Open World Pokémon: A Conundrum
The announcement of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is most certainly something of a surprise, considering Pokémon Legends Arceus managed to shake up the gameplay formula not more than a month ago. Although, this isn’t entirely true: Legends Arceus may allow players to go off and catch as many Pokémon as they please, but its narrative structure is entirely linear, allowing players access to new areas, resources, and Pokémon themselves based on their completion of a main storyline. One of the key elements of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet’s promotional material is the game being touted as “open-world,” a moniker that Legends Arceus, for all its bells, whistles, and exploratory freedom, cannot claim. Which then begs the question: what does an open-world Pokémon title look like?
Pokémon Sword and Shield introduced and then expanded on the concept of Wild Areas, zones that lacked the safety normally found in towns, but the base content included one large Wild Area that was only partially available during a portion of the game. While this Wild Area did link three key portions of the map together in a neat and tidy three-act structure, it housed very little content, objectively, the main selling point being field encounters and Max Raids, the latter being a mostly multiplayer-centric feature that did not always scale well with the single player campaign. While the DLC Wild Areas did offer new biomes to explore, these areas suffered from a lack of obstacles and really only offered the same degree of options.
Wild Areas weren’t the only “playable space” in Sword and Shield, however, as intentionally designed routes with specific forms of road blocks and linearity interlinked a number of the towns and cities. Despite many people’s belief that freedom of movement and progress is a good thing, linear routes do allow for intentional design and obstacles, forcing players into Trainer encounters and presenting them with environmental puzzles. While this does hearken back to the design standard present in older Pokémon titles, there is such a thing as too much linearity. The existence of nooks and crannies, as well as dead ends, is always enticing for a player, especially when random encounters are less of a factor. With all this said, it seems a shame that Sword and Shield’s dedicated routes were somewhat disappointingly small and lacking. How can we rectify these problems in an Open World Pokémon?
As an unabashed fan of the fourth generation titles, I enjoy the dedicated, maze-like route designs that Game Freak implemented in Diamond and Pearl as well as in generations prior, and although the freedom of exploration and open-ended zones of Legends Arceus was new and surprising, I don’t know if a completely open world structure would benefit Scarlet and Violet all that much. Structured, dedicated content helps lengthen a single player campaign and enhance drama, and can and should exist outside of only dungeons, something the Pokemon series has failed to capitalize on in recent generations.
Of course, if your game is going to be open world, you can still use obstacles to deter the player from entering certain areas, which can come in the form of insurmountable terrain as well as higher-level Pokémon. Legends Arceus’s slow Pokeride unlocks allowed for certain areas to remain inaccessible until completing campaign sections, but open world design might allow for players to unlock these features without following a linear campaign structure, though we’ll discuss that further in another section.
Now, these routes don’t have to comprise the entire game world, and although the Wild Area felt a bit less than inspired as a concept, screenshots of Scarlet and Violet do show us terraced, open fields and towns with multiple entry points. If the promise of the Wild Area could be improved upon- mainly by giving players a bit more to do than just jump into raids, catch Pokémon, and camp- by implementing similar scavenging/gathering mechanics to Legends Arceus, perhaps players would enjoy taking their time exploring. However, this isn’t the only way an open area could be improved, and in a rare instance of the series’s anime adaptation informing the design of the game, it could be high time that Pokémon re-evaluated the way it presents trainer encounters.
One of the issues that has previously reared its head in the development of open areas has been the role and implementation of Pokémon trainers. When given more space to circumnavigate these occasional obstacles, they become nothing more than a minor nuisance, only necessary when players want to pad their wallet. Can the trainer present something more worthwhile within the structure of a Pokémon title? I’d argue “yes,” but only if players feel incentivized to seek out and battle them.
The current arc of the Pokémon anime has Ash attempting to boost his trainer class by fighting against trainers with a higher rank than him, in service of eventually placing in the highest echelons and challenging strong champions. While the series’s episodic nature allows for the characters to conveniently bump into one another and engage in these battles, this system of trainer rank could be an excellent way of providing tangible and telegraphed forms of progression and interaction in a larger open world if applied as a mechanic.
Imagine seeking out and evaluating trainer strength prior to taking them on in battle, with rank operating as a form of difficulty scaling. The encounters usually saved for late-to-post-game areas in previous titles could be roaming the field or tucked away in areas for trainers to seek out. A ranking system available at gyms or Pokémon Centers could track your progress, allowing players to access new champions and challenges after having completed a certain number of battles or achieving a certain rank.
