Pokemon is Telling Darker Stories to Reach Its Maturing Fans, Just Not in Games

The Pokemon Company wants to balance its younger and older audiences, but it already has.

Pokemon is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. All that time and history means your audience that was once trading and battling with Pokemon Red & Blue is now people in their 30s and 40s wondering why the series hasn’t evolved for them. In some cases, this results in huge controversies filled with online toxicity, but in others, it does raise questions about how an “all-ages” franchise can be for all ages, rather than for just children.

In an interview with Axios, Pokemon Company Director of Consumer Marketing J.C. Smith said that creators at The Pokemon Company and primary developer Game Freak are aware there’s a desire for a more adult-oriented Pokemon game. Still, the company believes the franchise as a whole should be accessible to anyone, regardless of age.

“We hear it,” Smith told Axios. “And I think the creators definitely understand that there’s a desire for maybe something. […] But we try to focus on making the core accessible to everyone.”

To the series’ credit, Pokemon has had its fair share of darker, more sophisticated storytelling. It just hasn’t primarily come from video games. A digital limited anime anthology called Pokemon Evolutions is rolling out on platforms like YouTube and Pokemon TV. It leans into a much heavier, reflective, and sometimes alarmingly dark style that the series has always been capable of but often avoided. The show focuses on side characters from the games, and the first four episodes have been notably different in tone than the usual Pokemon anime. They have tickled the part of my brain that has always enjoyed darker depictions of this universe.

Much of the series’ best storytelling has come from limited series like EvolutionsPokemon Generations, another anthology of animated Pokemon stories, rolled out in 2016 and 2017, and explored different sides of the Pokemon world. On top of that, it blended storytelling genres to do it. The Team Rocket subplot of the first two generations was explored through the eyes of a detective, framing it through a mystery story. Lance’s investigation of Team Rocket in Gold & Silver is played like a spy story as he and his Dragonite infiltrate the organization’s headquarters. When Pokemon wants to be both fun and colorful enough for a younger audience and mature enough to sell the realities of its world, it can.

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That’s not to say that Pokemon always has to be dark to capture the imaginations of an older audience. Another limited series that ran last year was Pokemon: Twilight Wings, which focused on the Galar region gym leaders but through the eyes of a sick young boy named John. The boy’s dream is to meet Champion Leon and see him battle outside of his hospital room. It’s working within the hopeful themes of Pokemon, but with a raw, emotional honesty that has stuck with me. Even now, I still get a little misty-eyed when I think of the final scene in its last episode.

Not every attempt Pokemon has made to be more adult-oriented has been as successful. The Detective Pikachu movie (which, despite what I’m about to say, I adore) has the noir stylings of a detective movie and even raises questions about the morality of Pokemon battling. But for all the live-action movie’s attempts to show a more realistic version of this world and deal with adult issues of grief, it’s often undermined by silly writing that feels more directed at the younger audience. When Pokemon commits, it can find that balance between childlike wonder and mature storytelling. It just has to actually do that.

All this is to say that The Pokemon Company is already making the stories it says fans want. It just views the mainline RPGs as something meant to be accessible to everyone, so these more mature takes aren’t meant for games where we’re mainly concerned with gathering eight gym badges. But adaptations like Pokemon Evolutions and Generations show that these stories can comfortably live up to the “all-ages” description when presented as such. Pokemon’s never been shallow in its pursuit of a kid-friendly game. Its world and characters are far and away more complex than your average children-only affair. So I hope that The Pokemon Company and Game Freak will look forward and be a little more curious about ways it can weave more mature stories into its usual Pokemon RPG fair. Because it’s already shown that it can.