Characterization Through Mechanics: Pokemon Battles


Characterization through mechanics essentially involves writing stories where the events and characters abide by a set of rules that are clearly defined and consistently applied. Clarity and consistency are important for any well-told story, but for characterization through mechanics in particular, we can take these rules and calculate the inner workings of characters and actions and even predict what will happen in new scenarios. I can’t think of a better case to examine for characterization through mechanics than the Pokemon TV show!

In the early seasons back in 1998, the show introduced me both to the world and mechanics of Pokemon. I used the lessons learned from the show, the Gameboy game, and the card game to deepen my appreciation of Pokemon. Now the show’s battles ignore the rules established by the games and the earlier seasons of the series. I have seen few battles with such an egregious disregard of mechanics as Scraggy vs Simisage and few battles uphold the RPG video game mechanics as closely as Sawk vs. Seismitoad (watch it here).

“Alright, Sawk. KARATE CHOP! … It’s fast! What’s up with that speed.”

Richard: Now the Pokemon trainers in the show often tell their Pokemon to “dodge” incoming attacks. Dodge is not a move in the Pokemon video games. KARATE CHOP is a move from the games and one that Sawk learns. Marcus, what’s the data for KARATE CHOP?

Marcus: It’s a move that you won’t see in any serious Pokemon video game competitive meta. It’s basically the Fire2 of the Final Fantasy series. It’s not bad, but why would you use Fire2 when you could use Fire3, or in Pokemon terms, why would you use KARATE CHOP when you can use CLOSE COMBAT. Since Ash and his crew are in a state of arrested development there is no telling what leg of their Pokemon journey they’re on. If they are mid-adventure, KARATE CHOP would be a sensible move to have and use.

Richard: In the video game, Karate Chop has 100% accuracy. So unless Sawk rubbed his eyes with some sand or Seismitoad covered itself with bright powder, it’s clear that the show is taking a bit of creative liberty to build drama in the scene. What is accurate to the games is that Seismitoad’s ability, swift swim, is no joke. In the rain swift swim doubles the speed of the Pokemon. So in the rain, swift swim Seismitoad can outspeed even some of the game’s fastest Pokemon.

Marcus: With the help of our handy dandy Poke-calculator we can take a look at the extema and compare. The slowest Seismitoad could outspeed the fastest Sawk in the rain. So no matter what speed values these Pokemon happen to have, any speed Seismitoad can outspeed any speed Sawk. The episode and the game line up again.

Richard: Sawk takes a DRAIN PUNCH to the face because he is unable to use the universal Pokemon show move “dodge it.” He doesn’t look too hurt because DRAIN PUNCH is a fighting type move and therefore Seismitoad doesn’t get a damage bonus because it’s a water-ground type. Also the power of DRAIN PUNCH is just 75 which is generally pretty weak. The best part about this attack is that the attacker heals back half the damage it dishes out. In Seismitoad’s case, it hasn’t been hit yet, so it had nothing to heal.

Poor Seismitoad. The MUD SHOT attack it uses has an accuracy of 95%. There was only a slim chance Sawk could dodge the shots, and the show reflects this lucky maneuvering well. You can see the surprised expression on Sawk’s face too! Seismitoad’s trainer isn’t a very good battler. The drain punch move was a questionable choice, but MUD SHOT has even less power at 55. What’s great about MUDSHOT is, if it hits, the target Pokemon’s speed is reduced. But Seismitoad is already faster than Sawk! Why would he need to use a risky and weak move to continue to be faster!?

Marcus: The LOW SWEEP the Sawk then lands next makes our calculations interesting. LOW SWEEP lowers the target’s SPEED stat by 33%. That speed drop allows Sawk to then outspeed Seismitoad. So what range of SPEED values would allow this to happen? The aforementioned fastest Sawk vs the slowest Seismitoad would fit this scenario easily. Sawk’s 295 SPEED vs Seismitoad’s modified 180. If you’re looking for a little more nuance in the stats, with some simple calculations we run calculations on anything but the slowest Seismitoad possible. In this scenario, Seismitoad can have a SPEED rage of 137-222!  Or a modified range of 180-295. What spread! Like I said before, doubling the speed stat is no joke. I guess our trainer was so confident in his speed in the rain that he didn’t bother to invest in Seismitoad’s speed at all.

