‘Pokemon Go’: Returning Mystery to Video Games

What I like best about Pokemon Go is the uncertainty. I like the rumors, and I like the lies.

Playing the Legend of Zelda, as I did on its release in 1986, was kind of like this. The game came with a sealed fold-out pamphlet that was to only be opened if you wanted to have some of the game’s secrets spoiled for you. It was a point of pride that I never unsealed mine.

However, that I looked for help in playing the game was really the truth of my experience of playing Zelda. Playing games in the pre-internet era was a communal experience. It was all word of mouth. In other words, much of it was rumors and lies. There was much uncertainty in a time when you couldn’t open another browser window and head over to GameFAQs for a few quick tips.

Someone would whisper that one of the dungeons in Legend of Zelda could only be opened by burning a tree down with Link’s candle. Someone else had a trick for beating Super Macho Man in Mike Tyson’s Punchout!, and you tried it because you had been stuck fighting him for so long.

I remember the first time that someone told me that there was an ending in Metroid in which Samus would appear in a bikini. I was in junior high school, raging with hormones, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was like, “horse shit!” (It wasn’t horse shit by the way.).

Secrets in video games were a real currency (the guy who told me about bikini Samus was selling the save code on a note card for $5.00 to true believers). Some rumors panned out, some of them didn’t, but it was fun testing theories and busting liars because there wasn’t any other way to learn such information. You just had to talk it out.

Walking around with my wife and daughters playing Pokemon Go is reminiscent of that time. People tell us things, people speculate, people insist that fire Pokemon spawn near gas stations, and that an Eevee’s special attack determines which of his three evolutions that the cute, little quadruped will take when you finally have enough candy to power one up.

I am dubious about the gas station idea. We have tested the special attack theory. It isn’t true. However, some guy told my wife that if you rename Eevee “Sparky” that he will then evolve as an electric Pokemon. That worked by the way. Could be a coincidence, but we’ll know after we see if renaming her other Eevee “Rainer” results in a Vaporeon.

Now I realize that the internet is still out there, and indeed, often it is informing some of these rumors and suggestions: “I read on Twitter that… or “Someone read on Buzzfeed that…” However, what I appreciate is how the way that the game is played, outdoors among strangers and passerbys, results in the communal sharing of knowledge and guesswork in the most direct way possible, face-to-face.

There is a pleasure to be had in conversing about ideas and debating the likelihood of whether or not the GPS or Google maps really contains specific information like where all the gas stations are in your town are at. (As I said, I remain dubious. Cool idea, but seems doubtful.).

I realize that all of this information will eventually all be tested and recorded and archived carefully on a Wiki, but in the meantime, I’m wondering aloud to whoever will listen about the possibility of regular spawn points for certain uncommon Pokemon types (There’s a Scyther that appears pretty regularly on the lawn of the university administration building near my house. We keep catching male and female Nidoran near the ambulance bay of a nearby hospital.), and I’m listening to people fill my ear with what sounds like a lot of horse shit. But I do know that sometimes some horse shit has the smell of truth about it.