more than just a thousand words about Pokemon

Look if you don’t want to read a thousand words about Pokemon there’s more stuff at the bottom

Being a thirty-year-old man playing Pokemon Sword on the Tube is not something you do by half measures. There is no equivalent, for the Nintendo Switch, of those understated editions of Harry Potter or Northern Lights that publishers put out in the early days of Young Adult literature, to let Old Adults signal to other Old Adults that they weren't reading kids books, no, these were real books that just happened to be accessible to kids as well.

There are certainly people who bought the version of the Switch with grey joy-cons who think that's what they're doing. "Unlike the children who also partake in these electronic entertainments, I am a respectable adult. You can tell, since their Nintendo Switches have garish red and blue handles, while mine are grey, like my hair, clothes, and soul." They are wrong; no-one is fooled.

No, to play Pokemon Sword on the Tube, you must assemble the most garish pairing of joy-cons possible, pull out your console the minute you get a seat, and then channel your best Big/13 Going On 30/Jack energy and accept that you are a 10 year old child who cares deeply about Pikachu, stuck in an awkward oversized body, heading to a job where no-one will talk to you about type advantages.

Sadly, I had to turn down a commission to review the new Pokemons for the Guardian. Partly, that's because I'm honestly not sure what I would say about these games for a mainstream audience anymore. They are, unashamedly, children's games. The fact that there are adults who care about them doesn't change that. 

The fact that there are adults who care too much about them also doesn't change that, but does make writing a review that will be read largely by adults, not the children who the game is actually for, weird. (In case you are not aware, there was a Big Scandal about the latest entries in the series not having access to every Pokemon ever made, the first time since… I want to say 2003? that this has been the case. It is obviously a very good call – there are around a thousand Pokemon now, it's unwieldy, there's one that's just a set of keys, and another that's just a rubbish bag, we don't need them all – but the People On The Internet Who Ruin Nice Things are ruining this as a result.)

The other reason why I couldn't review the Pokemons is that I haven't finished it yet, or even come close. Because, as mentioned, the games are children's games, they aren't really very… good. I mean, they're great if you're 10, they're well-made, but there's not an awful lot to them. Which is made worse by the fact that they're fundamentally all the same bloody game anyway and this is the 8th release of the same bloody game. 

The adults I know who love the series tend to find ways to deal with that basic fact. Many of them get obsessed with high-level play; exploiting the mechanics that lie beneath the surface of the game to breed, raise and fight with ludicrously overpowered Pokemon in a way that allows for the game to have a certain amount of depth.

For me, this time round, I've been playing through the game in what's known as a "Nuzlocke run". Named after the webcomic artist who first suggested it, the idea is to add just two simple rules to your game:

  1. You can only try to catch the first Pokemon you encounter in each area, and if you accidentally kill it instead, that's your chance gone. And,

  2. If any of your Pokemon faint, you have to release them back into the wild.

The immediate effect of those two rules combined is interesting. Firstly, it makes the game much, much harder. But secondly, it brings back much of the magic of the series that is normally missing to adult eyes. 

As a ten year old, all Pokemon are magical creatures, there's a joy of discovery each time you spot a new one, and the idea of switching away from your favourite just because you caught a stronger replacement is anathema. But as an adult, it's too easy to see the creatures less as charismatic megafauna and more as bundles of statistics arranged for your optimising pleasure. That lends itself nicely to the high-level play I mentioned earlier, but that's not how I want to engage with this series.

And so, the Nuzlocke Run. At the time of writing, I've just defeated the fourth Gym leader – but lost all but two of my Pokemon as a result. When my star fighter, an Orbeetle (a sort of psychic ladybird) called Swift (all my Pokemon are named after musicians), died to a surprise blow from a giant panda thing, I genuinely did a little gasp. I'd raised that bug from a larva, accompanied it through two evolutions, and now it was… gone?

All I have left now are a beautiful Ninetales (a literal fire fox) and a weird scorpion thing that I hate. There's a very real chance that my game could just… end, if I'm not extremely careful about how I progress from here. It's exhilarating!

