A lot of Pokemon fans are upset right now about something other than "Dexit." The #GameFreakLied hashtag—which has over 65,000 tweets and has been trending on and off in the US all day—is not explicitly about Game Freak's decision to limit the available Pokemon in Sword and Shield. It's about suspected asset reuse, something Game Freak has been accused of in the past.
If you haven't been keeping up with every interview ahead of the release of Sword and Shield, you might need some background on this whole kerfuffle. Here's why fans are upset, and an explanation as to why the question of asset reuse isn't necessarily cut and dry.
Game Freak Said it Needed to Make New Assets
In July, weeks after the Dexit controversy made headlines, an English translation of an interview with Pokemon Sword and Shield director Shigeru Ohmori and producer Junichi Masuda in Famitsu caught the attention of r/Pokemon. The takeaway of the interview (thanks Polygon) was that Game Freak claimed Pokemon models from the Sun and Moon games on 3DS needed to be remade.
This had echoes of criticism that last year's Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee weathered prior to release. Fans who were hoping for a complete overhaul of battle animations in Pokemon's first HD foray on Switch were disappointed to see Pokemon in Let's Go moving in a similar manner to their 3DS game counterparts.
At E3, USgamer also spoke with Masuda and Ohmori. Masuda had this to say about reducing the number of Pokemon in-game to the National PokeDex, vis-a-vis concerns over visual polish (emphasis mine):
There are a couple of different parts to the thinking behind it, but really the biggest reason for it is just the sheer number of Pokemon. We already have well over 800 Pokemon species, and there's going to be more added in these games. And now that they're on the Nintendo Switch, we're creating it with much higher fidelity with higher quality animations.
After that interview went live, game designers weighed in and expressed surprise that Game Freak hadn't started limiting the models sooner, and an exhaustive breakdown on Reddit concluded that Ohmori and Masuda's comments about making new assets for Sword and Shield likely didn't refer to making brand new models and animations, but rather the (often arduous) process of setting them up for new model formats.
If you can conclusively prove that a Pokemon included in Sword and Shield shares a model or animation with its counterpart in an earlier game, then you may conclude that Game Freak lied about remaking models... but that depends on how you define "making a model."
Does that necessarily excuse Sword and Shield looking the way they do? No. How a person feels about the visual quality of Sword and Shield is a matter of opinion, and a lot of people are going to be disappointed no matter what. That's valid.
Was Game Freak was being willfully misleading about asset reuse? Right now, there's no definitive answer—but unclear communication is a separate problem, and one that Game Freak certainly waded right into.
What Wireframes Can or Can't Tell Us
A lot of the #GameFreakLied posts on Twitter and elsewhere point to side-by-side wireframe images of certain Pokemon. One of the mostly widely linked Reddit posts about wireframes comparison cites 4chan as its source. In the images that have been circulating around, the wireframes in white are understood to be taken from Sword and Shield, and the wireframes in black are supposed to be from Sun and Moon.
These side-by-sides themselves don't tell us everything about whether or not the assets for Sword and Shield match those in earlier games. Former Ubisoft game developer Laura Millar made a thread on Twitter breaking down how easy it would be to fake screenshots like these:
2. I could fake these screenshots in under an hour by selecting one of two identical models in a 3D viewport, which would create the white and black outlines.— Laura Millar (@Lillar_) November 13, 2019
For a moment, though, let's set aside the question of the veracity of these sources and return to the issue identified earlier. All a comparison of wireframes can tell you is that the wireframes or sculpts themselves are the same. If that's how you're defining a "model," then you have your answer. If you're talking about models in the technical sense of the whole formatted file (the wireframe, textures, shaders and other maps, all packaged into a specific format), then the wireframe comparison only tells you a small part of the story.
Pokemon models themselves are also only a small part of what goes into a new Pokemon game. Remember that on top of the new and returning monsters, there need to be assets for literally everything else you see in the game.
So, Really, What About Sword and Shield?
In USG's early review impressions of Sword and Shield, Nadia points out many areas where Game Freak takes two steps forward and one step in terms of design and features. What's the bigger concern: determining whether or not a developer lied or misspoke about a particular technical aspect of a game, or evaluating the final product based on its features, overall presentation, and how it actually feels to play?
If Pokemon Sword and Shield don't look and feel sufficiently next-gen or at least like a major step forward on the series' own terms, that itself is an issue warranting (respectful!) criticism. People don't need to play the game in order to feel that way, either, as we'll all be able to watch thousands of streamers play it very soon and see how it measures up to our individual standards.
All that said, watching an entire backlash cycle spin out of unclear interview comments and handfuls of wireframes brings back memories of Spider-Man and puddle-gate: a game's overall quality hinges on so, so much more than any one particular aspect. Side-by-side wireframes aren't smoking gun evidence of developer misdeeds, so much as they're evidence that some people really want something new and impressive from the Pokemon series. A vocal group of fans clearly want more out of Sword and Shield than they think they're likely to get—we'll find out in a few weeks if that's actually going to impact the games' performance.