Bildungsspiel: Pokémon and the Novel of Formation
A young boy goes off traveling the world by himself, meets people that will change him forever, and comes back home wise, grown up, mature. If this sounds like the premise of Pokémon, it is also that of a whole literary genre, the Bildungsroman. And while the latter exudes respectability and artistic legitimacy, the Pokémon series is little more than a childish toy to most people’s eyes. I beg to differ, naturally. I will try raise a few parallels between the literary genre and the Pokémon video games, and see how the latter may even take it further.
The Bildungsroman goes back to the end of eighteenth century, with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. A few works of German literature then drew inspiration from the eponymous character’s epic quest of self-awakening and psychological growth, and later, it spread to the rest of Europe. In fact, it may well be responsible for the still popular coming-of-age story in books, movies, and TV shows. The premise of the Bildungsroman is often a decision made by the protagonist to leave and embark on a journey without a specific goal or end date, sometimes caused by a major rupture at home. In the case of Wilhelm’s Lehrjahre, he cannot stand the bourgeoisie anymore and he goes off to do what he truly wants: to be an artist (specifically: he joins a travelling theater troupe). While this is very clichéd today, the Bildungsroman is at the origin of certain of these tropes. In the sequel, his Wanderjahre, the travelling, the different spaces, become the central part of his journey. This is in fact reminiscent of the subsequent travel literature. Travelling as trigger of personal growth is nothing new.
It is in this context that I feel like Pokémon inscribes itself perfectly into the Bildungsroman genre. The player becomes the protagonist who embarks on a long journey of growth and awakening. All Pokémon games put an emphasis on travelling from one city to the next, as the map shows, where the hero encounters a variety of mentor figures (mainly professors) and helpers (Pokémon centres, allies), as well as challenges — namely, gyms which serve to track the progress, the growth of the hero as a trainer, the core of his identity. Identity which relies on his or her ability to breed, train and utilize fictional pets. The protagonist/player is expected to learn as the game goes along, the same way that his or her Pokémon learn and grow alongside him or her. The Pokémon’s growth is made obvious by the leveling up system (an actual numeric representation of growth), by abilities that are learned (much like learning skills, mastering trades), and emphasized by evolutions (and in some cases, mega evolutions), where the Pokémon actually grows in size, age, strength, and gains a more mature look — like growing older. They sort of hit puberty, much like the protagonist himself/herself does. Both Pokémon and trainer hone their skills. These Pokémon are thus much more than pets: they mirror the protagonist/player’s growth. A symbiosis happens, which is all the more emphasized by the addition of mega evolutions in Pokémon X and Y, where the trainer and the pokémon reach a paroxysmal point of intense synergy, which triggers a hidden ultimate form in the Pokémon.
So while cities and gyms are milestones and give tangible rewards for the player and his or her team’s growth, the heart of the games themselves is the in-between cities. That is to say, the various unnamed “routes” that link precise areas. The spaces in-between is where the growth happens: Pokémon are caught and fight here, the vast majority of the times. Much like in the Bildungsroman, the cities provide a space of interaction with others, but the character’s growth happens in the travelling itself, the act of leaving these cities and going elsewhere, wherever elsewhere is doesn’t matter so much. In fact, it is in these in-between spaces that the player has the most freedom, while cities offer more or less a checklist of things the player must do in order to move on once again. The player may choose to fight and catch as many Pokémon as he or she wishes, go back and forth indefinitely, and thus, gauging how much growth his Pokémon — and himself/herself — experience. Cities are where the growth is put to the test, and also a pause between travels where the Pokémon may rest and heal. Bildungsroman also portrays cities as tests of the hero’s mettle. It is where he or she encounters the Other in all its frightening glory, must interact with other human being who inevitably (often implicitly) challenge his or her morals, ethics, decision-making abilities, and wits, among other traits of personality.
The transposition of the highly human(e) characters of the Bildungsroman onto fictional creatures in Pokémon is an interesting one. It allows for a less overt, more relatable, more playful way of emphasizing growth and important decision-making as part of maturing. In fact, Pokémon could be seen as a fairy-tale-like allegory of the Bildungsroman in video game format. Much unlike a great number of video games, the end goal is not focused upon by the narrative or the gameplay per se. While there is a high number of elements that track improvements (number of Pokémon caught, their levels, number of badges, number of opponents defeated, items found, money acquired, etc.), the ending of the game is never really the end. You do not ‘beat the game’ and never touch it again after you become the Pokémon champion, like the last page of a book. The end is when the player decides to stop playing, in which case the game itself is not finished, but the player has decided to stop his or her growth, which could practically be endless.
This is indeed taking the Bildungsroman even further, as books as a medium do not allow the same endlessness as video games do. It is however interesting that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister spans over two books, and ends with “to be continued” despite never having been continued. I interpret this as a certain future-oriented gesture at human growth which never truly ends. Wilhelm could keep growing until his death, and so the possibility of a sequel was always open (keep in mind this is way before the epoch of the Harry Potter and Twilight era, as well as the Marvel and DC era, where sequels and prequels and side stories keep coming up). It was, at the time, shocking that a novel would end like this.
What makes the video-gaming appropriation of the Bildungsroman fascinating is the player involvement. I have discussed this at length in other entries so I shall not restate my points, but the mirroring of the player and the protagonist (who is himself or herself a mirror of his or her Pokémon) may create a certain infiltration of the game’s ethos into the player (who of course infiltrates the game clearly through the decisions he or she constantly makes). I would argue that the growth experienced by the protagonist through his travels and his Pokémon is simultaneously experienced by the player. Therein lies much of the nostalgic power of Pokémon: the generation of players that grew up with Pokémon feels very tied to the games which instilled the sense of growth present in the games into the players. The creatures, the protagonists, and the players all grew alongside each other, with each other, and caused each other to grow (the influence goes back and forth between all three poles).
This becomes even more fascinating in the case of Pokémon GO, not only because it capitalizes on the nostalgia for the Bildungsromanesque growth its players experienced with the Pokémon games, but also because of its medium. In fact, being mobile (and thus following the player absolutely everywhere), this player/protagonist identification is taken to its extreme. The very space of the game becomes the player’s space, using an actual GPS-powered map tracking the player/protagonist’s movements, becoming his or her movements. Virtuality becomes a layer of the player’s physical space, merging with it, like the player and protagonist merge. The player becomes the hero of his or her own Bildungsroman, or Bildungsspiel (game of formation), as I amuse myself to call it.