“Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield,” the latest entries in Nintendo and Game Freak’s blockbuster franchise, were released this November amid a wash of public complaints about what the game wouldn’t include.
The news surrounding the games in 2019 was marred by massive leaks from pirated copies, rumors of debilitating performance issues within the game and, most notably, “Dexit” — Game Freak’s decision to include just 400 of the series’ 890 Pokémon.
A side effect of the public outcry directed towards the games is that their content of the games, especially their themes and messaging, have been ignored. This is a particular shame as “Sword” and “Shield” mark the franchise’s first foray into the world of political messaging and could signal a massive tonal change for the industry in the years to come.
Fans of the series will know the Pokémon games have never shied from posing deep and philosophical questions. Despite the fact that the games are marketed toward children, past entries have tackled complex issues like climate change, free will and the morality of society. Regardless of the depth of these issues, these debates have been packaged in a saccharine and simplistic way, presented in a black-and-white vacuum with little exploration of links to real-world analogies.
“Sword” and “Shield” mark a turn from this approach. The games take place in Galar, a fictionalized version of Great Britain, and follow the protagonist taking part in a new, tournament-style Pokemon contest. As players progress toward the championship, they discover that Chairman Rose — CEO of the megacorporation that holds a monopoly on commerce in the region — has hatched a scheme to solve the looming energy crisis in the region.
Facing a quickly depleting stockpile of energy and total societal collapse, Rose attempts to persuade Leon, the players’ role model and Pokémon celebrity, to aid him in harnessing an unstable, dangerous and ancient Pokémon to delay the onset of the oncoming disaster. Leon refuses, claiming the issue is too far in the future to worry about, and insists on focusing on the tournament championship instead. Rose goes forward with his plan alone, triggering a cataclysmic event, and it’s up to players to defeat Rose and put a stop to his plans before the region falls into “eternal darkness.”
At first glance, this plot seems to follow the standard Pokémon video game format fairly closely: a megalomaniacal villain summons dangerous Pokémon to achieve his or her selfish goals, loses control of the situation and is thwarted by the quick thinking and Pokémon prowess of the nearest 10-year-old.
A closer inspection, however, reveals more nuanced plotting, especially in the character of Chairman Rose. Unlike in past titles, he isn’t some cartoonishly dressed gang leader with a half-baked scheme. Smartly dressed in a three-piece suit, he is the face of a powerful corporation and seeks to use a dangerous and destructive force to feed his capitalistic plan for the future.
The location and stakes of “Sword” and “Shield” are grounded and realistic; after all, they’re pulled right from our own headlines. Rather than the tired tradition of setting past games in regions loosely based on Japan, “Sword” and “Shield” represent an advancement in specificity of locale, explicitly connecting gameplay to real world events. The game is speaking directly to the energy and environmental crises facing Britain — and the whole world — at this very moment.
However, the game does not perfectly achieve its social awareness ends. The ultimate thesis of the game is essentially, “The way forward is placing trust in the next generation and giving them the responsibility of righting our wrongs,” which is an infuriatingly blase conclusion to draw from a crisis that is destroying our world.
The politicization of these entries is significant. Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, and both the Pokémon franchise and Nintendo as a whole have proven themselves to be major trendsetters in the industry. With an influential and youth-targeted franchise like Pokémon working to tackle political issues in a more complex and nuanced way, it seems likely that the next few years will see massive steps forward in political messaging in games throughout and beyond Nintendo.
2019 saw a more activism-centric zeitgeist than ever before take hold with Hideo Kojima’s distinctly political, if poorly executed “Death Stranding” and a generally improved approach toward accessibility-focused game design. Meanwhile, 2020 already has a few titles slated for release that seem well-suited to presenting even stronger political messages like CD Projekt Red’s “Cyberpunk 2077,” Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us 2,” and Square Enix’s “Final Fantasy VII” remake.
“Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” are far from flawless games, but we may look back at their relatively bold political stance as trailblazing and critical to bringing political awareness into mainstream gaming.
Mac Riga is a junior in the College. START/SELECT will appear in print and online every other Friday.