One thing that it’s always quite easy to forget about Pokémon is the fact that it not only features tons of the eponymous monsters… it also has people in it, too. And they have plenty of their own stories to tell.
Pokémon Sword and Shield may not appear to be quite as overdramatic in terms of “stakes” as some previous installments in the series — at least, not until the delightfully over-the-top finale — but it definitely has something to say, and its setting is quite relevant to this, too.
Specifically, the games have quite a bit to say about the nature of fame, the cult of celebrity and what a struggle a life in the spotlight can really bring, as desirable as it might seem from an idealised perspective.
The land of Galar, as we’ve already seen, mirrors the real-life Great Britain rather well. One particularly noteworthy aspect it gets absolutely right is the national obsession with sport: in real-life Britain, it’s football; in Galar, it’s Pokémon battling, with the unique regional (and eminently spectator sport-friendly) twist of Dynamax.
Pokémon battling is a sport all around the Pokémon world, of course, but we’ve never seen it taken to quite such an extreme as in Sword and Shield outside of deliberately “sporty” spin-off installments such as the Pokémon Stadium games.
The Gym Challenge in Galar is a major event where people evidently latch on to favourite challengers and follow their progress with passion and enthusiasm, and battles between challengers and gym leaders are major events that draw enormous, roaring, chanting crowds. It’s quite the spectacle.
When you start your journey in Galar, all this side of things might not be immediately apparent. When the game starts in the sleepy hamlet of Postwick, we know that your friend Hop’s brother Leon is the regional champion and that Hop himself is keen to follow in his footsteps, but beyond that, the true nature of things don’t become clear until a little later.
When Leon eventually shows up for a visit, he is surrounded by adoring fans; he’s clearly a celebrity, and people love him. Given the brightly coloured, family-friendly nature of Pokémon in general, the depiction of celebrity in this regard doesn’t extend to underhanded invasions of privacy by the paparazzi or any other such unsavoury matters — but it’s also clear that the simple act of being known is likely to be enough to put enormous pressure on people.
For much of the game, this subject matter is explored through Hop. Once Leon provides both you and Hop with your starter Pokémon, it becomes clear that Hop very much feels like he’s living in his brother’s shadow. He understands and respects that Leon has worked hard to get where he is, but he also feels inferior. He wants to prove himself. He wants to show that he can do things for himself, and that he doesn’t want to live his life as “Leon’s brother”; he wants to be known and respected in his own right.
Since there’s clearly a pre-existing relationship between your protagonist character and Hop at the outset of the game, Hop naturally declares you as his rival, and promptly proceeds to suffer a series of crushing defeats at your hands over the course of the entire narrative.
It’s honestly hard not to feel bad for him by the third or fourth time you obliterate his team; we know that he’s doing well “off-screen”, as in the early hours of the game he consistently clears the various gym missions and leader battles before you do, but as the game progresses we start to see him crack a little bit; he starts to lose confidence as time after time his “new strategy” that he’s so proud of is crushed beneath your unstoppable Pokémon. He may think he knows what he’s doing, but you really know what you’re doing.
To Hop’s credit, he never gives up, though. He sees every time you beat him as an opportunity to learn something new; to try a new strategy; to develop his skills. His relationship with you is actually quite similar to that which he has with his brother; he’s your friend, but he also really wants to beat you and show that he can be the best at something. Of course, given the nature of the game and the fact that it is “your” story, this is never going to happen, but still he persists.
However, you and Leon are special cases in this regard. Partway through the narrative, we’re introduced to Bede, a rather snobbish young Gym Challenger who claims to have been endorsed by Galar’s most important person: the chairman of the Macro Cosmos conglomerate, Rose. While you, being the protagonist, effortlessly smash Bede’s team into next week, Hop’s Pokémon take an absolute pounding… and this is enough to break him. Or so it seems, at least.
After this incident, Hop disappears for some time. He no longer accompanies you on your travels; he’s no longer perpetually one step ahead of you on the Gym Challenge, and anyone with a heart will doubtless start feeling somewhat worried for him. Again, though, this is Pokémon, so he eventually bounces back, determined not to let his loss get to him — even taking Bede’s lousy attitude towards everyone into account — and dedicated to following what he sees as his path with renewed vigour.
