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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Look Inside And You Will Find: Are Glitches Part of the Pokemon Experience?

The fan game Pokemon Uranium has some weird behaviors and some astounding glitches, but are those glitches just flaws, or are they important to make Pokemon Uranium feel like a genuine Pokemon game? And what can it tell us about the hype cycle surrounding canon games Sun and Moon, and spinoffs like Pokemon Go? 
Reload the Canons! is an ongoing Storming the Ivory Tower project where I play through The Canon of videogames. Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect. You can support Reload the Canons! and my other projects on the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.









My experience with Pokemon is a bit weird. I was an avid viewer of the show as a kid, went to see Pokemon The Movie 2000 in theaters to get my very own foil Entei (while supplies last!), and was very interested in the setting and creatures and so on. Some of my earliest forays into fantasy worldbuilding owed a lot to Pokemon, though that particular setting quickly mutated drastically when Magic the Gathering crashed dramatically into my life. The trading card game was probably one of my biggest fascinations, in fact. I had a bunch of the cards beyond just that foil Entei.

But I never played the cardgame, or really got a clear grip on HOW one would play the card game. In particular the problem common with Magic the Gathering--the need to fill your deck with loads and loads of functionally boring-as-shit resource cards--was a bit of a barrier to entry for my young mind.

And as for the videogames proper... well, as I've noted elsewhere in Reload the Canons!, I didn't grow up with expensive game systems, and for my frugal family a gameboy was, yeah, prohibitively expensive. My experience with Pokemon games extended to blasting ratatas with my friend's charizard via borrowed gameboy, which got boring and pointless-feeling pretty quickly. Oh and I remember playing a game at another friend's house where you yell at pikachu and pikachu tells you to fuck off, as I recall. There was that too.

So my dive into pokemon fan games is a pretty blind experience. 

This resulted in just staggering confusion for a lot of my playthrough of Pokemon Uranium, one of the most prominent of these fan games. Part of this is due to the design of the game and the nature of the game as a responsive and transformative work. The game takes as given many things that are to me utterly unfamiliar. And part of it is due to the bugs. Many, many bugs.

Interestingly, parsing out bug from design is often a little bit difficult in Pokemon Uranium, at least for someone like me who's new to Pokemon games. Let's take, as an example, my first encounter with team battles. Partway through the early portion of the game, you journey into a cave with your rival Theo by your side, and for the first time in the game have to make sense of a screen with four pokemon, only one of whom you control.

Now, there's a lot in Pokemon Uranium that is baffling simply due to some minor mistakes in how things are put together. Information blitzes past at excessively high speed during battles, and it's often hard to actually read what attacks are called or what they're doing. On top of that there's the bugs: I'm pretty sure there were moments in previous battles, before even entering the cave, when attack information had for some reason simply not appeared, with damage happening without explanation.

It took me a while to realize, therefore, that what appeared at first to be the game wrestling control away from me during this sequence, or the battle skipping different mons' turns, was actually the critters performing attacks against ALL opponents during a single turn. Having played Pokemon Insurrection and Pokemon Infinite Fusion since, it's now clear to me that some attacks are designed to hit everything at once, and at least some Pokemon games animate each attack separately, with the attack text popping up just once. Combined with the invisible text bug I encountered earlier and my lack of experience (and a healthy dose of just being slow on the uptake) this resulted in a totally bewildering experience.

And that's, to me, what makes Pokemon Uranium such an accurate homage to the Pokemon experience. 

Let's talk a little bit about bugs in the actual canonical Pokemon games.

Among my generation, even for kids like me who didn't play Pokemon directly, it was well understood that there was some Weird Shit going on in Pokemon. Missingno for example was and is legendary. That is the stuff that creepypastas are made of, and you can see in things like Missingno the origin of videogame themed creepypastas I think. Missingno was a distorted glitch entity that you could capture through convoluted and arcane means, that from what I recall could kinda fuck up the game. It wasn't something you really wanted in your game, and yet there it was.

My sense is that this is a deep tradition in Pokemon: that you have these bizarre, fascinating, legendary failstates that get passed around in an urban legend way.

Of course, Pokemon Uranium's glitches are pretty incredible even by Pokemon standards. There's one particular glitch that occurs when you lose a particular side quest boss battle. If you do, you're left stranded on a dock, unable to progress through the rest of the game. The advice on the wiki for getting around this bug?

"Don't lose that battle."

Helpful.

Some of these game-breaking or game-crashing bugs in Pokemon Uranium are probably just going to kind of be that way in perpetuity given Nintendo's overzealous and dubiously legal copyright protectioneering. Yep, like AM2R, Pokemon Uranium was hit with a takedown notice. The fandom has, impressively, stepped in to continue work on the game, and they deserve a lot of credit for that! Nevertheless, high impact bugs remain.

