Show, Don’t Tell
Why the narratives in Pokémon games work
Written by Rivvon • Article illustration by Rivvon
When it comes to the narratives in the main-series Pokémon games, they tend to fall into one of two categories: the games that feature a low-key narrative, with vague events and characters for the player to interpret mostly through their imagination, and the games featuring increasingly in-depth narratives with more developed characters and additionally robust occurrences. Over the years there has been a shift within the games’ narratives regarding the approach they take, and although one is not inherently better than the other, they both have a series of pros and cons.
The first thing that must be discussed is one very important aspect at the core of every Pokémon story: the player, represented in-game as a “silent protagonist.” The silent protagonist has been used in all sorts of video game genres, from JRPGs to first-person puzzle-solving, yet their key purpose is clear: to allow for more immersion. The player is invited to step into the shoes of the protagonist and place themselves directly into the game world. Anything the player thinks while playing is what the protagonist thinks or says because there is no dialog to say otherwise. The silent protagonist can be utilized various ways depending on the narrative unfolding around them.
The earliest games of the series are known for their simplistic stories, with even the most significant of NPCs not appearing very significant. This approach to storytelling arguably works best within the video game medium, because the visuals and gameplay assist in telling the narrative in a unique fashion as well. The lack of information conveyed goes well past the tried and true method of leaving literary devices up to the reader’s interpretation: in the case of these such games, the player is encouraged to imagine their own little details and, in a sense, craft their own story.
One of the best ways to incorporate a minimal narrative is to not hint at too much. If you’re looking to achieve a purely player-crafted story, the more you hint at, the more in-depth your story becomes. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but give too much information and you’ve taken all the thought out of your plot. And if the player isn’t thinking, they aren’t really engaged.
There is, however, a fine line: tell too little, and the player doesn’t know where to even begin with their thoughts. Player creativity is at the core of minimal narratives, and creativity is best cultivated when there are boundaries in place. In an example that hits close to home, if the next upcoming Pokémon games were titled Pokémon Marigold and Pokémon Lavender, what kind of speculation could you draw from that? Literally anything is possible. I could go ahead and tell you the games are set in Germany–that’s certainly better, but there’s still really no telling what it could be about. But if I went a step further and elaborated that it was set in Germany, focused on museums, and the central theme or conflict was “the arts versus the sciences,” you would still have a lot of freedom to craft your own ideas, but those ideas are now much more focused. This same logic is what’s applied to these simplistic narratives: with little to nothing to go off of, it’s overwhelming trying to generate your own ideas. But given enough guidance, the player is able to think much more clearly for themselves, while also giving the game a semblance of a particularly concrete identity.
The in-depth style of storytelling incorporates, as the name implies, more levels of detail in regards to the events that take place and the characters involved in them. With more solidified information, these games are able to establish their own “identity” easier, with little need to second-guess the characters being portrayed. More in-depth, dynamic characters–especially those who grow and change as the story progresses–provide the player with something to get invested and engaged in, and because the player doesn’t have to imagine it all themselves, it makes the story and characters more memorable to more people.
But special care must be taken in regards to the delivery of this information. If too much information is given, or “spoon-fed,” to the player, there will be no need to think and no way to get engaged. Another point that must be handled delicately is the matter of the Pokémon series staple, the silent protagonist. While a natural fit for the minimalist style, the character who says nothing and just goes with the flow may have a harder time fitting in with a fleshed-out cast.
With this in mind, it’s fair to say that one of the most effective ways to utilize this narrative style is to make the characters’ development known by showing the player rather than by outright telling them. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as a change in behavior, a different approach to speech, or even a change in skills if the gameplay allows it. These approaches help characters and their development seem more natural rather than forced.
Since dynamic characters are at the core of this style, having a cast that doesn’t show change can greatly damper the overall story. Sometimes a more simple foundation can work in the story’s favor if the cast is dynamic enough, but because there is generally more investment in these kinds of stories overall, any weakness or plot-hole or other such blunder can act to disengage the player and ruin the illusion of immersion that every game hopes to achieve. There is a lot less room for error when it comes to the overall presentation of in-depth narratives.
