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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Friday, March 17, 2017

To Train Them Is My Cause: Why Do We Care About Our Pokemon?

Pokemon games, whether canon or fan-made, live or die based on the bond between Pokemon and players. Can we use the mechanics of the games and the way those mechanics are altered in Pokemon Uranium, Pokemon Insurgence, and Pokemon Infinite Fusion to explain why we care about our Pokemon?
Reload the Canons! is an ongoing Storming the Ivory Tower project where I play through The Canon of videogames. Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect. You can support Reload the Canons! and my other projects on the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

I love Cubbug. It's a cross between a bear and a caterpillar, it's bright pink and green, it has the most adorable beady eyes you could ever hope to see, and it is my son. It is described in Pokemon Uranium's pokedex as "The Love Bug Pokemon," and one of the first moves it can learn is, fittingly, "Charm."

This is pretty remarkable for a fan pokemon, I think. It's a real testament to the strength of the designs in Pokemon Uranium that I bonded so dramatically to my beautiful pastel child. But it's also a testament to the underlying structures of Pokemon, I think. Pokemon Uranium is, of course, building on several decades of canon Pokemon, decades in which "gotta catch 'em all" was pretty well drilled into my head alongside the themesong for the show. Having come of age at the height of the Pokemon phenomenon, as I've discussed previously, I'm pretty well primed for a strong response to catching ANY Pokemon in even a fan game.

But there's something deeper underlying the bond I developed with Cubbug, and for that matter with a bunch of the other weird, wonderful Pokemon I encountered in the game. See, Pokemon Uranium, alongside other fan games like Pokemon Insurgence and Pokemon Infinite Fusion, cleaves, as far as I can tell, fairly close to the canon games. Certainly they're all very close mechanically to each other. And it's these mechanics that help bolster the sense of Cubbug, or any pokemon canon or fanon, as creatures that you bond with.

To explore this, I think it's useful to turn to the notion of "Dynamics" in games, and the MDA--Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics--model of game analysis. For Dynamics, I'm working heavily from a GDC talk by Clint Hocking and Heather Alexandra's recent application of Hocking's ideas to the new Zelda game. Hocking is really interested specifically in the location of meaning-making in games, with dynamics being the core place where narratives emerge. You can check out Alexandra's excellent video for a practical application of the idea, but basically the notion is that narrative and theme emerge in games at the intersection of the rules of the game, the way those rules bounce off each other in real time, and the way the player responds to those rules as a "reader"--as someone interpreting the experience.

This is pretty critical to Pokemon games, I think, because while there's a lot of text, the major focus is really on the mechanics of catching and battling with your pokemon. Certainly for me that's what has stood out from the fan games I've played. I think it's worth looking at the way narrative emerges from this gameplay, because the systems in Pokemon are so rich. After all, not only are there loads of things within the games proper that map onto this idea of being a "trainer," the fanbase has also invented external rules to impose on gameplay to alter the gameplay in ways that have inevitably an impact on the narrative content of the games as well (as in Nuzlocke challenges where a player's pokemon "fainting" is treated like a death, and the pokemon is lost forever).

What the MDA model and Hocking's dynamics let us do is break down the data structures in the games and explore how those data structures collide with the audience in various ways. This is the whole point of the MDA model, in fact, according to the original paper by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek:

Fundamental to this framework is the idea that games are more like artifacts than media. By this we mean that the
content of a game is its behavior -- not the media that streams out of it towards the player.

Thinking about games as designed artifacts helps frame them as systems that build behavior via interaction. It supports clearer design choices and analysis at all levels of study and development.

This seems pretty straightforward. Games aren't something you absorb, they're something you do. Granted, I'm always a little leery of ideas about some media being inherently interactive and demanding of audiences in ways that others are not. I mean, my background is partially grounded in reader-response theory, so I come at books with the assumption that THEIR meaning is created in between text and reader too--they're also interactive. But I take their point here: games foreground their behavior as artifacts in a way books arguably don't so much. The dynamic manipulation of the book isn't as important as it is with games. And certainly it's in the dynamics of battling with our pokemon that they become meaningful.

But just what are mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics? Well, let's take a look at the definitions in the original proposal paper: 

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.

Mechanics are straightforwardly the systems within the games which then sort of bounce off the game's flavor stuff. The mechanics aren't currently operating, they're just the algorithms that make the game run.

Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others' outputs over time.

If mechanics are abstract rulesets, dynamics are how those mechanics come into play and actually operate. So, if we're talking about Magic the Gathering (as I often do)... picture this ability called "haste." Now normally, when you summon a creature, you can't attack with it right away. Cards with haste CAN attack though, immediately. So, on a rules level, haste is a kind of piece of code that says ok delete the rule about not attacking right away. That's the mechanic. The dynamic there is a player deciding whether or not to take advantage of that ability. "Haste lets me attack" is the mechanic; "I'm going to attack you now and The Man can't stop me" is the dynamic. Dynamics therefore takes into account stuff like people's playstyles and game goals and so on.

