Trees Have Become The Pokémon Fandom’s Ultimate Brain Worms

Trees Have Become The Pokémon Fandom’s Ultimate Brain Worms
Screenshot: Game Freak

While the latest trailer for Pokémon Legends: Arceus shows the open-world monster-collecting game shaping up nicely compared to its initial reveal, some onlookers are not impressed. And so, for the second time in recent memory, the Pokémon fandom is once again talking about trees.

Yes, while some are excited about the Pokémon series crossing a new genre frontier, or becoming enamoured with Arceus’ new monsters, others are fixated on trees, of all things. Variations of images pointing out the sparse number of trees in some portions of the game’s overworld have been lighting up social media over the past week, with some in disbelief that an older game can graphically ‘outdo’ an upcoming release.

At least, that’s the implication: Isn’t it outrageous that a giant franchise like Pokémon looks like this?

Screenshot: Game Freak Screenshot: Game Freak

I am not here to tell you that actually, these are “good” graphics. The polygons in this game are looking hilariously sharp, that’s for sure. But the idea that you can find “better” elsewhere is terribly misguided for a variety of reasons. Let me ask you this, what is better, exactly?

Increasingly, it’s become a thing for fans to express concern about literal background details. This year alone, we’ve had small flare-ups on Twitter regarding some of the most visually striking games of the year not going far enough because, say, grass doesn’t deform when you walk over it. There was also some drama about how egregious it was that an older Call of Duty game made its fruit explode if you, for some godforsaken reason, decided to shoot at the scenery — but more recent games like Halo Infinite depict entirely static assets.

It’s all an offshoot of prioritising realism above art direction or aesthetics, this notion that something isn’t as valuable if it’s not hand-crafted for edge cases or visual splendor. Graphics must always be “progressing” to deliver us the most cutting-edge video games, an attitude that is pretty understandable when visual output is one of the few things that next-gen systems can tout. Big-budget games make such incremental advancements, mechanically speaking, that we’re left arguing about shit that literally does not matter.

Yes, many open-world games have more impressive tree density. But what makes any prospective title satisfying has little to do with the number of trees it can render. Open-world games love to give you massive terrain, but how often are you given tasks that are actually meaningful to do on that giant map? How often do you end up just walking past all the damn trees to get to the actual point of interest?

More worrying, though, is the general expectation at work here. We all laughed when we discovered Rockstar actually went through the trouble of making realistic animal scrotums that reacted to input, but it’s less funny when you know that the studio crunched to accomplish it. That, in essence, is what fans are asking for here. More development time and resources devoted to adding stuff to a game that ultimately has zero bearing on the actual quality of the experience.

Trees will not make or break Pokémon Legends: Arceus; only the gameplay can do that. But trees do seem to be breaking the Pokémon fandom itself. Somehow, this is the second tree controversy the community has had in the last few years. The first one, for those who unfortunately recall, cropped up as a wider criticism that Game Freak was shorting fans on Pokémon Sword and Shield. Once some players discovered that the Japanese developer wasn’t including the entire compendium of creatures, hell broke loose. Suddenly, it became a sport to point out all the different ways that the visuals and general game performance didn’t live up to expectations. Tree JPGs, in all their frizzy glory, became a meme.

While some continued to bang the drum against Game Freak after release, trees and all, most folks didn’t seem to care in the end. The performance drops were noticeable to anyone running around the mini open world areas in Sword and Shield, but many were willing to swallow that. That’s because the thing that makes Pokémon Pokémon isn’t graphical fidelity.

It’s the monsters. And when it comes to the monsters, Game Freak put such care and love into each Sword and Shield design that I found myself capturing creatures that I actively disliked in previous games, just so I could see them prance around in my camp. I wanted to see how each creature reacted to the toys, or how they got along with each other. I wanted to feed the Pokémon and pet them so badly, I ended up spending more time capturing monsters than actually playing through the story. The attention to detail was there, Game Freak just didn’t waste it on some damn trees.

So I guess we can get hung up on whether or not Arceus has enough trees. But barring some egregious performance mishaps, most of us probably won’t even notice the trees in the background while playing. At least, until the next Pokémon game is revealed and the tree brain worms activate themselves once again.

Comments

  • I dunno, to me the whole game looks ugly, not just the trees. The water tiling is particularly bad and something about the lighting just makes everything look “off”. Maybe graphics don’t matter over gameplay but if it looks bad, it looks bad whether it has acceptable gameplay or not.

    • Yeah, pointing to complaints about trees is just a way of narrowing the argument to ignore the broader complaint, which is that the visual style isn’t great.

      I think it’s the way they’ve done their cell-shading. There are much better ways to do it, but in Arceus it seems like they’ve gone for a washed-out, over-exposed look. It’s meant to be used to reduce the amount of gradient, but the problem here is that it also appears to have eliminated any idea of having textures at all. It’s hard to tell why Pokemon’s cell-shaded style looks worse than its contemporaries, like BotW or Genshin. Is it art direction or hardware limitations?

      • My argument would be that the whining about trees or numerous other examples of disingenuous cherrypicking on the part of Pkmn crits serves to dilute and discredit any actual criticism of the games. Any issue, large or small, inconsequential or serious, is held with the same level of importance by the broad “online” crowd.

        • I mean, fair’s fair, though… graphics are an important part of a game, and it’s noticeable when they detract from it because of poor art direction. So when you ask someone to elaborate on what’s wrong with it, of course you’re going to get some specifics. It’s not nitpicking so much as examples. That’s how criticism works.

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