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Thursday, August 23, 2012

What? Pokemon And Digimon Are Evolving! Or, Why Both Series Have Become More Linear

By Chalkey Horenstein, Editor-in-Chief

When I was a small child, it was a forbidden subject to compare Pokémon and Digimon; the hardcore fans of either (though Pokémon fans more notably) would get riled up and call one a rip-off of the other, engaging in date-wars that tried to allege which game came first. Playgrounds were a hot mess of misinformed kids arguing over something that could've been solved in two clicks of Wikipedia, had it existed and had we been old enough to think of using it. But one of the more undeniable and fascinating links between the two series, as far as their games are concerned, is not the character design and monster-human partnership similarities, but rather the evolution from exploratory to linear gaming style — both game series have traces of open-world games in their roots, with more linear games in the end.

Normally, you defeat Team Rocket in the Game Corner
to get the Silph Scope to identify this ghost and battle it.
But using a store-bought pokedoll,
which ends any non-trainer battle instantly,
accomplishes the same thing.
Pokémon Red and Blue allowed the player to battle the gyms in a seemingly linear fashion, but with replays and knowing where to go next (or just bumbling that direction stubbornly), the player could very easily do certain badges out of order, go to certain areas before the logical progression, or skip areas altogether. A few examples: the Thunder Badge isn't necessary for some time given that it only grants access to Fly, the Marsh Badge is skippable up until you need it to get to the Earth Badge, and the Rocket Game Corner's Silph Scope isn't necessary at all thanks to Poké Dolls, allowing you to bypass an entire wave of Team Rocket. Should the player desire, the world could be explored in multiple orders.

Digimon World, the first PlayStation game to exist for the franchise, follows suit. The game takes place on the circular File Island, which you can explore in either direction, with no real requirement to get to the next area other than figuring out how to get there. The side opposite to the starting location, File City, can be accessible from either direction, such that you create a full circle. The only thing really limiting you is how strong your partner is, but most of the areas adjacent to the city in either direction are approximately the same difficulty, with Freezeland and Factorial Town (the farthest from the main city) being of the more challenging areas. The plot of the game is that various Digimon are losing their memory and leaving the city, becoming more hostile in the wild and uncultured land, and it is up to you to recruit city dwellers and create a peaceful area with the necessary amenities to function as a city (examples include a restaurant, item shop, hospital, bank, and farm), while figuring out what is brainwashing the various natives. The recruiting can be done in any order as well, and you don't need to recruit everyone in the game to open access to Infinity Mountain, the area with the final boss. This game, much more so than Red and Blue, can be completed in just about any order you desire.

Starting at the circular part of the map,
the entire right side of Unova is inacessible
until post-game, making the main game
very straightforward.
By comparison, both games have far more linear areas now. The most recent editions of the Pokémon series, Black and White versions, follow an exclusively one-direction path along the left side of the Unova region — and games before it, like Heart Gold and Soul Silver or Diamond and Pearl, forcibly give you items like HMs and tell you where to go with them. Prior to that, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald of the third generation forcibly gave HMs, but proper use required backtracking and more exploration than just exploring the next place on the same path like in Black and White  which marks this linear pattern as a gradual progression in the series. With each passing game, more imagination is lost with the loss of ambiguity of the directions. Similarly, Digimon World Dawn and Dusk versions also become more linear, with the worlds being unlocked in a set order and leveling conforming to traditional methods (grinding) rather than the time-limited manual training of stats in Digimon World. Additionally, the need to feed your partner or let it sleep is gone, and the way to obtain certain Digimon is explicitly stated in-game. Both the newer Pokémon games and the newer Digimon games have a clear start-to-finish path, and ultimately only one way to go about it, with the only customization being in your party itself. 

Gamers like big worlds to explore, right? So why did games with big open worlds like this change to more straightforward games?