Although the most well-known games to take a minimalist approach would be those from generation one, the games I’d like to discuss are from generation two. Similar to their generation one counterparts, Gold, Silver, & Crystal Versions feature a very rudimentary conflict: Team Rocket has returned and are causing trouble. Unlike Red, Green, Blue, & Yellow Versions, however, where Team Rocket is bad to the bone just because they can be, there’s reasoning behind their plots this time around–they want to find Giovanni. They steal Slowpoketails to get money to fund their efforts and take over the Goldenrod Radio Tower to send messages over the airwaves in hopes that Giovanni will hear and emerge from wherever he is hiding to join them once more. This is already a step in the right direction because while there isn’t any sort of moral conflict or anything to similarly get the player thinking, the bad guys feel more human because there is logic behind what they’re doing. Any missing details in the behaviors or personalities of the might-as-well-be-generic-NPCs Admins can be filled in by the player easier because their goals are backed up by a purpose.
In addition to the main conflict being appropriately more fleshed-out, the characters are handled interestingly. Eusine, who is exclusive to Crystal Version, assists in making the Suicune subplot progress more naturally. Although he isn’t explicitly given any relationships with other NPCs, Morty’s involvement in searching the towers of Ecruteak along with him gives players a basis to create their own relationships–in other words, because Eusine is seen doing things, and other important NPCs are, too, it’s easier for the player to imagine that they know one-another. Even characters that don’t share interests with each other may be friends, if the player chooses to think so.
Another expertly-handled character is your rival. Your generation two rival is the greatest example of storytelling through mechanics. Firstly is how his team always features Pokémon from the areas you’ve already visited–for instance, when you fight him in the Burned Tower, the Pokémon he has can all be obtained, even by the player, up until that point. This changes for the fourth battle, where he has a Sneasel, which cannot be obtained at all until you cross over into the Kanto region. But this is explained, subtly, through another NPC: there’s a boy in Cianwood City who claims one of his Pokémon had been taken by force by someone, and gives you a Shuckle because he’s worried the perpetrator may return. Piecing this together, it’s easy for the player to come to their own conclusion that your rival is the one who stole from this boy, and the Pokémon in question was his Sneasel.
The final major attribute of your rival is his visible growth throughout the game. He starts off with an awful attitude, kicking (or shoving) the player away when approached outside Elm’s Lab. He breaks in and steals one of the remaining starter Pokémon, not to mention the already-discussed theft of Sneasel. He accuses everyone he defeats of being weak, and when he himself loses to Lance, he claims he can beat him by getting stronger Pokémon, not by training the ones he already has. Basically, he’s a jerk (one of my all-time favorite quotes has to be his response to the player falling into the basement of the Burned Tower: “Humph! What are you doing falling into a hole? Some genius you are! Serves you right!”). But after losing to Lance, his dialog changes, and he questions if Lance’s words of being kind to his Pokémon hold any truth. If you (optionally) speak to him at the Dragon’s Den after defeating him in Victory Road, he’ll talk about how he needs to discipline himself before challenging you again–a stark contrast to the high-and-mighty attitude he once held. And once you reach Mt. Moon, he faces you again, claiming to have “[come] up with an answer” in regards to “what [he] was lacking with [his] Pokémon.” And the player knows this is true because the Golbat he’s had since it was a Zubat in your second battle with him is no longer in his party–instead he has a Crobat, one of the first-ever Pokémon to evolve through high happiness with its Trainer.
These kinds of small details add up in a way that add more depth to the in-game world and its characters. A lot of the splendor comes from the player piecing together information given to them as hints rather than having the game spell everything out for them. Still, the hints are concrete enough that the player has a general idea of which direction to take their thoughts.
The most prolific examples of in-depth Pokémon narratives are from the generation five games; of its two sets of games, I’d like to discuss Black & White Versions. The first thing that becomes apparent is the number of important characters the player meets early on in the game: namely N, Ghetsis, Cheren, and Bianca. By being introduced early on, the characters arcs can occur more seamlessly and less rushed, and the primary conflict has ample time to develop. The primary goal of Team Plasma is also brought forth early, too: the liberation of Pokémon from their Trainers. And this goal even has a reason behind it: the ethics of keeping Pokémon captive in Poké Balls, as well as the reasoning that they may reach their full potential only if they are freed from Trainer control. Straight from the get-go the player is introduced to the key characters, the key conflict, and they have a thought-provoking ethical conflict to mull over.
