Pokemon Designs Have Gotten More Creative, Not Less (and That’s the Problem)Posted: December 11, 2016
In celebration of Pokemon Sun and Moon coming out and my previous Pokemon post years ago getting over getting a bunch of traffic, I thought I would cover another topic about the series that I find interesting.
Though admittedly it is something I don’t hear as much about recently. Whether people have gotten over it or just aren’t as vocal about it anymore, I don’t know, but as someone who grew up with Pokemon it was something that came up frequently each new game that came out, and it tended to be more prominent each time.
And that was arguing about Pokemon designs.
Mainly it was people seeing new Pokemon and not liking them as much as the original 151. At first it seemed like they couldn’t put there finger on why that was the case, but when they saw designs for Pokemon such as Vanillite, they chalked it up as them not being as “creative” as they used to be.
But the thing about the argument is that while it’s subjective to determine how creative something is in and of itself, it’s easy to argue creativity when comparing things to each other. A quick look at the original games shows just how unfounded the argument really is: it has a caterpillar, a bull, a crab, a goldfish, a starfish, an orange dog, a white seal, a purple rat, a purple snake, a purple pterodactyl, a purple shellfish, and literally a pigeon. It’s hard to argue that an ice cream cone and a garbage bag are somehow less creative than any of those.
The question is, if it’s so easy to see this, then why was it such a prominent argument? That’s where things get interesting.
There are a few reasons people came to this conclusion, and one of the biggest has to do with how beloved the first two games are to people. It’s really common for the first game you play – in a series that you end up liking – to also be your favorite. You can see this really well in the Final Fantasy series, for example. With rare exception, everyone’s favorite game in that series is the first one they played. It makes sense, it’s what kicks off your love for the series so it has a fond place in your heart.
The thing to remember, however, is that it also works inversely. While there are certainly exceptions, it’s common for people to be more critical of a series each new iteration. This is generally because the first game just needed to sell you on the idea of what it was, rather than how well it actually works. Once you’ve already grown accustomed to the concept of something, you start to hone in on how it’s all actually built.
I don’t doubt that people found the later games to be less enthralling than their first, but it was most likely for reasons other than this flimsy “the designs got less creative” argument. It was probably that people couldn’t quite put their finger on what was bugging them, and they saw an olive branch they could latch on to since it seemed to make sense on a surface level.
The real problem that people probably had with the series is actually the reverse: Pokemon designs started getting too creative.
Earlier I listed off some Pokemon from the first games that had pretty basic designs, since most were based off real life animals. That’s actually not a problem though, it’s actually the smartest move they could have done. By basing the designs on actual animals, it blurred the line between fantasy and reality which made it feel so much more real than it would have otherwise. Obviously kids have a pretty high ceiling when it comes to imagination, but I know when I was going to turn ten I wanted nothing more than to get a call from Professor Oak so I could go on my real Pokemon journey.
But more than the line being blurred, the real key here is how the designs allowed the team to cheat a bit in regards to the depth behind each Pokemon. It’s one thing to see a creature and decide if it’s design is cool or cute or whatnot, and it’s another to actually get a feeling for what their personality may be. Due to the designs being what they are, you can use the animal that each is based on as somewhat of a shortcut for what they may act like.
It’s easy to see Pidgey as a bit of skittish scavenger, Caterpie probably keeps to itself and avoids almost all other forms of life while feeding off of plants, etc. Being able to look at a Pokemon and get a feeling beyond just the surface-level does a lot to endear you to it.
This is where the more creative designs actually do more harm than good. By being too unique, you don’t really get a sense of what the Pokemon‘s personality or lifestyle is like, so you’re left with the initial thought of: “that design is sort of cool I guess” or something along those lines.
Looking at this thing tells you absolutely nothing about it. What environments does it tend to live in? Is it a hunter or a scavenger? What does the different color for its head mean? What about those spikes? What type of personality could this thing possibly have other than maybe “possibly agitated”?
While looking at its Pokedex entry can gleam some answers (it’s a hunter that lives in caves and its head is really, really hard), none of this is conveyed clearly enough through its visual design. Nor are any of these details all that interesting. It’s a big monster that hunts stuff.
This isn’t to say that designs that aren’t based on actual animals are inherently bad, they’re just at an inherent disadvantage. An exception would be the legendary Pokemon from basically any generation: they’re overdesigned in order to convey their immense power at a quick glance, though some are more effective than others by having the journey to find them or just their appearance being extremely atmospheric. My personal favorite is Giratina, whose disturbing arrival and personal distorted dimension is one of the few instances of the series managing to be genuinely creepy.
Admittedly some of the legendaries aim more for being cute than powerful, like Mew and Celebi, but it still works.
The point is that your first viewing of new Pokemon tend to be when they just show up in the wild, so all you have to go off of is their visual design, and if it doesn’t convey something interesting beyond just a surface-level, people are less likely to care about them. That was the real problem people were having each new generation.
Creativity is good, but it needs to have some kind of focus. If you just design things with no core idea in mind, it just comes across as a jumbled mess. It’s the visual equivalent of white noise. Luckily it seems the Pokemon Company have learned this themselves, as I watched everyone on the Internet fall in love with Mimikyu, the Pokemon that wears a ragged Pikachu costume since it wants to be as adored Pikachu is.
Admittedly aping a Pokemon design is as uncreative as any real animal, but the point is that there’s a purpose behind it. It conveys something meaningful of its own.
There is a bit more to this all than just a discussion on creativity to be fair, including how 151 Pokemon was the perfect number: high enough to seem almost impossible to remember them all but with time you can manage to do it. Hell, we got a sweet rap out of it. Adding more and more after that point just made it feel like overload. “We have to remember MORE of them? Ugh.”
The point is that while an ice cream cone with a face is obviously no less original than a pile of purple goop with a face that evolves into a bigger pile of purple goop with a weirder face, originality in and of itself doesn’t mean anything, why something is designed the way it is matters far more than any surface level.
It’s pretty much the same thing I say about shows I watch: how unique something is doesn’t really matter, what does is how it uses the elements it has, and if there’s one thing I strive to do, it’s to get more people to ask the “why” for things more often.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my copy of Pokemon Moon has been waiting for me.