Pokémon Red Is a Kafkaesque Nightmare

Here’s a sentence that I never expected myself, or anyone, to write, but that is nonetheless true: Pokémon Red was too real for me.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a work of genius—outdated graphics, monotonous gameplay and all. The late 90s culture that it arrived in was awash in collection-based fads, most of which would play themselves out by the end of the decade. Pogs, Beanie Babies, Longaberger baskets (whose company headquarters, an office building in Dresden, Ohio shaped like a giant basket itself, currently sits abandoned, a testament to the era’s bizarre craze and excess), and others have long since ceased to be anything more than sources of ironic reminiscence for those of us who lived through their heyday. Pokémon and Magic: the Gathering are the only modern-day survivors of this proliferation to maintain their popularity over time, and for good reason.

What it came down to, especially in the case of Pokémon, was the way they recognized, intentionally or not, that the attraction of collectible fads was not the actual items collected, but the act of collecting them. Once you have a Beanie Baby, or issue #1 of a comic book, you’ve got it. That’s it. There’s nothing more to do than let it collect dust—or, more accurately, do everything in your power to prevent it from collecting dust, which might cause its condition to degrade, in anticipation of its future resale value. But with Pokémon and Magic, the thrill of the hunt never ends. There will always be another edition, another installment in the series, another deck to build, another gym leader to defeat. Magic offers tournaments. And with Pokémon, you can always reset the game and start fresh, all 151 of them (remember, we’re talking about Red here) once again ahead of you.

Its U.S. release came a few weeks after the start of my 8th grade school year, which made me just barely too old to be able to enjoy it unironically without serious social consequences in my middle-class, Columbus, Ohio setting. This didn’t stop me from putting a few dozen hours into it. Amidst the flood of collection fads, even kids couldn’t keep track of all of them, and I managed a play-through before most of the kids in my grade knew enough about what Pokémon was to make fun of it.

And it was, beyond a doubt, too real.

Here’s what I learned about Pokémon Red from my one play-through: the hero’s default name is Ash, and unlike his anime counterpart, he has no voice, no friends, and no goals of his own.

He spends the game wandering through similar-looking fields, between similar-looking towns, performing the same tasks with gradually higher numbers attached. Things happen to him and around him, but he doesn’t exactly drive the plot in any way. No urgency or desire seems to compel him along his journey; he wants only what he is told to want by the NPCs he encounters.

He is subject to a one-sided rivalry with a kid named Gary, who will not leave Ash alone despite his complete lack of any expressed interest in said rivalry. Gary is so obsessed with one-upping Ash that he becomes the champion of the coveted Indigo League, purely for the purpose of challenging and defeating Ash when he arrives there. If Ash ever thinks twice about Gary, we never see it. For Ash, Gary is just another trainer to defeat.

The institutions he interacts with (Pokémon training, gym battles, Team Rocket) are of great importance to the game’s world, but he is not. He might as well be anybody else who is assigned to accomplish the prescribed goals of his host society. As a character, he is indistinguishable from the long succession of mostly nameless trainers he battles during the course of the game. Aside from the player’s ability to direct his actions by pressing buttons, he is basically an NPC himself. His quest to become “the very best, like no one ever was” (a phrase that only appears in the anime, with no equally grand sentiment appearing anywhere in the game) is not so much a Hero’s Journey as it is a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Speaking of Kafkaesque nightmares, here are a few facts about me as an 8th grader in the days before anyone had the gall to call 8th graders “Middle School seniors”:

After years of being on the receiving end of my school’s active bullying scene, I had gained some tentative acceptance among the popular crowd. Relatively safe from harm, I was still very much aware of the fact that I was an outsider in the group, less accepted per se than tolerated. I had learned to put on the right clothes and use the right slang, but it was more important that I never give them a reason to question whether I should really be there. I could never fight with anyone, because it would be too easy for everyone to side with the more established friend, and then all the work I had put into making myself safe would fall apart.

I spent a lot more time going to the woods by myself than I did hanging out with other kids my age, partly because I valued my alone time, but mostly it was a relief from the pressure of having to perform popular-ness. I did this so often, my Dad thought I must be secretly dating a girl, which was something I knew better than to do. Dating people usually involves eventually breaking up with them, and breaking up with someone usually involves fighting with them, and I could never fight anyone. I could have brought my Game Boy with me to the woods to play Pokémon Red, but I never did.

Here’s another, more important fact about me in 8th grade: growing up in the ‘90s in a middle class household, with a dad who also happened to be first-generation Holocaust diaspora, presented me with a lot of mixed signals.

I will be the first to admit that I received a lot of participation trophies, which lived briefly on top of my dresser, and then in a box under my bed until I could secretly dispose of them without hurting anyone’s feelings. Middle-class 90s kids got a lot of encouragement. A lot of “if you work hard, you can achieve anything you set your heart on.” Be the very best, like no one ever was. Never mind that all of your classmates are being told the exact same thing; any of you might as well be any other one of you, in that sense.

But in my case, there was also a lot of pressure not to stand out too much, or in the wrong ways, because very bad things can happen to you when you do that. Previous generations in my family had gotten this message in the harshest way possible. The habits it made them prone to were and are hard to shake off, especially when acceptance of Jewish people and culture in America was and is short-standing and tentative. Much like my own social standing at the time.

The synthesis of all this was a constant mandate to grind out grades and personal achievements, working toward a nebulous idea of The American Dream whose specifics never quite solidified. Making honor roll was a worthy goal, but any kind of genuine personal fulfillment had to be kept off the radar. “If you work hard, you can achieve anything you set your heart on, as long as you don’t set your heart on anything in particular.” The very best, but the very best what, exactly? Unclear. The reason for wanting to get on honor roll could be nothing more than moving on to the next grade and working toward making honor roll there.

Similar fields, similar towns. Same tasks, gradually higher numbers attached. Wants only what they are told to want.

An NPC in my own game. My entire life, a collection fad with no purpose other than to endlessly continue collecting.

Here’s what I really mean when I say that Pokémon Red was too real for me: I understand the comfort afforded by an endless grind for which the only reward is more grind, perhaps a little too well. It’s about maintaining the appearance of working toward something, without the pressure of having to derive any ultimate fulfillment from whatever it is.

At some point I looked at Ash’s blank-faced, monochrome avatar and noticed that the biggest thing we shared, more than an interest in collecting Pokémon or being the very best, was the inability to express any real joy in the moments when we achieved what we were supposed to want.

I saw him standing in what looked much like any other patch of high-grass in the game and wondered if maybe he had just been wandering around that same field outside of Pallet Town the whole time. Thought about how he could do exactly that and, at a glance, it would look like he was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. Realized that we were both caught in a cycle, always fixated on preparing to move on to the next phase of our lives, which leads to nothing except an eventual preparation for death.

At the end of Pokémon Red, Ash defeats the Elite Four and his self-proclaimed rival and becomes the new champion, and the result of this is nothing. The result is that you either reset the game or wait for the next installment of the series to come out so that you can do it all again, from the beginning. Even in the end, the only reward is repetition.