You can also find this in video form here:
A Pokemon Walking Simulator?
The box art for Pokemon Snap is pretty brilliant, it showcases a bunch of pokemon, has a camera lens in the middle of the frame, and the box takes the shape of the famous pokeball. Most importantly, it tells the potential player exactly that this game is about: taking pictures. Though, at first glance, this is pretty boring concept for a video game. Its not like “first person” video games were particularly novel at this point in time, Doom had been out for about 6 years by 1999 and Goldeneye 007, a killer app for the Nintendo 64, had been out for two years. The act of just looking at Pokemon and taking their picture doesn’t seem like an incredibly engaging concept, but Pokemon Snap is actually a pretty fun and unique game. Lifted up by the popularity of the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon Snap is a satisfying safari filled it with secrets and objectives. It’s an interesting dive into the world of pokemon that expands the series’ appeal beyond just catching and battling pokemon, an exploration of the possibilities of the franchise.
What interests me about Pokemon Snap is not that it’s a game about taking pictures, how it manages to completely fail at figuring out what a good photograph is, or that it is, in somewhat silly terms, a Pokemon “first person shooter.” Nah, what interests me about Pokemon Snap is how it displays that even games in completely new “genres” still borrow a lot of their core ideas from what came before them. In this video, I’d like to show how we can see shades of the mainline Pokemon games in Pokemon Snap and how this photography game relates to one of the earliest text-based game, Colossal Cave Adventure.
In order to understand Pokemon Snap, we have to understand the broader appeal of the Pokemon series. While I am sure that every Pokefan has their own reasons for liking the series, I feel we can divide the primary ludic, or gameplay, appeals of Pokemon into a few broad categories: pet ownership, exploration, progression forward, and the desire to collect. Two or three of these appeals can be found in the game’s excellent catchphrase: “Gotta catch ’em all.” First, the player needs to catch pokemon, tame them, turn them into their battle companions or pets. As evidenced by my obsessions as a youth with Pokemon, Digimon, Medabots, and Neopets, there is a great joy in the fantasy of having unique and interesting creatures at your behest. Almost everyone I know has a favorite pokemon, one that speaks to them. Beyond that, it is easy to find the critters cute and that compels the player to want to look after and catch them, make each one they catch “their pokemon.” The second thing to note here is that the player needs to catch them “all.” This feeds into both the collection and exploration aspects of the maineline games. Collection, obviously, because the player is challenged to catch every single pokemon out there, but also exploration because it teases the player with a vast open world filled with new pokemon to catch and train. Of course, these pokemon need a use, so in these games they are put to battle against each other to keep the game moving forward as a continual challenge for the player to face with their pets. The most obvious way these challenges are structured are in gym battles, which act as barriers to progression until the player can demonstrate a certain level of battling skill. Pokemon Snap, perhaps unsurprisingly, replicates all four of these appeals in its game design.
The biggest departure from the rest of the Pokemon series is that you don’t catch pokemon in Pokemon Snap, you do the next best thing: you capture their essence in photographic form. While the game discards the battling and pet ownership that the Pokemon series is known for, there is still a certain sense of ownership and flair to taking photographs. To some degree every photograph is unique to the person who took it, a summation of their efforts and talents. When playing Pokemon Snap there are many possibilities to capture seemingly “emergent” photographs, especially because the player is not on an idle safari, they can interact with the pokemon by pestering them, playing the flute, or luring them closer with apples. While they are certainly different experiences, I find that taking photographs is a lot more like catching and raising pokemon than one might initially expect based on the premise.
Despite being a game literally on rails, Pokemon Snap does manage to capture a sense of exploration and wonder similar to the series’ mainline games. The primary way it accomplishes this is through the plethora of secrets and events that the player can instigate and discover. A simple example of this is at the start of the river level, where within the first 15-seconds there are secrets to uncover. The first is the Pollywags jumping up and down on the side of the course. These tadpoles jump up and down behind foliage, which makes getting their picture tough, but if one throws pester balls at them, they will run forward and jump into the river, generating a great shot. This shows how the player can interact with the environment to uncover its secrets. A little further on there is a bulbasaur hanging out in a stump, barely visible, but if one tosses an apple in that direction, another one comes out and dances. This again suggests how the player uncovers the environment’s secrets. These examples are rather mundane, but perhaps the most loving part of Pokemon Snap is this attention to these secrets, which can be found in spades across the game and keep it feeling fresh, even as the player retries the same courses over and over again.
While the mainline games have plenty of adversaries, such as gym leaders, team rocket, and a personal rival, the primary conflict in Pokemon Snap is centered around “good” photography. Professor Oak rates the player’s pictures, and typically blocks progress on two axes, the amount of pokemon they have managed to take pictures of and the quality of said photographs in aggregate. These barriers to progress add a new dimension to the game and forces the player to replay levels with a specific goal in mind, perhaps find those pokemon who have been hidden or to snap better pictures of pokemon than the one they have. There can be frustration in these progression gates, especially when a particular pokemon to uncover is at the end of a level and failure to get it right means restarting the whole level to get back to that point. But overall the progression system in Pokemon Snap works kind of like a Metroidvania, where unlocking new abilities makes the player reflect on past levels and ask how these new items could be used to find new pokemon or take better pictures.
