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Pokémon Crystal keeps us interested by telling us less | Why I Love

Ocean's Heart developer Max Mraz digs into the enduring mysteries of the classic Pokémon adventure

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Max Mraz, whose retro-inspired action-RPG Ocean's Heart launches on Steam today.

The commercial for Pokémon Crystal aired in 2000, and unlike the commercials for Pokémon games before it, it was set within the Pokémon universe. It didn't show kids with Game Boys, or a bus driver crushing Pokémon in a trash compactor (this is an actual weird thing that happened in the '90s). Instead, an Indiana Jones stand-in discovers crumbling ruins deep in a jungle. He pulls away the vines and foliage to uncover a stone door with the Pokémon called Unown carved in relief. I was absolutely captivated by this place.

What was being advertised here wasn't just the game, but the world of Pokémon Crystal. There would be ruins, like where they discovered Mew in the first Pokémon movie. They'd be covered in vines, with gnarled tree root twisting over rocks. I didn't even own a Game Boy and wouldn't until I saved up $20 to buy one off a high school-aged cousin in a year or two, but I loved these ruins, and would visit them when I played pretend in the woods. When I finally got Pokémon Crystal for myself, they were everything I dreamed of. Brimming with mystery, dust floating in the sunlight between the crumbing columns, riddles to solve, baffling Pokémon.

The Ruins of Alph

Let's take a look at the Ruins of Alph as they actually appear in the game.

Wait, there's actually like nothing here? Just some caves? I was honestly surprised looking back at this that there weren't actually any real ruins, I remembered the crumbling stone structures so well. There's not even any art assets here that aren't everywhere else in the game; it's just trees and cliffs. So how did this become something so much more realized to my 10-year-old self?

Let's talk about world maps for a second. In old Final Fantasy games, or on the inside cover of Narnia books, the world maps often have drawings of castles or cities not drawn to scale.

If you visit one of these cities in the game, or in your imagination in the book, you aren't expecting a 1:1 correlation in size or number of buildings to the city you saw on the map. The icon of a castle represents that there is a castle here, but isn't trying to literally depict it. It invites your imagination to fill in missing information.

Final Fantasy V world map

If we take the same logic and change the resolution, lots of spaces in games are the same. Take the Dusty Dunes Desert in Earthbound. If we scale it to the player, it's probably not a half-mile wide. Pewter City in Pokémon Red and Blue has six buildings in total. I don't think we're meant to take these measurements literally, though.

I'm going to call these Representational Spaces, as opposed to Literal Spaces -- but if there's a more widely accepted term for this, I'd love to know. What Pewter City represents is a full city. It has shops, houses, a museum, these key parts of the city stand in for the full city. The same way we see rows and rows of identical trees and understand this represents a forest, a small handful of buildings represents a full town.

The way players engage with a representational space is different than the way we engage with a literal space

Video games are constantly abstracting concepts. In a fighting game, your level of injury (I guess this is what HP represents?) is abstracted into a health bar that decreases until you spontaneously drop dead. In some RPGs, mining for resources is abstracted into banging a rock until it turns into materials. Representational spaces are abstractions as well. You take the essential elements of a space to stand in for the whole. The remaining elements are implied.

The way players engage with a representational space is different than the way we engage with a literal space. Like when you read a book, interacting with a representational space actively engages your imagination, as you translate the icons on the screen into a fully realized environment in your imagination. A strength of representational spaces is that the way everyone interprets the spaces will be different and based on each player's experience. This can make the world more tangible by giving the player less information and details. In a way, a representational space is composited from experiences the player has actually felt.

This is also a very long and obnoxious way of explaining why there don't need to be any bathrooms in video games. The bathrooms are in our minds.

Back to the Ruins of Alph. The way the Johto region was depicted in 1999 left much to the imagination; and as a child, I filled that in thoroughly. Not just the Ruins of Alph, but the boulders and rubble around the Burned Tower in Ecruteak City, or the reefs and rocks of the Whirl Islands. The lack of details in the game allowed me to put in details from my experience. The route south of Blackthorn City took on characteristics from mountains in California I'd visited. The Ilex Forest was tied to this grove of hemlocks I played in. And this helped me make a deeper connection to the game than I might have if I were less involved. Since I was inserting my own experience into how I translated the graphics, I knew how these areas smelled, sounded, and felt.

Something happens when designers don't try to define everything. When a space is just representational, it leaves more room for the player to add their own experience in

What I think the developers of Pokémon did so well with this is that while they put very few details into these environments, those details were very well chosen. The routes of Johto are filled with small human touches -- fences and worn paths. The roofs of buildings are detailed, and you can see the contrast between the more traditional buildings and more modern ones. The trees they use across Johto are distinctive conifers (they look like cedars to me), in opposition to the rounded trees of Kanto.