Richard: I’m sure Edmund, the trainer in gray, is a wanna-be fighting Pokemon trainer. After his Seismitoad gets hit by the LOW SWEEP, he follows up with a BRICK BREAK, another relatively weak fighting type attack at 75 power. In general BRICK BREAK is a neat move because it has the power to break through the defensive psychic barrier moves REFLECT and LIGHT SCREEN. If you haven’t noticed, Sawk is not a psychic type and there ain’t no screens in this battle. In the Pokemon games, each Pokemon can only learn 4 moves. Seismitoad has revealed 3 out of the four. If Seismitoad’s last move isn’t a water attack, then its trainer completely fails.

In the next scene, the show really starts to take creative liberty with time. The pokemon video games are turn-based with all players making their moves simultaneously (not knowing the opponent’s moves). After getting hit by LOW SWEEP, Seismitoad “cheats” and takes a quick turn to land a BRICK BREAK. I don’t even know how to interpret the scene where both Pokemon continually strike each other with glowing hands. What attacks are they using? How many turns are they taking? Oh well, it sure looks cool.

Marcus: Assuming Seismitoad has max defense and Sawk has max attack the damage dealt thus far to Seismitoad is:

  • LOW SWEEP: 26.6-31.5%
  • Random Punches: ??? (let’s ignore these)
  • Attack boosted (+33% damage) CLOSE COMBAT: 73 – 85.9%
  • The range of total damage 99.6. – 117.4%

So the estimated range in damage the random punches 99.6 – 117.4% making the KO by Sawk possible according to the video game simulation.

Richard: This battle stays pretty true to the Pokemon game mechanics. Sure Seismitoad dodged a move, but we can consider “dodge it” to be the equivalent of the video game move PROTECT, which prevents all damage done to a Pokemon for a turn. Even though Seismitoad stole a turn with the MUD SHOT + BRICK BREAK sequence, Sawk stole it right back with the BULK UP + ClOSE COMBAT finisher. Yes, the Pokemon video games don’t allow players to steal turns like this, but plenty of RPG battles systems do. Radiant Historia, Bravely Default, and even Final Fantasy 10 allow players to see or manipulate their turn order in various ways.

We ran this battle scenario in Pokemon Showdown, an online battle simulator that emulates the mechanics of the Pokemon video games with perfect accuracy. It turns out that MUD SHOT miss was important for Sawk to win. If he got hit, Sawk would have taken damage and had his speed lowered for a double set back.

Dolly Deer and Design


Marcus says: As described on its webpage, Dolly is an artistic minimalist platformer where you are tasked with exploring the mysteries of a strange world to ultimately discover its dark truth. It’s a short trek filled with visual metaphors, and it’s free (download it here). Deciphering the metaphors is key the to unraveling these mysteries.

First up I see the main character platforming through what looks like a human head.

Little people inside the head of another is a move similar to Disney’s Inside Out. It isn’t clear at this point if I’m playing as an emotion or some other figure. Maybe things will become clearer as the game moves along

Next up, the red sun permanently hangs in the sky. Is this the rising sun, an omen of a bright future? Or is the sun setting, closing the final chapter of my character’s life?

This time, the player character is travels inside the hollows of a giant deer. When it comes to life and death, the only deer I know who is up to the task is Princess Mononoke’s Forest Spirit, a powerful god who has the power to grant life and death. I wonder which awaits me?

Last is a slow contemplative walk up a snowy mountain. I may not know how I got here, but the winter scene (like Journey’s ending) makes me feel like like the game is coming to an end. What did the Forest Spirit grant? Life or death?

Game Category1 Category2 Name Description Link
Dolly Enemy Elements side-spike Spikes that appear to only hurt players with their point also hurt the player when they walk into the side.
Dolly Feedback Screen Shake Features multiple kinds of screen shake including a handycam style and a rotation style.
Dolly Mechanics Triple Jump One ground jump and 2 mid air jumps.
Dolly Mechanics Wall Jump The wall jump does not restore mid air jumps.
Dolly Mechanics Wall Slide Like Super Meat Boy’s Wall Slide mechanic.
Dolly Design (visual) The game world is contained within a circular shape in the middle of the rectangular game window. Image!

Richard says: Dolly is a very short platforming experience with an engaging visual aesthetic and poor gameplay. Progression requires platforming across bottomless pits, activating scene transitions via awkward, inconsistent trigger points, or pushing special stone pillars into place.  None of these gameplay ideas were developed enough for me to get any meaning from their sequential arrangement. The whole game is a collection of largely  disconnected ideas. But, as Marcus demonstrates, the only part of the game worth talking about is the potential meaning behind the game’s striking visuals. Still, its minimalist style leaves too many pieces to assemble with little promise of a meaningful conclusion.

