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How Pokemon Y Taught Me to be Happier

To her chagrin, Cassandra learns a life lesson on her quest towards becoming the very best.

By Cassandra Khaw. Published 6 months ago

My town in Animal Crossing is a spartan wasteland, slightly overrun with weeds and empty of the decorative genius I see in all my friends' dominions. I don't even have a house yet. Till this day, my scruffy, neglected avatar is roughing it out in a tent. Partially because I'm lazy, partially because I've got the attention span of a caffeinated squirrel. Mostly, though, because of embarrassment. Happy, idyllic time sinks like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon just don't jive with my moe-tough-girl image, yo.

'Personal branding' is a buzz-phrase self-help gurus bandy around a lot, the secret formula for personal and professional success that is surprisingly true, at least in fields pivoting on reputation. It's also a subtler, more innocent beast than we might initially think. From the time we first learn to value our identity, we begin working to refine it, jettisoning attributes that don't fit our idealized self and taking on characteristics that do - even if we don't always want to.

Being the tomboy was my shtick. Growing up, I tore the heads off my Barbie dolls and floated them down the toilet bowl. I played with Lego bricks and Transformers and thumbed my nose at ribbons. I did it because I was taller and broader than my peers - the ogre in a grade school full of pixies - and because I was vaguely certain Dad saw me as a son in spite of chromosomal deficiencies. As I got older, I transitioned into 'hardcore' video games and splatterpunk media. Cutesy things like Pokemon Red were okay, so long as I was being competitive and not playing it because I think Pikachu is the cuddliest, most adorable dynamo this side of gaming history.

So cute it almost makes you want to hurt something.

Earlier this year, everyone I knew started getting excited about Animal Crossing: New Leaf. When it showed up in the eShop, the articles and personal anecdotes came roaring in. I devoured all of it. Every last article. Jeremy's musings on summer cicadas are probably my favorite of the lot. Read it if you haven't because it's what catalyzed my purchase. That said, borrowed enthusiasm doesn't last long. I got as far as picking a few flowers, an apple or three, and selling the lot to an alpaca in Re-Tail.

Then, I left town and never came back.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf just didn't click. People tell me your enjoyment of it hinges on the ability to generate your own routines and objectives, that you have to build a relationship with not just the villagers but the game itself. But it's hard when you're twenty-eight, with nerves like optimally tuned guitar strings and a freelancer's pay cheque. The miasma of happiness permeating Animal Crossing: New Leaf felt like an unaffordable indulgence. Why build a utopian existence there, amidst funny animals and questionable feng shui, when I could be building real life?

When Pokemon X/Y finally barreled down on our radar, months after Animal Crossing: New Leaf was relegated to being a sizable footnote in video game history, I was nervous. Seen from an epidermal level, the two games are quite different; Pokemon has a plot and villains, an excruciatingly large armament of beasts to enslave. Animal Crossing has bugs and villagers and governmental ordinances to navigate. But both operate on compulsion, on the need to do it all, see it all, get it all. In spite of initial misgivings, I pick up Pokemon Y. Because work, you see. And peer pressure. And because 3D Pikachu is the bee's knees, damn it.

I wanna be the very best - at putting way too many hours like none before.

I decide I'm going to power game from the get go. No playing for playing's sake, no idle perambulations through the bushes. Each Pokemon I encounter ends up being subject to intense scrutiny, dismissed or captured based on Google's feedback. I snag a Bidoof so I can have a versatile HM slave. I latch onto Scatterbugs because, hey, who knows what a fully tricked out collection (they come in 18 varieties) of Papillions might one day be worth? But then, I slip. On whim, three hours in, I fling a Pikachu on Wonder Trade.

Boom. Drudiggon.

I'm bowled over. The hulking, level 59 reptile is like a happier cousin to the Kaiju from Pacific Rim, a power house compared to my teenage team. He's Japanese too, which makes it all the more cooler. My only hope is that his name doesn't translate to Donger or something silly like that. I put a Bunnelby up next, marveling as it is replaced by a Gengar and then a Fletchling, a Froakie, a Stunfisk. More exchanges follow. By the time the first Ditto arrives on my machine, I've fallen into a pattern of Wonder Trading, researching, effusively informing everyone who'd listen about my latest catch and inching along the narrative.