Hop is a representation of what can potentially happen to us if we place unreasonable expectations upon ourselves; he worries that he’s “letting down” his family with his “failures” and “weakness” — when in fact, his family display no evidence whatsoever of being in any way ashamed of him and his efforts.
This is something all too common when it comes to matters of sibling rivalry, as Hop demonstrates, but it’s something of a parable for the modern age, too. The ever-present spectre of social media in the twenty-first century makes it very easy for one to develop an inferiority complex and a feeling of “failure”. The endless pursuit of followers, likes, comments and shares; the relentless desire for “clout”; the never-ending quest for validation from complete strangers, when what we could all really do with focusing on is our own wellbeing.
Some people can cope with all this better than others, of course, and we get an interesting variety of viewpoints on the matter of fame, celebrity and public responsibility as we journey through Galar and meet the various major characters. We won’t go through every one of them today, but there are a few notable examples I felt were worth highlighting.
The first of these is Nessa, leader of the water gym in Hulbury. Nessa isn’t a particularly major character in the grand scheme of things, but she is an interesting character. She’s a picture of someone who takes her profession seriously, but doesn’t allow that fact to sap her humanity. We learn that she maintains a certain amount of humbleness about herself — although she also shows herself to be fiercely competitive.
The more down-to-earth side of Nessa is almost certainly due to her upbringing; neither of her parents were particularly high-profile or famous, being a fisherman and a marketplace seller respectively, and as such she is an example of someone who got where she is through hard work and dedication — presumably without the sort of pressure Hop is feeling thanks to his familial situation. The fact that she tends not to take losing all that well — there are implications that she might have gone back and trashed her gym after you defeat her for the second time early in the finals — is likely the result of her expecting the best for herself, but the crucial difference here is that the only one exerting pressure on her to try and be the best is herself. Unlike Hop, she doesn’t feel like she’s letting anyone other than herself down if she “fails”.
There’s another side to Nessa though, which we don’t really find out much about until the postgame; she’s also a model, and a very good, well-regarded one. Her “rare league card”, which you can collect during the postgame, explains that many fans believe that “Pokémon Nessa” and “model Nessa” are actually two different people as her attitude is so different between the two roles; in practice, what she is actually exhibiting here is a rather sensible distinction and division between different aspects of her life. She doesn’t let one affect the other — and from that, we can also extrapolate that she probably makes a point of not allowing either of her professions to impact on her personal, private life, either.
Elsewhere, Sword and Shield break with something of a Pokémon tradition to cleverly subvert expectations by offering a different kind of commentary on fame and fandom, with a side narrative that revolves around the characters Marnie and her brother Piers, the latter of whom is one of the gym leaders you face.
In past Pokémon games, anyone who identifies themselves as being part of “Team [something]” is generally bad news to one degree or another. How seriously they should be taken varies enormously from installment to installment, of course, with some villainous teams simply wanting to take Pokémon for themselves and get rich, while others literally want to destroy the universe and remake it to their own specifications.
In Sword and Shield, we’re initially led to believe that this role will be fulfilled by “Team Yell”. They have all the hallmarks of a villainous team: dressing in a manner inspired by a distinctive counter-culture (in this case, British punk), forcing you into battles at the least convenient moments and often “gating” your progress through the main narrative.
But something doesn’t seem quite right if you have experience with past games. They’re a pain, they’re often rude and they really get in the way at times… but they don’t necessarily seem to actually be malicious or even really threatening. More than anything, they appear to be cheerleaders for Marnie, since she, like you, is taking her own journey around the Galar region in the hopes of completing the Gym Challenge and having a shot at taking on Leon.
Upon reaching the dilapidated town of Spikemuth, the truth comes out: Team Yell are not “villains” at all. In fact, they’re gym trainers from the Spikemuth Gym, which, due to various circumstances, is actually the city itself. And they really are cheerleaders for Marnie; they’ve seen her talent for herself, they know that Piers isn’t really happy in his role as gym leader, and they want to see her succeed, with a mind to her taking over from him.