GDQ

I'm always a big fan of the way people can put new rules on games and fundamentally change how they work. Perhaps the most notable example of that, right now, is the speedrunning scene, right now in the midst of its biggest regular event, Games Done Quick

Speedrunning, if the name doesn't give it away, is about playing, and finishing, games as quickly as possible, but in the process, the games are frequently transformed. Take Breath of the Wild, a game I took around 80 hours to finish. The speed run record is less than 30 minutes, achieved in large part through a wild system that involves using bombs, magnets and metal crates to fling Link across half the map at once. 

If you've not watched any of GDQ, I do recommend you jump on the stream and just take a look at what's going on. Regardless of what they're playing – old or new – it'll be something marvellous to watch.

2050

Over Christmas, I wrote for the Guardian's G2 about what technology would look like in 2050. I think it went well, but it's instructive of how insanely broad the field of "technology" is right now that I basically gave equal time to global warming, the future of the smartphone, and the AI singularity.

Still, 2050 is a long way away, and the only thing I'm certain of is that something in that piece is going to be hellishly embarrassing to 60-year-old me. It was instructive, as part of the prep, to read a similar piece the Guardian published in 2004, looking forward to the distant future of 2020. It's a fascinating piece of (now) retrofuturism, but the thing I love most about it is the so-near-yet-so-far guess about consumer electronics:

Linking electronic devices raises other possibilities. Gadget lovers could use a single keypad to operate their phone, PDA and MP3 music player, or combine the output of their watch, pager and radio into a single speaker.

The writer, David Adam, correctly saw the coming convergence, but failed to see how radical it would be. Within just five years of him publishing his piece – let alone 15 – every single one of those functions was carried about by a single device. 

Without anticipating the smartphone, basically every other prediction you could make about the state of technology in 2020 is bound to be off, to a greater or lesser degree. So what have I similarly missed in 2050?

Helicopters

There's another class of futurist error, which is getting the tech right, but the effects wildly wrong. I've just finished reading a new SF anthology (Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers), made up of a mixture of new and old shorts that all loosely fit the space opera theme. Some's good, some's not so good, but as a taster platter of authors I'd mostly not heard of, it does the job.

One of the stories is a deep cut from Arthur C. Clarke's backlist. Rescue Party, the first short he ever wrote (though the second published) a tale of alien archaeologists excavating an abandoned future Earth, that contains the lovely line:

The culture of cities, which had outlasted so many civilizations, had been doomed at last when the helicopter brought universal transportation. 

In Clarke's future, mankind, once it had invented the helicopter, saw no need to continue living in cramped urban environments, and humanity scattered across the entire globe, safe in the knowledge that they could easily hop in their helicopters and travel wherever they wanted in a couple of hours.

I mean, look: it's not bad for 1946. In March that year – presumably after the story was actually written – the first ever helicopter to receive a license for civilian use in the US was produced, the Bell 47. It looked like this:

Photo by Peter Bakema, used under the GDFL license

Deep Fakes

Facebook published a wonderfully dumb policy yesterday, banning deepfakes on its site – but only those which are a) actually made using AI or machine learning and b) mislead the "average person" into thinking someone said something they didn't.

I can't work out if this is a fantastically cynical response to fears that deepfakes will ruin the world, or just dumb as heck, but focusing on the method of creation of misinformation sure seems to be missing the point.

Or, to put it another way, Facebook currently has a policy where one of these two videos is completely banned from the platform, and the other is completely OK. See if you can guess which it is before clicking through:

It's largely moot anyway – the ban is, like, 95% loophole, so effectively zero videos will actually be removed under it – but it's amazing to know that Facebook has spent at least two years struggling to come up with a policy in this area, based on when I first had conversations with senior staff about the topic, and this is the best they can do.

If you really think Facebook is like the One Ring then the only moral outcome is to destroy it

Andrew Bosworth published a long memo after the NYT leaked it and most of it is a bit weird and rambling but also he’s misunderstood Lord of the Rings:

Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial [sic] and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

The lesson of Lord of the Rings is that the power of the One Ring is so great and tempting that willpower is not enough, and it will ultimately destroy its bearer unless it is destroyed itself. I’m not sure that’s a good analogy for a Facebook executive to point to!

There’s hundreds of you

This is a surprise to me. Thank you so much for signing up to join me on this. If you like it, tell your friends. If you don’t like it, tell your friends that you like it anyway.

That’s enough of that,

Alex