And yet...

There was a stir on the Internet recently with the release of Sun and Moon due to players reporting game-breaking save bugs. It quickly came out that this bug was actually a result of "cheating" software. Now, I care about "cheating" in virtual games about as much as I care about Nintendo's quarterly earnings, since they both affect me about the same amount, but what's really interesting to me here is that this seemed like a plausible thing that COULD happen in a Pokemon game. Probably because of that time it actually happened in Pokemon X and Y.

Glitches happen, of course, in fan and professional games alike. I don't mean to pick on Pokemon games in particular. My point is rather that Pokemon, from my first encounters with in Elementary School, has always had this atmosphere of the urban legend about it, with glitch information exchanged and glitches sought out as "secrets" in the game.

This dynamic extends beyond the games themselves. There was loads of lore about different Forbidden Pokemon Stuff: the Naked Misty card, for example, which was never released in America due to it depicting Misty, naked. And there was the episode that gave people seizures. And oh there was an episode with boobs. Boobs were definitely a big part of this sort of passed around culture, as norms between Japan and America collided with adolescent curiosity about the prohibited getting buffeted in between.

And the remarkable thing about all of this, of course, was that this stuff was all real. There actually was an honest to god card with Misty apparently wearing nothing, weeping pure tears, and tenderly embracing an injured staryu.

So for me growing up Pokemon was always characterized growing up by the urban legend field that hovered around it. I think there's a connection to be drawn between the lost episodes and Naked Misty and Missingno: these are all in one way or another bugs in a sense, breakdowns of the coherent narrative. Missingno is literally a missing number, a blank space on the edge of what we know about the game canonically. The other Pokemon urban legends (or rather urban histories, as so many of the urban legends were in fact true) share qualities with Missingno: surprising absence and surprising presence, narrative dirt, matter out of place.

The fact that this took place in a pre-internet era just compounded the sense of mystery surrounding the franchise. And this in turn was compounded by the great furor over Pokemon's collectability contrasted with its probable satanic origins. Pokemon's extended field of information was a constantly shifting field of tantalizing weirdness, occultism, and need to access what was out of reach, whether a super valuable card, a real hidden element of the gameplay, or a legendary glitch.

Some of this might be part of the JRPG experience generally. My experience of playing Final Fantasy VII certainly is one of trying to figure out which random locations on the screen might contain super rare summons. Final Fantasy games often seem to be written with the assumption that there's going to be a comprehensive guidebook published for them, since there's loads of stuff that you'd have to do extensive trial and error testing to figure out.

I think in particular of the alchemy abilities of Rikku in Final Fantasy X, which presented a staggering range of possible item combinations with unpredictable results. Trial and error your way through THAT shit, I dare you! It's just not really feasible. And as a result, my friends and I passed around strategy guides for these games around like holy writ, since they were crucial to understanding how to progress. GameFAQs's horrible existence probably can be blamed on JRPGs (which is hilarious since the site was recently brought hilariously low by a Western homage to JRPGs). 

Pokemon Uranium, in true JRPG form, throws huge amounts of information at the player and it took me a while to cozen on to the fact that really having a Special Strategy in battle wasn't nearly as important as just maxing your Inherent and Effort Values (???) and then correctly navigating the complicated rock paper scissors game that is type strengths and weaknesses. You COULD spend a bunch of time sorting out abilities and clever strategies, but why when you can just get some dragon types and spam the highest power attack?

The point in all this is that there's so much hidden information and so many odd or conditional or semi-explained mechanics paired with so many odd glitches that it's difficult to discern whether something is intended behavior or not. The experience of play is one characterized by profound bewilderment. While sometimes this is aggravating, I don't think it's necessarily bad. 

If a game like Magic the Gathering is about responding in complex ways to a wide array of strategies and pieces of information largely known to both players, this is a game that isn't so much about strategy as it is about parsing out information. This prompts the formation if information-sharing communities where you have experiences like I did as a kid, where progress requires collaboration. Metagame is typically a term used to designate knowledge of the strategies that others use and selecting strategies based on countering what others are doing. But this is also a form of metagame, this passing of information. We might see this as another form of play, that information sharing can be part of the gameplay experience. As much as I'm critical of some of the gameplay elements of Pokemon Uranium and the Pokemon series as a whole, the complex buggy nature of these games and the knowledge communities that develop around the games can be an engaging form of play in themselves that might make up for these issues.

