The Mystery is What Keeps Pokémon Go Interesting

By Kotaku on at

by Alex Spencer

Everyone is gathered on the patio, cross-legged. A bottle in one hand, a smartphone in the other, they’re all talking Pokémon Go. Tales and theories and questions and wild rumours are being passed around: This morning, I actually saw a Gyrados in the wild. What's the point of beating a gym? I hear you catch more electric Pokémon if there's a power station nearby. I have no idea how much of the information being traded is actually true, but even if it’s bullshit, it’s nonetheless endearing bullshit.

These would-be Pokémon trainers are all here to celebrate a friend's twenty-seventh birthday, but I feel like I'm ten again. Were it not for the the bitter after-taste of good beer, we could be back on the playground, sharing misinformation gleamed from mags and message boards and older siblings, in those torturously long school hours in-between quality time with our Game Boys.

I've played and loved many other games in the two decades (!) since Pokémon Red and Blue came out, but I don't remember anything capturing this same sense of community, away from the game itself, outside of established 'gamer' circles. I've experienced something similar online with the discussion around – no, I can't believe I'm about to make this comparison either – Bloodborne and the Souls games, but there weren't hundreds of people in my day-to-day life ready and eager to discuss every minute detail. I haven't exactly been chewing over the mystery of Dark Souls 3's 'Poise' stat with old schoolmates, you know?

It helps, of course, that Pokémon Go had an immediately enormous player base, but you can't discount the game itself. Seemingly breezy, Go is almost completely inscrutable when you first start playing. The game comes with next-to-no instructions or tutorial, and an underlying system of gym and monster placement that isn't visible to the player.

As a result, Go recaptures a sense of mystery that was present in the original Pokémon games, but has washed away over many years of exposure.

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I first encountered Pokémon Go out in Spain, the APK having appeared in the wild while I was on holiday. It was reminiscent of the way I met Pokémon the first time around: on a holiday resort in Greece, glimpsing this strange world on the Game Boy screen of a bigger kid and in the shiny-covered guide he carried with him, a grimoire of Grimers. I was mesmerised, but unable to actually play until I got home and could apply pressure to my parents' wallets. When I finally held that vibrant ultramarine cartridge, I had no idea what was held inside.

When people talk about Pokémon Go as a sheer nostalgia trip, I think this is what they mean. It’s not the creatures themselves I’ve really missed – between Pokémon-themed drinking games and occasional Netflix binges, they've never really departed my life – but the sense of dumb wonder.

Unlike the more recent games in the series, which have built and built on top of the original systems, the mechanics of Go are completely new to me. Pokémon Go is certainly a much simpler game than its distant cousins, the Xs and Ys and Omega Rubies over on the central trunk of the family tree, but the game seemingly goes out of its way to not explain its rules.

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It's aggressively light on tutorial, leaving you to work everything out for yourself. What does the colour of this circle mean, and why is it growing and shrinking like that? Do the rustling leaves mean a Pokémon will spawn in that spot? What the hell do I do with this egg? Confused, alone, you’re in the same state that you were when you took those first steps out of Pallet Town and into the long grass of Route 1.

By the conventional rules of apps – in terms of onboarding and UX and all the other jargony things that developers concern themselves with – this is disastrous. But it can actually be made to work in an app's favour. People have drawn the comparison with Snapchat, which was apparently designed specifically to be confusing in a way that repels old people like me.

In the case of Pokémon Go, the confusion works because it binds you together with other novice players, encouraging you to swap questions and tips. Without checking the internet, or gossiping with a friend, you’re unlikely to figure out how to collect the reward for taking a gym, for instance – and that makes this knowledge valuable.

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Get past the basics of catching and battling, and you'll find yourself faced with Go's great existential question: Why are these Pokémon here? Like, specifically, why am I seeing this Pokémon in this place, and not that one instead?

This is fertile ground for rumours. We all know that water Pokémon appear near lakes and rivers, but is the game smart enough to push a Sandshrew and Geodude my way because I'm stood on a dusty stretch of Spanish scrubland, or is that just a happy coincidence? What about the rumours that fire Pokémon can be found near petrol stations, or on warm days – or that some Pokémon only appear on certain continents?

Despite the number of services quite literally mapping out this territory (until recently anyway), we don’t have the answers to all of these questions yet. There are still, sorry for the Poké-pun, a lot of Unowns.

It won't stay that way for long, though. The internet has started to shine light into the depths of Go's secrets and mysteries. Thanks to the likes of The Silph Road, a Reddit community that's dedicated itself to uncovering the hidden workings of the game, the dark corners are being illuminated.

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We've evolved far beyond the early myths – that missed Pokéballs can be scooped back up if you tap them; that you can trick the game by attaching your phone to a ceiling fan or bike wheel; the supposed 'pulse' method for working out exactly where your chosen creature is – and into the realm of solid fact. We know that you can get Pikachu as your starter if you repeatedly ignore the first three; that you can force the way your Eevee evolves by changing their name. Beyond that, even, we're getting a grip on the specific triggers behind Pokémon spawns.

It's been a remarkable process to watch – but I think we'll miss the dark corners once they disappear.

The best part of a mystery isn't having it solved, but being on the brink of a solution. That moment where it all starts to come into focus in your head like, to pick an appropriately '90s analogy, one of those Magic Eye puzzles.

By comparison, concrete answers can really only disappoint. I remember seeing my first Gastly, an unfamiliar shadow nestled among all the usual Ratatas and Pidgeys on the 'Nearby' tab. It was first thing in the morning, and in my head the story emerged: Oh, of course. Ghost Pokémon only come out at night. This must be the last one, fading as the sun encroaches on their territory.

Since then, though, I've seen plenty of Gastly in daylight. Every time I've felt disappointed, even as I scoop them up; the magic I thought was there was actually all in my head.

This is my biggest concern about Pokémon Go, more even than the unreliable servers and endless hordes of Pidgeys and Ratata. How long can the push and pull of mystery and discovery be maintained?

For all its initial mystery, Go is not as deep or strange a game as Pokémon Red or Blue. Really, that's the way it has to be. As a free-to-play mobile game propped up by in-app purchases, Pokémon Go has to be first and foremost a stable ecosystem for players to spend their virtual dollars in.

So, I don't think we'll get our equivalent of Missingno, or those myths about Lavender Town that still haunt the internet two decades on. But for now, there are still plenty of mysteries to be uncovered. I'm excited to find out Niantic's plans for the legendary birds, and the Mews, and for some reason apparently Ditto. Niantic’s CEO has promised there are many more easter eggs yet to be uncovered. I even heard a theory that Pokémon are easier to catch when they look happy.

Unlikely though it sounds, I don't think this last one has been debunked yet, and I like not being sure. Fingers crossed it stays that way, Mewtwo is kept under wraps for a while yet, and things keep getting weirder.

I like playing Pokémon Go, but I like talking about it considerably more. Let’s hope there’s enough to keep us speculating for months to come.