Permadeath Pokémon and Flexible Systems

by Jorge Albor

31 January 2013

Those willing to take the "Nuzlocke Challenge" may find a difficult yet enriching experience that teaches them as much about pokémon training as it does about system design.

Few game franchises remain so enduring and immutable as the Pokémon series. Every entry into the franchise takes the same fundamental game system, even the same narrative, and transplants them almost entirely into another region. For outsiders looking in, Pokémon‘s steadfast design appears tedious. On the other hand, Pokémon aficionados, particularly those willing to create their own goals and strategies, see not a rigid system, but a flexible world. Those willing to take the “Nuzlocke Challenge” may find a difficult yet enriching experience that teaches them as much about pokémon training as it does about system design.

The Nuzlocke Challenge first appeared in a comic titled “Pokémon: Hard Mode,” written and illustrated by someone named, of course, Nuzlocke. The challenge is simple and has only two core rules. First, players may only catch the first pokémon that they see in a new area. If the pokémon flees or faints, the player is simply out of luck and must continue on regardless. Second, if a pokémon faints in battle, it considered “dead” and must be released or placed into a PC box. Funtionally, the Nuzlocke Challenge is Pokémon with permadeath.
These optional rules increase the game’s difficulty, yes, but they also aim to create a stronger bond between players and their pokémon. I am facing the challenge now myself, and I can attest to a more palpable connection with my digital guardians. I rarely have an opportunity to catch new pokémon, so I cherish the ones that I do have, protecting them at all cost. Likewise, I find myself using pokémon that I would never have in my party otherwise, growing a familiarity with them when I would otherwise discard the creatures flippantly. To further my emotional connection with the pokémon, I follow the common additional rule that forces players to nickname every pokémon that they catch. I fight with Sam, not Tepig, and Maggie, not Magnemite.

Of course these alternative rules to normal play are simple. Players looking for an even greater challenge could limit their use of potions, ban switching pokémon mid-battle, ban the use of held items, and so on and so forth. The core idea behind the Nuzlocke Challenge is enough for many, but the system itself allows for a variety of customization options when approaching the game. The experience, for many, is incredibly rewarding.

While game designers cannot always predict how players might want to tweak or approach a game, they can create a flexible system that can adapt various alternative play styles. As I have discussed before, looking at games as homeostatic systems can prove incredibly valuable to this end. If we consider players as outside forces and games as systems striving to maintain some optimal variables, then we can better understand the design of non-rigid systems.

Let’s take difficulty as a variable in our Pokémon system. This is a variable that players may want to increase or decrease to their liking. New players can enjoy the regular Pokémon experience with its potions, revives, and endless supply of pokémon to capture. Experienced players may want to increase the difficulty variable. With no “hard mode” in the setting, the system must be flexible enough to adapt to their desire.

For the most part, players control the difficulty themselves. Permadeath is one example, but players could just as easily forbid Grass-Type pokémon or only allow the use of pokémon whose names begin with the letter T. System flexibility, at this point, refers to how other game variables react to this increased difficulty. We can imagine two hypothetical extreme reactions to the Nuzlocke Challenge’s increased difficulty: one in which the game, seeking to aid players who have captured too few pokémon, and another with a rigid cost structure that makes the challenge a huge leap in difficulty instead of a gradual one.

For the most part, Pokémon rests somewhere in between these two reactions. One of the key aspects of the game’s flexibility is in the fungibility of feedback mechanisms. For example, in a normal game, players consume a relatively large amount of pokéballs. Players are constantly capturing more and better pokémon, often acquiring duplicates for breeding and the like. A regular pokéball costs $200 to buy. Nuzlocke Challengers require less pokéballs and players can instead filter their saved income towards potions, which at minimum cost $300. 

The comparable price of commodities in the pokémon market allow players to easily move currency to whichever item they find most valuable. In this case, players can mitigate the increased risk of the Nuzlocke challenge by transferring the cost of pokéballs into healing items. Similarly, items that might not normally see widespread use may take on added value depending on increased or decreased difficulty. Lots of commodities with similar costs and flexible values allow the system to adapt to player initiated challenge.

Readability also greatly improves the flexibility of systems by allowing players to adapt based on their needs. Grass-type pokémon, for example, are quite obvious with their green coloring and leaves. When facing these opponents, experienced players, those most likely taking the challenge, can swap out vulnerable pokémon with strong ones, preventing the loss of their precious pokémon. Likewise, players can adapt their pokémon literally by giving them new abilities with TMs. The value of these TMs skyrockets under the optional difficulty of the Nuzlocke challenge, and players move from owning specialized ability-type specific pokémon to pokémon with a broad range of move types.

To apply this thinking to another game entirely, Arkane Studio missed out on a wonderful opportunity by not allowing players in Dishonored to freely change their ability load-out. The developers wanted to make player decisions meaningful by making them permanent. The result is a game all about choice that is surprisingly rigid. Players wanting to construct their own challenges (such as when I attempted a “floor is lava” playthrough and avoided touching the ground at all cost) cannot adjust their abilities accordingly to facilitate their play. Instead, either narratively or through a secondary challenge, Arkane could have made the act of changing one’s abilities meaningful, thus allowing players to participate in even more self-directed and rewarding play.

Of course, it takes a huge amount of investment and no small amount of bravery to design a malleable system and then let go of control. Designers want to create games that are consistently fun and well placed. Sometimes player behavior, even user-created challenges, can tarnish that “ideal experience.” Yet if designers are willing to abandon the tug-of-war between player and system and instead work on designing a clearly legible system composed of substitutable parts, they may find a player community eager to explore, adapt, and create their own meaningful play. Player-created challenges are signs of a healthy and flexible game system.

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