This is how you sometimes get what usually in Magic are called "broken mechanics." Many years ago--almost 20, if you can believe it--there was a mechanic introduced that let you summon a creature by drawing on the energy of your lands, like you normally do... but then those lands would be restored once it was summoned, so you could use them a second time to summon something else! Once you could match the quite high costs of summoning those creatures, you in practice could get them for free.

That's pretty shaky ground to begin with, right? Free things in games are obviously going to be kind of tricky to balance. (As Mark Rosewater later put it, "Urza's Saga has cards in it so insanely powerful, a trained monkey should have caught them.")

But what really screwed things up was the presence of, among other things, lands that would let you generate a whole lot of the energy--the mana--used to summon creatures at once, each time it was used. Players were therefore able to use that land, rejuvinate it and all their other lands using the free spells, and use it again, in order to actually get out much much more mana than they put in! This helped contribute to an environment where it was possible to gain the kind of power you typically hit on turn seven... on turn one. To quote MaRo again: "The joke at PT Paris (the event where Extended with freshly released Urza's Saga was played) was that the game had three stages. The early game - that's the coin flip. The mid game - choosing your mulligans. And the late game - turn one."

In practice I think it's possible to see this not as a broken mechanic... but as a broken dynamic. The breakdown occurs during the runtime behavior of the mechanic as players used it in ways that weren't anticipated. This created a degenerate metagame, where everyone HAD to play these creatures and this land, because other strategies couldn't compete! Which is another dynamic, right? In the runtime environment of selecting what deck you're going to play, the players were pushed by the mechanics and their desire to not have their faces squashed into the carpet to select only decks that could beat this narrow strategy. It's the runtime behavior in the entire game environment that makes this possible.

A truly broken mechanic in this scheme would be more like Magic's "Licids," which actually threaten to shatter the rules themselves, rendering the game inoperable. If you wanted to look for a broken mechanic in Pokemon, whether canon or fanon, I suppose it would be the various glitches in the games... though the player base has done an amazing job of taking broken mechanics and converting them into actual dynamic experiences. This is why Hocking's ideas about dynamics are so important: shows HOW the jump from mechanic to dynamic occurs, and then how that finally allows for the last of the three components of the MDA model:

Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.

The final part of this is aesthetics. Aesthetics are experiential. I'm not sure I agree with the use of aesthetics as a term here, given that it seems to definitionally be more interested in affect. That, I think, defines the MDA formulation's limitations pretty well--the focus here is on emotional response and not sort of thematic and literary responses. They're permitted under the aesthetic heading, and included in their "partial taxonomy," but only sort of through the lens of affective response, as far as I can tell. Even as it moves beyond "fun" it's still primarily centered on emotional experience.

Meanwhile things like sentence-level writing quality or art style are just sort of rolled in as contributing factors to dynamics, things that can or cannot assist the dynamics, which are the core of what makes a game a game. I'm less than convinced of this strategy. As much as, as far as I can tell, ludonarrative dissonance has been ground under the heel of overuse as a term, I think it's totally reasonable sometimes to look at writing for its own sake, not merely from the perspective of whether or not it enhances the mechanics (which are the "true" experience). The idea that you can presuppose that the mechanics are where narrative lies and everything else is in error if it doesn't fit seems strangely reductive, in the same way presupposing that films should be judged editing-up or comics should be judged on panel structure-up seems odd and difficult to support (and I say this as someone who wrote an entire damn graduate thesis specifically on panel structures and affect!)

Nevertheless I think that this forumulation works great for parsing out what's happening in these fan games and what the dynamics do or don't do for the implicit narratives of the games. And I think it's particularly useful for making sense of Pokemon's mechanics.

See... Pokemon games have a LOT of mechanics.

And I'm not even talking about weird fishing mini games here. The core gameplay of Pokemon has loads of mechanics, between different types of attacks, status effects, the way attacks are balanced and kept track of, a number of stats, leveling, subsystems within leveling, evolution, divergent evolution, evolution that depends on time of day or whether or not you hold your game upside down... It's a lot of mechanics. What's more, a lot of them are kind of obscured, hidden from the player. There's not a lot of telegraphing of what some numbers mean, for example. Others are hidden outright.
Take Effort Values, for example. This is a great example of an obscure mechanic that through their obscurity contribute to a dynamic.

