Pokémon Let's Go's Levelling System Raises Some Morbid Questions

If Pokémon Let’s Go is banking on my nostalgia, it’s working, but it’s also bringing to mind some disturbing questions about the nature of Pokémon. ’90s kids’ idle fantasies of weed-whacking our way through forests alongside some loyal, sweet Pokémon companion are realised in the latest Pokémon game, which even lets you pet and play with your Eevee or Pikachu.

Seeing Pokémon out in the world and interacting with them as living, moving monsters, and not just bits of code, makes them feel more real. It’s easy to get attached. Though in Pokémon Let’s Go, most of the time, you probably shouldn’t.

One thing has gnawed at me since I picked up the game last week. Pokémon Let’s Go is dedicated to currying players’ emotional attachment to their Pokémon. So, riddle me this: why does the game’s levelling system encourage me to trap, imprison and horde Pokémon in a dark box from which they will never, ever escape—unless I sent them to a professor who conducts tests on them and, probably, grinds them up into candy?

I was trudging around the maze of Mt. Moon, Pokémon’s stony mountain zone, when I encountered my very first Geodude, a bulbous floating rock with arms. He threw himself up through the earth and landed right in front of me.

All right, I thought. We’re gonna get along great. He’d be my guide through Mt. Moon and float alongside me as we delved deeper into the ground.

I tossed a whopper at him. Easy catch. My PokeDex registered “Geodude” and then I filed him into my Pokémon Box, where I store all the Pokémon that aren’t in my small party. Since he was my first Geodude, and therefore my very favourite, I gave him a name: Oatmeal. (I am naming all of my Pokémon after baking ingredients.)

I would dedicate myself to levelling up Oatmeal so, one day, he’ll evolve into a beastly Golem who would humiliate Lt. Surge at the third gym.

Closing out the menus, I continued exploring Mt. Moon for a few brief seconds alongside Oatmeal until, lo and behold, another Geodude appeared. I already had Oatmeal. But in Pokémon Let’s Go, Oatmeal doesn’t just level up by fighting other monsters. Oatmeal levels up if I collect dozens more of his kind and stow them away into my tiny box.

I ended up catching this new Geodude, and every other Geodude in my path. I’d clear the whole of Mt. Moon of Geodudes. But, unlike Oatmeal, they would never, ever smell the dank cave air of Mt. Moon or the breezy sea water of Fuschia City. Nope. Just gonna grab the little guys and stuff ‘em in my box. See ya, suckers!

Once I grabbed enough Geodudes, I had two options: I could let them sit idly in my Pokémon Box for all eternity until, I guess, I die, or I can send them to the Professor, the objectively better option for levelling up my monsters.

After selecting a dozen Geodudes to send to Professor Oak, he thanked me for giving him more specimens for his Pokémon studies. And, in exchange, he offered me some candy.

That’s right—players can send Pokémon to Professor Oak, exactly the sort of euphemism you might tell your kid when their dog dies. Just like that lie, this too is darker than it sounds. If you thought that mass Pokémon incarceration felt a little iffy, consider the candy system.

Pokémon Let’s Go’s “candy” is a spin on the mobile game Pokémon Go’s design. If you want a Pokémon Go Pidgey to evolve into a Pidgeotto, you’ll want to collect eleven more Pidgeys. Then what? Well, you grind them up into “Pidgey candy,” and feed them all to the original Pidgey.

“Candy” is what levels up your Pokémon, and in Pokémon Go, it’s is more akin to Soylent Green than your typical power-up. The Pokémon in Pokémon Go are being forced to eat each other. It’s like feeding bacon to pigs to make them fatter and more delicious.

Pokémon Let’s Go was always going to be divisive. It’s a deviation from a formula that has enchanted kids for decades, and over time, that formula has been able to produce some very dedicated nostalgia. I love Pokémon Let’s Go and am actually having a much better time with its levelling system than I have had previous games. Levelling up primarily through collecting rather than battling feels way less grindy.

Yet it’s not so thought-consuming that I can’t watch The Great British Baking Show while I play (hence my saccharine naming system).

