Ever since its inception, the Pokemon series has seen you stepping into the shoes of a child as they’re unleashed by irresponsible parents to explore the world and involve themselves in fantasy dogfighting. You’ve hit double digits, now go and see the local doctor for a wild animal to start fights with strangers. Here’s some running shoes now fuck off. Thanks, Mum. She can’t live, laugh, or love with me around the house anyway.
The age of our protagonist and all of their neighbouring allies and rivals have often ranged from 10-12, allowing young players and viewers to easily insert themselves into an experience designed to make you feel as if you’re escaping into a fantasy world. It was mirrored in the anime and future entries, which makes the sexualisation of such characters all the more creepy when you stop to think about it. Editor-in-chief Stacey Henley recently wrote about the noncification of Pokemon if you’re interested in such a thing.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus changes this perception for the first time in decades. Having them be 15 offers them a level of dramatic agency that simply wasn’t afforded to children in the past. I suppose the idea of being transported back in time and suddenly being expected to fend for your survival might be overwhelming for a young child, and thus Game Freak decided to change things up so the situation was much easier to swallow.
While it might seem like a minimal change in the grand scheme of things, having an older protagonist alters so many dynamics across Legends: Arceus. We have a newfound level of independence, and within moments of arriving in the first homestead we are given a small place to call home and responsibilities to prove ourselves as worthwhile members of society. Hisui is a world where Pokemon are foreign monsters and civilization remains in its infancy, so everyone is expected to pull their weight the moment they are old enough to work. Children still exist in this society, but you aren’t one of them, you’re treated like an adult with all the responsibilities that come with such a reputation. It’s cool, and is one of many reasons why this game feels so groundbreaking. It still feels archaic compared to contemporary open-world adventures, but for Pokemon, it’s a massive step.
I feel an older character is also necessary given the game’s wider mechanics. We are no longer a stationary sprite who only exists to throw Poke Balls and stand idly by while our creatures do battle, and we dish out commands. The act of training isn’t even a thing in Hisui yet, the formality of battling an equal opponent replaced by scrappy encounters amidst the wilderness that could leave those unprepared for death. Stumbling across a child’s corpse in the woods while collecting berries might be a little grim, but a teenager? Fill your boots.
You’re sprinting, rolling, diving, and dodging on a regular basis with a sense of grace that requires a somewhat older figure to execute correctly. Our protagonist is also canonically the protagonist of Diamond & Pearl, and thus they’ve been through the grinder and know exactly how Pokemon look and operate. You possess an expertise that nobody else in this land does, and you’re now old enough to apply it in a way that means something. With a few exceptions our hero remains a silent one, nodding along to each and every task they’re given like an obedient little ranger. But I didn’t care, it felt like I belonged in this world and that level of immersion isn’t something Pokemon has always excelled at.
Part of me wishes that the storytelling perhaps leant into this predicament with a deeper emotional focus. The idea of our hero feeling homesick or like they don’t belong would have been incredibly effective, even more so if we were forced to explain our circumstances to all of our new friends, and they seek to help us find a way home. But that would require a voice, and dialogue that isn’t defined by tutorials and observations so obvious that you might as well be playing as a child. Like I said, Pokemon has taken a step forward, but still has plenty more to go until it achieves true greatness. Maybe we’ll get there one day.
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