Piers himself is an interesting case. Unlike the other gyms on the Challenge, Spikemuth is not built on a Power Spot, and as such Pokémon are unable to Dynamax there. The town doesn’t even have a stadium, unlike the other gyms; your battle against Piers takes place in a small arena that more resembles an urban basketball court than anything.
It’s clearly unable to support an influx of fans coming to see the Gym Challengers doing their thing, but Piers is unwilling to move to an area with a Power Spot; he doesn’t trust the Dynamax phenomenon — a fact that we’re led to believe has put him at loggerheads with Rose on occasion — and doesn’t wish to make his Pokémon suffer. At the same time, he also feels guilt over the fact that his stubbornness has caused his town to fall into disrepair and disrepute.
But he can’t quite bring himself to do something concrete about it. In many ways, Piers can be seen as an example of how depression, anxiety and feelings of guilt can leave you oddly “paralysed” when it comes to doing something positive. Taking a significant step in a whole new direction can be scary, particularly if you don’t have a safety net… but sometimes you need to do just that, regardless of how difficult it might seem to be.
More than anything, his heart’s just not in it. His obvious passion is in singing and songwriting; while for the most part throughout the Gym Challenge and postgame story we see him dragging his feet and moping around like a particularly depressed scene kid, he’s like a different person on stage; he really comes to life and is obviously able to express himself much more easily in song than via any other means.
It’s obvious that he wants Marnie to succeed in the Gym Challenge because he has genuine, honest belief in his sister — and despite the fact that you flatten her almost as often as Hop, she shows herself to be a talented trainer with an indomitable determination about her, so it’s well-placed faith. But there’s a more selfish reason behind his support of her, too; he wants the freedom to be able to pursue his passions. With this in mind, we can perhaps understand exactly why “Team Yell” were sent out around the country to get in the way of other Gym Challengers — it may not be the most elegant or indeed fair means of making this happen, but it was at least Piers making an attempt to move his life in the direction he wanted it to go in.
In the postgame, it becomes clear that this is something that has been bothering Piers for a while. His rare league card shows him in a much younger incarnation — presumably from back when he was doing his own Gym Challenge — and the quotes from him on the back are hesitant, nervous and, rather tellingly, make no mention whatsoever of wanting to be the champion. Instead, his focus is very much on ensuring Spikemuth stays “lively” — something his present form believes he has failed at — and leaving things in a good position for Marnie to take over.
All this isn’t to say that Piers is a morose, depressed mess who just hides in a corner, however. During the postgame narrative, he actually steps up and takes something of a leading role, since by this point he has already allowed Marnie to take over the Spikemuth gym. We can presume that he has been inspired by the determination of both you and his sister; both of you demonstrate absolute dedication to the pursuit of your goal, and thus there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to help make the world a better place, too.
Which brings us to Rose and his secretary Oleana. While our first encounter with Rose leads us to believe that he’s a rather jolly middle-aged man who makes use of his considerable fortunes not only to fund the national sport but also to make life better for everyone in the Galar region, it’s hard not to get a bit of a… vibe from him, and especially from the extremely stern-looking Oleana.
Indeed, without spoiling the details of the rather spectacular and entertaining grand finale of the whole thing, Rose is indeed up to a few things that he probably shouldn’t be up to — though arguably for the “right” reasons — and Oleana supports him in this regard. Rose clearly believes himself to be untouchable thanks to his wealth, fame and power, and Oleana certainly concurs with that.
Indeed, Oleana sees herself as the main “barrier” between the outside world and Rose himself. Both of Rose’s league cards feature descriptions written by Oleana, not Rose. When conversations with Rose get a bit awkward, it’s Oleana who steps in and makes it clear that discussions are over. And during the run-up to the grand finale, a battle against Oleana makes for a significant “boss fight” to overcome. It even has it’s own (amazing) music.
Oleana shrouds herself in mystery, since she is absolutely devoted to Rose and clearly prioritises his wellbeing above her own, but we can draw a few conclusions about her from a number of details throughout the game.
