient plants, others, for whatever reason, made themselves look like ice cream. Maybe it was to adapt to the world and hide amongst the ruins of civilisation, so some felt the need to adapt and evolve (in the proper term, not the Pokémon term) into ice creams, garbage and pokéballs. One debate I entered with a friend regarding this is the existence of “fossil” pokémon, however I posit that this is simply either those which were unable to make the transition from the old “pre-monster” world to the present “overrun by monsters” world, now able to survive in the world because of having a trainer look after them. That or perhaps the radioactive devastation was so much that even dinosaurs extracted from DNA in fossils have been affected by whatever made dogs into snubbull and houndours.
4) This Is The Year The Food Runs Out
No one knows anything in Kanto, Johto, or any other nation, apart from where pokémon are concerned. If you talk to anyone, then they’re all about the pokémon, talking about tips, tricks, how to feed, breed or otherwise cultivate pokémon. All apart from one or two people who yell things such as, “I like shorts!” but we try to ignore them. Don’t get me wrong, this is a world where a whirling magnet could murder you, where butterflies spray poison powder and horned goldfish charge you from the water. It’s a deadly world, and it’s understandable you’d want to know how to keep the beasts on your side. Still, no one knows how to make food, they only seem able to make say, poffins.
They don’t know how to get fruit or anything a human would eat, but they harvest berries for their pokémon all the time. There are no cows or sheep, but there are miltanks and mareeps, and I never hear of people killing, cooking and eating them. In fact, the milk of the miltank is only potable for pokémon. Whatever food this culture already has, what technology they have, is all they will ever have. There’s maybe only one or two windfarms, there are no new buildings which don’t have Machokes or anything building them. Pokémon power everything, they do the heavy lifting, medical assistance, cutting down of trees, lighting of caves and so on. Humans don’t know how to do anything but placate their beasts. This is not a world where people will survive. Soon the existing food supplies will run out, and humanity will either have to eat pokémon… or each other.
5) This One Needs No Hyperbole
A lot of this article needs a certain level of either exaggeration or literalism in my digesting of the Pokémon games. This one doesn’t. It’s the one most people notice pretty early on when they start questioning the cognitive agenda of the denizens of Kanto… At ten years old, children are made to leave their village, take an animal and use it to fight other children’s animals for money. That’s sick. It’s like cockfighting, but for coin. There’s often some allusion to aspiring to follow your father’s footsteps as a pokémon master, but other kids are sent out at the same time. There’s always the same premise about looking at and experiencing the pokémon, but all that means is to beat them up. And say you ‘win’. Say you get through all these arbitrary tests and beat up all the kids on your way to the top. Well done, you’re king of the hill. Now what? Now nothing, except you’re a target for every other upstart working their way through to league to TAKE YOU DOWN.
6) And what about the adults?
In many post-apocalyptic societies, adults died. In Jeremiah, a plague wiped out anyone above adolescence, The Tribe also had children as all that was left. I believe that almost no adults survived whatever apocalyptic event gripped the Pokémon universe, or if they do, something’s… wrong with them. Look at the adults, the pokéfans and people dressed as businessmen or waitresses. They’re just pokémon trainers dressed up funny. They ape doing a job while not actually working. For all I can see, the only real workers are the police and the nurses, and Team Whatever’s leaders. The police and the nurses are almost certainly clones, made to populate every Pokécentre with the same person, the only person in fact, who can heal the monsters, who can look after things. Everyone else can only destroy. Maybe each of the evil “Team”-based villain groups want to destroy the world because they know there’s nothing left? Anyway, back to the world. My theory is that all of the adults are either in a state of arrested development, or mentally go a bit sideways when they reach maturity. That way they might be able to have children, but they still can’t look after themselves without pokémon. They simply mimic what the adults of the old world used to do. There are one or two like Lt Surge who might well come from the old world, especially with, “The Lightning American” as his name. Still, for the most part, the old are strange and the young are feral combatants, fighting with deadly beasts.
7) Here’s where I lose it
The pokédex entries are often the most horrific thing. These monsters may look cute, but read up on what they do. Go on, I’ll be here, waiting…
Yeah, they’re mental, right? Just look at them again and try to understand what living in a world where these things exist is like. It’s messed up. Really, scarily messed up. What? You want examples? THERE’S A BREED OF POKÉMON WHO WEARS HIS DEAD MOTHER’S SKULL! AND ONE WHO IS THE SOULS OF DEAD HUMANS CARRYING A MASK WITH THEIR TRUE FACE! OH YEAH, AND DRIFLOON, THAT VILLAINOUS SACK OF AIR! DRIFLOON ABDUCTS CHILDREN AND CARRIES THEM TO THE UNDERWORLD! HE ABDUCTS CHILDREN, PEOPLE! CHILDREN! THIS ISN’T JUST ONE OF THEM, BUT EVERY SINGLE DRIFLOON SNATCHES CHILDREN! WHAT THE HELL, JAPAN? WHAT THE HELL?
8 ) Ahem. I Apologise For My Previous Outburst
In Pokémon Black/White, you’re playing the bad guys. Team Plasma are the RSPCA (not PETA). They’re a bit wrong as it turns out, but their basic ideology is that man should not cage beasts and make them fight for coin. And if you’re fighting them, then that’s a bad guy move. You’re a bad guy. You want gambling, you want animal violence, you want child cruelty and you want this savage, mercenary Mad Max wasteland where the strong destroy the weak. Yes, they have a mad man in charge who wants to… I don’t know, destroy the world or something. The usual. They have the method of fighting animal cruelty by doing those exact same methods of animal cruelty. They dress, weirdly, in chainmail and medieval outfits, are as stupid as the average pokémon trainer you find on the street, but still, in general, the average Team Plasma grunt on the street believes that we shouldn’t be dicks to pokémon. We shouldn’t make them beat each other into unconsciousness for the sake of some quick coin.
9) Don’t be fooled by its looks
Such mediums have been made to look small and cutesy before. Final Fantasy VI was in a grim world but still had those adorable 8 bit graphics. Advance Wars: Dark Conflict is specifically set right after an apocalyptic event has destroyed everything and looks all little and faux-16 bit. The look of Pokémon should not deceive you my friends, it’s a game set in a dark, dark world.
And for all these reasons, I believe that the Pokémon game series is a reflection of a post apocalyptic horror. Hopefully I have made Pokémon simultaneously better and more horrific than you once thought it was. You can’t see it from where you are, but I just dropped the mic.
[This article was originally written for D+Pad Magazine but has been updated with my current age, links to proof that what I say is the utter truth and a couple of little tweaks, including a new selection of pictures. There’s like, an infinite wellspring of weird and worrying Pokémon art out there, people]