Originally published in Edition Three (2022)
Content Warning: gender dysphoria, misgendering
Shattering the Western gender binary has, admittedly, never been a central concern of the Pokémon franchise. Since its conception in 1996, Pokémon has ballooned into a video game movement of epic proportions Books, movies, anime, merchandise... and, of course, the games themselves: eight generations with a ninth recently announced and over 26 years of spin-offs and sequels. The core premise of these main games, and many spin-offs, has remained essentially the same. You are a child journeying through your respective region armed with nothing but your sense of adventure and Pokémon -- short for "pocket monsters" -- that you capture, battle, and befriend along the way. The traditional formula of Pokémon is a turn-based team-building RPG, where you explore an overworld and battle with Pokémon to add them to your team. Pokémon Legends: Arceus marks Pokémon's first meaningful foray into open-world video games, emphasising exploration and acquisition of all Pokémon rather than becoming the strongest.
When one thinks of Pokémon, trans rights are probably not what comes to mind. For many years, one of the first questions asked by the local Pokémon Professor was "Are you a boy or a girl?", locking in a gender binary before the player even had a chance to see a Pokémon in action. However, starting from Generation Six, your hapless professor has learned to obfuscate the gender binary with slightly more aplomb. The question is now "What do you look like?", proffering the player with several skin tone options split equally between male and female, in what the creators believe to be a "bold" and "revolutionary" step toward racial and transgender equality. I do not care to make excuses for Nintendo, nor any large company, about their long-standing failure to defy the gender binary. Not only because I expect very little from big-name videogame companies but also because the main character is simply not important in Pokémon. You are the epitome
of the everyman -a blank slate of an ambiguously-aged child, customisable in later generations but ultimately designed as a vehicle to get from one Pokémon battle to the next.
Pokémon, in other words, is not a game about the body. At least, it's not about your body. Much of the focus on physicality is on the Pokémon. They have unique animations, different cries, and a vast roster of potential moves. As you travel through the world, battling enemies and training your Pokémon to be stronger, the bodies you are concerned with are almost exclusively that of your Pokémon team. In some ways, that is refreshing. For trans people, the body is a highly politicised and often challenging space to occupy. Medical gatekeeping keeps us from accessing medical transition that would massively increase our quality of life (or even save lives), causing emotional and financial stress so great we can't even begin to pursue surgeries or hormone replacement therapy. At the same time, the cis-heteropatriarchy and medical, and industrial complex couch our existence exclusively in terms of our relationship to our bodies. They only choose to take us seriously when our discontent is severe enough under their cis-made criteria. The system is unfair, lacks nuance, and refuses to listen to trans people when we demand free and equitable access to our bodily agency. Video games can often provide a way to reclaim some of that agency, no matter how fleeting it may be. Simultaneously, however, they can be ways to exacerbate or remind somebody of their dysphoria and can foreground trans discomfort/trauma. In my playthrough of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, I experienced both.
On the surface, Legends seems like the perfect candidate for an escapist romp. Instead, it foregrounds a far more robust sense of the body than in previous Pokémon games. The genre of open-world games uses a player's physicality as the first meaningful touchstone in the game's fiction. How your character moves, where they can go, how fast they can run, and how they can interact with their surroundings all serve to inform the game's narrative. The narrative of Legends is that the main character exists in a new pre-Pokémon world, where humans and Pokémon are cautious co-habitants of Hisui rather than close allies. Immediately, it becomes clear that your character cannot attack and defeat Pokémon on their own bodily agency is, therefore, both heightened and transferred outwards to the Pokémon you catch; the player's will is communicated most effectively through the Pokémon able to knock Berries off trees, harvest crafting materials, and climb, swim, or fly. This is a world just learning to live in tandem with Pokémon, and appropriately, that is the narrative that your character follows as you gain the respect of more Pokémon across Hisui. When contrasted with the rest of the franchise's cheerful ignorance of the player character's body, the sudden centring of such a core aspect of the player experience is startling, even jarring.
Admittedly, the increased importance of the player's body is not unprecedented. The Mystery Dungeon spin-offs have the player turn into a Pokémon and act as a Pokémon walking around dungeons and attacking with their moves. Yet this is the first title in the series that's been so blatant about drawing attention to the relevance of the player's body, resulting in that tenuous refuge of the distanced body being dissolved. Steps towards an increased representation of protagonist characters in Pokémon, as well as the exponential rise of customisation options, have shrunk the distance between avatar and player. Yet Legends marks the first time the body itself, and not its attached paraphernalia, has been placed front and centre of the player's concerns. For the first time in a Pokémon game, I
elected to play Legends as a boy instead of a girl.
I had dimly anticipated that perhaps being misgendered in the other direction would approach something akin to gender euphoria. This was not the case. What I ended up unlocking instead was, hilariously, a new kind of dysphoria. Being referred to constantly as a young man, boy, or son was a uniquely awful experience in a Pokémon game. This wasn't only because Legends has a bizarre amount of gendering compared to past games. Suddenly, I had a body to which I could ascribe this cheerfully oblivious misgendering. I came to resent the young brown boy who dodged Hyper Beams and caught Wurmple in the grass, hating him in a way l'd never hated the silent, fair-skinned girls of earlier games. I had never identified with the latter before, never been made to identify their bodies with my own. Legends, however, refused to let me get away with that distance. The confines of the genre had confined me in turn.
In some ways, this story has a happy ending. After a bit of grinding, I was able to buy new hair and clothes for my boy. Growing out his close-cropped hair into a ponytail and donning a sea-green kimono changed my experience with my assigned avatar radically. I no longer hated looking at him, being him or being referred to as him. He felt much closer to what I wanted, if not out of reality, then certainly out of Legends. Ironically, the closer engagement with the body, not the distance between the avatar and player, allowed me to overcome this new problem. Truthfully, I had already known that this would be the solution, even before I anticipated my Pokémon Trainer's body
to be a problem at all-the power of bodily agency for transgender rights shouldn't be underestimated. in upsetting the status quo of the Pokémon franchise's time-tested formula, Legends mounts a spirited challenge against the distance of player and player character, prompting a refocus on the body and its interactions that cannot be understated.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is available on the Nintendo Switch.