Quest Updated: What Do We Say To The God Of Nuzlocke?
It has been a gruelling climb – a dungeon crawl upwards through ranks upon ranks of spirit-possessed fiends shrieking gibberish. I have forced my way past the unresolved anger of this tower, cleansing it of its pain and putting the spirit to rest. I have dispatched two of the three thugs acting on behalf of a shadowy criminal organization who started this mess. And on the final one, my friends follow my orders. But what? A suicide bomber. Balboa leaps into the way and takes the full blast. I fight back a tide of emotion as I watch my newest teammate, newest friend, sink into the darkness, never to return. He jumped on that noxious death blast for us. I guess that’s another grave for Pokemon Tower.
I’m a continually relapsing Pokemon-addict (and what with two other columns this week mentioning the franchise, I doubt I’m alone at all). I cannot tell you why. Apart from nostalgia for Red and Blue and the first season of the anime that I religiously watched at 4pm on SABC2, there isn’t much that I usually like in a game. I’m big on narrative and characters and Pokemon is essentially the same, only with different Pokemon and Team Rocket is now Team AnotherSciencyWord. But I keep going back, for a number of reasons. This time was different, though. This time I decided to try bring some story back to Pokemon. This time would be Nuzlocke.
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You see, I’ve been thinking this over for a long time. The challenge is well known among serious Pokemaniacs, but in case any of you haven’t heard of it, I’ll give the two key rules outlined in the webcomic that started it all:
1) If a Pokemon faints, you treat it as dead and either release it or put it an a box forever
2) You can only catch the very first Pokemon you meet in an area, and no more.
Now as I’ve said, I’ve played the games before and Nuzlocke is considered a hard challenge for experienced players looking to make things more interesting. But that wasn’t really what I had in mind when I started. You see, it boils down to, I’m afraid to say, PETA. I had wanted to do a rant last year when they decided to protest Black and White 2’s launch because, to put it plainly, making virtual creatures do battle in a world where said creatures actually want to do so will corrupt a generation of children to beat their dogs into fighting machines and make them battle to the death. I didn’t want to give PETA the exposure such a stunt was going to provide. Anyway, this isn’t about how wrong (or right) their concept of the franchise is. Its more about the games themselves. You see, when gamers and Pokemon fans lashed back at the protest, they focused their justification on the anime – “look at how much Ash loves his Pikachu” etc.
The games too emphasise that you have a good relationship with your Pokemon. Certain Pokemon, like Golbat and two of Eevee’s evolutions, won’t evolve unless they are loyal to you. The narrative of the original Red and Blue, and their remakes Leaf Green (’cause Bulbasaur needs some love too) and Fire Red end with Prof Oak lecturing his Douchebag grandson (generally called Douchebag – which is why allowing gamers to name opponents is a bad idea!) about the importance of seeing Pokemon as friends, not tools or weapons. The bad guys in every story are bad because they use Pokemon for selfish ends with no care for them as creatures.
But here is where there’s some of Cavie’s Ludo-narrative Dissonance. You see, when my Pokemon faints, I don’t actually register that this little bundle of electrical energy and fur has passed out due to my not wanting to give my opponent a free turn when I switch Pokemon. I mean, revives are pretty cheap, I can just wake him up afterwards, right? Of course I feel angry that one of my Pokemon has gone down, but I can also tell myself Pokemon follow the Spartan way: “Come back with your shield, or on it.” But with Nuzlocke, everything changed.
I lost my first two Pokemon in a single fight. I was punching above my weight, at least 3 levels. Nibbles the Rattata was weak, and one peck killed him. Then I made a grave mistake – I sent out Manley the Mankey against the Spearow. Peck. Critical Hit. Super Effective. Manley fainted. A team of four cut in half in one fight. I had to save my game and go and do something else. And that was only the beginning. I lost some new friends in training, especially due to my carelessness. And then Team Rocket boss Giovanni’s killer Kangaskhan unleashed an assualt on my Dugtrio and Butterfree, who I’d raised from tiny little Pokemon. I was crushed. I can honestly say that the choice at the end of the first Mass Effect between Kaiden and Ashlee has literally got nothing on the loss of those Pokemon. And no game, not even Bioshock, has me on edge the way subsequent battles have had me. After Balboa the Geodude leapt on the self-destruct grenade of a Team Rocket Koffing, any fight with a Pokemon that does self-destruct scares the shit out of me. I have never loved characters like I’ve cared for these little creatures. Nicknames, and the surprise that “hey, Venomoth is actually freaking AWESOME” endeared every one to me, and made every loss increasinly unbearable.
What this experience (at the time of writing I’m still mourning the death of Nidoking Robert Baratheon after Silph Co) is showing me, is that it actually isn’t hard to create emotion in games. However, as I’ve said before, the guarantee of success in gaming does undermine this. When what you say to the God of Death is “lol, reloading from Save Point”, it kind of loses its impact. Yes, the no-win-win in ME1 is a way to force things to a head by ensuring that you do have to live with the repercussions of your actions, and games like Torchlight tracking your deaths also add extra drive to achieve a perfect record. But what if when a team-mate in party-based games died, they weren’t casually revived at the end of the fight? Its an unrealistic expectation, sure, but its something that I’d like to see game devs look at.
Because, let’s be honest, part of the massive following of Game of Thrones is because characters die. Especially the ones you love. And that’s what makes it mean something. Nuzlocke is the same. In my next Nuzlocke, I will be Pokemon Trainer Syrio and you know what I will say to the God of Death?