Perhaps the most significant of these come in the aforementioned battle against her. For starters, the Pokémon she uses are all, as you might expect from a woman of her stature and grace, rather beautiful and elegant… except for the last one; the one she Dynamaxes in her battle against you.
Her last Pokémon is a Garbodor. A Pokémon that is a literal pile of garbage.
We can interpret this in several ways. Firstly, the most simple interpretation is that as we fight our way through her beautiful Pokémon, we’re stripping away “layers” of her carefully-maintained facade until we reveal the blackened heart underneath. Some credence is lent to this theory by the fact that Oleana becomes probably the most visually expressive character in the game over the course of this confrontation, suggesting that we’re finally seeing the “real her”.
It’s not quite that simple, though, because despite being a pile of garbage, Garbodor isn’t necessarily an unpleasant or undesirable Pokémon to have around. In fact, it eats rubbish, making it an eminently useful and environmentally friendly Pokémon who helps keep things clean.
Now consider how Oleana’s role as Rose’s secretary often sees her attempting to prevent situations from escalating — such as when she confronts you during the finale sequence. One could thus read Garbodor’s presence as an acknowledgement of Oleana’s true role: to clean up Rose’s mess, or to ensure that he never has to deal with any messy situations. Her bringing out Garbodor and Dynamaxing it is her last-ditch attempt to do exactly that.
A bit of digging in the postgame — and examining a few throwaway lines here and there — reveals that there’s yet another layer to this, though. It seems that Oleana grew up in poverty, with her Trubbish — the Pokémon that eventually evolves into Garbodor — being her constant, beloved companion. Her saving Garbodor for last demonstrates her love and respect for that Pokémon who has been her lifelong companion.
That’s not all, though; Oleana, it seems, was rescued from poverty by Rose, and as such Garbodor also stands as a reminder that she should never forget her roots and where she came from. On top of that, all her other Pokémon are weak against Steel-type attacks — and guess what type Rose specialises in? Her choice of team, then, can also be seen as an acknowledgement that she owes everything to Rose, and should not become complacent; to borrow a cliché, he made her, so he can quite feasibly break her, too.
By this point, you will probably not be surprised to hear that her excellent battle music also features Rose’s main character theme as a significant melodic element, too. Go figure.
Finally, we should most definitely acknowledge one of the other major characters in the game: Sonia. While Sonia isn’t technically “the Professor” character in Sword and Shield’s main story — that honour goes to her grandmother, who we only see briefly — she has an extremely important role to play in the overall narrative, and in delivering the lore of the Galar region in general.
Throughout your adventure, you begin learning bits and pieces about an ancient phenomenon known as “The Darkest Day”, and stories of legendary heroes who prevented it from destroying Galar and possibly the world. Sonia is fascinated with these legends, and sees tailing you around as an ideal opportunity to investigate matters further — particularly after you report a rather mysterious happening in the opening of the game which seems like it might be connected to the legends.
Sonia is noteworthy among the cast because she is, in many ways, the exact opposite of those who are doing things for fame, power or wealth. One could argue that she’s doing things for self-gratification, but she’s certainly not expecting to get anything concrete out of it; instead, she’s simply and honestly pursuing knowledge, and it’s hard not to get drawn into her excitement for researching the history of the Galar region and the mysterious legends from long ago.
At the same time, Sonia is a surprisingly realistic depiction of someone in their mid-20s who isn’t quite sure about their life. At times, she seems to doubt herself and her own abilities, with her investigations sometimes coming to a bit of a dead end until you come along to help her out. You are the protagonist, after all.
Sonia is one of the most honest and relatable characters in the game, and it’s fitting that her arc has one of the more satisfying resolutions by the game’s conclusion — and, unlike the other major arcs, all without you kicking the snot out of her Pokémon even once, since she’s not a trainer.
This is far from everyone you’ll meet during your journey through Galar, but as you can see, the region plays host to some fascinating people with wonderful stories to be told. So next time you’re creeping through the tall grass, hoping to sneak up on that Ditto and turn it into a baby-making machine… spare a thought for all those folks who have helped make your adventure so memorable along the way. It wouldn’t have been the same without them!
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