Hi faithful readers. Welcome to another instalment of my quest to reveal the profound nature that lays dormant in every video game ever made.
Today I look at the ambiguity and themes that got us thinking back when we all completed Pokémon Red and Blue. Thoughts about that boy left in the room outsite the hall of fame computer. This blog asks the question- how did our thoughts of the rival end? Were they justified when we look at the wider picture?
We are all familar with Pokémon's rich backstory, that much is obvious. Since its original release in 1999 (earlier outside of Europe), the infamous finale of Pokémon Red/Blue has been debated by academics to the point of becoming cliché. While much can and has been said of the protagonists rise to power and the obvious themes of captialism subtlety shown through the design of the three 'starter Pokémon'- little has been brought to attention of the role of the rival and his impact on the player's experience.
Please note that this piece is going to deal exclusively with the 'rival' character and ignores most of the other themes the two games deal with.
The rival's appearance changes throughout the course of the game, reflecting his three-part character arc.
We are first introduced to the rival immediately after the player is instructed to enter their own name. As to be expected from Tajiri, this stunning design choice reinforces the strength of the link between him and yourself before the descriptive text even manages to fully appear on the screen. Beyond this subtle action, we are told by Oak, the mentor, the player's relationship with this character. The player and rival were once friends but have since become rivals. One can only imagine what this involved. It is the strength of Pokémon's story that we do not know this. Just like the greatest literary characters such as the pressured Winston Smith, the most simple back story is also most likely the correct one for the reader to assume transpired. We can use our own judgements based on real childhood relationships we have all had to craft the rival's past. Interpretation of the rival make the player character our own creation before you even gain control.
The rival is Professor Oak's grandson. Too much can be said of Oak's inability to remember the rival's name. The most prolific interpretation is how we view Oak's own efforts to develop Gary into a strong adult only to consistently find himself in conflict with his Pokémon research. How does an elderly man approaching his final years prioritise raising a grandson in Pallet Town against his role as the nation's greatest Pokémon researcher?
In another genius move, we are able to name him. This mirrors the Mother series and with its emphasis on naming characters to enable player attachment. This literally makes the rival the player's own creation and most certainly a construction from past experiences. The player and rival are explicitly stated to be 'rivals' from the very start, hence our easily justifiable use of the 'rival' label for the character. Even up until the games climax, the specific nature of this rivalry is left completely open for interpretation. Through the course of the game we can never tell the seriousness of the rival's intense dialogue, mostly because the Game Boy's inability to convey prosodic and paralinguistic features. Can we compare this relationship to Ryu and Ken or to Kyo and Iori? The rival's words do indeed seem harsh, but it is the belief of many that he is actuallyjust has a highly developed sense of humour for his age- his frustrations in life are expressed as ironic. However, this is just one view. In a 1997 interview, Tajiri did suggest that the literal interpretation of his feelings was correct. The rival is a haunted soul as evident from his will to leave the player to face Team Rocket alone. Does the rival use his hatred for the player to justify morally corrupt acts? What is the rival's understanding of morals? Is his quest for powerful pokémon any less justified than the exact same aspiration of the player? It is only by having weaker pokémon than the player that he may suffer his downfall.
The rival's shortlived reign as Pokémon champion is undoubtedly the most tragic part of the character and the main argument for those who believe the character is supposed to be sympathetically portrayed. The player's victory conversation is in essence the rival's “If you Prick Us” monologue in Pokémon Red/Blue. It is Oak that congratulates the player and praises him while offering no emotional support for the defeated grandchild. Gary is left outside the Hall of Fame, dead inside.
There is much more we can say about the rival, such as his choice of Pokémon. It must be remembered that his character in Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal develops the character further and portrays him in a more positive light. These games are not canon and Tajiri has stated that the character will be officially revised in the second part of the seven-act Pokémon story in the upcoming canon games Pokémon White/Black which return the series to its colour roots. We can only wonder where this leads the rival.
If you would like me to discuss the artistic interpretations of other games, just let me know.