A response to pokemon obstacles, why HMs are stupid and how to fix them

This post is a response to this here other thingy. For the purposes of making your life easier I’ve quoted it all below.


[Referencing the image above] The bad part is that you actually need a certain extent of this kind of video game logic to keep games interesting. Sure its fun to joke about, but its necessary. So next time an insurmountable knee-high tree, a locked picket fence or even a strategically placed folding chair that’s blocking your forward progress, just say to yourself, “AH… I see what you did there!”

The short version of my response is: F*CK NO.

And the proper response is:

The only reason for badly explained phenomena in videogames is because game developers are f*cking lazy. Anybody can come up with a better explanation. By making the tree bigger and more imposing, it already starts to make sense. Then you could give it a particular characteristic to explain why it can be cut but the others can’t. Maybe it’s a giant dead tree, easily cut by a pokemon with the right attack but an impassable obstacle otherwise.

There! Problem solved!

Yeah, a fire pokemon could probably reduce it to ashes… along with the rest of the place, so you probably shouldn’t do that.

Any more objections? Good.

Huh, that was quick. Let’s talk about something related! How about … how stupid the HM system really is! Why? Because it causes more problems than it’s worth.

The whole system has only one purpose: To give pokemon a reason to exist outside of battles. The problem is, this reason interferes with battles in a negative way. The HM moves are to be avoided like the plague because even if they are useful to cut trees and go up a waterfall, once inside a battle they are in general completely overpowered by other moves. As the comic says, nobody teaches their starter pokemon the CUT move.

That’s the biggest and most often cited issue, but the stupidity spreads across farther than most people look.

The HM system works like a series of color-coded keys and doors. You can’t go this way until you get the red key, so you must ignore this tantalizing branch in your path blocked by a red door and continue walking forward until you get said red key. After acquiring it you’ll have the opportunity to retread your steps and open all the red doors you passed by. Sometimes these paths will lead you to new cities, sometimes they’ll lead you to hidden items. It’s a nice system that has found its way into hundreds of games for a reason: it works. But pokemon does a twist on it that misses the point.

Limitation is a very powerful tool. By limiting player resources the game designer can create meaningful choices. Say, if you could pick up every little thing you see and not care about inventory space then you are not going to care what you pick up and what you don’t. In fact, you are very likely to pick everything, just because you can. But if the game designer limited your inventory space to just three items, then things start to get interesting. Suddenly some items look like garbage and some look like the ultimate thing you must have.

HMs function basically as a limitation on how many keys you are carrying and are inversely proportional to how powerful your pokemon are: The more HM moves there are in your party, the less optimized your party is. In theory, this sounds like it would create this difficult and interesting choice but at the end of the day it’s nothing more than a nuisance. But why? Well, I have my theories, but I think the main reason lays in the fact that HMs are not that useful even outside of battles. Sure, they are necessary, but most of the time you can get by with just a couple of HMs and there’s not that many opportunities to use them. So you have a situation where you can sacrifice something very important for something that doesn’t matter all that much … mmmhh, yeah, that does sound flawed doesn’t it?

The other reason why HMs don’t really provide the player with a difficult choice is because there’s an optimum strategy: HM slaves. By giving all the lame HMs to one or two pokemon, you can concentrate on leveling the other pokemon in the party. If you suddenly don’t need HM moves you can just ditch the slave and replace it with something actually useful.

In a nutshell, HMs suck because they feel like a nuisance more than anything else. They are functionally bankrupt, masquerading as a difficult and interesting choice that turns out to be a dead-brained excercise in party management.

That’s great and all, but only discussing the problem doesn’t solve anything.

Here’s how I would fix it:

Turn HMs into just regular key items that can be used by compatible pokemon to open the figurative “colored doors”. For example, the cut move could be replaced by a pair of trimming scissors that any plant pokemon can use. If you have a plant pokemon in your party, you can cut bushes. If you have a water pokemon you can surf, go up waterfalls and all that stuff. It removes all the unneeded complexity and on top of that, adds a mechanic to gently push players towards balancing their pokemon party (you’ll want to have a plant pokemon, a water one, a fighting one and so on).

Hey Game Freak, look at what you are missing! Hire me and I’ll solve all your game design problems! =D


Original source of the image: deviantart.


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