This definitely isn't to say that games with more detailed graphics are less engaging, rather that something happens when designers don't try to define everything. When a space is just representational, it leaves more room for the player to add their own experience in. As graphics move toward fidelity and away from abstraction, representational space is harder to suspend your disbelief for. A forest where every tree is the same works well in a Game Boy game; you just picture a forest in your imagination. But in something like Red Dead Redemption, this would be eerie and strange. Pokémon Crystal uses its simple graphics as representational spaces to leverage your imagination to create a fleshed-out world.

The Burned Tower in Ecruteak City in Pokémon Crystal

Crystal version's lore is similarly understated. You might say Pokémon 's lore is nonsensical and inconsistent (Grimer used to be sludge, but x-rays from the moon turned it into a Pokémon?), but the Johto region is populated with fascinating mysteries.

When visiting Ecruteak City, you learn the story of the three Legendary Beasts. A trio of Pokémon perished when the city's Brass Tower burned town, but the Pokémon Ho-Oh brought them back to life. Now their whole thing is they just run around all over the place. The game's intro sequence implies that there's some connection between the Legendary Beast Suicune and the Pokémon called Unown in the Ruins of Alph. And that's basically all you get.

The Ruins of Alph also pose questions without really giving you any answers. As you return to these ruins throughout the game, you can progress deeper into them as you acquire new skills or items, Metroidvania style. There are puzzles to solve which depict ancient Pokémon and summon new varieties of Unown into the ruins' underground hall. Glyphs on the wall pose riddles that, when solved, reveal writing that hints at the ruins' history. The ruins seem to have been built by humans that respected the Unown and their great insight. The people left the ruins for mysterious reasons. And again, if you want more details you are outta luck.

While you may learn more about these mysteries, all your questions are never answered. This is because the game isn't about you uncovering answers to the world's mysteries

You might have some questions. Why were the Legendary Beasts resurrected? Is this just a hobby Ho-Oh has? What power do the Unown possess that the ancient people revered them so much? Do these Pokémon have some sort of purpose or goal? These questions are even echoed by other characters within the game. Researchers have set up an archeological station in the Ruins of Alph, trying to unravel these mysteries and understand the Unown.

Critically, while you may learn more about these mysteries, all your questions are never answered. This is because the game isn't about you uncovering answers to the world's mysteries. You set out to take the Pokémon League gym challenge, and that's what the game is about. By coming alongside these mysteries but not focusing the game on them, they serve as necessary world building.

Much of the world and lore of Pokémon exists to facilitate the Pokémon League path that you're following. Every city has a Pokémon Center, functioning to serve your Pokémon-battling path. The shops in the world seem to only sell items for Pokémon fights. The economy depends on kids needing to protect their pets during throwdowns. The majority of the game's depth and mechanics revolve around Pokémon battles. In many ways, this makes the world feel small. So much of the world is focused on battles, gyms, the League Challenge, and as a player you will fully explore that path. You can battle all the trainers, meet every gym leader, conquer every challenge, collect every Pokémon. You can explore this path until it's exhausted.

But these unexplorable mysteries serve as side-paths to the world building. There's a lot you could want to know about the Unown and the Ruins of Alph; you can peer down that path, but can't follow it. You cannot explore the mystery around Ecruteak's Burned Tower the way you can explore the Pokémon League's challenge. The Pokémon League and gym leaders are the path you follow, and you will follow it to the end. But the unsolvable mysteries are paths you can't follow, and therefore can never exhaust. A mystery by definition goes away once you know enough about it. By refusing to let you reach any conclusions, the game keeps these mysteries around. The world of Pokémon Crystal will always be bigger than you know.

Shrine in Ilex Forest

The Johto region has a secret cave where a hidden cabal of old people trained the strongest leaders, and they give you a dragon. You can also listen to a talk radio show, shop at a department store, or visit a casino. There are a lot of fantasy games where as the player, you find ancient ruins, or meet legendary creatures at the top of towers. But much fewer where these activities happen right outside the kind of town the player lives in real life. Pokémon's setting, the modern and mundane existing so close to the mythical, is another key way it can exist so vividly in your imagination.

The shrine in Ilex Forest was one of the strongest examples of this to me as a kid. It's just a little bit south of Goldenrod City. Goldenrod has the Radio Tower, a train station, a department store, a bicycle shop, the kinds of locations I knew from real life. They gave all the gravitas of Saturday errands. But go just a bit further into the woods, and a mysterious shrine is waiting for you to discover its secrets.

The shrine in Ilex Forest is related to encountering Celebi, the Johto equivalent of Mew, a secret Pokémon that can't be found under normal circumstances. In the early days of the internet, and in elementary school, this shrine had a “Mew under the truck” mystique. There was enough evidence to prove it was absolutely associated with Celebi, but not enough that the average kid on the playground knew what to do about that.

The implication of the shrine in Ilex Forest was, to me, that if I explored the woods behind the grocery store after school, I could come across something as arcane and significant as this shrine. After all, the forest is a representational space, I imagined it to be just like the ones I played in. And the game gave so little information about it that my imagination could interpret it in endless ways. Pokémon Crystal left much unsaid and unshown, and was the richer for it.

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