I blew through the story of Pokemon Sword and Shield in about a week. It was enjoyable enough, but mostly it was work. As the only member of the content team who’s kept up with the series, I was helping out with our coverage and just wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. Aside from my compulsive random battles on Pokemon Showdown, which strip the franchise down to its strategic core, my enthusiasm for the franchise has waned over the past few years. I barely finished Sun and Moon, and likely wouldn’t have played Sword and Shield at all were it not for my job.
Having become the Champion of the Galar region, I put Pokemon aside and moved onto other games I wanted to hit before the end of the year — critically-acclaimed titles like Control, Disco Elysium, and Death Stranding. But while I had moved on, my roommate was knee-deep in Wooloo. He’d gotten back into Pokemon this year through an emulator on his phone that let him randomize the games, and Sword and Shield was the first modern entry he was playing at launch.
Throughout his Galar adventures, he’d ask for my input on things — moves, Pokemon, abilities. I answered as best I could, happy my knowledge of the series was benefitting someone. But then he told me that he was preparing for a small tournament set up by some Twitter friends, with cute rules mimicking the games’ Type-based Gym system. About a week into advising him on his team, I asked to be let in. And in doing so, I let the beast out.
See, I don’t want to beat my opponents in Pokemon. I want them to suffer.
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Allow me to explain. There are a few enduring strategies in competitive Pokemon. One of most common is to try and set up a “sweep” by boosting one of your monsters’ stats before unleashing powerful attacks and taking out the opponent’s whole team. And yes, a successful sweep can be a beautiful thing. But it’s too quick. Too easy.
I have always preferred strategies that fall under the banner of “stall.” As the name implies, here the goal is not a quick sweep but rather to stymie your opponent, to set up walls and watch as enemy Pokemon exhaust themselves trying fruitlessly to knock them down. Whereas sweeping wants to end things quickly, stall quite literally plays the long game. Stall in fact has a second, hidden victory condition — infuriating your opponent to such a degree that they simply forfeit.
How is this accomplished? Picture a scenario in which your Pokemon is taking damage from a Sandstorm as well as Toxic poisoning. You attack, only to be met by my use of the move Protect, which buys me a turn. You take more damage. You attack again, knowing Protect rarely works twice in a row. Alas, you merely defeat my Substitute.
Perhaps you should switch to another Pokemon? Ah, but should you do so, it will be caught in my entry hazards: Sticky Web, which lowers its speed, and Stealth Rock, which tears at its flesh.
Perhaps you might wish to use a move that would clear away these hazards? Unfortunately, I have used Taunt and you are forced into making direct attacks. All the while, your Pokemon’s HP is chipping away. Should I be feeling exceptionally cruel, I have perhaps used a move like Torment or Encore, further restricting your options.
You would love to get to play the video game Pokemon. You would give anything to get to play it. You may not. You will suffer.
The elaborate situations I attempt to engineer seldom win battles in the conventional sense of the term. But the psychic damage they inflict is more lasting than any traditional victory could be. And Pokemon Sword and Shield has brought my once-buried predilections for these tactics back to the surface. I thought I had changed in the intervening years, become a better person. But Pokemon will not let me forget the rotten core of my being, that vicious creature that delights in spreading paralysis amongst an entire team or using Torment on a Choice Band user.
I don’t know where these impulses come from. Do I — like The Joker famously did — only want to see the world burn? Is this a healthy outlet for natural human malice? Should I consider a career change to Jigsaw, from Saw? I just don’t know.
But I do know this: I am not Ash. I am Gary. I am a thousand Garys. And I am definitely going to Hell, a real place that exists in the world of Pokemon.