In this understanding of Pokemon, the hype cycles, rampant speculation, passing of information, media furor, and even satanic panic is all part of the expanded game of Pokemon.

I think we can actually verify this to some extent in popular culture. Neil Cicierega, like other creators such as Andrew Hussie and Bogleech, tends to produce projects that are distilled, mashed up essential expressions of popular or niche cultural nostalgia. Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence, his collective magnum opus of commercial rock perversity, is thus a pretty good barometer of a whole lot of the 90s Kid experience, and his track simply entitled Pokemon is a solid summary of the weird experience of Pokemon's initial invasion of the US.

The song is a bizarre audio collage of various news reports and speeches about Pokemon, played over the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back." The experience is one of adults trying to parse out, with increasing alarm, the nature of this "epidemic" which "goes from a craze to an entire World Order," the narrative escalating to a declaration that Pokemon is "the world of the demonic" followed by the announcement of a Pokemon movie and presidential candidate Herman Cain quoting the theme from said movie.

"Just look inside and you will find the Pokemon. The Pokemon. The Pokemon. The Pokemon."

The sense here is not Pokemon as a discrete game system but, indeed, a whole world order. Realistically, not much has changed in two decades. The Pokemon hype machine is unstoppable and a core component of it is the metagame, the struggle to determine truth from bug from urban legend. The annual flood of fake leaks is a testament to this reality, and unlike Magic the Gathering fans, who have gotten pretty good at spotting pixel-level mistakes that give away fakes, the sheer diversity of information and the interest in nonmechanical elements like concept art means that anything potentially could be real or fake. Fake information, like the urban legends that developed around the original games, is a bug, is something apparently outside the cultivated hype machine, and yet it's also an integral part of it, something that keeps the conversation going in perpetuity.

And the conversation really won't ever end. The opacity of things like Pokemon Go's management, for example, seem guaranteed to keep this world order, the world order of urban legend speculation on Pokemon, firmly in place. Are those sightings of Ditto real, finally? Or is it a clever hoax? Players may shift their behavior in response to the speculation either way, making this a part of the metagame. Notably, the TRUTH of whether or not a Ditto might show up at your local supermarket or whatever is secondary to the effect the rumor may have on fan behaviors. This really IS a world order.

The development of internet interconnectivity, far from diminishing the power of the urban legend, only slightly tweaked its dynamics, allowing more, and weirder, information to be disseminated rapidly. I'm not just talking about things like the broken cheat referenced earlier but also the code plundering that fans now engage in as a matter of course. Sun and Moon had a demo, recently, that wasn't effectively scrubbed of data, resulting in a parsing out of a bunch of information. The final games were recently picked apart revealing low-poly walk animations for Pokemon not used in the actual game, which in turn prompted avid speculation about whether this reveals a system planned for a future release. And, of course, the original games still have their own secrets to offer: a player recently used a series of bugs to take Pokemon, screw with it, then use its borked data to jump straight to the ending of a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GAME.

What I'm suggesting is that games like Pokemon Uranium are an extension of this metagame logic, and a part of the whole weird jumbled experience of following Pokemon hype. It's no surprise to me that the fans of Twitch Plays Pokemon generated an entire complex mythology based on the random, erratic, glitchy movement of the protagonist--this is what Pokemon fans have been primed to do. And largely original games like Uranium can create this experience of bewilderment and discovery through that most magical of all open source traditions: shit documentation. Unverified bugs, unclear intentionality in program behavior, and the already often opaque and weird abilities and mechanics of Pokemon games combine to make this possible even in the information-heavy field of the contemporary 'net.

If someone really felt like digging formally into the nature of Pokemon the way my most recent book posits Homestuck and similar projects like Awful Hospital do with other game genres, taking the gameplay as a particular idiom and metaphor that drives the narrative, one way of doing so might be to explore the boundary line between glitch, intended behavior, and urban legend. Rather than simply mirroring or lampooning game mechanics and tropes, such a narrative would go wider, taking in something maybe more critical to Pokemon games than their specific mechanics: their active and information-hungry fans.

Beyond questions of good or bad, beyond questions of whether Pokemon Uranium is a good game mechanically or even a good Pokemon game, Pokemon Uranium is part of the fandom field of Pokemon and helps us see that bugs might be just as much a part of the experience of a game as intended behavior.



Another Metroid 2 Remake and Environment

Can an unsanctioned and attacked fan game open up interpretive space for a classic game that was never intended by its original authors?

What Kind Of Media Is Problem Sleuth?

Problem Sleuth, Bard Quest, and Jailbreak may not be as renowned as Homestuck, but they helped put Andrew Hussie on the cultural map. But is Problem Sleuth really a comic? Or is it a game? Or a hypertext? Or is it something else entirely?