Compare: Emerald interrupts your quest to give
you HM03 and tell you where to use it,
while in Red and Blue you find it with little to no guidance. 
Largely, it has to do with the evolution of the gamer, and the evolution of a game designer's ability to sense what a gamer wants. For reference, let's change gears and briefly consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a 1970s psychologist known for his work on "flow." Put simply, he observed a person's ability to do a given task, and found that participants needed to feel they were growing in skill with a proportionate rate to an expected increase of difficulty in order to maintain motivation. In other words, if the participant's skill increased faster than the difficulty, the person would grow bored, but if the difficulty increased faster than the participant's skill, the person would grow anxious — both of which discourage continuing.

While Csikszentmihalyi's research is sort of dated, the timeless principle above applies directly to video games 
 and game designers, much like the gamers themselves, respond to feedback from the games and adapt. They look at what sells well, and what doesn't, and move forward from there; heck, Digimon World's instruction manuals even came with surveys asking what players liked/didn't like about the game — and based on the progression of the games, it seemed like the majority of the people preferred games like the newer ones, despite the few token hardcore fans that preferred the challenge of Digimon World
Above: the introduction tutorial to Digimon World
being extremely unhelpful.
Compared to more recent games, Digimon World and Pokémon Red and Blue both offer seemingly insufficient feedback. It's easy to look at choice moments in either game and think, "How was I supposed to know that was there? How was I supposed to figure that out?" Examples include knowing where the Silph Scope was in Red and Blue, or knowing how to get partners strong enough to beat most bosses in Digimon World. In both games, you had to sort of rely on talking to everyone,  exhausting all options, and then going back to areas you couldn't beat before and seeing what you could apply that you didn't have or know beforehand.

In the newer games, there's an instant feedback. You beat an area, and they congratulate you and tell you where to go next. You have a certain path of progress you can log by checking your status in either game, and you have a vague idea of how close you are to the end at almost any time.

And if sales are based on human response, it makes perfect sense that humans sided with Csikszentmihalyi's findings and molded the later games. Players want to feel like they're accomplishing something — that their time in this virtual place met some sort of goal. Digimon World had progress through watching the town grow and develop (which also made it easier to get other city dwellers farther away), though the initial lack of tutorials makes the game irritating to beginners. Pokémon Red and Blue also sort of assume players will figure things out — and while newer gamers can feel patronized by the plethora of tutorials, most players would rather feel like the game was disappointingly easy rather than impossible to beat and a waste of money.

Not only that, but the demographic of gamers is changing. Younger players are growing up in a more casual gaming environment, which discourages longer games, and older players are constrained for time in ways they weren't in childhood — both of which lend itself to the game having to adapt to the player just as much as the other way around. 

This is not to say that open-world, hardcore games don't exist; Digimon even has a fairly successful MMORPG still garnering users after several years. Players evolve, but it's tough to say any kind of gamer or game has truly gone extinct yet. And even though the games (and, to a large extent, the shows) are changing, at the end of the day they're still the characters we love, battling in the way we love. On more unfiltered days, I attribute some of the great lessons I learned in youth to either Digimon or Pokémon  — courage, friendship, reliability and kindness among others from Digimon, and competitive drive and love of traveling from Pokémon — so it's only fair that the games get to grow up from us, just as we do from them. 

Sound off question: What trends in video games do you see evolving into other trends? Is this a positive or negative change? Tell us your thoughts in the comments! 


  1. A trend that I found difficult to deal with was the change from sidescrolling (like old Mario, Metroid, etc.) to the more 3-D feel when the 64 came out. I remember thinking that I used to be good at video games and now I sucked at them. For me, that was negative, but for the rest of the world with better hand/eye coordination than me, it was positive. Also, I think games have been evolving into more complex storytelling media over the years. Zelda used to be just a game and now it's a whole mythology. Final Fantasy games have become increasingly narrative over the years. I think this is a positive thing as well because it gives storytellers another platform to work with, and because the creation of characters, geography, continuity, etc. imprint upon the player/consumer/user. It makes fans want more lore, and thus inspires them to participate.