Of course, this is all speculation, but it is clear that recent games have struggled with the nature of Pokémon battles and trainer encounters in a way that should be recontextualized. Just as Ash’s strange Battle Bond Greninja ended up appearing within the mainline series, so too could this trainer ranking system, giving a new purpose to why people engage with Pokémon trainers, and perhaps putting the player on the offensive, rather than having line of sight be the only determining factor in the start of a trainer interaction.
Whether Game Freak makes as radical a change to the existence and function of trainers as this one or not, in a Pokémon game with a new structure, this element can and should be reexamined. The concept of new forms of trainers has been explored in titles like Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee, however, and Legends Arceus’s latest update has given similar challenges, albeit appearing in the post-game section.
All that remains in this discussion is the tricky approach to narrative design that plagues many role-playing games. Even a game like Breath of the Wild (which isn’t an RPG, sorry folks) has a unique approach to its open-ended adventure, allowing players to tackle smaller vignettes in whichever order they please. On the flip side, Xenoblade Chronicles X gives players the opportunity to explore and complete side quests in order to reach specific thresholds that gate narrative progression. Then, of course, there are the trappings of standard open world gameplay that allow players to venture in whatever direction they please in spite of deliberately marked story beats. The truth is, as there are relatively few open world JRPGs (let alone those with the scale and recognition possessed by Pokémon) to serve as a true template for an open world Pokémon title. This means Game Freak has the unenviable task of coming up with a story structure that fits with this style of gameplay.
Legends Arceus kept two key aspects of its narrative structure separate: PokéDex research and the Noble Pokémon/Space-Time Rift events, and while collection has always been a key element of Pokémon titles, I don’t believe they would directly tie story progression into this concept. Unless they did, of course, but made objectives a bit more stringent in nature. A key image shows a town square featuring symbols for all 18 Pokémon types- perhaps catching enough Pokémon of a certain type would open a gym challenge. If Legends Arceus’s main draw was its free-form Pokémon capturing and action gameplay, we can likely assume that neither of these are going to be a key focus of Scarlet and Violet.
The tried and true structure regarding gym leaders and the Elite Four has been a consistent feature across generations, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this will be the narrative endgame in Scarlet and Violet. With an open world approach, however, it might mean that specific towns and gym leaders will have their own isolated narratives that the player can tackle in any order, never crossing over with one another, but allowing clear goalposts for the player to achieve before taking on the Elite Four and champion. Of course, there’s likely also going to be an evil team or antagonist mucking up the new region, so perhaps these mini-narratives will feature gym leaders taking on organized crime or complications in a way similar to the gym leaders of Generation Five (Black/White/Black2/White2, for those uninitiated).
Either way, we can look to both the previous mainline installment as well as the anime for clues on how a non-linear approach to gym battles might work: gym leaders could select their Pokémon based on how many badges the player has already gathered similar to Pokémon Origins depiction of increasing skill and challenge, or the way the Elite Four was structured in Sword and Shield. Again, this would require some effort in order to execute properly, but if The Pokémon Company and Game Freak are hoping to market this title as truly open world, we should expect some degree of effort in the finished product.
Of course, as with anything developed by Game Freak, there’s a certain degree of hesitation one must maintain, especially this far from release. There is no doubt we will see more of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet in the coming months, and although Game Freak has had approximately three years to develop this newest entry (even less, if we assume the Sword and Shield DLC was worked on throughout 2019) in addition to staff working on Legends Arceus separately, there’s a chance that these games will be… less than what we hope. Pokémon Sword and Shield were divisive titles for more than a few reasons, and although their expansions might have turned the opinions of its userbase somewhat, there is no denying that Game Freak has something to prove with these new titles. The visual upgrade- or at least, new direction- is evident based on what we have seen, but whether or not the gameplay and narrative elements show progress is another matter.
It isn’t fair to condemn these two new Pokémon titles so soon after their announcement, but the notion that this series is and always should be geared towards its young playerbase might heavily impact the freedom of its open world. As older players have long pined for difficulty modifiers and a more challenging campaign for years, the non-linear potential for a new Pokémon title might be the first time these sorts of prayers might be heard. If Legends Arceus is any indicator, Game Freak might just be willing to let players explore and make mistakes to their hearts’ content, but whether or not they will keep this design philosophy at the forefront of these new games. While open world Pokémon offers an exciting degree of potential, so too did a console-sized entry in the series. We’ll have to keep our ears- and our minds- open as more details emerge.
How do you think an open world Pokémon might play out? Are you hoping for the catching mechanics or PokéRide systems of Legends Arceus will make their return? What other impressions do you have of the reveal trailer? Feel free to leave a comment below, or shoot us a message on the SwitchRPG Discord. We’ll continue to post impressions and coverage of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet as more news develops.