As computer games go, it’s a simple premise: collect a menagerie of different animals, level them up and fight a series of identically-staged, increasingly-difficult battles with your favourites. Every instalment boasts the same story arc: young protagonist befriends helpful professor, sets out on cross-island journey, fights villains and ultimately becomes League Champion. The stuff dreams are made of, if yours happen to particularly one-dimensional. There is no great dialouge, plot, characterisation or underlying moral. The battle options are limited to decision trees, two functional buttons and a D-pad – exactly the same setup as the original black-and-white Gameboy of eighties fame.
So why is Pokemon still so fucking addictive?
The best explanation is digital sorcery: a devious balance of intangible, acquisitive elements. You collect rare, interesting animals – animals with special powers, animals that can evolve into other, equally interesting animals. Data is revealed with each new find, and the ultimate, possible goal of a Full Set is, I believe, something which calls to our inner obsessive.
As a game mechanism, levelling up has its own inexplicable power. It’s an end in itself which, for some people, borders on the addictive: you gain a level in order to improve, so that you can gain yet more levels. Why this formula holds such hypnotic sway over me and others is perhaps the deepest mystery of our times – just take a glance at the World of Warcraft community. In Pokemon, levelling up appears in a pure, uncluttered form, to the point of constituting the whole game – and therein, methinks, lies the reason for its success.
Riddle me this: what do Barbie dolls, teddy bears, Leggo and cardboard boxes have in common? Answer: a simple interface. These are all favourite childrens’ playthings, not because of the number of add-on features, but exactly because their mode of use isn’t prescriptive. A Barbie doll will always be a Barbie doll, but within those limits, imagination makes any game possible. This principle of creative simplicity is, I believe, an active ingreedient in the best videogames, albeit present (due to the nature of the medium) in an altered form.
Thus: games like Pokemon are addictive because, within the simple parameters of the game system, endlessly imaginative combinations become possible. I can only take one path through the story, but the way I conduct my battles, what elements I preference, the creatures I choose and which attributes I value are infinitely customisable. There is a terrible attraction to minutiae in such instances: I’ve never liked maths, but will happily spend my free time calculating DND stats and arranging the best possible combination of weapons and armour in Final Fantasy. It’s not the same kind of free-play offered by a Leggo set, but they are cousins, and the former design elements have arguably gone on to inspire their digital equivalent.
Alternatively, I’m just a grown geek who enjoys Pokemon. There’s no particular justification, but damned if it isn’t fun.