Anyone who’s a fan of the pokemon industry knows the big reveal that came just a few days ago: Pokemon X and Pokemon Y versions for the 3DS, featuring new pokemon, improved battle animations and the end of pixelated 2D sprites. Much like the characters themselves, the series Pokemon has evolved and continues to evolve quite a bit; no one can deny that we’ve come a long way from the days of Red and Blue versions. And while becoming a curmudgeon has made me prefer the generations I grew up with, it also gives me other worldly perspectives on why the games had to change. Red and Blue, in particular, evolved to Black and White and (and Black 2 and White 2) in part using some of the same logic set forth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a 1970s psychologist.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was a Hungarian professor that was known for his discussion of “flow” in given tasks. In several studies, he observed people doing a particular challenge, and found that people needed to grow in skill at a proportionate rate to which the task grows in difficulty. Hindsight bias would tell someone that this logic is obvious; if the person’s skill grew faster than the difficulty, he or she would become bored and disengaged, but if the difficulty grew faster than the person’s skill, he or she would become frustrated and anxious. Neither really encourages the participant to keep going.
To see this argument in action, let’s compare Gen I (Red, Blue, Yellow) to Gen V (Black, White, Black 2, White 2). While neither game was known for the vastly open worlds of games like Fable or Grand Theft Auto, RBY was comparatively more open to interpretation than BW/BW2. If the player truly desired, badges could be done out of order, and many plot related areas like the basement of the Rocket Game Corner could be skipped entirely if you knew to buy a PokeDoll.
Most Gen V content, by contrast, was far more linear. The prevalence of NPCs that blocked certain paths until you had certain badges or items increased drastically, and in both games the main world is explored in a fairly consistent line of progression with few other optional areas. HMs used for traveling outside of walking (cutting bushes, flying, surfing), are forced upon you rather than found by chance in the Safari Zone, and the NPCs typically tell you where to go with said items. To a certain extent, however, this was a progression; Gen III (Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald) forced items upon you, but also required a bit of backtracking to truly use them.
Grumpy old man logic tells me these newer games are more restricting and too easy compared to the good ol’ days, but this also blinds me to some of the downsides of this open world equation; for example, the ongoing frustration I had as a child known as “Where the [insert child version of adult expletives here] am I supposed to go now?” This frustration led to hours of wandering around aimlessly talking to every single person possible, hoping for that one nugget of information that would tell me where to go next, only to find that the answer led to another question: “How was I supposed to know that?!” Grumpy old man logic also occasionally forgets that as a child I could afford fewer games, so I sort of had to keep playing, or at least would willingly come back to the game when there was nothing better to do. These days, with so many games to play, I don’t think the sheer joy of wandering around so long that I overpowered everything by thirty levels would have been enough to keep me interested if I had no idea what to do next.
BW have made the series dramatically easier, but also far more doable. Knowing where I had to go to finish the plot was nice, and post-game offered all sorts of cities with strange attractions. BW2 took this to a new level, solving the arguably-too-easy ingame with Challenge Mode, a system that increases computer AI and level, while also introducing Easy Mode for players who still found the game too difficult. And it wasn’t just linear vs open world that changed over the series; overall the AI of final bosses has become more intelligent in later games, using more logical strategies and more powerful moves. As testimony to the level of difficulty in the old games compared to newer games, the final boss Blue’s team in RB typically included either an Exeggutor with three moves (none of which receive Same Type Attack Bonus) or an Arcanine with Ember as its only STAB move, and both of those if you chose Charmander as your starter.
And as much as I’d love to say my way is better, numbers don’t lie. BW broke the record for the fastest DS games to break one million – using preorders alone – and also went on to become the fastest DS games to sell five million copies. While the hype the game has gotten over the years has made a big difference, it’s tough to argue that the games would still sell this well after over fifteen years of games if they weren’t at least marginally improving. The games have become easier in some ways and harder in others, both preventing imbalance in specific aspects and keeping the proportional, progressive difficulty where it should be.
So while it’d be near impossible to prove the games directly were influenced by Csikszentmihalyi, the elements of his basic arguments are there. To keep Pokemon from getting too disappointingly easy, computer AIs and movesets improved. To keep the game from getting too illogically difficult to navigate, the game forced a more linear progression with CPUs giving you important items and directing you where to go. That being said, it’ll be interesting to see what Gen VI brings us. X and Y won’t be perfect, but there will no doubt be ways in which they improve upon the flaws of Black 2 and White 2.