As the player continues to progress, they slowly but surely collect a lot of pictures of Pokemon. What I love these pictures is in how they tell a story, they archive that particular run through the level. My favorite picture I took back in the 90s and today was of these charmanders celebrating and fighting over an apple. Just like the mainline game, the more one plays Pokemon Snap the more they collect pieces of the game as their own. Especially toward the end of the game, the question becomes: which pokemon have I yet to take a picture of? In some ways, its a more humane game than normal pokemon, since you aren’t capturing and enslaving pokemon to battle others endlessly, but just taking a photograph and adding it to your collection like someone might collect stamps or coins. Either way, the more one plays Pokemon Snap, the more they collect pokemon, just like the main series. Honestly, I’m kind of astonished with how well Nintendo was able to smash together the pokemon formula and a camera game, it’s just generally a pretty brilliant idea that is generally well executed and clearly fills some of the same emotional desires as the rest of the series, but I think it also takes a cue from another type of games…
While we can draw comparisons to the original Pokemon games, Pokemon Snap is chiefly a game about finding secrets, interacting with a world, and documenting those interactions: it’s an exploration game, even if that exploration is locked on rails. But do you know what other game is locked on similar rails: text adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure. At first blush, this comparison probably seems weird to you, what does a text adventure about exploring a cave system have to do with a game about taking pictures of Pokemon? Surprisingly quite a bit. Lets first talk a little bit about Colossal Cave Adventure and then we’ll see what Pokemon Snap, and to some degree all games, borrow from the original text-based adventure.
Colossal Cave Adventure was developed by Will Crowther and Don Woods between 1975 and 1977, though it has changed a lot over the years. In it the player explores a massive cave structure, all described through text. One of the first narrative video games, Colossal Cave Adventure was truly a breakthrough for the medium. It has a vast world to explore and many secrets to uncover, not dissimilar from Pokemon Snap. While exploring its caves, the player finds danger and treasure, with a goal of getting as many “points” as possible for what they find. Again, this is not too dissimilar from the points one earns for good photographs in Pokemon Snap. As the player explores these caves, they must use their items and smarts to discover what secrets lie within them… again, this should sound familiar. I don’t know if those at Nintendo developing Pokemon Snap specifically had played Colossal Cave Adventure, and as we’ll see, many games borrow from this kind of formula, but my point here is that the same kind of playful intrigue and joy are present in both Pokemon Snap and Colossal Cave Adventure. They are both adventures with a limited amount of options where the player sits on the rails of the game and works within them in order to achieve a high score.
Nick Montfort explores text-adventures games like Colossal Cave Adventure in his book Twisty Little Passages. Montfort explains that the “most direct counterpart to interactive fiction in oral and written literature is seen in the riddle… By presenting a metaphorical system that the listener or reader must inhabit and figure out in order to fully experience, and in order to answer correctly, the riddle offers its way of thinking and engages its audience as no other work of literature does.” Both Colossal Cave Adventure and Pokemon Snap are riddle-like games; they require the user to try different things in order to proceed, with often only one particular strain of correct actions leading to unlock progress. To varying degrees, of course, the player needs to inhabit and figure out these riddles to fully engage with the experience. Montfort argues that the player of these kinds of games is a reader and writer, because they contribute “writing that is part of the text and serves to operate the program.” As readers and writers, the player explores both of these games many twisty little passages, uncovering different aspects of the riddle, whether that be new creatures to capture on film in Pokemon Snap or new treasures to take in Colossal Cave Adventure. Each discovery is the player “reading” the game, and each act is them “writing” upon it. In this way, the player is always changing the game as they play it.
Both Colossal Cave Adventure and Pokemon Snap may be about twisty little passages that the player heads down to discover new possibilities, but the way they move through these spaces is different. Where as in the text-adventure the player chooses directions in a prebuilt world, like “go north,” Pokemon Snap has less player agency in the act of movement, and more contingency in the act of taking of photographs. Each photograph one takes, each apple or pester ball they throw, is a performative act which loosely changes the world around the player. Importantly for both Adventure and Pokemon Snap, their vastness is mostly an illusion. Whether in the text descriptions of the former or in the visual landscapes in the latter, these worlds are a lot smaller than they appear. If we were able to zoom out from them and see them in their entirety, as a map rather than from the perspective of a player, they would seem very small. But isn’t this the case with all riddles? Once one knows the answer, they seem small, easy to understand. Pokemon Snap is no different, the more one knows how to uncover all its secrets, the smaller the game’s world becomes.
And aren’t all games like this? Even the most vast game worlds, like World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, or Red Dead Redemption 2 are riddle-like in their construction. The more we play them, the more we inhabit their worlds, the more we discover their secrets, the less wide they are in our imaginations. Some games can’t be returned to because of this feature of game environments. For instance, one of my favorite games of all time is The Outer Wilds (if I ever make a video about that will be very long, and won’t be coming for a very long time). The Outer Wilds contains a huge open solar system to explore and a ton of player directed possibilities, but the only way to solve the riddle of its clockwork mechanisms is to solve its riddle, to make its world smaller through the act of understanding. All games are like this. All films are like this! All stories are like this. We trace their maps in our minds, learn their systems, and they unravel in front of us like a solved riddle. We can add onto that riddle in a lot of ways. For instance, adding other players makes competitive games almost endlessly entertaining. We can even procedural generate worlds, but still, there is a distinctly human compulsion to understand, to track the line of a game and understand it. For a game like Pokemon Snap, eventually those secrets are all uncovered, the best pictures shot, every area explored, and then it is only if we can make new games out of its code that playing remains fun. This is not a flaw, it is the line on which they all depend to hook us and keep us engaged. It’s the same way riddles keep us hooked, that is, until we solve them.