After Pokémon Black and Pokémon White were released, it seemed like Nintendo and Game Freak wanted to put some more thought and depth into the series to make it a more believable, living world. What we saw in Black/White was Game Freak spinning a slightly more mature narrative within their Pokémon games, telling a tale which actually made you think about the world as it exists in the game. It made players put some thought into the world they inhabited and maybe the relationship between Pokémon and their trainers wasn’t all Solrocks and Roselias after all.
What Team Plasma do right
While Team Plasma’s goals of Pokémon equality did eventually turn out to be a ruse formulated by the teams real leader, thus making their message null and void, it still did give us the character of N. A character who, while he had been manipulated by Team Plasma, did honestly believe that battling Pokémon and confining them in Pokéballs was an act of cruelty. And although the game did end with N being the one to concede his point of view, while never putting the player character in any moral grey area (thus leaving the player’s hands clean in the whole affair), the whole game’s narrative was based around the actions of the villainous team rather than them being an interlude on the player’s quest to be the very best (like no one ever was).
After this I was very much hoping that this trend would continue in the recently released 6th Pokémon generation in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, however it seemed it was never to be, and my hopes of a heavier focus on developing the Pokémon world and a stronger narrative for the more mature fan were sadly unfounded.
To follow Team Plasma, we got to enjoy the antics of a brand new group of bad guys named Team Flare, named so not only because they wear red and have strange flame inspired hairstyles, but because they’re all obsessed with looking good and fashion (Flare, it’s like Flair. Get it?). Now I’m going to say right now, I love the new Pokémon games, I’ve been playing my 3DS nearly non stop since release, and at this point I have finished the game and am neck deep in post ending content. So I’m rather confident I got everything I could out of the game’s narrative at this point, and it’s the narrative I felt was the game’s only real failing.
In Black and White, the player bumped into Team Plasma a lot, they factored into the events of nearly every town the player visits, masquerading as a Pokémon rights group that feel Pokémon, as living things, should be afforded the same freedoms as humanity and forcing them into servitude and then into combat is cruel treatment. While it became obvious that the average Plasma Grunt was a moron and failed to see the hypocrisy in everything they did, it was their leader N that was the real thinking point of the game, looking like he could be a player character himself and his unfaltering stance in his beliefs.
It’s during the game’s ending that Plasma’s true leader is revealed and that the team’s stated goals have all been a ruse and even N was being manipulated by the team and taken advantage of. The final fight of the game is the most satisfying since the early days when you got to beat the snot out of your rival who has been dogging you since your journey began. It works because you want to take this guy down, not only because he is a total scumbag, but because he had everyone fooled, including you.
Team Flare, however, takes a step back from the previous game and rather than give us another creative and engaging story, it slips back into familiar ground providing nothing all too different from what was seen in the third and fourth generations with Team Magma/Aqua and Team Galactic. The thing that makes Team Flare worse than those previous teams in my mind is that they try to pull it off with the same sincerity behind their leader’s actions as N had, rather than him being the cartoon super villain that Maxie, Archie and Cyrus were previously.
What Team Flare do badly
Right, from here there are going to be massive spoilers about the new Pokémon games X & Y, so if you care even remotely, come back later when you’re done.
The main problem with Team Flare is their leader Lysandre (like anyone couldn’t see that plot twist coming). He is established as a billionaire and a philanthropist who wants to see the world become a better place. He believes the world is full of bad people who leech on those exceptional few, he states how the future is bleak and if things continue the way they do there will be nothing but disaster, from overpopulation or stagnation. He states that he has poured much of his fortune into trying to remedy this problem, but to no avail, thus he forms Team Flare and begins to go about a much more extreme method of solving this perceived problem with the world.
Notice how I said perceived problem back then, that’s because the problem is entirely that, it’s inside his head. Lysandre talks about how the world is getting worse, how people are selfish and aren’t contributing to the greater good and progress as halted. Now as a social commentary about the current state of the real world, I can see what Game Freak are talking about, drawing parallels between their story in the game and the problems we face in reality, or war and overpopulation, as well as sustainability. That’s fine, my problem is that within the Pokémon universe it makes absolutely no sense.
Think about any Pokémon game you’ve ever played, now think about the size of the towns and cities, now think of how much open space there is. This is especially true of this newer game, which makes the most of its new graphics to show us beautiful views and landscapes of rolling hills, mountain ranges and forests. Now think of basically any NPC you talk to, they all spout the same inane drivel about how they love Pokémon and Pokémon this and Pokémon that. There is no strife, no earnest fighting and nobody is suffering, the only people who cause any of this at all in X and Y are Team Flare themselves. Lysandre’s ideas of a the world going to crap have no basis in (the game’s) reality, none at all. And so what’s his plan? his final solution? Genocide, I’m not even kidding.
Lysandre plans to use an ancient death machine to kill not only every human in existence, but also wipe all Pokémon from existence too, rendering them extinct. This is where Lysandre goes from being the well meaning guy that’s been pushed too far, to being a cartoon super villain. But the worst thing about all of this, the thing that tops this all off and really makes me shake my head at the whole thing is that it is all played totally straight.
Lysandre is never treated like a madman nor does anyone point out any of these points I’ve made to him, they act as though his goals are noble and it’s only his methods that are questionable. Even after his attempt at genocide is thwarted and he gets buried in his base along with his machine the other characters express nothing but pity over the fact that ‘they couldn’t see things the same way’. Just because he was well meaning, it tries to make him a tragic character, when in fact there was nothing tragic about him, he was just totally insane.
Let me give yet another example, let’s say Lysandre’s plan worked and he killed everyone except for himself and his Team Flare grunts, what kind of beginning would this be to the brave new world? Other than Lysandre himself, every other member of Team Flare is played up for laughs, they’re all idiots, petty criminals, thugs or all of the above. Not only that but there are a few references to membership costing people extortionate amounts of money (amounts the player can never physically afford within the game), so now I’m confused. What type of world is Lysandre trying to create here? I mean that money isn’t going to mean a thing after you’ve killed 99% of the world’s population.
How it could have been better
The whole thing could have been handled so much better if Game Freak had treated Team Flare with the same respect and given them the same kind of humanity that they did with Team Plasma. Rather than make them the outlandish cartoon villains, if every member of the team did seem like they were once good people who were being forced to extreme behaviour because they either came to the same conclusions themselves or because he was a charismatic leader than talked them around to his point of view, then we might have had a much better and compelling story about a group of extremists with was a believably noble cause.
If throughout the events of the game Team Flare always showed up genuinely trying to do a ‘good thing’ but their methods were always what raised the player character’s ire with them, then we could have built up to a much more compelling ending with a man at wits end doing something he had been pushed to because of the player’s actions, well meaning or not. Instead, we don’t really learn Lysandre’s final plan until minutes before his eventual downfall, if references to the ultimate threat was hinted at throughout the game then the player would have felt some real desperation to stop him.
They say the best villains are those that believe themselves to be the hero. If this had been the running theme throughout X and Y, questioning whether or not the player was doing the right thing by fighting Team Flare, maybe their end does justify their means, then we’d have a game that was was too dark to be sold to the market that Pokemon is aimed towards, but we’d also have one hell of a great story to go with one hell of a great game.