Effort Values are not accessible to players without assistive technology. This is deliberate. Shigeru Ohmori explains:

Each Pokemon does have a value but I don't consider those data as parameters. I prefer to think of them as real, living creatures. It's the same way that if you have a pet and someone else has the same breed of dog, it's a different dog. That way people can play the game and my Pokemon will be different to your Pokemon even if they're the same type.

A comparison would be looking at a datasheet on different dogs and deciding about the data on the different dogs and deciding which one you want based on that data -- that would be soulless.

Now, the mechanic here is the Effort Value. This is the hidden parameter Ohmori is talking about here. The Effort Value is a number that determines how much your pokemon's stats increase every time you level up. You gain effort values in each stat based on the pokemon you defeat. So, whenever a pokemon contributes to a victory, it gets an increase in some stat based on the enemy pokemon... and then gains experience that moves them toward leveling up. If you defeat a fast pokemon, for example, your pokemon might gain a speed effort value, and when it levels up it might gain a +2 rather than +1 to speed.

This is a pretty complicated system and one that's totally hidden to players, though you can probably figure out by trial and error that having each of the pokemon in your party appear once per battle leads them to getting stronger with each level up. This is the dynamic of training. You have each pokemon contribute to the battle, so they level up slower, and gain more strength when they DO level up. This is, from what I remember, how I figured out something was going on behind the scenes in Pokemon Uranium: I noticed that playing one way seemed to lead to bigger stat boosts than others!

So we have a mechanic that enables pokemon to be fundamentally different from each other based on their base stats and their encounters with other pokemon, and this mechanic is hidden from players. This allows for a dynamic that encourages players to train in a particular way, treating them as pets you raise rather than existing data points you select based on raw numerical power. Random battles deliberately become processes where you're partly fighting to win, to be sure, but which involve lots of switching between Pokemon in order to get everyone a shot at those handy EVs. They feel more like sparring, in other words. The "aesthetic" here then is... well... "to train them is my cause," it's an experience of bonding with the pokemon through gameplay that distances the player from the mechanical underpinnings. This is telling the story through mechanics.

It encourages a kind of bond with a pokemon like Cubbug that is, for sure, aesthetic, but also is expressed, experienced, and reinforced through play, through the runtime action of the game's systems. Experimenting with Cubbug and being rewarded through better stat increases and through evolution into the equally adorable Cubblfly and Nyphlora facilitates the bond I experience, one that, notably, is disinterested in whether or not Cubbug is a "real" pokemon.

So, with all that said about the value of this mechanical obscurity... what does it mean that Pokemon Uranium and Pokemon Insurgence actually make EVs visible, giving players direct access to what in canon games are hidden?

Well, I think it suggests an assumption that the audience for these games is already somewhat demystified. If you're the type of player that is interested in playing or building a Pokemon fan game, you are probably familiar enough with the rules so that this aesthetic no longer really... works. This changes the storytelling somewhat, inevitably. In these games the focus is much more on being the best through mastery of mechanics rather than the less directed training encouraged by the original games.

And yet, I don't think this demystification holds entirely. This is where the player input is crucial--where the player as reader enters the picture. See, I didn't enter into these games knowing anything about Pokemon's mechanics, and as a result the EVs were just... more numbers to me. I eventually looked up what they were because I sensed that something was affecting the rate of stat improvements per level, but I don't think until I stumbled upon them I really made the connection between those values and the stat increases. Through the resolute way the games refuse to explain fuckall to you, presumably assuming that you've already played the canon games, they reintroduce some measure of mystification.

But beyond this I think there's one other... well, mechanic of a sort that contributes to my love of Cubbug, my affection for this bear insect thing despite the fact that I can see all its stats clearly and evaluate whether or not it's up to snuff. That quality is the actual art direction for Pokemon games. The variety of creatures, and the charm of such beloved designs as Trubbish, Probopass, and Luvdisc (and of course the tagline of "gotta catch em all) strongly encourage players to encounter and if possible capture as many pokemon as possible. (Mechanics reinforce this. You have a pokedex, for example, that you're encouraged to fill.)

This is maybe a place where the MDA model breaks down somewhat, or is revealed to be somewhat reductive. In monopoly or a "card game," the examples from the original article, visuals are all but irrelevant. In pokemon, how things look are crucial. People weren't complaining (wrongly, I might add) about Popplio because her stats were bad, they were complaing because her art direction didn't appeal to them, despite the fact that Popplio is beautiful and perfect. I don't think it makes sense therefore to position this as only something that happens on the level of dynamics to reinforce mechanics. I think the art is more fundamental than that. Certainly it's not the stats that are carried over to the TV show or the card game... it's the art.

But what the hell, let's roll with this constraint a little here and describe the art as a mechanic unto itself, a piece of data that is encoded within the game. 