The days pass. I quickly learn why I should be mortified (I am sorry if you had to deal with any of my Caterpies) about my earlier contributions to Wonder Trade, a sin I'm now trying to make up for with a sea of inappropriately named Dugtrios and smugly smiling Snorlaxes. I really, really should be on my way to the sixth Gym but I'm hoping to have a box of Pumpkaboos ready for Halloween. (It's getting there. Slowly.) At this point, all pretenses at steamrolling towards the end game are gone. The Elite Four is not going to get me a new bag or help my Aerodactyl breeding initiative. (No one else should spend hours hunting Old Ambers. No one.)

Still, it's not until an evening out with my best friend that I realize exactly how much Pokemon Y has changed me.

"Isn't my outfit adorable?!" I squealed, thrusting my 3DS XL into his face. "It took me hours to put together."

"That hat is, like, so last starter zone, dah-link!"

A week ago, I wouldn't even have dreamed of extrapolating on what Lady Gaga's next outfit might be. That night, I openly fawned over a digital avatar's get up (which actually was endearing, really, with its thigh-high stockings and jaunty white cap) in front of a guy I'm constantly in kill-death ratio competition with. Even more bizarrely, I wasn't ashamed. With over 700 critters to nab and a tag line that all but adulates obsession, Pokemon X/Y's meant to eat hours, not completed in a weekend. Being immersed enough to feel triumphant over a decent ensemble was always part of the plan.

The truth is that I've never been able to take life slow. I'm the overachieving by-product of a Tiger Mom, after all. Idleness makes me anxious. The one time my family tried to take me up on a vacation without any form of external stimuli, I ended up reading the local phone book and the Bible. Twice. This pathological need to be competitively viable carries over to my gaming habits. If I'm not exercising towards a worthy goal, I should be. Otherwise, I'm a disappointment and possibly a guuuuurrrrrl. For that reason, games like Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Leaf used to baffle me because of how they ask you to simply be. But I'm starting to understand.

We often forget that there's a certain artless joy to simply existing. To not doing anything. To not going anywhere. To simply standing still, toes curled in the grass, and being able to breath. As we get older, as responsibilities and heartbreaks begin to pile, we start associating happiness with tangible results and what other people say it is. Which is absolutely ridiculous because if we all die alone, we should, at the very least, have the opportunity to decide how to be happy before the lights go out. I'm still weirded out by how a Pokemon game, of all things, managed to convey that but then again, I suppose that's my point exactly.

Happiness is whatever you make it and wherever you find it so bugger the haters.

The best community comments so far 3 comments

  • Kuni-Nino 5 months ago

    I, too, have found myself obsessing over what I'm wearing in Pokemon Y. I spent 100,000 of my hard-earned, Pokemon battle dough just to buy a cute dress for my avatar, Farnese. It's so silly, but she looks good in it so it's going to be done. Then I spent half an hour editing a 10 second-Trainer PR video.

    The kind of hold this game has on me is unusual. :\

  • Terpiscorei 5 months ago

    Great article, Cassandra.

  • cscaskie 5 months ago

    This is a really interesting piece. I'm a man who doesn't have a competitive bone in his body. And much of my "personal brand" focuses around my calm and deep reserve of patience. Games that require me to simply "be," to explore, to casually collect, are the ones that hook me deepest. My wife is alot like you Cassandra. A constant fidget. I tried to get her to try Animal Crossing as a gateway game, but she got frustrated and put it down in an hour because there's no overt goals. There's nothing "to do", no external challenge to conquer. Latenight 150cc Mario Kart sessions are her jam (not mine).

    Pokemon is so special because it has something for both sides of the fence. Although the mere thought of it horrifies me, the competitive world of hardcore breeding and min-maxing is there should you want it . . . but it's good to see that you've taken some time to extract joy out of setting your own goals taking in what the game has to offer at your own pace.

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