Reblog: Tron Bonne, an Echo of Better Days

POV: Journalist.  DIFFICULTY 3. LEVEL 1-1
POV: Journalist.  DIFFICULTY 3. LEVEL 1-1

A retro “review” of The Misadventures of Tron Bonne by Jeremy Parish from USgamer.

Marcus Says: I really enjoy how Parish detailed the The Misadventures of Tron Bonne’s genre conventions. Parish did it in a way that didn’t rely on technical jargon. Instead of focusing on rules, systems and mechanics, he explained how the story and feel of the game is a spin off of a spin off, which reflects its oddball gameplay. Parish’s approach reframes expectations. Instead of describing how some mechanics fall short of genre standards, he focuses on how the mechanics enrich the aforementioned story and theme of this misadventure.

Richard Says: I need to take writing lessons from Parish. The writing flowed so nicely. I feel like I have a really good idea what kind of game and experience Tron Bonne is, and I don’t think watching a let’s play would give me a clearer picture. The article overall is more of a summary and review than a critique, but the few statements made clear: “The mission, puzzle, and adventure stages may have been fairly small, but they rewarded experimentation with all sorts of funny and surprising Easter eggs” Also, +1 point for Sokobon puzzles.

Badaladaladala: Characterization Through Mechanics


Below is a clip of the funniest scene and one of the most interesting moments of characterization in Big Hero 6.

In this early scene, we see Hiro interacting with Baymax. Baymax is a caretaker robot, so he is out of his element when it comes to learning kung fu and understanding the celebratory actions of modern youths. The scene plays out in a classic way: the robot can’t understand a well-understood human action and must be taught something basic despite having advanced AI.

Watch the first example in the video and then read below.

“Hiro: Yeaha fist bump.
Baymax: “fist bump” is not in my fighting database
Hiro: no, this isn’t a fighting thing. It’s what people do sometimes when they’re excited or pumped up.
[goes through step by step fist pump sequence ending in an “explosion” move]
Bamax: Badaladaladala”

The master animator and storyteller Hayao Miyazaki once described an effective method he uses to convey subtle differences between characters. He does this not with dialog, but with body language. By animating characters going through the same sequence of actions minor differences between each character are highlighted.

So here’s why Badaladaladala made me laugh out loud and sing its loopy refrain for weeks after watching Big Hero 6. This scene uses the Miyazaki mirror characterization and dialog together to give us a unique peek into the mind of Baymax. We can’t know for sure what’s going through Baymax’s robot mind, but here is my interpretation of his thought process:

  1. Mimic Hiro
  2. Hear sound
  3. Break down waveform to match syllables
  4. Recognize word(s)? If yes, repeat word(s). If no..
  5. Resequence response according to closest matching syllables.
  6. Imitate inflection.

Baymax assumes the explosion sound effect is actually a word. And after processing it, he attempts to respond in kind. The result isn’t exactly the “explosion” that Hiro does, but it’s comically close. Now the question is, does Baymax really understand what it means to do a fist bump? Without knowing what Baymax is actually thinking (thoughts, code, or otherwise) we’re left to interpret his actions and watch as he continues to interact with Hiro and his friends.

In two scenes late into the film (on top of the balloons, and back in Hiro’s workshop), Baymax’s inability to empathize and understand common human emotional states makes him oddly oblivious and uniquely insightful. Instead of understanding that Hiro might be motivated by revenge, he relies on his sci-fi bio-medical scanners to check Hiro’s well being. Since the beginning of the film, Hiro is a brilliant, independent inventor who mostly keeps to himself. When his talents are focused on seeking revenge and justice no one can keep up with Hiro’s pace except Baymax. In other words, Baymax is his only caretaker. And at the peak of Hiro’s emotional distress, Baymax’s even tempered care and  innocent obliviousness is what brings Hiro and the film back to their emotional core. The key is Baymax never does anything out of his narrowly defined, oblivious caretaking nature.

Characters defined by clear rules that are meticulously detailed and consistently applied is the essence of what I call characterization through mechanics. Sure, you could say this is basically keeping the narrative details straight, which applies to all kinds of stories and types of characterization. But characterization through mechanics is a bit more specific than that. In the same way we gain insight into the nature and character of real life players as we watch them struggle and puzzle through challenging gameplay scenarios, we gain a unique kind of insight when we watch characters work through consistent limitations in stories. The best part of engaging with “mechanical” or rule-based details in stories is we can extrapolate these rules and accurately theorize alternate possibilities, then be delighted all the more when the unexpected happens while still fitting into our mental framework for the character.