Pokémon has been around for over 20 years now, and it’s success can be attributed to more than just how cute Pikachu is, because let’s be real, Eevee is way cuter anyway.
Many people say it’s because children like to have things of their own, and the ease of collectability between the cards and the games can grant that to them. I think that, while fair, they’re ignoring the simple lessons in children’s storytelling that Pokémon gets right everytime, between the games, TV shows, and movies.
“How much storytelling can there really be?” you may ask, and I say not much, but what they do have, they do it really well.
Pokémon is clearly not set on Earth, as all of the monsters have some form of magical powers, and can “evolve” like a metamorphosing caterpillar into a butterfly (just take a look at Caterpie and Butterfree)
However, this isn’t were the world building stops. Entire industries are not only affected, but directly influenced by the existence of Pokémon, from healthcare, emergency services, leisure, and even organized crime. That’s right, there are full on mobs and gangs in the PokéWorld, even gambling. The whole world is like a mini, safer version of our own.
As the world expands, so too does the Pokédex. As more games and new regions are introduced, there are more and more Pokémon to discover and collect. They are based on their surroundings, and have natural habitats.
Kids, as we know, are always wanting more information, always asking “Why?”. So the creators of Pokémon have gone so far as to create a new theology and creationist story for the world. There is a God, and his name is Arceus.
They create so much information in this fictional world, and go to some topics that some parents might say “aren’t for children,” like God and gambling. But they do this because the creators of Pokémon know that we don’t give kids enough credit. They can understand a lot more than we think they do, and they can begin learning responsibility and personal goals outside of what parents or teachers tell them.
Pokémon teaches us to trust our audience. Whatever you give them, they’ll keep up.
Illusion of Choice
Player choices really only come up in games, so whether you want to create your own video game later, or you’re a Game Master for your TtRPG group, Illusion of Choice is a very strong thing to learn.
In the games, you get to decide what kind of Pokémon you want on your team, what special moves they’ll have, and how much you want to interact with the world. In the base versions of the games, you have a team of six Pokémon, when you can collect all 151 of them in the original games, to the 807 there are now. Those are some important choices you get to make.
However, the game only proceeds if you go down a predetermined checklist, which usually involves defeating Gym Leaders (local champions), before taking on the Elite Four (regional champions). The game has a specific story it wants to tell.
Many GMs see this as something called “Railroading” your story, which is a whole different conversation. While railroading your players and your story is absolutely not what you want to do, you always want your players to be the heroes of their own story. The only time you should stop your players from doing something in your game, is when it would stop them from being the hero in their story.
Pokémon reminds us to keep the focus on the characters that matter, and their journey to their accomplishments.
One day, John woke up, got in his car, and went to work. Work was fairly uneventful, with the only notable part being his tuna sandwich. When he went home, he enjoyed some television, before going to bed.
That story was boring. It was boring because there was no conflict. Lets try again.
One day, John woke up, and realized he was late for work! He rushed to his car and sped down the highway, only to be pulled over! He got to work, and was reprimanded by his boss. John tried to explain his case, but the boss didn’t listen, and wrote him up. By the time lunch came around, he realized he had forgotten his wallet in the rush of the morning, and no way to eat lunch. Once he got home, he was so upset about his day, he went straight to bed, and skipped dinner too.
This story is more interesting, but we aren’t invested. The story was nothing but conflict, and we had no reason to relate to John. It’s hard to care about his well-being when you don’t know who he is.
Pokémon is great because in between the conflict that moves the story forward, and makes you care about the characters, they allow relationships to grow. They give the characters other goals and interests outside of being the best fighter.
A common source of steady conflict in the original show, was how Ash Ketchum would continuously run into members of the organized crime syndicate, Team Rocket. It was a clear enemy to stop, but each episode would only dedicate a few minutes to the actual interaction between Ash and Team Rocket. Keep up momentum, but know your characters.
Pokémon teaches us that no story is worth telling that doesn’t involve conflict.
Like I said above, it was in between the moments of conflict that you learned about your hero. Ash had people all around him that he bonded with and formed meaningful relationships with. However, in order to let Ash grow as a person, he needed to surround himself with very specific relationships.
He had those who knew more than him (Brock and Misty), who he wasn’t intimidated by, he understood that they knew some things more than him, and he knew some things more than they did. Ash had an experienced high ranking mentor (Professor Oak), who was there to offer advice, but never stopped letting Ash be the hero of his story. Ash gained connections to people with resources (Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny), who had agendas of their own, and couldn’t always be there for Ash, but he knew how to find them. Lastly Ash had someone who looked up to him (Pikachu) because some of the highest learning moments, are teaching moments. You need someone who relies on you like you rely on others, to help you become a better leader.
We even saw the relationships within Jessie and James of Team Rocket. They were overworked, underpaid employees of a larger organization, with an unforgiving boss, trying their best. They got into arguments over the right way to continue, but in the end their relationship made it so they didn’t necessarily achieve their goals, but they never gave up.
Pokémon teaches us that the core of every character is based on relationships, and no audience will root for someone who is alone. Surround your heroes with people they care about, and the audience will care about your heroes.