The game is also incentivising me to collect and store animals in some backpack mind-zoo where, presumably, they do nothing until I die or I destroy them.

I’m not trying to ruin Pokémon Let’s Go for you or anything, but if you really think about it, you’re being asked to poach and imprison as many wild Pokémon as possible and then, probably, grind them up into candy that you feed to your best monsters. Or Pokémon is a cute kid’s game where you raise pets and have lots of friends.


Comments

    Yeah it's kind of grim. I remember thinking about this when Pokemon Go launched back in July 2016.

    Who are we to judge how the pokemon feel about this though. Is a house cat a prisoner? Would dogs prefer to run free in packs if given the choice or do they enjoy our company? Is this game mechanic a subtle nod to natural selection? Maybe the Professor has a friend that runs the national pokemon reserve, and pays the professor in candy for every group of pokemon he brings to the park? Maybe we're thinking about this a bit too much?

    Last edited 21/11/18 1:54 pm

      Yeah all those Pokemon have been sent "Off to live out their golden years on a farm, upstate..." Just like Old Yeller did (I guess I'm showing my age there. Those who don't know who Old Yeller was- he was a stray dog who became a fiercely loyal family member
      and protector who saves them from hogs, wolves, scummy humans, even a bear! A. Very. Good. Boy. Indeed. And then he gets bit by a mangy wolf and the eldest son in the family fucking shoots him "just in case" he got rabies and then tries to lie to his (deeply attached) little brother. Understandable and ultimately the right thing to do, but it still feels pretty shitty though.

    So then I guess the question is what happens in the wild? How does a Pokémon reach its starting level?

    To be fair, this version of Pokemon is probably easier on the poor sods, it removes the need to beat them to near death before we move them into the dark box for eternity. At least when they're pulped into candy their poor excuse for existence ends with them.

    Pokemon was always messed up. I didn't think about it when I was younger but well... you're beating up and/or paralyzing and/or poisoning and/or forcibly putting to sleep sentient creatures and either stuffing them in a box or making them fight for you to capture more of their kind. Then there's the friendship thing. Yeah, my slaves are totally my friends.

    Pokemon only works when you basically don't think about it too hard and just enjoy collecting things and fighting.

    Last edited 21/11/18 2:32 pm

    I mean, I always kinda wondered what happened to the decapitated and spineless bodies in Mortal Kombat...

    You wouldn't be able to evolve Oatmeal into a Golem unless you trade and trade back as that's how Graveller evolves you Poke-peasant.

    I think it's also worth mentioning that we used to throw stones and the poor things in the safari zone (except tauros because be buggered if I could ever encounter him). Throwing stones at sentient being just wouldn't fly these days, now we offer them food in the form of berries, bananas and...pineapples? Does their edibility make them better or worse than throwing stones?

      I'd rather somebody threw candy at me over a rock any day. Perhaps maybe not a pineapple tho. Ouch!

    It's established quite clearly at the start of let's go that the professor is kind to the pokémon and sets them free once he's finished observing them. Nobpulping into candy involved and the three pidgy seemed happy to help.
    What's more, people need to think of the battles more like a professional fight. Again it is established early on that some pokémon love to fight. And you see that during the game as your tall to your buddies and they sometimes imply that they're pumped and ready for battle. Pokémon have their own will and we act as personal trainers.
    Sure there's groups like team rocket who force pokémon to do their bidding but that's not what I'm in it fore. I talk to and care for my pokémon.

    I feel like the mechanic should've been slightly different. Like, if you release them back into the wild they give you a candy or something.
    Not so much in Go, but in Let's Go they could offer up a 1 in x chance of you encountering a pokemon you've already caught and freed in the wild again, just to drive home that nothing bad happened to you. If you named them, they'd keep the name, and if not just a piece of flavour text saying "They look at you in recognition" or something. Perhaps even some sort of extra candy bonus for catching the same one twice.
    I mean, it's still morally reprehensible making them captive only setting them free if they pay the requisite candy fee, but it's better than the implication of being ground up into candy (no matter how much the professors insist this isn't the case)

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