In honour of our new series, Playing with Aesthetics, and with a new Pokémon game approaching, I’d like to take this opportunity to dredge up the topic of Core Aesthetics again, and use it as a lens on the design of Pokémon games (and the upcoming Pokemon X/Y). I believe that a lot can be learned about the broad appeal of Pokémon games by examining how it covers many different core aesthetics. Through iteration and improvement over its history, the Pokémon games have kept many core game elements constant. Instead of constantly changing or over-developing, the game has steadily spread to reach many more aesthetics than the average game can.
If you’re completely at a loss when I say ‘Core Aesthetics’, I encourage you to check out this video, and feel free to check out the first time I wrote about the concept. In a sentence, core aesthetics are categories of engagement that define what a player experiences and thus why he or she plays a specific game. There is arguably a pretty short (we use nine) and comprehensive list that covers most (if not all) games. If that sounds heavy but interesting, again, go check out the other links, which still only scratch the surface.
Without further ado, the Core Aesthetics, Pokémon-style.
I believe a strong case can be made that each of these aesthetics is core to Pokémon, depending on how you play the game. The design of the game (and in some cases the product and services around the product) actively encourage each of these aesthetics to allow the player the opportunity to emphasise whatever appeals to him or her most. In each case I will try to briefly capture why I feel the aesthetic is or could be core to playing Pokemon.
Fantasy: Game as make believe
The Pokémon games ask ‘What if the world were filled with these fantastical creatures, and people had a cooperative relationship with them?’, and ‘What if you were an up-and-coming trainer in such a world, aiming to be the champion?’ The games thrust the player into this role, and then lets him or her walk the many steps in that journey. Unlike many JRPGs, the game places the player in a role where they have to give instructions (a trainer), which reinforces the fantasy since that is in fact what the player does while playing: select instructions from a menu. Compare this with games where the player is the epic hero slashing through monsters, by choosing options from a menu – it doesn’t foster the same feeling of ‘being’ the role.
With each iteration of the game, the settings become more vibrant and alive, with more activities for the player to participate in. The game is so convincing in its fantasy that I often have conversations with friends who feel it is a design flaw that they must play this role of ‘trainer aiming to be champ’ and take on the Pokémon Gyms, rather than choosing some other path. While I think such a change requires great care in implementing, I am mostly impressed that the fantasy is so well built that being ‘someone else’ in this world seems like an obvious extension of the game, rather than a crazy abstraction that would be unrealistic in concept.
Challenge: Game as obstacle course
Can you win a battle against a team of top-notch pokémon, all of one type? Can you beat this gauntlet of trainers one after another? Can you navigate this maze? How about capture this legendary pokémon with only one chance? Battle with only three pokémon of a set level against infinite opponents?
Pokémon sets up its rules, then it consistently gives the player new and different hurdles to overcome within those rules. It may be a highly forgiving game (note the difference between Challenge and difficulty), but it still throws challenge after challenge at the player. With the advent of Sky and Horde battling in Pokémon X/Y, there are two new obstacles to consider: can you win with only flying pokemon, or in a one-against-many battle?
Fellowship: Game as social framework
While it is straightforward to play through a Pokémon game without ever once interacting with another soul, there is a great deal of community encouragement within and around the product. Just look at the basic product: a game that comes in two different versions requiring trading between them if a player wants to complete his or her collection. Over the years, this has expanded from trading with friends to trading with anyone around the globe. Once upon a time it required a link cable, then a wireless adapter, and now it’s as simple as having a wireless internet connection. Moreover, there are now online community activities outside of the game with in-game benefits: the Global Link.
And it all started with the simple ability to trade pokémon with a friend. Social games, from achievements to facebook games to MMORPGs, have become a vast field of study in game design. However, as seen with Pokémon, designing the option for interaction directly into a game that would otherwise be a single-player experience can be a powerful force.
Competition: Game as expression of dominance
Just as trading was built into the original Pokémon, so too was battling. Equally, over time it has expanded a vast community, all the way up to organised tournaments with prizes for winners. There are even communities of players who virtually emulate the game in order to circumvent all other aspects of the gameplay.
Many aspects of Pokémon design play into this, but I’d like to highlight one in particular. Every opponent the player faces in the game plays by the same rules that the player does. Every Pokémon encountered can be sought out, caught and trained if so desired. This means that from the very foundation, Pokémon could be a competitive game without any additional design work, since the combat is primarily symmetrical. This of course doesn’t mean it would be interesting and balanced – that has taken many iterations for the developers to fine tune – but it does mean competition did not need to be tacked on after the fact.
Discovery: Game as uncharted territory
With each new game comes a new area to explore, new pokemon with new moves, and all new emergent strategies from among all the new-ness. Even in remakes like HeartGold SoulSilver, so much has changed over time that there is the joy of discovering how things have changed within previously explored areas, in previously fought battles, and with previously known pokemon. There is, put simply, a lot of content and a great deal of depth to the interactions within that content.