Five Ways AM2R Transforms Metroid II

AM2R--Another Metroid 2 Remake--made the news a few months ago when its long-anticipated release was immediately followed by a DMCA takedown demand from Nintendo. But is AM2R really just a copy of Metroid II, or is it a transformation? And what does a Jorge Luis Borges story have to do with contemporary fan games?

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona

Essays on Homestuck and Theme

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

Essays on Homestuck and Form

2 comments:

  1. Hi, you probably didn't expect for your article to be read by the creators of Pokemon Uranium themselves, but here I am. I'm one of the people who devoted literal years of their life to creating this fan game, which had its full release this year and went on to become the most popular Pokemon fan game ever.

    There's a fundamental difference between Pokemon Uranium and Pokemon Sun and Moon: Uranium is indie. And I mean REALLY indie. The majority of it was the work of just 2 people, over an extended development period. In fact, almost all of the game's custom scripts were done by just one person: my partner, ~JV~. We subjected the game to a fairly rigorous beta testing process in the 3 months prior to launch, with a small but dedicated team of testers. Despite that, we knew that it was inevitable that some bugs would slip through. We chose to release the game knowing that there were still bugs; the game's download comes bundled with a Patcher, assuming we would detect and patch out said bugs shortly after launch. Unfortunately, we had to stop distributing and developing updates for the game, although the fan community has taken over for us and is releasing bug fixes and patches in our stead.

    I've always approached Fan Games with the attitude that it's better to release a less-than-perfect game, rather than not release any game at all. That's how Uranium managed to have so many betas and finally a full game: we didn't really sweat the details. I'd rather get something playable into the hands of our fans, than delay and nitpick over a perfect masterpiece. After all, it's only a Fan Game; it's a passion project that we made available for the price of free. We hope that the work we put into it made it worth the experience, despite its flaws.

    I'm passionate about Pokemon. This should come as no surprise, given how much time and energy I poured into making this fan game. One of the things that always fascinated me about Pokemon was exactly what you indicated in this article: its mysteries and glitches, the rough parts around the edges of the early games, which to my young mind was fertile ground for the imagination. I was so captured by the vibe of the 1st generation games that I created a different fan game, entitled "The Secret of Cinnabar Mansion", that's styled like Pokemon RBY and takes place inside of the ruined mansion on Cinnabar Island. I liked the feeling of piecing together a narrative through collecting scraps of journal entries and other documentation, hinting towards a disturbing mystery that's never fully revealed. If you're interested, you can play through it yourself; it's about an hour long. http://reliccastle.com/forums/showthread.php?tid=490

    As the lead writer, I made sure certain segments in Uranium had callbacks to that type of narrative, such as when you explore the first Nuclear Power Plant. Had I the opportunity, I would have added in even more parts like this. A scrapped sidequest even planned to have the player character enter the Internet to battle a glitchy Pokemon that was corrupting GTS trades and Save Files, as a sort of meta-nod to the glitches which frustrated some players' experience, and which have pervaded Pokemon since its earliest days. I'll never have the chance to do that now, but know that I was always conscious of my role as a fan-creator partaking in the cultural dialogue. Pokemon has impacted my life in more ways than can be stated, and Uranium was in many ways a love letter to the franchise.

    I hope this answers some of the lingering questions you might have about this game, and about Pokemon in general. Thank you for writing this review, and I hope you'll continue to explore the world of Pokemon and Pokemon fan games.

    - Involuntary Twitch

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, it's really amazing to get such a detailed response from someone responsible for Pokemon Uranium! Honestly watching your game get hit by Nintendo is part of what inspired me to start Reload the Canons as a project--it stood out to me so clearly as this really incredible labor of love and it was totally outrageous to me that such a great project could be attacked on grounds that, in my opinion, don't hold up at all in terms of established Fair Use law.

      I think what struck me while working on this is the fact that even though as you say Uranium is very much an indie project, glitches still seem to plague canon releases as well. Which I mean, is true of any game? But glitches just seem to be so deeply a part of the fabric of Pokemon, I ended up getting really fascinated by that aspect of the experience.

      It's too bad that sidequest might never see the light of day now! It sounds like a really great nod to these kinds of ideas. That kind of metatextuality is so fascinating to me and it feels like there's a bunch that could be done with those ideas given how digital technology seems really integrated into Pokemon's setting.

      Anyway it's really cool that you got to read the piece, and I hope you get a chance to read my future coverage of your game and some of the other Pokemon fan games out there! I'll definitely be checking out The Secret of CInnebar Mansion as well! Thanks for the link and the response :)

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