My first encounter with the apparently unstoppable juggernaut that is Pokémon came when I was working graveyard shifts at the local Tim Horton’s, and was coming home to less than stellar television programme selection. It was 1998, and it was a decent-ish cartoon that was on at the right time, so I watched as I ate dinner at eight in the morning. I vaguely knew there was a game for it, but it wasn’t until deploying to Bosnia in 1999 that I picked a Game Boy Color that was packaged with “Pokémon Yellow”. I was hooked.
I played the game for the majority of the deployment before losing it and the Game Boy Color in subsequent moves and activities. I was back on the wagon and never really thought about it again until last year, when I acquired a copy of Pokémon Soul Silver for my well worn Nintendo DS Lite. I was hooked again. Since them I’ve picked up a half dozen cartridges for the GBA SP, Nintendo DS, and Nintendo 2DS so that I can catch them all. But playing with new eyes brought something to my attention. The player sprites were all generic white designs. They looked great, but they put a lot of the immersion effort on me and my imagination. As with many other games, like many other POC, I found myself again having to explicitly ignore the player character sprite to really immerse myself.
In all honesty, as I’ve been grinding through the pile of vintage awesome that I picked up, it’s been the same thing. Me pretty much ignoring the little sprite that represents me on screen as I race from battle to battle, patch of tall grass to patch of tall grass, and batter the hell out of whatever strays into my sights. Then I picked up a copy of Pokémon Y. For the first time, I had more than “Are you a boy, or a girl?” for choosing my character! There were three choices for appearance, and they fell broadly into the “white”, “Asian”, and “POC” categories. They basically picked three shades that just about anyone can identify as what they want it to be. Now, it’s not a perfect set up. The art remains the same no matter the skin tone choice. However, as you advance through the game, various customization options become available, allowing you to further tweak your character into something you want them to be.
It’s this kind of simple customization that more games need to engage in, a simple modification that allows more people to achieve a deeper level of immersion in a game. It’s not the only game to have this kind of option either. High budget games like the Mass Effect series, Fallout 3, and Fallout New Vegas have the ability to customize your character as well, and they’re far more graphically intensive than Pokémon Y on my 2DS. So what’s the take away here? There’s no real reason that isn’t purely plot driven (i.e.: if game is setting specific, like Yakuza or something) to not give players the option of playing a character that has ethnic features they can identify with. Pokémon has seen the way forward, so when are others going to follow?