If we look at it this way... well, this is the realm where these fan games really operate. You could look at these games as just copies of Pokemon with minor aesthetic changes--new stories (which I largely haven't paid attention to in any of these games whoops) and new art (which I've paid very much attention to indeed)--but the change over to new art is actually crucial, making a huge difference to the play experience. It's on the level of art in fact that these live or die: I've seen some criticism of Pokemon Uranium's balance but the primary critique I saw is that the designs were bad. The reason I keep coming back to Uranium in particular of all the three major fan games I've played is because I conversely find the designs to be varied, imaginative, and charming. And also none of the other games have Cubbug, so, there you go.

This drives the player to action in a way that raw data points would not. I think that in particular what it drives toward is having the player make an aesthetic statement and define themselves aesthetically with the pokemon in the game... though you'll have to wait till next time to hear more about that (unless you feel like tossing me $1 on Patreon to read the next two drafts early). I think that also combines with other mechanics to do so, of course--the pokedex, the obscurity of EV and IV counts, and the way the game incentivizes diverse parties though some of its battle mechanics, for example.

At their best, the visual and numeral mechanics, if we want to divide them up that way, might come together at their best in Pokemon Infinite Fusion. This is the weirdest of the three fan games, focusing on taking the original Pokemon Red and introducing the ability to take any two Pokemon and cram them together into one nightmare beast. The game is inspired by a popular Pokemon fusion website, which should give you a pretty good idea of the kind of things the game spits out at you--things like the eternally optimistic Seeter, who is aware now of how everything's gonna be fine one day. The site, and the resultant game, are great examples of dynamics at work. They take a mechanical system--the manipulation of visual data--and use it to output a bunch of randomized pokemon--the dynamics at work--which the players generate narratives based on... narratives like the tragic implied tale of Weepinduo which achieved memetic status.

In Infinite Fusion I have a party full of things like a butterfly with a grinning cat head, or a rodent with a wasp head, or a rat with a gaping screaming mouth that takes up its entire face. It's great, they're the worst, just the absolute dregs of nightmares. It's totally possible to find fusions in this game that are good looking, mind. Or just, you know, boring, as when you get two birds merged together. It's easy to do things the normal way if you want to.

But why would you want to?

What's really notable to me about Infinite Fusion though is the way the game's obscuring of both the results of any particular fusion (sure you can look them up but the game itself is trial and error) and the fact that unlike Uranium and Insurgence the EVs are NOT visible, and are doubly obscured due to the invisible algorithms that handle merging Pokemon together, really captures the sense of treating these little abominations as your own particular pets and creations. Pokemon aren't exactly treated with respect--forget about Frankenstein, playing the game can sometimes make you feel a bit like Shou Tucker--but man it really does feel like the things you're horribly stitching together are living beings.

So, the whole aesthetic experience of the game stems from this mechanical level. It can hardly stem from the story which is as confused and perfunctory as you would expect from a game described by its creator as more of a rom hack than an independent object proper, but that's fine. And while Infinite Fusion and Uranium certainly introduce new dynamic and aesthetic experiences through their new pokemon designs, I think it's the introduction of a new visual-numeric mechanic, the introduction of a system more like surrealist games of frottage and exquisite corpse than anything else, that really makes Infinite Fusion feel like it's got something new to say aesthetically. Even if what it's saying is "Be strong Clarence. Be strong for Mother."

That's really just scratching the surface of what these games can do, though, and the way their status as fan games affects and is affected by the MDA model. Next time: do Pokemon games offer the ultimate coming of age gameplay?


  1. "A comparison would be looking at a datasheet on different dogs and deciding about the data on the different dogs and deciding which one you want based on that data -- that would be soulless."
    -I find that sort of mindset alien. I would totally pick dogs based on the data. Isn't that why you take a look at all the dogs at the shelter? Isn't that why you research different dog breeds? Isn't that why you decide on a particular type of dog; because you expect it to be particularly friendly or playful or tough or loyal?

    1. I mean in a sense everything is data but I think it's worth taking into account the level of data abstraction that Ohmori is discussing here and the way that impacts his point. Like I think we can break down your statement along an MDA model line as well, right? Because "you expect it to be particularly friendly or playful or tough or loyal" isn't mechanics it's dynamics and aesthetics--it's the experience you hope to get. It's the runtime environment of "Dog."

      I suspect the data sheet for "Dog" would not be human-parseable, and while obviously IVs and EVs are human-parseable I understand why Ohmori would want them not to be, in order to place an emphasis on the kind of experimentation that goes into having to encounter "Dog" in a runtime environment and postulate mechanics based on those dynamics.

      Holy shit I cannot believe I just typed all that gibberish


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