There are many literary devices interwoven into the narrative, such as the juxtaposition of Cheren and Bianca’s goals and journeys of discovery. Also sprinkled into the mix are examples of symbolism, ranging from N’s gray eyes presenting him as the “in-between” of person and Pokémon, to the notes of Ghetsis’s battle theme creating a tritone, the most dissonant of chords, despite his last name being “Harmonia,” blatantly mirroring his dual-faced nature as the puppet-master of Team Plasma. These such details give deeper meaning to almost everything the player comes across, allowing them to thoughtfully engage in the games’ world. When the games have established that deeper meaning exists, it’s easier for the player to give meaning to more objects and instances.
Another example of such “implied depth” comes from the handling of N’s backstory. His relation to Ghetsis isn’t entirely clear, but when you are given the opportunity to visit his room, a lot of frightening possibilities open up. Scenes like this are the perfect example of the “show, don’t tell” policy: instead of outright stating the downright abusive nature of Ghetsis and his treatment of N throughout his childhood and into his teenage years, the player comes to that conclusion on their own thanks to the subtle information given throughout the game, culminating in one big “aha moment.” And as another ethics-based topic, it prompts the player to truly think about what the game is trying to “say;” it’s truly a loud statement for one of the star characters to essentially be fighting for Pokémon to not be treated in a similar manner to how he was. Also worth noting is the more serious, mature subject matter: for a Pokémon game to tackle real issues in a manner that isn’t in-your-face about it makes it all the more impressive and ultimately memorable–surely such a powerful message will resonate with a great number of players who experience it. And because the narrative was in-depth from the get-go, the most crucial details are guaranteed to be a certain way–the way the game intended them to be–which offers a solid “starting point” for discussion when compared to a minimalist story.
In addition to these well-crafted characters, even minor characters are given more spotlight than they ever had before, with Gym Leaders taking action and getting involved in the events throughout the story. The region Champion, Alder, acts as a mentor towards Cheren, as does Elite Four member Marshall, to a lesser extent. Caitlin, lady of the Battle Castle from the fourth generation’s Battle Frontier, even returns as a member of Unova’s Elite Four. Even characters who do not play a major role are given roles to preside over, peppering the games’ world with all sorts of intriguing details to keep the player engaged. And those who do genuinely grow and change as the story progresses do so without player input, making them easier to enjoy by more people than if the player had to imagine their development on their own (in which some players may not attribute growth to certain characters).
Combining all these elements crafts a game whose narrative sparks intelligent discussion and leaves the player pondering over the morality questions it raises. Although there weren’t as many empty voids in need of filling, the player is still made to think, even long after the game is over. Lots of small details in well-placed areas build up to create a world that seems almost real, with enough ambiguity to make players want to look deeper.
You have probably noticed by now that the more recent Pokémon titles tend to feature more in-depth narratives, while the older ones take a minimalist approach. This becomes even more apparent when comparing the original games to their remakes.
FireRed & LeafGreen Versions don’t offer us a lot in the way of altered story or characters, but I did make an attempt to tie up some loose ends with its indirect sequels. Of all the major NPCs in generation one, the only ones who make no appearance in Gold, Silver, & Crystal Versions are Giovanni and Lorelei. Giovanni’s fate was likely left ambiguous on purpose. Lorelei’s, however, was a complete mystery. And while we may never know the technical reasons behind her omission from generation two, it was still acknowledged in the generation one remakes, where a Sevii Island native mentions Lorelei lives there, and is interested in returning to be with her family. It isn’t major, but it confirms a more astute attention to details, even for characters as unimpactful as an Elite Four member you meet only once in one set of games.
This kind of attention to character detail continues with HeartGold & SoulSilver Versions. Every Gym Leader get a small post-game scene where you can see them, sometimes interacting with each other. This is a small but welcome set of details, giving players a chance to see the Gym Leaders outside the confines of their Gym, and hints at personalities and friendships they may have never considered before. For instance, Erika convinces Jasmine to participate in Sinnoh’s Contests (offering a link–a reason–behind her appearance in Diamond, Pearl, & Platinum Versions; another welcome attention to detail); Falkner and Janine argue over whose dad is cooler; and absolutely everyone thinks Clair’s outfit is weird. These little details add just the right amount of complexity to these minimalist characters. Combined with the narrative links to other regions, especially Sinnoh, and it’s clear there was more thought put into details for these remakes.
