For a franchise with friendship as a central theme, Pokemon has been shockingly remiss in offering trainers ways to form bonds with their companions. Battling notwithstanding, opportunities to interact with one’s Pokemon have been virtually nonexistent across the series. The games’ plots dictate that the love and trust between player-protagonist and Pokemon are powerful. It is due to those strong bonds, the games emphasize, that the player-protagonist is so exceptional as to both become League Champion and take down the various crime syndicates threatening the world. But the growth of this love and trust between trainer and Pokemon is a gap that players must fill in on their own. It is not developed onscreen.
Pokemon-Amie was the first major change to this trend. Introduced in Pokemon X and Y and reappearing virtually unchanged in Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Pokemon-Amie is a feature that allows trainers to interact with their Pokemon outside of battle. Players can use the 3DS touchscreen (with a disembodied hand as their own onscreen representation) to pet or feed their Pokemon; they can speak into the microphone and watch their Pokemon respond; or they can smile into the camera in response to a Pokemon’s prompting.** Additionally, there are three mini-games that invite trainers to play together with their Pokemon—and that reward Poke Puffs with which players can feed their Pokemon.
There are three qualities that correspond to these activities: fullness, enjoyment, and affection. Feeding a Pokemon increases its fullness. Playing with or petting a Pokemon increases its level of enjoyment. And following these increases in both fullness and enjoyment, a Pokemon’s affection level will increase.***
Thus, Pokemon-Amie provides trainers with opportunities to spend time with their Pokemon and to fortify the bonds between them. These interactions occur in a decontextualized space: a grassy, sunny, and otherwise empty plane. It is as if they are played out in a world apart, rather than in the real-time locale of the player-trainer’s current travels. On the one hand, this offers a sense of intimate isolation. There are no distractions to detract from the idyllic setting of trainer-Pokemon bonding. On the other hand, it also—I would argue—lessens a great deal of the import of this bonding process by removing the interactions and relationships from the situations in which trainers and their Pokemon may find themselves. There is no context in which these friendships flourish.
However, there are in-game impacts from an increase in a Pokemon’s affection level that therefore provide context for its results. Friendship between trainers and Pokemon is not merely a caring relationship to be pursued for its own sake, despite what the games’ storylines and characters would have you think. Establishing links of affection also improves a Pokemon’s performance in battle. Pokemon-Amie may be fun and enjoyable on its own as a series of mini-games and endearing interactions between players and their Pokemon. But “using” Pokemon-Amie also serves a largely functional purpose for trainers by affecting a Pokemon’s prowess and granting advantages in battle. Of course, that makes sense given the games’ traditional narrative: the strength of friendship between trainers and their Pokemon is what makes them excel in battle. It is the reason that every game gives for why player-trainers and their Pokemon are able to defeat gym leaders and Teams and Pokemon Leagues.
As affection level increases, so too do the likelihoods that a Pokemon will evade attacks or land critical hits while fighting. A Pokemon with high affection also becomes able to dispel negative status effects at the end of a turn. These features can all prove invaluable in battle, often meaning the difference between a victorious conclusion or the Pokemon fainting.
The other changes to battle are even more significant—but in their affective impacts, rather than those of battle functionality.
Affection levels change a Pokemon’s animation when it enters into a battle and include extra dialogue during certain events. The extra dialogue can occur during the start of the battle, pointing out that Pokemon and trainer are “breathing in perfect sync with one another.” At the outset of particularly important battles—such as those against gym leaders—a Pokemon with high affection will turn back to the trainer and “nod in understanding.” At some openings, lines of new dialogue will declare that the high-affection Pokemon trusts the trainer to “come up with the best strategy.” These are the rare moments in which the games explicitly recognize the trust that has developed between trainer and Pokemon.
Perhaps even more moving are the points in which a Pokemon endures and overcomes hardships due to the devotion that it has developed for its trainer. When a Pokemon manages to survive a brutal hit, the game notes that it “toughed it out to show its best side” to its trainer. A high-affection Pokemon will manage to break through a negative status effect to keep its trainer from worrying. And most poignant, a Pokemon at the edge of fainting “looks like it might cry.”
The first time this happened in Pokemon X, my own eyes filled with tears. I called my Froakie out of the battle. Never before had I felt so negligent in a Pokemon game. What had I done? I felt as though I had manipulated this creature—which adored me, which would suffer and overcome pain and fear and terror for my sake to “show me its best side” or “keep me from worrying”—to do my own bidding, to serve my own wishes for power and status. I felt… bad.
Since Pokemon games typically haven’t offered ways for player-trainers to form friendships with Pokemon, players have concocted challenges that increase the games’ difficulty while also encouraging them to feel more responsibility for and more attached to their Pokemon. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Nuzlocke Challenge, which requires (among other rules) that players name each of their Pokemon and that when a Pokemon faints, it is considered dead and must be released. This prompts players to take greater care in their battles, as a single poor decision could result in the death of a beloved friend. In 2013, Mattie Brice used an edited Nuzlocke Challenge to create Pokemon: Unchained, a playthrough of Pokemon White in which Brice would “explore the weird politics in the game surrounding slavery apologia and the idea of gaming fanfiction.” Brice narrated her play sessions on a Tumblr page. As part of the edited Nuzlocke Challenge, she replaced every instance of “Pokemon” with “slave(s)” and every mention of “trainer” as “master.”
I am left wondering to what extent I could continue to battle in Pokemon if I had more ways to interact and bond with the companions that so faithfully follow me in my journeys across the world. My ability to ignore the innumerable problems of the very idea of sending my friends into battle is largely due to my having played Pokemon since childhood. It is a habit. It is nostalgic. It is indeed, as Brice terms it, an apologia—and it’s a pathetic one. It’s just, y’know, Pokemon. That’s just how it is. That’s just how it works, how it’s always worked.
But I wonder if players would feel increasingly uncomfortable with the violence of battle if the opportunities to develop emotional attachments expanded. I wonder what a Pokemon game would look like if bonding were the central concern, rather than combat. I wonder what a Pokemon game would be like in which the point actually was journeying, getting to know others, seeing and experiencing the world, and learning how to selflessly care for one’s friends. I wonder if we’d notice more how disturbing it is that we are content with the myths of the values of battle in the first place.
I still play Pokemon. I still can’t set the games aside and I hold a great deal of affection for them. (I even have a Pokemon as my profile picture, as you might observe). And despite my misgivings, I swell with pride when a Pokemon turns back and “nods in understanding” as gym leader music starts to pulse at the start of the battle. Still, because I love Pokemon, I wish I had more ways to care for and bond with them instead of idly following the usual formula of fighting. But given the pangs of guilt that Pokemon-Amie has inspired in me, I am not sure how long I could continue buying the excuses that battling forms bonds between trainers and Pokemon, that it’s something good and healthy for us. I’m not sure how much longer I could continue to send my friends to fight for me.
**Players can also use the touchscreen to hit Pokemon (which I did accidentally to Swampert when trying to take the picture above). The only repercussions of this are a brief, angered reaction from the Pokemon and a minor lowering of enjoyment. Otherwise, it has no impact on diminishing already established affection levels. It has no commentary or condemnation aside from that.
***Notably, “affection” is different from the in-game “friendship” aspect, a stat with minimal impact that mostly deals with the evolution of certain Pokemon.
This post was written for and submitted to Critical Distance’s February 2015 Blogs of the Round Table topic, Buddy Systems.