6 hours into New Pokemon Snap, I stopped taking photos. As a Wailord breached on my right and the NEO-ONE exposed the Maricopia Reef’s sun, surf and squawking Wingulls, I realised what I’d been wishing from the Pokemon world. As a child, I wanted adventure, friendship and a pet Arcanine. As an adult, I wanted simplicity, beatitude and harmony with nature, but that harmony was as fantastical as my hopes of riding an Arcanine.
In 2003, Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the neologism solastalgia to describe “the lived experience of distressing, negative environmental change.”
It’s a feeling that’s consumed me these past few years. I’ve seen local wetlands bulldozed for now abandoned highway projects, the population of the Pokemon-like Quendas dwindle away, and the acidity of the Swan River rise alongside the spike in jet-ski ownership that followed WA’s mining boom.
Like Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri, I was an indoorsy kid that grew up outdoors. An eccentric coastal town caught between ocean, river, islands, bushland, and limestone cliffs, I always felt my hometown Fremantle had a certain synchronicity with Pokemon‘s Palette Town or Vermillion City. Tajiri’s attempt to recreate his childhood bug-catching adventures around his grandparents’s small mountain village always resonated with me, as a fellow autistic who would dig up limestone and seashells, arranging them as dinosaur fossils for my bemused cousins.
The Pokemon world has always offered a utopian vision of nature and our relationship with it, fuelled by Tajiri’s nostalgia for his idyllic bug hunts. Indeed, Tajiri has acknowledged that Pokemon’s world was in part a response to the sense of loss he felt as Tokyo’s rapid urban development demolished his personal safari zone. In one way, Pokemon was a balm for the hurt he felt.
Pokemon — as an empire — now crosses too many mediums, markets, and mythopias to maintain logical consistency in its world building. The mainline games and anime offer up a picturesque world where engagement with nature is at the forefront of our lives. But for every suitably childlike depiction of this balance of man, nature, and beast are questions like “Am I a hunter?”, “Is this … dog fighting?” and “are those Machoke labourers being paid,” undermining the paradise offered to us.
Pokemon Snap, however, sets those questions aside. It asks you to arrive in the world of Pokemon, not as a conqueror but as a witness. In doing this it conjures three distinct modes of nostalgia: the one you feel toward Pokemon and your childhood daydreams, the one you feel towards Pokemon Snap itself, and the one you hold for the wonders of the Pokemon world, and by extension, your own.
The game’s function as a rail shooter implicitly invites a player to contemplate their environment. Limiting the player’s movement makes the landscape and animals our tour guides, humbling a player conditioned to compulsive gameplay loops. We’re asked to look and learn, rather than chase, collect and capture.
You min-max observation in Pokemon Snap. Where other games in the franchise have you grinding for perfect EVs, here you grind for remembrance, riding the loops of each biome-fantasia until its surprises turn to appreciations.
Another layer of meditative texture forms with each loop. The ecosystems and micro-narratives begin to unfurl and intersect as you level up, creating a mosaic of emergent storytelling that, quite literally, tells the story of the environment itself. By slowing things right down, Pokemon Snap shifts our perspective from that of a player within an environment to that of a person who is a part of it.
Given the context, the genius of Snap’s photography gimmick is underappreciated. Pokemon were famously grafted onto Iwata and Miyamoto’s struggling ‘Jack and Beanstalk’ project for the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive. At the height of Pokemon hysteria, a game that involved simply taking photos of the adorable creatures seemed like a surefire, if eccentric, hit—even if the original developers did take some convincing.
But what made Pokemon Snap work was not just the franchise name, but its incorporation of community into its core mechanics. I still vividly remember going to Garden City shopping centre with my mates and our memory cards to print off our Pokemon Snap photos, sticking them on our respective Gameboys.
The original Pokemon Snap leant on the ubiquity of Pokemon itself, but New Pokemon Snap leverages the ubiquity of photography and social media. Since 1999, we’ve all become photographers, snapping ourselves, our pets, our experiences and environment for an infinite spew of content. Even New Pokemon Snap‘s camera design reflects this by resembling a smartphone, as well as a means of communication between Professor Mirror, his aid, and your gratingly bizarre rival.
And just as it encouraged back in 1999, New Pokemon Snap is designed for consumption in the real world. Just yesterday I was walking around Booyeembara Park taking photos of the purple swamp-hens that dart around the artificial lake.
“Pose, 3 stars,” I thought, as one jumped on its nest mound. I found myself turning my head at every chirp, flap, and rustle, my brain having been re-wired by an all night Pokemon Snap marathon where every moment was committed to memory.
Booyeembara Park was a big part of my childhood — a small nature reserve built on top of the neighbourhood garbage tip where we’d built clubhouses as a kid. Officially opened in 1999, the year of Poke-madness in Australia, we used to ride our bikes around the park after school pretending to catch Cubone, Gengar and Mew. I’d started walking it again during lockdown, which itself had gotten me addicted to Pokemon GO for the first time since 2016.
Back then, children’s media was full of environmentalist themes and motifs. That was later replaced with more parodic and personal takes in the preceding decades, with Pokemon one of the few exceptions. Cooperation with nature is part of Pokemon‘s very essence. The games, manga and anime rarely focus on it, but that spirit lives on not just in the text of the game, but the way we play, think and fantasise about Pokemon.
If New Pokemon Snap accomplishes anything beyond being a very good game — which it is — it is making me daydream of a time and place when the natural and manmade worlds can achieve harmony. Until then, I’ll have to settle with riding my Arcanine through the wilds of my mind.
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