Also worth noting is that HeartGold & SoulSilver Versions were the last games to offer significant narratives as events. An event-distributed Celebi triggered a cutscene detailing the past of your rival and his relation to Giovanni (a hint to which had been added into FireRed & LeafGreen Versions). This culminates in discovering where Giovanni had been between the events of the prequel and the present, and a battle against him. To go so far as to incorporate the until-then not-known backstory of two of the series’s most beloved baddies in such a manner was a bold move that solidified the series’s push towards more in-depth characters than ever before. It would have been fine to leave Giovanni’s post-generation one fate unknown because it aligns with the minimalist narrative style of the first games. But it was a deliberate choice to give Giovanni (and your rival) this scene with just the right amount of ambiguity near the end to craft him into a more in-depth character.
Rounding out the remakes is Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire. Compared to the previous two sets, these remakes have the most narrative changes when compared to the originals. The core plot is changed to revolve around the mascots’ shiny new Primal Reversions, and certain characters are altered or revamped altogether to be more prominent–the villainous team leaders, as well as their admins, are given more unique personality traits to differentiate themselves from one-another; the unused protagonist is given more prominence and transformed into a friend character similar to the ones in X & Y; Steven is more active throughout the story; and Wally is transformed completely into a character who shows major change throughout the game. The other major NPCs are given more personality through facial expressions, body language, and character quirks that were not present or were not made completely obvious in the originals.
Even some areas, such as the Abandoned Ship (now Sea Mauville), are re-worked to add more mystery and depth behind them. And certain areas, such as the completely redesigned Mauville and the entrance to the Cave of Origin, are given ties to the previous games, X & Y. Gym Leaders appear throughout the region in the post-game, in a manner similar to HeartGold & SoulSilver Versions. Even Rayquaza was kept plot-relevant in the post-game exclusive “Delta Episode,” which featured characters both old and new. While each of these changes were handled with varying degrees of success, they all still point towards a clear attempt at a much more in-depth narrative experience compared to the originals.
So what brought about this change over time? There are numerous factors that likely contribute to this development. One likely candidate could be that, despite the focus on a younger audience, the Pokémon series has a large number of fans over the age of 16. An older audience may be more interested in more in-depth, meaningful stories compared to the more bare-bones approach taken by minimalist narratives. A lot of the appeal of a minimalist story comes from the enjoyment of using your imagination, but sadly a lot of that mystique and wonder wears off as people age, causing them to enjoy more solidified writings. The shift to more in-depth stories could be a result of Game Freak wanting to add more aspects that appeal to an older audience into the games.
Another possibility involves changes in the way overall game development is handled. There are 21 individual people credited at the end of Red & Green Versions (not including “Special Thanks,” Producers, and Executive Producer). Numerous people at Game Freak had to take on the roles of programmer in addition to their other task(s), including Junichi Masuda (the only staff member working on Music and Sound Effects at the time). Starting from April 2015, there are 81 people working at Game Freak, with more people than ever before being experienced in the field of programming. Now, focus can be spread across various departments, with more people focusing solely on graphics, solely on programming, and solely on writing. It is easier than ever to focus on and emphasize the script, which could easily lead to more in-depth writing.
Throughout the discussion of both separate types of storytelling you may have noticed there were numerous overlaps: in-depth stories not explicitly stating every little detail compared to minimalist omission–both require the player to imagine things for themselves, to come to their own conclusions, for example. These kinds of similarities between story styles leads me to one conclusion: the best narrative approach involves aspects from both kinds.
Giving major characters enough depth and growth and incorporating meaningful symbolism in the manner of in-depth stories gives the player an effective, solidified hook into the game’s world. Leaving just enough details ambiguous allows the player to think for themselves and get further engaged in the story. Additionally, different interpretations of certain narrative aspects sparks meaningful discussion between players, strengthening the game’s longevity and overall appeal. Since depth and meaning have already been established by the in-depth aspects, players find it more appropriate to fill in the minimalist areas with interpretations that are as equally in-depth and meaningful.
Ultimately, stories (of any medium) want to “show,” not “tell.” For a game to engage, it must make the player think. But if the information provided is scarce and rudimentary the player will only be thinking on a surface level. By crafting a meaningful narrative with intriguing characters while still allowing some room for interpretation, a story that is as memorable as it is provoking is born. This is the general formula used by the main-series Pokémon games, and this is why the narratives work.
Design by Jake
Edited by Avatar, bobandbill and Jake
With images from The Pokémon Company