Expression: Game as self-discovery
The most powerful tool any game has at its disposal to allow the player to enjoy expression is choice, and Pokémon has many layers of choices. At the most basic level, Pokémon allows expression in minute detail through the many choices which go into making a team of pokemon: which pokemon do you use, how do you raise them, what moves, equipment, variations or combinations you use.
Pokémon Black and White 2 added medals, which you earn through the hundreds of in-game activities (the Pokémon version of achievements). The player can attach one such medal to his or her player card, showing the world which personal achievement he or she likes most. Starting with Pokemon X/Y, the player also gets to choose how the character looks and what he or she wears.
Even more than this, the game covers a wide variety of aesthetics with its activities (the topic of this entire post!), which in turn allows the player to express themselves through the choice of activity. Do you attend tournaments? Do you master the battle tower? Do you catch them all? Do you breed? Do you explore the world? Do you ‘just’ beat the game? Do you compete in non-combat contests? The choice is completely up to the player, and thus an opportunity for a great deal of personal expression is born.
Abnegation: Game as pastime
I think I have spent something like a collective 2000 hours on Pokémon games. In my mind, that’s not a badge I wear with pride (though I’m not ashamed of it): it’s an achievement unlocked for the developers of the game. Between catching, training, breeding, or whatever else takes your fancy, there are many ways to just relax and spend time in a Pokémon game.
Straightforward, comfortable mechanics which allow the player to make progress towards a goal simply by putting in the time really enable this. Moreover, if the game world is rich enough to capture the player’s imagination, and you give them outlets for just passing some time productively in the game, then it can reinforce that feeling of being a part of a fantasy world.
Outside the Core
For those keeping count, I’ve got two aesthetics left. While I don’t think there is much of an argument that they are core aesthetics to Pokémon, here too there is clear design work from which we can learn.
Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
In Pokémon, sensation is far from a core aesthetic. The graphics and music consistently improve but they are hardly of the awe-inspiring variety that you see in, say, a Final Fantasy game. Having said that, this changes more and more as the series progresses, especially with the upcoming Pokémon X/Y (with an upgrade to full 3D). By changing the visual perspective from the typical top-down, and an impressive modern soundtrack with variety to match the locations of the Pokémon world, the game is certainly more of a spectacle to play with each iteration.
Here’s one example that has stuck with me. There is an underwater tunnel (Marine Tube) in Pokémon Black and White 2 where the walls are glass and the perspective is behind you instead of just above, the music was inspiringly aquatic and equal parts friendly and mysterious, almost alien. I still turn on my game and go to that tunnel just to watch the fish and listen to the music, even though there is pretty much zero functional value to the place.
In addition, the battle perspective has been updated from previous generations, and there are new interactions where you may play with your Pokémon on the touch screen (tactile interactions ahoy – no, I don’t mean the naughty kind, you’re twisted). All of these features and this work on the sensations of the game sweetens up the overall package. Sometimes, appealing to aesthetics that are not the core of the game, as long as it’s not at the expense of the core aesthetics, can lead to more accessible games.
Narrative: Game as drama
I’ll be brief: I don’t really think there is a ‘story’ to the Pokémon games. I don’t mean the story is bad, it’s just not there. There is minor development of a ‘rival’, and a few key figures pushing along the action of the game, but this only has the barest beginnings of characters developing and interacting. The most recent Pokémon games have provided a larger cast of significant characters with their own motivations and development, so perhaps even more is in store for Pokémon X/Y.
Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing. I think the narrative is intentionally minimalist to appeal to a wide audience. After all, how many stories do you know that appeal to both seven-year olds and 30-year olds? It’s interesting to note here that just as including a breadth of aesthetics can produce wide appeal, so too can knowing when to not throw an aesthetic in haphazardly.
Building on a Strong Core
So what can be learned as a designer from all of this? Honestly, a ton, more than I can extract in a brief summary. This is just one small scratch on the surface of what can be gained from looking at games through the lens of aesthetics. Do I expect to make the next Pokémon or Minecraft: the games that appeal to most aesthetics imaginable in enough measure to attract wide success? No, but we can begin to understand these successes through the lens of core aesthetics, designing around or towards these aesthetics, and ultimately make better games for it.
And what about Pokemon X/Y? As the series continues and I find myself more drawn into the world, I discover that rather than any kind of drastic change, I look forward to seeing how Pokémon broadens its horizons, appealing to even more aesthetics. In this iteration, there is supposed to be a focus on ‘beauty’, so I’m looking forward to more attention to personal expression and a variety of appeals to my senses. Maybe soon I’ll be able to call Sensation a contender for core aesthetics as well!
There’s so much discussion to be had here. Do you know any other games that you think call many aesthetics ‘Core’? Do you agree with my overall assessment of Pokémon? What do you take away from all this? Don’t forget to pop over to Playing with Aesthetics and weigh in with how you personally rate the different Pokémon aesthetics. Don’t be too swayed by my words (persuasive though I am) – vote for the aesthetics that are core for you when playing Pokémon!
Thanks for reading.